AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – 1978
A HEADY BREW
by Harlan Kennedy
At first glance this year's London Film Festival looked more undernourished than most. Festival director Ken Wlaschin was so busy in early days insisting that although the number of movies had dropped from eighty-five to seventy-five, the cutback had not affected quality, that many thought he was protesting too much. Happily, Wlaschin was right, suspicions were wrong.
The self-avowed Cinderella of international film festivals, London turned a mini-budget festival into a major movie event. Crowned with a twofold touch of class from Hollywood – A Wedding and Interiors, both well received, had their British premieres in the closing two days – the festival built steadily from a slow beginning to a fine finale. As usual, "lost" cinematic countries were rediscovered (India had an unprecedented five features), established directors pulled some rejuvenating surprises (Walerian Borowczyk's L'Interno di un convento [Behind Convent Walls] ), and unknown young filmmakers were blooded.
The latter were chiefly from America. Wes Craven and David Lynch each sent his Grand Guignol extravaganza, The Hills Have Eyes and Eraserhead, and Errol Morris came to present his beguiling documentary on the American Way of Death, pet style. Gates of Heaven, Morris's first film, was one of the hits of the festival and has already been snapped up for Britain by America's keen-eyed Cinegate distributors, Barbara and David Stone. The film is the account of a failed pet cemetery in California whose incumbents were dug up and transferred to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.
The film evokes and links – by simple addition – the desperation and the isolation shared by both the cemetery entrepreneurs and the owners of the deceased pets. It captures their different brands of deadpan dementia – their dreams of success, the reality of their failures – in a series of confessions aimed dead at the camera. The failed manager of the dug-up cemetery is bullheaded, rueful, tragicomic. The owner of the new cemetery and his elder son square their jaws and their self-confidence: American Success is written all over them. Counterpoint to them is the younger son, a guitar-playing heir apparent whose hangdog hippy cool seems to camouflage an intimation of something lost – perhaps only a dream.
Gates of Heaven is hampered somewhat by its documentary structure. One keeps wishing Morris would give it the liberating wings of fiction and see it fly higher and farther. But the film's sidelong glances at American Success and American Failure make riveting viewing, and one looks forward to his next movie – a Horatio Alger story about a boy who makes a million dollars with a thirty-five-pound chicken.
The festival's other revelation from an unknown director was Bapu's Seetha Kalyanam (Sita's Wedding). Indian popular cinema usually reaches the West only in specialist cinemas shunned by the non-Indian. But this film should break the pattern.
Its reenactment of a famous Indian legend – the Ramayana – is exquisitely beautiful, like a series of Indian-painted ivories come to life. The special effects have a shoestring primitivism – conspicuous model and "glass" shots, an overdose of dry-ice studio mist – but Bapu makes a virtue of budgetary necessity by endowing the movie with childlike simplicity. The result is like a Cecil B. DeMille film shorn of Hollywood elephantiasis. It has already been seen at the Chicago International Film Festival and deserves a wider showing in the States.
From Greece came Nikos Panayotopoulos's I Tembelides tis eforis kiladas (The Idlers of the Fertile Valley), which proved to be the sleeper of the festival's European films. In more ways than one. This slyly funny parable of bourgeois indolence is about a family who inherit a fortune and retire to a villa in the country. Robbed of the obligation to work, they subside into a spiritual, then into a literal, coma. Seep overcomes them one by one. Dozing fulsomely at every opportunity, even during meals or during sex, they while away the days. Only the pretty, coolheaded servant girl remains awake. Political inferences can be drawn, or not, according to taste. What matters is that Panayotopoulos has conquered that proverbially difficult artist's task of making boredom interesting and lethargy invigorating.
Claude Goretta's Les chemins de l'exil ou les dernières années de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Roads of Exile, Or, The Last Years of Jean Jacques Rousseau) achieves the precise opposite. It makes soporific viewing of one of the most eventful lives in European letters. The film is about the last years of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and it is a three-and-a-half-hour chronicle (made for two-part showing on television) depicting the philosopher's journeyings from one place of exile to another: his cantankerous feudings with the French and Swiss and English – governments that refused to allow him a safe haven in his old age.
This was the world premiere of Goretta's film – his first since the widely praised The Lacemaker – and much was expected. But the film slides steadily downhill from the early scenes. François Simon plays Rousseau with a pained, quizzical vitality that is often winning. But he cannot carry a three-and-a-half-hour film single-handedly, and Goretta's catatonic camerawork – one lifeless period tableau succeeds another – is more like a trip through a wax museum than an imaginative journey into a great man's life and times.
Brevity is no guarantee of vitality, but this was a festival in which short films stole much of the thunder from features. Those whose minds were glazing over from three hours of contemplating Rousseau – or, in Joseph Losey's lifeless Les routes du sud (Roads to the South), one hundred minutes of Yves Montand furrowing his brow as an introspective Spanish civil war veteran – could take refuge in an irresistibly lively program of world animation and in a handful of British shorts that were among the treasures of the festival.
Outstanding among the short films was Peter Greenaway's "A Walk Through H." This forty-minute surrealist film comes from some Otherworld of the Comic Unconscious: a world peopled by such cherishable geniuses as Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Monty Python.
Greenaway parades a sequence of weird watercolor abstracts before the camera – we are told they are "maps" – while a serious, plummy, British-accented voice describes his imaginary journey through them. Trying to describe the film to someone who hasn't seen it is like trying to describe color to a blind man. It rejoices in non sequiturs and deadpan asides; it has a beautiful dream-comic logic of its own. The British Film Institute Production Board, which funded it, deserves an ovation.
The British section as a whole was much stronger than last year. Bí11 Douglas's My Way Home, completing his autobiographical trilogy, and Ron Peck and Paul Hallam's Nighthawks have already been mentioned in these pages: They were premiered at Edinburgh. But Jack Gold's The Sailor's Return sensitively depicts an interracial marriage in Victorian England between a boisterous sailor and an African princess (played with magnetic grace by Shope Shodeinde). The accumulating rage and bigotry of the rural society in which they live are sketched with vivid and virulent skill. The film was chosen for the festival's closing night and took everyone's eye.
Taking the ear and the eye was Christian Blackwood's explosive documentary about Roger Corman. Roger Corman: Hollywood's Wild Angel is a tribute to America's ageless Whiz Kid of the B-movie. A glorious vulgarity informs and inflames the film, which has hit on the happy idea of using trailers rather than film clips to illustrate the spirit of Cormania. Myriad Corman stars, friends, and associates – David Carradine, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese – chip in with eager homages and razzle-dazzle anecdotes, and the sense of euphoria lifts the film way above its documentary format into a stratosphere of pure celebration.
Frederick Wiseman's Sinai Field Mission takes the opposite path: It plummets determinedly into the solemn, gnomic, and bafflingly dull. Wiseman is an acquired taste, but even non-sympathizers could recognize the organizing skill behind such poker-faced slices of American institutional life as High School, Primate, or Meat.
Sinai Field Mission, by contrast, has no discernible organization at all. The sleepy outpost of American peacekeeping rites that Wiseman chooses to depict offers the nearest thing to total stasis since Waiting for Godot. Wiseman waits for something to happen. We wait. The soldiers wait. And the film goes on for 127 minutes without satisfying anyone.
A better documentary, or quasi documentary, was to be found in Phillip Noyce's Newsfront, spearheading a trio of films from Australia. (The others were Bruce Beresford's The Getting of Wisdom and Donald Crombie's The Irishman.) Noyce's prizewinning re-creation of a decade in the history of the Australian newsreel industry makes fascinating viewing. He intercuts archive newsreel footage with imagined personal drama and creates an almost seamless collage of fact and fiction.
Special and separate section of the London Film Festival should be devoted to eccentric curios. They were there in force at this festival. The Hills Have Eyes has already been cited. Wes Craven mixes a dollop of wit with a mountain of terror and had the audience squinching down and jumping up in their seats as he newly mints every horror cliché in the book.
Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover was billed as likely to provoke strong reactions. But the strongest reaction it provoked was sheer incredulity that Cohen could have taken so many liberties with the lives of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Hoover himself, and others. The characters walk, talk, and behave like wound-up marionettes. The chief reason the film gets away with its prodigious quota of scandalmongering speculation presented as fact is that its subjects are no longer here to complain.
Next in the curio department was Monte Hellman's China 9, Liberty 37. Hellman, once a Corman protégé and one of the cinema's natural mavericks, wafted from project to project more by luck or financial exigency than by any systematic plan of artistic evolution. No one who saw Two-Lane Blacktop could have envisaged that seven years later Hellman would be making a Spaghetti Western with one ltalian, one English, and one American star.
The film is erratic but enormously likable. And one wishes Hellman would go and teach some of the more prestigious American directors how to use the wide screen. His compositions are unfailingly purposeful and exciting. The story is a mishmash of comedy and melodrama involving Warren Oates, Jenny Agutter, and Fabio Testi in a sort of frontier eternal triangle. Not exactly strong on narrative coherence, the film compensates with some stirring action scenes and some no less stirring tongue-in-cheek one-liners. (Says the last villainous surviving member of a disastrously abortive ambush attempt, "This hasn't worked out well.")
Last but not least in the curio section was Wan Lai Ming's Da no tien gu (Uproar in Heaven). Made in 1965, this animated feature-length cartoon from China was not exported due to political intrigues as complex as chop suey. The story tells of a Monkey King's struggle against the nasty Celestial Emperor. Very popular in China, it is drawn from a sixteenth-century Chinese novel (which itself is based on a thirteenth-century play) and can be read, by those so inclined, as a political allegory. But it can equally be enjoyed as a highly inventive piece of animation, galvanizing the delicate figures of Chinese watercolor art into funny and vigorous life.
Breaking more quietly across the screen was the latest of Spain's New Wave of films. Jaime de Armiñán's Nunca es tarde (It's Never Too Late) begins eerily and edgily to tell the story of a seventy-three-year-old virgin voyeur who conceives a child by watching the neighboring couple copulating. As the film settles down and the young couple learns of the wish-fulfillment pregnancy and accepts it, a sanctifying calm steals over the nervous center of the film, and the three begin to live together until their child is born. It's a girl. And the film is a ravishing tale of an obsession that bears fruit.
Eastern Europe had nothing quite so stylish to offer, although a somber worthiness pervades Zoltán Fábri's tale of wartime worker-immigrants in Nazi Germany titled Magyarok (Hungarians), and a folkloric charm flickers intermittently in Russia's Natvris khe (The Wishing Tree), made by Georgian director Tenghiz Abuladze.
Adela jesta nerecerela (Nick Carter in Prague), from Czechoslovakia, is an homage to the American comic strip detective, plopping him down in fin de siècle Prague to solve the Case of the Carnivorous Orchid. It should be funny, but it isn't. The jokes are one-track – mostly celebrating Carter's picturesque invulnerability – and the film gets mysteriously bogged down in endless scenes of lager drinking and sausage eating. It is refreshing, though, to see a small glint of free world eccentricity informing Czechoslovakia's generally rather dour output.
Free world eccentricity just about sums up Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name. Welcome to L.A., Rudolph's feature debut, was not well liked by London critics, but his second found a warmer response. No film in which Geraldine Chaplin is given the freedom of Los Angeles as a gaunt and pixilated modern day Medea can be all bad, and with Anthony Perkins to match her twitch for twitch, the film is surefire simply as a quirkily updated fifties-style woman's melodrama.
Rudolph still insists on washing music across the sound track at every opportunity, but Alberta Hunter's songs are less distracting than Richard Baskin's in Welcome to L.A. And no American director – not even Altman in The Long Goodbye – has quite so well captured the air of "beautiful lethargy" that hovers around and over Los Angeles.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.