Reviewed today: Comrades In Dreams, The Container, Gamarjobat, John Pilger, Mile End, Mirrorball: Made In Japan, Night Time, San Francisco, Shakespeare For Breakfast, Victor Spinetti, Yamato Chanbara.
By the end of this day, we'll have attended a total of nine events at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, and notorious Festival killer Hannah McGill won't have been present at any of them. Maybe she's scared of us, or something. It's particularly surprising that she's not to be found at the Retrospective screenings: traditionally, each year the Festival picks an overlooked person and shows a film of theirs every lunchtime, and it's normally the job of the Festival's Artistic Director to introduce those films. This year, the introductions are being given by someone else: possibly Cari Beauchamp who co-wrote the programme notes, it's difficult to say. Sorry, I didn't catch her name, it's been a long week.
Anyway, the subject of this year's Retrospective is Golden Age Hollywood screenwriter Anita Loos - her career spanned everything from DW Griffith's Intolerance (for which she wrote the intertitles) to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Today's film is San Francisco from 1936, an all-star drama set in the city in the early months of 1906. Singer Mary (Jeanette MacDonald) comes into town, and quickly finds herself being wooed by two men both professionally and personally. On one side, there's the caddish nightclub owner Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), who's an absolute scumbag but looks like Clark Gable: on the other, there's Jack Burley (Jack Holt), manager of the Tivoli Opera House and the only man who can help her serious music career to take off. How can she possibly choose between them? Luckily, this is San Francisco in 1906, and there's an enormous deus ex machina waiting at the climax to help her out, in the form of an earthquake.
This is a rare example of Loos producing an original work rather than adapting an existing novel (though another writer is credited with the original scenario): and what she ended up writing was, in effect, the first ever disaster movie. It doesn't quite establish the rules of the genre, in that there's no real warning of the earthquake per se in the first half of the story. What we get instead are various signs of the decadence and filth that the city is wallowing in, and Spencer Tracy as Father Tim Punchyouintheface proclaiming that a judgment from God is long overdue. When it finally comes, it makes for a change in tone as spectacular as anything that Quentin Tarantino could pull off - but Loos somehow makes it work.
People may have called director WS Van Dyke II 'One-Take Woody' behind his back, but he gets fine performances out of the whole cast, and co-ordinates a series of earthquake effects which (barring a couple of iffy model shots) still look pretty impressive today. And the whole movie ends on a note of hope, as the citizens of San Francisco vow to rebuild a city with none of the decadence and free-living of the old days. Um.
Japanese acts on the Fringe looking to please a crowd have always two options open to them: play big drums, or fight with samurai swords. Which makes it surprising that Yamato Chanbara are the first to put on a show which combines the two. It's a collaboration between Yamato (a taiko drumming group who've played the Fringe many times before) and Chanbara, who according to the publicity are 'the sword masters behind Kill Bill'. Unfortunately, we miss the opening minute of the show, in which a ponderous English narrator appears to set up the basic story: something about a magical sword which seems to turn its owner into a red-headed demon. No matter, you don't really need to know the details: we follow the sword through the ages to the present day, as a young lad with a baseball cap acquires it only to find countless ninjas and ghostly bad guys chasing him for it. Fights ensue.
It's all entertaining and slick, but just a little too slick. Yamato's drumming is, for the most part, pushed into the background, playing alongside an synthesised backing track that also adds cheesy sound effects to all the fight scenes. I've been to Japan a few times now, and this looks very much like the sort of good-looking international fluff that they put on for the tourists there. Still, at least we get to see it without the carbon footprint of flying to Tokyo, and there's no denying the fights are fun, with copious use of hidden trampolines and wirework. There are a few draggy bits between scenes to cover for costume changes, but it's still an enjoyable hour or so.
John Pilger is probably best known these days for his work on television: his latest film, The War On Democracy, premiered on ITV just this week, and should be waiting for me on a PVR somewhere when I get home. But his background is in written journalism. He made his name as a crusading reporter on the Daily Mirror back when it was good, and has written a number of books. I've read one of them, Heroes: a series of essays on key figures in history, currently to be seen in a somewhat garbled television adaptation on BBC2. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that given the choice between appearing at the Television Festival (which opened today) and the Book Festival, he's chosen to come to the latter, mainly to talk about his new book, Freedom Next Time.
Curiously for a literary event, Pilger looks the least comfortable when he's reading from prepared notes in his introduction to the evening: if there's one word I'll take away from his opening speech, it'll be "er...". But he manages to set up the key themes of Freedom Next Time: the rise of imperialism throughout the planet, and the collusion of the mass media in that rise. He gives the example of India, a country whose public image is that of high-tech industry and Bollywood gloss, but which has a higher proportion of malnourished children than any other nation on earth.
After a couple of questions from chair Ruth Wishart, Pilger throws the session open to the floor, and this is where he really shines. At first it seems like he's started the Q&A session much earlier than usual: but it transpires that there's a good reason for that, as his responses are lengthy, detailed and carefully argued. For once, this is one of those sessions where all the audience questions are worthy of consideration, and it's interesting to note that the subtext of a lot of them is this: what can we do to change things?
In response, Pilger quotes Noam Chomsky from his book's introduction, pointing out that although people would have you believe that we live in an age where there's only one superpower, there are in fact two - the other one is global public opinion. He points out that today, people are better informed and more aware of the manipulation that's going on behind the scenes, so the inspiration is there for popular change: what we don't have as yet are the means of organising that into a force that can actually change things. He believes that will come, but it's going to be a long and slow process: just attending an anti-war march in 2003 isn't going to change the world, it's got to be the first step in a sustained campaign. Overall, this is a thought-provoking hour, and it's fun watching people beat a path to the signing tent the moment the lecture ends so that they can continue the discussion.
Mirrorball: Made In Japan is, possibly, the last thing we'll ever see at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, assuming they go ahead with their plan of moving it to June next year. It's actually something like a third choice event: we couldn't make any of this year's McLaren Animation showcases, or our usual backup plan of the Mirrorball Animation collection of animated pop videos, so this programme of pop videos and short films from Japan will have to do instead. Though, as you may have noticed, we have a small thing for Japanese culture round these parts, so it's not that much of a hardship.
The phrase 'Japanese pop video' is, of course, guaranteed to draw the Nathan Barleys out of the woodwork, and quite a few of the films here appear to have been included purely because of their coolness factor. Everything here is technically flawless, and digitally manipulated to the ultimate degree: but after a while that perfection becomes a little wearing, particularly when the songs a lot of these videos accompany are rather uninteresting. (It takes The Belated Birthday Girl to notice that only one of the videos - Sekai by Chara - features a female singer, which has always been my preference when it comes to J-Pop.)
Still, there are a few standouts. Junji Kojima, the co-director of the Namikibashi Shorts we saw the other day, has some very sharp visual ideas: in particular, Nice Day by Ryukudisko takes the old music video cliche of following a single character's life through massively speeded-up pixellation, and adds the wrinkle of moving both backwards and forwards in time. groovisions give their video for Star Track by Halfby a smart visual structure - following a car driving through a digital landscape - and execute it beautifully, with a neatly-timed punchline. And there are a couple of shorts that aren't tied to a song at all, just sweet little visual gags like Ritsu Nakajima's Cafe Masterpiece or Tadashi Tsukagoshi's Remote Control. But quite a lot of this programme is much of a muchness, and it's a shame we have to leave the Film Festival with a slight disappointment like this one.
Things I Wrote When I Was Sixteen: number one in an occasional series. I wasn't involved in my school's 1979 production of Oh! What A Lovely War, but I had several friends who were. Inspired by my tangential involvement with the show, I wrote some updated lyrics for the opening song, Row, Row, Row. I believe they went like this:
Ted Kennedy, he had a cute little Ford
He took girls swimming in it when he got bored
He had girlies on the shore
All washed up from the night before
Now Master Teddy was a wise one, you know
He tried to chat up Mary Jo
So Mary Jo she told him "jump in the lake"
But Master Teddy drove in by mistake
And then he'd row, row, row, up Chappaquiddick
He would go, go, go, at one hell of a lick
He'd jump out of the door, cement her to the floor
Then say "ta-ta" and lock the car and swim off to the shore
And then you know, know, know,
He'd keep on running for about ten hours or so
Then he'd call in the cops, tell them he couldn't stop
And then he'd go, go, go
That's what satire was like in the late seventies, you know. Don't blame me, I was listening to a lot of Week Ending at the time.
Anyhoo, the only reason I mention this tiresome juvenilia is that it popped into my head after seeing Victor Spinetti: A Very Private Diary... Revisited!, the late-night muckier version of the actor's reminiscences. Spinetti owes much of his career to his appearance in Joan Greenwood's original production of Oh! What A Lovely War: prior to that, he'd been mainly hopping from one theatre production to the next, working with the likes of the young Sean Connery. You get used to all the names Spinetti drops after a while: as he says, the important thing is to make sure that if you drop a name, it's one that'll bounce. "Richard Burton! BOING! John Lennon! BOING! Dickie Attenborough! Er..."
The last time I saw Spinetti was at a screening of A Hard Day's Night at Abbey Road studios a few years ago. He was on a panel discussing the film, and quickly displayed a rather annoying habit: whenever anyone came up with a story about working with the Beatles, he'd immediately come out with a better one. But when he's telling these stories on his own, he's a riot, particularly when he exploits the freedom that this late night slot gives him. He's engagingly bitchy about some of his colleagues, affectionate about others (the story about how he subsequently fell out with Sean Connery is rather sad), and has a lovely eye for a catchy detail. I love the way he talks about visiting Burton and Taylor for brunch, and how he was greeted at the door by Taylor "wiping her hands on her pinny."
This is a reworked version of a show I saw Spinetti do some twenty years ago in London, and it consists of anecdotes from that show as well as ones I'm not familiar with. In both cases, his undeniable skill as a storyteller - particularly watching him go down endless digressions from a story before always returning to it - makes this an utterly delightful way to finish our last full day at the Festival. And he tells my favourite story from the 1987 show - how he based one of his characters on Salvador Dali, following a party at which the artist insulted Spinetti in the most baroque way possible. "The English have canaries, and they put violin bows into the anuses of the canaries and masturbate." Spinetti recalls telling this to Princess Margaret (BOING!), who gets it immediately - "he spoke a Dali picture!" - and then getting a phone call from her the next day. "Can you remind me of that thing that Salvador Dali said? I've been dying to tell my sister..."
Notes From Spank's Pals
Rhian - The Container is performed in an actual freight container, which isn't good if you suffer from claustrophobia, but certainly adds to the atmosphere and tension in this powerful play. The audience, limited to 20, sit inside on upturned plastic crates. This leaves a very few feet between you and the person opposite, and alarmingly little space for the performance itself.
Despite this cosy setup, the darkness and the action - which begins with a single torch light - soon helps you forget the proximity of the rest of the audience. In fact, you quickly enter the world of 5 disparate and desperate people as they flee from their homelands and persecution. Although the play gives us enough information to glimpse the individual stories which have led to their flight, it doesn't dwell on the refugees' past. The play focusses more on their shifting relationships, and particularly how far an individual's humanity will stretch when personal survival is at stake.
The audience, like the refugees, cannot see out of the container, and the various unidentified outside noises add to the feeling of helplessness. The only person who has control, and is all too willing to exert it, is the agent - excellently and menacingly played by Chris Spyrides. There's one moment of almost unbearable tension, the conclusion of which left this particular audience member teary-eyed.
This is the sort of experience you want Daily Mail readers to try for themselves, and although this may not be 'feel good' fare, it's a moving and effective message about an everyday occurrence that puts our everyday concerns into perspective.
Old Lag - Gamarjobat come with a fine record of Fringe success in street theatre. It is in quite a big hall and is sold out. I had to leave early so I wil never know if the two men whipped their audience into a frenzy of delight. What I saw was the guys dressed as penguins playing electric rock guitar and doing tricks. Doing a few ball jokes and juggling, and having the audience throw velcro balls which stuck on their heads, which was quite mesmerising. It did leave me wondering if their old material as shown at Mervyn Stutter was better.
Lesley - Another taste of Korea - this time north, in the film Comrades In Dreams. About the individuals running cinemas in rural outposts of West Africa, India, Wyoming and North Korea, the film was a delight. Along with the day-to-day logistics and problems, the makers drew out threads of the impact of Titanic. Jack and Rose are 'so romantic' in USA and Africa: too much water to appeal in drought-afflicted India: and the type of film that works in North Korea is something to improve their agricultural production (no, not Titanic). Great fun.
Nick - An institution on the Fringe, Shakespeare For Breakfast: Carry On Up The Avon starts at breakfast time (10am) with coffee and croissants eaten at your seat. Each year they take a theme (this year making a Carry On film), and fill it with Shakespearean characters and quotes. You always get lots of gags about the leftover croissants discarded under the seats. Example: Hamlet, lying on his hospital bed, is approached by busty nurse (the old Sid James and Barbara Windsor scene from a Carry On). Hamlet points to his obvious erection hiding under the bedclothes. "Would you like a little Danish?" Cue Babs-style laughter. "Oh, no, I had a croissant earlier on!"
Old Lag - Night Time by Selma Dimitrijevic, at Traverse Theatre at the Drill Hall. Chris is in an abusive relationship. One night she goes out to get help. The first man she meets is very kind, very supportive - offers her shelter. But there is something creepy. He feels he knows her because he can see into her flat from his window. Both actors play it as if extremely nervous, and I am not sure they do this well as it is difficult to perform.
A second man is met in the night and there is a visit to his sofa, but we hear all about it in the morning when the man in question cannot remember what had happened, as he has no short term memory. What did happen? The final scene is with Chris and her husband. The aggressive and dominating questioning tells it all, and the abusive character's apologies are typical.
This play is all words, at 1 hour 15 minutes a lot of talk - no action, no scenery, no character building. Not perhaps a thriller as described, but an adventure in personalities of the night.
Diane - It's interesting watching the diversity of the crowd at the Festival. At the Pleasance Dome, one space attracts a queue which looks like a contingent from a Saga trip - it turns out that they are in line for Instant Sunshine. Meanwhile, Mile End attracts a younger, 'studenty' crowd. Maybe this is because the theatre company, Analogue, is young - although there is no reason why this play shouldn't appeal to a wider audience. Perhaps the words 'physical theatre' put them off.
Although physical theatre certainly isn't my favourite art form, I was attracted by the theme. The play, devised by the company and scripted by Dan Rebellato, was based on an incident at Mile End tube station. Stephen Soans-Wade, a man from Poplar, was trying to get himself sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Psychiatrists agreed that he had a few anti-social traits, but not sufficient to have him detained. Several months later, he pushed a man under a tube at Mile End.
The play begins without words. To a soundtrack of Simon Slater's atmospheric music we see two of the main characters, Alex and Michael, going about their business. Michael spends most of the day sitting in his flat cutting up newspapers and pasting them in his book, while Alex goes to his daily desk job via tube. Via clever lighting effects we know that Alex is using the tube and that Michael lives on the upper floor of a tower block. These two are followed around by mysterious masked figures who also move the scenery, sometimes moving a chair with the actor still sitting on it. This gives us a feeling that the mysterious figures are controlling the lives of our main protagonists. We know the outcome of the play - Alex will eventually be pushed under a train by Michael. Could they avoid it, or is their destiny controlled by fate?
At last dialogue kicks in and we meet Kate, Alex's girlfriend, after the tragic event. She is telling someone how difficult it is to escape 'since that day'. The play now backtracks to Kate and Alex in their flat. A couple whose relationship is obviously under strain, Kate and Alex discuss the shopping, buy papers, and debate where to go on holiday. In the meantime, Michael sits alone in his flat with his newspapers. It turns out that he is obsessed with the weather reports, and regularly rings the Met Office if they have made a mistake with the previous day's weather. His humourous banter with Lucy at the Met Office makes you see another side of Michael - he may be an obsessive, but he can be charming and humorous too. No wonder when he finally breaks down and pleads to be sectioned or arrested, no-one will listen; they think he is just a harmless loner.
As the play develops, Michael becomes obsessed with the man in the flat below, who he passes on the stairs every day. How does he know Michael's name when they haven't been introduced? Why is he always talking about the weather, and why doesn't he stop playing loud music? At the same time, Alex is having nightmares about a variety of things, including a person with a red scarf being pushed under a train. When Kate returns from a shopping spree with a red scarf, it seems that Alex is the one who might go over the edge. Tension mounts as Michael and Alex - murderer and victim - become more and more unhinged, leading to the inevitable climax.
This was expertly done. The mundane, everyday existence of the characters, and the typical niggling discussions that all couples have, were well conveyed. Tension was introduced cleverly, and in the end the audience were sitting on the edge of their seats in spite of the fact that we knew the conclusion. Some memorable visual effects proved the icing on the cake, and the ending was unexpectedly poignant. Kate, now alone after Alex's death, repeats her lines from the beginning of the play. The backdrop then pulls back to reveal that she is not alone, and is visiting Michael in prison, where she tells him of her difficulty in coping without Alex.
At the start of the play I didn't expect to be so moved, as the early scenes were so clinical. If a play has the power to move, it must be a good one. It also made me regret that there aren't more plays like this in Edinburgh - so many of the young theatre groups here are putting on established plays. Please let's have more original drama next year. Analogue have certainly shown the way.