AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – 1980
FEEL THE LENGTH
by Harlan Kennedy
Extinguish your cigarettes and fasten your attention spans. The age of the jumbo movie is upon us, and it taxied for takeoff at the 1980 London Film Festival. The projectors began and ended with two celluloid marathons – Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Abel Gance's reconstructed 1927 epic, Napoleon – and in between were several other 150-minute-plus movies.
One wonders if the age of the video-cassette is subtly starting to dictate movie lengths. Are filmmakers beginning to wonder why they should bother about length, when tomorrow's audiences will be able to switch their films on and off at the touch of a button?
Movies, after all, were not born into a feature-length formula. In the early decades Griffith-like blockbusters jostled with one or two-reelers, and with long-running movie serials like The Perils of Pauline or Feuillade's Fantômas. Gance's Napoleon is a reminder of that presound history when giants were in the land, turning out gigantic movies. The festival presentation was historic. It gave us a "live," forty-three-piece orchestra playing Carl Davis's splendid and specially written score, and it also gave us, at six hours, the full-length version (give or take twenty "lost" minutes) of this movie leviathan.
It was, for most of its sprawling, symphonic span, a knockout. Gance's brilliantly precocious experimentalism – rat-a-tat cutting, magical double exposures, and the climactic triumph of the three-screen panorama with its final tinted blaze into the French tricolor – seems like a blueprint for every daring technical advance the cinema has made in the last fifty years.
Certainly most of the movies that tried to hoe new cinematic ground this year seemed blunt edged by comparison. John Lowenthal's The Trials of Alger Hiss, lasting 166 minutes, attempts to cut the investigative documentary into a new shape – a sort of quick-fire encyclopedia of interviews – but succeeds instead in getting itself into a terrible tangle of special pleading.
Another attempt to ring changes on the documentary form is André Delvaux's To Woody Allen, From Europe With Love. The gloomy Belgian filmmaker buttonholes America's brightest comic director and tries to turn him into Ingmar Bergman. (As if Allen hadn't been trying hard enough to do that himself of late.) "Do you think filmmaking is a way to escape death?" Delvaux intones.
Between morbid questions, we see Delvaux poring over a Moviola searching for Truth in frozen frames of Allen deep in thought. The only light to lighten the existential gloom is Allen's vintage reply at the end, when Delvaux asks if he believes in a life after death. Allen does one of his bug-eyed pauses and then says, "Well, let's just say, from where we're sitting, it doesn't look too good."
The best and most giddily inventive quasi-documentary was Peter Greenaway's mammoth The Falls. This surreal fantasy is by the maker of "A Walk Through H," the zany short film which stormed the festival two years ago. The Falls is three hours long and stitches together the biographies of ninety-two victims of a "Violent Unexplained Event," a sort of postatomic Pentecost which left its victims in spiritual and physical shock but able to speak one of ninety-two suddenly sprouted languages.
The gags – mostly tied to Greenaway's two obsessions, language and ornithology – run through the piece like musical themes, but for all its non sequiturs, the film has an almost symphonic grace. It shared a British Film Institute award for the best film premiered at the National Film Theatre during the year. (The co-winner, shown outside the festival, was Xie Jin's 1965 Chinese film Two Stage Sisters.)
U.S. directors were represented in strength at the festival, and there was even a special symposium on the American independent cinema. Mark Reichert's Union City, Frederick Wiseman's Model, and Victor Nuñez's Gal Young Un were the pick of the films. Nuñez's movie had already made its bow at Edinburgh, but Reichert's gutsy, pastiche fifties melodrama was a rainbow-hued eye-opener. Wiseman was impressive with his ice-cool, monochrome prowl through the nylon jungle of fashion photography.
As halftime relief in the high-pressure filmgoing schedule, there was a sumptuous lunch, attended by filmmakers from all parts of the world and cohosted by festival director Ken Wlaschin and National Film Theatre manager Leslie Hardcastle. Also providing time out from the maelstrom of movies was an evening set aside for the presentation of the British Critics Circle Awards for 1980. Coppola's Apocalypse Now won Best English-Language Film, and Britain's Nicolas Roeg turned up in person to receive the Best Director Award for Bad Timing.
For the most part, though, the films in this year's festival were their own relief and their own reward. Outside the American independent cinema, the biggest impact came from such far-flung corners of the globe as Australia, India, and Turkey.
Mrinal Sen's And Quiet Rolls the Dawn is set in Calcutta and is a vibrant chamber drama about a tenement-dwelling family sent into shock one evening by the failure of their daughter and only breadwinner to return home. Sen watches as the fissures spread across their genteel facade, in a panic that's part emotional, part economic. The film has a caustic, compassionate intensity worthy of Satyajit Ray.
Ali Özgentürk's Hazal is a work of diamond-bright primitivism from Turkey. The director creates a tale of persecuted love and purblind peasant prejudice in a remote and craggy village: a highly detailed social canvas that also has a powerfully beating heart.
The new Australian cinema is delving more and more for inspiration into its country's aboriginal history. John Honey's Manganinnie is the best Australian film of the year. Funded by the Tasmanian Film Corporation (its first feature), the film charts the bizarre liaison between an aborigine woman, survivor of a tribe massacred by the British, and a white girl she comes upon one day in the Outback. The girl treks along through the country with her new mentor-cum-mother, slowly becoming absorbed into a primitive way of life.
The film has the flavor of The Wild Child and also of Walkabout, but mostly it's a work of sui generis beauty and resonance. John Honey photographs nature like a kaleidoscope of jagged forms, sometimes harsh, sometimes subtly harmonizing. No Australian film has looked so good since The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and the performances by Mawuyul Yathalawuy and Anna Ralph are excellent.
Peter Weir's new movie, The Plumber, is a squib by comparison, albeit an entertaining one: a menacing pas de deux between a scruffy, virile young plumber (Robert Coleby) and a professor's prim wife (Judy Morris). This made-for-television thriller has its antennae out to catch larger vibrations – of territorial threat, of psychic foreboding, of spooks from the racial unconscious. (The heroine is reading up on – guess what – aborigines.) But the cramped staging and neat plot twists are a little disappointing, coming from an image maker and storyteller as powerful as Weir.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.