by Harlan Kennedy


Once upon a time creatures emerged from water. A little later they stood upright and walked on two feet. Later still, they began going to the movies.

On the Lido di Venezia every year – locus mirabilis for anthropologists – the particular replicates the evolutionary. New festival guests wobbly from lagoon trips stagger ashore. They take a while to find their legs. (My advice: have a Bellini at the nearest bar). Then, in a common impulse encouraged by the primal cries of their pack leaders – “I’ve got my accreditation” and “I’ll have that discounted festival catalogue, please” – they start flocking into movie theatres.

The 2006 Mostra del Cinema was a hot one: 12 days of varied films about time and history. We learned, or re-learned, that human beings are still primitive creatures, capable of being felled from perpendicularity, or of being regressed to the primeval by ghastly events, while always looking forward to the next horizon, the next quantum leap in development or dream. 

That the fates keeps trying to return us to H2O was proved by the best nonfiction film at Venice. Spike Lee’s 4 1/4-hour WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, a first and definitive documentary about the flooding of New Orleans, is a tale of nature making a mockery of civilisation. (It helps when the civilisation is run by George W Bush). Pulling in footage from every news archive, and interviewing both the usual suspects (mayor, state governor) and the unusual ones (Sean Penn, Rev Al Sharpton), Lee creates an overwhelming panorama. It’s fed by facts and fury as the victims of two consecutive, compounding disasters – a flood followed by federal incompetence – remember, for the camera, a day, a week, a month that they couldn’t possibly forget.

An overcrowded Venice schedule stopped me seeing the film to the end. But nothing in the last reels, surely, could weaken what goes before. The attempts by New Orleans’ citizens to find safety – a Mount Ararat in the flood – led them to the Superdome and Convention Center, which quickly became disaster areas in their own rights. The attempts to deal with the dead were under-resourced even by Third World standards: bodies lay rotting for days, in 98-degree heat, on city streets or interstate exits. And you don’t have to be a black filmmaker, though it helps, to wonder why the poorest bore the brunt and were the last to receive help from Feeble, sorry, FEMA, the government body appointed by President Bush to sit on its ass denying there was a crisis until it was a catastrophe.        

Oliver Stone’s WORLD TRADE CENTER is Hollywood feature cinema’s first word – let’s hope not the last – on the collapse of the twin towers, that apocalyptic event in which a city had its pride and stride blown away. A colossus lost its legs. Twin buildings that reached the sky were levelled by terror from the sky.  The event is now so secure in modern-day mythology (nightmare section) that even a bad film can’t quite dent its resonance.

But Stone’s film, sadly, is just that. Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena play the two Port Authority cops trapped under WTC rubble on a day when, though you’d hardly know it here, 3000 people died by burning, falling or turning to dust. This mini survival tale doesn’t serve as a microcosm of that event but a diminution of it. Platitudinously scripted, and staged with more concern for B-movie machismo than basic reality – the rescuers wear no masks as they roam the ruins, though we know that smoke and ash made the place un unbreathable Hell for days – WORLD TRADE CENTER reduces a national tragedy to a bad war movie.

With INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch was the third US director to attempt the apocalyptic. Firing his imagination into fantasy realms giddy even by his standards, the film scored a bullseye for some, for others was a blunderbuss tale with too wide a target spread. Laura Dern plays a Hollywood star cast in a weirdly titled movie-within-movie (ON HIGH IN BLUE TOMORROWS) that just might, says its flaky English director Jeremy Irons, have a curse on it. It’s a remake of an aborted original – aborted because its script encrypted a message that the two stars would die.

Soon we’re into gypsy spells, Eastern European folklore and Poland itself, where Lynch did most of the filming. Scripted on a day-by-day basis, the nearly 3-hour film has no discernible structure, at least after it leaves the MULHOLLAND DRIVE-style comfort zone of a movieland tale with just enough identity crises to deal with. Once Dern gets lost in the ‘inland empire’ of imagination – a mazy kingdom behind the soundstage housefronts, which host more real life than studio sets should (if you call spirit-characters and rabbit-headed TV sitcoms real) – the plot makes Jorge Luis Borges seem like Enid Blyton.

You gotta love Lynch even so. He takes a map bearing known mainly to Angelenos, for whom the ‘Inland Empire’ is the urban hinterland south-east of LA, and turns it into a title with Lynchian shivers.

As well as a code term for the imagination, the film suggests that the inland empire of Hollywood is, and always has been, Europe. From that dark continent the refugees fled to form Tinseltown. From there too come the stories and fables that still feed the movie town’s psyche. Whether this dependence amounts to the purgatorial terrorworld Lynch presents in later scenes – where Hollywood Boulevard’s Street of Stars has become a Street of Whores, ruled by slavemasters still thickly accented from the old world – is a pays-yer-money choice. Perhaps Lynch resents Lalaland for forcing him to finance his films with the French (Studio Canal). It proves, though, that Europe is still the beating heart of auteurism, if not its financial El Dorado. INLAND EMPIRE was made on low-definition video and looks it, though the irrepressible director insists, “When the image is poor it gives you more time for dreaming.”              

Ah Europe!  When US cinema is in difficulties – and two other movie-obsessed movies, THE BLACK DAHLIA and HOLLYWOODLAND, accompanying INLAND EMPIRE to Venice, suggest a Hollywood disappearing up its own narcissism – Britain and points east spy an opening and lose no time in exploiting it. 

The best two competition flicks at Venice were Stephen Frears’s THE QUEEN and Alain Resnais’ COEURS. Two films less concerned with celebrating their own art-form would be hard to imagine. THE QUEEN is social history as satire, poking at the British monarchy with a sharp stick while arranging the supporting characters – Prime Minister Tony Blair (back in the days when he was loved), his wife Cherie, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell – around the film’s edges like caricatures fringing a political cartoon.

Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren), Duke Philip (James Cromwell) and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) are up in Balmoral Castle, Scotland – UK royalty’s version of Bush’s Crawford ranch – when they hear of Diana’s death. Barely camouflaging their lack of grief, Liz and Phil extend their Scottish stayaway despite the agonizing of Charles. He thinks the public’s outpouring of grief, down south in London, should be acknowledged and responded to. So does premier Tony (Michael Sheen), who keeps ringing Her Majesty to rinse out her ears with reason.

Your Madge, the crowds are going postal outside Buckingham Palace….

Your Madge, the floral tributes at the gates are starting to hazard traffic and will soon imperil low-flying aircraft…

 Your Madge, you’re losing the plot. You’d better come to London now or the monarchy will be dead, unmourned and putrefactious like that shot stag hanging in your kitchens.

Helen Mirren captures the Queen in a feat of mimetic abduction so brilliant it would be punished by death in a primitive tribe. She gets the face and voice, the nuance and essence. That prim fluting treble, with condescension built into its cadences and rebuke into its politenesses, has been the Pied Piper to British monarchophilia for over 50 years. Director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan (who collaborated on a famous British TV play about the early power pact struck between incoming Prime Minister Blair and his heir apparent Gordon Brown, skedded to become PM next year) make her a still center for the revolving insecurities of the House of Windsor. Philip, played with scary accuracy by America’s James Cromwell, is an attack dog with an undisguised loathing of the late Di. Charles is a weakling with wavering loyalty, wanting to honour the ex-wife and the kids while keeping warm the mistress and future consort.

Frears can do this stuff standing on his head. He may be the great chronicler of a mad, multicultural nation. BLOODY KIDS, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, THE QUEEN: it’s like Dickens on screen. What’s astonishing about this new film – or was astonishing at Venice – is that it registered with non-Brits as well as pushover Limeys. Foreigners recognized that THE QUEEN was more than a little, local lampoon. It looks at state authority, asks why that authority exists, and suggests that if it is not accountable to the people, and responsive to their needs, that authority should no longer have any authority. Are you listening, George W Bush?

There was more Anglophilia in Alain Resnais’s film. My theory is that Alain the Auteur can’t do top-of-his-game work without homonymic screenwriters. First there was Alain Robbe-Grillet (LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD). Now there is Alan Ayckbourn, the Brit playwright who sourced Resnais’s SMOKING/NO SMOKING diptych. Alan A provides both the original play and screen text of COEURS.

The play was called PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES; it featured three couples interacting in a story-pack about loneliness, love and the empty spaces in human lives. It sounds the stuff of an agony column (“Cher Abbie…”). It proves to be a sweet-sour fugue for six voices, funny in parts, sad in others. Stars of the Resnais Rep – Andre Dussollier, Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi – lead the polyphony, with Azema good as the Bible-reading realtor with a sideline in homemade video porn and Arditi better as the soliloquy-prone lonelyheart for whose foulmouthed, bedridden dad Azemababysits’.

Snow falls as a transitional device between scenes and once, surreally, during a scene. Azema and Arditi sit at a living-room table, playing strip poker shyly with their hearts, and suddenly their hands reach towards each other through the snow. Whiteness mantles the table. Snow falls from the ceiling. This poetic incongruity – a turning world, defiant of time, creating its seasons of the heart, its weather systems of the soul – is what gave MARIENBAD its greatness and has given good Resnais ever since (PROVIDENCE, MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE) its grace.

Snow didn’t fall on Venice, but there was a hint of winter at this year’s festival. The chill of challenge from the newly inaugurated Rome Film Festival – starting in October – gave Venice a touch of ice and frostbite. Fear glazed the usual Italian welcome with a sense of paranoia (even more security searches than usual; were they checking for Roman spies?). It may also have helped to sabotage the scheduling fluency we have come to expect from Mostra director Marco Muller.

The press screenings for WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE and Kenneth Branagh’s THE MAGIC FLUTE started so late that Muller nearly had riots on his hands. A festival boss torn apart by his own guests is not a pretty sight; so it’s as well Muller stayed away, though he could have sent James Ellroy to the slaughter instead. The BLACK DAHLIA novelist was in town and one early newspaper report showed him to be a frightening Muller lookalike. “Separated at birth” shrilled the headline, above two juxtaposed pictures of balding men with stern frowns and rimless specs.

The other theory is that a film festival is a place of mad convergence anyway. Everything starts to resemble everything else. One film noir gets confused with another. (Can you tell THE BLACK DAHLIA from HOLLYWOODLAND?) A Truman Capote movie replicates itself while no one is looking (INFAMOUS arriving a year after CAPOTE). And as if one British pic about a capricious female monarch wasn’t enough, we got a second with THE MAGIC FLUTE. Ken Branagh’s Mozart pic, set for some reason on the battlefields of Flanders, puts the Queen of the Night atop a moving tank, where she ripsnorts her coloratura as if from a 9-millimetre gun. Meanwhile the characters she influences with her dubious advice (“Sarastro bad, me good”) become fodder for gunfire, grenades and over-the-top mise-en-scene.

It’s fun, but is it Mozart? Then again, maybe fun is enough. It certainly was in the other musical grabber at Venice, Indonesia’s OPERA JAWA. Here Bollywood meets Glauber Rocha. Garin Nugroho’s ballet/opera, to which I was steered by the great French critic Michel Ciment, is inspired by a love-and-jealousy fable in the Ramayana. First the costumes knock you half-conscious – their colours, textiles, animalistic shapes – then the production design blows you away.

Vast red drapes billow high and wide above a meadow of artificial flowers. Pantomime dragons composed of crouching dancers prance and pounce. Human beings are interchangeable with clay statues: a kneeling girl turning on a potter’s wheel is smeared with mud by her Pygmalion (beats the phallic terracotta scene in GHOST); giant clay torsos and blood-smeared clay limbs lie on a smoking battlefield. A murder of passion is committed on a seashore in a yellow-flocked diaphanous tent, through whose waving, weaving veil of fabric – like a cornfield or sandstorm – we watch the choreographed delirium of love and hate. Astonishingly this is the director’s ninth movie. Where has he been all our lives? The next time world cinema wants to film THE MAGIC FLUTE, they know who to come to.

Only the middle phase of this year’s Venice Film Festival disappointed. Days seven and eight should have been declared an official disaster zone, with government funding for levees to keep out inundating celluloid. Critics tried to flee the island – but were stopped at the waterfront by security troops – after seeing THE FOUNTAIN, CHILDREN OF MEN and BOBBY. 

The first two were harmless, if risible, experiments with time. In THE FOUNTAIN Darren ‘Pi’ Aronofsky intercuts three tales of man’s quest for immortality. Hugh Jackman trebles as a Spanish conquistador seeking the fountain of youth, a modern scientist out to cure brain-death and a 26th century Buddhist in a space bubble. Watching the film is like having your mind three-way-sectioned by madmen from Mensa.

CHILDREN OF MEN, directed by Alfonso Cuaron from a PD James novel, is a thriller set in 2027 Britain. A sterile population goes ape when a pregnant black woman appears in its midst. It’s a Second Coming story gone multicultural, if hardly countercultural, as the gormless chases multiply, the countdown Armageddons threaten, and Clive Owen and Sir Michael Caine try to act amid the penny-dreadful futurism. 

But the true disappointment at Venice was Emilio Estevez’ BOBBY. The assassination of Robert Kennedy is the backdrop to an ersatz-Altmanesque swirl of plots and characters set in LA’s Ambassador Hotel. Estevez takes a role, along with dad Martin Sheen, and this clan has so much liberal cred in showbiz that it has gathered a deluxe cast. Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt, Christian Slater, Harry Belafonte, Lindsay Lohan, Laurence Fishburne…. (continued on another page). They play guests, hotel managers, waiters, kitchen staff, political workers, flakes, fakes and fly-by-nights: in short, what used to be called in bad Hollywood films “all human life.”

There is no life here, human or otherwise. Threads are never drawn together. Distance is never closed between trite fiction and true event. And the structure is so inept that the Kennedy soundbites and sightbites all come at beginning or end – front-loaded, then later given a climactic spin – while the intervening 90 minutes are just sudsy, slow-rotation slosh. Beguiled by subtitles, or by the historical heft of the subject, or by the desire to support any film about the Kennedy dynasty in the age of the Bush dynasty, some foreign critics thought BOBBY was a good film. ‘fraid not. It’s an opportunity wasted and an American tragedy trivialised.

Never mind. The Venice lion managed to stand up again in stages – like the statue in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN – and its biggest roar was saved for the Best Film. At once a worthy victor and a bolt from the blue, Jia Zhang-ke’s STILL LIFE appeared at Venice in the ‘film sorpresa’ slot: a late arrival from China, though Jia was already on the Lido accompanying his documentary DONG.

STILL LIFE, like DONG, is set in the Three Gorges area of central-southern China. Against the spectacular backcloth – river, mountains, newly-built dam – Jia’s tale of a coalminer visiting the area to search out a wife and daughter, from whom he was parted years before, has charm, strength and a poignant particularity. This fortyish codger struck a venal bargain, a decade before, when he ‘bought’ his bride. Now he wants to redeem his future by giving her, and her child, a life founded on love not transaction.

Is there something here about China atoning for its Mao-years of pragmatism and materialism? We are in a landscape of warring time-zones: this gives the film its amplitude and beauty. Sunken villages have drowned communal histories. Demolition workers hack away at tottering houses with sledgehammers. Yet the Chinese future is taking a determined, even a magical hold. Twice Jia gives his story a literal ‘lift-off’. In one shot a seeming UFO streaks across the sky. In another, a concrete tower-structure rises like a rocket and whooshes into the sky. The film’s realism is so assured that these two moments of outright surrealism come as well-earned perks and pertnesses.

The director of PLATFORM and THE WORLD has been an emergent star at film festivals for eight years. Now he has arrived, a fully-formed humanist from a country that needs all the humanism it can get. By giving him the Golden Lion the Venice jury was exhorting China – we hope – to respect its screen artists. Just weeks before, we heard that Lou Ye had been banned from filmmaking for five years for showing his SUMMER PALACES at Cannes without permission (teenage sex, Tiananman Square critiques). Will Venice’s pro-freedom message, if so intended, get through to Peking? Or will a Golden Lion just reassure them they’re doing everything right?

Politics, politics, all is politics. But not really. It was possible to sit through the 2006 Mostra del Cinema without seeing – for instance – a single film about Silvio Berlusconi. Phew, hooray. The best films about politics, from STILL LIFE to WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, were really about people. And as all good art tells us, visions of society are only worth having if they reveal the individual lives that make up that society. E pluribus unum.  But also, in pluribus unus.

For now, Marco Polo Airport awaits. Airplanes roar, gondola’s plish-plash in the lagoon and Venice 2006 grabs its page in history. Beckoning in the future is Venezia 2007.  My gondola is booked.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.