by Harlan Kennedy


Brobdingnagian candles gutter. Stone eagles sit in stony intro­spection. Swags and swaths of cobwebs testify to a legendary aversion to feather dusters. And everywhere Masonic whorls and curls and spirals run riot.

So much for my hotel room on the Lido di Venezia. But against expectation this Gothic pad (you won't find it in Bae­deker; few but me have been able to find it at all, even when staying there) proved a boon at this year's Mostra Del Cinema. No long walks to the midnight showing of the latest Ichikawa, Noyce, or Olmi. I needed only to perch on the window ledge and bum a passing ther­mal. Once wafted umbrella-winged to the Palazzo, it was on with the cape and incisors and past the strangely terrified security guards.

No one had to be bats, though, to enjoy this year's cine-spree. Main rea­son: Movies were its centerpiece, not another of those Artists' Rights sympo­sia in which everyone gets together in Europe's jewel resort to sink their fangs into Hollywood and America. Rumor had it that fest chief Gillo Pontecorvo's last extravagance on these lines – his '93 Assise degli Autori – incurred U.S. wrath at the highest level. Important men declared Venice's anti – American drift to be a "clear and present danger" and approved the dispatching of Harri­son Ford to the Adriatic this year, together with the latest Noyce–Clancy romp and a fleet of personnel carriers. Ford to the fore, the Lido was subjected to friendly invasion by Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger, Tom Hanks, Danny DeVito, Tim Burton, and others. "Military advisers," insisted America's top brass, not "sol­diers." Ponty was outgunned. He had already made appeasement gestures by stuffing the sideshows with Yank films. Now he all but rolled a red carpet across the lagoon for any G.I. Joes who might turn up late – like Al Pacino, who came on the last day to pocket a career Lion.

The festival was in two parts: first five days a disaster, final week a triumph. In that first period, only two films stood out: Anna Campion's Loaded (Britain/ New Zealand) and Tsai Ming-liang's Long Live Love (Taiwan). But how they stood out, and how they were joined by a common aesthetic mission. Ensemble pix about loneliness, they depict human interaction as a series of midnight acci­dents on Highway Solitude; movie manna for the alienated, nail-gnawing Nineties.

Campion's more Gothic mode – Jane's sister, she's expected to whop us with some primal frissons – ensures that a real violent death occurs among the seven acid-tripping youngsters week-ending in an English mansion making a horror video. This last – lots of red smoke across the swimming pool, butcher's offal doing duty for human disembowelment – looks like an Esther Williams movie redone by Mario Bava. But it's a sly device to destabilize the characters' psyches comically, before LSD and loss-of-life add real terror. What better than a crumbling country house as a setting for this piece of punk Chekoviana? And what better than Campion's queasy fluidity of style – with camcorder images taking over for the "truth" games – for her picture of egos drowning in their own agenda for self-discovery? First feature; formidable promise.

Tsai Ming-liang's movie has a differ­ent style: chilling geometry. Two youths and a young lady real-estate agent col­lide and recollide in an empty apart­ment. Plot? There isn't one. The place is a bunker for their separate fantasies. These sometimes coalesce on the dou­ble bed – Youth Two getting it on with Miss Realtor – but mostly take the form of stolen reveries hinting at autoerotism, crazed infantilism (cf. Youth One's ath­letic fun with a watermelon), or a mil­lennial world's retreat into the prenatal twilight of solipsism.

Tsai made the hailed but relatively inchoate Rebels of the Neon God. Here, instead of tearing up old movie forms, he invents a new one. Chambered, epi­sodic structure; minimal dialogue; stoi­cal comedy of human sign language. We could be watching a Buster Keaton movie restyled – beyond recognition – for Nineties nihilism.

Mostly, though, Venice Part One was an experience made in festivalgoers' hell. We had the Anglo-Macedonian film about civil war, jumping confusedly between Magna Graecia and Greater London to communicate the idea of geo-spiritual pandemic – this was Mil­cho Manchevski's Before the Rain. We had the Anglo-Hungarian movie about magic bullets, mystic rabbits, and a manic Virgin Mary who comes to life out of a painting – Ildiko Enyedi's Magic Hunter, based loosely on Weber's opera Der Freischutz. And how about a logor­rheic costume pic starring Willem Dafoe and Lena Olin as two sub-Liai­sons sex adventurers poncing about in Close/Malkovich castoffs? – Anna Maria Tati's The Night and the Moment.

The home team tried to boost the quality. But the Italian flicks were crafts­manlike, no more, from Carlo Mazzi­curato's Il Toro (neorealism goes bull-smuggling) via Marco Risi's Il Branco (gang rape gets the hot-topic docudrama treatment) to Gianni Amelio's Lamerica, a sweetnatured friend­ship fable painfully extended over space (widescreen) and time (21/4 hours). As for Ermanno Olmi's The Bible Part 1 – Genesis: Creation and Flood, couldn't the grand old clever-clogs have given us something more than a whole lot of nature footage scored for vatic voiceover by Omero Antonutti (who doubles as Noah)?


The mediocrity stopped, and the magnificence began, around Sep­tember 6th. First, two movies jumped out demanding a place in the 1994 history books: Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures and Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom. Then another, Bigas Luna's The Tit and the Moon, provided pure, tingling enjoyment. And then Oli­ver Stone's Natural Born Killers came in to divide opinion clean down the mid­dle, just like Charlton Heston giving the Red Sea that stylish center parting in The Ten Commandments.

We at Venice had heard that Natural Born Killers was a mosaic movie. But a Mosaic movie? Those who didn't walk out screaming "Bloodbath!" stayed to wonder if this brilliantly outrageous film wasn't a prophetic blueprint – a set of Stone Tablets – for cinematic style in the next millennium.

We are now, it's clear, getting past Post-Modernism and into what we must call Avant-Futurism. Avant-F takes Post-M's playful, frame-breaking qualities but applies them to a deadly earnest, even dinningly apocalyptic subject. The Kingdom is Avant-F's answer to Post-M's Twin Peaks, which itself hinted at this next evolutionary step. Since David Lynch was in Venice jury-presiding, how wonderful that he should witness his Danish cousin Lars Von Trier (whose previous brainstorm was Zentropa) pre­senting this 41/2-hour TV series set in a haunted hospital. The Lynch-esque dra­matis personae – old lady who hears "voices" in the lift shaft, crazed sarcas­tic neurosurgeon, head-severing intern – stomp through a plot at once prepos­terous and stunningly well-knit.

The Kingdom's story was inspired by the fact that the real Copenhagen hospi­tal Trier filmed in – a monster-modern­ist block buzzed by his helicopter master shots – is sited on ancient floodlands. So memories and ghosts and guilts well up, along with H20, cracking the foundation stones of the present and turning what might have been a joke spook saga (post-modernism) into a redemption epic at once crazy-paved and flood-level cautionary (avant-futurism).

Trier shoots the thing in a handheld monochrome tinted peach and orange, like a Munch painting about to throw up. That there is scarcely a trick shot in sight – apart from some kid's-stuff dou­ble exposures for the ghost scenes – shows that this director's conjurings are not dependent on Zentropa-style sleight-of-optics. The Kingdom also shows that Trier has the sharpest, blackest sense of humor in modern Europe. The sarcastic Swede is an irresistible creation – fulminating against "Danish incompetence" one second, verbally eviscerating a malingering patient the next – and so are the scenes spoofing Masonic ritual. The next time a man holds a balled hand to his mouth in the elevator, blow­ing into his thumb while raising his little finger at you, please know that he belongs to the equivalent of a Danish Moose Lodge. Join or flit immediately.

A major feature of avant-futurism is its penchant for the mockumentary mode. This gives its Armageddon sub­jects the resonance of history before they have become history. The Kingdom (out of competition, so no prizes) is shot like a handheld TV docu; it could be subtitled "Pennebaker Hospital." Much of Natural Born Killers unfolds before a TV camera, sub specie Robert Downey Jr.'s Aussie-accented muckraker. (All the Australians in Venice, of course, said, "Why does he have an English accent?") And Heavenly Creatures has a remembering voiceover by one of the two main characters, as if packaging for posterity the murder she committed with a schoolfriend one sunny day in New Zealand in the 1950s.

Jackson's film is based on a true story. The Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) whose rapt friendship full of shared fantasies and romantic story-language (knights and castles) so worries their hygienically suburban parents are based on two Christchurch schoolgirls who served time after Pauline beaned her mother fatally with a brick. ("Juliet" grew up to be ethics-obsessed murder mystery novelist Anne Perry, but we shan't get into that.)

As the maker of high-class comedy-splatters like Brain Dead, Jackson might be expected to spray us jocosely with blood and cerebral tissue. Instead he takes the Avant-F route: major pas­sion, seamless narrative (unlike Post-M, Avant-F tends to tuck away its plumb­ing), and a berserk admonitory vibrancy. At best the film is inspired, as when Jackson hints at the girls' post-menstrual emotional overload with soar­ing crane movements and helicopter shots. In one sequence he turns a New Zealand hill into Sound of Music-land in heat, and then caps that delirium by morphing the scene into a lush palace garden patrolled by unicorns and giant butterflies.

Even at worst – the parents, poised uneasily between satirical observation and amateur-night caricature – Heav­enly Creatures has a hyperrealist agenda and boldly Goes For It. We who hurled garlands at Brain Dead now feel justi­fied in saying, or possibly singing to one of those Busby Berkeley-style over­head cameras Jackson likes, "We told you so."

Motto for this Venice year: Be adven­turous! Stick out your arm on the Lido and a gondola will screech to a halt in a cloud of burning rowlocks. Its driver will load you on board and then tell you his life story, or go on about the O.J. Simpson case, while careering across the lagoon jumping shipping-lights. He is taking you to, say, Bigas Luna's The Tit and the Moon, playing near St. Mark's Square, or Geoffrey Wright's Metal Skin, playing at the top of a con­demned gas-holder in Mestre.

Or did I just imagine this last? Cer­tainly Metal Skin, from Australia's Romper Stomper man, deserves some sort of Ultimate Abyss showcase. Where Luna's film was the fest's best also-ran, Wright's was the worst. The hero is a Melbourne mental case mad about driv­ing beat-up cars (Aussie-out-of-Canada heartthrob Aden Young wearing an inexplicable set of false teeth); the hero­ine (Tara Morice of Strictly Ballroom) is a witch; and the juddery noir visuals are out of Blade Runner by the Rodney King video. The supporting characters include a burn-scarred blonde, an upside-down Christ statue, and – yes – a dead parrot. Monty Python, thou shouldst be living. Geoffrey Wright, thou shouldst be finding someone else to wright thy scripts.

The Tit and the Moon is an enchanter from the maker of Jamon Jamon and Goldenballs. A boy from a family of Catalonian acrobats-they make "human mountains" by climbing on top of each other in town squares – meets his own human mountain in the form of a big-breasted circus ballerina. He fixates on the girl's mammaries, being jealous of his newborn brother's monopolization of Ma's bosom; and he fights over her with a lusting teenage pal who sings ear-damaging flamenco sere­nades. Add the girl's petomanic gypsy husband, an eventful waterbed, and some major fetishism with a breadstick, and you have the best piece of neo-Felliniism in an Italian festival still try­ing to recover from F.F.'s demise.


But then Venice is always trying to recover from one demise or another, usually its own: The Mos­tra will not happen – it will happen. The Mostra is bankrupt – it is solvent. Gillo Pontecorvo is out – Mr. Ponty is in. We Europeans hate Hollywood – we Euro­peans invite Forrest Gump, True Lies, Wolf, Bullets Over Broadway, Natural Born Killers, Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, and Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street (that last one's okay: French director, Russian script).

Besides, what other penurious festi­val could get together a jury that included D. Lynch, M. Vargas Llosa, N. Oshima, and U. Thurman, all sitting round the same magic-realist round­table? And what other festival would have the nerve to throw all that five-star Excelsior Hotel accommodation at the famous while confining the world's crit­ics to four nights each at the junior alberghi? All except for zero-rated Film Comment, which as usual got no nights at all, except at our own expense. Unfazed, we say this in response. One: We can't be had for a Campari and a pickled onion. Two: In no other circs would we have stumbled on our hotel – this wonderful abode (five fangs and a crucifix in Michelin) where we burn the candle at both ends, stay healthy on the blood of passing festival press officers, and generally appraise the Mostra from the position the Mostra would most like us to be in. Hanging upside down from our toes, gibbering.

To the prizes, then. Gianni Amelio fans made such a noise that he ended up winning Best Director for Lamerica. And partisans for P.C.O.L. (political cin­ema from obscure lands) made an even louder noise for Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain, which shared the Golden Lion with Tsai Ming-liang's Long Live Love. Special Jury Prize went to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers; Silver Lion ex aequo to Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, Carlo Mazzacurati's Il Toro, and James Gray's Russian-crime-family-in-Brooklyn number Little Odessa.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.