SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1994
Here's an anniversary that I suspect will go sadly unmarked this year: in 2009 it'll be 15 years since the first ever London Film Festival website went on line. (The original site was deleted long ago, so that link points to a partial archive held on The Wayback Machine.) Back then, the internet was a mysterious entity way beyond the capabilities of mere mortals, so the site was actually made by the IBM PC User Group, primarily as a demonstration of the amazing things you could do with web pages. Okay, so it doesn't look that amazing now, but how many web sites were you coding in 1994? Give them a break.
Anyway, here are a few things to note regarding LFF 1994. The programme suddenly changed to an LP-sized square format, as illustrated. (But in the three years the LFF used this format, the cover artwork always consisted of a rectangular image with wasted space up both sides...) Ticket prices were pegged at the same level as 1993, while the LFF's residency at the Odeon West End was now up to two full weeks out of the 18 day run. This may have contributed to my decision to take a week off work to catch a few extra afternoon matinees - it was the start of the slippery slope towards the festival frenzy you're familiar with nowadays. Here's what I can remember of what I thought about what I saw.
Thursday November 3rd
7.30pm: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The Opening Gala still only cost £8 back then, so it was worth taking a punt on trying to buy tickets for it. And we ended up with an interesting dilemma: eight of us wanted to go, but we were only able to get four tickets. A random draw seemed to be the fairest way of deciding who got to go and who didn't, and I decided to ramp up the drama unnecessarily by holding that draw at 7pm on the night by the side of the red carpet. Here's the lovely thing: three of the four winners of the draw then spontaneously passed their ticket on to one of the losers (I think it was Anna that gave me hers). Spank's Pals are terrific people, aren't they? Shame they had to sit through such a bobbins film. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was produced by Francis Ford Coppola as a companion piece to his Bram Stoker's Dracula, so comparisons have to be made. Dracula had the courage to push its Gothic lunacy to extremes, and had one of cinema's acknowledged master craftsmen at the helm. Frankenstein, on the other hand, was directed by a Englishman who got a Steadicam for Christmas. Kenneth Branagh's far too polite a director to give this material the energy it needs, and resorts to making every shot a 360 degree pan around its subject until his audience just gives up out of boredom or motion sickness.
Friday November 4th
6.15pm: Wes Craven's New Nightmare
8.45pm: Grosse Fatigue
Wes Craven's New Nightmare had post-modernist fun with the horror franchise, as the cast and crew of the original film become Freddy's latest victims. I can't remember too much about it now, apart from a wild scene featuring characters in peril in the middle of an 8 lane freeway, back in the days before we got really blasé about digital compositing. It made for a surprisingly fitting double bill with Grosse Fatigue, where French stars like Michel Blanc and Carole Bouquet spoofed their own images in a comedy-thriller about a Blanc lookalike terrorising women at Cannes. It was based on an original idea by arch-misanthrope Bertrand Blier, but writer/director Blanc gives the film a whimsical charm that Blier would probably strangle at birth. Bouquet's "fuck me like a secretary!" scene still reverberates with me to this day, for some reason.
Sunday November 6th
1.30pm: Midnight Movie
6.30pm: Chungking Express
8.45pm: Muriel's Wedding
Dennis Potter was never as successful in the movies as he was on television (although a case could be made for Dreamchild). BBC Films' Midnight Movie was the last script of his produced in his lifetime, but the posthumous telly double of Karaoke and Cold Lazarus turned out to be a much better memorial. It was followed by a couple of unexpected crowdpleasers back to back – Wong Kar-Wai's lovely bifurcated Hong Kong romance Chungking Express, and PJ Hogan's just-kitsch-enough Abba-fuelled comedy Muriel's Wedding. I'm happy to absolve the latter from all responsibility for the subsequent creation of Mamma Mia!, because at least it has the decency to acknowledge the melancholy under the surface jollity of the songs.
Tuesday November 8th
Funny how acronyms change over the years. You're probably looking at that title and thinking how nice it is that someone's made a film that's been explicitly labelled as safe for work. But in 1994 S.F.W. actually stood for So Fucking What?, the catchphrase of Stephen Dorff's slacker-turned-siege-hero in this not terribly good media satire. However, in other acronym news, S.F.W. included an early appearance of TLRW, or The Lovely Reese Witherspoon.
Wednesday November 9th
8.45pm: Eat Drink Man Woman
Ang Lee's been a regular at the LFF for as long as he's been directing films – we'll have to wait and see if Taking Woodstock makes it into the 2009 programme. By the time of his third feature Eat Drink Man Woman, we'd got used to him as a chronicler of the ups and downs of Asian family life in the 90s. So in the Q&A, when he was asked what his next project was, I fondly remember everyone laughing when he said “I'm doing a Jane Austen adaptation with Emma Thompson.” Yeah, good joke.
Thursday November 10th
6.30pm: The Savage Pencil
An interesting change to the animation programmes this year – instead of the usual division between British and Rest Of The World, the programmes were roughly classified as Dangerous (this one) and Cuddly (Artistry And Animation). The two major standouts in this programme turned out to be British anyway: the one-joke fun of The Big Story, and the Burroughsian headfuck of Ah Pook Is Here.
Friday November 11th
6.30pm: The Most Terrible Time In My Life
8.45pm: Shallow Grave
Back in 1994, Hong Kong crime movies were my obsession: but directors like Takeshi Kitano (of whom, more later) helped me discover that Japanese cinema had a similarly rich genre heritage. The Most Terrible Time In My Life was the first film in a proposed trilogy featuring private eye Mike Hama (“that's really my name”) up to his neck in stylishly filmed noir intrigue. It would be another seven years before The Belated Birthday Girl and I finally caught up with Kaizo Hayashi's complete trilogy at an NFT screening. Meanwhile, back in 1994, because there wasn't the same exclusivity agreement between the Edinburgh and London film festivals that exists now, I dragged a bunch of the Pals along to see this dark Scottish comedy I'd been raving about since catching it three months earlier.
Saturday November 12th
1.15pm: Organised Crime And Triad Bureau
6.15pm: Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle
8.45pm: Heavenly Creatures
11.30pm: Natural Born Killers
Remember what I said earlier on about Hong Kong crime movies? Well, Kirk Wong directed a loose trilogy of them around this time, the first film of which was Jackie Chan's Crime Story. The other two aren't as well-known in the West simply because Jackie isn't in them, but the LFF obligingly screened them on consecutive days to the delight of fanboys like me. Organised Crime And Triad Bureau is a solid example of Wong's work, pitting Danny Lee's over-enthusiastic cops against Anthony Wong's dangerous robbers, with an internal affairs team in the middle consistently making bad decisions. Wong's action scenes are messy, kick-bollock-and-scramble affairs rather than the tightly choreographed ballets that HK action cinema specialised in at the time – the running gun battle through the streets of Wan Chai is especially impressive. Mrs Parker was a nice quiet point in the middle of a violent day: I've always been a fan of Alan Rudolph's laid-back style since Trouble In Mind, and with Jennifer Jason Leigh doing one of her most entertainingly ludicrous voices as Dorothy Parker, fun was assured. The screening of Heavenly Creatures was inevitably full of people who knew director Peter Jackson from gorefests like Meet The Feebles and Braindead, and this was the first indication that he had serious ambitions way beyond that. Kate Winslet knocked everyone's socks off in her first movie role, and had a similarly bright future ahead of her. Finally, the late night screening of Natural Born Killers was packed out because a) it was still uncertain at the time if it'd ever get a UK release, and b) we were still at the stage where anything with Quentin Tarantino's name on it would draw a crowd. In Tarantino's defence, a skim read of his script book shows that a lot of his obsessions and stylistic quirks were present in the original draft, only to be completely overwhelmed by those of Oliver Stone.
Sunday November 13th
1.15pm: Rock 'N' Roll Cop
3.30pm: Take Care Of Your Scarf Tatjana + Total Balalaika Show
8.45pm: Surprise Film (Bullets Over Broadway)
Rock 'N' Roll Cop was the final film in the Kirk Wong trilogy: but it's a Hong Kong version of rock 'n' roll, so when we first meet our hero he's working undercover trying to flog Deep Purple albums at a flea market. The violence is ramped up a bit compared with the earlier films, starting with a pre-credit sequence that pivots on the line “eat this dead cat, you pig” and spirals up from there. But there's also a sneaky pre-1997 subtext in the reluctant collaboration between police from Hong Kong and mainland China, culminating in a speech virtually to camera at the climax. A lovely double bill of short-ish Aki Kaurismaki films followed: Tatijana is a short miserablist black and white comedy that distils all of Kaurismaki's best-loved tropes into a tidy hour, while Balalaika is a straightforward concert movie documenting the glorious gig at which the Leningrad Cowboys had the entire Red Army Chorus on backing vocals. It's a one-joke concept, but it's a joke that simply refuses to get tired. Finally, a nice surprise to finish the day with the new Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway. Jon still talks about this one to this day – it's irritating enough when people are cheering at names in the credits that give away the surprise film's identity, but as this was mid-period Woody the real smartarses knew what it was just from the typeface used in the credits.
Monday November 14th
2.00pm: Wild Justice
8.45pm: The Nightmare Before Christmas
And speaking of Jon, he was my main co-conspirator during the following week, the first one I'd taken off work specifically to fit in some cheap LFF matinees. So I'm guessing Wild Justice was his choice, given that it's a Welsh thriller about vigilante justice in a small village. (I'm saying it's the Welsh angle that attracted him, rather than the vigilante one, obviously.) And later that day, my first viewing of Tim Burton and Henry Sellick's instant classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I've seen so many times since that I can't tell you any more how I felt about it first time. I do remember attempting to use it as a date movie later that year, though.
Tuesday November 15th
4.00pm: Nina Takes A Lover
8.45pm: Tim Burton Guardian Interview
Whit Stillman! Whatever happened to him? He made a lovely trilogy of talky light comedies – Metropolitan in 1990, The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, and in between this amusing tale of Americans adrift in Barcelona. Since then, nothing. Nina was Alan Jacobs' similarly smart comedy about adultery, and again I suspect that Jon may have been attracted by the idea of Laura San Giacomo having an affair with a nice Welsh boy (Paul Rhys). Funny thing is, I can remember there being a neat twist at the end, but I had to look it up just now to remind myself what it was. It took me by surprise at the time, even though I could tell you of at least one other famous story based around exactly the same idea. 23:58 was a French thriller that made no bones about basically being Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, but with the horse race setting replaced by the 24 hour race at Le Mans. Tim Burton was his usual scruffy and entertaining self, I'd imagine, though the details are fuzzy at this remove.
Wednesday November 16th
6.00pm: Getting Any?
Exotica is my favourite Atom Egoyan film: it was also my first. I've developed a theory over the years that Egoyan, like Julio Medem, is one of those directors who tend to use the same devices over and over again in their films, and the first one you see always ends up being your favourite. Not to take anything away from subsequent films of his I've enjoyed at the time like Ararat, but nothing's had quite the lasting impact on me that Exotica did in '94. Meanwhile, Getting Any? - receiving its world premiere in London, as the trailer boasts - was the first film Takeshi Kitano made after his near-death experience on a motorcycle, and I've been using it as a benchmark ever since for the impact that brain damage has on a director's skills. To be honest, it was just an early demonstration of how Kitano falls back on goofy comedy whenever he's in a creative crisis. (See also Takeshis' and Glory To The Filmmaker! as more recent examples. Or maybe I just have a problem with titles that end with punctuation marks.) Too much of Getting Any? feels like TV sketch comedy, with initially amusing situations being flogged to death through sheer repetition. He was still capable of editing a joke in such a way as to make you laugh at it despite yourself, but we'd have to wait for Kids Return a year later before we could really say Kitano was back on form again.
Thursday November 17th
8.15pm: La Reine Margot
There were a couple of Spank's Pals – can't remember their names, they've kind of drifted off these days – who booked for two films at LFF 1994. One of them was Shallow Grave, purely on my recommendation: and given their somewhat sensitive nature, that was probably a mistake. Still, not to worry, they thought: at least their other film was a nice French historical costume drama. And then they discovered that La Reine Margot was even gorier than Shallow Grave, culminating in a character literally sweating blood from being so wracked with guilt. Yum.
Friday November 18th
3.30pm: Back To Back, Face To Face
8.30pm: Accumulator 1
After a couple of weeks in China the previous year, it struck me that virtually all the cinema I'd ever seen from the mainland was period drama, with nothing really about how the Chinese live now. So I guess that was what attracted me to Back To Back, Face To Face, a low-key comic drama about political infighting in a cultural centre. (Although the one I should have been looking out for was Ermo, which played in the festival a couple of weeks earlier.) As for Jan Sverak's Accumulator 1, it was a rare example of Czech sci-fi (to be filed alongside the legendary time travel comedy Tomorrow I'll Wake Up And Scald Myself With Tea). Television turns out to be the main villain, resulting in a splendid scene where the hero ends up acrobatically using remote controls like Chow Yun-Fat uses guns.
Sunday November 20th
Leon was a good safe bet for a closing gala, given the popularity of Nikita a few years earlier: and let's face it, Jean Reno's hitman is basically a more talkative version of Victor The Cleaner from the earlier film anyway. I've not rewatched it for a while, and I'd imagine the presence of a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman would give it peculiar overtones now: but I'd assume it still holds up as a stylish popcorn romp, probably the last one Luc Besson was involved in before he went downmarket with Jason Statham vehicles and the like.
So that's 1994 for you. I just hope that in 15 years time, people aren't looking at this page and laughing at its primitive functionality. I don't think I could cope with that. Being a monkey, and all.
I've enjoyed at the time like Ararat, but nothing's had quite the lasting impact on me that Exotica did in '94.
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