SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1995
Despite my misgivings about the BFI handing over control of the LFF poster designs from artists to graphic designers, I have to admit that Nancy Fouts made a brilliant job of the 1995 one. It's an incredibly simple idea but utterly eye-catching, and perfect for a film festival. They even ran a competition based around the poster, offering two Closing Gala tickets if you could identify the film used from the stray frames at the end of the reel. Unfortunately, I've not been able to track down the answer, and any copies of the full poster on the web are too small to make even a vague stab at it.
1995 was the second year for which the LFF had an official website, once again outsourced to the IBM PC User Group. By now I'd managed to wangle myself internet access at work, so even though the site's mainly just links to IMDB entries, it proved to be very useful for getting more background information about the films I was seeing. Here's what my schedule for 1995 looked like.
Thursday November 2nd
7.30pm: Strange Days
A very hi-tech Opening Gala, so it's only fitting that I remember Strange Days as the first movie website I ever visited. It was rubbish, frankly: a huge picture of Ralph Fiennes on the front page, and a couple of links to videos that took forever to download. The presence of Fiennes gave Kathryn Bigelow's movie enough British involvement to justify its selection as the Opening Gala, though it's probably one of the darkest and most disturbing films to ever appear in that slot. A cracking thriller, nonetheless, with some of the earliest inklings of Y2K paranoia I can recall seeing in any medium. I also recall it being bloody loud, but that was down to me having a seat at the Odeon Leicester Square directly under one of the surround speakers.
Friday November 3rd
11.15pm: He's A Woman, She's A Man
By the time Mathieu Kassovitz's film came out in UK cinemas, its title had reverted to the original La Haine, which should be a bit more familiar to you. There'd been a fair bit of hype about this one from the other side of the English Channel, and for once it turned out to be entirely justified: Kassovitz carefully depicts the rising racial tensions in a Parisian housing project, and builds them up to absolute screaming pitch by the climax. Shame that his career's never really lived up to this initial promise, although at least one of his cast of unknowns - a snotty kid called Vincent Cassel - appears to be doing alright for himself these days. Which is, sadly, more than can be said for the star of Hong Kong romcom He's A Woman, She's A Man. At the time, Leslie Cheung was still (just about) in the closet, but one of the few male HK stars prepared to revel in roles with a degree of sexual ambiguity. HAWSAM was just a contemporary spin on a familiar HK plot, with women impersonating men and men feeling uncomfortable about fancying men who are really women: but given what we know about Cheung now, I'd be curious to see it again. (Not in the unsubtitled version currently on YouTube, though.)
Saturday November 4th
1.30pm: The Last Supper
6.30pm: The Making Of Maps
9.00pm: The Children Of Lumiere
I'd forgotten that Stacy Title's ultra-black comedy The Last Supper - the story of a group of liberal grad students who regularly invite right-wing bigots over to Sunday lunch so they can murder them - came slap bang in the middle of the Clinton administration, when the American left didn't really have all that much to worry about. You do wonder if anyone would dare to play around with ideas like that in the current political climate. Writer Dan Rosen came along to introduce the film, and managed to get a round of applause with just the pitch for his equally diseased followup, Dead Man's Curve. (Two college students fake their roommate's suicide so they'll be given an automatic pass grade out of sympathy.) The Making Of Maps was my token Welsh film of the year, about which I remember nothing. Meanwhile The Children Of Lumiere was the French contribution to the whole Century Of Cinema palaver that was going on in 1995: a rapidly-edited collection of clips from French movies, from the very first one to the present day. I believe this was the last ever film I saw at the NFT with an English translation read out over headphones - subtitling technology has come on in leaps and bounds since then.
Sunday November 5th
11.00am: Tsui Hark Guardian Interview
3.45pm: Living In Oblivion
There were quite a few interesting Guardian Interviews at the 1995 festival - the programme lists Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Helena Bonham Carter, John Mills and Robert Lepage, which is a fairly diverse lineup. Tsui Hark's interview-cum-masterclass was a last minute addition, and an obvious choice for me while I was still at the peak of my Hong Kong cinema fanboy phase. Tsui had directed or produced most of my favourite recent films from the country, and his energy level throughout the talk - despite him having only got off the plane from HK a couple of hours earlier - gave some indication as to how he could keep up that workrate. I fondly remember him showing the Chinese language opening titles from Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain, and cheerfully yelling "that's me!" when the director credit came up. I followed that up with another one of those sessions where I dragged a couple of the Pals along to a film I'd seen already: in this case Living In Oblivion, one of my favourites from Edinburgh that year. I think they agreed with me.
Monday November 6th
1.00pm: Leaving Las Vegas
4.00pm: The Doom Generation
8.45pm: The Horseman On The Roof
It's easy to forget that the presence of Nicolas Cage wasn't always a sure-fire sign that a film would be rubbish. Wait, I said this already back in 1992, didn't I? Well, it was still true three years later, and Mike Figgis managed to keep enough of a lid on Cage's idiosyncrasies to make Leaving Las Vegas an interesting proposition. Although I'm not sure if it'd still hold up today, given that you'd probably find yourself yelling "NOT THE BOOZE!" all the way through it. Greg Araki's The Doom Generation was one of his typical mid-career provocations, notable only for a big close-up castration shot which I was convinced would never make it through to the UK release. (Although it appears that it did.) The Horseman On The Roof was Jean-Paul Rappeneau's followup to his earlier Cyrano de Bergerac, but despite the best intentions of Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche it didn't have quite the impact of its predecessor, needing a force of nature like Depardieu at its centre to make it really fly.
Tuesday November 7th
3.45pm: Shanghai Triad
7.30pm: Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans
Another repeat from Edinburgh - let's not forget, that was only two and a half months earlier. Still, I liked Desperado a lot at the time, and I remember the sound being a lot more impressive at this Odeon West End screening. (At the end of Antonio Banderas' opening song, you could hear the baddie's sarcastic applause wandering around the back of the cinema before it made its way to the screen.) Shanghai Triad featured the Chinese dream team of director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li in an interesting mixture of 30s backstage musical and gangster flick. He's remaking Blood Simple next, which could also be interesting. Sunrise was a screening of FW Murnau's 1927 classic, one of the last Channel 4 Silents presented with a live orchestral score conducted by Carl Davis. Hugo Riesenfeld's original music generally still held up, apart from one theme which brought back peculiar memories of Arthur Smith's Hamlet at that summer's Edinburgh - it sounded very, very similar to Arthur's song I've Seen Your Arse. You can see how that might be distracting.
Wednesday November 8th
1.15pm: Devil In A Blue Dress
8.45pm: Mighty Aphrodite
Expectations are funny things. I wasn't hoping for much from Devil In A Blue Dress, Carl Franklin's adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel, but it was terrific entertainment. Denzel Washington was reliably fine, but the real kicker was a career-launching performance by The Great Don Cheadle, who stole every damn scene he was in. I'm surprised that there haven't been more movie adventures for Easy Rawlins and Mouse, to be honest. Meanwhile, after the previous year's return to form in Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen took another downturn with Mighty Aphrodite, its Greek chorus gimmick being the only thing of interest. I remember the audience at this one getting very annoyed because we'd paid Gala prices (£8.50 in those days) for a screening where nobody from the film turned up, including the promised Helena Bonham Carter. Let me just pause for a minute and think about a time when I thought £8.50 was too much to pay for a film.
Thursday November 9th
9.00pm: The Near Room
I've found over the years that there've been certain directors whose careers I've followed exclusively at festivals such as London and Edinburgh. I've latched onto an early work of theirs I found impressive, and then spent several years waiting for them to impress me again. David Hayman, it would appear, is one of those directors, although I couldn't have told you that before I started doing all these Spank Gold articles. His 1989 debut Silent Scream knocked my socks off with its visual ambition: his 1993 followup The Hawk felt a little bit too much like the TV movie it actually was: and by the time Adrian Dunbar was searching Glasgow's underworld for his missing daughter in The Near Room, I'd more or less lost interest. (As has, apparently, Hayman - he's not directed anything for the cinema since, and has moved back into acting.)
Friday November 10th
1.45pm: A Hot Night
8.45pm: The Soul Investigator
11.30pm: Wizard Of Darkness
Oh, terrific. A three movie day, and fourteen years later I can remember precisely one image from five hours of film. Most of this paragraph will therefore have to be cribbed from the LFF programme notes. A Hot Night is one of the few Egyptian films I've ever seen, in which a cab driver and a belly dancer join forces as they try to make money to solve their family problems. The Soul Investigator is a bizarre-sounding Canadian story, set in Toronto's Chinatown, and features a seer called Chide The Wind who tells parables to a laid-off estate agent with stigmata. Don't ask me. Wizard Of Darkness sounds more like the sort of thing I'd normally go for: a Japanese horror story about a haunted girls' school. That's the film with the one memorable image of the day - a pre-credits sequence climaxing in someone being killed by a steel girder to the face. After that, it's all a bit of a blur, and even the trailer looks unfamiliar when I watch it now.
Saturday November 11th
1.15pm: The Innocent Sleep
6.15pm: Glastonbury The Movie
8.45pm: Surprise Film (Johnny Mnemonic)
The British Cinema section of the LFF programme has, over the years, promised more spurious returns to form than Woody Allen's career. The Innocent Sleep had a few interesting ideas behind it, notably the guts to base a thriller loosely around the Roberto Calvi affair. But despite some big names in the cast (including Michael Gambon as a bent cop and Annabella Sciorra as The Token Yank), Scott Michell's film is just a little too cheap and cheerful to be convincing. It took an Italian to treat the business with the disrespect and energy it deserved, in Paulo Sorrentino's Il Divo over a decade later. Elsewhere in the British cinema section, Glastonbury The Movie shouldn't be confused with Julien Temple's 2006 Glastonbury documentary. This 1995 production by a team of five directors is more about recreating the overall atmosphere than presenting highlights from the music stages - though I suspect that's less of an artistic choice and more of a financial one. Still, it's an interesting time capsule of what the festival used to be like in the days before the super-fences went up and the wall-to-wall BBC coverage kicked off. And then to wrap up the day, Johnny Mnemonic was the first Surprise Film where I can recall actual booing breaking out as people realised what it was. Sure, it's a terrible movie, never really recovering from the early claim that Keanu Reeves has 80GB of spare capacity in his head. But I still have a certain fondness for his I! WANT! ROOM! SERVICE! moment, which could have gone as viral as NOT THE BEES! if he'd done it ten years later.
Sunday November 12th
3.45pm: On The Beat
Two years after my China trip, I was still frustrated by how little Chinese cinema about contemporary issues made it over to the UK (even if the period pieces we did get were as good as Shanghai Triad above). So I made an effort to track down films like On The Beat at festivals: the storyline may be familiar (rookie cop discovers how comically useless and corrupt his colleagues are), but the Beijing location would make it interesting. At least I assume it did, because I can't remember much about it.
Monday November 13th
3.00pm: Kamikaze Taxi
6.15pm: Muriel's Parents Have Had It Up To Here
Alongside my experiments in Chinese cinema, I was trying to feel my way into Japanese cinema as well. My usual source, Takeshi Kitano, was taking a break this year, so I chose Masato Harada's Kamikaze Taxi as a substitute. Theoretically it could have been interesting - a road movie involving a fugitive yakuza and a Brazilian-Japanese taxi driver - but I don't recall too much about it, apart from it being massively overlong (169 minutes). Muriel's Parents Have Had It Up To Here ran for well under half of that time, a moderately amusing French comedy about a schoolgirl who suddenly decides that she prefers girls to boys. The main thing I remember about Muriel is unexpectedly meeting two male colleagues from work in the audience, presumably lured in by the prospect of teenage lesbitarianism.
Tuesday November 14th
3.45pm: Dead Presidents
Quite a good day for American cinema, overall. Having said that, Todd Haynes' Safe never quite did it for me: I could appreciate the impressionistic devices it was using to depict Julianne Moore's growing allergy to the 20th century, but they ended up creating a huge emotional distance between the character and the audience. Dead Presidents was more directly visceral, and all the better for it: at heart a straight blaxploitation thriller about disillusioned kids drifting into crime, but the Hughes brothers gave it an epic sweep way beyond anything that the genre could have achieved back in the seventies. As for Wayne Wang's Smoke - the first of two collaborations with writer Paul Auster in this festival - well, anything that finishes with a Tom Waits song is fine by me.
Wednesday November 15th
9.00pm: Gazon Maudit
Like I was saying about Tom Waits: Georgia was a fairly predictable talented-singer-battles-personal-demons yarn, but Jennifer Jason Leigh gave it her all as she usually does, and the end credits play out over The Piano Has Been Drinking. Clockers also worked in over-familiar territory, but its tale of street-corner dope dealers was enlivened by Spike Lee's anything-goes visual style, and a prickly script from Richard Price (who'd return to the corners several years later as one of the writing staff on The Wire). Josiane Balasko's raucous menage a trois comedy Gazon Maudit took its title from a French slang term for the vagina (literally 'cursed lawn'), and on the night the director expressed her disappointment that the UK distributors had gone for the tame alternative of French Twist. (My pal Smudge The Cat splendidly suggested that for the correct combination of genital innuendo and farce, they should have called it In A Flap.) Gazon Maudit is most notable for providing me with the perfect response for when you're eating in a restaurant with a lady friend and someone comes to your table attempting to sell you a rose: "no thanks, we've already fucked." All I need now are the balls to actually say it out loud.
Thursday November 16th
4.00pm: Blue In The Face
6.15pm: The Flower Of My Secret
9.00pm: Spike Lee Guardian Interview
Blue In The Face was the second Wayne Wang/Paul Auster collaboration of the festival: they enjoyed making Smoke so much, they kept the cameras rolling for another week and threw together a collection of vignettes featuring a bewildering collection of celebrity mates. It's pure self-indulgence, of course, but it's entertaining self-indulgence, and that makes all the difference. Pedro Almodovar's The Flower Of My Secret seemed up to his usual standard at the time, but years later a lot of his nineties work tends to feel a bit samey. Spike Lee talks the talk as well as he walks the walk, as you can imagine: my main recollection from this live interview was an audience question about whether Lee would make a film in the future with a white lead, which ended up being re-asked in several different versions, each one more accidentally racist than the last.
Friday November 17th
9.00pm: Pedro Almodovar Guardian Interview
One night after The Flower Of My Secret, its director took the stage for an extended Q&A: he's always been a warm and entertaining presence at these things, and that was the case here too. He still keeps in touch with many of his former collaborators, and was particularly fond of soon-to-be-married Antonio Banderas: "he laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave Melanie. And Melanie laaaaaaaaaaaaaaave heem." (I can't do the accent.) Lovers was a last minute late night screening of the most recent Tsui Hark movie, to tie in with the similarly last minute masterclass he gave near the start of the festival - sadly, by now he'd gone back home again, and probably wrapped at least two more movies in the meantime. Lovers was a more traditional version of the gender-swap story that He's A Woman, She's A Man was based around, perked up by Tsui's usual comedic touch but happy to wallow in full-on weepiness at the climax.
Saturday November 18th
8.45pm: Some Kind Of Life
Another TV movie for the British Cinema section, and an ITV TV movie at that. This one was written by Kay Mellor, after the success of her series Band Of Gold but before the career slump that started with Fanny And Elvis. Some Kind Of Life veers dangerously close to disease-of-the-week territory in its depiction of a woman coping with her husband's brain damage after a motorcycle accident: what saves it are the unsentimentality of Mellor's script, and a sterling performance by Jane Horrocks as the wife. I couldn't have told you till I looked it up just now, but the hubby was played by Band Of Gold veteran Ray Stevenson, who'd have a more active role with the THIRTEEN! a decade later.
Sunday November 19th
11.00am: Comedy And Animation
2.30pm: A Walk On The Wild Side
A couple of programmes of shorts for the final day, each one slightly unbalanced by a half-hour film at their climax. In the case of this year's animation programme, the half-hour film was Nick Park's A Close Shave, so no complaints there. Of the other animations, Andrew Horne's Great Moments In Science: Falling Cats took a disturbingly over-analytical view of the aerodynamic properties of cats plummeting out of skyscraper windows. A Walk On The Wild Side was a collection of extreme! live-action shorts, centred around a new bit of Nic Roeg rudeness called Hotel Paradise. In the end, Roeg's film wasn't worth all the buildup it got, and it fell to a couple of pop stars to provide the real highlights of the programme. Kimble Rendall's so-so hitchhiking thriller Hayride To Hell was enlivened by the rare opportunity to hear Kylie Minogue swearing, while Pedro Romhanyi's Babies turned out to be a film some of us had already seen in its alternative version. And then on to the Closing Gala, with Martin Scorsese accepting a BFI Fellowship before treating us to the international premiere of Casino. I've never rewatched it since that screening, but I remember enjoying it a hell of a lot at the time - particularly in the way that its almost constant use of narration made its three hour running time just fly by, the whole film feeling like one big prologue.
So that was 1995, a curious mixture of A-list and B-list movies. By the time 1996 came round, I'd have to make a choice on one category of films I'd have to ignore so as to concentrate more fully on the other. And the choice I'd make would be this: NOT THE B'S! Yeah, I'm sorry about that one. Actually, no, I'm not. Being a monkey, and all.