Well, They Call Me Felix The Pleaser

SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1996

Programme design by Nancy Fouts. Not as good as last year's, though.The 40th London Film Festival – an anniversary marked with a one-year-only trailer featuring a giant can of film rolling through the city – was mainly notable for being the final one under the leadership of Sheila Whitaker. “My tenth and last year as Director which, for me, is very sad but the decision is not mine,” she pointedly wrote in her introduction to the programme. Rumour had it that she was bumped out as part of a big reshuffle at the BFI: rumour also had it that the huge blank space in the programme booklet where the Opening Gala film should have been was part of her sneaky revenge. (Although Sheila herself claimed that it was down to a last-minute withdrawal by a distributor. The space was eventually filled by ho-hum chickflick The First Wives Club.)

Internal backbiting aside, it wasn’t too bad a festival, although only the Surprise Film – attended by a plethora of LFF staffers in Sheila wigs – had any of the sense of occasion that you’d have expected in the circumstances. After a couple of years of unofficial websites, the LFF took a crack at making one of their own, and discreetly gave the job back to the amateurs the following year while they worked out where they’d gone wrong. (I'm pretty sure it used to have more content than the archive linked to above does.) Meanwhile, if this website had been going back then, here’s what I would have been writing about.

Friday November 8th
6.30pm: The Proposition
8.45pm: Fetishes

The tradition of the Token Welsh Language Film has been mentioned in previous reports, but despite Jon’s enthusiasm I never found any of them really stood out. Strathford Hamilton’s Taff Western The Proposition (not to be confused with John Hillcoat’s subsequent Aussie Western of the same name) sounds like an interesting, er, proposition from its synopsis, and I wish I could remember more about it. Somehow I don’t have the same problem remembering Nick Broomfield’s S&M parlour documentary Fetishes, which several of Spank’s Pals caught the same evening. Broomfield’s faux-naif on-camera appearances (with his boom mike looking even more phallic than usual) threatened to turn it into a typically English snigger about sex, but there were still enough downright peculiar moments in there to make it all worthwhile.

Saturday November 9th
6.30pm: Roald Dahl's Matilda

Danny DeVito always seems to be having fun when he directs movies, so it was probably inevitable that he’d get around to making one for kids. Matilda seemed faithful enough to the character dynamics you expect from Roald Dahl’s children’s stories – the grownups are all evil or stupid, and only the kids know what’s really going on. Pam Ferris, in particular, reveled in her role as a schoolmistress whose key method of punishment is defenestration. I have fond memories of Ferris leading the Q&A after the film, and having to deal with a precocious brat who felt the need to show off that she knew what CGI stood for.

Monday November 11th
1.00pm: Last Of The High Kings
6.30pm: Fitba!
Yes, the missing day surprised me too. A quick check in the diary reveals that Spank's Pal Lee was visiting from Cardiff, so a bunch of us went out with her for lunch on that Sunday. Next day, Last Of The High Kings was a Dublin-set coming of age story most notable for being co-written by Gabriel Byrne, although at this remove all I can remember about it was that Jared Leto was pretty good in it. Fitba! was a collection of four shorts about the beautiful game, with two instant classics in the set: Damien O’Donnell’s delightfully surreal Thirty Five Aside, and Paul McGuigan’s more appallingly surreal The Granton Star Cause (an Irvine Welsh adaptation that eventually became part of full-length feature The Acid House).

Tuesday November 12th
1.15pm: Trojan Eddie
3.45pm: Mother Night
6.15pm: Yang + Yin: Gender In Chinese Cinema

I keep going to see Gilles Mackinnon films even though I never really enjoy them very much. Why? Why? Trojan Eddie centered around a battle royale between Richard Harris and Stephen Rea, but I can’t recall much else about it. Mother Night, meanwhile, was Keith Gordon’s magnificent take on the early Kurt Vonnegut novel. Vonnegut’s had a raw deal with movie adaptations since the glory days of Slaughterhouse Five, but this one caught his characteristic balance of hope and black farce perfectly, deserving the show-stopping author cameo it received. Finally, Yang + Yin was Stanley Kwan’s excellent documentary looking at the historically fluid nature of gender roles in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, taking in everything from the ancient device of the cross-dressing heroine to the intense male bonding in John Woo films. I’ve mentioned my favourite moment in a previous piece – Chang Cheh denying that his kung-fu dramas have any homoerotic overtones, before we cut to a clip featuring one of the Venoms having a wooden pole rammed up his arse.

Wednesday November 13th
3.30pm: Grace Of My Heart
6.30pm: Cosi
Grace Of My Heart, Alison Anders’ disguised retelling of the Carole King story, was one of the big galas this year. It made the news when minor co-star Patsy Kensit turned up for it with her boyfriend of the time, which was a big deal back in 1996. Neither of them were at the matinee, but the film was good enough to survive under its own steam, and its emotional highlight – Ileana Douglas miming to Kirsten Vigard’s stunning rendition of the Costello/Bacharach song God Give Me Strength – was probably my highlight of the whole Festival. Cosi had an entertainingly bad taste premise (loony bin inmates put on a production of Cosi Fan Tutte), and enough of a cast overlap for the makers to justify the claim 'In The Tradition Of Muriel’s Wedding', but it hasn’t endured as well as Muriel has.

The clumsily-named image file nwsouwwad.jpg Thursday November 14th
1.15pm: Nobody Will Speak Of Us When We Are Dead
4.00pm: Ridicule
9.00pm: Terry Gilliam Guardian Interview

It used to be a fine tradition in the LFF programme – you’d always get one film that carried the warning ‘some scenes may disturb’, and inevitably rubberneckers like yours truly would go along to see what the fuss was about. Agustin Diaz Yanes came up with Nobody Will Speak Of Us When We Are Dead: a fairly standard girl-on-the-run thriller (although having Victoria Abril as your girl doesn’t hurt), but I suspect anyone who saw it would only remember it for the bit near the end where a corkscrew and a kneecap come together in ways they weren’t designed for. Ridicule was the latest from Patrice Leconte, whose career I’d been following since Monsieur Hire at my first LFF in 1989. A stylish take on the intrigues of the court of Louis XVI, with a terrific lead performance from Charles Berling, it proved with some certainty that Leconte is incapable of making the same film twice. The same probably applies to Terry Gilliam too, although frequently he’s incapable of making the same film once. His Guardian interview, in an unusual twist, wasn’t connected to a screening of one of his own films – rather it was tied in with the LFF showing The Hamster Factor, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s feature-length documentary of the making of Twelve Monkeys. (I didn’t see it at the LFF, but I’ve got the DVD edition of Monkeys that includes it as a bonus feature.)

Friday November 15th
2.15pm: Tokyo Fist
6.30pm: Bound

Shinya Tsukamoto – nutso Japanese director of the Tetsuo films – put aside the robot cocks for a bit with Tokyo Fist, coming up with something along the lines of Fight Club without the existentialism. Inevitably, it all ends up in big splatty punches. Bound was the debut of the Wachowski brothers, although none of us realized at the time that they’d just made it as a calling card to get financing for the story they really wanted to tell. It does make you wish they’d try working on a smaller scale more often, although I suspect they’ve gone too far down the Big Eye Candy route to ever manage that. Jennifer Tilly came on stage afterwards for a characteristically ditzy Q&A session.

Saturday November 16th
6.30pm: Bits And Pieces

Not much to be said about Antonello Grimaldi’s multi-stranded Bits And Pieces, really. It was marketed in the programme as an Italian Short Cuts, and that’s precisely what it delivered, but without the murky undercurrents that a Raymond Carver story or Robert Altman’s direction could give you. Years later, I’d see Quiet Chaos at another LFF without realizing it was by the same director.

Sunday November 17th
11.30am: Christopher Doyle Masterclass
2.15pm: Nostalgia For Countryland
6.00pm: Temptress Moon
8.45pm: Good News From The Lord
A nice collection of Masterclass sessions this year: directing hints from Robert Altman, writing tips from David and Janet Peoples of Twelve Monkeys fame, and my first head-on exposure to the godlike genius of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. He’d shot some of the best-looking films to come out of Hong Kong in the past few years, but I was unaware of his wild man reputation until this talk (where, admittedly, he was less pissed that he was when he appeared at Edinburgh several years later). Still, his theories on photography were thoughtful and made sense, especially when he described how the cinematographer couldn’t just be a passive observer of the action, they had to dive straight in there and get involved. I was insufferable for the next couple of years when I made holiday videos. Vietnamese rural drama Nostalgia For Countryland sticks in my mind for one image and one image only: in a year when I saw the Chinese State Circus deliver on their promise of Fourteen Girls On One Bicycle, Nostalgia managed to give us the unforgettable sight of Six Pigs On One Motorcycle. (Those piggies aren't going to go to market by themselves.) Chen Kaige’s ravishing opium dream Temptress Moon was one of two Chris Doyle-shot features in this year’s festival – he also photographed the interviews in Yang + Yin. Didier le Pecheur’s sacreligious comedy Good News From The Lord actually had a French title that translates as News From The Good Lord: either way, it never quite made good on its central idea of a grieving couple searching for God so they can give Him a good kicking. (Preacher did it better, really.)

Monday November 18th
6.15pm: Robert Altman's Jazz '34
8.45pm: Kids Return

Altman’s period feature Kansas City was playing in one of the Gala slots, but I chose to go with an associated documentary that nowadays would have DVD Extra stamped all over it: Jazz '34, an exploration of the music of Kansas City, based around a jam session featuring contemporary musicians trying to recreate the sound of 1934. Then, after the disappointment of Getting Any? two years earlier, Takeshi Kitano showed he was back! back!! back!!! with Kids Return – not back enough to actually act in the film, but back enough to give an enjoyable Q&A afterwards. It’s one of his more underrated pieces, avoiding the usual clichés in its story of high school kids trying to make sense of their lives, and has a nice central performance from a young Masanobu Ando (who’s become rather ubiquitous in Japanese cinema since - see Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, for example).

Tuesday November 19th
2.00pm: Gallivant
6.15pm: Irma Vep

Gallivant is a curious little thing – following director Andrew Kotting as he tours the British coastline with his daughter and grandma – but manages to stay on the right side of the charming/irritating axis. Irma Vep is the one film from LFF 1996 that I could happily watch in an endless loop: not just for the obvious delights of having Maggie Cheung run around in a latex catsuit, though. Its depiction of the compromises and insanity accompanying any movie shoot seem awkwardly true to life, and its glorious punchline still cracks me up to this day. (The scene in question is handily extracted on YouTube, but sod it, you should watch the whole movie.)

Conspirators Of Pleasure. Nope, not going to explain this one for you. Wednesday November 20th
1.30pm: Some Mother's Son
9.00pm: Conspirators Of Pleasure

Terry George’s Some Mother's Son was an Irish family drama cum political thriller, set around the H-block in the early eighties. With Helen Mirren in the lead I’m sure it was beautifully acted, but nowadays the only thing I can remember about it is a rather fine score – by Bill ‘Riverdance’ Whelan, no less. Conspirators Of Pleasure was Jan Svankmajer’s attempt (to quote his intro) at making “the first pornographic film not to feature coitus.” And if you don’t think that’s possible, you obviously haven’t seen the disturbing things he can do with animated inanimate objects and a cast with no shame. I made a feeble attempt during the Q&A to draw amusing parallels with the just-banned-by-Westminster-Council Crash, but the film itself was much funnier than I was.

Thursday November 21st
6.30pm: Le Bonheur (Est Dans Le Pre)

Le Bonheur was a French comedy with some interesting people in the cast (Michel Serrault and Carmen Maura to name but two), but all anyone ever remembers it for now is the presence of Eric Cantona in a supporting role, shot during a bit of time off from his day job at Man U. There was inevitable disappointment that he couldn’t make it to the screening - more or less the first thing director Etienne Chatiliez did in his introduction was apologise for that. Cantona was fine, of course, and has proved his acting mettle several times since.

Friday November 22nd
1.15pm: Nenette et Boni
3.30pm: Carla's Song
6.30pm: Trees Lounge
9.00pm: Steve Buscemi Guardian Interview

A recent Time Out article on Clare Denis’ 35 Shots Of Rum was headlined “Is This The Best Film Of The Summer?” To which the only valid answer is “of course it isn’t, you fucking idiot, it’s a Clare Denis film.” Possibly accompanied by belming. I’ve always considered Nenette et Boni the closest thing to a watchable movie that the director’s ever made, and I suspect most of that is down to the beautifully atmospheric song score by the Tindersticks. In her usual irritating fashion, Denis' presence here stops me from doing a neat segue from Eric Cantona's acting debut above to a film from the director of his most recent role. Ken Loach's Carla's Song didn't deviate much from his usual set of concerns, although the story of a Glaswegian bus driver's travels to Nicaragua did allow for some lovely location work, and Robert Carlyle brought his usual integrity to the lead role. The rest of the day was spent with Steve Buscemi - an actor I've always associated with the LFF, given that I first saw him in Miller's Crossing and first really noticed him in Reservoir Dogs. He introduced his solidly-constructed directorial debut Trees Lounge to a surprisingly celeb-heavy crowd (Shane MacGowan was the closest one to me): and then followed that with a Guardian interview, which unfortunately demonstrated just how wildly uncomfortable he was in front of a live audience. (He's got better since.)

Saturday November 23rd
4.00pm: The Phantom Lover
6.30pm: Basquiat
9.00pm: Surprise Film (The Long Kiss Goodnight)

Apart from the documentary Yang + Yin, Ronny Yu's The Phantom Lover was the only Hong Kong film I caught at this festival - I guess the pre-1997 brain drain was already in full effect, and within a year Yu himself would be making Warriors Of Virtue in Hollywood. His HK swansong was an unofficial musical reworking of The Phantom Of The Opera, with Cantopop songs even cheesier than anything Lloyd Webber could come up with. But Leslie Cheung made for a fine lead, as he always did - the post-death cult around the actor tends to focus on this film, in a slightly creepy fashion. I caught Julian Schnabel's biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat on the recommendation of a work colleague who'd already seen it in the States, and it turned out to be a pretty good tip: Schnabel's one of the few people in the art world who knows how to make narrative cinema work, Jeffrey Wright made a huge impact in his first lead role, and the various celebrity cameos were a lot of fun. More live celeb cameos followed with the Surprise Film, with Geena Davis turning up to say hello at the end of The Long Kiss Goodnight (apparently she'd been on the National Lottery draw show just a couple of hours earlier). It's somewhat generic 90s action fare, and the audience could have taken issue with Sheila's last Surprise being a film whose UK release date was just six days later. But the pleasures of a Shane Black script are always welcome, notably in the form of several dozen great Samuel L Jackson lines. "Back when we first met, you were all like 'Oh phooey, I burned the darn muffins.' Now, you go into a bar, ten minutes later, sailors come runnin' out. What up with that?"

Sunday November 24th
3.00pm: Luna Et L'Altra

The official Closing Gala was Blood & Wine: the last of many collaborations between Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson, but nothing like as memorable as either Five Easy Pieces or The Postman Always Rings Twice. I went for an even lower-key finale with Maurizio Nichetti's Luna Et L'Altra. His work (or at least what I've seen of it in festivals) always relies on gimmicks: the ad breaks taking over a neo-realist film in Icicle Thief, or Nichetti's cartoon doppleganger getting into erotic scrapes in Volere Volare. Here, it's the shadow of leading lady Luna (Iaia Forte) coming to life and running amok in 1950s Milan. It was sweetly enjoyable, if a little more sentimental than his earlier films, and it's a shame he's done so little since.

So that was LFF 1996. Just one more archive report to go - covering the first fest with new boss Adrian Wootton at the helm - and then I can shut up about the London Film Festival until this year's one starts. In, um, less than a month's time. I probably should start getting ready for that. Being a monkey, and all.


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