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EDINBURGH FILM FESTIVAL – 1980
SHINING DARK HORSES
by Harlan Kennedy
This was the last Edinburgh International Film Festival to be directed by Lynda Myles, Scotland's very own movie messiah. In eight years as director, she has turned the event from a solemn Calvinist watch-in into one of the youngest and most forward-looking festivals in Europe. Fellow Caledonian Jim Hickey will be taking over next year, after Myles leaps the Atlantic to take charge of the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley.
Edinburgh under Myles has always been hotter after movies trouvés than prestigious big-budget cinema, and this year's lineup of shining dark horses was typically and wondrously eclectic. Hong Kong murder thrillers, feminist documentaries, early silent and sound films from the National Film Archive unreeled in staccatolike succession. Rich retrospectives of new Scottish filmmaker John Mackenzie and veteran American B-feature maestro Joseph H. Lewis flashed through the movie projectors.
Among the movies, common trends quickly popped up as cinema and television sidled ever nearer to each other. "Feature films" – those old 35mm warhorses at regulation ninety minutes plus – were outnumbered this year by movies with a variety of lengths, at anything from three minutes to seventy-three and in either 16mm or Super-8. From the United States, for instance, stomped a gang of Super-8 punk movies, flaunting a mite too ferally their mega-Warhol overkill of "bad" acting and ad hoc scripting, but still an eye-opener to the possibilities of cheap, viable, and often striking filmmaking. Also came an avalanche of weird and wobbly low-budget features. Charlie Ahearn's Twins and Eric Mitchell's Underground USA are nose-thumbing comedies made at the point where punk meets junk. Moving up the pile was Joel DeMott's Demon Lover Diary, a fitfully sparking "documentary noir" about the infighting among a film crew shooting a horror movie.
But best of all the U.S. independent films was Victor Nuñez's Gal Young Un. The story basics are straight out of Awful Warning melodrama. Down Florida way, handsome fortune hunter meets sere but moneyed widow and marries her. Soon the home is echoing to the patter of his not-so-tiny mistresses, and the old lady is left managing her bridegroom's new moonshine whiskey business. Will she grin and bear it, or up and take revenge?
Nuñez paces the film like a master, with creaking, rocking chair silences and slowly crescent menace. The shooting style is plain and patient, but the rewards arrive in a rivetingly cathartic climax and in the growing authority of Dana Preu's performance as the old lady: walnut features, wispy hair, and a dryly glowering stoicism.
Britain's independent films were more "finished" than America's, but could have used some of the latter's shabby fire. Of the half-dozen movies entered by the British Film Institute Production Board, the most watchable was Richard Woolley's Brothers and Sisters, the weirdest were Yvonne Rainer's Journeys From Berlin/1971 and Anthea Kennedy and Nick Burton's At the Fountainhead. All were heavily freighted with sociopolitical message making, which seems to be a sine qua non of the BFI's funding requirements these days.
Brothers and Sisters uses a crosscut thriller format as the vehicle for its exploration of sexist attitudes in modern Britain. A prostitute is killed, and the police investigation passes over two brothers of upper-class birth: One has become a Sloppy Joe liberal living in a commune; the other is an army major full of bluff stuffiness and made-to-order male chauvinism. The liberal's hypocrisies are neatly exposed, and so are the frailties beneath the major's Blimpish facade. Which of them dunnit? – if either – the film asks. And by withholding a definite answer, while dangling a real killing over these case study characterizations, the film cleverly catalyzes our interest in which of their diverging brands of sexual prejudice (and, by extension, our own) might have exploded in murder.
Brothers and Sisters is stylishly shot, with bright colors and trompe l'oeil angles. It's too talky by half, but then what recent BFI film isn't? At the Fountainhead is too talky by three-quarters, a didactic drone-on set in modern Britain with bits of archive and newsreel footage from Third Reich Germany. Directors Kennedy and Burton lay out before us, like a corpse on the anatomy table, the experiences of a real-life Jewish refugee who fled to Britain from Nazi Germany in the thirties and of three friends who stayed behind in partitioned Germany. The split-narrative method heats our blood in order to move us to conclusions that are contradictory, naive, or both.
Germany also rears its head in Journeys From Berlin/I971, a political-psychological collage that lasts a full, feeling 125 minutes. Again the voice track works overtime, but at least the images are more hypnotic: a jazzy jumble of the animate and the inanimate, the dramatic and the iconic. There is also underground film critic Annette Michelson jawing through some rivetingly surreal and outspoken scenes as a patient in psychoanalysis.
It's hard to imagine any of these films unfurling on the big screens of commercial cinema. They belong inalienably in the twilight land between movies and television, and so does Ken Loach's latest, The Gamekeeper. This isn't as good as Black Jack, his masterpiece of offhand eighteenth-century manners, and it tends to plop Britain's leading drama documentarist back into the salt-of-the-earth socialism that has been his television stock-in-trade. But at its best, this feature-length portrait of a North Country gamekeeper's daily and seasonal rounds, from shooting poachers off the land to loading His Lordship's grousing guns, has the compassionate objectivity and thumbnail detail of a modern Defoe.
Also caught in the cinema-television border country is Scottish director John Mackenzie's new film, The Long Good Friday. Owing to a producers' wrangle, no one yet knows if this barnstorming melodrama will end up on the big screen or the small. And, indeed, a retroactive schizophrenia seems to have hit the movie. Half the time, it comes on like a late-night cops-and-robbers hokum shown on the tube; the other half, it boasts a flailing wit and vigor that deserve to be writ large on a movie screen. Eddie Constantine glooms magnetically as an American mafioso, Helen Mirren is the female interest, and Bob Hoskins burns up the screen as the (anti-) hero, a cockney tycoon lording over an empire of corruption and turning out sumptuously uncouth one-liners.
What The Long Good Friday doesn't solve is British cinema's nagging problem of finding its own ethnic and cultural identity. A filmy haze of parochialism surrounds Mackenzie's film, with its Little England version of a U.S. crime thriller, and the same goes for Franco Rosso's Babylon. Rosso's picture of West Indian immigrants battling to assert their Rastafarian culture and music in eighties London, amid community bigotry and police harassment, reeks of provincialism: not just because its story is like an Anglicized Rockers, but because the feisty black slang fizzles out in the damp, vernacularless English air.
Whenever the festival looked too much as if it was sagging into the sloughs of provincialism, however, Lynda Myles sagely hoisted it up with a gala preview of a new international "biggie." This year's major British premieres included Walter Hill's The Long Riders, Stuart Rosenbergs Brubaker, and Roman Polanski's Tess. Also raising the high-polish quotient was the Joseph H. Lewis retrospective. All right, so the choice of Lewis for an Edinburgh special tribute – after earlier ones to Douglas Sirk, Raoul Walsh, and Jacques Tourneur – sometimes looked like scraping the auteur barrel. But at least there is a daft stylishness about Lewis's movies that rinsed the eyes out after long hours of sociological or semiological solemnity.
Complementing the riotous geometry and shadow play of Lewis's best films – like Undercover Man and The Big Combo – was a little pastiche film noir made by a Glasgow-born student of Britain's National Film School. Sandy Johnson's Never Say Die is a chunk of underworld derring-do set in forties Glaswegian gangland. The images may be secondhand, but they're miraculously well observed – from queasy Vertigo stairwells to Fritz Lang cassoulets of ominous shadow. The craftsmanship is all there. When Johnson finds his own style, there'll be no stopping him.
From Europe and points east, three new films claimed attention. Jacques Bral's Exterieur Nuit is a marvelously gloomy odyssey: a tenebrous trawl through low-life Paris interweaving the lives of two young men, both indolent and jobless, and a spiky, macho, taxi-driving woman with whom one of them has a romance. The reversal of sexual stereotypes – the men are passive, the woman virulently active (she even beats up and robs her own customers!) – is only one of the film's surprises. Bral follows his characters through a Stygian cityscape in which time doesn't so much stand still as spread out in all directions, creating a brooding, dark infinity.
From Poland came Krzysztof Zanussi's Constans (Constancy). Though well to the fore among Polish artists currently belaboring their nation's status quo, Zanussi has never been one to take a pickax to the bulwark of social oppression. Instead, he chips away with a surgeon's scalpel, locating the weak spots before he makes his first incision. Constans is typical of his mazelike morality dramas: with a complex, twining vision of his country's hypocrisies and a hero whose professional skills link him to the corrupt Polish establishment even while his heart and conscience cry out in protest. It's a strong, cutting, immaculately argued film.
Lastly, Edinburgh's devotion to the undersung glories of Hong Kong cinema ushered in yet another Far Eastern sleeper, Ann Hui's The Secret. This explosive murder thriller, centered on a brutal killing in a park, is like an Orientalized Nicolas Roeg movie. Time, place, and camerawork are in perpetual swooping, darting flux. And though the film's last few minutes derail into absurdity, the preceding mayhem and momentum are terrific.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1980 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.