by Harlan Kennedy



"WHERE HAVE ALL the gondolas gone?"

We heard the tourists' wail from across the lagoon. For the gondolas had gone – or come – to the Lido. It was a packed-out Palazzo on the day Dustin Hoffman stood in front of the screen after American Buffalo, lobbing brave soundbites. You heard even if you couldn't see him. Those crouched on the floor peering through the tiptoed legs of flashbulb-popping paparazzi could just make out the Dustin sneakers caught in stroboscopic freezes. Flash! Fizz!! SIGHTBITE!!!

The Dustin voice was at full command­ing quack. David Mamet's play as metaphor for breakdown of Western soci­ety and culture ... great to be here in Venice, Italy ... love your tagliatelle al verde...Mamet's play as plate of tagliatelle al verde...great to be here in the break­down of Western society and culture....

Or maybe that last bit was the Italian translation. Once again in 1996 fest boss Gillo Pontecorvo got the Hollywood stars, delivered the good movies, and rode shotgun on the Golden Lion. On guerdons day the beast made its charge at Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, adding Best Actor (Liam Neeson) to Best Film, while hurling any spare hot breath at Otar Iosseliani, Arturo Ripstein, and – read on – the youngest Best Actress in film fest history. (Dustin got a special career Leone d'Oro for being Dustin).

Flaunting its longevity, the beast had a nostalgic time in '96, wooed by Jean-Luc Godard, Volker Schlöndorff, Ken Loach, Manoel de Oliveira, and other Methuselahs. Robert De Niro was back again on the Lido, his home away from home, bringing the opening flick Sleepers. And to complete the link to times past, this writer's two fave competition films and co-winners of the esteemed "Harlano d'Oro" were a Mexican remould of a Sixties cult U.S. movie and an American remould of a remould of a remould....

The latter is Abel Ferrara's The Funeral. Two great Chrisses, Penn and Walken, move through what could have been an oh-that-again Mafia vendetta plot and turn it into scalding psychopathology. Chris P is a walking human crisis, his punching-bag face creasing in sudden tears as readily as it smarts with terrifying anger. He won a special Best Supporting Actor prize. Chris W looks like a saint in extremis and performs like an actor in excelsis.

Ferrara gives the film the no-glamour treatment. We get about two light sources when the cameraman feels generous, plus dialogue that should be Oscared for offhandedness, plus characters who are frisked for fatal frailties even before hitting their first chalk mark. Forget upscale life with the Corleones. This is as spare as it is scarifying.

Profundo Carmesi, Arturo Ripstein's take on The Honeymoon Killers, was for me the treat of the Mostra, bar none. In place of Leonard Kastle's tabloid-TV mono­chrome we have a melodrama in luscious mud colors starring Regina Orozco and Daniel Gimenez Cacho as the fat nurse and midlife widower who meet, mate, and murder. She looks like Rita Hayworth after a pie-eating contest. He thinks he looks like his idol Charles Boyer (we're in the 1940s), despite dyed hair that includes an accident-prone peruque.

This film exhibits no respect for decent human values, so should be required viewing for every media moral­ist. Instead of a wholesome humanism, Ripstein offers an emetic honesty. The camera sits there voyeuristic and unspar­ing while the main couple's souls and faces fill up with a bloated satiety mixed with existential dread. The film is some­times funny, but never cheap. The final scenes are so richly mixed that you can't separate hilarity from shock, titillation from apocalypse. A runaway toupee; a face near-drowned in a bowl of engine oil; a girl knifed in front of her own child; a pair of human beings dressed in their Sunday best to be shot down in a puddle by cyni­cal, tired policemen. All human life is here, lent sonority and a shudder by all human death. The jury, which must have thought about giving it the Gilded Cat, festooned it instead with three top craft awards for photog, music, and design.

Harking back to old masters, Ripstein shows that nostalgia needn't be old-fash­ioned. Fashion is what's oldfashioned; for great new cinema will always remind us of great old cinema. And wouldn't ya know it, Venice being Venice, the fest's middle Sunday saw the surreally synchronous unfolding of the Historical Regatta on the Grand Canal and the "Cinema of the Third Millennium" film-makers' conference in an echo-y church. A hundred fancy-dress boats pulled us back to the Quattrocento while half a hundred directors with names like Bertolucci, Zemeckis, and Wenders pushed us towards cutting-edge concepts. Virtual Reality. Internet cinema. And the future of movies in the age of dissolving media categories.

And boy, are they dissolving. Take Abolfazi Jalili's A True Story and Michael Lindsay-Hogg's Guy: two talk­ing-point movies that represented, respectively, film as hyper-documentary and film as meta-porn.

Guy is intriguing. Point-of-view movies almost never work (see Lady in the Lake, alias Lady in Your Face), yet this one does. For ninety minutes Vincent D'Onofrio is tracked by the camera of an unseen voyeuse-heroine – that is, he sees her, we don't – who gets her kicks from video-hijacking the lives of strangers. She wears him down into doing everything for the lens, and we mean everything, while they sort of weirdly fall in love.

Made riveting by the reactive richness of D'Onofrio's performance (he also co-produced), Guy takes the audience's prurience and turns it like a mirror to their own faces. More than a movie, it's a deconstruction of moviegoing. Britain's Lindsay-Hogg has never directed anything this mesmeric before, which inclines one to dole out equal credit to writer Kirby Dick and double-strike deus praesens D'Onofrio. Has this man been bitten by creative adventure after playing Orson Welles in Ed Wood?

The Iranian film A True Story also goes for spectator disorientation. It's about a filmmaker, played by the real director Abolfazi Jalili, who sets aside a planned fictional movie on learning that its newfound lead – a 14-year-old Turkish urchin he discovered working in a bakery – has a crippled leg and can't do the running scenes. So the fiction flick becomes a docu and the boy's search for surgery becomes the subject. Top Tehran medics peer at the childhood wound, from a burning accident, and then retreat saying they won't wield scalpels before a camera. Nurses, mothers, and other females pull up their face masks. And the boy becomes a de facto movie star simply by reacting – with his huge eyes, tousled looks, and restless body language – to a society high on hieratic represion. Fact and Pirandellian multifocus are fascinat­ingly blended.

Some other movie ideas at Venice, instead of blending or dissolving, simply fell into the nearest canal. This habit was started by Katharine Summertime Hepburn all those years ago. You walk backwards to get a fix on your subject, realize you've gone too far, then hand your camera to a passer-by just as you plunge into the Canale Toxico. So splashed two ambitious political movies in Ken Loach's Carla's Song and, pace the Venice jury, Neil Jordan's Michael Collins.

Jordan's epic about the founder of the IRA founders on another set of initials: RPM, or bio-pic hokum. Any hint that Collins was a complex human being, rather than a Socialist Realist statue wired for sound, is undone by Liam Neeson's performance. This Irish icon waves his fists, speaks the speeches, and nobly goes to his death by assassination while never suggesting – any more than the blockbuster around him, complete with sloppily composited "real" charac­ters and a Hollywood love triangle with Aidan Quinn and Julia Roberts – the microcircuitry of irony, happenstance, and self-inquisition that can link the fate of a nation to the soul of an individual.

Even worse is Carla's Song, fondly nicknamed in Venice "Flying Down to Managua" (music and lyrics by Daniel Ortega). Ken Loach spends an hour sweetening us with a meeting-cute romance, circa 1987, between a Glasgow bus driver (Robert Carlyle) and a Nicaraguan refugee (Oyanka Cabezas). Then he sends them to the jungle to meet death, Sandinistas, and – horror – Scott Glenn. Glenn is a CIA escapee wheeled on to snarl about Contra atrocities: rape, baby-bayoneting, "It all comes down from Langley." Meanwhile, the film suffers the worst fate of all, trampled underfoot by rabid agitprop. One hope for third-millen­nium cinema is that it will shrug off this kind of movie, in which we're pushed through a hectoring but thinly argued gauntlet of cause and effect by a director with a mission: "You will believe B because it naturally follows from A, which you will believe just because I tell you."


JEAN-LUC GODARD's For Ever Mozart and Otar Iosseliani's Brigands were better. losseliani, spanning centuries of Slavic history from the Middle Ages to now, gives us a multicharacter meditation on man's inhumanity to man and woman, modeled after Les Favoris de la Lune. The Monsieur Hulot-resembling director accepted his third Venice Special jury Prize, runner-up to the Golden lion, with a mournful courtesy, saying, "Each time I try a little harder, but...."

As for Godard, he no longer makes movies but crackpot calendar art: post-Trotskyist tableaux accompanied by sawn-off string music, hieroglyph dialogue, and wrecked narrative sign­posts. What this new pageant means, in which soldiers, filmmakers, and assorted capitalists crisscross a bomb-torn Balkan landscape (actually Switzerland), only God or Godard knows. But it has weirdly compelling moments, like a treasure chase in Hell.

Three runner-up pix at Venice forgot about politics and gave us, more captivat­ingly, human beings undone by human follies and foibles. Jacques Doillon's Ponette, in which a little girl (Victoire Thiviso) struggles to understand life, death, and God after her mother dies, held out the serious prospect that a best actress award might go to a 4-year-old. (It did.) Alex Van Warmerdam's The Dress is an al fresco Feydeau farce, daisy-chaining seductions across the Calvinist landscape. And from Britain Michael Winterbottom's Go Now, reusing Carla's Song's Robert Carlyle as a footballer struck down by multiple sclerosis, has all the warmth, vigor, and cranky asperity that we didn't get from Loach.

But the real antidote to soapbox cinema was Portrait of a Lady. Jane Campion reconceives Henry James's tale of a self-willed American girl kidnapped by European dilettantism, diffusing the story through a style that truly is the content. The surrealism of The Piano becomes a kind of opium den expres­sionism. Nicole Kidman's Isabel Archer drifts through a sfumato of shadows, period decor and weirdly cambered master-shots – fancy an upside-down Bath terrace? – while the characters interact as ships might on a foggy night. John Malkovich's creepy Osmond is a Marie Celeste manned by a monomaniac mind. Barbara Hershey's unforgettable Madame Merle is a sinister black freighter cargo'd with malice just like the one sung to by Lotte Lenya all those years ago.

The film loosens every cliché in the costume drama book, not least its high-toned sexlessness. Campion's ghostly adviser might have been Henry James's brother William, the proto-Freudian shrink. We are hardly into scene two before a three-way erotic fantasy steals onto the screen from Isabel's mind. And when all else fails, which it seldom does, Campion dares a piece of outrageous sensual Dadaism, like the trayful of dismembered talking lips. (Society gossip imaged as salon canapés: go for it!) In removing the corsets from period cinema, Campion allows the past to breathe, expand, and even make mating motions towards the present. As enacted here, Isabel Archer's "liberation" speaks to us all and Nicole Kidman's looks and perfor­mance – gulp in alarm at first sight of that blanched makeup and frizzed electric hair – give us a heroine formidably believable for both the 1890s and 1990s.

Portrait shows that cinema, like all art, shouldn't busy itself demarcating between time zones. "I wish I had been born in the age of Méliès, when the seventh art was just beginning," mused jury prez Roman Polanski one day, in one or more languages. He was addressing the press in front of a blue screen at the inaugura­tion of the Virtual Reality Set. The digitalized TV monitors added marble pillars, roaring lions, bits of movies, and god knows what else behind him. Later we festgoers ramble through the Set ourselves, pressing switches, pushing buttons and causing panic in cyberspace.

Méliès and mêlées. Meanwhile, to add to dimensional confusion, we wondered who would be pixel'd in on the giant screen of the Venice Mostra itself as next festival president, since Gillo Pontecorvo had announced he would not seek a fifth term. As everyone from Bertolucci to Umberto Eco was scanned for eligibility, odds shortened that Ponty's successor would actually be ...Ponty. "Un' anno di piu!" shouted his fans. "Per che non?" shrugged everyone else.

But it was not to be. The owner of the café where I sip my espressi said one day, "It's going to rain." "How do you know?" I asked "You can smell the fish in the lagoon." Ah. So with her agreement I penciled out Pontecorvo – the name means bridge – and now predict that his successor will have a name involving fish, rain, or lagoons. My nomination: Pioggia Carpelaguno.

Sure enough, Gillo announced on last night that he was off to enjoy retirement and a cappucino in Rome. He will be missed. Venice '96 was not as master­piece-rich as some, nor as star-studded. But it still gave us Bruce Willis, Nicole Kidman, Michael Keaton, inter al; it splashed Independence Day across the Adriatic consciousness (waggish review headline, "Take me to your Lido"); and it star-teamed Polanski and Anjelica Huston on the jury, and what ever did they say to each other some twenty years after that little matter on Mulholland Drive?

Finally, of course, there were Bobby and Dustin, together on the Lido like Castor and Pollux. Hoffman had the last word on this movie biz relationship. Replying to an interminable question from an Italian critic about life, death, and American cinema, he said – his only short answer – "For the benefit of those who don't speak Italian, he says I'm a better actor than De Niro." Some people say, though the claim is unsubstantiated, that a lone and unmistakable Voice was then heard at the back of the hall: "You talkin' 'bout me?"






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.