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SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1993

37! Hey, try not to suck any more film festivals in the parking lot! Before taking a look at the programme for the 1993 London Film Festival, let's take a look at the programme - as in, the printed booklet where they initially announced what films were going to be shown. In 1993, as in all the previous years I'd attended, it was a chunky A5 beast, an expanded version of the usual National Film Theatre monthly programme. This would be the last year it would appear in that format - between 1994 and 1996 they experimented with a clumsily oversized 12" square affair, before settling on the A4 magazine we still have to this day. 1993 was also the last year when a big name artist (in this case Eduardo Paolozzi) provided the programme cover image - subsequent years would be more geared towards anonymous-looking graphic design, which was a bit of a loss as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, the main reason why I'm going on about the programme booklet is because my copy of the 1993 edition has a pull-out insert with all the pricing information. I must have lost the equivalent insert for 1992, otherwise I would have realised that was the year when the matinee voucher scheme was brought in for the first time. (The 1993 programme describes it as 'back by popular demand after last year's success'.) For those of you graphing the prices as they increase over the years: in 1993 you'd pay £5.95 for an NFT screening, £6.95 for one at the Odeon West End, £8.00 for the Opening and Closing Galas, and £40 for a set of ten matinee vouchers.

Nevertheless, even with that sort of deal, I still wasn't taking time off work to catch cheap matinees. It still surprises me just how restrained I was at these early Festivals - generally one film a weeknight, occasionally two, with a small splurge in the middle weekend. Here's what I remember about them.

Thursday November 4th
7.40pm: The Remains Of The Day

My first ever Opening Gala - yeah, if they were still charging eight quid these days, I'd probably be attending a hell of a lot more of them. Curiously, I can remember very little about the event itself - what it was like walking down the red carpet, who was there from the film, even which of Spank's Pals came with me. But you knew it was a proper event: the ticket was a huge bit of cardboard which said things like 'black tie requested' and 'carriages at 10pm', not that we paid much attention to that. And Remains? To be honest, I can't remember too much about that either. It was my first ever Merchant Ivory film as well - for a minute there, I couldn't remember if it was my only one, until I checked and realised that I'd seen them reunited with Anthony Hopkins in Surviving Picasso just a few years later. Pleasant enough, I guess, but it didn't make much more of an impression than that.

Friday November 5th
6.30pm: La Fille De L'Air
9.00pm: Sonatine

In my review of LFF 1989, I mentioned the film Dark Woods, and noted that arthouse audiences back then would see any old tut if it had Beatrice Dalle pouting away in it. That was still the case in 1993, and it's a subject we'll return to when we eventually hit 1997 - Dalle obviously worked in four-year cycles back then.  (See also: Trouble Every Day, 2001.)  Director Maroun Bagdadi handled the action nicely in this true story of a woman who broke her husband out of prison, but it wasn't terribly memorable otherwise. Unlike Sonatine, which was Takeshi Kitano's third consecutive appearance at the LFF but the first one I got to see. Around this time I was greedily mainlining all the Hong Kong gangster flicks I could lay my hands on, and the Japanese approach to the genre made for a fascinating comparison. Sonatine was obviously aiming more for art than entertainment, with its careful editing around the violent setpieces, but it was also capable of goofy interludes like the idyllic middle section to break up the pace. By the time we got to that shootout inside a maximum-capacity-8-persons lift, I was sold. Kitano was even there in person for the Q&A afterwards, which he doesn't tend to do these days. Shame.

Saturday November 6th
6.45pm: Twenty Bucks

Well, it's an interesting idea - follow the journey of a twenty dollar note, and tell the stories of the various people who come into possession of it - but thinking about it now in the cold light of day, I'd only ever choose to see these sorts of portmanteau movies in a festival context. Director Keva Rosenfeld assembled a nice-looking cast of American character actors for Twenty Bucks, including the likes of Linda Hunt, Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi, but the result wasn't all that great. Rosenfeld didn't make another feature after this debut, and seems to be working in commercials nowadays. 

Sunday November 7th
11.00am: Tim Roth Guardian Interview

An interesting collection of Guardian Interviews in 1993. I think I'd just started to realise that they were one of the key LFF events where you couldn't just say "meh, I'll catch it when it comes out properly," so I ended up seeing three out of this year's four (I wasn't quite interested enough in Shashi Kapoor). Roth was in the Festival to accompany Bodies, Rest And Motion, the latest in a series of American indies he worked on in rapid succession throughout the nineties. Though he seemed much more interested in talking about a film he'd just finished shooting - "it's Quentin Tarantino's new movie. It's got anal sex in it and everything. And it's financed by Disney! Quentin's got mouse money!"

Can she fly? Can she heck! A spider-woman in The Wicked City Monday November 8th
6.45pm: Saviours Of The Forest
9.00pm: The Wicked City

Here's a weird one. When I've been writing these pieces about old London Film Festivals, every so often I'll come across a title that looks unfamiliar. I'll look it up in the programme, maybe see if there's a clip on YouTube, and usually I'll have a sudden moment of at least minor recognition. Not with Saviours Of The Forest, though. I can see why its description in the programme was appealing - an eco-documentary made by people slowly realising how much damage their film is causing to the environment - but I have no recollection of ever watching it. Happily, as director Bill Day is a big old hippy, he's put the entire film up on Google Video for free. That programme description doesn't quite do Saviours justice: it carefully looks at all sides of the problem of deforestation, showing that "don't cut down trees" isn't quite as obvious a solution as it may appear. Terry Schwartz's laid-back narration can become a little hard on the ear after a while?, with its frequent upwards inflections in the middle of a sentence?, but that shouldn't detract from an interesting tale generally well told. It's possible that I may just have forgotten about Saviours because the film that followed it melted my brain. Directed by Mai Tai Kit, but with the visual hallmarks of producer Tsui Hark all over it, The Wicked City was based on a Japanese monster manga but shot in an unmistakeably Hong Kong style. The climax has some queasy overtones today, as the baddie tries to crash an airliner into the Bank Of China building: but I'm pretty sure it'll be quite some time before a 9/11 film throws in a team of psychics who try to regain control of the plane with their minds.

Tuesday November 9th
6.30pm: Genghis Cohn

Once again, the British cinema section of the programme was largely made up of TV films that ran for an hour or less. Looking back at the programme now, I'm moderately pissed off at missing Dream Girls, a documentary by Kim Longinotto about the cross-dressing women of the Takarazuka Revue in Japan. But Elijah Moshinsky's BBC film Genghis Cohn worked quite nicely at the time. Based on Romain Gary's novel, in an adaptation by the brother-in-law of one of Spank's Pals (this is true), it's the blackly comic story of a former Dachau commandant (Robert Lindsay) who finds himself haunted by the ghost of a Jewish comedian (Anthony Sher) that he'd had executed over a decade ago. It dances cheerfully over both sides of the bad taste line, but saves its most gaspworthy moment for the final sequence: Sher, in full concentration camp uniform, shuffling through the streets of modern-day Berlin to the (presumably unfaked) horror of passers-by.

Thursday November 11th
7.30pm: A Bronx Tale

In 1993, the LFF could still only bagsy the screens at the Odeon West End for a week out of the Festival - but they managed to also grab the main auditorium for the evening prior to that for a special Film On The Square Opening Gala. Robert de Niro's directorial debut A Bronx Tale was a canny choice for that opening: commercial enough to pull in the crowds, but with the classiness that de Niro inherited from choosing subject matter similar to his best-known collaborations with Scorsese. Actually, that's a little unfair: the film's depiction of Italian-American life in the Bronx has an unexpected sweetness and charm that you wouldn't normally get from Marty. That's got to be down to writer and co-star Chazz Palminteri, who possibly impressed me even more than de Niro here. And we even got a (brief) opening speech from the director himself, who was in town shooting Frankenstein with Kenneth Branagh. "Wonder what that'll be like?" we all wondered: and without giving too much away, we found out almost exactly a year later.

Friday November 12th
6.00pm: Snake Eyes (Dangerous Game)

Oh, this is confusing. In the programme and in my diary, it says Snake Eyes: but by the time it eventually hit cinemas, it was called Dangerous Game. Either way, it's the Abel Ferrara film with Madonna in it, not the Brian de Palma film with Nicolas Cage in it. I've never been an enormous fan of Ferrara's explorations of the grubbier side of life, and this story of film director Harvey Keitel losing control of his lead actress didn't really change that opinion.

Saturday November 13th
1.30pm: Fear Of A Black Hat
3.30pm: Between The Teeth
5.15pm: The Line The Cross And The Curve + The Wrong Trousers
11.45pm: Fong Sai Yuk

Busy day, then. Rusty Cundieff's Fear Of A Black Hat had plenty of laughs in its tale of halfwit hip-hoppers Niggaz With Hats, but borrowed from all over the place: its plot structure a perfect mirror of This Is Spinal Tap, its song parodies a little too reliant on prior knowledge of the originals for comfort. Meanwhile, David Byrne's self-directed concert movie Between The Teeth had precisely the opposite problem: it would have been a perfectly fine record of one of his solo shows, but everyone in the audience was mentally comparing it to Stop Making Sense and finding it lacking. Byrne can stage the hell out of a show, but balancing that with a film director who knows which bit of the stage to point the camera at is crucial (see the second video on this page for a perfect illustration). Speaking of pop stars directing themselves, The Line The Cross And The Curve was Kate Bush's extended promo for her Red Shoes album.  Some pretty visuals and lovely music were destroyed by overacting (Miranda Richardson), underacting (Bush herself), a massively pretentious linking story, and (at this screening) the bad luck to be completely upstaged by her supporting feature. Finally, late-night fun in what was becoming a regular LFF slot for Jet Li, as Yuen Kwai's Fong Sai Yuk mixed action, comedy and gender confusion in a fantastically traditional Hong Kong style brew.

I! DRINK! YOUR! EARWAX! I DRINK IT UP! Sunday November 14th
12.00pm: '92 The Legendary La Rose Noire
4.15pm: Robert Altman Guardian Interview
8.00pm: Surprise Film (The Age Of Innocence)

And there was more entertainment from Hong Kong just twelve hours later. If that title seems a tad clunky to you, it's only to be expected: a HK remake of an old movie tends to be differentiated from the original by the random insertion of the year of its making into the title. Writer/director Jeff Lau gave us the hilarious A Chinese Odyssey 2002 (see?) a decade later, and '92 The Legendary La Rose Noire has similarly spoofy fun with favourite characters from 1960s HK cinema. Robert Altman was in town for the previous night's screening of Short Cuts, which I couldn't get tickets for (it sold out even faster than the Opening and Closing Galas), so I caught his Guardian interview as compensation. I couldn't tell you a single thing Altman said, which is why I take notes at Guardian Interviews these days.  As for the Surprise Film, I think this was the first time I'd managed to guess in advance what it was, even though my thinking was "it'd be great if it was The Age Of Innocence, but that's not likely to happen." Not one of my favourite Scorseses, and I haven't rushed back to watch it again, but I suspect my sheer smugness at my guessing ability was enough to make it a good night.

Monday November 15th
6.30pm: The Northerners
9.00pm: White Angel

Fairly fuzzy on both of these, I'm afraid. Alex van Warmerdam's glum Dutch comedy The Northerners worked for me at the time, I think: the programme promised "a vision and style reminiscent of both Jacques Tati and Aki Kaurismaki," and that's always going to float my personal boat. Chris Jones' serial killer flick White Angel had a lot of buzz going for it - it had been given the Centrepiece slot of the Festival, which at the time tended to feature a British film which was considered to have a lot of potential. The film itself didn't do much with its tired subject, but the manner of its making was interesting: Jones and producer Genevieve Joliffe had set up a production company called Living Spirit Pictures, and were determined they could make films wholly independently. It's a philosophy they've pursued to an admirable degree ever since, most notably in their series of Guerilla Film Makers Handbooks.

Tuesday November 16th
6.30pm: The Hawk

By 1993, the process was firmly established. Spank's Pals would meet up with me a day or two after the LFF programme was published, we'd draw up a list of films we'd like to see, and we'd get all our postal applications for tickets in well before the deadline to maximise our chances. Which partly explains how we got to see both the Opening and Closing Galas this year. But it always fascinates me when one particular film grabs the interest of a large number of the Pals. It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but - for example - six of us ended up booking to see The Hawk, a film that was so unpopular with the rest of the LFF audience that the three pairs of seats we booked independently all ended up being next to each other. Looking at the programme writeup, there are a number of factors that obviously influenced our choice: Helen Mirren in the lead, an intriguing premise (she thinks her husband George Costigan might be a serial killer, but she might actually be potty herself), and the prospect of David Hayman making good on the promise of his 1990 directorial debut Silent Scream. Unfortunately, the visual style of Hayman's earlier film got flattened out for this BBC made-for-telly movie, and the result was nothing particularly special.

Friday November 19th
6.10pm: Wild Target

It's interesting looking back at my choices in these early LFFs and seeing certain obsessions gradually emerge. Hong Kong cinema is obviously a major one: but the same could be said of Comedies In Which Lots Of People Die, and Pierre Salvadori's Wild Target is a classic of the genre. Jean Rochefort plays a hitman who unwillingly acquires a small surrogate family - target-turned-protectee Marie Trintigant, and young protege Guillaume Depardieu. Salvadori gets some great visual comedy out of this setup, with lots of dark gags popping up where you least expect them: the result is gleefully amoral in the best French sense of the word. So it was a surprise to discover while doing my research that a British remake of Wild Target is due for release later this year. Directed by Jonathan Lynn, it'll star Bill Nighy as the hitman (yes!), Emily Blunt as the girl (could work), and Rupert Grint as the trainee (um... somehow I can't imagine Harry Potter's ginger mate underplaying this scene as beautifully as the late Depardieu does).

Saturday November 20th
8.45pm: Andy Garcia Guardian Interview

See entry for Robert Altman Guardian Interview above. I couldn't even have told you which film Garcia had in the Festival this year - turns out it was a Cuban music documentary he directed, Cachao: Like His Rhythm There Is No Other.

Sunday November 21st
7.30pm: Farewell My Concubine

In the year that I visited China for the first time, it only seems fitting that Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine was the Closing Gala: I'd even seen a hand-painted poster for it outside a Shanghai cinema (at 3:38 in this video). Over a span of fifty years, it tells the story of two Peking Opera performers (played in adulthood by Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi), and the woman who came between them (Gong Li). Looking back at it now, it's structured a little too obviously around the key events of Chinese 20th century history - the invasion by Japan, the rise of Communism, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution - but Chen keeps it all on a human scale, aided by magnificent performances from his three leads and beautifully colour-coded photography by Gu Changwai.  It's a shame that less than a decade later, Chen was making English language junk like Killing Me Softly, an early contender for Worst Damn Film Of The 21st Century.

So that's what LFF 1993 was like. And now, having looked at the prices on the Amazon links below, I'm going to burn my VHS copy of The Line The Cross And The Curve onto a DVD-R and make my fortune. Being a monkey, and all.


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