Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Wedded to film

At the risk of repeating myself (for the ninth time over a 12-year period), it was a great Film Fleadh.

Whenever I get the chance to see bunch of movies within a relatively short span of time, i.e. whenever I get to go to a film festival, I am always reminded of something that Seattle International Film Festival co-founder Darryl McDonald always used to say (and maybe still does) as he was introducing films at the Secret Festival. I hope this doesn’t violate the oath of silence I signed each time I participated in that great event, but I don’t think it does.

He said that the four films screened at the Secret Festival each year followed the old wedding custom of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. And surely, there always seemed to be some brand new un-released flick, some archival curiosity that hadn’t been seen for ages, a print that had to be lent from someone’s private collection and, inevitably, something you wouldn’t want to bring your grandmother (or grandchild) to. But doesn’t that old custom really reflect what film festivals in general are about? You go to see something brand new (world, European or Irish premieres), old classics that deserve to be seen on the big screen, movies that aren’t readily available for viewing otherwise and, let’s be honest, maybe a bit of titillation here and there.

At this year’s Film Fleadh, I got a nice dose of “old” with screenings of Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (with Bogie and Bacall!) and Powell & Pressburger’s ballet classic The Red Shoes, as well as more recent works such as Gabriel Axel’s stunning Babette’s Feast, Neal Jordan’s unnerving In Dreams and István Szabó’s delightful Being Julia (the latter two featuring Film Fleadh no-show honoree Annette Bening). The “new” would clearly be the world premieres of movies like Ian Power’s wonderful The Runway. (Other world premieres included Tom Hall’s Sensation and P.J. Dillon’s Rewind.) But really any recent movie we hadn’t (or otherwise wouldn’t) get a chance to see qualifies as new, and for me that includes movies like Snap, All Good Children and The Kids Are All Right—as well as major prize winners over the past year or so from abroad, like The Secret in Their Eyes and A Prophet.

As for “something borrowed,” well, technically every film screened is borrowed in the sense that the prints all have to be returned to a distributor or someone. But some films feel more borrowed than others in that we ourselves can’t go out (or stay in) and see them or rent them or buy them ourselves. This takes in a foreign gem like Hungary’s Chameleon or the Peruvian drama Undertow, as well as films made originally for some nation’s television and whose afterlife seems destined for film festivals, like the documentary Men Who Swim or the Irish-language thriller Na Cloigne. And “something blue”? Well, let’s just say that the non-major-studio-financed movies that find their way into film festivals tend to be a bit more frank about certain things. While some films may have been a bit rougher than others, none of the ones I saw were really what you would call prurient. Having said that, there was one particular scene in Carmel Winters’s hard-to-watch Snap… but let’s not go there.

What was truly interesting this time was how much themes and motifs seem to bleed from one film into another. Even though I chose my own movies from the established program, it nearly felt as though some unseen hand had guided my personal schedule so that one film would complement and maybe even comment on another. In the first film I saw, Give Me Your Hand, two brothers traversed a France which seemed to consist of nothing but sparsely populated forest and who were driven cracked by one or the other’s need for something more than just the relationship between the two of them. Three nights later darned if another film, All Good Children, didn’t also have two brothers (younger and Irish) seeming to wander the same forests and dealing with the same kind of issues. On the second day, Being Julia asked if we could see behind the mask of an accomplished English actor. The very next movie, Chameleon, asked the very same question about a Hungarian con man. And the next night, darned if we weren’t asked the same question about a real-life performer in the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Also on the second day, Robert Quinn asked us to contemplate the horrors of one living person being able to possess the mind of another in his thrilling Na Cloigne. And darned if Neil Jordan didn’t pose much the same question the following day in his unsettling In Dreams. On the third day, we agonized over how an uncontrollable passion could split up a family in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. And darned if in the very next movie the very same question wasn’t posed in Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow. I Am Love also provided a luxurious wallow in Italian food, to be complemented three days later by an even better wallow in French food in Babette’s Feast.

The fourth day of the Film Fleadh was particularly grueling emotionally. After an uplifting start with the gorgeous The Red Shoes (which in the end had a famously tragic finale), I went on to three films in a row that portrayed children being subjected to all manner of the worst perils imaginable. In Dreams featured a serial child abductor and killer. Snap, likewise, centered on a child abduction, as well as providing a sickening examination of child molestation. And All Good Children told a tragic tale of a confused boy not coming to terms very well with adolescence. It was enough to make any parent run home and stand guard over his or her own offspring.

Fortunately, the final two days offered a fair amount of uplift and optimism. Dylan Williams’s autobiographical documentary Men Who Swim was a feel-good day-brightener that could make one feel happy about living in a foreign country. And Ian Power’s The Runway was a feel-good crowd-pleaser that could make one feel happy about living in Ireland. Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes definitely had its grim aspects, but it was in the end a rather sweet love story. The paean to art, spirituality and food that is Babette’s Feast could not help but uplift any but the most recalcitrant soul. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right evoked all the joys and frustrations of family life and ultimately affirmed how important family is. Heck, after Friday it was just reassuring to see a title like The Kids Are All Right.

And, for me, the festival ended on just the right note. The collaborative New York, I Love You may have been a bit obvious, but its unabashed celebration of people’s love for the Big Apple and for each other was hard to resist. And its sprawling cast of famous faces, not always recognizable and ranging from young to old and everything in between, made it a celebration of love for movies as well. And, like a wedding, that’s what a film festival really is: a ritual that affirms our love for something or for someone.

-S.L., 15 July 2010

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