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11 HK







by Harlan Kennedy


Crazy is as crazy does. It’s a commedia dell’arte, the Venice Film Festival. An annual comedy of art and the arts. But at its best – and you get some of the best every year – it’s something more. A different kind of comedy, even two kinds. A titanic play-off between a commedia divinaup there with God and Dante – and a commedia buffa, down there with Harlequin and Mr Punch.

The event reached seventy this year. “70. Future Reloaded,” proclaimed the poster. And with an opening movie, GRAVITY, that yoyo’d George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in space, the festival started by aspiring to heaven.

George and Sandra dance about in an action-packed void; they claw the stars and cross-talk in the cosmos. Then, in person, the Clooney-Bullock show descended to the slightly less off-world dimension of a Venice press conference. Sandra explained to us how she hung from a ceiling by wires for days on end, feigning weightlessness. George explained how he, personally, has machinery hovering in space right now. It’s to monitor Sudan’s human rights violations….Oh, George, not now, that’s another story altogether. In Venice you’re an ambassador for Hollywood, not Unesco.

“Another story.” Ah yes! Isn’t that the definition of a film festival and its wares? You don’t like one story, here’s another. Or a hundred others. Venice does this better than anywhere but Cannes, and sometimes even Cannes can’t equal it for multi-story moviethons.

If narrative cinema is in crisis, as some cine-buffs think, including Paul Schrader, expatiating to camera in his contribution to the shorts anthology feature (also called FUTURE RELOADED) that was commissioned for Venice’s 70-year jubilee, you wouldn’t know it from the 2013 festival. (Schrader, also serving as a festival juror, thinks rapid technological changes in cinema will soon knock the ‘story’ out of whack and orbit). 

Well, this year’s storytellers spun some damn good yarns. Best early show was Hayao Miyazaki’s THE WIND RISES. The great Japanimator whose SPIRITED AWAY is the gold standard for animes, brought the festival his new opus. Depending on your view it was either (a) a masterpiece confirming Miyazaki’s genius or (b) an insult to Allied servicemen of World War 2 and the women who loved them.

You’ve really got to say it’s both. (Art is complicated). Miyazaki has some nerve, many opined showing in the west (perhaps it’s less offensive in ex-Axis Italy) a fantasised biopic based on the life of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. Horikoshi created the ace fighter planes for the Jap war effort.

Miyazaki doesn’t spare the horrors, wartime or pre-war. The 1923 Kanto earthquake – blisteringly real – sets up the carnage of 1939-45. But don’t expect a mea culpa from Hayao on Hirohito’s behalf. Then again, the filmmaker might say: 70 years have gone by; Japan got the rough retribution of Hiroshima; and the film’s hero is a very fictionalised Jiro.

THE WIND RISES is an almost abstract paean to the madness of art and the passion of craftsmanship, a madness than can call down tragedy. Jiro falls in love with a beautiful girl met first during the earthquake, later as a young painter and tuberculosis victim. The illness was epidemic in Japan in the years of the story. As a theme it is poignantly addressed, partly through the image of an opened white umbrella (surely a symbol of the human lung?) whose errant, wayward flight, escaping on a windy day in the country, first reunites boy and girl.

Other flying sequences – the airplanes, ranging from slim-and-birdlike to monstrous and bellicose – are more menacing. Miyazaki has an unequalled sense of the grotesque, morphing into the apocalyptic. The movie ends with two eloquently contrasting sequences. One is a ‘happy’ conclusion for the world, the characters, the audience. The other is an infernal after-landscape of war, a countryside littered with metal corpses of planes, crisped by fire, jagged with destruction, bleeding oil like human blood. When Miyazaki isn’t being wistful or poetic, he can approach the power of the Picasso of ‘Guernica.’

On the Sunday of the Venice Film Festival the filmmaker announced his retirement. THE WIND RISES will, he says, be his last feature. Let’s hope not. Some directors ‘retire’ several times, turning out bonus masterworks in the interim.

What about Dame Judi Dench? Will she retire? Since getting shot as James Bond’s M, she has made PHILOMENA for Stephen Frears. Venice went dotty for this sentimental charmer. ‘Phil’ herself is based on a true, now elderly Irishwoman who lost her baby after a teenage pregnancy. It was snatched away and sold to rich American foster parents by the Magdalene-style nuns with whom Philomena was boarded. Half a century later the bereaved mom called on English journo Martin Sixsmith (dapperly played by Steve ‘Alan Partridge’ Coogan, who co-wrote the script) to help her find her son. She does find him, after a fashion. But the fashion blends a little tragedy with the triumph.

Dench and Coogan are a terrific double act: the wry, seen-it-all newspaperman and the bubbly, emotional biddy clutching at straws whenever they fly by. It transpires that her son is, or was, gay. That doesn’t faze Phil. She guessed it when he was a tot. He was more observant and sensitive, she says, more responsive than the other tots orphaned – or soon to be – by those mercenary sisters ready to turn the products of young girls’ promiscuity into a payday for Catholic piety.    

What a crowd-pleaser. PHILOMENA got a sustained spate of applause. Some other Venice movies got a sustained silence interspersed with catcalls or whistles. A troika of movies by other English-speaking directors was bad enough to suggest they had all piled into the same sleigh, headed for a cliff marked “Overreacher’s Fall”.

Jonathan Glazer crafts a sci-fi nightmare involving Scarlett Johansson as a man-eating alien wandering Scotland. This will do nothing for the repute of a director who kicked off 13 years ago with the marvellous SEXY BEAST. Terry Gilliam’s THE ZERO THEOREM is a futuristic brainstorm, garishly overdesigned by the ex-Monty Python animator and starring a bald-wigged, bodysuit-swollen Christoph Waltz, playing a computer boffin who seeks the meaning of life, God, the universe.

We all know and love James Franco. He has become a jack-the-lad of all trades. In Venice he cameo-appeared here, there, hic et ubique. He was in a Sam Fuller tribute documentary (daughter Samantha Fuller’s A FULLER LIFE), reading a gobbet from Sam’s autobiography, and his own new auteur work CHILD OF GOD, based on a Cormac McCarthy novella. This movie is a mishap, like his Cannes-shown Faulkner adaptation AS I LAY DYING. Ham plus over-egging in the deep south. Franco also contributed a forgettable short to VENICE 70 FUTURE RELOADED. Never mind. I still love him. He will learn. And no one boating to/from St Mark’s Square could ignore his blown-up face, radiant with charisma, on the giant Gucci poster fronting the lagoon.

Weird crossover artists, novices and outsiders have ­always swollen the army of directors at Venice. Look at Britain’s Steven Knight, best known for inventing the TV game show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ First, a few years ago, he scripted Stephen Frears’s DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. Now he has written and directed his own feature, the fascinating LOCKE.

A man with a Welsh accent (Tom Hardy) drives through the night towards London, his life fragmenting around him like an exploding star. The very imagery – the little detonations and flickerings-by of motorway lights and signs – suggests an apocalypse in earthly space. This drama is a one-man show: just Hardy, bearded, restless, wakeful-eyed yet a little punch-drunk with lack of sleep. He soothes or parries, with a patience born of desperation, the voices that bombard him from the car telephone. The mistress about to have his child in a London hospital; the wife panicking at his excuses for not coming home; his boss and his subordinate for “the biggest concrete pour in Europe”, a skyscraper foundation-laying which – tomorrow morning – he is supposed to supervise as site manager.

He won’t be there: the work colleagues are going ballistic. He won’t be coming home: the wife and kids are imploding. He doesn’t even love the one-night-stand woman now making him a father: “I hardly know you….” For reassurance, or extra weirdness, he talks to his imagined father in the car’s back seat. The movie is a tour de force about the force of destiny. ‘Locke’ (Hardy) has made a moral or existential decision. He is a man adrift, unmoored, floating in a galaxy – yes, that space imagery again – where everyone, except himself, can hear him scream. He is at war, at peace, at the turning point.

LOCKE wasn’t in competition. (Festival director Alberto Barbera later said he regretted this decision. He put Gilliam’s THE ZERO THEOREM in instead, to amp up the celebrity quotient). Nor was Alex Gibney’s THE ARMSTRONG LIE in competition, though it was the best nonfiction on the fringe.  Here is another story of an imploding life. Right in the middle of this doc’s making the world’s top sports pedaller – yes, the Armstrong is Lance – was caught peddling lies.

He had taken dope, yes, and more dope. First he told Oprah Winfrey, then he had to tell Alex. The director of ENRON, MEA MAXIMA CULPA (Catholic pederasty) and WE STEAL SECRETS (WikiLeaks) is hardly going to run screaming from his clapperboard. Scandal is Gibney’s meat and potatoes. So he and we stick around, having earned the scandal grub after all that clambering up Alps with the sweaty wheel-turner. The initial diet of idolatry, which Gibney seems rather surprisingly to have signed on for, changes to a more appetising repast of “Crikey!” and “No, really?” and “He did?” and “Shocking but riveting.”

Another American documentarist, Errol Morris, did get into the Venice competition. (Don’t ask me the logic; ask Signor Barbera). Maybe it was thought that an intense, well-nourished, squinty-eyed US ex-Defence Secretary, one Donald Rumsfeld, the subject of Morris’s THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, would be better meat for a hungry Golden Lion than a stringy cyclist.

This film is THE FOG OF WAR again with a different Pentagon chief being star-chambered for a different war. For McNamara and Vietnam, read Rumsfeld and Iraq. Morris tries to climb all over the man who sent troops into ex-Mesopotamia, then left them for years as Abu Ghraib, roadside bombs and suicide killings exploded across US newspapers.

Rumsfeld won’t be climbed over, though. He’s tricky. He survived the ire of Richard M Nixon and the White House tapes. (“Donald Rumsfeld may not be long for this world”, growled the three-day beard with the ski-slope nose). He survived the leapfrogging of one-time assistant Richard Cheney. He, Rumsfeld, still looks spry and he is still clever, even funny. When Morris tries to tangle him in his own mad wordsmithing – Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns” and “known unknowns” – the victim pretty much tangles the interrogator back. A bizarre chemistry grows between the two. The film starts to look like promising material for a sitcom or romcom. WHEN MORRY MET RUMMY. (Which man will get to do the diner orgasm scene? “I’ll have what he’s having”?)

It wasn’t all fun and games and famous names at Venice. It was that, of course. What’s a red carpet without the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Nic Cage, Jimmy Franco, Clooney and Bullock and – oh we lost count. But as well as the known knowns, there are the soon-to-be-known unknowns, and even the knowns whom we thought we knew but in whom we now find much unknown.

Would you believe, for instance, that a Malaysian-born Taiwan filmmaker who won the Golden Lion in 1994, with a movie called VIVE L’AMOUR, and has since mimicked himself with ever-dwindling returns, turning out rain, destitution and downbeat eroticism (THE RIVER, THE HOLE) – could you believe he would make, or make again, a masterpiece?

But Tsai Ming Liang’s STRAY DOGS is that. It’s a gleaming-rich film about poverty. It’s an aesthetic balancing act between tragedy and comedy. Tsai’s favourite actor Lee Kang-Sheng was never more commanding. The features may have aged from VIVE L’AMOUR’s pretty-boy scamp to something more like Edward G Robinson gone oriental. But he brings ceaseless emotional weather-changes to a man wearing, or trying to wear, for his family’s sake, a mask of stoicism. Dad to two mother-abandoned kids, he bread-wins by standing in Taipei traffic as a human billboard. Hours on end in wind and rain. A homeless man advertising homes.

The family moves its bedroom from hovel to hovel. Mostly they squat in one derelict maze of dripping concrete, resembling, though it isn’t, an abandoned cinema. (Tsai loves these. Remember GOODBYE DRAGON INN?) The little daughter buys a supermarket cabbage which she shapes into the red-crayon-featured head of a sleeping-companion doll, bodied out with plumped-up clothes. “Miss Big Boobs!” the siblings giggle hysterically as they bed it in.

Falling off the wagon one night, dad drunkenly tries to smother the cabbage, then kisses it passionately, then munches it with mad angst, at great length, down to its tattered stem. What a scene. (The audience was hysterical).

Wasted lives brought to a pitch of crazed, self-reinventing nihilism. A middle-aged supermarket manageress prowls the same building at night feeding stray dogs – an eerie-lit pack – with the day’s leftover shop meat. A beautiful landscape mural  (found by the director in this concrete maze, apparently the work of a fly-by-night Leonardo) entrances each character by turn, though some homages are weirder than others. The supermarket woman lowers her knickers and pisses before it. An extended, shall we say, libation. Later in a static, silent 14-minute shot – yes, 14 minutes—Kang-Sheng stands before the mural with a fellow character who might be his ex-wife. They are mute and motionless save for a tear which once descends the woman’s face and for the anguished weather-changes storming across Kang-Sheng’s features.

The mural represents the possibility and impossibility of hope. An evergreen landscape in one that will never, it seems, burgeon.... The audience was rapt as if hypnotised during this shot. A dropped pin would have caused an earthquake. 

Yup. Crazy is as crazy does. Hope springs paternal—mad hope—even in a place as economically orphaned as slumland Taipei or as aesthetically orphaned as the Venice Film Festival this year. Well, it looked a bit orphaned. Frugality was the flavour. Last year’s décor still clung to the Palazzo del Cinema frontage, still resembling – flamboyantly but now a little remorselessly—a samurai fort dyed bright scarlet and covered with sponsors’ names.

Frankly, Scarlet, we don’t give a damn. Let’s hope this doesn’t harbinger more stressful economies, ones that could affect the quality and variety of movies. Those are what we come to this Mostra for. Those and weird surprises.

Take Gianfranco Rosi’s SACRO GRA. For 20 minutes it looks like a piece of crackpot Italiana, fit for the curio shelf or the museum. Rosi, an ethno-documentarist who previously ‘did’ India (BOATMEN), the American desert (BELOW SEA LEVEL) and Mexico (EL SICARIO), now does Rome’s famous ring road. The GRA or Grande Raccordo Anulare. Rosi and his camera chase down odd, interesting folk working or living around the road: a River Tiber eel fisherman, a castle owner who rents his pile for movie shoots, a veteran ambulance paramedic commuting between crashes.

Gradually human colours fill in the film’s dour setting. And its initially diffuse-seeming structure. These people dwell in a rootless place at whose heart, or in whose threading artery, is noise, motion, impermanence. 

These lives are as solid only as the transient locale they live in. At the same time they share its fugitive trajectories of hope. Most memorable oddball is the tree surgeon, a boffin we first catch drilling palms for weevil infestation. He is fascinated – we too – by the paradox that an excess of life can kill a life’s host, rather as the overpopulated GRA has become a ring of death or eerie, phantom life-simulation.

This tree geek gets carried away by the metaphorical possibilities of his own work. In one scene, listening through a digital device to the screamy nattering of larvae (which we also hear), he transportedly soliloquises: ”The sound of the orgy. The repulsive feast. The sound of humans in a restaurant….!” By the close of SACRO GRA, the film has become more than a documentarist’s FELLINI ROMA. It’s a little Fellinian itself, and more than a little fantastical.   

Guess what. Jury president Bernardo Bertolucci’s judging panel gave it the Golden Lion. A few leonine roars of anger greeted the announcement. Some festivalgoers thought it a lightweight winner. Seconds before, they had watched the director of their Lion favourite, Tsai Ming Liang of STRAY DOGS, collect the runner-up Special Jury Prize. With a grace and brio beyond the call, Tsai turned to the jurors and said, “Can I tell you something? I love you all.”

Great is the love that survives filmfest jury decisions. Bernardo and Co also planted two kisses on Greece’s MISS VIOLENCE—Best Director for Alexandros Avarnas and Best Actor for Themis Panou—even though this incest drama starts clever and ends clunky. Philip Groning got booed when the German Regisseur collected a minor Jury Prize for THE POLICE OFFICER’S WIFE. It wasn’t Groning’s fault that the gong gang overrated his weird 3-hour spouse-bashing epic, full of so many captioned chapter headings – nearly sixty – that you got reading fatigue.

Why was domestic abuse the apparent dish of the Venice season? Even the Best Screenplay winner, handed to Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for the popular PHILOMENA, honoured a true story about family schism and the anguish of estrangement.

Perhaps it is symbolic of the Family of Man. Perhaps the Venice Film Festival saw, as it often sees, the bigger world picture. We are all victims or victims-in-waiting of a kind of domestic abuse. We live in a world-household where flying saucepans are potentially nuclear and where parent-child brutality is writ large as despotic leaders knocking their peoples around. Welcome to Earth, a planet always mirrored in miniature – perfectly proportioned and painstakingly accurate – at the annual Venice Film Festival. Who would be without it?

My gondola for next year, please.




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved


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