Filmmaking has a structure even more amazing than that of any other genre. The very technology is unprecedented: the film, a two-sided transparent carrier, transfers the image to a one-sided impenetrable surface, the screen. Perhaps the magic of the Lumiere brothers’ invention is precisely this meticulously thought-out anomaly. Logically, the filmmaking craft has an innate duality of methods and sense. The best evidence is found in film festivals gathering a host of films and authors.
In the eyes of a man attending the Venice festival (Mostra in Italian) for the first time, it tries to practice all kinds of ambiguities as its original quality. On the one hand, there is Venice, a city of lasting play; on the other, the rationally planned modern resort island of Lido, actually the venue of the Mostra. There is a continuous 11-day parade of names and presentations on the one hand. On the other are paradoxes at times verging on scandal involving some of those famous names and premieres. However, the main paradox is apparently one of ideologies. This was especially evident in the selections of out-of- competition programs and the jury’s final verdict — but save that for later. It should be noted that a record number of productions was divided into several competitive and out-of-competition categories (I am tempted to call them reservations). Program titles like New Territories seemed a priori to indicate the marginality of productions and producers. Let me begin with the new ones.
Most of the program consisted of quite traditional documentaries and feature films. The organizing committee tagged them experimental, for reasons best known to themselves. Most did not contain that trailblazing potential, often relying on time-tested specimens. Thus, the Portuguese picture Fragile As the World was grossly influenced by the same old names (primarily Tarkovsky). The French Catherine Breillat, known for her scandalous short productions, this time seemed content with a well-directed story of a married woman flirting with a teenager. Brief Crossing is equally far from being either an erotic shocker or a love story. It is instead a melodrama that gives the audience precisely what it needs.
The Slovene Jan Cvitkovic seemed the luckiest in the New Territories (he had appeared at Kyiv’s Molodist). His full-length debut, Bread and Milk, won the young film director (sporting a T- shirt with a hammer and sickle) Lion of the Future Luigi de Laurentis Award worth $100,000, and 20,000 meters of film for the next masterpiece. Bread and Milk is indubitably a quality production. A story about a family collapsing overnight, without any frills but with plenty of most colorful characters. Yet the jury was most impressed not so much by the cast as by the thick impenetrable atmosphere of hopelessness climaxing in a disastrous finale. The esteemed Areopagus seemed totally unaware that people could live in such misery. Cvitkovic presented an exercise in hopelessness, meaning that all his characters would be killed by drinking, drugs, and personal misfortunes. Watching such films noir and suchlike, what happen around you almost every day is one things, but encountering a production so very noir at such a carefree festival is something altogether different. It is a revelation.
In fact, most of New Territories was occupied by documentaries and all such films seemed to have been made using the same standard: more or less well composed and edited, a penetrating voice offscreen, reading memoirs, the director’s text, etc., depending on the subject. A typical example was Aleksandr Sokurov’s Elegy, made in collaboration with Dutch and French colleagues. Actually, it is a most traditional monologue with a bit of biography and philosophy. Sokurov’s devotees are likely to applaud it. There were also two more highly polarized established names. Black US director Spike Lee brought a curious production, A Huey P. Newton Story, a biography of the legendary founder of the Black Panther Party, in the form of a blitz talk show keeping the audience in suspense. The other name is probable known best to devout movie lovers and critics: Stan Brakhage. He is a filmmaker who cares little about publicity, yet he has long made his name (not in the broadest circles, of course) as a dedicated devotee of the avant-garde and tireless experimenter. His native America, teeming with movies, does not seem to exist for him, and vice versa. The Mostra featured a sizable collection of his recent productions, mostly flows of limned images merging one into the next, connected only by the rhythm. And no soundtrack. The audience silently watched a number of animated abstract canvases. This was a loud discordant note in the festival context built on stories and heroes, so it was pushed to the roadside. However, it should be pointed out that Brakhage is one of few really trying to perceive the nature of the cinema in its pure form, starting at the very roots, free from the heavy layers of scripts, dramatic effects, and other borrowed tricks.
A similar technique, albeit not as radical, was applied by the authors of a kind of almanac made up of short Korean films (Digital Shorts by Three Directors). Outwardly everything is very simple; people with cameras walk streets, shooting everything happening around them, the very process of life, monotonous and producing a striking effect by precisely that monotony. Casually spotted characters, movements, and situations turn into precious discoveries, camera lenses picking true poetry out of the garbage of life.
Much could be added about this program, particularly the documentaries, mostly in terms of their content. About the strange films of yet another observer of life unknown in Ukraine, Jean- Claude Rousseau, who spent years working on a production smaller in length than his usual ones; about a retrospective having very much to do with the New Territories, created by the legendary intellectual and tireless French rebel Guy Debord. His is a very special yet characteristic case. Debord is a symbolic figure in the philosophic and political world, not in cinematography, and the appearance of his retrospective at Mostra 58 is hard to explain other than by Venice striving to be more relevant than it really is. The stormy events in Genoa still reverberate over Italy, and it was felt even on the carefree Lido. On the festival’s closing day, antiglobalists staged their own alternative show, erecting a screen on the embankment, under the open sky, enabling outraged youth to watch a detailed account of the recent events. The Left idea, now getting second a wind in Italy, has a visible effect on the arts, especially on filmmaking.
However, the point is perhaps not so much the political situation as a crisis of ideas in the old territories, if you will. Most stars, actors and directors, prudently concentrated on the hors concours part of the festival. And well they should. Thus, one of the much-advertised pictures by veteran of cinematic carnage John Carpenter, Ghosts of Mars turned out a mediocre thriller drenched in make-believe blood. The same was true of the brothers Hughes and their film about Jack the Ripper, starring Johnny Depp. Woody Allen’s latest The Curse of The Jade Scorpion left one as amused as after any of his nice unpretentious comedies, with the usual plot: a blonde, jazz, New York of the 1930s, a little circus, and sex. Nicole Kidman had a kind of backup, a horror movie about ghosts, The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, Spain). Hors concours she appeared as a Russian prostitute in Jez Butterworth’s Birthday Girl. Both films are uninteresting, although the latter has a snap: Nicole lets off a string of Russian obscenities almost without an accent, but only a small part of the audience could appreciate this feat.
There were two films made on both sides of the Atlantic that turned out the greatest disappointment in the world of superstars. Steven Spielberg’s premiere, A.I. Artificial Intelligence based on Stanley Kubrick’s latest script took place in the producer’s absence (Mr. Spielberg could not attend for family reasons), but even had he been there, hardly anyone would pose unpleasant questions; this does not seem to be encouraged under the Venetian tradition. Even if asked, such questions would have been rhetorical. The idea is not bad, a boy robot with human emotions and an ability to love. Yet the way it is implemented leaves one wondering, mildly speaking. The plot turned out unforgivably drawn- out, packed with special effects, a bubbling soap opera setting one’s teeth on edge, at times plainly banal, and incredibly boring after the first half hour. Of course, nothing can blemish Spielberg’s reputation. But was this the message Kubrick wanted to leave behind?
Fortunately, Werner Herzog is alive and kicking. His latest production, Invincible, shows scope and an obvious expectation of world acclaim. And the subject is topical, the eve of the Holocaust, and all his characters speak English (no matter who they are: Jews, Poles or Germans), while Tim Roth stars. Herzog made only one strategic mistake, contributing the picture to a parallel Venetian contest, The Cinema of Today. In a competitive atmosphere all the shortcomings stood out and the director’s every effort to add an aesthetic touch to the scenes, making a film-attraction, failed. The story of a giant Jew challenging the Nazis simply leaves one unimpressed. Although, again, the subject is exceptionally rewarding. Even Tim Roth, an actor made in heaven, turned in a poor performance. Now this is symptomatic. Actually, it was one of the festival’s traps. The more publicity surrounding a premiere, the more spectacular names in the credits, the greater the likelihood of the film turning out to be mediocre or a complete fiasco. There were exceptions. Martin Scorsese appeared as an executive producer in the US-Spanish-German production, Rain, shown during the Critics’ Week. His presence, however, was no impediment to the director and script writer Katherine Lindberg. Her picture is about the horrors and boredom of life in the provinces. The destinies of the heroes are tied in a deadly knot. They are first drawn into a dramatic relationship growing into a real ancient Greek tragedy, with passions mounting accordingly. The jury actually ignored it. A shame, because the film is truly talented.
Herzog’s failure was especially conspicuous because the parallel contest proved rich in most interesting productions by the new generation of film directors — primarily coming from Asia — that caused a real sensation at the Mostra.
To be continued