Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Re-Corked

Perhaps the nicest thing that was ever said about me by another man was in relation to my buttocks.

Impressed by my feat nine years ago of seeing 87 movies during the Seattle International Film Festival, my friend Michael wrote (rather hyperbolically) on his web site, “Scott is a movie-going god; I have no independent confirmation of the rumor that he actually had a stainless-steel rump insert surgically implanted so he can sit through that many hours in darkened movie theatres.”

I thought that was a pretty funny line at the time, but these days it’s starting to sound like an option worth considering. My derrière has still not recovered from my recent week in Cork. Let’s face it, this is an object lesson in the danger of resting on one’s, uh, laurels. For one thing, despite Michael’s generous praise, my 1997 Seattle record is small change compared to the numerous really serious film buffs, who each would have seen well over a hundred films. As discussed here before, these are people who actually see the highest mathematically possible number of films at the film festival. They also see every movie that plays in a cinema during the rest of the year. Where people like me ask or get asked, have you seen such-and-such movie, those people ask and get asked, how many times have you seen such-and-such movie? (The best documentation I have seen of this film-obsessed subculture is the German-produced documentary Cinemania, about movie fanatics in New York.)

So even at my movie-going peak, I was never in the big leagues, bum-stretching-wise. In the 21st century, the fact that I simply don’t see as many movies as I used to works against keeping my arse in fighting trim. And newer, more modern and plusher cinemas have contributed to my decline in posterior stamina. It is a rude shock to spend eight days of sitting through one to four screenings in the venerable (i.e. old) Cork Opera House, clearly designed and built for an era when the bottom line in comfort was, well, not that bottom friendly. By the time I got to the closing night screening of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the pains radiating through my backside may admittedly have had as much to do with my negative review as anything I saw or heard onscreen.

But enough of my whining and whinging. So, how did this film festival stack up to previous ones? While Seattle will always be my sentimental favorite among film fests (with three and a half weeks and something like four venues, you just can’t beat the selection), Cork is definitely my sentimental favorite Irish festival. While the selection may not be as rich as the younger Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the city of Cork itself is a lot more comfortable for concentrated film-going than is Dublin. And I have a lot more history with Cork. By this time, I have spent enough time there that I nearly feel like an ex-officio resident. My knowledge of where and when to find espresso throughout the city is fairly exhaustive. As for the festival itself, it has more of a buzz among the staff, volunteers and attendees than I feel among those of the larger and more professionally run JDIFF. (JDIFF staff are meticulous and businesslike about checking your membership card at every screening. Cork is a bit more relaxed and cordial.) Of course, that feeling could change with time, especially if I actually got to spend more than a couple of days attending the JDIFF.

As for content, as always, my generalizations can reflect only movies that I personally saw. And that list of movies was selected by myself, so my comments here may ostensibly reflect on the festival, but they also reflect to an extent on myself. That is not to say that I select only movies with a point of view that I expect to agree with. Usually, my criteria for selecting movies has more to do with the amount of buzz I have heard about the films, usually from other film festivals but also from reviews of movies that simply haven’t otherwise arrived in Ireland yet. With that caveat in mind, the content in film festivals usually has a major political component. Usually, the festival’s political consciousness is most evident in its selection of documentaries. Although Cork had a fairly extensive representation of recent documentaries, I only saw two—and of those, neither dealt with what you would call current issues. Marco Müller’s Breaking the Rules was an admiring look back at various stages of American counter-culture. Some of us would question his inclusion of the hip-hop movement into that category since, to me anyway, it always seemed more of a pure artistic movement rather than a force for serious social and political change. But I could be wrong. If so, Breaking the Rules didn’t do anything to correct my impression. While revisiting those past eras is interesting and entertaining, doing so only reinforces the notion that social revolution is mostly a thing of the past. It would be interesting to see a sequel, identifying the equivalent movements today. The other documentary, Lian Lunson’s Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, mainly concentrated on artistry, although politics was certainly in the background.

For more provocative political content, one had to pay attention to fake documentaries. Gabriel Range’s Death of a President was the most high-profile. In introducing the movie to a very stoked audience, Range alluded to the fact that the film had made a lot of people in America unhappy and promised that, when it opens there later this month, it will make them even more unhappy—to which the audience cheered. But, if there was a message in the movie, it was that no civilized person really has an interest in the possible assassination of the president. In the film, Dick Cheney becomes president and a very repressive Patriotic Act III is quickly enacted. Also politicians and the media cannot wait to jump to conclusions about who the guilty party is. There may be oblique criticism of American conduct of the war on terror here, but the stronger message is that the removal of Bush would benefit far-right-wingers and/or those who have interest in seeing America overreact.

Coincidentally, the same weekend that Death of a President opened the Cork Film Festival, National Public Radio’s On the Media featured an interview with Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker writer who originated the plot and co-wrote the screenplay of Edward Zwick’s 1998 movie The Siege. (Wright’s new book is a history of Al Qaeda called The Looming Tower.) The thrust of the interview was about how eerie it was that Wright’s imagined scenario turned out to be so close to the eventual reality. It is true that there is something spine-tingling about how The Siege’s story presages 9/11. Specifically, it recounts an attack on New York City by Islamic terrorists. But interviewer Brooke Gladstone and Wright discussed it as though it was a given that the story’s aftermath of the attack had all come true as well. It’s been a few years since I saw the film, but my recollection is that, in the movie, martial law is declared in New York and Arab-Americans are rounded up into a sports stadium. (Ironically, martial law is declared by then-president Bill Clinton, appearing in archival footage. Maybe his people should have insisted that ABC broadcast The Siege after The Path to 9/11 for balance.) Now, I’m pretty sure that, in reality, martial law was not declared in New York after 9/11 and no one was rounded up into stadiums. What Gladstone and Wright seemed to be doing was generalizing about what they considered over-reaction by the government. When they suggest as a given the book’s account of the attack’s aftermath being predictive, they seem to be thinking of events like the secret CIA detention centers outside America and NSA surveillance of phone calls between people in the U.S. and suspected terrorists abroad. Those things may be legitimately worrying for people concerned with civil liberties, but they are very different than martial law in an American city and mass domestic detentions by the military. The fact that a professional media analyst like Gladstone doesn’t see this as a distinction worth making doesn’t add to anyone’s clarity. Similarly, Death of a President takes it as a given that civil liberties would likely be curtailed in the event of a presidential assassination. And there is no refuting this assertion since such this particular assassination hasn’t actually happened. But there is a precedent. The film’s assassination scenario parallels closely the JFK murder. Kennedy was shot by a sniper, who was an ardent Marxist and who had lived nearly three years in the Soviet Union—a country with which the U.S. had nearly come to a nuclear exchange about a year earlier. Furthermore, it was not clear for a long time afterwards (and for a surprising number, it still isn’t) whether more people than just the gunman were involved in the assassination. If ever there was a situation that was ripe for over-reaction and a clamp-down on civil liberties, it was the moment of Kennedy’s death. But it didn’t happen. Is the War on Terror more conducive to over-reaction than the Cold War was? Your answer quite likely depends entirely on your predisposition to trust or not trust the current government. In any event, it’s in the interest of all of us that we do not find out.

If Death of a President is subtle and/or ambiguous politically, the other fake documentary I saw is really hard to pin down. Larry Charles’s outrageous comedy Borat (with the deliberately unwieldy subtitle Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) seems to be making political points, but it’s hard to be sure. It is certainly unflattering to Kazakhstan, but somehow I don’t think it was singling out that country for criticism over any other in the region. It seems to have been picked more because UK and American audiences would have a suitably vague idea of what the country is really like. As for the bulk of the film, which takes place in America, most of the derision seems to be directed at the character of Borat himself and at his producer because, well, they are idiots. Borat interacts with “ordinary Americans” and those confrontations seem ripe for implied political commentary (discussing his Neanderthal attitudes toward females with a New York women’s group, butchering the national anthem at a rodeo, buying a gun in a gun shop, bringing an African-American hooker to a genteel Southern home). But most of these setups seem aimed less at making a point than at mining improvised comedy that jibes with general European (and, it must be said, American blue state) attitudes about what America is like.

As for the feature films, there is always some potential political message in their various fictional storylines. But only a few could be considered overtly political. Top of the list was clearly the 1964 film I Am Cuba, which was made by a Soviet filmmaker, with cooperation from the Cuban army and in support of the recent Cuban revolution. But the reason the film has enjoyed a recent revival has more to do with its aesthetic qualities than with its politics. The only other overtly political film was Serge Le Péron’s I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, which deals with actual people and actual events. While the film is recent, the events portrayed are from 30 years ago. And while the movie itself isn’t great, the issues involved are interesting and maybe even important to some people. But for most of us, it’s a footnote to our understanding of the world.

Other political themes touched on (generally lightly enough) in other features range from Arab assimilation in France (Lila Says), pacifism (The Rocket Post), the effect of Thatcherism on British education (The History Boys), the dangers of religious fanaticism (Middletown) and immigrant assimilation in the U.S. (The Namesake).

And then there is the closing night film, which could have been ripe for political commentary by way of historical parallel. The film festival, which began with the fictional assassination of a real-life U.S. president, ended with a biopic of a real-life queen best known for being decapitated by revolutionaries. I think it is safe to say, however, that little, if any, political consciousness went into the making of Marie Antoinette. Indeed, the movie not only doesn’t portray or even allude to her beheading but ends the story four years before that event. The masses, who have come to resent the monarchy, go unseen except for a brief snippet toward the end. The closest thing to a political comment happens in the one scene in which the passive Louis XVI (played by Jason Schwartzman) is seen making a political decision. He decides to support the American revolution. According to the movie, this expenditure helps lead to the economic situation that precipitates the French Revolution. So even way back in the 18th century, the world’s problems were already being caused by the United States.

Rather than politics, Marie Antoinette is really all about what a drag it is to be born into aristocracy and to have to live in the public eye. It seems to be an experience that Sofia Coppola has a particular affinity for. Personally, if I found myself living such a lifestyle, I’d make a serious change. It’s just not a situation that I’d take (ouch) sitting down.

-S.L., 19 October 2006


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