12.45pm: On The Waterfront
The Belated Birthday Girl's thinking Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole - "she looks like Eva Marie Saint / in On The Waterfront..." I'm thinking the tackier end of eighties British pop and going for Johnny Friendly by Joboxers - "you think you're God almighty, but you're not..." But really, when you go to see On The Waterfront in autumn 2004, you're only really thinking about one thing: Marlon Brando. I have to admit, I was slightly ashamed at my own reaction to the news of his death back in July of this year. I felt smugly pleased with myself for having picked up the news on the wire several hours before any British news service announced it (a rare genuine scoop for Popbitch), but I didn't feel much sadness, even though technically he was the highest billed actor in my favourite film of all time (Apocalypse Now). It wasn't until I was travelling home that evening, and watching the news headlines on one of those jumbo BBC News screens they have in rail stations now, that it really hit me. The announcement of Brando's death was accompanied by a 20 second excerpt of the taxi scene from On The Waterfront, and even with no sound the power of the man's acting stopped you in your tracks.
It also made me desperate to see On The Waterfront on a decent sized screen. And coincidentally, several months before Brando's death, BFI archive supremo Clyde Jeavons was already talking to Columbia Pictures and securing a restored print for use at the LFF, to mark the film's 50th anniversary. You know the story: Terry Malloy (Brando) is a former boxer now working on the New York docks. Conditions are terrible there, made worse by the corruption running throughout the Longshoreman's Union, run by boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb). Malloy's under pressure to testify to a commission that will bring Friendly to book for his crimes, but can't bring himself to rat out his colleagues. Moral guidance comes from two unlikely directions: priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), and local girl Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who doesn't suspect that Malloy had a hand in her brother's death.
This is still incredibly powerful stuff fifty years on. At this distance, knowing as much as we do about director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, and their experiences snitching on Hollywood's Communists to the McCarthy hearings, it's hard not to see the film as anything other than an allegory for that. So it's nice to be reminded that there was a real life basis to this story, as documented by Schulberg himself recently. Though it has to be said that if the film was Kazan and Schulberg's attempt at justifying their testimony to the HUAC, it seems like cheating to have the finest actor of his generation putting your side of the argument, particularly when he's at the peak of his powers as he was here.
All this would count for nothing if the story and performances didn't grab you like a vice and never let go. But they do, and they still do, and it's why this film has such sensational emotional power despite all the offscreen subtexts clamouring for your attention. The performances are all magnificent, with Karl Malden as the sort of fighting, boozing, smoking hoodlum priest the Church needs more of. And it's easy to forget just how superb Schulberg's script is: not just the standout scenes like Brando and Rod Steiger's taxicab confessional, but all the way through. He carefully maps out the increasing moral confusion Malloy feels as he has to make his choice, while leavening the proceedings with some hard-edged dockers' humour. "When I'm dead and gone you'll know what a friend I was." "Why don't you drop dead now so we can test your theory?" There you go, now you need to watch this again too.
4.00pm: Chisholm '72: Unbought And Unbossed
"A new hat has been thrown into the ring - or should I say, bonnet..." This was 1972, so Walter Cronkite could say shit like that on national television about a woman joining an election, and get away with it. Though unusually even for now, the woman was black, and the election she was going for was that of President of the United States. Shola Lynch's documentary tells the little-heard story of Shirley Chisholm's campaign.
In the Democratic party, Chisholm was seen as a 'twofer' - i.e. two for the price of one, being both black and female - which was handy for their minority quotas, but generally damaging to her campaign. Her female voter base resented the amount of time she spent on black issues, while her black supporters had precisely the opposite problem. It's frightening to consider that at that time, it was her sex rather than her race that was the real barrier to her being taken seriously. (Favourite quote of the day: "in those days, women were seen as being... nice.") In public, Chisholm treated her campaign as a deadly serious attempt to win the Presidency, whereas in private she admitted the most important thing was to show the world that this wasn't just a race open to white males. But there was a growing concern that she was one of a dozen or so Democratic candidates, and that she was splitting the vote at a time when the party needed to be showing a united front to get Nixon out. The second half on the film focusses on the backstage backstabbing within the party, going all the way up to the Democratic Convention.
Lynch's film is a breeze to watch - snappily edited to a funk soundtrack, and making splendid use of split-screen to contrast the main players in 1972 and 2004. There's copious footage of Chisholm then and now, and it all makes for fascinating viewing. In her prime she was a great political orator, smart, passionate and funny. Her older self seems more guarded, less willing to open herself up - it's amusing to discover in Lynch's post-film Q&A that Chisholm really didn't want to be interviewed at all. It all makes for a fascinating study of the nature of American politics back in the seventies, and of course the parallels with the present day are there too for anyone who needs them. Speaking of which, I've fixed the link on Thursday's page to the Revolution USA video for anyone who wants to see it - select your viewing format from the list on the right-hand side of the page, and see how far downhill political discourse has gone since Chisholm's day.
We first meet Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) in a hospital bed, recovering from his injuries after a car crash. The trauma has caused him to lose much of his memory, but has awakened in him a long-dormant interest in a medical career. So on his recovery, he goes into medical school and becomes a star student, much to the delight of his parents. But there's a nasty shock waiting for him in anatomy class - he slowly comes to realise that the body he's dissecting for his four month anatomy project is that of his former girlfriend Ryôko (Nami Tsukamoto), who died in the same car crash that caused his amnesia. As he delves further and further inside her, he starts to remember more and more about their time together. Or is it more complicated than that?
This is the new film from Shinya Tsukamoto, the Japanese director best known for the Tetsuo movies, A Snake Of June, and other surreal psychodramas that tend to involve characters with robot cocks somewhere along the line. Vital is somewhat low on robot cockage, but does illustrate Tsukamoto's undeniable talent for depicting fractured mental states on film. What's new here is that he pulls it off within a conventional narrative framework. The story in a Tsukamoto film is normally all over the shop, and frequently disintegrates completely long before the end: here, he shows an astonishing degree of control, even as he wildly flip-flops between the present, the past, and some sort of limbo in between. And the film isn't as grim as the synopsis might lead you to believe: the autopsy scenes are for the most part kept carefully offscreen, while the film as a whole ends with a vision of happiness that's almost unheard of in Tsukamoto's earlier work.
He's helped enormously by another terrific performance by Tadanobu Asano, whose combination of movie-star looks and willingness to experiment makes him something like the Japanese equivalent of Johnny Depp. He has some extraordinary emotions to depict here, and he's never less than totally convincing no matter how fantastical the story gets. Tartan Films have picked up the UK distribution for Vital, so it'll probably end up at a UGC near you for two weeks as part of the Asia Extreme Festival 2005. But it really deserves better than that, as it's the director's best film to date.
8.45pm: Animation Programme 1
If it's a film festival, be it London or Edinburgh, then inevitably I'll be spending at least part of it watching a collection of animated shorts. Unfortunately, this year's LFF animation programme is a bit of a disappointment, with nothing in particular standing out. It's possible, I suppose, that all the good shorts will be in next week's second programme: certainly Animation Programme 2 contains at least two films (Bus Stop and Kamiya's Correspondence) that impressed me greatly a few months ago at Edinburgh.
But in the meantime, we have to deal with Animation Programme 1. Normally my complaint with these things is that narrative shorts have to battle for audience attention with arty abstract pieces: but this year there's only one of those, Daniel Greaves' Beginning Middle And End, a nicely drawn loop of things emerging from within other things. The narrative shorts this year tend to be high on technique, but all too often that technique seems to be all that matters: there's very little going on elsewhere to engage the viewer.
The dullest short on offer is Suite For Freedom: it's what the 3 Mustaphas 3 used to quaintly refer to as 'a three piece suite', in which three directors with wildly contrasting styles depict various aspects of American slavery. It was commissioned by a museum, and it shows - it's the sort of achingly earnest production you'd expect, conceived by people who just assume that getting these issues raised on screen is the priority, and that making them interesting comes much lower down the list. It was revealing that one of the directors, Caroline Leaf, felt the need to point out before the screening that this was a commissioned piece, and not representative of her personal work. At the other end of the artistic scale, the programme ends with Lorenzo, a funny animal cartoon of the old school, made by Michael Gabriel for Disney. It's stylishly done and has some good gags, but it seems unfair to include a film whose budget probably outstrips that of all the other films in the programme put together.
If highlights have to be identified, I could probably come up with two at a pinch. Gaelle Denis' City Paradise is a fabulous mix of digitally tweaked live action and animation, watching a young Japanese woman finding her way around London and discovering an underground secret. It's got a wholly unique visual style, with splendidly deformed body shapes and unexpected sight gags all over the place. Meanwhile, Sejong Park's Birthday Boy tells the adventures of a young boy in 1950s Korea, and here the cartoony CGI style (see illustration) cunningly plays against the discreet hints as to why he appears to have a whole town to himself to play in. But apart from those two, it's been a bit of a letdown this year.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Chisholm '72: Unbought And Unbossed
Maria Sharapova Fanclub - Well it must be something of a first (for me anyway) to be referred to as a 'scumbag' by a member of the NFT staff. Still if you run your festival with volunteers, the peanuts on offer will naturally attract its fair share of monkeys (anyway my letter will be in the post).
So onto Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black female congresswoman (post Civil Rights struggle), and who in 1972 decided to run for the Democratic nomination for President. Thus using archive footage combined with up to date interviews with the main players, this documentary is a telling commentary on the status of both black people and women at the beginning of that era. Now obviously she had no chance whatsoever in getting the Democratic nomination, the phrase 'Don Quixote' being used somewhere along the line. However for Shirley Chisholm this was both an opportunity to test her democratic rights, as well as to blaze a trail for those who would inevitably come after her.
I once read a book about Ted Kennedy's attempt to get the 1980 Democratic nomination from the then sitting Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Ted Kennedy's major campaign mistake was to believe the electorate still consisted of the same bi-polar Democratic/Republican make up as it had in his brother's JFK's day. Instead it had long since been fragmented into black, feminist, gay, pro life, pro choice, fundamentalist Christian etc. etc. factions. In a way, Shirley Chisholm makes the same mistake. Thus she campaigns as a woman not exclusively campaigning on women's issues, and a black person not purely campaigning on black issues. Thus just at the moment in history when the American electorate is becoming thus fragmented, Chisholm was trying to reach out to white middle class America, whilst neglecting her grassroots powerbase. Embarrasingly for her therefore, the black electorate end up ignoring her campaign and instead ended up flinging its weight behind George McGovern.
That aside, the whole campaign was a learning curve for any minority candidate. A telling moment is when Chisholm has to go to court to earn the privilege to take part in a TV debate with the other Democratic candidates, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey; their patronising smiles when she speaks being enough to make anyone throw up. The other oddity for me was that of George Wallace who thankfully was gunned down mid campaign, Wallace being a Democratic candidate who was further to the right than Hitler.
Anyway as another campaign trailer pointed out, "more than ever this country needs Nixon," who was duly re-elected. Isn't Dubya currently pedalling a similar line?
Visions of Europe
Maria Sharapova Fanclub - This being one of those ideas that looks good on paper, but doesn't necessarily work out in practice. The idea being, take 25 of Europe's best known directors, give them an equal budget, and get them to come up with a five minute short about present day or near future Europe.
The problem with such a celluloid patchwork quilt, is that it quickly loses any real coherent theme, and ends up as being 25 short films stitched together. That said, if there was one theme running through at least a quarter of the movies, it was that of immigration, and the problems for non-persons trying to cross borders in search of work and a better life.
Other than that, the highlight (from Poland I think) featured a crucifix stuck in the middle of nowhere, and a tired and worn out Jesus, being replaced by a pinker, fatter and smilier version. The lowlight inevitably came from the UK and Peter Greenaway. Well that is unless your bag is watching fat elderly people standing in a shower, trying to wash painted flags off of themselves.
Overall I guess this would have worked better if the directors hadn't been given such an open ended theme, and instead had to socially construct a national viewpoint around a central idea (such as immigration).
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