Okay, after the debacle of sleeping soundly through the opening night film (and not, as is traditional in film festivals, in one’s seat at the theater*), I’m out the door bright and early. I’m headed to the Grand Hotel Pupp to catch a 10 a.m. screening of Christian Mungiu’s Cannes-awarded (Best Screenplay, Best Actress, shared by the debutante duo) "Beyond the Hills," armed only with my deficient map-reading and language skills. (When I first visited Czechoslovakia, my traveling companion, who spoke six languages fluently and could get around in a couple more, felt frustrated by the language barrier. More than once we ordered from a menu based merely on position, which could have ended up like the New Yorker cartoon, hungry client pointing to item on the menu: “That looks good to us.” Waiter replies: “To us, too; it’s the chef.”)
I have carefully written down 11 street names from Google maps, but it turns out I’m better served by the nice lady behind the hotel counter, who merely points me downriver. Karlovy Vary stretches out on both sides of the beautiful little river, lined with pastel-painted wedding-cake facades of several centuries, and flower-bedecked railings. Cobblestones beneath my feet, and occasionally a horse-drawn carriage clops by. I’m in heaven.
When I get to the very grand Grand Hotel Pupp, I’m shooed away by a number of black-suited security men, who have no idea where the theater is. Once I find it, I discover that my press pass entitles me to stand in a line and wait until all the hard-ticket-holders have gone in. As I stand with the casually-dressed festivalites, I reflect on the changed status of clothes as signifier. Just as a tan once meant that you toiled in the fields, instead of lying in the sun at leisure, the men in chic black suits, white shirts, and narrow ties are guards and the slovenly-dressed are on holiday.
The Pupp cinema turns out to be a very grand, high-ceilinged ballroom, with sculpted cherubs and massive gleaming brass sconces, and 416 banquet-type chairs arranged in rows. “Beyond the Hills” unspools high above our heads on a big screen with an unfortunate light leak that covers much of the center of the screen, most apparent during the dark scenes. I may sound like the princess and the pea, but if I was Cristian Mungiu, I would not be pleased.
I remain curiously unmoved by the story of the two friends from the orphanage, one who has found shelter in a monastery populated mostly by nuns, and her erstwhile best friend and lover who is trying to extract her from the religious life. Am I once again in the valley of reverse expectations, where the awards from Cannes have led me to expect transcendence? (Mungiu explains himself here.)
Afterwards I head towards a 1:00 p.m. screening of “Brian Eno: 1971—1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth.” Once again depending on the kindness of strangers, I ask directions of a tall young man, also clutching an inadequate map, who turns out to be Tomas, a young film student down from Prague whose job during the Festival is to check projection, en route to the same place. He has also just seen “Beyond the Hills,” and has mixed feelings about it. I tell him that when I see a movie with religious themes, I wonder if I would respond differently if I had any religious upbringing. He tells me that he’s a believer, and doesn’t think that made any difference.
Together we climb a steep cobblestoned hill and discover a tiny room tucked down several flights of stairs in a mysterious thick-walled building. The room is full when the movie begins, but the very chatty talking heads (the film is digitally projected without any subtitles) quickly lead to numerous walk-outs.
I love it; from time to time, it veers into “This is Spinal Tap” parody (inevitably), but I worship the obsession that results in more than two-and-a-half hours of minutiae covering only six or seven years of Eno’s creative life (and, even at that, glossing over his work with John Cale and Nico – rights issues?). I can envision this as part of a Borgesian project that stretches into infinity.
I have to leave some five minutes (I’m sure they are dense ones) before the end of the movie to ensure that I hotfoot it (literally, in the heat and humidity) back upriver and hill to the Espace D’Orleans, a temporary domed structure erected in the parking lot of the Thermal, to see Mark Cousins’ “What is This Film Called Love.”
I first met Mark when he screened “The First Movie” (during which a friend and I held hands and wept uncontrollably) at the Telluride Film Festival in 2010. Last year I sat through his amazing 15-hour documentary, “The Story of Film” (essential viewing for any cinephile), in two big gulps at the Toronto International Film Festival. (It’s being screened here daily, in three-hour chunks, at 8:30 a.m., when I’m hopefully still asleep, which is the only reason that I’m not watching it again. I eagerly await the release of the DVD set in the U.S.)
Mark is outside in his trademark kilt (a good idea on this broiling day). Inside it’s sweltering, too, but the movie is cool. Last October I saw Mark at the marvelously eclectic and picturesque film festival in Morelia. Afterwards, we both coincidentally headed to Mexico City for a few days.
I went to several museums, ate some meals, visited Frida Kahlo’s house, and took a million pictures of food markets, both indoors and outdoors. Mark made “What is This Film Called Love,” a film essay during which he takes a laminated photo of Sergei Eisenstein on three days of walking through Mexico City and reflecting on past travels. His Flip-cam footage is as beautifully-photographed as any movie I’ve ever seen: he has a special knack for framing shots in fresh and surprising ways.
He had me at hello (I love personal essays, on paper or on film), but the deal is sealed when he quotes Frank O’Hara, household god, whose “I do this I do that” poems influence everything I, uh, do. Or write.
Afterwards we exit to what we think is pouring rain, but turns out to be a guy with a high-powered hose wetting down the roof of the Espace. Mark runs into the spray. We meet up with friends of his from Edinburgh: Lisa Barrosová D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, the directors of the opening night film “Good Vibrations,” and its producers, still glowing from the reception they got for their years-in-the-making labour of love.
We sit down for a drink and I am forced to tell them my sad tale of missing the entire evening. Things being what they are today, several people pull out various devices and show me clips of some amazing-looking acrobatic Cirque du Soleil choreography that opened the evening.
Somehow I end up with both a mojito big enough to be banned in New York and a glass of bubbly sekt. I have a rule against drinking during a Festival day (surefire route to Dreamland), but somehow, despite consuming both, I’m wide awake through “Sous le Nom de Melville,” an excellent documentary, made in 2008, about the Americanophile French director of films policier, all of whose films are playing at the Festival.
Afterwards I hang out on the vast Promenade lined with makeshift bars and foodstands, people-watching.
I get in to the 10:30 p.m. screening of David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” by the skin of my teeth. I kind of love it, although not as much as, say, “Eastern Promises,” to name my most recent favorite of his films. I don’t think Robert Pattinson was quite up to the task, although I can’t think of another young, young actor – the age is important, and he’s 26 – that would be exactly right. Ryan Gosling is too old at 31, Leonardo DiCaprio way too old at 37, my crush James McAvoy (33) wouldn’t pull them in like R. Pattinson is expected to – although he didn’t exactly break box office records with “Water for Elephants” and “Bel Ami.” (Okay, in the negative direction.) I don’t think Pattinson and “Cosmopolis” are going to be synergistic like “Wall Street” was for Charlie Sheen (ou sont les neiges d’antan?), or “American Psycho” for Christian Bale.
But it looks amazing on the big, big screen of the Velky Sal, the Grand Hall, which seats 1145 people (nearly three times as many as the next two biggest festival theaters) in plush red velvet seats. I hear from someone who shall be nameless (Greil Marcus) that Don DeLillo, who wrote the novel on which it’s based, likes it very much. I would like to see it again, but I know that even if it plays on one of my favorite Bay Area screens, not only will it not be as well-projected, but I will not be watching it with 1144 other people whose attention is glued to the screen. Thank you, Karlovy Vary. This is partly why film festivals of all stripes are taking the place of the art houses and repertory cinemas.
And thank you, Karlovy Vary, for waiting to open the heavens (pouring rain, thunder, lightning, almost as bright and noisy as the fireworks the night before) until I was back in my hotel. Tomorrow will be cooler, in temperature, if maybe not in films.
* Today I read a report from Cannes in which the writer proudly said he fell asleep in only 15 of the 50 movies he saw – or should that be “saw”? – there.