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SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1991

The LFF 1991 poster, designed by none other than Terry Gilliam. Too good to be cropped for landscape mode, I think. You've probably realised by now that the London Film Festivals in 1989 and 1990 don't bear much resemblance to the glossy, star-packed event we had in 2008. As Jon noticed from a casual flick through the programme while I was researching this piece, there was a lot more old-school arthouse filth showing in those days: the American independent sector was still finding its feet, and wasn't the dominant force in film festival programming that it is today. Also, those earlier festivals were physically much smaller affairs, with little room for big commercial premieres: most screenings were held at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank, with just the occasional foray into the West End.

1991 was the year that started to change. With the refashioning of the Odeon West End into a two-screen cinema, the LFF saw its opportunity to grab a prime location for the final week of the Festival. It was a huge success, giving them access to passing trade that they just couldn't get on the South Bank. Over the next couple of years, that one week expanded to two: and soon the Odeon had taken over from the NFT as the home of the LFF, with a subsequent skewing of the programme towards more mainstream fare.

It's an arrangement that's just come to a screeching halt - the 2008 Festival turned out to be the last one to be held at the Odeon. By the time this October comes around, work will have commenced on tearing down that entire block of Leicester Square in order to build another hotel. As yet, there's been no announcement about where the 2009 LFF will hold its West End events: perhaps the Vue, or the Curzon Soho, or somewhere else entirely.

In the meantime, back to 1991. Only twenty films in total, with no weekday matinees at all: pressure of work appears to have been the cause. Funny: in my memory I've assumed that I always took loads of time off for the Festival, but it seems that didn't really start happening for at least another couple of years. Still, let's see how those twenty films panned out.

Saturday November 9th
11.00am: City Of Hope
2.15pm: Escape From The Liberty Cinema
9.00pm: The German Chainsaw Massacre

City Of Hope made for a great start. I'd seen a couple of the exploitation flicks that John Sayles wrote in between his more serious projects - Alligator, The Howling, Piranha - but this was my first exposure to one he'd directed for himself. A beautifully structured set of interweaving stories scattered across New Jersey, it also looked ravishing on the big screen of the Curzon West End (which is what the Curzon Soho used to be called back in the days before it was triplexed). Escape From The Liberty Cinema has an intriguing premise, and I can see why I was drawn to it: a Polish censor has to deal with the problem of the movie characters at his local cinema suddenly going on strike. Can't remember these days if it was any good, though. The German Chainsaw Massacre was another political satire - this one was as subtle as its title, attempting to map post-reunification concerns onto a horror framework. Still, when Udo Kier's your lead, at least you're guaranteed some scenery-chewing fun.

Sunday November 10th
6.15pm: Valmont

I never really understood why two film adaptations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses were made roughly simultaneously. Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons was adapted from the 80s theatre smash, so that's the one everyone remembers. Milos Forman's Valmont, on the other hand, went back to the original Laclos novel (I've still got a copy of the tie-in edition), so it wasn't quite as big a draw. As it was, it ended up sitting on the shelf for a couple of years waiting for Dangerous Liaisons to go away, and only got a limited arthouse release after that. Valmont is probably due a re-appraisal nowadays, particularly as its lead Colin Firth has gone on to bigger and wetter things.

Monday November 11th
8.30pm: Merci La Vie

Ah, Bertrand Blier. Whatever happened to him? He had a good couple of decades of épatering les bourgeois, frequently in collaboration with Gerard Depardieu. (In fact, you could ask whatever happened to him? Time was, every LFF had at least one film with Depardieu in the lead.) Their first big hit was with Les Valseuses, a shocking tale of two amoral young men on the run that was actually banned in the UK for close on two decades. Merci La Vie was kind of a remake of the earlier film, only with a pair of female tearaways played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anouk Grinberg, plus Depardieu in a supporting role. It had a few more po-mo flourishes than the original, but the basic aim was still to entertain with a continuous series of transgressive scenes. Blier's sheer contempt for the rest of the human race was always fun to watch, and it's interesting that we don't get to see it over here any more, even though he's still active as a filmmaker.

Tuesday November 12th
8.00pm: Betty's Brood

Betty's Brood was a curious one. In a British Cinema programme crammed with TV movies and international co-productions destined to vanish without trace (with the notable exception of Hear My Song, which I didn't see), here was a truly independent movie, shot on tape by the Gorbals Unemployed Workers Drama Group for a budget of around two thousand quid. Granted, the subject matter was rather predictable - the problems of working-class life in Thatcher's Britain - but the inside perspective made it feel a lot less patronising than the usual Ken Loach approach. Plus, it actually looked pretty good for a £2000 movie: director Mick McConnell was smart enough to realise that fast cutting rather than complex camera movement was the best approach when shooting on video. Not that this stopped him from using a supermarket trolley as an impromptu camera dolly for a few shots, though.

This is the best illustration for 'Domo Arigato' I could find on the entire internet. Really. Search for yourself if you don't believe me, and see how much 'Mr Roboto' buggers up the results. Wednesday November 13th
9.00pm: Domo Arigato

Part of LFF '91's tribute to director Arch Oboler. Who he? One of the early pioneers of 3-D, that who. In 1952 he made the first full-length 3-D feature, Bwana Devil, a jungle adventure with the splendid promise of "A Lion In Your Lap! A Lover In Your Arms!" This short LFF retrospective, accompanied by the late Oboler's hem hem 'personal assistant' Jerry Kay, featured Bwana Devil along with two of his other experiments in the format, including his 1973 directorial swansong Domo Arigato. It's basically a Japan travelogue with a feeble story attached, as an American soldier has a doomed romance with a woman who's slowly going blind. Which is a rather tasteless plot development when you think about how most people's eyes feel after wearing Polaroid 3-D glasses for 90 minutes. Still, I'd be curious to watch it again now I've actually visited Japan for myself: though as this was only the fourth public screening ever, I'd imagine that's not very likely now.

Thursday November 14th
6.30pm: Delicatessen
8.45pm: Slacker

I'd say that counts as a very good day, wouldn't you? Two directorial debuts by filmmakers who went on to much bigger things. Delicatessen introduced us to the wondrous visual universe of Jeunet and Caro. It was an unbeatable combination of whimsy and cruelty, held together with an eye-popping visual sense: interesting to see that when they went their separate ways as directors, Jeunet got custody of the whimsy while Caro got the cruelty, and the two of them have never really reached the heights they achieved together. Slacker, meanwhile, was the first of several visits to the Festival by Richard Linklater, and possibly marked the point where I started realising just what an impact American indies could be having on film festivals like this one in the future. It's a film with zero budget that just has lots of non-famous people talking to each other! It'll never catch on.

Saturday November 16th
11.00am: Once Upon A Time In China
3.30pm: John Lasseter
9.05pm: The Sect

I was aware of Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's work: I'd seen a couple of his earlier fantasy films like Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain. But it hadn't prepared me for the full-on visual assault of Once Upon A Time In China, the first in his series of kung fu epics featuring Jet Li in the role of Wong Fei-Hung. When I revisited the film a couple of years ago I found Tsui's 'more is more' aesthetic a little bit wearing, but back then it turned me into a full-on Hong Kong cinema fanboy pretty much overnight. John Lasseter of Pixar fame was in town to introduce a retrospective of all of his work to date, which amounted to a mere thirty minutes of shorts and adverts back in 1991. Surprisingly, the highlight was his 1979 hand-drawn short Nightmare, which showed that even without computers Lasseter has unbeatable comic timing. I can smugly report that at this presentation, he dropped a few hints that negotiations were ongoing with Disney for his first feature: a promise that eventually came good four years later. As for The Sect, it was a totally forgettable bit of Italian horror from Argento protege Michele Soavi, although looking at my appointments diary it might have been forgettable because I went to a party at Seapea's straight after it.

Sunday November 17th
8.45pm: Secret Friends

Mind you, this was pretty forgettable as well. Which is odd, given that it was the only time Dennis Potter ever directed a film for the cinema (albeit one funded by Channel Four). Not to mention that it was an adaptation of his novel Ticket To Ride, which I've read, and yet I still can't remember anything about the film. According to the synopsis in the programme, Alan Bates was trapped in some sort of fantasy life that was going out of control, and Gina Bellman had something to do with it: so no real surprises there. Possibly the whole thing was just too Potter-by-numbers to register in the long-term memory. Actually, I think I only went to see this because the Surprise Film was sold out - for the record, it was Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth.

Yes, this is pretty much what watching arthouse cinema used to be like in the early '90s. From Phil Mulloy's 'Outrage!', part of the 'Cowboys' series. Monday November 18th
6.15pm: British Animation
8.45pm: International Animation

After discovering them the year before, the animation programmes would go on to become an integral part of my LFF experience. British animation was still riding high on the international success of Aardman, who were represented in this programme by Peter Lord's Adam. But we also got everything from Daniel Greaves' future Oscar-winner Manipulation to Phil Mulloy's gloriously horrible Cowboys cartoons. The International section is ringing fewer bells when I look at it, though I have fond recollections of Garry Bardin's warped Soviet retelling of Grey Wolf And Little Red Riding Hood. I think I've still got the whole half-hour film on tape somewhere from a Channel Four Christmas Day screening, back in the days when they were looking for imported alternatives to The Snowman.

Tuesday November 19th
6.30pm: My Own Private Idaho
8.45pm: Frankie And Johnny

By now, we're well into the week during which the Odeon West End was playing a major part in the proceedings, hence the pairing of a couple of biggish American movies. Although Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho was awkwardly positioned here: it featured a couple of big stars in River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, but had an arthouse focus on gay themes and a Henry IV subtext guaranteed to scare off a mainstream audience. I'd read A Confederacy Of Dunces shortly before seeing Idaho, and at the time William Richert's Falstaffian turn as Bob Pigeon made me think he could do a decent job of playing Ignatius J. Reilly. Never happened, of course. (Still hasn't.) Frankie And Johnny was a much more Leicester Squarey proposition, with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer playing working-class catering staff for our bemusement. I'd seen Terrence McNally's play on the London stage a couple of years earlier with Brian Cox and Julie Walters, and they were infinitely more convincing than Pacino and Pfeiffer were here. I guess I'm just one of those people who thinks that Garry Marshall never directed a better movie than Young Doctors In Love.

Wednesday November 20th
6.30pm: London Kills Me

After Dennis Potter's effort at the weekend, this was another writer's directorial debut - Hanif Kureshi, in this case. His previous form (writing the scripts for My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy And Rosie Get Laid) was enough to give this film the Centrepiece slot in the Festival, although I still don't understand how the penultimate day can be considered 'central'. London Kills Me followed a group of incredibly punchable twentysomethings as they mooched around London looking for love and a new pair of shoes. I was an incredibly punchable twentysomething myself at the time, and even I didn't think it rang particularly true back then. Based on the small number of clips posted by a Brad Dourif fetishist on YouTube, it hasn't aged well, although I suspect it barely managed to survive the time it took to travel the distance from the projector to the screen.

Thursday November 21st
6.15pm: Animation At The Cutting Edge
8.45pm: Afraid Of The Dark

The third animation programme of the Festival was, as its name implies, more experimental than what was shown on Monday. So it's surprising that it's all drawing a blank when I look at the programme listing. The Brothers Quay contributed another of their eye-benders, De Artificiali Perspectiva or Anamorphosis: unusually, it's a documentary, looking at the ways in which secret messages and symbols have been hidden in art by the fake perspective trick of the title. But that's pretty much the only one I can remember: a quick rummage through YouTube suggests that I must have seen David Cox's Puppenhead that day, but it looks totally unfamiliar to me now. And from there, it was on to my first ever LFF Closing Gala (ticket price £7, if you want to start plotting graphs): although back in those days, it was just another screening rather than the orgy of mutual back-slapping it's become today. Mark Peploe's Afraid Of The Dark was being sold as a classy psychological thriller, but quite frankly it was nothing of the sort - just the usual stalk 'n' slash cliches, mixed in with an irritating smugness at its own cleverness. "It's a film about voyeurism, but it's got blind people in it. Do you see? Ha! I said see!" All it really had going for it was its mid-point twist, one which was used to better effect by David Lynch a decade later.

And that's it for 1991. A smaller selection of films than I manage nowadays, but with a couple of potential modern classics in there. Surprisingly, very few of them were at the Odeon West End - just the final three days' worth, in fact. Still, you'll be able to watch my London Film Festivals become more and more bloated and commercial over the next few Spank Gold posts. And I'm hoping you'll stick around to see that. Being a monkey, and all.


Suzanne Vega Fanclub

Hmmm, given that these LFF retreads seem to be coming in at one a month, will we be seeing last years LFF coverage once more in October 2010 ?


Doesn't 'retread' imply there was an original version out there once? Because there wasn't. This is all new stuff, just written about things that happened a decade or two ago. And as I said right at the start of all this, the end point will be 1997, the year before I started reporting on these festivals in real time.

Suzanne Vega Fanclub

Ooops Busted.

Truth is I haven't done much more with this then skim read the titles. So if you are writing this from memory, well that's more then I could do. That said I did see a good film at the cinema a couple of weeks ago. Alright I can't actually remember what it was called, or anything about the plot, but I know the lead character was called Brian and that I liked it !

The thing is though I am not really sure what the point of all this is. Given how much contemporary cultural shennanagins you consume every month, surely this sight would be far more essential reading if you concentrated on reviewing some of that (unless of course you are still after the ITV4 market).


That's a fair point, Suze. At the moment, I've got a backlog of four or five half-finished pieces about more contemporary stuff: if it wasn't for the various problems I've had this year with computers and elbows, you'd probably have seen them here by now. But I've kind of committed myself to the Spank Gold run: so in a month where I've only got time to write a couple of pieces, these old Edinburgh and LFF writeups will take priority.

As to why I'm doing it: mainly, I'll admit, it's for my own personal benefit. Firstly, I like having a documentary record here of what I've seen at festivals since 1998, and it's annoyed me in the past that I don't have a record of the early part of my festival-going career in the early and mid-nineties. Secondly, it's interesting to see how things have changed since 1989, in terms of both what the festivals had to offer and how I responded to them. And thirdly, as you've noticed, doing these things from memory is difficult, and it's a fascinating exercise seeing what I can remember and what I can't. (It's part of the reason why these Spank Gold pieces are heavy with YouTube clips: frequently, that'll be the first time I've seen some of these things since the nineties.)

I know a few readers have told me in meatspace that they're enjoying Spank Gold: perhaps they'd like to leave a comment or two to back me up?


Welcome, BFI members! (NB: link below only works for BFI members.)


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