Saturday, November 13, 2004

The London Film Festival

I haven't written about cinema for some time, but my appetite for watching films has remained voracious through recent months. I was particularly pleased to attend three films at this year's London Film Festival. It's the first time I've managed to enjoy this event, and it's worth stating that artistic director Sandra Hebron has produced a superb line-up of films. It's gratifying to see new films from the masters of world cinema in the enormous Leicester Square Odeon, a space usually reserved for the most hollow and banal of blockbusting 'entertainment'. Not only that, but this festival seems less concerned with glitz and glamour, and also less concerned with judging awards and prizes. Instead, it is a celebration of the great diversity and quality of modern cinema. Those that attest that cinema is in a state of perpetual decline need look no further for firm rebuttal of their arguments.

Having said that, all three of the films I saw at the festival were in some way flawed. Most disappointing of the three was Wong Kar-Wai's 2046. To my mind, the Hong Kong director is one of the greatest living film directors, and his visionary approach to narrative and structure has produced some beautiful films, particularly when combined with the stylish cinematography of his collaborator Christopher Doyle. His previous film 'In The Mood For Love' was an atmospheric and evocative masterpiece so much is expected of this picture, which has had a ludicrously troubled gestation. The baffling success of Zhang Yimou's Hero (a film that seemed to me to be all style no substance, all surface no feeling) has reawakened interest in Asian cinema, and it's no surprise that Wong's latest production is being greeted with zealous enthusiasm. It has employed something in the region of seven different cinematographers, and following a Cannes screening which confused many, it was deemed to be unfinished and the version showing in London was a re-editied version. Unfortunately, it still seemed fragmentory and frustratingly opaque. Some of its images are striking, particularly the mysterious shot which opens and closes the film. However, its ideas appear to have been pieced together almost at random, and the meaning of the film only starts to become clear in its final third. It's not an overlong picture at just over two hours, but it really seems to drag and, particularly in its middle third, feels dangerously repetetive.

It is supposed to be a sequel of sorts to the previous film, with Tony Leung reprising the same role. He plays a writer who stays in a hotel to work. He is inspired by room 2046, and the number becomes the title of his latest novel. The film intercuts scenes of his relationships with various women, which often seem fraught, intense and complex with some loosely realised scenes from his science fiction novel. The problem is that the sequence of the film is eliptical and elusive. The majority of the science fiction scenes are left to the end of the film, and don't really help elucidate much about the earlier scenes. Most of the encounters between Leung's character and the various women seem to be like circular arguments and don't appear to ever reach a resolution. Added to this is the problem that the leading female performances, from the undeniably beautiful Faye Wong and the ubiquitous Zhang Ziyi, seem to be overstated and bordering on histrionic. There really are only so many shots of teardrops and scenes of perpetual crying that any audience can stand. The film is bizarrely inconclusive about the nature of love and relationships, and plods along as an ill-conceived mess.

Dialogue is minimal, and music frequently employed. In fact, the film feels like a series of experiments in form, with a wide variety of stylistic devices and sounds being employed to vary the mood. Some are more successful than others, and there were times when I did feel strangely moved by the combination of music and image. Unfortunately, this is a film comprised of a series of tableaux that don't add up to a coherent whole. Wong has used complex editing and shifting cinematic styles before, to much greater effect, particularly in the outstaning 'Happy Together'. Here, there really is no narrative thread to grasp at. Towards the end of the film, Maggie Cheung returns as a character called Shieu-Lien, who shares a name with the character she played in 'In The Mood For Love', yet it is left ambiguous as to whether or not the two characters are meant to be the same. What does, at last, become clear, is that Tony Leung's character has been veering between a number of different women, searching for the more crystalline and higher love that he shared with the original Shieu-Lien. Why on earth did it take so long for Wong to make this point? Does it really justify the two hours of confusion we have just endured? No doubt many critics will be awed by the power of this film's mood and imagery into composing rave reviews - but images without coherent ideas or emotions behind them don't make for great cinema.

Given that I am not a big fan of Gregg Araki, I'm not entirely sure why I went to see his latest effort Mysterious Skin. I think it was mainly so I could judge for myself how well he tackled a weighty topic. His previous films 'Nowhere' and 'The Doom Generation' have been tacky, nihilistic films emphasising hedonism and violence. 'Mysterious Skin' addresses the subject of child abuse, and does so with decidely mixed results. It is nevertheless by some considerable distance Araki's finest work to date, and a sure sign that he is moving in the right direction.

Perhaps inevitably, Mysterious Skin reminded me of Lukas Moodysson's similar, but more coherent 'Lilya 4 Ever', particularly in that it contains some grim and unflinching scenes. Much of the film makes for disturbing viewing, and it is these harsh and compromising elements that are most successful. Araki's expose of the lack of options facing both young and old in smalltown America is hardly original, but is presented in a spare and entirely convincing manner here. This is all helped along by superb performances from the film's two leads, both taking considerable risks with their previously safe reputations by agreeing to take the roles in this film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, better known as the long-haired kid in Third Rock From The Sun gives a brooding and mature performance here. Brady Corbitt (I believe one of the stars of the supposedly dire Thunderbirds movie) has to deal with a slightly more sterotyped and restrictive character, but manages to be sympathetic and moving nonetheless. The juxtaposition of the two characters' contrasting reaction to the abuses they suffered at the hands of their paedophile baseball coach are effective, and I found the final confrontation with their past to be particularly devastating.

Levitt plays Neil, a frustrated youth whose childhood endurances we are introduced to in pretty unpleasant detail. He is a difficult character, who clearly has problems forming meaningful relationships and he seems to drift into the seedy world of a gay hustler simply because he has nothing to do, and no longer really cares what happens to him. His apathy, and compulsion to keep repeating meetings with increasingly violent men, is troubling and believable, as is the blissful ignorance or inability to help of those who surround him. It all culminates with a deeply horrible rape sequence that left me feeling physically and mentally shaken. By contrast, Corbitt plays Brian Lackey, a young man frustrated by his loss of memory, believing that he had been abducted by aliens in his youth. The truth of his childhood ordeal has been cruelly withheld from him, and he gradually attempts to piece together his past, finding the major missing piece of the jigsaw when he finally tracks down Neil, with whom he had been on the same baseball team.
This side of the story presents more problems - the alien abduction storyline seems a little hoary and cliched, and adds an uncomfortable layer of surreal comedy to the proceedings. No doubt this came from the source material (Scott Heim's novel of the same name), but it may have been elaborated and heightened to complement the dreamlike atmosphere which infuses this otherwise harrowingly realistic picture. Indeed, there are a couple of surreal scenes (one involving that most depressing of cinematic cliches, suddenly falling snow) that seem like they belong in a different film entirely.

Ultimately, these issues are so devastatingly real and severe that they probably required a surer narrative presence than Araki's unsteady guidance. He seems unconcerned with lingering, and frequently cuts too quickly from one scene to another. This is surely a remnant of his low-budget exploitation style from films like 'Nowhere'. From the evidence presented here, Araki would be on much surer ground if he concentrates on a non-judgemental realism. This may well be where he might find his true cinematic voice.

A big event for me was the UK premier of the new film from Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. Angelopoulos is one of the true masters of cinema - with a distinctive personal vision comprised of stately pacing and elaborate long tracking shots and set pieces. Some critics felt that his last film 'Eternity and A Day' represented a compromise of his vision. I disagree wholeheartedly. It was without doubt a more accessible film than his earlier works - but it justly won the Palme D'or for its extraordinary resonance and humanist concern. I found it to be one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen and it repays repeated viewing. To my mind, 'The Weeping Meadow', the first part of a projected trilogy (at his rate of producing films, Angelopoulos may well be dead before he manages to complete the set), seems to be a retrogressive step back towards a more austere style of film making. Its palette of colours is more muted, and the mood is relentlessly tragic. It also repeats a number of Angelopoulos' regular concerns, most significantly the plight of stateless refugees. I'm confident, however, that repetition has not diluted these concerns, nor the deep humanism that characterises his films. It is still, of course, defiantly elaborate, and I simply have no idea how some of the characteristic set piece scenes in this film were constructed. Its images have a resounding power lacking in most western films, particularly the extraordinary middle section, which incorporates a flood and a funeral, and ranks with the best of Angelopoulos' work.

At the Q and A afterwards, many of the audience felt that the film contained little hope. In Eleni, Angelopoulos seems to have created a character that acts chiefly as a cipher for the suffering of Greek history more generally, and there is no doubt that her despair in this film is palpable. Yet, her plight to me seemed to be profoundly affecting, and it sustained this film throughout its lengthy three hours. There may not be hope as such, but as in all his films, Angelopoulos seems concerned chiefly with elucidating the harsh reality of life in times of war and confusion, and there is no doubt that his vision is sympathetic and passionate. This film is a powerful and compelling illustration of the devastation of war. In its focus on one small village, it is structured in microcosmic terms, yet has an epic sweep that is distinctive in its lack of bombast. It is certainly another powerful statement to add to one of the great canons of modern film-making.

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