1.00pm: Touching The Void
First off-duty celeb spot of the festival: Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, queuing up for a ticket for this film just like anyone else. Possibly because it's directed by Kevin Macdonald, the brother of Trainspotting producer Andrew? Could be. Macdonald's best known for his documentary One Day In September, about the Black September incident at the 1972 Olympic Games: it took an already astonishing story and pumped it up with the sort of narrative devices you'd normally expect in a fictional film.
Touching The Void takes a similar approach. It tells the true story of two mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who attempted in 1985 to ascend the 21,000 foot peak of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They were attempting the climb 'Alpine style', which means not setting up your camps in preparation beforehand, just going up and down in a single day. In that context, the subsequent caption 'Day One' doesn't bode well. The ascent is a little slow, but by day two they've reached the summit. It's at this point that it's casually mentioned that eighty per cent of mountain climbing accidents happen on the way down. And as a blizzard kicks in at the start of their descent, Joe slips and breaks his leg. And then it gets worse.
This would be one hell of a tale at the best of times: Simpson has already told it in a book of the same name. Macdonald retells it using a combination of breathtakingly shot reconstruction footage (using both actors and climbing doubles), and head-on interviews with the real people concerned. Simpson shows the sort of demented British pluck that must have played a huge part in him surviving the ordeal: he initially dismisses his reaction to his broken leg as being 'a bit wet'. But Yates - a vaguely comical figure with jug ears and bulgy eyes like a Nick Park character - had to display equal bravery, at one point taking a decision that must still be haunting him to this day.
The resulting film is an absolutely nerve-shredding thriller. Of course you know how it's going to end, as the surviving protagonists are there in front of you from the start. I suspect that given the way the climb descends further and further into catastrophe, this would be almost impossible to watch if you didn't have that assurance of their survival. Luckily, Simpson and Yates are terrific storytellers, and incredibly lucid at describing the way the human mind behaves under pressure. At one point, Simpson recounts with bemused detachment how the song Brown Girl In The Ring kept running round his head during a time of extreme crisis - "oh God, I'm going to die hearing Boney M". Or there's the time he wakes up to see nothing but rocks all around him, and assumes that he's just been beaten up in a pub car park, "again". The presence of mind it must take to be able to keep these images in your head for the future must be immense. With the engaging presence of these two characters, fabulous photography and an equally stunning sound mix, this is one documentary that positively demands to be seen on the biggest cinema screen you can find.
4.15pm: The Return Of Cagliostro
Second off-duty celeb spot of the festival: Geoff Andrew, Time Out film editor and programmer of the National Film Theatre, trying to sit in the seat next to us at the ICA but claiming it was broken. It would be wrong to suggest that he's deliberately wrecking the seats of the NFT's main competitor, of course. Actually, there was an even bigger celeb spot just before that, when I passed Jeffrey Archer outside the Institute Of Directors building, but I'm moderately ashamed of that one because I only got to call him a twat to his back rather than to his face. I seem to be avoiding talking about the film here, don't I? Hmm. Well, there's probably a good reason for that.
Taking a half-hearted fake documentary approach whenever it can remember to, The Return Of Cagliostro tells the story of the La Marca brothers, Carmelo and Salvatore, who set up a film production company in Sicily just after WW2. With financing from the local cardinal, they take on a whole range of film genres, and are consistently appalling every time. But their early movies are all dry runs for their masterpiece, The Return Of Cagliostro. Inspired by Orson Welles' portrayal of the same character a year or two earlier, they call in fading Hollywood star Errol Douglas (Robert Englund) to head their cast.
Spank's Italian correspondent Anna had warned us about this one in advance. It wasn't as original a treatment of the theme as the LFF programme made it out to be: it dwelt far too little on the filmmakers and too much on the backroom politicking: and so on. All valid criticisms, but I wish she'd also mentioned that it isn't in the least bit funny. Based on my experiences of this, numerous unfunny British and Hong Kong films I've seen over the years, and Australia's Fat Pizza (still the benchmark for shit movie making in 2003), I reckon I could write a thesis on Things People Do In Domestic Comedies That They're Quite Sure Will Never Be Seen Outside Of Their Country Of Origin. These tend to be things that the writers and performers assume are intrinsically funny in their own right. SHOUTING ALL YOUR DIALOGUE seems to be a major one, as well as gratuitous swearing, nob gags, men in women's clothing and the comedic use of nuns. If you're playing TPDIDCTTQSWNBSOOTCOO Bingo with this film, you'll have all those ticked off your card in the first ten minutes.
Most embarrassingly, writer/directors Daniele Caprí and Franco Maresco suddenly realise half an hour from the end that they've accidentally made a Sicilian film that hasn't mentioned organised crime once: so there's an excruciatingly drawn-out coda dedicated to an agonisingly unfunny mob sub-plot, narrated by a dwarf. (Add dwarves to that list in the previous paragraph.) The moral of the story is this: if you're going to take the piss out of incompetent filmmakers, you'd better make sure that you've got a basic degree of competence yourself, or you're going to look as stupid as Caprí and Maresco do here.
8.45pm: Border Line
After a glut of Japanese and Korean films in this year's LFF, here's something different for you: a Japanese film made by a Korean director. Lee Sang-Il's first feature is a multi-character, multi-narrative pile-up, with copious connections between its various strands. A taxi driver picks up a teenager who's just beaten his father to death. A yakuza goes chasing after the minion who stole a large amount of protection money from him. A young woman tries to stop her son from being bullied, without considering that she may have a bullying problem herself. And at least a dozen other characters weave in and out of these stories, including a robber with the head of a chicken who's terrorising the local businesses.
But despite all this activity, I wasn't all that impressed. And as far as I can see, that's the only thing this film is trying to do: to impress you. Lee wants to show off his mastery of narrative by piling on the characters and sub-plots, but ends up just overloading the story to the point where an audience simply can't bring itself to care any more. There are certainly some enjoyable surprises and touching moments of humour in there, but they're buried underneath tons of stuff: not particularly bad stuff, just too much to make it worth your while sorting the good from the rest. Which is a shame, really.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - I'd somehow got it into my head that this was going to be about relations between Japan and Korea, or some such. I think it was just the title, combined with the fact that it was a Korean film-maker. But as it turned out, there was nothing about Korea in it at all. Instead what we had was a series of occasionally interlocking stories about characters in northern Japan, which I found interested me and held my attention throughout. Perhaps it could be fairly criticised for having one or two stereotypes in it (which is maybe a little more suspect coming from a Korean than it might have seemed had the filmmaker been Japanese). And perhaps one or two of the crossings of paths of characters felt a little forced. And perhaps it can also be criticised for, in the end, not really going anywhere. But all along I was kept interested and wondering where it would be going, which is a lot more than I can say about many other films I see.
The Principles Of Lust
Sheryl Crow Fanclub - A few years ago I raved about a brilliant film on Channel 4 by a new director, Penny Woolcock, which was called Tina Goes Shopping [see letter dated 10/12/1999 - Spank]. Set around a Leeds housing estate, it featured the day to day lives of the various underclass characters that lived there, and the assorted scrapes they got into. Whilst the follow up Tina Takes A Break (featuring the same cast and characters) may have been somewhat re-heated leftovers, both films showed the same warmth and humour as Shane Meadows did in his first time TV feature Small Time.
Thus this new film by Penny Woolcock was all set to be one of my festival highlights. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, what a disappointment. I don't know how I can adequately describe this nasty piece of rubbish. Perhaps maybe to call it a 'poor man's Trainspotting gone bad'. Anyway to give you some idea, let me just describe the first half hour.
To begin with we meet 'our hero' Paul floating about naked in a swimming pool (or tank), with his tackle doing some sort of zero gravity thing. Following a car accident he meets up with Billy, who introduces him to his fat slag girlfriend Hole, by virtue of the pub stripping act she is doing with some other equally repulsive fat Northern tart. Moving swiftly on Paul then finds himself at a party about to get off with skanky single mum Juliette. However just as the clothes have finished coming off, she announces that she is having her period. Fortunately for true romance's sake this is no problem for Paul; the outcome of which is shared with the audience in all its pre-washing machine gory. Our next whirlwind of scenery finds us in the middle of a bloody bare knuckle boxing contest, featuring two eleven year old boys.
Are you getting the idea now, or do you want me to carry on? Okay then, let's just summarise. This crappy tale is that of poor waster Paul, who is torn between the scabby Juliette, and his anarchic (relatively speaking) mate Billy. So if films like, I don't know, Nil By Mouth rock your cinematic boat, then maybe this one is for you. For my part however, I found it depressing and depraved. Something that not even Ken Loach, in his worst excesses, would come out with. During the introduction Penny Woolcock kept spouting some old bollocks about her and the cast continually hugging each other during filming; yea whatever! I for one didn't stick around to hear more of the same afterwards.
One final thought, and something that never ceases to amaze me with films like this. They are showing to a predominantly middle class audience, who can be heard laughing, emphasising, and enthusiastically applauding, either during or afterwards. Is that because films like this are their cinematic equivalent of a trip to the zoo, or because they don't actually get out much?
Touching The Void
The Belated Birthday Girl - This film, about the attempt by two British climbers to tackle an un-climbed Andean peak, is a visually stunning, gripping, version of those Sunday afternoon documentaries you used to get on telly before the advent of docu-soaps and reality rubbish. The climbers themselves narrate, showing at various times humour and a typically British attitude to their task, and the climb itself is shown in wonderfully photographed reconstruction. As they are there from the outset, the tension all along is not in whether they survive, but how they survive. It's all done extremely well, but in the end, it was, to me, only a superior version of those TV documentaries. Not that there's anything wrong with that - I always used to like settling down on a Sunday afternoon to watch some fabulous mountain scenery and a tale of survival-against-the-odds. And it is nice to see that scenery given proper respect by watching it on a big screen, and it's good to experience those moments of humour or tension in an audience.
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