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KING KONG COMES TO
The 43rd BERLIN FILMFESTSPIELE
by Harlan Kennedy
ROAR. (Applause.) ROAR, CHEST-THUMP, CHEST-THUMP. (Applause.) Celebrating 60 years in
showbiz at this year's
The 20-foot statue, perched on the Competition-hosting Zoo-Palast theater,
became a landmark for festgoers and an ocular knockout. I suspect it owed its appeal, Kongishness apart, to the conflation of great
I can't fit in badge-logo'd Warners, but then Warners had the
festival's other untamed beast –
theoretically – in Spike Lee's Malcolm X. This came to
Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein
is a voyage round the Austrian-born philosopher who went to
You could call the film camp. But then, calling a Jarman film camp is like calling a Rembrandt painting Rembrandtesque. Wittgenstein's advance on prior Derekworks lies in the serenity of its kitsch. Instead of being asked to gasp at the outrages to taste or plausibility – Ludwig's family dressed in neoclassical gear as if limbering up for a Handel opera, Ottoline going barmy on a fourposter, a green Martian (sic) engaging our hero in philosophical chat – we accept them as legal tender from the Bank of Jarmanland. Result: Jarman has passed through the soul of his first master, Ken Russell, to a cinematic "other side" where his work has the ethereal potency of unstressed metaphor. Wittgenstein's holy-fool approach to philosophy-he called it "just a byproduct of misunderstanding language" and talked of "a lifetime spent disentangling myself from my education" – is ideally served by Jarman's pixillated, picturebook Cambridge. And our hero's rumored gayness is inked in with two gentle pillow-talk scenes and a couple of companionable trips to Wittgenstein's favorite medium, the cinema.
Westerns and thrillers – what
would he have made of Atom Egoyan's Calendar? Shoot-up at Lizard Gulch it ain't.
The Toronto-based helmer shapes
an existential teaser about love and loss, set partly in
Small problem: Egoyan is worried that
an affair is starting up between wife and guide. Large problem: It is starting up.
So let's flash-forward, not once but several
times, to post-trip
Past and present – or present and future? – are interlayered with the complexity of an office-block wiring system. While the
This hourlong diary film frees up all the themes and motifs that were driven into a cul-de-sac of narrative contrivance in Egoyan's last film, The Adjuster. As in Wittgenstein, the act of flirting with (auto)biography, instead of constraining the filmmaker, releases him and the audience into a zone of energizing guesswork. Here "truth" is a multiform chimera playing come-and-get-me as impudently and provocatively as a Ghostbusters sprite.
Calendar was shown in
At times this event was a problem. Too often, expectations dimmed along with the houselights as the curtain parted on a new melodrama about single mothers in Sweden (Nils Malmroos' Heartache)
or another bourgeois comedy about how philistine the bourgeois are (Denmark/Norway's The Telegraphist) or the latest turbid
from Holland (Homecoming). Festival
has a near-impossible task. Juggling
multiple mandates, he must satisfy
novelty-hungry critics, avoid
alienating conservative benefactors,
and salvage what prime celluloid he can
from the annual David-and-Goliath selecting
tussle with Cannes. Amazing in the
circumstances that there were two
memorable Competition films. More amazingly, the jury voted them the exaequo Golden Bear. Joy and justice are rare bedfellows at Berlin, so hooray for the twelve wisefolk who
The first, directed by Xie Fei, is a class-act village melodrama. Our heroine is Mrs. Sesame Oil Factory Owner who, as if not busy enough assessing takeover bids from Japan, must cope with a retarded son, brutalized daughter-in-law, drunken husband, and longtime lover who now wants to pull the plug. It might have been a daytime soap, Chinese-style. Instead, the film's dark-edged passion bestows a reverberant symbolism on the plainest objects – the sesame-milling machines, the bird-festooned boats that ply the silvery lake – and provides a foil for Siqin Gaowa's superb performance as Ma Sesame Oil. She should have won Best Actress, but in the fair-shares-for-East-and-West handout, that trophy went to Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field.
If Xie Fei's pic pleased the schaden-freude crowd, Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet was the feel-good favorite. Gay politics, always a popular Berlin theme, stamps Liberal Correctness all over this tale of a Taiwanese-American yuppie (Winston Chao) in New York who makes a marriage of convenience with a fellow Oriental (May Chin) seeking a green card. Looking on in various stages of aghastness are visiting Ma and Pa – who can't believe their luck that Sonny is finally getting spliced – and lover Mitchell Lichtenstein, who can't believe his luck when the girl gets pregnant.
We've seen a lot of this before. The skits about gay life going undercover when the parents arrive (hide the muscle calendars and Armistead Maupin books); the jokes about who does the cooking; the matitutinal rituals – straighten tie, stiffen wrist – of the office gay. But the gags and aperçus have seldom been better delivered. And even when Lee turns on the sentimentality in the final reel, where the mass reconciliations outnumber those in a Shakespeare comedy, he never cheats on behavioral truth. The secrets and coverups, we note as the end credits roll, haven't been eliminated: they've just been artfully redistributed. Great flick.
One AC/DC film about girls and
gay men kipping or kibitzing together does
not a subgenre make. But how about three
films? Joining The Wedding Banquet were Cyril Collard's
Les Nuits fauves
from France and Takehiro Nakejima's Okoge from
The "comedy" here is
black as pitch: unsafe sex and rampant promiscuity presented as the anarchic currency of despair. But it's filmed as witheringly as any French psychodrama since La Maman et la Putain.
The movie has the courage of its up-yours egotism right until the ending, when a Rohmerian sunset cues a sudden – too sudden – gear-change into redemptive decency. Criticism, though, pales somewhat before the news that Collard himself died of AIDS shortly
the sunsets over the city were
thick with VIPs thermaling in from
Can you imagine flashy,
Dull films, dull choices. With the Wall down, is
As for Robert Rodriguez's Spanish-speaking El Mariachi –
There's one category of movie-world transplant we would approve of, however. If only, sighed
the multitudes of
One other good thing about
Even the last day had a surprise: not a little movie but a little boy's remote-controlled toy biplane seen buzzing King Kong in the mists atop the Zoo-Palast. Witnesses insist that the ape could not
have swatted the plane with his paw, but the plane went out of control for several seconds before returning – sporting a dented wing – to the
Now, take me to the hospital.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1993 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.