by Harlan Kennedy


Venice was so full of birds of omen this year that Edgar Allan Poe could have brought a gallon of ink and a pantechnicon fu11 of paper and written a dozen sequels to The Raven. A talking parrot on a housetop greeted festgoers walking to the movies each day with an exultant satiric cackle and cries of "buon giorno" and va bene"; attempts to topple it with pieces of bread or semiological pamphlets completely failed. A pigeon fell off the church of Santa Maria della Salute as soon as I sat down to write this article. And in the movies, major roles were taken by a tame peacock (Boro Draskovic's Life Is Wonderful from Yugo­slavia), a garrulous raven (Jerzy Skoli­mowski's The Lightship), a vigilant vulture (Julien Temple's Running Into Luck), and, yes, a talking parrot (Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp).

There were also attempts to distribute a few doves about the place. The message of last year's Mostra del Cinema, fest director Gian Luigi Rondi told us at the time, was Hope. This year it was Youth, though there was a strong dash of faith and charity thrown in as well, faith in the old names and their ability to sustain the quality (They sometimes did – Agnès Varda, Kobayashi, Volker Schlondorff; they sometimes didn't – Skolimowski, Alain Tanner). Charity toward the new directors, some of whom got their first exposure at Venice – more through a generous selection committee than any blinding gleam of talent.

In keeping with Venice's Year of the Bird, the best films were soaring overviews of the human condition. Having put behind them the ostrich anguish of Annus Orwellianus, filmmakers are taking a bolder, more aerial view of life. Varda's Ni Toit Ni Loi, Ichikawa's Harp, and Tanner's No Man's Land (which also played the New York Film Festival) are all multi- character map-hoppers in search of mod­ern myths: the meaning of freedom and how human beings can live together.

Varda's young heroine (Sandrine Bon­naire) is a runaway teenager in rural France. She sloughs society to hit the roads, living from one casual pal-up to another – a hippy boy, an Arab guest- worker, a lady tree surgeon (Macha Méril) cursing the cancers of our environment – and ends up dead in a ditch. In any other country this would be a pessimistic ending. But we are in France, where self- destruction is the sacrifice of the sainted for other people's beatitude.

Varda's film, winner of the Golden Lion, is a messianic road movie with humor, irony, pain, and splashes of surrealism: like Mille. Méril plugging her hands into a pair of light sockets to escape this ghastly world (someone saves her), or the smash­ing opening shot of two cypresses on a hill that look like a glass-shot tribute to Böcklin but turn out to be real.

Ichikawa offered his all-color remake of The Burmese Harp. As this touching WW II epic long-marches its way up and down Burma – telling of the young Jap soldier and harp maestro (Kiichi Nakai) who mysteriously returns to life after being missing-presumed-harp-playing – its reso­nances reach right out to the Eighties. The 1956 black-and-white film was eerier and tougher; this is the Classics Illustrated version. Still, it's a mighty powerful fable about binding up the wounds of different worlds: East and West, peace and war, even this world and the next.

Even better from the Orient was Masaki Kobayashi's Shokutaku No Nai Ie (The Empty Table). This is a stately, somber bash at choreographing the war between generations. Kurosawa star Tatsuya Nakadai (Kagemusha, Ran) plays the grizzled father trying to hold his family together while disowning his terrorist son, who's in jail after a fatality-strewn hostage incident. Mum goes tragically off her chump, first smashing Son's fish tank and eating the contents, later killing herself. Mum's sister falls in love with Dad. Dad gravitates chastely toward a girl studying Alpine Buddhism (whatever that is). And matters are boiled up to a climax by the sons re­lease after a hijacking by fellow terrorists.

Kobayashi's fertile mind for moral melo­drama (The Human Condition, Kaseki) piles up the crises. Strewn with geometric shadows, the film suggests the world of Jean Racine, more than a Sayonara Southfork. Unlike almost any other new film at Venice, it wears the big clumping boots of myth and has audiences happy to be trampled over for two and a half hours

Elsewhere the saner reaction was to get up and run – especially from the sequence of inert or loony agitprop films that strewed Venice. One is supposed, of course, to come to film festivals and applaud like crazy anything that waves a red flag or looks like a defiant fist shaken by Us against Them. When there's no real novelty in the movies as movies, festival audiences can think they're seeing new dawns all over the place in the rehashing of old tripe about overthrown dictatorships and conquered juntas.

Pantelis Voulgaris' The Stone Years was warmly applauded, even though its two-and-a-half-hour tale of Communists fight­ing oppression in postwar Greece is staged as a stupefying succession of clichés – all men in long coats and women looking somber through rat-tail hair, as they round up the usual chestnuts about "We must alert our comrades in the North" or "There is a price to be paid for freedom." And in Fernando Solanas' Tangos, about the balletic and theatrical cavortings of a group of Argentinian exiles in Paris, it is as if the occupants of a Spanish restaurant – staff and customers – have all been badly bitten by Peter Brook.

Worst of all was Britain's warmly greeted Letter to Brezhnev, in which Frank Clarke's screenplay about two Liverpool girls (Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke) having a 24-hour fling with two Soviet sailors is peppered with cutesy compare- and-contrast quips about U.K. versus U.S.S.R. life. "Een Rossla, when you are out of a jorrb you don't eat;' says Peter Firth, doing his speakee-Russian act. "Yes, it's the same here;' shrills Liverpudlian Pigg, and the audience breaks up at the gag. This movie and its tinny political quips aimed at idiots set back the revolution, by my watch, about 30 years. (And women's lib, too.)

Venice was more constructively radical in its determination to honor not just big-screen movies but every possible blue­print for our audio-visual future. We had video shows, TV programs, and even a symposium on the progress of high-definition videotape. Participants included Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio Storaro. "In five to ten years;' insists Storaro, "everyone will be using magnetic tape rather than celluloid."

Meanwhile, the Sala Video rang to the antic visuals of pop promo maestri Steve Barron, David Mallet, Julien Temple, etc. And (back on celluloid) there was Tem­ple's promo-style feature film starring and produced by Mick Jagger, and built around songs from his album She's the Boss, Running Out to Luck. First, it is difficult to believe that the aging gargoyle cavorting through North and South America in a would-be madcap missing-presumed- dead plot (it's like The Burmese Harp directed by Dick Lester) is really our Mick. Second, you cant believe that the story – put together from hiccups from Russ Meyer plantation pics to Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie – ever managed to jump, or fall, off the drawing board.

If you're going to tease out the music video idiom to feature length, it's better to be Wim Wenders and/or Ronee Blakley. They wrote, produced, directed, and star in Docu Drama, a home-movie record of Ronee doing a recording session, inter­spersed with semi-dramatized vignettes starring her and Wim and their pals. He pretends to pick her up in a bar; they improvise badinage round a pool table; they canoodle in Malibu. There's a lovely contrast between charismas: Ronee, a tough kookie who belts out cracked-heart ballads in a voice that could attract the Noise Abatement Society; and Wim, shy and retiring with an acting style that's like watching stalagmites grow. But this hit-and-miss 90 minutes is a fascinating collation of ideas from the workshop floor: the kind of asides and mini-stories and tiny character sketches that might end up fully formed in a Wenders film or a Blakley album.

Every film festival must have its Crazy Corner, where the unusual shades into the flavorsomely deranged. Venice boasted three contenders for the Golden Fruitcake prize. Jerzy Skolimowski's The Lightship takes a goodish hijacking-at-sea story (by Siegfried Lenz) and turns it into amateur night in the studio tank. Klaus Maria Brandauer and Robert Duvall look all at sea amid the heavingly portentous dialogue, but the Venice jury honored the film with a Special Award and an equally portentous citation: "for the rigor and balance with which the director was able to compose the dramatic, scenographical, and environmental elements of a meta­phor on existence in an original way." So there.

Dust, by Belgium's Marion Hänsel, was no less bafflingly honored. This hijacks a novella by South Africa's J.M. Coetzee, In The Heart of the Country, and gives us Jane Birkin agonistes on the burning veldt. She has a lot of trouble with dust, Dad (Trevor Howard), rape-prone black servants, and the lack of dialogue. This bit of minimalist attitudinizing won the Silver Lion for "best first or second work." Finally, Maurice Pialat's loudmouth Police gives us Gérard Depardieu as the life and soul of the French Sûreté, frisking, fucking, or fist-in-the-eyeing anyone unfortunate enough to land on his desk. We don't know if we're in the Quai d'Orfèvres or the Quai d'Overacting. But the Venice jury, unembarrassed by hyper­bole, gave Gérard the Best Actor prize.

All these quirky awards could have been changed, of course, if some of the out-of-competition movies had been in competi­tion: like Kevin Reynolds' spiffing road movie Fandango or Tsui Hark's Hong Kong screwball comedy Shanghai Blues or the sleeper of the festival, Volker Schlondorff's Death of a Salesman. Here Dustin Hoffman dons the wispy gray hair, the seedy black suit, and the glint of madness in the eyes to recreate his Broadway triumph on screen. He looks like an overgrown fly or giant crow, and he buzzes, squawks, and cries out through a play that's still the best tragicomic guide to the American Dream ever made. Schlon­dorff, shamelessly refusing to open out the action (good for him), gradually closes the stylized sets round his characters like the leaves of a giant flytrap. Terrific.

The Venice fest continues, like June, busting out all over: a new auditorium, a circus-size tent (La Tenda) where 1200 people could ogle a giant screen. Less fortunate was the sound quality in La Tenda. Anglophone critics had to read the Italian subtitles to understand English or American films. Technically, Venice was quixotic. It made the open letter to Rondi from two visiting Columbia Pictures bigwigs, in which they praised the high standard of movie presentation seem the most damn silly thing since the Trojans said, "What a lovely horse, let's bring it inside."






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.