Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

In Dublin’s fair city

It is tempting this week to muse on the demise of the three D’s. In the space of a few days, we lost Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver. But do I have anything to say about them that is so profound that it can’t wait until, say, next January? Or that isn’t being said in a bunch of other places? Not really. In various ways and to various degrees they were icons mainly, if not exclusively, on our small screens. And their passing is an occasion for reflection and bit of sadness. But life goes on.

Last week I spent a couple of days at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. This was the fourth installment and, while I’ve never done the full week, I have at least made it to the festival for three of its four years. There is just something about its timing in late winter (or, as the Irish call it, “spring”) that makes it a bit inconvenient for me to get away for the whole week. Like two years ago, when it coincided with Valentine’s Day. I might not know much, but I do know enough to be at home on the major Hallmark holidays. And then, some crisis always seems to erupt when I leave home for the Dublin fest. Like three years ago when lightning struck our house. Well, it didn’t actually strike the house, but there was a power surge through the phone line that fried the Missus’s computer and knocked the lights out for a good while. This year the Little Munchkin took sick. Now there’s a good way to turn a film festival journey into a first-class guilt trip.

It is hard for me to generalize about the Dublin festival, which is now officially the largest in Ireland, since I saw only six films during my 48-hour drive-by. Even if I throw in the five festival films that I had seen prior to the festival, that still amounts to less than 10 percent of the festival’s offerings. But I am always fascinated by the patterns that emerge, at random, in even a small sampling of a festival program. For instance, of the half-dozen flicks I wound up seeing, chosen more by their dates and venues than by subject matter or known talent involved, fully half of them featured an Asian character who had an unexpected effect on the other characters in the film. In José Corbacho and Juan Cruz’s Tapas, it was a chef named Mao from Hong Kong, who has emigrated to Spain for the sake of love and winds up transforming a dive of a tapas bar. In Norbert Baumgarten’s Liberated Zone, it is a Vietnamese man who is abused by German youths and who, in turn, teaches them, to their regret, that there is a limit to his patience. And in David Beaird’s The Civilization of Maxwell Bright, it is a mail-order bride from China, who has an amazing effect on the biggest lout in southern California, as he confronts the biggest crisis of his life. What does all this mean? I guess, mainly, that westerners continue to have a fascination with Asians and Asia, whether it is Tapas’s Opo, who is obsessed with Bruce Lee, or Maxwell Bright, who finds himself drawn to Buddhism.

A chief pleasure of film festival attendance is the chance to see and hear people involved in making the films, and there were two such opportunities during my visit. Veteran Canadian actor Guy Thauvette, who played a small but pivotal role in Francis Leclerc’s Mémoires affectives was on hand for discussion after the screening of that film. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a through-the-looking-glass kind of experience, as the audience was primed for an detailed discussion of the film’s intricate themes of memory, perceptions of reality, guilt, euthanasia and sibling bonds. Francophone Thauvette’s tenuous command of English made for a series of exchanges of questions and answers sailing past each other and not quite connecting. The next night, on the other hand, Patrick Warburton, the star of The Civilization of Maxwell Bright, demonstrated a command of English that belied the lunkhead characters he usually plays. This particular screening allowed me to play catch-up with my friends Dayle and Jim, who saw Warburton and the movie last June at the Seattle International Film Festival. You guys may have gotten to see it first but, hey, Warburton told his questioner that, of all the film festivals he has attended, that the Dublin film festival is definitely the best one. So there! Unfortunately, I had to sneak out a side door, just as Warburton was explaining in an answer to another question that, no, he wasn’t really as dumb as the characters he plays, in order to make a dash across the city center to catch the screening of Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Of all the films I saw, the only one that was a full house was also the most thought-provoking. It was Kevin Willmott’s fake documentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. The movie is very well made, frequently entertaining and more than a little educational. Still there is something about it that bothers me, and I have been trying to put my finger on it. I guess it sort of reminds me of a story one of my university roommates once told me. One day he was riding his bicycle to school down a steep hill on the San Francisco peninsula. He was approaching a stop sign, but he had a clear view for a long ways in both directions of the cross road in front of him. Seeing no cars, he continued through the intersection without stopping. He was promptly pulled over by a traffic cop. He explained to the officer that he could see there were no cars approaching the intersection and that there was no need to stop. The cop shot back, “Yeah, but what if it had been foggy?” Unable to deal with the officer’s hypothetical, my roommate was forced to go to law school and become an attorney.

A defender of the United States’ reputation might say, yes, slavery (which was originally a worldwide phenomenon) was wrong and existed for far too long in America, but the historical fact is that the country did fight a war to end it. And end it it did. Willmott’s movie responds, yeah, but what if it hadn’t? The film appears to want to blame the country, or at least elements within the country, for things that never happened. It is one thing to ponder the ultimate results if certain people had had their way. But it also puts words into the mouths of people like Abraham Lincoln, saying late in life that he regretted that slavery had never really been a big issue for him anyway. It suggests not only that slavery could have survived as an institution for another century and a half but that America would have been a friend and ally to Nazi Germany. Sure, it’s fantasy, but it’s also making a serious political point and one that cannot be refuted because it is based on pure speculation. Just as the movie illustrates the racial prejudice that survived in American culture for many years (and can still be found), the movie also feeds prejudices about the American character which are held by the kind of audiences that attend European film festivals.

Personally, I would be interested in seeing a mockumentary about what Ireland would be like if the Free State forces had been defeated in the 1920 civil war. Or better yet, how about one that shows what Ireland would be like in the future if Sinn Féin ever got elected to form a government? After all, Sinn Féin, frequently referred to as “the political wing of the Irish Republican Army,” is the only political party so far to have been elected to seats in parliaments in Belfast, London and Dublin simultaneously. This idea occurred to me because, just a few days after I left Dublin and while the film festival was still going on, there was a riot in the capital. People had been bused down from the North for an Orange march that was dubbed, with no little irony, Love Ulster. This wasn’t the usual triumphal Orange march commemorating some battle hundreds of years ago. These were victims and survivors of terrorist attacks over the past few decades. But the march never occurred. A protest organized by Sinn Féin evolved (or was hijacked, depending on which newspaper you read) into fairly well organized violence on O’Connell Street and other city center locales, causing millions of euros worth of damage and sending scores of people to the hospital.

The violent outbreak came as the Irish republic has been going through a debate on the meaning of the 1916 Easter Rising, which will soon observe its 90th anniversary. The Irish government plans to commemorate it with a military parade, the first since, well, since the one 40 years ago which coincidentally coincided with the kickoff of decades of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. While no one in the Republic of Ireland would seriously question that independence from Britain was a good thing, there are those who see the Easter Rising not as a necessary step toward inevitable independence (up to then supported by members of both the Catholic and Protestant communities) but as the beginning of an unnecessary and counter-productive period of tribal warfare. And, as last weekend showed, it is a period that is not yet completely over.

Watching coverage of the violent street thugs last weekend has helped me to put things into perspective. Europeans (as well as some Americans on the political left) keep agonizing that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming (or has already become or, as C.S.A. has it, would have become) a fascist state. Yet, despite much bandying about of the term “patriotism” by certain politicians since 9/11, U.S. voters have yet to elect any ultra-nationalist party with its own private army to Congress. Over the past century, that has been more of a European phenomenon.

-S.L., 2 March 2006

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