Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Film for the masses?

Here’s another random thought that nobody asked me to come up with. Going to a film festival screening is a bit like going to mass.

Okay, it’s not really. After all, one is a profound communion with a higher spirituality. And the other involves going to a church.

Okay, that’s the kind of flippant comment that gets me into trouble. I don’t mean to make fun of anybody’s religious faith. But since I grew up with virtually no religious instruction, the idea of church rituals has always had a curious fascination for me. I get dragged to a fair few masses (like a lot of people these days, usually Christmas or Easter or funerals), and I’m always impressed by the repetition. To an outsider, so much of what goes on seems to be repeating the same stuff over from week to week. Of course, I know there are spiritual reasons for that and that, over the course of their lives, people come to take great comfort from that repetition.

The reason I was thinking about this is that there is a fair amount of repetition at screenings at a film festival. At least during the first several minutes there is. Once the lights go down, we are shown a film clip announcing the film festival, sometimes two. Then we are shown advertisements from festival sponsors. And then, finally, the film we have come to see, perhaps preceded by a short film.

And, yes, this means that I’ve been to a film festival. This past weekend I repeated my semi-tradition of doing a two-day drive-by of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. In the space of about 33 hours, I saw eight movies, including two documentaries, two archival screenings and feature films from Britain, Norway, France and Romania. In that period of time, I managed to see four directors (Craig McCall, Shane O’Sullivan, Bent Hamer, Alexandru Maftei) answer questions about their films after the screenings. Not bad for a quick two-day get-away.

Anyway, seeing that number of films in such a short amount of time is what got me to thinking about the repetitive aspect of the film festival experience. Seeing those same film clips and advertisements over and over was, at first, kind of annoying. But the funny thing is that, by the second day, I was taking some sort of spiritual comfort from the repetition. I started studying the advertisements, trying to discern the technique and craft behind them. One in particular, for Ireland radio station 2fm, was a particular challenge. What is it exactly, that Hector Ó hEochagáin (for obvious reasons, he usually gets referred to as just Hector) says to fellow morning host Ryan Tubridy as they discuss the commute traffic? I think it’s something like, “I don’t know. I find the cut-through quite handy.” Eight viewings/listenings still weren’t enough to be 100 percent sure, though.

As usual, a good part of the experience is what I saw and experienced while running from one cinema to another. Saturday was actually a beautiful day and quite welcome after a long, hard winter. The streets were festooned with election posters. Ireland is having an election on Friday to elect a new government that will have the privilege of presiding over the country’s continued slide into virtual bankruptcy. But that wasn’t even the most exciting thing going on in Dublin streets. Everywhere I went I kept running into Libyans, or at least Libyan supporters. They were agitating for the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, and I have to say that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. I don’t know how much good demonstrations in a European capital can do in helping to bring him down, but it’s certainly worth a try. When this Middle East turmoil shakes out, it’s going to make a great movie or two or three.

Libyans demonstrating in Dublin
Libyans and supporters demonstrating on Dublin’s O’Connell Street on Sunday

But back to the film festival. Although it will hurt my standing as some sort of film snob (I can dream, can’t I?), I have to say that my favorite movie was the one by Luc Besson. I went in knowing virtually nothing about The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (or as the festival program had it, simply Adèle Blanc), so every frame was a surprise. I know Besson has always had a penchant for flights of fancy (from the slick imagery of La Femme Nikita to sci-fi fantasy of The Fifth Element to those Arthur and the Invisibles children movies he has taken to directing), but this movie puts him into Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam territory. There is nothing at all profound about it, but it sure is fun.

My two favorite other new movies were Craig McCall’s documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and Bent Hamer’s Home for Christmas. The former was a suitable tribute to the longest working and most accomplished cinematographer to have bridged several eras of filmmaking. The latter was a feel-good (in the best possible sense) celebration of quirky human behavior at the darkest time of the year.

The overall best movie I saw is one I had seen before and has been a certifiable classic for a half-century, which is precisely why it was being shown. David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is simply one of the best movies ever made. And thank God for film festivals so that we can get a chance to see this movie the way it was meant to be seen, projected on a screen the size of jet hangar. Seeing it that way, one cannot imagine seeing it on a mere television screen. Do people ever watch this movie on an iPod or similar device? I suppose it’s possible, but what’s the point?

In the end, there was no movie that wasn’t good. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche was a bit too soap for my taste and, being short on sleep, I had to work to stay awake in places. But that was no problem for Andy De Emmony’s charming comedy West Is West, about an Anglo-Pakistani family exploring its roots in the home country, or Shane O’Sullivan’s interesting documentary Children of the Revolution or Alexandru Maftei’s intriguing dramedy Hello! How Are You?.

Even though the film festival continues through Sunday, it is sadly over for me this year. But I’m already looking forward to next year. What new movies will be screening then? And what crowd will be marching in the street to bring down which dictator?

The Brigadier (1929-2011)

Some of the quirkiest conventions of the long-running TV series Doctor Who have come about strictly to provide convenience to the producers. Need a vessel that travels through time and space? Make it able to disguise itself as anything and then make it get stuck in the form of a simple blue police telephone box. That’s cheaper than building an elaborate ship. Lead actor wants to leave the show? Give his character the ability to regenerate upon being killed and have a whole new body. Then just hire a new actor.

The fact that the title role of Doctor Who can be changed at will and has been recast without problem ten times in the series’s nearly five-decade-long run plus the fact the viewers have long since accepted that the Doctor’s traveling companions will come and go fairly regularly has pretty much guaranteed that no one actor really dominates the entire series. Sure, we all have our favorite Doctor and our favorite companion, but we have to concede that those actors were, in the end, among many who have come and gone.

Arguably, the most continuity provided by one actor in the series’s overall run was from the man who died on Tuesday at the age of 81. Nicholas Courtney was a veteran British actor who made appearances on many UK TV shows through the years, including the likes of The Saint, The Avengers, Yes, Prime Minister and Only Fools and Horses… But for legions of fans only one role played by Courtney really matters. At various times from 1968 through 2008, he played one of the Doctor’s most stalwart allies. Usually he was referred to simply as the Brigadier, although fans can readily recite his full name: Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. He was in charge of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) which, as we all know, is the earth’s main defense against extraterrestrial threats.

Courtney’s obituary on the io9 web site points out that he first appeared in the series in 1965 opposite the original Doctor, William Hartnell, playing a character called Space Agent Bret Vyon in a story called “The Daleks Master Plan.” He debuted as the Brigadier in 1968, opposite the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. He returned periodically until 1989, opposite four more Doctors. In addition, as his BBC obituary points out, he also worked with two other Doctors (Paul McGann and David Tennant) in audio episodes. The character of the Brigadier was so firmly established in the Doctor Who canon that, when the series was revised for the 21st century and UNIT was reintroduced, the writers were occasionally compelled to provide explanations for the Brigadier’s absence. (He usually seemed to be on assignment in Peru.) Although he did not appear with David Tennant’s tenth Doctor on screen, he did make one final appearance in the Tennant era on a two-part episode, called “Enemy of the Bane,” of the spinoff series The Sarah Jane Adventures, reuniting with the Doctor’s former companion Sarah Jane Smith played, as always, by the wonderful Elisabeth Sladen.

Godspeed, Brigadier. You will be missed.

-S.L., 24 February 2011

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