Brobdingnagiancandles 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 LidodiVenezia. 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 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'slast 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'sLoaded (Britain/ New Zealand) and Tsai Ming-liang'sLong 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 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 MilchoManchevski'sBefore 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 – IldikoEnyedi'sMagic Hunter, based loosely on Weber's opera Der Freischutz. And how about a logorrheic costume pic
starring Willem Dafoe and LenaOlin as two sub-Liaisons
sex adventurers poncing about in Close/Malkovich castoffs? – Anna Maria Tati'sThe
Night and the Moment.
The home team tried to boost the quality. But the Italian flicks were craftsmanlike, no more, from Carlo Mazzicurato'sIl Toro (neorealismgoes bull-smuggling)
via Marco Risi'sIl
Branco(gang rape gets the hot-topic docudrama
treatment) to Gianni Amelio'sLamerica, a sweetnatured friendship fable painfully extended over space (widescreen) and time (21/4hours).
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 OmeroAntonutti (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'sThe Kingdom. Then another, BigasLuna'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
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
Trierfilmed 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).
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-stylesleight-of-optics.
The Kingdom also shows that Trierhas 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 mockumentarymode. 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 "PennebakerHospital." 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
Motto for this Venice
year: Be adventurous! Stick out
your arm on the Lidoand 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
Stomperman, 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) isa witch; and the judderynoir 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 JamonJamonand 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.'sdemise.
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'sNightmare
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
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 MilchoManchevski'sBefore the Rain, which
shared the Golden Lion with Tsai
Ming-liang'sLong 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.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1994 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.