AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
by Harlan Kennedy
Seeing and trading:
Now, a source close to the
All this at an under-new-management Mostra where order has mostly prevailed. Ex-Turin Festival boss Alberto Barbera halved the previous number of pix, made them run on time, dazzled us with infra-orange electric subtitling, and vowed, a modern Galileo, to make the Hollywood stars plan their late-summer itineraries around the sun of Italy.
The astrolabe was set fair for the movies, the best of which – Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son, and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us – mused metaphysically on the dangers of spiritual charisma.
Holy Smoke! proves that Campion makes darn good cinema with every other movie.
The new pic is up there with Sweetie and The
Piano. Borrowing Harvey Keitel from the second
and a chintz-with-everything suburban dementia from the first, the
Something to offend everyone – but offense is part of Campion’s program. Euphoric irrationality, she suggests, lies not just in Winslet’s karmic crashout. It’s everywhere. It is even in exit counselor Keitel, who jets in from LA trailing clouds of machismo plus Johnny Cash hair and dyed mustache. By the time he gets to Winslet’s psyche she has outwittingly got to a lower part of his selfhood, and the two are fusing bodies as well as brain cells. Question one: Is amour fou an improvement on Tantric rapture or is each as mad as the other? Question two: Shouldn’t madness begin at home, at least in rehearsal, rather than be left to erupt in the exploitative hands of gurus or anti-gurus?
The Venice Casino – second floor, gambling; ground floor, press shows – would have been the perfect site for a prefest sweepstakes: Place your Armani shirt on the chance of the two brightest Lion contenders being made by New Zealand women. Alison (Crush) Maclean’s U.S.-set Jesus’ Son features the acting transfiguration of Billy (Hi-Lo Country) Crudup, previously better at le neance than at l’être. Here he is wonderful as the hobo cum holy fool, fondly nicknamed Fuckhead, who goes about the land distributing love and compassion. He is no stranger to drugs and sex any more than Prince Mishkin was to death and gambling. Yet he shines alike on the weak (Samantha Morton), the mad (Dennis Hopper), and the maimed (Holly Hunter, more Crash than Crush even four years on from Cronenberg’s flick). He helps both victim and agent in a Tarantino-esque manslaughter episode. And he ambles like an errant radar blip – overvoicing his weird, funny, biblically syntaxed thoughts – across Maclean’s grainy images, whose wobbly lenswork and seared colors make Dogma 95 look streamlined.
Charm is too weak a word,
though Jesus’ Son is charming. The film’s originality lies in
dissociating affect from event, in making the tragic funny, the funny tragic,
and the sacred and profane interchangeable. Brave but perilous process. Maclean, from an adaptation of Denis Johnson’s short
story collection, did it with such devout consistency that the jury couldn’t
tell good from bad cinema. They ignored it among the prizes, though the
Catholic jury in a miracle of broadmindedness voted it Best Film. Expect to
hear soon of the Pope renting “Le Aventure di Fuckhead” from
What a festival for ambivalent epiphanies. In The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami’s new masterwork – and it is – a man comes to a remote village with a carful of colleagues on an unexplained mission. The pretext if villagers ask: They are looking for buried treasure. All we know is that a ceremony is planned, linked to an old woman’s awaited death, and that the hero (who might be the villain) is/was/may be something in telecommunications.
Enigma by the truckload. On this form Kiarostami can make Antonioni seem like Harold Robbins. The Wind begins like Taste of Cherry – the Venice audience giggled at the “here we go again” opening shot of a dust-trailing Jeep snaking along a baked mountainside – and then turns into Through the Olive Trees re-thought as if by a mad eschatologist.
This camera-toting, cellphoned central character who quizzes the locals, keeps dashing up to the higher ground of the cemetery to receive calls, and gives a befriended village boy seeking exam help a momentary wrong answer to the question, “Where do the good and evil go after death?” – “The good go to hell, the bad to heaven” – is surely the Devil panning for souls? He waits near deathbeds. He takes pictures, stirring the ancient tribal fear of camera-clickers as spiritual captors. Seeking milk, he descends into a cellar in the movie’s most sensually eerie scene to seduce with a poem the mind of the girl who keeps her cow down there.
The non sequiturs soon form a treasure trail. The gold is the fable and its meaning; the clues are wry, clever hieroglyphs. The village’s mazy alleys and topsy-turvy levels (one man’s doorstep next to anther’s chimney); the human bone thrown up from a dig that becomes a Kubrickian memento mori; the hint that the world of the deceased is the only place where our hero can take messages, a place where the babble of progress is mocked by the silence of Infinity....
This is a film about life, death, and the infinite conspiratorial dimensions in between. Kiarostami ominously told the final-night crowd applauding his Special Jury Prize, “This will be my last film in competition.” Since he looks more like a master with each movie,this is a frightening thought.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Mostra. From cloven-footed missionaries it’s a short if careful step to clay-footed culture heroes. A fest that doesn’t trust saviors will also cast a questioning eye on the conduits and echo-chambers of celebrity.
In Topsy-Turvy Mike Leigh brings on W .S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). You know the pair. Jolly Victorians who fashioned operettas, fanned themselves with the world’s applause, shot up with morphine, frequented brothels, neglected wives.... Yes, a Leigh costume movie is still a Leigh movie. His G and S are vain, bickering, self-deceived geniuses who wouldn’t write about human shortcomings unless they themselves knew and shared them. The result, devised by Leigh from the usual workshop collaboration with actors, is a cranky, compassionate, and richly researched fresco, acted and sung to the hilt. More to the point, Leigh’s movie argues that showbiz success may be merely the ability to megaphone your frailties more loudly, more catchily than anyone else.
Broadminded moviegoers might
call it Brechtian, a learning-curve fable à la Caucasian Chalk Circle about the triumph of
selfless singlemindedness. I thought it midway
between the Maoist and the maudlin: “Sacrifice your interests for the
majority!” There are no indications, as with Zhang’s Ju
The People’s Republic also
served a fortune-cookie sermon in Zhang Yuan’s Seventeen Years (Best Director prize), in which
long-embittered parents finally re-clasp the jail-paroled daughter who killed
her sister. Contrived beginning; schmaltzy ending; but flickers of power in
between, with the heroine and her befriending jail warder weaving through a
grimly mazy city seeking the new home of the moved-without-message parents.
This film did bother the Chinese.
To be reminded of
Scorsese has got to clone himself: there are too few to go around. We are notionless how the feature director finds time to make these archive specials, then grace Venice to hand very-important-visitor Jerry Lewis, himself fresh off a hospital trolley, a career achievement Lion. King of comedy, the kingmaker salutes you. How the French, and many Italians, and one FILM COMMENT European Editor, loved the closing night film: The Bellboy in CinemaScope!
France itself had more films in
competition, four, than any
comic ingenuity was loved by all, the idea of a pay-by-the-ride hidden tunnel
into John Malkovich’s brain tying for connoisseur
madness with that of a 7½th floor office that explains its
5-foot-high walls as “low overhead.” (Lewis Carroll meets camped-up Kafka.)
This surrealism spree jangled out of
For the only comparable bizarrerie we had to go to
Artistically, Lies isn’t
quite In the Realm of the Senses. But it is potent cinema. Like Oshima, Sun Woo Jang blurs the line between sex and commodification (porn) and sex as insight into
mind/heart/soul (art). And though there were a few nervous giggles at the
press show, especially when hero and heroine literally comb the streets for
flagellation tools, awed silence mostly reigned. Again, no one could fully
know if this denoted respect at cinematic skill or the quiet churning of
The film won nothing from the Emir Kusturica-led jury. Perhaps a panel favoring films from countries that can now throw nuclear missiles at America (a brotherhood that seemed to expand by the day as Venice went on) had no interest in a country that can’t, and whose heavy-menace neighbor itself went all nonproliferation at the festival’s end. Next year our new and promising festival boss should choose a new and politically more impartial judgment team. I am available and willing to serve.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1999 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.