SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1992
We're four months into the Spank Gold project, and it strikes me that I've been a bit lax in namechecking the people working behind the scenes at the London Film Festival. Suze may well assume/hope that Sandra Hebron and her fetish boots have been around since the beginning of the festival in 1957. But back in 1992, we had Sheila Whitaker instead. Don't let the link to Socialist Review fool you (it's the only picture of her I could find): Sheila was a fun Director of the LFF, as could be gleaned from the way she'd outrageously milk her introduction to the Surprise Film each year. With the aid of Deputy Director Rosa Bosch (think a Spanish female equivalent of Michael 'Low Fat Morrissey' Hayden), she presided over the LFF throughout its thirties, guiding it through a major period of growth during which it expanded into the West End from its initial South Bank base.
The 1991 experiment of taking over both screens in the Odeon West End for a week continued in 1992. As a consequence, the programme started to take on a peculiar split personality, with clear lines being drawn between the commercial fare (almost exclusively shown in Leicester Square) and the artier stuff (almost exclusively kept in the NFT and ICA). The interesting thing to me, looking back at the programme now, is how much great stuff there was in terms of early works by future big name directors - and how many of them I missed out on at the time, notably Wong Kar-Wai, Ang Lee and Takeshi Kitano.
25 items to report on this time, though two of those lasted an entire day apiece. No weekday matinees at all this year. Ready to see how it all worked out?
Friday November 6th
9.00pm: Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
I think it's safe to say that when Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man came out in the UK, I'd not seen anything like it before - certainly not from the East, anyway. A Cronenbergian tale of body modification and robot cocks, shot in black and white by someone apparently drinking thirty cups of coffee a day, and crammed into a running time of just over an hour because no human could take more than that at a single sitting. What on earth would Tsukamoto do next? Sadly, he did the obvious thing: made Tetsuo again but with an actual budget and in colour. Sure, robot cocks are always fun, but Tsukamoto was still playing with them a decade later in A Snake Of June.
Saturday November 7th
11.00am: Die Zweite Heimat 1-3
Sunday November 8th
11.00am: Die Zweite Heimat 4-7
Here's a fun fact: in twenty years of LFF attendance, this is the only film I've walked out of part way through. Mind you, it was a planned walkout: Die Zweite Heimat lasted 26 hours spread over two full weekends, and I could only commit to the first weekend of that. Edgar Reitz's thirteen-part follow-up to his monumental chronicle of twentieth century Germany was mentioned here in passing when I reviewed Heimat 3 a few years ago. I said in 2005 that "I haven't had time to rewatch this second series because, frankly, life is short," and that's still the case. The first Heimat was so extraordinary because it managed to be epic and intimate at the same time: following the Simon family's ups and downs over a period of seven decades, while confining most of its action to a single village with such a dedicated focus that you knew every twist and turn in the roads of Schabbach by the end. Die Zweite Heimat completely reverses that focus, and as a result it's just like any other TV period drama - taking a small number of characters (centering around Hermann, the black sheep of the Simons) and spreading them across several German cities for the duration of the Sixties. There's still the visual and narrative flair we've come to expect from Reitz, but within a much more conventional framework.
Monday November 9th
7.00pm: Academy Film Archive Animation
In which two of the main threads of the LFF - animation programmes and restorations of classic material - came together splendidly in a collection of early cartoons from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archive. The earliest was a J. Stuart Blackton short (either this one or something similar) from 1900: the most recent, a couple of Ub Iwerks' Flip The Frog films from the early thirties. Plenty of other fun in between, including a Felix The Cat cartoon that I might need to investigate for future use.
Tuesday November 10th
6.15pm: Blast 'Em
Okay, starting to get a bit vague now - as with 1991, I didn't take any notes at the time about these films, so I'm just going by memory. Blast 'Em was a Canadian documentary by Joseph Blasoli and Egidio Coccimiglio on the subject of paparazzi, focusing on Victor Malafronte in particular. Can't remember much else apart from that, but the LFF programme does pick out one of the killer lines in it - Malafronte seeing some autograph hunters and sneering "these people have nothing better to do than stand around and wait to see a celebrity..."
Wednesday November 11th
8.45pm: Nicolas Cage Guardian Interview
The presence of Nicolas Cage in a movie wasn't always a cast-iron guarantee of shitness, of course. Okay, the main reason why he was at the LFF this year was for the screening of Honeymoon In Vegas, which I've never seen so can't really comment on. But he'd done enough good stuff in the past to make this my choice for my Guardian interview for this year (the other alternatives were Alan Rudolph and Isabelle Huppert). It was at this interview that I first heard about Cage's appearances as Tiny Elvis on Saturday Night Live. I should throw in a video link at this point, but it appears that NBC are now so efficient at pulling unlicensed material off the web, finding the Tiny Elvis clip has become a benchmark for how good a video search engine is. At the time of writing, they all fail, so you'll have to make do with a transcript instead.
Thursday November 12th
8.45pm: A Winter's Tale
One of Eric Rohmer's quadrilogy of romantic comedies based on the four seasons. Um, that's all I've got. Sorry.
Friday November 13th
11.15pm: Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth
I've just looked up Hellraiser on the IMDB. Did you realise the series got up to eight films before it finally ground to a halt? Hellraiser III was the last one of them to see the inside of a British cinema, and made for a reasonably good capper to a theoretical trilogy. Part of a surprisingly robust late night horror strand in the 1992 LFF, at the very least it started and ended well: the opening Cenobite massacre in a nightclub is a fine gory setpiece, while a hilarious reveal in the final shot pulls off the old The Evil Still Lives!!! trick in an elegant fashion. Unfortunately. it also sets things up for those five DTV sequels, but you can't have everything.
Saturday November 14th
6.35pm: Wild West
11.15pm: Army Of Darkness: The Medieval Dead
Okay, it turns out that the Odeon West End wasn't just showing English language films in the Festival - they'd also show a foreign film like Hard-Boiled if it had crossover potential, i.e. shitloads of violence. This was John Woo's final film in Hong Kong before he went chasing the Yankee dollar, and his final collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat. It took everything they'd done before in terms of hyper-kinetic action and intense male bonding, and pushed it as far as it would go. It's almost as if Woo knew that he'd never be allowed to push that far with an American studio's money. Wild West was a high-concept Britfilm about the comedy adventures of an Asian country and western band trying to get from Southall to Nashville. Nothing too exciting there, apart from an early leading role for Naveen Andrews, a year before he broke big on telly in The Buddha Of Suburbia and over a decade before he started kicking serious arse in Lost. As for what is to all intents and purposes Evil Dead 3, you know by now whether you like it or not: and I do. For those of you who know about the controversy regarding the film's alternative endings, at this screening we got the good one rather than the bobbins one. (Those last two links are pretty spoily, obviously.)
Sunday November 15th
11.00am: Once Upon A Time In China II
1.30pm: Swordsman II
6.15pm: Leon The Pig Farmer
8.30pm: Surprise Film (Death Becomes Her)
The first Once Upon A Time In China was one of my favourite films of LFF 1991, so OUATIC2 was an obvious choice for this year. Inevitably, it's a rehash of the main themes and gags from the first movie, just pumped up a bit: but that does mean that the wild ladder fight from the first film pushed director Tsui Hark into upping the stakes with an even more demented table fight in the second one. And that was followed pretty much immediately with even more Jet Li action, as Swordsman II pulled off the traditional HK cinema ruse of having actress Brigitte Lin playing a castrated male villain to add a peculiar edge to the conflict. Leon The Pig Farmer was one of the few times that a film being hyped as the future of British cinema actually came close to fulfilling its promise. Vadim Jean and Gary Sinyor's comedy about a nice Jewish boy discovering his real father is pig farmer Brian Glover actually wasn't embarrassing at all to watch, which made for a nice change. And the Surprise Film for this year turned out to be one that was getting a UK cinema release just a couple of weeks later, which annoyed a few people in the audience. But Death Becomes Her definitely had its moments, even though its comedy wasn't quite black enough to push it into greatness.
Monday November 16th
6.30pm: British Animation
8.45pm: International Animation
Ooh, the British Animation programme was a good one this year. Okay, so some of its highlights were ones I'd already caught at Edinburgh a few months ago, such as A Is For Autism and Loves Me, Loves Me Not. But there were plenty of other great shorts in there too, and the best was Oscar nominee The Sandman by Paul Berry, who went on to work on films like The Nightmare Before Christmas before his tragic death in 2001 at the age of 40. The Sandman's embedded over to the left there, courtesy of DailyMotion: take a break for ten minutes and watch it now, preferably in full screen mode. Don't blame me if you have trouble sleeping afterwards, though. By comparison, the International Animation selection wasn't all that hot, I'm afraid.
Tuesday November 17th
9.00pm: Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me
Schtonk! was a curiosity, no question. German culture has always handled the subject of the Third Reich with kid gloves, especially when it comes to approaching it from a satirical or comic angle. After all, it's only now that they're getting around to staging The Producers in Berlin. So what exactly was Helmut Dietl thinking when he decided to make a wacky farce about the Hitler diaries saga? It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately all the cliches about the Germans and comedy apply here. Not that Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me was any better: the programme promised a combination of Pedro Almodovar and John Waters, but despite the charm of Adrienne Shelly and the bonkersness of Sean Young it simply failed to deliver.
Wednesday November 18th
8.45pm: Cold Heaven
As I've mentioned already, no afternoon matinees for me this year: I was at work during the day, and seeing films in the evening. As if that wasn't stupid enough, there were days like this when I worked during the day, went to the pub with mates after work, and then went off to see a film. And I know for a fact that this is why I can remember one thing and one thing only about Cold Heaven - a large-scale piece of crucifixion imagery at its climax, the sort of thing that director Nicolas Roeg can pull out of the hat a few times in every film he makes. Beyond that, I couldn't tell you much about it: and I know you're used to that as a response by now, but I doubt I could have told you much about it on November 19th 1992 either.
Thursday November 19th
6.15pm: Reservoir Dogs
9.00pm: Zombie And The Ghost Train
Whereas on November 20th 1992, I was telling everyone at work about this astonishing robbery thriller they had to see if it got a proper cinema release. There'd been a small amount of buzz about Reservoir Dogs from its Edinburgh screening (which I'd missed), but I'd imagine pretty much all of us in the audience for the London premiere of Quentin Tarantino's first film knew nothing about it apart from the basic premise. Imagine what that was like, not even knowing there was "a bit with this guy's ear": there was something close to a standing ovation at the end of that scene, in recognition of a perfect bit of tension and release. Both Tarantino and Harvey Keitel turned up to say a few words at the screening, and at the time it was Keitel's presence that was the big deal. That would change soon. As for Zombie And The Ghost Train, I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I only went to it because of the family connection with LFF favourite Aki Kaurismaki - this was directed by his brother Mika, and if nothing else showed that the glum sense of humour we associate with Finnish cinema isn't just down to Aki.
Friday November 20th
8.45pm: Bohemian Life
Speaking of which, Aki Kaurismaki had his own film in this year's Festival too. Can't remember too much about it, compared with all the other ones of his I've seen in prior and subsequent LFFs. But this lengthy clip should give you an idea of the feel of the thing. (Just the feel, mind.)
Saturday November 21st
One more late night horror film before the end of the festival: and I have fond memories of horror strand programmer Nigel Floyd having the audience roaring with approval as he revealed that Peter Jackson had used three hundred litres of fake blood in the climax of Braindead. And you can't deny it's all on the screen. This was Jackson's last hurrah for splatter filmmaking before he unexpectedly carved himself a niche in the mainstream with hobbits and apes. He's done extraordinary things since then - a topic I'll come back to when we reach LFF 1994 - but you can't help but feel a certain fondness for the sheer energy and invention of Braindead.
Sunday November 22nd
9.00pm: Blade Runner: The Director's Cut
The Closing Gala: and as you can imagine, tickets for this sold out very quickly indeed. Queueing for returns is something I rarely do, but Blade Runner is one of my favourite films, and has been ever since I first saw it in a beautiful 70mm print at the ABC Deansgate in Manchester in 1982. So I got to the Empire Leicester Square an hour or two before the screening, and was directed to the end of a queue that had a manageable twenty or so people in it. (A queue, by the way, that was very nicely positioned to see celebs like Alan Rickman swanning down the red carpet.) I ended up in a corner seat right at the back of the Empire, but was glad to be there anyway. The Director's Cut of Blade Runner has got lost these days in all the confusion over original, director's, workprint and final versions. But if nothing else, each time they reissue it we get to see the film remastered with the best technology available at the time, and for me that transcends any tweaks they make to the story.
And that's LFF 1992 for you. Coming soon in LFF 1993: my first Opening Gala experience, some pretty huge names appearing live, and loads more painstakingly researched Amazon links that none of you will ever click on. But I'm used to that by now. Being a monkey, and all.