When I first attended the Venice Film Festival in 1992, there was a sense that the party -- whatever that might have been -- was over. Longtime attendees (and there was no shortage of these: the festival then specialized a particular kind of guest -- elderly cineastes who were erudite, fussily dressed, mostly gay and who appeared to model themselves directly upon Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach) complained sniffily of a population surge, a sudden explosion of reporters and photographers and publicists. The restaurants were full -- a certain sign of catastrophe -- and likewise the screenings, suddenly packed, as I heard one British veteran drawl, "with every idiot who'd ever typed his own name." It was, they sighed, all most depressing.
One of my countrymen, himself an éminence grise of this small (but rapidly expanding) world, told me over lunch one day that it had, indeed, once been very different: "Back when I started coming," he said, "there were really no more than about a dozen international critics. And you'd find yourself invited to dinner with all the filmmakers. You'd be mixing with Pasolini and De Sica and Bertolucci. If you wanted to interview them, you'd just ask them in person. It was really quite something." This, he explained, had been more than a quarter-century earlier; he had by then been coming to the Lido for more than almost 30 years.
You old bastard, I remember thinking. Thirty years? It was inconceivable then -- and slightly less so now, as I begin my own 21st year at La Mostra. For its 70th edition.
He paid for that meal, incidentally -- one of many kindnesses he showed me over the years. But then, he understood my position. A freelancer, at that time, for a major Australian broadsheet (though one, if truth be known, with little interest in art cinema) I could not have attended, could not have hoped to have come, without the festival's generosity. Since I'd come so far, I was given eight nights' free hotel accommodation. Even so, times were tight. In the mornings, just before I left for the first press screening, I would quickly prowl the hallways of my hotel, looking for breakfast trays already placed out for room service to collect, from which I might gather the leftover croissants and bread rolls that would sustain me -- nearly -- for the rest of the day.
Lesson one: Venice is expensive.
(This is always lesson one.)
I didn’t care. I was young and thrilled to be in Europe, at one of the Three Big Film Festivals™. Best of all, I got to see movies -- of which a surprising many were good, and a few great. The following year I watched the world premiere of Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Blue," and wept uncontrollably as the end credits rolled, certain I'd just had what Ben Lerner, in his excellent novel "Leaving the Atocha Station," mockingly terms a Profound Experience of Art. And more than a decade on, seeing "Beau Travail" followed by "The Wind Will Carry Us," in 1999, remains one of the best afternoons I’ve ever spent in a movie theater.
By then, however, I'd been coming to Venice long enough to have my own regrets. The hospitality was cut back -- first to six nights, and then to four… and then, the next year, was gone altogether. The interviews grew shorter and considerably more crowded. I had a one-on-one with George Clooney for "Out of Sight" in 1998, which went on for almost an hour; five years later, a dozen or so journalists were packed onto 15-minute-long round tables to speak with Clooney -- a change in status which, it seemed to me, had as much to do with the festival's rise in popularity as the star's.
But more ominous still were the tectonic shifts among the festivals themselves. Little by little, Venice's equal standing with Cannes and Berlin seemed to decline. The former grew stronger -- and suddenly Toronto posed a more serious threat. Overbooked and underconceived, lacking both the physical space and the institutional will to expand, Venice struggled to overcome its own weaknesses. Crucially, it had no market, and attempts to generate one proved stillborn. Without buyers, it began to struggle to attract the best films.
Meanwhile, Hollywood features turned up and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- because nothing in Venice can remotely be called economical -- only to walk away empty-handed when the prizes were announced. The studios began to wonder why they should incur massive bills transporting talent and hosting parties all the way across the Atlantic when they could achieve much the same result, for a fraction of the cost, just over the Canadian border.
Without buyers and blue-chip product, the press began to drift away. And lo, the wheel did turn: a virtuous cycle of diminishment that began, after a while, to resemble water circling a drain.
Lesson two: despite its rigid schedules, the festival world is anything but static. Either you keep swimming, or you drown.
(These water metaphors will stop in a moment, I promise.)
A fine programmer, if perhaps an erratic human being, Marco Müller did much to right this errant ship, but eventually ran afoul of the Biennale's Borgia-like internal politics. I'd had my own run-in with his predecessor, Moritz de Hadeln, when I tried to negotiate an agreement in my days at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which then preceded Venice by mere days. I sought his assurance that a film could still premiere in its home territory before making its international outing at the Mostra, an exception that Venice, like Berlin, had occasionally allowed. I failed, and badly: One might as well have tried to ask a shark not to eat them. (Or, to use a slightly more appropriate metaphor, a zombie.)
It says something, I think, about the ossified state of Italy that after Müller left they foundered for a replacement and finally re-appointed Alberto Barbera, recalled from the National Cinema Museum in Turin, and director of the Mostra from 1998 until 2002, when he ran afoul of then-Minister of Culture Giuliano Urbani, one of Silvio Berlusconi's creatures. By which I mean nothing against Barbera -- who is by most accounts a decent and knowledgable man (I've never met him personally) -- but rather about the lack of any better options than someone who'd already done the job.
But this is Venice, and this is Italy -- a country of legendary incapability and sanctioned corruption, the preserve of a corrupt elite and a population too lazy, superficial and self-interested to care. Though it will never rival Cannes again, it at least remains the most beautiful city in the world -- a magnificent, improbable ruin that serves as a perfect metaphor for the cultural event it hosts, and to which I return every year, older, certainly, but no less hopeful.
The 70th edition of the Venice Film Festival begins today.