There are two things I do at every Edinburgh Film Festival, and I've only just noticed one of them. I've always made a point of attending one of the McLaren Animation programmes, which present the best new British animated shorts - and rest assured, we'll be covering that tomorrow. But the other thing I've always done, unconsciously it would appear, is check out at least one film in the Retrospective section. Each year the Festival selects a moderately obscure director, and showcases their work in a series of lunchtime screenings. This year it's the Italian director Valerio Zurlini, who made eight films between 1954 and 1976. Since his death in 1982, he's been pretty much forgotten. A cynical mind might suggest he's been chosen for a Festival Retrospective because the number of films he made tallies nicely with the number of free afternoon slots available.
Shane Danielsen's introduction to today's film, Black Jesus, is pitched as if we've already attended the earlier films in the season, and carries on from where he presumably left off yesterday. By this point in Zurlini's career (1968), he'd achieved some acclaim and had been invited to contribute to a religious portmanteau film, alongside names of the calibre of Pasolini and Godard. Zurlini took the money and made a 70 minute political fable, deliberately too long to fit into the portmanteau - he'd had second thoughts about wanting to be part of it, but still liked his idea. With some additional shooting, he extended it to a full length feature. It tells the story of African revolutionary Maurice Lalubi (Woody Strode), and his capture and death at the hands of the white military. That's not a spoiler for the story, as the parallels with Christ are all over this film: though the bit where he's tortured by having his hands nailed to a table is the point where all pretence at subtle imagery goes out the window.
It's a curious movie - I suspect the original 70 minute film comes at the centre of Black Jesus, with the beginning and end sequences tacked on afterwards. Those bookends turn out to be the most interesting part of the film. The opening ten minutes is a beautifully edited montage leading up to Lalubi's capture: the army laying waste to village after village, wanted posters showing the bounty on his head increasing exponentially, and scenes of people listening to Lalubi's speeches, carefully shot so we never see his face. (The sudden closeup on Woody Strode's beatific grin when he's finally captured is the first time we see him, and it's a stunning moment.) The inevitable climax, with a beautiful final image, is also well handled. But in between we have seventy minutes of men in dark interiors either yelling or torturing each other, and it all gets a bit dull. Even the Biblical overtones of Lalubi's beating don't really work, because the presence of Woody Strode reminds the viewer of Once Upon A Time In The West and other spaghetti westerns, and the general feeling is that this is just what they did to Italian movie heroes in the sixties.
More recent cinema later in the day with Robert Lepage's film The Far Side Of The Moon, a wildly successful opening out of his one-man stage show of the same name. It's the story of Philippe (played by Lepage himself), a middle-aged academic going through a bit of a crisis. He's trying to cope with the recent death of his mother, juggling the demands of a dead-end call centre job and a thesis on space travel, and battling with his gay weatherman brother Andre (Lepage again), who appears to be successful in all the ways that Philippe isn't.
To be honest, the plot isn't important - as in the films of Peter Greenaway, it's a vague narrative framework on which countless visual and verbal ideas can be hung. On stage, this was a monologue opened up with a whole array of ingenious visual devices, and the film reproduces most of those with the added flair a digital visual effects budget can give you. And the sharp, witty dialogue toys with big themes of loneliness and a search for meaning, but with the lightest touch imaginable. Curiously, in the opposite way to yesterday's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the final scene loses something in the transition - it's faithfully recreated on film, but doesn't leave you gasping in the way it does when it's achieved on stage. Nevertheless, there are things to be seen elsewhere in this film nearly as capable of leaving you breathless.
Slaves Of Starbucks you already know about: I mentioned it on Sunday when Peter Aterman performed a short section at Mervyn Stutter's show. His portrayal of an Italian tour guide hilariously skewered the American tourist mentality, and as the show promised another 18 characters, it seemed like a good bet. Unfortunately, the tour guide is the best thing in the show.
The show consists of a series of monologues on the vague theme of American culture and its corrosive influence on the rest of the world, and those monologues vary wildly in quality. Aterman seems at his best when he's dealing with wildly OTT or surreal concepts: such as the Aztec priest who secretly controls the stock market, or Celine Dion's confession of her love for Adolf Hitler. (Amusingly, there was a very noisy walkout at that last one, presumably from a fan who couldn't bear to hear such an appalling slur on the good name of Adolf Hitler.) But far too often, he falls back on the credit card/two cars/big fridge cliches of American consumerism, and it all gets a bit samey. He's obviously aware how good the tour guide character is, as he makes a return later in the show talking to two American tourists who've had surgery to allow them to eat more: it's a shame his other characters aren't as good. But there are still a few laughs to be had, notably in the bookending pieces contrasting the pilot announcements on planes from Holland ("I feel like a lemon cow") and Germany ("Welcome to Lufthansa, God is dead").
With a 9pm slot to fill, we look at a few comedy options. For a second, the BBG and I consider the possibility of catching Mark Watson's normal Stereocomics show to see if he's recovered from yesterday yet. But instead we catch Karl Spain, an Irish comic who was an occasional guest at the Watson show and seemed pretty funny then. We're not the only ones to have that idea: we spot three other Watson vets in the audience of 20 or so.
With a small group in a not-quite-small-enough room, Spain spends most of his hour-long set trading off the enforced intimacy, and does it rather well. He gets chatting to pretty much everyone in the audience at one point or another. Unfortunately, my contribution is a sniffy "oh, it was okay" response to his question about how I liked the film The Magdalene Sisters, which is a shame as he needs to start a five minute routine about the film off the back of it. Still, he rallies round and gets a pleasantly sick punchline out of it, which seems to be pretty much the way he works. The show's ostensibly based around a recent history of Ireland (he talks about the recent influx of foreigners into Ireland, and how Ireland now has lots of things it never had before, such as racism), but it's in his banter with the audience that the show takes off.
Murder is easy, murder is fun, it's better than sex, I always come... Old Lag reviewed the Tiger Lillies show Punch and Judy on here the other day, and seemed a bit disappointed. The reviews for it have been sniffy all over, and I think it's all down to expectations. The show's publicity plays up the Lillies' connections to Shockheaded Peter, as well it should: as writers and performers of the original songs, they played a huge part in its success. But when audiences hear that they're doing Punch and Judy, they assume it'll be the same theatrical mix as the earlier show. Anyone who goes in with that expectation will be sorely disappointed: the only real theatrical touches are a couple of large and small scale puppets, the latter enhanced by video projection. And the story, slight as it is, isn't elaborated on very much.
So I'm prepared to go along with the consensus on this one: it doesn't really work as theatre. But I was approaching it as a Tiger Lillies gig with some added theatrical trappings - and on that level, it's terrific. There are a number of new songs, interwoven with some old favourites that don't really tie into the plot but allow some hits to be added to the mix (I certainly don't recall Punch ever having Sex With Flies). And this is the other thing that will scare off people who only know the Lillies from Shockheaded Peter: they don't have to tone things down for kids this time. This set has all the darkness and insanity of their classic old material, plus the bonus of an eight foot tall Punch puppet with an erect penis. There's a growing trend to turn any performance at Edinburgh into A Theatrical Event, and you see it happening to stand-up comics and musicians all over the place here. Ignore the theatre in this case, and enjoy the music. Though I've just realised this is exactly the same mental defence I used to get through The Black Rider, so maybe you should just ignore me.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - Andy Parsons is now working as a solo act, having separated from his long standing comedy partner Henry Naylor. Good political satire and some fun with the audience. These were chosen by spotlight which selected participant A. Looking up to the ceiling, it was clear that another spotlight was aimed at fellow Fringe goer Nick. Ha ha ha! Especially as the group had nominated me as heckler. Sure enough, the spotlight came on, and Nick did us proud. A good fun show.
The Belated Birthday Girl - On Sunday, the excerpt from Slaves of Starbucks was one of my favourite things at Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, and so I was keen to see the whole show. Sadly it didn't live live up to expectations. It turns out, possibly unsurprisingly, that the tour guide in Rome was the best thing in it. Only a couple of the other sections came close to being as good, and a lot of the others just weren't all that good at all. Some of the better sections were either somewhat surreal or had outrageous ideas, but too many of the sketches took fairly obvious stereotypes and didn't take them anywhere new. Also several of the sketches went on far too long. It's a bit of a shame, as Peter Aterman's performance of his vast array of characters is pretty good, and his sense of comic timing is often brilliant, and the best of the scenes show that he can write good material too. Unfortunately he just didn't have quite enough of the best material, and included too much that wasn't up to scratch. Still, it might be worth seeing what else he is doing (he has another show here in Edinburgh), as if he can put some of that right he could be very good indeed. And given that the reason people do things like Mervyn Stutter is to get people along to the full show, putting his best bit on there definitely worked. So given that he knows that's his best bit, maybe he'll be able to give more of that and less of the weaker stuff in the future.
Old Lag - We had a bit of a joke that Edinburgh is not complete without a drumming show! This year it was the Tao Drummers from Japan. They made a huge visceral noise, vibrating the wood of the church pews we were sitting in. A huge physical dancing energy was going into beating the drums, which were all half a person in size and bigger. It all required a tremendous level of rhythm, physique and practice. In some ways like the Kodo drummers but more laid back, more modern in presentation and including women in the presentation. A great show.
Diane - Sex And Drugs And Sausage Rolls is a one woman show by singer, musical performer and radio presenter Sadie Nine. We've all seen this type of show before - a biographical tale of the trials and tribulations of showbusiness told via anecdote and song. Sadie has a powerful voice which worked best in a number from the ill-fated musical Lautrec, which was supposed to be her big break but closed after three months in the West End. However, I could have done without the downbeat numbers Sadie sang at the lowpoints in her life. This performer was at her strongest as a raconteur, with anecdotes of inappropriate appearances in working men's clubs, bizarre career moves and the time when she became a superstar in Russia. The show ended on an upbeat note, with Sadie's career back on track, working as a presenter with BBC London. Sadly on the night I went there were only 8 people in the audience. Not the most original show on the fringe, but this likeable performer deserves better audiences.
Old Lag - La Clique Burlesque is a new format, a big crowd puller in the intimate venue of the Famous Spiegeltent. This worked particularly well as you are no more than a few rows from the acts. These consisted of a torch singer, a Spanish guitarist, a magician, a hoop dancer, a guest comedian, a pair of twins doing three different acrobatic displays, a trapeze artist, a climbing tape artiste based in a bath - very muscular and appreciated by the women - and a stripper with a disappearing hanky act. The backing music was great, including surprisingly one from the Tiger Lillies (see reviews elsewhere). The Hoegarden beer and Irish cider went down well. Altogether a fantastic show.
The Belated Birthday Girl - I'm a bit of a fan of Robert Lepage's films - I've seen all of them except for No, I think - but until last year I had never seen any of his theatre work. Then a group of us went to see his one man show The Far Side Of The Moon. It was an astonishing piece of theatre, and so I was extremely excited when I heard shortly after that he had made it into a film. Finally I got to see that film here in Edinburgh, and I wasn't disappointed. I'd forgotten how drily humourous much of the dialogue was. Lepage was excellent in the dual roles of Philippe and Andre - when we saw it on stage another actor was in the roles - and the use of visual devices, particularly in the scene transitions, was really good.
Something I'm always going on about is that any film adapted from another source, whether from a play or real life or a remake of an earlier film, should be judged on how it works as a film, and that any comparisons to the source are of secondary interest, if any. So, judging this entirely in its own right, this was a very enjoyable, often funny, sometimes moving, visually interesting film. I think comparisons to the play in this case are worth making, almost inevitably. For me the play was one of the very best things I have ever seen on a stage, and in part that is because it did things in terms of its visual and physical effects which are not usually seen on a stage. As someone who much prefers cinema to theatre, I said at the time that it had made me feel the way I sometimes am made to feel by a good film, and that is a great compliment from me. The film, of course, actually uses cinematic techniques, and uses them very well. But they cannot bring that same feeling of astonishment and elation that the end of the stage version brought. That is not something to be held against the film, which I enjoyed very much and would highly recommend. It is just to say that the stage play is still one of the most incredible pieces of theatre I have ever seen, and is highly recommended also, if it's ever revived at a theatre near you. But this piece is about the film, and a memorable, entertaining film it was.
Old Lag - As the title of Bill Shakespeares' Italian Job suggests, a play with the plot of The Italian Job and the text of assorted chunks of Shakespeare and make-believe Shakespeare. The production would not let me go back into the play after going to the toilet. A terrible stricture which means I can't really review the play.
Diane - Jonathan Harvey impressed theatregoers back in the 90s with plays like Beautiful Thing - a great success on stage and film. Today, audiences might remember him best for Gimme Gimme Gimme. Harvey has always written cracking parts for women, so I was looking forward to Taking Charlie, a one woman show written for actress/singer Abi Roberts. Roberts gives an engaging performance of a monologue interspersed with songs. The songs move the action along and pay homage to the hi-energy disco and big ballad trend of the 80s. (The character of Charlie always wanted to be Carole Decker of T'Pau when she sang into her hairbrush microphone at home!)
Roberts plays Charlie, a woman in her early thirties, who has just entered a rehab clinic and is telling her disfunctional life story to imaginary members of a therapy group. Her mother is a menopausal alcoholic, father left home when she was eight, her boyfriend pretends to be interested in computers only while secretly having an affair with her sister - things are not good. And to top it all, the vet she fancies turns out to be gay, but still manages to get her pregnant after a night of drunken coke-fuelled passion.
Charlie's story is told with great aplomb. However, this is not Harvey's greatest work. It lacks the originality of earlier works and follows a format we have seen before in plays like Russell's Shirley Valentine and Bennett's Talking Heads. On the afternoon I attended, the audience were British and of an age where we would have recognised all the cultural references to 80s music, soap stars, showbusiness gossip etc. However, with a wider audience, many of the references would be lost, so this piece will not stand the test of time. Nevertheless, an entertaining afternoon, and I'm sure we'll see more of Abi Roberts.
Note to this year's Edinburgh promoters - why no cast lists/performer biogs this year? When you come across a performer like Roberts, you want to know a bit more about them!
Old Lag - We saw the play Cigarettes and Chocolate at 11pm in the evening after a long day's festival going, and it was a little gem. Written as a radio play by Anthony Minghella, it works well as a stage play. Gemma (Harriet Mathews), who in previous years has given up cigarettes and chocolate, gives up speaking and communicating. This causes her friends to do all the talking in a very confessional way, with very interesting results.
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