SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1997
The 41st London Film Festival, and the first with new boss Adrian Wootton at the helm. He'd be running the shop for the next five years, until his deputy Sandra Hebron - an important part of his team from day one - took over in 2002. Wootton made a few immediate changes, but nothing too dramatic. The AmEx sponsor logo was printed a little bigger on the programme cover, to soften us up gradually for the introduction of a title sponsor in 2000: the programme itself was reformatted into the A4 magazine still used to this day: and the IBM PC User Group returned to give the LFF an unofficial basic web presence.
The last of those interested me at the time, because this was the first LFF I'd done since acquiring home internet access. Daily blogging of films wouldn't happen for another year, but I do have email archives going back to 1997, and I've found a mail I wrote to Lee on November 25th which included capsule reviews of a dozen or so movies. So, for once, some of the opinions below will accurately reflect what I felt at the time. But don't worry, you'll also get some of the awkward lapses in memory that you've come to expect from these features. Here, have a look.
Thursday November 6th
8.15pm: Keep The Aspidistra Flying
If you've been following my recommendation to plot a graph as we go, here are the LFF ticket prices for 1997. NFT, £6.75: Odeon, £7.50: matinees, £5: Galas, £10: Opening and Closing Galas, £14.50. (The equivalent figures for 2009 are £9, £12, £7, £15 and £25 respectively.) Quite a few of the Pals got hold of Opening Gala tickets for Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Robert Bierman's unmemorable adaptation of the George Orwell novel, starring Richard E Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. The most notable thing about the whole evening was my clash with Michael Winner after the screening, a story I foolishly spunked away in my introduction to LFF 1998.
Friday November 7th
9.00pm: Richard E Grant Guardian Interview
You know when Hollywood has a sudden brainfart, and two films come out around the same time with almost identical subject matter? Well, here was a rare example of that happening in British cinema: LFF 1997 had two movies based around the adventures of small-time crooks, both adapted from popular stage plays, both featuring Ewen Bremner in a main role. Inevitably, Mojo and The Life Of Stuff (see later) have become messily interwoven in my memory as a result, particularly as neither film went on to do much beyond these festival screenings. However, I think Mojo worked better on the whole, thanks to a strong supporting cast topped off by a creepy turn from Harold Pinter as a gangland boss. Since then, debutant writer/director Jez Butterworth has had much more success on stage than on screen. The actor Richard E Grant has always been perfectly happy in both media, but you suspect that his favouritest thing of all is talking about himself in an amusing fashion, so this evening's Guardian Interview should have given him ample scope for that.
Saturday November 8th
1.30pm: Happy Together
8.45pm: My Son The Fanatic
It would have been a little over five months since I saw Happy Together in Hong Kong during its preview weekend: why on earth did I want to see it again now? Possibly I’d wanted to try and drag a few of the Pals along with me this time. In the end, only Lesley joined me, but we both enjoy a bit of Wong Kar-Wai so that worked out just fine. I don’t believe I’ve seen it again since those two occasions in 1997, which is surprising. Erin Dignam’s Loved is the first major blank spot of this year, a domestic violence drama featuring the rare combination of Robin Wright Penn and her hubby Sean. I believe Mrs Penn turned up for the screening, but can’t remember anything else apart from that. My Son The Fanatic was a BBC tellymovie with a Hanif Kureishi script, focussing on the culture clashes in a British Asian family (Dad’s a taxi driver who’s friendly with the local prostitutes, son’s a newly converted Muslim, you know the drill). Solidly scripted by Kureshi, with splendid performances from Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths, this was the big hit of LFF ’97 with the Pals (eight of us went along in total).
Sunday November 9th
4.15pm: Shall We Dance?
8.45pm: Cop Land
This was the day I first found out about Miramaxing. Japanese director Masayuki Suo was chatting happily on stage with the inevitable Tony Rayns after the screening of Shall We Dance?, and casually let slip that American distributors Miramax had hacked twenty minutes out of the film for international release. I was shocked at the time, but learned years later that this was the sort of thing Harvey Weinstein frequently did with foreign acquisitions. The film itself is an utter delight, with salaryman Koji Yakusho discovering himself through ballroom dancing – though the continuous references to the world capital of dance in Blackpool sound a little weird to an English audience. Never could bring myself to watch the Gere/Lopez remake, so don’t look for comparisons here. Cop Land was James Mangold’s crunchy thriller with a heavyweight cast – Stallone, Keitel, Liotta and De Niro. Sylvester Stallone actually turned up for this screening (along with Mangold and Ray Liotta), and did a perfectly charming twenty minute Q&A afterwards: he should be this funny more often in films. Long-dead London cable station Channel One reported on his arrival at the Odeon, and I still insist that the small fuzzy blob visible ten feet behind Stallone was me.
Monday November 10th
4.15pm: La Femme Defendue
6.30pm: International Animation
8.45pm: British Animation
La Femme Defendue – or, as it amused me to mistranslate it at the time, The Woman Of Melted Cheese – was a French movie with a gimmick. The story of an illicit affair between Phillipe Harel and Isabelle Carre, it’s told entirely with first-person camera through the eyes of Harel’s character, like a less embarrassing episode of Peep Show. Harel also co-wrote and directed the film: my pal Smudge The Cat, who has a dislike for the way old male French directors perv over younger actresses, grudgingly admitted “at least he’s being up front about it.” The two animation programmes I caught back to back after that were a mixed bag. The International collection – made up of highlights from the Annecy Festival – barely registered at all. The British set, meanwhile, was up to the usual high standard, and contained two terrific shorts: Daniel Greaves’ epic Flatworld, and Piet Kroon’s narratively ambitious T.R.A.N.S.I.T.
Tuesday November 11th
8.45pm: The Good Life
There was a big focus on Spanish cinema this year: several new movies, an Almodovar premiere, and a special Gala screening of David Trueba’s The Good Life. That’s ten pounds worth of Gala ticket right there, so it’s irritating that I can remember nothing about it – looking at the trailer and the writeup, it appears to be just another coming of age story, and you can get those from anywhere.
Wednesday November 12th
3.30pm: The Wings Of The Dove
6.00pm: Lawn Dogs
The souvenir programme for LFF 1997 has a couple of interesting critical essays inside, notably one by Derek Malcolm about how British cinema was beginning to move away from the rut of costume dramas it had got itself into. Little did he realise that in less than a year Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels would come out, and give British movies a whole new rut to inhabit. In the meantime, he noted that a couple of British period pieces in the Festival were still worth seeing, notably Iain Softley’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Wings Of The Dove. A splendid cast led by Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache pose beautifully in front of turn-of-the-century Venice, but the story they tell is surprisingly bleak: possibly too much so for audiences expecting Merchant Ivory fluff. Even more uncategorisable was John Duigan’s Lawn Dogs, documenting the queasy friendship between Mischa Barton’s ten-year-old posh girl and Sam Rockwell’s trailer trash gardener. I got into a few arguments about whether it was the sexual tension or the class divide that people most objected to: but the final ten minutes are so astonishing, it doesn’t really matter either way.
Thursday November 13th
4.15pm: Shooting Stars
9.15pm: Clubbed To Death
Unusually, my one four-film day of the year was midweek rather than at the weekend. Metroland was the usual Julian Barnes schtick about middle-class adultery in London Underground Zone 6, enlivened by fine performances from Christian Bale and Emily Watson, and an irritatingly memorable Mark Knopfler title song. Shooting Stars, sadly, had nothing to do with Vic and Bob: instead it was a duff French attempt at recreating a Tarantinoesque vibe, with a freewheeling comedy-thriller plot and lots of pop songs on the soundtrack. Junkmail was Pal Sletaune’s splendid black comedy about (to quote the director) “Oslo’s, probably the world’s, worst postman.” Irritatingly, you need to log into YouTube to watch the trailer, but if you do you’ll get to hear the most menacing rendition of the Postman Pat theme ever. Finally, I’ve noted before how once every four years, British festival audiences are suckered into a not-terribly-good Beatrice Dalle film: Yolande Zauberman’s Clubbed To Death was the 1997 entry in the series, featuring Dalle as the mother hen of a bad French disco.
Friday November 14th
French cinema is always well represented at the LFF. Lazy arthouse audiences frequently assume anything French will be classy and well-made, so it was interesting to see two very different movies from the country back to back. Western was a pleasantly meandering little road movie, notable for my first exposure to the wonderful Sergi Lopez. Consisting of not much more than Lopez and Sacha Bourdo mooching around Britanny, it’s a charmingly low-key piece of work: which is certainly not a description you could apply to Jan Kounen’s outrageous Dobermann. At the time, its combination of amorality, ultraviolence and loud techno made it perfect for a late night film, allowing an audience to bond together and hurl collective v-signs at the guy who noisily walked out of this screening around the time a baby was given a live hand grenade to play with. Rewatching the film now in the cold light of day, it doesn’t hold up quite so well. The set pieces still look good (and I can’t think offhand of anything else with the manic intensity of the ‘free shave!’ climax), but there’s a lot of very dull waffle in between them. Still, given the presence of Vincent Cassel has in the lead, and Le Dob’s penchant for robbing banks two at a time, it’s fun to think of Dobermann as Mesrine: The Decadent Years.
Saturday November 15th
3.45pm: Welcome To Sarajevo
We’ve done the bit already about Apocalypse Now being my favourite film of all time, haven’t we? Of course we have. One of the many legends about it was Francis Ford Coppola’s plan to shot it in Vietnam while the war was happening, as if it wasn’t a lunatic enough adventure doing it in the Philippines in the mid-Seventies. Still, if he had done that, I reckon it would have ended up something like Michael Winterbottom shooting Welcome To Sarajevo when and where he did. Based on the true story of journalist Michael Nicholson and his attempt to smuggle a child out of the war zone, it’s unfortunately one of those films where how it was made turns out to be more impressive than the film itself.
Sunday November 16th
4.00pm: The Winter Guest
8.30pm: Surprise Film (Breakdown)
It was a pretty good Festival for British cinema, wasn’t it? Quite a few films this year were adapted from theatre productions, including Sharman MacDonald’s play The Winter Guest. When it ran at the Almeida a couple of years earlier, it was directed by Alan Rickman, and I have fond memories of several of Spank’s female Pals arriving three hours before curtain up for the chance to catch the director grabbing a bite to eat in the bar. Rickman directed the movie version as well, and made a pretty good fist of it. Set in a Scottish town on a day when the sea freezes over, the film’s got a real sense of atmosphere and love of the landscape, and is beautifully acted by the mother-and-daughter team of Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson. Later that day came Adrian Wootton’s first Surprise Film, and it’s safe to say that nobody was expecting the old-fashioned kidnapping thriller Breakdown. Still, it was entertaining enough, with Kurt Russell doing his usual thing in the lead. Nobody in the room would have guessed at the time that director Jonathan Mostow would go on to make Terminator 3, though.
Monday November 17th
6.15pm: The Life Of Stuff
Hana-Bi was the best Takeshi Kitano film I’d seen when I wrote about it at length back in 1998: it might still be the best today, but I’d still like to think he’s got another great one in him. Simon Donald has had much worse luck in his movie career: his play The Life Of Stuff was a big hit at the Traverse Theatre, but the screen adaptation was most notable for taking a pitiful amount of money during its limited cinema run. His followup Beautiful Creatures was a bit more successful, but like his contemporary Jez ‘Mojo’ Butterworth he’s done better elsewhere - television, in fact. Still, at least he was allowed to make films. The director of Chinese indie feature Frozen was working in a country where independent cinema had been banned since 1996, meaning he had to release the film under the pseudonym Wu Ming (‘No Name’). A black comedy about a performance artist who works in the medium of attempted suicide, it’s the kind of social satire that you could easily imagine pissing off just the right people. Wu Ming turned out to be a pseudonym for Xiaoshuai Wang, who later had an international hit with Beijing Bicycle.
Tuesday November 18th
9.15pm: Live Flesh
Another Gala screening, this one as a benefit for the foundation set up in memory of the late Screen International editor and Guardian columnist Oscar Moore. Pedro Almodovar’s Live Flesh was a fine choice: it had a British connection thanks to the Ruth Rendell novel it was based on, but was so Almodovarised that it was impossible to imagine what the original was like. Packed with enormous melodrama and wild emotional swings like the best of his early movies, it’s the sort of film where you’re willing the characters to behave badly just to see how everyone else will react. In the post-screening Q&A, Almodovar outlined his plans to make a Western containing all the prostitution, drugs, racism and homosexuality they normally leave out. Shame they never considered him to direct an episode of Deadwood.
Wednesday November 19th
6.15pm: Stiff Upper Lips
8.45pm: Twentyfour Seven
Two more fine British films to add to the list. Stiff Upper Lips was a richly-deserved spoof of the Merchant Ivory canon, directed by Gary Sinyor at Airplane-like speed, with a great cast headed by the just-dead Brian Glover (“we’re the scum of the earth, son, and proud of it”). A week or so later, I appear to have been telling Lee that it was my favourite British film of the Festival, which I find hard to believe now. Funniest British film, sure: but when Shane Meadows’ first feature was screening just a couple of hours later, it couldn’t really have been the best. Twentyfour Seven was given the full Gala treatment, with Bob Hoskins himself coming on stage to pay tribute to the young director. Every Meadows festival appearance I’ve attended has received a massively warm reception from its audience, and even in this rough-edged debut that was already the case.
Thursday November 20th
2.00pm: Funny Games
4.15pm: Kini And Adams
6.15pm: The End Of Violence
There are directors you just fall in hate with at first sight, and Michael Haneke was definitely one of those for me. He’s not a genius of transgressive cinema, he’s just Michael Winner with a better cinematographer. The sheer smugness of the anti-violence message in Funny Games becomes so wearing over the running time of the film, by the end you’re willing the baddies to kill off the family just to get it all over with, which I’m sure wasn’t one of the reactions Haneke intended. Famously, he remade the film in English a decade later, so that Americans could discover he was a twat as well. The Zimbabwe drama Kini And Adams by default became the best film of the day, even though I can remember virtually nothing about it. It has to have been the best one, because The End Of Violence was yet another one of those late period Wim Wenders misfires where he attempts to take on contemporary issues – in this case, surveillance culture and action cinema – but completely loses the plot within the first reel.
Friday November 21st
4.15pm: Keep Cool
6.30pm: The House Of Yes
8.45pm: Boogie Nights
There’s a curious little phase in the middle of Zhang Yimou’s career. He started it making Chinese period dramas like Raise The Red Lantern: later on, he became famous for martial arts spectacles like Hero. But in between, he made a fascinating sequence of films about contemporary China. Keep Cool was the most surprising of them, because it was the first: it was a late addition to the LFF programme, so I went into it not realising that it was going to bounce off the screen like a Beijing version of Chungking Express. Once you’ve got over the shock of seeing young urban hipsters, wild wobbly camerawork and loopy romantic comedy from a director you’d never associate with them, it’s tremendous fun. (Although his style had settled down a lot by the time I saw Not One Less two years later.) Mark Waters’ The House Of Yes was pretty much American indie by numbers, with a whole range of ironic signifiers instead of a plot: Genevieve Bujold playing matriarch, Tori Spelling playing dumb, and Parker Posey (in attendance at this screening) playing a Jackie Kennedy fetishist with a taste for re-enactments. It hasn’t stayed with me, though I must admit I had a couple of guilty laughs at the clip linked to above. And then, in another late addition to the programme, Paul Thomas Anderson’s spectacular Boogie Nights. To quote directly from that email I sent Lee a week later: “Great performances (including a career-resurrecting one from Burt Reynolds), hugely swish camera style and a period soundtrack to die for. I should point out that Kenneth O’Lovee and Old Lag detested this film with every fibre of their being. History will prove them wrong.” Well?
Saturday November 22nd
1.15pm: Doing Time For Patsy Cline
6.30pm: This Is The Sea
Quirky Australian comedies were still coasting a bit on the goodwill engendered by Muriel’s Wedding. Chris Kennedy’s Doing Time For Patsy Cline was one of many that we’d see at festivals over the following years, none of them really making any impact. In a similar way, many festivals had at least one Japanese animated film in them, all trying to recapture the excitement that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira generated back in 1988 but never quite managing it. Memories was an anime based on three Otomo short stories in which, surprisingly, his own directorial contribution – a one-joke war story called Cannon Fodder - was the least interesting. It made for a rather dull climax to a film that started well with Koji Morimoto’s headspinning Magnetic Rose, and followed it up with Tensai Okamura’s hysterical Stink Bomb: a classic tale of Tokyo under attack, this time from an unsuspecting medical researcher with weapons-grade body odour. This Is The Sea caught my attention because of the central gimmick of its score being entirely comprised of old songs by The Waterboys: but they were shoehorned into the film's structure almost as carelessly as Mamma Mia!, and the story of love across the sectarian divide in post-ceasefire Northern Ireland was too predictable by half.
Sunday November 23rd
2.00pm: Thelma Schoonmaker Powell Masterclass
5.00pm: Kiss Or Kill
7.00pm: One Night Stand
Looking through my 1997 emails as part of my research, I’ve found one where I boast about giving my PC a major upgrade: “got another 32Mb of memory and 6.4Gb of disk (yes, 6.4Gb, video eats disk like you wouldn't believe).” Laughing at old technology is a tiresome cliché, but I’m currently thinking about the one terabyte drive I’ve got in the next room and I’m in hysterics. Anyway, I was doing a lot of video editing at the time, so I pretentiously thought that a masterclass by Martin Scorsese’s editor might give me some useful tips. To be honest, Thelma Schoonmaker Powell was stronger on entertaining anecdotes than practical advice, but I was greatly amused by her opening strategy: she always starts events like these with the bloodiest fight scene from Raging Bull, because she likes the cognitive dissonance caused by a little old lady coming on stage afterwards and saying “I made that…” Kiss Or Kill was a hard-edged Australian thriller best summed up by director Bill Bennett’s opening statement: "I was in a shack alone with a friend miles from any other human being, when he suddenly pulled a knife on me and said 'Right, now I'm going to kill you'. He was kidding, but it made me think how you could know someone for years and really not fully know what's going on in there. I wanted to make a film that made you feel like that." He managed it, from what I can remember: and a full decade before No Country For Old Men, he managed it without the use of a musical score. Mike Figgis’ One Night Stand wasn’t the best Closing Gala I’ve ever been to, and certainly not as good as Leaving Las Vegas, but there was fine acting from the likes of Wesley Snipes and Robert Downey Jr.
Which wraps up LFF 1997. I can’t remember exactly at which point I decided that I should be making more detailed notes about the films I saw, but twelve months later we had the first Spank’s LFF Diary, and you know how it goes from there. In a couple of weeks, it’ll be the start of my 21st London Film Festival, and the 12th one that I’ve documented here in real time. All I need now is for the postal strike to ease up for long enough for me to get the bloody tickets I ordered. But that’s a story I’ll probably bore you with later. Being a monkey, and all.
Still have the T shirt from the 41st festival and it is in remarkably good condition. Boy does that IBM PC User website look primative and it is only about 12 years ago. The rise of the internet that was about to happen was so exciting at the time.
Posted by: Old lag | October 05, 2009 at 11:38 AM
I am also get the t-shirt from this festival. I never forget this condition. The rise of the IBM pc user and it's website is primitive.
Posted by: christmas presents | October 31, 2009 at 08:43 AM