VidBinge 2008
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SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1989

Beryl Cook's cover image for the 1989 LFF programme, back when they used pictures rather than graphic design 1989 was a busy year, as I've already noted elsewhere. Within a couple of months of frying my brain with the overload of my first ever Edinburgh Festival, I was doing it all over again with my first ever London Film Festival. And it's a similar story to Edinburgh, really: I dived straight in, made quite a few mistakes, but made sure I learned from them for future years.

The main mistake I made here was to do with weekday matinees. No cheapo matinee vouchers in those days, meaning I had to pay the full ticket price of (gulp) £4.50 for every screening. But somehow, I'd got it into my head that I could do my day job and see lots of films simultaneously: or more accurately, spend a week working mornings in the office, and seeing films in the afternoons and evenings. Inevitably, this left me a complete and total nervous wreck: in future years, I'd experiment with taking more and more days off work to dedicate totally to the LFF. 

As for my choices of films back then... well, you'll have to read on and see how that turned out. I was still keeping my 1989 diary as late as November, so I've got contemporary records of what I thought of everything when I saw it. I reserve the right to change my mind, though.

Saturday November 11th
10.30am: Recollections Of The Yellow House
1.00pm: Fellow Traveller
3.30pm: Icicle Thief
7.45pm: Safety Last

Not the best start to my festival career - at least, it didn't seem so at the time, though maybe Recollections is a film that deserves re-assessment. It was actually a replacement for Making Of A Legend, a feature-length documentary on the making of Gone With The Wind, pulled from the programme at the last minute. Joao Cesar Monteiro's substitute was a Portuguese drama about a man slowly going out of his mind, not the best thing for early on a Saturday morning. Philip Saville's Fellow Traveller was much better, a BBC/HBO co-production about the impact of McCarthyism on Hollywood. It had the added bonus of a smartly creepy supporting short, Alison MacLean's Kitchen Sink. Icicle Thief was an early highlight of the festival, and my introduction to the comic universe of Maurizio Nichetti. It's an entertaining spoof on the state of Italian television at the time, featuring a black-and-white neo-realist drama film coming under attack from the commercials that interrupt it. And to finish off with, one of the traditions of the LFF that sadly doesn't exist any more: the Thames Silents screening, featuring Harold Lloyd's (still) breathtaking stunts accompanied by Carl Davis and a live orchestra.

Sunday November 12th
11.00am: When Harry Met Sally
2.30pm: A Dry White Season
6.30pm: The Philosopher (aka 3 Women In Love)
8.45pm: Eat A Bowl Of Tea

Nowadays, we're all used to the idea of the LFF taking up equal time in the South Bank and the West End. That wasn't the case back in 1989, though: the lion's share of the screenings were in the NFT, with just a dozen spread across a selection of West End cinemas, like the first two today. Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally you know, of course. Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season was a big melodrama about the state of things in South Africa, lifted above the norm by a rather fine performance from Marlon Brando. Amusing to note that the post-film discussion quickly degenerated into various white middle-class audience members bickering amongst themselves over which was the most right-on. Rudolf Thome's The Philosopher changed its title just after publication of the programme to 3 Women In Love, which was more illustrative of the sort of outrageous wish-fulfilment fantasy it really was (all three women are in love with the hero). Eat A Bowl Of Tea showed the frustratingly patchy Wayne Wang in good form for once, in a story about life for Chinese Americans in 1950s New York.

Monday November 13th
2.00pm: Zero City
5.00pm: Fountain
8.30pm: God's Will

Like I said: a morning at work (trying to make a DEC MicroVAX work, apparently), then an afternoon at the pictures. I must have been mental. Zero City was a gently strange Russian comedy from Karen Shakhnazarov, with some memorably surreal imagery: a man in a restaurant being served a replica of his own head made out of cake, and the chef committing suicide when he refused to eat it. More Russian strangeness in Fountain, Yuri Mamin's tales of the inhabitants of a disintegrating apartment block. Both of them beat the hell out of what the Americans had to offer that day: God's Will, written and directed by Julia Cameron, former wife of Martin Scorsese. It's set in a universe where God is an American woman who plays golf, and piles on the whimsy so thickly that diabetics were passing out in the screening I attended. Interesting to note that these days, Cameron has given up directing in favour of writing self-help books and founding "a new human potential movement."

Egg Alert! This is the best still from Plaff I could track down, sadly. Tuesday November 14th
2.00pm: Diamond Skulls
5.00pm: Plaff
8.45pm: A Private Life

One of documentarian Nick Broomfield's first attempts at drama to start off - he's done better since. Maybe it's because his more recent dramatic films have used non-professional casts: Diamond Skulls had Gabriel Byrne and Amanda Donahoe in the lead, and some nice ideas about the British aristocracy, but it didn't really do anything for me. Juan Carlos Tabio's Plaff, on the other hand, was a delight, and I still cherish the VHS copy of it I taped off the telly during its one and only broadcast. Like Icicle Thief, it's a split-level affair: a Cuban family melodrama based around the mystery of an egg-throwing villain (hence the onomatopaeic title), but enlivened by constant interference and downright incompetence from the government filmmaking body, peaking with the film's first reel not being screened until the very end. Francis Gerard's South African drama A Private Life didn't really register with me, because an hour before it I'd received the surprising news from my sister that I was about to become an uncle for the first time. When the mixed race couple at the centre of the story suddenly discovered they were expecting, it meant a little more than usual.

Wednesday November 15th
1.00pm: Bye Bye Blues
3.45pm: Cinema Paradiso

A pair of non-offensively nice films: one you probably know, one you probably don't. Anne Wheeler's Bye Bye Blues was the story of a Canadian woman (based on Wheeler's mother) joining a dance band during the 40s to earn some cash and discovering her hidden talent for music. "So consummately well-made, you couldn't help but enjoy it," I said at the time: it apparently got a UK cinema release the following year, though I don't think it was big enough for anyone to notice. That certainly wasn't the case for Cinema Paradiso, which went on to win Oscars and everything. I think the only reason I chose this one was because of Ennio Morricone doing the score, so all the other stuff people came to know and love (including one of the most gushily lovely final scenes any fan of the movies could hope for) came as a total surprise to me. This was the original two hour version, rather than the extended three hour cut that Giuseppe Tornatore released a decade later. Never seen the long version, and I'm quite happy for it to stay that way.

Thursday November 16th
1.30pm: American Stories
5.00pm: Tapeheads
8.45pm: Santa Sangre

"I'm not doing this next year" is the opening line of the diary entry for today, so the half-day shift idea was obviously wearing thin even then. I couldn't get enough done at work in three-and-a-half hour days, and I wasn't getting anything like enough sleep. Still, pressing on: Chantal Ackerman's American Stories was a series of true tales from Jewish immigrants in the US, with some appallingly corny jokes. "Is shitting a physical or intellectual act?" "If it was physical, we'd hire someone to do it." Next up was Tapeheads, Bill Fishman's comedy about two guys (John Cusack and Tim Robbins, no less) setting themselves up in the music video industry. From the producer of Repo Man, and sharing that film's anything-goes approach to stringing scenes together, including the best use of the phrase 'ninja bitches' in any movie ever. Finally, Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, a balls-to-the-wall classic flagged up in the programme with the warning 'contains several brief but extremely violent murder scenes'. Which barely scratches the surface of the cavalcade of crazy that Jodorowsky unleashes: castration by acid, limb removal, giant boa constrictors coming out of men's trousers and much much more. And yet, it all somehow makes sense within his warped dream logic. Of all the films I saw at LFF '89, Santa Sangre is the one I would drop everything to watch again at a moment's notice.

Friday November 17th
2.00pm: Mystery Train
4.15pm: Conquest Of The South Pole
6.30pm: Monsieur Hire's Engagement
9.00pm: Summer Vacation 1999
11.30pm: Earth Girls Are Easy

An experiment to rival that of August 22nd 1989, when I saw eight Edinburgh Festival events in a single day. Could I get through five films in the same time period? Well, only just: to summarise, I slept through part of the second and fourth, generally enjoyed the first and fifth, and thought the middle one was terrific. The afternoon screening of Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train was packed with hipsters obviously bunking off work early for the weekend: still, we all got our money's worth, as it's one of Jarmusch's most straightforwardly fun works. (Just rewatching the trailer now has got me keen to see it again.) Conquest Of The South Pole was the first film by Gilles MacKinnon, based on Manfred Karge's stage play about five unemployed young men attempting to recreate Amundsen's expedition on the rooftops of Leith. All the usual failings of theatre adapted for cinema were sadly on display, though it did provide an early showcase for the talents of young Ewen Bremner. Monsieur Hire's Engagement eventually got a UK release under its original French title of Monsieur Hire - perhaps they were worried we'd think it was some sort of relative of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, rather than the darkly romantic drama of voyeurism and obsession we were rewarded with. Back in 1989, the film's composer Michael Nyman was as much a regular in the LFF audience as Mike Leigh is today: delightfully, Hire's director Patrice Leconte struck the deal for Nyman to score The Hairdresser's Husband during this screening's Q&A. Shusuke Kaneko's Summer Vacation 1999 centred around four schoolboys played by young girls in "a non-vulgar interpretation of the Takarazuka tradition in Japanese theatre," according to the programme - if it had been a bit more vulgar, I might have stayed awake. Certainly, Julien Temple's Earth Girls Are Easy had more than enough vulgarity to keep me up through a midnight show. "You can't sleep through a colour scheme like that," I said at the time.

Saturday November 18th
4.15pm: Dark Woods
6.30pm: Bearskin
8.45pm: Jesus Of Montreal

Not listed here: the 11am screening of Michael Hoffman's Sisters, as there was no way I could get up in time for that after yesterday's marathon. So my first film of the day was Jacques Deray's forgettable thriller Dark Woods, which managed to attract a sell-out crowd by using the simple trick of having a scantily-clad Beatrice Dalle in it. (The French managed to fool us several times with that one in the late 80s and early 90s.) Ann and Eduardo Guedes' Bearskin was a similarly feeble concoction hanging off one star turn, in this case Tom Waits as a demonic Punch and Judy man. The post-film Q&A was edgy fun, one of the few occasions I can recall in which the directors had to deal with an actively hostile audience. Possibly the badness of Bearskin pointed up the greatness of Denys Arcand's Jesus Of Montreal even more: at the time I was convinced it was the best thing I'd seen that year, though I haven't rewatched it for some time now. The combination of intelligent wit and borderline blasphemy in this story of a theatre group's updated Passion Play was always going to go down well with a recovering Catholic like myself. Plus, it's fun to see a young Robert Lepage playing the prima donna of the group, shoehorning a soliloquy from Hamlet into the story of Christ just because he's never played the Dane.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, in one of her less gangbangey scenes in Last Exit To Brooklyn Sunday November 19th
11.00am: Last Exit To Brooklyn
4.00pm: Sophisticated Lady
9.00pm: Completely Pogued

You know at the start of all this, when I was talking about bad films to see early on a weekend morning? Well, I think Uli Edel's adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's grimathon probably counts as one. Brilliantly made, but there's only so much gangbanging you can take before lunchtime. Sophisticated Lady was a Channel 4 documentary by David Mingay and David Robinson looking at the life of veteran jazz singer Adelaide Hall (who was 87 at the time this was made). Perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, let down by some dicky sound in the middle, redeemed again by Ms Hall turning up after the screening to perform a few songs live. More musical documentary later that day with Billy Magra's biography of the Pogues - filmed around the same time as his 1988 St Patrick's Day concert movie, and available these days as a bonus feature on its DVD. Okay as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough: though the footage of them recording with Steve Earle does drop some interesting hints of the tensions that would eventually pull the band apart.

Tuesday November 21st
9.00pm: Casualties Of War

Back to full-time work by this point, as you can see - no matinee screenings, and only a couple of evening ones between now and Friday, both part of the ultra-commercial Festival On The Square. Casualties was Brian de Palma's first film after the dizzying peak of The Untouchables, so I guess we were all hoping for a lot from it. Sadly, by this point all Vietnam movies were starting to look identical to each other, and there wasn't much evidence of de Palma's usual flair. The ending - where a Vietnamese girl tells Michael J Fox's American soldier that she forgives him, to the sound of angelic choirs - was a little too much to take, frankly.

Thursday November 23rd
8.00pm: Back To The Future 2

To get ahead of ourselves a little, the Closing Gala of LFF 1989 was an arthouse film screening at the NFT. Ettore Scola's What Time Is It didn't get any sort of British release beyond that screening: although doing the research on that led me to the delightful discovery of what happens when you type 'what time is it' into Google. The point is, the Closing Gala back then wasn't the magnet for celebrities that it is today: they had to lay on a big dumb West End premiere like this one to get the famous people to come along. Having said that, the only one I saw on the night was Terry Wogan. Funny to imagine watching Back To The Future 2 in isolation today, five years after the release of the first one, and with no way to see the third instalment for another six months or more. Still, I enjoyed all the loopy time travel stuff at the time, though I recall other people being less enthralled by it and preferring the simpler Western pleasures of BTTF3.

Friday November 24th
7.00pm: Il Maestro
8.50pm: Leningrad Cowboys Go America
11.30pm: Monkey Shines

With a week's work out of the way, I could devote the rest of my time to the closing weekend of the festival. Marion Hansel's Il Maestro was basically just chosen as filler, as the prospect of Malcolm McDowell (playing a conductor) and Charles Aznavour (as a tempremental musician) acting together wasn't a major draw for me. More fool me, as the undertones of emotional violence between the two turned out to be rather interesting. Leningrad Cowboys Go America was my introduction to Aki Kaurismaki, complete with a personal appearance from the man himself in which he apologised to us for the "piece of shit" we were about to watch. It's an act I've seen him go into a few times since, but I'd imagine that very few of us in the room knew what to expect at that point. Of course, it's a lovely film, though I seem to have been disappointed by the amount of laughs in it at the time. In the late night slot, George Romero's Monkey Shines had monkeys and violent death in just the right proportions, with all the nastiest things happening inside people's heads.

Saturday November 25th
11.00am: Romuald And Juliette
2.15pm: Guardian/AIP Seminar
4.30pm: The Thief Of Bagdad
6.45pm: Surprise Film (Sea Of Love)
9.00pm: The Kill-Off

Another five-event day, but with one of them being a discussiony thing to break it up a bit. Coline Serreau's Romuald And Juliette was French fluff at its finest, the story of a yoghurt executive and his love for his black cleaning woman. Serreau's earlier Three Men And A Baby was remade for Hollywood, and there was talk of the same happening to this one, but it doesn't look like America was ready for interracial romance being treated so lightly: as it was, the original had its title changed in the US to Mama, There's A Man In Your Bed. The Guardian/AIP Seminar was a discussion on independent film production in the wake of the new wave of American indies just starting to make it over to the UK: sadly, I have no record of who was on the panel or what was said. The Thief Of Bagdad was a restored print of the 1940 classic, restored to such a high quality that you could see all the matte lines around the special effects. But it all looked splendid regardless, and lines like "away, you temple of a thousand fleas" are always worth requoting. Then on to my first ever LFF Surprise Film: and as I've mentioned in the past, this was a genuine thrill back in the days when people didn't necessarily have a clue what the film was even after the title appeared. But Al Pacino's return to movies four years after the Revolution debacle turned out to work just fine, and Ellen Barkin's presence didn't hurt either. Finally, Maggie Greenwald's slightly-too-grimy noir thriller The Kill-Off, which now I come to think of it must have been covered in the indie panel earlier that day.

Sunday November 26th
11.00am: Romero
4.00pm: A Short Film About Love
6.00pm: An Enemy Of The People

Final day of the festival, and another jolly one for a Sunday morning: John Duigan's Romero, starring Raul Julia as the Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated for inciting the people. Quietly compassionate rather than going for the obvious kneejerk melodrama, though there were a couple of genuinely shocking moments, such as a church's crucifix being shot to hell with a machine gun. A Short Film About Love was one of Krzysztof Kieslowski's feature-length spin-offs from his Dekalog series: "got a bit depressing near the end, but the central relationship was very convincing" was what I said 20 years ago. And to finish off, my first experience of the work of Satyajit Ray, and his adaptation of the Ibsen classic. The plot's so rock-solid, transposing it to India didn't harm it at all: in fact, the various levels of religious subtext may even have improved it.

So as you can see, the London Film Festival looked very different back in 1989. No cheap matinee tickets: no Guardian interviews: very little archive material: a huge chasm between the commercial West End material and the arthouse films at the NFT and ICA: and an Opening Gala where the tickets only cost a fiver (Parenthood, if you're interested). But it was my first one, and I'm always going to love it for that. Being a monkey, and all.


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