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 Terence Davies in interview


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by Harlan Kennedy


Edinburgh is still the best place in the world for wondering if you're actually there. This year evidence points to the fact that I was trapped for several micro-seconds, though 1 thought I was in Edinburgh, in the "Semiotics Zone," a twilight dimension where the mind limbers up for what is to come during your journey north. Spend too long mulling over the filmfest brochure on the plane or train and – abracadabra! – you find yourself free-falling into film criticism's answer to Brigadoon.

Here you can see all the Edinburgh movies ever shown, attend all the Edin­burgh seminars ever staged, and be ministered to by leprechauns who claim they are festival director Jim Hickey.

No wonder the festival opened with Beetlejuice: that mind-boggling, sporran-whirring fantasy-reality teaser. And no wonder there were so many movies in Edinburgh, or in Brigadoon, in which people spoke their lines in a strange, stylized recitative as if coming from the post-Terrestrial School for Bressonian Utterance.

This is becoming a trope - nay, a fully paid-up cliché – of modern cin­ema: emotionlessness as high integrity. What's more, it seems worldwide. From the gnomic epigrams of Peter Greena­way's Drowning by Numberswhere the dialogue sounds like people reading messages in bottles – to Omer Kavur's Motherland Hotel from Turkey – a sort of Psycho for anomies – to Harun Farocki's West German documentary Images of the World and the Inscription of War. Explicit emotion is out.

Farocki's film especially raises dis­passion to a high art. Despite – or because of – its incendiary subject mat­ter (from air raids to Auschwitz), this disquisition on aerial photography chooses the flattest of styles. Matter-of-fact editing; monotone commentary by a woman who seems to have been trained as a Dalek.

Farocki lifts the curtain on some frightening facts, like the apparent sup­pression of aerial evidence of Auschwitz gathered – inadvertently – in 1944 dur­ing an Allied bombing raid. But the film's determination to avoid emotion in its historical recall, and thereby avoid what it condemns as the kitsch of (melo) dramatized history (Holocaust is singled out for special stigma), results in a kind of kitsch of its own. This is Minimalism as Mannerism. Kept up for an unrelenting 75 minutes, the posture of "no emotion" seems just as strained and inauthentic as emotional hyperbole.

One sees the kind of movie Farocki and Greenaway and Kavur are reacting against. The current epicenter for overemphasis, well represented at Edinburgh, is Australia. The filmfest's consignment of Down Under pix shows that the Aussie New Wave has now retreated, leaving the beach free for a raucous crowd of grotty melodramas. Can the land of Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi really have fallen in the hands of movies like Steve Jodrell's Shame (rape, injustice, and overacting in a backwoods small town) or John Ding­wall's Phobia, a psychodrama-by-numbers, complete with seemingly-nutty-but-actually-sane heroine and seemingly-sane-but-actually-nutty husband, plus the usual PFA (post-Fatal Attraction) assortment of kitchen knives and murdered pets.

Just to show that the British New Wave needn't be complacent either, this year's brilliant U.K. masterpiece, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives was balanced by the likes of Bob Hoskins' The Raggedy Rawney and Nicolas Roeg's Track 29. Yes, Britain too, can get it all wrong – mismatching plot and overcooking emotions – when she puts her mind to it.

Writing, directing, and acting, Hos­kins makes a right cock-up of his fan­tasy about gypsies in war. Set "in an unspecified period somewhere in Europe (the vagueness is awesome) Hoskins' film has Bob himself as gypsy leader Dexter Fletcher, a young army deserter with magical powers, and a plot involving pregnancy, transvestism, and God knows what else. Scenes of reality and scenes of illusion merge with all the subtlety of a freeway pileup. Says Hoskins, "The idea was to show that the enemy is war – on whatever soil, whoever the adversaries." Ah. That was the idea.

Roegs Track 29, the Oedipal black comedy from a Dennis Potter script is likewise inchoate. Theresa Russell (Carolina housewife), Christopher Lloyd (her toy-train-obsessed hus­band), and Gary Oldman (fantasy son from England) ham it up no end in an America seemingly viewed – through xenophobic Brit binoculars – as a giant playground for retards.

No wonder Family Viewing, the low-budget hit movie of this year's fest circuit, seems as good as it does. Atom Egoyan's film and video pic from Canada parlays the high-style emotionlessness of post-Bresson Mod ernism into a sort of tragicomic soap. The control is brilliant, the tone is per­fect. Family Viewing has a potty plot about a teenage boy (Aidan Tierney) driven by unhappiness at home (his neglectful, patronizing father and young stepmother are none too discreet in their "private" S/M sex games) to an emotional liaison with his granny, whom he kidnaps from an old-people's home.

As in Images of the World, we are remote from immediate emotions. Though this time there is no sense of strain in the stylized reticence – the movie is played as a choked comedy of family manners. Dialogue is in clipped, toneless stichomythia, and the charac­ters' predicaments have their heat further lowered by being juxtaposed with "random" TV footage, mostly from nature programs. The earnest, bur­bling narrators of these shows ("Man alone can contemplate his past and plan for his future....") put humanity in an anthropological omnium-gatherum along with bears and buzzards. And so does director Egoyan. Family Viewing is Cinema of Behaviorism. Cine-semi­ological explorers can have a field day with a movie like this, which is all signs without overt emotional meaning, just as Images of the World is all signs from a god's eye distance to which you must render your own.

Here in Brigadoon Egoyan's teasing, elusive style went down a treat. There were demands for re-screenings and even a seminar on Dispassion as Cine­matic Style, moderated by Cyd Char­isse. Belgian Dominique Deruddere's Love is a Dog From Hell, Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar's Law of Desire, and Japa­nese Juzo Itami's A Taxing Woman were also shown and discussed in Edin­burgh/Brigadoon, and all three were considered synergetic with Family Viewing: poker-faced, ironising accounts of human passion and/or human greed.

The Almodóvar and Itami movies have already had hats off at other festi­vals. Just when you thought you had enough of Charles Bukowski, Love is a Dog from Hell combines three of his stories to produce a cautionary tale. A young man (Jose De Pauw) is pro­pelled by a traumatic adolescence – including the worst case of acne ever seen on screen (special FX by Pizza Express) – into necrophilia. But there is no Sturm and Drang. No Gothic weav­ings and wailings. It's all as quiet and reposeful and ironic as – well, as death. Dominique Deruddere: keep watching the name.

Many of the best films on the Edin­burgh program were (and not for the first time) the documentaries. America's Robert Frank and East Ger­many's Jurgen Bottcher kept the non­fiction flag flying proudly in the Special Event section each with a mini-retro. And Bill Couturie's Dear America: Let­ters Home From Vietnam homed straight in on our heartstrings, a har­rowing anthology of letters from soldiers serving the Mother Country (some who later returned, some not) read, without histrionics and over war footage, by Robert De Niro, Michael J. Fox, Mar­tin Sheen, Willem Dafoe and others. Unpredictably, at this year's Locarno Film Festival in tranquil Switzerland, the film provoked a demonstration in the Piazza Grande because it dealt only with America's tragedy and not with that of the Vietnamese. Well, that's Switzerland. Anyone for cuckoo clocks?

From Down Under the third and springiest documentary, Cane Toads. Mark Lewis's 46-minute pic about the amphibian shock troops currently over­running Northern Australia is a delight. The cane toad was imported from Hawaii to Australia in 1935 to combat crop-destroying cane beetles. But no combat. The cane toads couldn't catch the cane beetles – the beetles could fly, the frogs couldn't – and so the toads focused their energies on reproduction. And why not? Result: Hundreds of thousands of the brown bloated things poured over main roads, through shop­ping streets and gardens and houses, and are moving toward Sydney even as we speak and you read.

This would be tragic if it weren't funny. Scientists flounder, parents fret, and one town counselor blesses the toad as a boon to tourism. (Is he nuts? I for one have just torn up my Bicenten­nial super-flight ticket). Director Lewis adopts the appropriate po face but is not above the odd leg-pull, like a spoof shower-menace scene with the toads as Anthony Perkins. Cane Toads is a little masterpiece. It's a film New Yorker Errol Morris must wish he had made if he'd been born Australian.

While catering to the world's North­ern and Southern extremes, Edinburgh was also at full strength this year on the Eastern and Western fronts. Holly­wood, hypnotized by the ghostly sound of bagpipes stealing over Sunset Strip from Auld Reekie, sent a bunch of crack mainstream movies: Beetlejuice, Biloxi Blues, Bird, The Milagro Bean­field War, Midnight Run. Alan Rudolph's The Moderns and Michael Cimino's The Sicilian also made sur­prise appearances. And the entire population of the city gazed skyward daily to see if Clint Eastwood – who had said he might – was going to descend from the heavens to bless Edinburgh.

As for the Eastern movies at Edin­burgh, festgoers were treated to a major retrospective of the films of Seijuv Suz­uki. Suzuki is a veteran Japanese action director, with crime and yakuza movies a specialty, whose oeuvre contains films like Tokyo Drifter, Wild Youth, Kageroza, and Detective Bureau 23Go To Hell, Bastard (sic). Suzuki's high-style thrillers were eaten up in Edinburgh and then bicycled over to Brigadoon.

Also from the East were Hou Hsiao ­Hsien's Daughter of the Nile (etiolated but touching), Chen Kaige's King of the Children (great landscapes, dull school­room scenes), and the magnificent Red Sorghum, still hearing the claw marks of the Berlin Golden Bear. Most Prom­ising Newcomer award goes to Taiwan's Fred Tan, writer-director of Rouge of the North, a dynastic saga whose formi­dable heroine grows from tearful child bride to acerbic matriarch in a mere 107 minutes. Magnificently played by Hsia Wen-shi, you get her measure in the film's tart dialogue scenes: Maid – "What shall I get the master for break­fast?" Wen- Shi – "Warm up the dried swallow's nest."

But if I were to pick an oddball favorite from all the movies shown in Scotland, I would elect Chris Gal­lagher's Undivided Attention. This experimental Canadian feature won the prize in the Semiotics Zone because, as Van Johnson pointed out, its pixilated discourse deconstructs conventional narrativity and problematizes the rela­tionship between signifier and signified.

Oh, Van.

Though, the film is fun. Gallagher, his own narrator-protagonist, takes us on a road movie through Canada, which keeps stopping off for more urgent jour­neys: journeys into the mind, into cine-aesthetics, into motion as emotion. Two standout sequences involve the strap­ping of a camera to ordinary household tools: a snow shovel and a paintbrush. The resulting disorientation – or re-orientation – is revelatory. Suddenly we're in a zero-gravity world where snow flies upward of its own free will or where paint strokes carve a course as thrilling and vertiginous as a mountain road.

Undivided Attention is about the filmmaker as mapmaker, mapping new towns in our psyche, matte-ing new landmarks in our perception, and chart­ing new ways to travel to them. Give Gallagher enough time and he may even find and map Brigadoon.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.