by Harlan Kennedy


The 1991 Venice Film Festival was small but perfectly formed. Two thousand (2,000) Lido-dwelling festgoers, squeezed onto a spit of land between sea and lagoon, had nowhere to run except into the cinema's past or future. The Mostra Del Cinema is a space-time continuum with not much space and the possibility that it won't continue. So fantasy trips into early, Hays Code Hollywood (Retrospective) and the shape-of-things-to-come video future (Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books) gave a perfect symmetry of escape options. They also parenthesized the slim but spectacular cross-section of modern cinema: Godard, Skolimowski, Herzog, Jarman, Zhang Yimou, Gus Van Sant....

Only one cloud smudges the Venice horizon, so let's deal with it now. The festival may soon vacate its late-summer slot. Rival Euro-fest Cannes is greedily eyeing September and the prospects of primetime U.S. product in the Christmas run-up. Anything Cannes cannes do it probably will; so if it moves, whither Venezia? Perhaps to coldest February, where doom-and-gloom experts fear it may shrivel and die.

Is the world's oldest film festival preparing for quietus? Not on its life. The Italians, being a totally mad race (clinical tests prove this), have started a totally mad race to design a new Palazzo Del Cinema. You can view, in architecture magazines, the designs aimed at replacing the Mussolini-built ice palace now housing the film fest. They include a giant hi-tech Hammond Organ, a Corbusier-style space observatory, and what looks like three dinosaurs fighting in a pink aluminum sack.

But you never know what to expect in Italy. Cutting-edge modernism vies with death-throe traditionalism – the latter instanced in the recent news that the Italian Communist Party, alone among the world's CPs, has bid to buy all those toppled Stalinist statues from the USSR. Mamma mia. Where to put them? In front of the pink aluminum sack building?

Never mind. New and old can make for thrilling juxtaposition. While Greenaway pushed the envelope of cinema's HDTV future with his Tempest, the Hays Code retrospective (post- and pre-) flickered fearlessly before audiences in the Excelsior ballroom-turned-cinema. In this giant indoor fairground where Mussolini came to dance, we who came to die and salute Old Hollywood stayed to live and cheer. So this is what cinema used to be like? What happened?

First up in each retro show: ten minutes of Hearst Movietone News. These were early newsreels sans stentorian overvoice. Just the audiovisual essentials of the day – Hitler and Hindenburg haranguing German crowds, U.S. bank chiefs comforting post-crash Americans, Einstein honored by the Sorbonne, mad Spanish dancers opening a Greenwich Village restaurant – linked by their exciting self-importance and the imaginary noise of the audiences' popcorn.

Next up: eight minutes of cartoons. Cats strumming skeleton guitars in Silly Symphonies, or Betty Boop negotiating down payments on her Bamboo Isle/ Running for President. Third and last: main feature. After seeing Mamoulian's Applause (1929) and Dieterle's The Last Flight ('31) on consecutive days interspersed with new Venice competition pix, two thoughts occurred to me. First, only Venice would dare to risk semi-uninhabited cinemas with endless hours of antique classics. Second, this sort of movie experience is closer to Prospero's Books than anything in cinema history that came between.


The vaudeville values of the multiple bill – and the vaudeville values of many of the features themselves, with their song-'n'-a-smile-'n'-a-cry storylines – find a clear echo in the author-audience conspiracy Greenaway delights in. Prospero's Books, like much post-modern cinema from Jarman to Van Sant, is a sophisticate's version of an "I say, I say" routine.

I say, I say. Do you know the one about the exiled Duke of Milan (John Gielgud) who ruled over his own desert island with a daughter (Isabel Pasco), a monster (Michael Clark), and a sprite (four different actors)? We do. We've seen it umpteen times before in the cinemaof Tempest. Greenaway assumes familiarity and then blazes us with fresh viewpoints. The soundstage setting is a giant bathhouse whose nooks and corners transform themselves into seas, woods, or wheatfields. Gielgud is an old man playing with a toy ship in his bath who transforms himself into the magical Prospero; for most of the movie his voice also ventriloquizes all the other roles. And Greenaway's deployment of high-definition video has the kind of let-loose-in-the-laboratory glee – for mad scientist read mad aesthete – that the cinema last experienced during its techno-watershed, the early sound era.

What Mamoulian in Applause does with his let's-try-anything sonic FX (dogs barking, high heels clacking, taxis honking), Greenaway does with his visuals. Book illustrations break into life; images within images within images abound like a hall of mirrors; perspectives are so elastic that a magnified drop of water dances on equal footing with an ocean. Only in later scenes does the film falter. The visual delirium makes for an ever starker contrast with the aural monotony of Gielgud's all-dubbing voice. And a version of The Tempest that sees Prospero as artist-creator-God, "composing" not just his fellow characters' fate but the play/film itself, takes on a cabin-fever solipsism.

Cabin fever sums up Derek Jarman's Edward II too. No state-of-the-art video visuals here. Jarman's in Caravaggio rather than Garden mood. A maze of rough-plastered white walls traps the gay English king and his court as they spout Marlowe's iambics while dressing for war or undressing for love. Meanwhile–in movies you must always have a "meanwhile" – we get flash-forward glimpses of King Eddie in the slammer. This time the set is weathered metal: walls like rivet-studded ship's bulkheads plus a moldy pool in which the condemned king bathes his sorrows. We could be at a Titanic Salvage Exhibit somewhere in Hell.

As in Jarman's The Tempest, the Renaissance English verse is scissored into thought-size strips and distributed to a starving cast. Edward I1 is most marvelous at its hungriest. Nigel Terry's dastardly Mortimer (ssss) and Tilda Swinton's devious Queen Isabella (Alexis Carrington in a tiara) swish through the action chewing every precious syllable. It's least marvelous when Jarman turns the play into a gay rights promo. Yes, we know: Marlowe was gay, so was Edward, so is Jarman. But the modern-dress AIDS rallies and gay pride marches that sprinkle the movie, worthy as they are in life, end up reducing Marlowe's prismatic original to a glassy propagandist glare.

Making over famous literary classics is becoming a sunrise industry in the cinema. Other Venice pictures had a go. Jean-Luc Godard's Germany Year Zero is a 60-minute collage about German history, with star Eddie Constantine acting as dazed lightning rod for jagged visuals and flashes of wisdom from Goethe and Hegel. From Portugal, Manoel de Oliveira's The Divine Comedy gives us a pokerfaced divertimento in a mental home, where the inmates believe they're characters from Dante, Dostoevsky, & Co. And István Szabó's Meeting Venus takes Goethe's Faust and Wagner's Tannhäuser and turns them into a modern meditation on sacred vs. profane love, set in the gobbledygook world of international opera production. Not to mention the ditto world of Euro-U.S. movie production, with America's Glenn Close fighting her corner amid a pick-your-accent pack of Frenchmen, Swedes, Italians, and Hungarians.

Even America is dusting off its rare-books shelf, and in the case of Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho more imaginatively than its European peers. Van Sant's film is brilliantly impudent in its Henry IV plagiarisms. Just when the plot about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) searching for their roots and futures looks like vaporizing in chic anomie, enter Will Shakespeare and Sir John Falstaff. "We have heard the chimes at midnight," etc., burbles Oregon's answer to the Fat Knight (William Richert as Bob Pigeon), and the screen fills up with come-dressed-as-Globe-Theatre-characters-you-know extras. Keanu Reeves's papa is Henry IV reborn as the mayor of Portland, and the film's already lapidary dialogue lilts into pentameter.

The movie could have been yet another sentimental-subversive paean to midnight cowboys. But Van Sant boldly floats us off on a sea of visions with no visible anchor. All we have and need are a few recurring touchstone images – notably the desert road of Phoenix's end and beginning – to guide us through a tale of personal and planetary growing-up. For My Own Private Idaho isn't just about two male hookers learning Who They Are. It's a fable about the leaps in perception by which a world grows up. The narcolepsy that gives Phoenix his blackout ellipses between scenes and events (just like the shuttered intervals between movie frames) emblemizes the free-form imagination itself. Properly encouraged, it can jump and cut referentially from Shakespeare to Schlesinger, from crimes at midday to chimes at midnight.


But you don't need to tell a film critic this. We spend our lives jumping between unconnected items over impossible chasms. At Venice the average day included any three/four of the following: Mario Monicelli's Rossini! Rossini!, with Philippe Noiret as the wigged tune-smith dating Jacqueline Bisset's kiss-me-quick soprano. Fabio Carpi's L'Amore Necessario, a Semi-Dangerous Liaisons for Ben Kingsley and Marie-Christine Barrault as spa-dwelling seducers. Mira Nair's winsome Mississippi Masala, with Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury Romeo-and-Julieting in an Asians-vs.-Negroes American South. Jerzy Skolimowski's 30 Door Key, a zany comedy about growing pains in 1930s Poland, the main pain being the sight of lain Glen and Crispin Glover overacting. Nikita Mikhalhov's Urga, a Soviet-Mongolian ethno-yarn full of charm, spectacle, and somewhat sanitized authenticity. Marco Risi's dashing docu-thriller Il Muro di Gomma, dramatizing the 1980s case of a missing presumed missiled passenger plane. Werner Herzog's Scream of Stone....

But no, we can't relegate Werner to also-ran class, even if his new mountaineering epic never quite scales the heights. Plot: Can seasoned climber Vittorio Mezzogiorno beat ambitious youngster Stefan Glowacz to the top of Patagonia's snowtopped needle Cerro Torre? The suspense is bearable. Herzog fiddles around at aesthetic basecamp, orchestrating the likes of Donald Sutherland (funny-crass TV reporter) and Brad Dourif (crazed ex-climber minus four fingers). But once the climbing starts, the bad dialogue and walking stereotypes are less distracting. Herzog and second unit are up on the rockface staring into eternity, filming perpendicular terror, re-inhaling the snow-white mists of Aguirre and giving the audience ten minutes of gape-mouthed lockjaw.

But never mind ten minutes. One film at Venice set the jaw permanently ajar. Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern is a dazzling dynastic melodrama offering proof – if we still needed any after Red Sorghum and Ju Dou – that China's cinema has come of age. Time: 1920s. Place: a tyrannical lord's palace. Main character: 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li), who has signed on as his lordship's Fourth Mistress. We soon serpentine into a tale of domestic intrigue that makes Dynasty look like Mary Poppins. Songlian tangles with her rival mistresses, is buffeted by the whims and weird ordinances of her master (including the lighting of red lanterns each night outside the favored mistress's room), fakes pregnancy, causes the death of a servant, finally goes mad.

All this is presented with a precise and lustrous pictorial beauty unseen in Eastern cinema since Kagemusha. Zhang would hang his cameraman, one suspects, if he positioned the lens one millimeter either side of perfect center. Each palace avenue, each snow-robed roofscape, each lantern-studded interior observes an aesthetic protocol as merciless as the behavioral protocol imposed by the Master. (Yes, of course, the film is a fable about Communist China; and how ruthless social laws first bewilder the observer, then lend themselves to exploitation, finally prove unconquerable and destroying.)

Zhang's visual ruthlessness pays off whenever he allows the starkness to be inflected. A handheld shot, seismic with terror, as a hanging victim is hauled across a rooftop to her death; or a splash of visual metaphor when the heroine's bloodstained white underwear is rhymed with red lanterns cast violently onto the snow. It's filmmaking of a high order. No wonder the Venice Golden Lion, present at the same screening I was, took Zhang aside afterwards and started mauling him in the corridor. An affectionate beast. It just shows that when you are in at Venice, you are in. Just as when you are out – eheu Skolimowski! – you are out.


Actually, we all got out – i.e., escaped the Lido – for the Mostra's spectacular closing night. This was the evening when the Piazza San Marco hosted a giant open-air gala including movie screening. The film shown was a much-loved classic of Italian cinema, even if the Golden Lion didn't appreciate the title. It was Visconti's The Leopard: coming your way soon in the splendor of a new 70-mil print.

STOP PRESS. At this point, as a weeping lion is carried to the stage, I want to make it clear that I've never been invited to be a member of the jury at Venice. So the prizes that follow rest not on my shoulders, nor on those of the Lion, a mere figurehead for capricious prizes. Golden Lion for Best Film: Urga. Special Grand Jury Prize: The Divine Comedy. Best Actor: River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. Best Actress: Tilda Swinton in Edward II. Silver Lion and FIPRESCI International Critics Prize (justice at last): Raise the Red Lantern.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.