4.15pm: I Stand Alone
I've seen more erect penises over the past week than you'd believe. Considering the huge moral panic on the way over the rampant stiffies in this weekend's screening of The Idiots (full report on the way, sensation seekers), nobody seems to have noticed that they're starting to pop up (ooh-er) in a few films in this festival. The one in Sitcom looked like it was in the go position to me, although the other objects that were in the way in the shot may mean I'm mistaken on that score. No doubts on I Stand Alone, however: at one stage the lead character goes into a porno theatre and we get to watch about three minutes of fairly unambiguous hardcore with him. And this is probably the most tasteful and restrained scene in the entire movie. Not for nothing did director Gaspar Noé introduce the film with a cheerful "I hope you suffer".
I Stand Alone is apparently a kind of sequel to Noé's earlier short film Carne, and the first five minutes is a lightning-speed recap of its lead character's life so far for those of us who didn't see it. An unnamed butcher (Philippe Nahon) kills a man whom he (mistakenly) suspects of raping his daughter: an act that puts her in a home and him in prison. When the butcher is released, he tries to start a new life with his pregnant fiancée and her mother. But as he walks the streets to and from his job as a night-watchman in an old people's home, we hear his almost continuous voice-over spewing out ever increasing hate towards his family and surroundings. Before long, he's horrifically beaten up his fiancée and fled to Paris with a small amount of money and a gun.
Unable to find work in Paris, his misanthropy gets worse and worse as he falls further and further. He starts conducting violent vendettas in his head against anyone who crosses him: the boss of a slaughterhouse who won't give him work, the owner of a bar who throws him out. He spends his nights in a rented room trying to work out how he can split the three bullets in his gun between all the people he wants to kill while still keeping one for himself. All this is played at full intensity, with no space for any humour, even of the blackest kind: Spank's pal Ken and his capacity for finding unintentional comedy in any movie (I spent Halloween listening to him chuckle all the way through The Exorcist) would have a hard time getting even a snigger out of this one. As the butcher gets closer and closer to his own personal Armageddon, you start grasping for some sign - any sign - of hope that may redeem him.
Suddenly he remembers his daughter, and how they haven't seen each other for some time. Will she be the salvation that can pull this film out of the mire? Not really. Within a couple of minutes of their meeting, a caption appears on screen counting down the 30 seconds we have to leave the cinema before things get worse. Interestingly, nobody leaves. And things get worse.
You certainly come out of I Stand Alone feeling totally battered, but it's easy to mistake that for having had a deep emotional experience. Nahon's rapid-fire narration leaves you in no doubt of the depth of his hatred for everyone and everything, with the occasional hint that he's merely a symptom of a deeper problem affecting the whole of France. Curiously for a film shot in Cinemascope, the overall effect of the photography is to make everything seem more and more claustrophobic. And you're left permanently on edge by Noé's technique of rapidly zooming in on a detail in the frame with an enormous gunshot sound, which happens every couple of minutes and leaves your nerves permanently shredded. But after ninety minutes of the blackest nastiest shit I can recall in any movie ever, I'm afraid it's going to take more than a 225 word per minute voiceover and some fast editing to convince me that the character's capable of the somewhat queasy redemption he achieves in the final couple of minutes.
Unfortunately, given a tight schedule and a somewhat foolish choice of cinemas for the day (requiring me to travel twice between the NFT and the Odeon in the space of just over two hours), I couldn't hang around for Gaspar Noé's question and answer session after the film. It's a shame, as I'd have been curious to hear the reaction of the rest of the audience. The little old ladies sitting behind me (who'd been tut-tutting throughout the film) sounded ready to give him hell. Having said that, they didn't walk out either.
6.30pm: Dancer Texas Pop 81
Four guys are sitting in the road leading into the small town of Dancer, Texas, writing a personal letter to Rand McNally himself trying to explain why their town deserves to be included on his maps. You can see why it's been missed out so far: it only has a population of 81, and so few people pass through it that the guys only have to move their chairs out of the road once to let a car through. The population is due to take a nosedive in two days time: the four guys have graduated and are finally ready to fulfil their childhood solemn vow to all leave town together and move to LA. The locals aren't convinced they'll make it past the city limits, and start running a book on how many of them will actually be on the bus out of town first thing Monday morning.
We follow the four of them as they spend their last weekend in town, considering whether they made the right decision, with the occasional bit of advice from family and friends. ("A friend of mine moved to California once and ended up living just two blocks away from Charles Manson...") The four of them have different reasons for leaving or staying. Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli) is being bullied by his mother into staying to work in his father's oil business. Squirrel (Ethan Embry) has his work cut out looking after his drunken father. John (Eddie Mills) is getting tired of working on his father's ranch, and his little sister is trying to persuade him to stay in college and take courses in Meat Science. And Keller (Brecklin Meyer) divides his time between his obsessive research into the move to LA, his girlfriend and trying to keep the town's widow women away from his grandpa. ("Tain't my fault that I'm the only old man in this town who ain't dead.")
Dancer Texas Pop 81 is a low-key gem, a bit like a miniature American Graffiti where the rock 'n' roll's been replaced by slide guitars. It's a wonderful depiction of small-town life that manages to be charmingly eccentric without ever stooping to the level of "ha ha look at all the dumb rednecks". After the cramped interiors of I Stand Alone, the huge open spaces of Texas look positively ravishing. And a splendid ensemble cast does wonderful things with a witty script by first-time writer/director Tim McCanlies. If you've ever had to leave childhood friends and regretted it afterwards, you'll love this movie.
9.00pm: Jonathan Demme Guardian Interview
Amazingly, it's ten years since director Jonathan Demme last appeared at the NFT: I saw him do a Guardian Interview just after a preview screening of Married To The Mob. In the intervening ten years, he's only had two feature films released in this country: however, they were The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, so I guess we can let him off. This year's interview was done on the back of a Festival screening of Storefront Hitchcock, a concert movie featuring Robyn Hitchcock. Strangely, Demme's just-released feature film, an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, isn't in the Festival, although a couple of clips were shown during the interview (and I predict great things for Thandie Newton in the title role on the basis of the scenes I saw). Why go to all the trouble of getting a print if they're only going to show five minutes of it? My prediction: Beloved will be shown in the Surprise Film slot this weekend. Check the diary for Sunday 15th to see if I'm right.
Demme was interviewed by Festival Director Adrian Wootton, which was a surprise as all the publicity I'd seen up till then claimed that Late Review's Mark Lawson was going to do the job. (Maybe he read my title page, heard I was coming and bottled out.) Anyway, Wootton did an excellent job in getting Demme to cover the highlights of his career, starting with his early days in the Roger Corman stable, where he learned to work quickly and to budget (because of the threat of being replaced at a moment's notice if you didn't). He was hilarious on the subject of Swing Shift, the Goldie Hawn movie that started out as a populist feminist drama, but was rehacked by its producers into a romantic comedy once they realised how well Goldie and Kurt Russell were starting to get along. The disastrous result had two effects on Demme; firstly, he vowed only to work with people he liked in the future: and secondly, he started branching out into non-fiction filmmaking, directing a number of documentaries as well as concert movies such as Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. (Nice quote on the different approaches to the two types of films: "With fiction, you're always trying to make things more real. With documentaries, you're always trying to make reality more entertaining.")
Demme sounds intelligent, humorous and a really nice guy to work for: he admits he's had final cut on his films since Something Wild in 1986, but he uses that to give his collaborators the freedom to try out their own ideas, so that he can measure them against his own and see which work best. And he let slip a couple of hints about the Silence Of The Lambs sequel, The Morbidity Of The Soul, which he promises to work on just as soon as Thomas Harris gets around to finishing the novel. All in all, a very enjoyable interview, and one that makes you want to run back and watch all the films again. Stop Making Sense to begin with, perhaps. "I've got a tape I wanna play..."
Notes from Spank's Pals
Dancer Texas Pop 81
Ken - A film about a very small American town, where a high school graduating class have to decide whether to stay or head for the big lights of LA, while the rest of the town give advice and make bets on the outcome. It's full of ironic touches, such as the Dancer City Limits sign, and the four teenagers in deckchairs using the road as a beach (and leisurely moving because there's a car coming from about ten miles away). The town's population is entirely made up of eccentrics, most of whom are played by the real population of the similar small town of Fort Davis, Texas, and claimed by the writer/director Tim McCanlies as just being themselves. Don't ask me how, but the film works.
Ken - David Duchovny can act - who would have thought it after all these years as a cardboard cut-out in The X-Files? He doesn't play the typical gun-toting hero, but very much the flawed anti-hero as a surgeon suspended for drug-taking, still very much caught up in the downward spiral of addiction. Things may have taken a turn for the worse when he uses his surgical skills to save the life of a villain, and gets adopted by a gangster and caught up in lots of ensuing crossfire. Excellent.
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