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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Love and Hurt in Cork

I have no idea if anyone in Cork reads this web page, but I took no chances anyway. I slipped back into Munster incognito, just on the chance that people might be harboring hard feelings about my comments about Roy Keane last year (and on a few other occasions). I should just keep my virtual mouth shut, stay away from sports entirely, and just enjoy the Heineken instead. (The old Murphy’s brewery, which used to sponsor the Cork Film Festival is now Heineken Ireland.)

I have to say, I have really gotten to like Cork as a city. It’s got most of the same amenities as Dublin, but it is small enough to navigate easily on foot. It’s especially easy to walk around the city now, since there are hardly any cars in the city center. This probably has to do with the fact that every street in the city center has been dug up. I’m not sure what all the construction is about, but it has certainly made it easier to cross the street, as long as you can find a place to cross that isn’t enclosed by fences.

It seems that every time I hear about Cork on the news, it is about some senselessly violent crime (as opposed to Limerick, where the reports are always about some purposefully violent crime). This doesn’t seem fair, and it really says more about the press than it does about Irish cities. I know because when the TV news does a story about the county where I live, it always seems intended to illustrate how odd and strange country people are. Like the time an elderly brother and sister neglected to do anything for a year about another sister who had died in her bed. (The claimed they didn’t know she was dead, even though they all lived in the same house. They said they hadn’t gone into her room for a year because “she liked her privacy.”) Anyway, I digress. Cork is a swell place to spend a week, even if all you’re doing is sitting in movie theaters.

I was pleased to see that this year’s festival is featuring a tribute to John Hurt. I hadn’t really thought about how many great movies he has been in, but he’s been in a bunch. The festival got off to a great start for me with an archival screening of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, in which Hurt had the title role. It’s one of the best movies ever, and it certainly helped to get the adrenaline going for the rest of the week.

Hurt first came to the attention of many of us Americans when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s classic outer space horror flick, Alien. His surname seemed extremely à propos, since his character was the one that briefly and inadvertently incubated a newborn extraterrestrial creature. The alien made its rather messy exit from his torso, as Hurt and the rest of the crew were enjoying a meal. In a strange example of the power of urban legends, I have talked to several people who saw that movie and who swear up and down that Hurt’s last line was: “It feels good to get something inside me.” He didn’t actually say that, but for a long time I thought he did, and so did a lot of other people. Weird. It’s sort of like the way that the most often-quoted line “from” Casablanca is “Play it again, Sam,” even though no character in the movie actually said it.

The festival is showing a director’s cut of Alien as part of its tribute to Hurt. In addition to that and The Elephant Man, the tribute includes Nineteen Eighty-Four, Love and Death on Long Island and Night Train, as well as some of his TV work and short films.

The Hurt tribute has prompted me to do something I don’t often do. I have seen three films at the festival that I had already seen at some point in the past. Though it may surprise some people to learn this, I am not one of those film freaks who sit through lots of movies multiple times. In fact, I tend to fear watching a favorite film a second time because a second viewing sometimes disappoints. But I have re-watched three John Hurt films and found them all just as good or better than the first time. I could appreciate The Elephant Man even more now than in 1980, having seen David Lynch’s subsequent work. Nineteen Eighty-four was no easier to watch than 19 years ago, but it was more interesting in light of what has happened in the world since. Orwell’s prediction of TV screens and cameras everywhere has certainly come true, but it’s not nearly as ominous (at least for me) as it was for him. Walking through downtown Cork late at night, I am actually reassured by notices that video cameras are in operation.

Coincidentally, I had seen Love and Death on Long Island at the 1997 Cork Film Festival. For some reason, I found this film tremendously funny and still do. The spectacle of Hurt’s curmudgeonly English writer being dragged into the 20th century by his unlikely obsession with a young American actor (a brilliantly dim Jason Priestly) is priceless. The first time around, I was mainly struck by the humor in the situation (Hurt surreptitiously picking up copies of teen fan magazines at the newsagents, making a scrapbook of articles and photos of his teen idol, buying a video player and watching his wretched teen movies, etc.) This time I took the story more seriously. After all, this film has a creepy aspect. We don’t know quite what to make of Hurt virtually stalking the unsuspecting Priestly. This theme now has an eerie echo in shots of the Long Island Expressway, which was central in Michael Cuesta’s 2001 film L.I.E., in which Brian Cox played a pedophile. But Priestly, while young and beautiful, is a grown man. Hurt may not be exactly normal, but he’s not exactly a pyscho either.

What I hadn’t appreciated enough the first time around was how Hurt’s obsession had changed both him and Priestly, and for the better. In the end, Priestly is repelled by Hurt’s advance, yet his consciousness has been raised. He follows up on one of Hurt’s suggestions and slips a reading of poetry by Walt Whitman into a scene of his new flick, Hot Pants College III. (Priestly’s movies-within-the-movie alone are worth the price of admission to the film.) We get the sense that the mediocre Priestly may actually be on his way to becoming a truly decent actor. Meanwhile, Hurt has returned to London with his heart broken. But he has discovered a whole new world that includes movies and popular culture and, generally speaking, everything that has happened in the world since the death of Queen Victoria. Most importantly, he has learned to love unconditionally and passionately and to take risks for that passion.

That’s a good lesson for any of us. Right now my passion is this film festival.

-S.L., 16 October 2003

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