FESTIVAL: "Johnny Foreign" Be Damned!; Down Under Danielson Delivers at Edinburgh
by Jack Cocker
(indieWIRE: 09.03.02) -- News of the nationality of incumbent Edinburgh Festival programmer Shane Danielsen was no doubt greeted by some with a high pitched "What? An Aussie?" But the English national football team's being managed by a Swede, the Scottish one by a German, so I suppose it's coming as little or no surprise to Brits these days seeing "Johnny Foreigner" take over their most prestigious posts. And if the antipodean's opening year as artistic director is anything to go by, the old island siege mentality may well be a thing of the past.
Taking over from crowd favourite Lizzie Francke was never going to be easy, but Danielsen, like some hepped-up film nerd decked in black leather, has grabbed the festival by the balls and left his own inimitable impression. It's a tired old cliche and probably appears somewhere in a festival press release, but his program had something for everyone, mixing the lofty with the low-brow, the cool with the kinetic, the inscrutable with the accessible.
And to open, there was only ever going to be one choice. Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay's debut feature "Ratcatcher" dazzled Edinburgh three years ago, revealing an uncompromising vision that heralded her as a leading light among the new wave of British filmmakers. She returned this year with "Morvern Callar," adapted from the "unfilmable" novel by Alan Warner. Samantha Morton plays Morvern: a supermarket employee in a small Scottish town who wakes up one day to find her boyfriend has slit his wrists and left her the manuscript to his novel. She passes the text off as her own, withdraws her dead boyfriend's cash and takes off to party island Ibiza with best friend Lanna. And that, my friend, is pretty much it. The film is what you'd expect from Ramsay: sumptuous visuals filtered and cross-processed to within an inch of their life; lots of long, loving close-ups of Morton's face; precious little dialogue, a cracking soundtrack, and a pretty flimsy, meandering narrative. But its rapturous reception proved that Ramsay's laconic, painterly approach is very welcome in a film industry blighted by its obsession with gritty realism.
"Morvern Callar" was made by ailing British studio Film Four, a company that has in the last few months been in the process of shutting up shop. But, as a last hurrah, they threw a number of memorable movies Edinburgh's way. "Buffalo Soldiers," Gregor Jordan's scabrous cross between "M.A.S.H." and "Trainspotting," is set on a U.S. army base months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and features Joachim Phoenix as a wheeling, dealing, amoral GI. And Shane Meadows' "Once Upon A Time In The Midlands" is an accomplished and affectionate study of the suburban family unit, laced with his trademark gentle comedy.
For something altogether different, one need look no further than enfant terrible Gaspar Noe's second feature, "Irreversible." Just as in Cannes, this brutal rape-revenge film garnered most of the headlines. Due for a U.K. release sometime next year it received what will probably be it's only "uncut" screening, which included the infamous 9-minute rape scene, and while Filmhouse staff weren't required to break out the oxygen tanks and administer CPR, it proved too much for some Edinburgh moviegoers who voted with their feet.
For the kids in the baggy trousers and the shaven-headed men with ironic T-shirts, there was the Mirrorball section, showcasing the best music videos from the last year. A French compilation entitled "Fabrique en France" heralded Michel Gondry's triumphant return to the fold with three new promos for the White Stripes and Chemical Brothers. Further evidence of our Gallic friends' ascendancy was evident in a brace of videos from new talents like H5, Numero 6, and Francois Vogel. Mirrorball also showcased promo director Mark Romanek's impressive feature debut "One Hour Photo," with Robin Williams in another edgy role as an obsessive photo developer.
Cinema from the East featured heavily, with a retrospective on Kon Ichikawa, a contemporary of Kurosawa and Ozu's, and at 86 now the grand old man of Japanese filmmaking. The young guard were represented too: "Ring" director Hideo Nakata returned with more slow-burning horror in the shape of "Dark Water"; Isao Yukisada's adrenalized "Go" -- a huge critical and commercial success in Japan -- played like a high-school romance movie on speed; and Korean Kim Tae-gyun's "Volcano High" mixed a "Harry Potter"-esque "magic school" setting with kung-fu, wirework, extra-sensory powers and a full-on shredding metal soundtrack. But the weirdest of them all had to be Takashi Miike's "The Happiness Of The Katakuris." A horror-musical centering around a family-run hotel high in the mountains where the guests keep dying and the family keep hiding the bodies, it included zombie corpses, "Sound of Music" rip-offs, Svankmajer-esque claymation, and some frankly ridiculous dance moves.
In the Document section, we were treated to more of the weird and wonderful, only this time lifted straight from real life. "The Backyard," billed as an "ode to knuckle-headed masochism" followed WWF hopefuls as they plied their trade on the backyard circuit in rural America. I was expecting "Beavis and Butthead"-style japery and a few laughs, but watching two blokes bash each other over the head with fence posts, garrotte each other with barbed wire and set each other on fire to the muted applause of five or six bored onlookers was perhaps one of the most tragic things I've ever seen. "How To Draw A Bunny" was an attempt to chronicle the life and death of New York artist Ray Johnson, a man who "lived his entire life as though it was a piece of performance art." The reminiscences of NY luminaries such as Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, and Christo and Jean-Claude made for entertaining viewing, but the film's attempts to portray Johnson's suicide as some sort of "last great performance" seemed contrived and actually pretty insulting. "Sex With Strangers," on the other hand, was an out-and-out harrowing experience. Made by the Gantz Brothers (responsible for HBO's "Taxicab Confessions") it followed a number of American "lifestylers" -- swingers, to use the old vernacular -- on "the scene": i.e. having sex with lots of people and pretending to be cool about it. But despite the hefty amount of on-screen nudity it left me feeling in need of a shower and a good scrub with some wire wool. The Gantz brothers' camera seemed to show little in the way of empathy or understanding for their characters, and the whole thing felt rather like a freak show.
Being in Edinburgh in August is an uplifting, enriching and altogether knackering experience. Quite apart from the Film. Comedy, Music, Book, Theatre, Dance and Art festivals, there is the small fact that the bars stay open all night, and somehow, as soon as you arrive, it becomes biologically unnatural to go to bed before 5 am.