Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Miscellaneous stuff at the 2003 Cork Film Festival

Miscellaneous Shorts

These are sundry short films that were shown before the evening features…

De Beste Går Først (United We Stand) is a Norwegian short, said in the program notes to be “inspired by the Labour Party.” The last remnants of a group old-as-dirt song-singing socialists are out in the woods on an annual hike. They come upon a young woman stuck in a swamp and help her out. It takes a few minutes before they notice their own predicament. So, what is the film saying? Their hearts are in the right place, but they’ve outlived their time? Anyway, it’s funny and sad at the same time, as they go down singing the Internationale. (Seen 18 October 2003)

Carcan (Shackles) plays a bit of a mean trick on healthy young men in the audience. A woman dressed in a tight-fitting leather number, reminiscent of Catwoman in Tim Burton’s second Batman movie, begins to disrobe. To our surprise, the outfit was more even tight-fitting than we thought. The guys may be disappointed, but women will want to know where they can get one. (Seen 13 October 2003)

Dortka Uhartea (Turtle Island), a 15-minute film in Basque, tells the story of an extraterrestrial who crash lands on earth and takes refuge on the titular island. The alien looks, acts and thinks suspiciously like a human child, and so we have a mini-adventure/drama reminiscent of such films on childhood as My Life as a Dog, but with much more spectacular scenery. (Seen 15 October 2003)

Fast Film gives you an adrenaline rush, like the first time you saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. A dizzying animation tour de force that incorporates bits of scenes of classic movies covering decades, it’s what you might possibly expect if Salvador Dali and Chuck Workman had collaborated on something. Everyone from Bogie and Cary Grant to Sean Connery and Harrison Ford (and a corresponding set of leading ladies) is involved in the chase scene to end all chase scenes. Its way of incorporating two-dimensional scenes into a 3-D folded paper world gives a whole new meaning to the term “film clip.” It’s an Austria-Luxembourg production. (Seen 16 October 2003)

The Projectionist opens with a screen’s eye view of a movie theater. It’s a clever opening shot because it’s eerily like looking into a mirror—except we (the audience) aren’t there. As the titular projectionist leaves the cinema, it is clear that he has just had his Last Picture Show. As he walks (with a gait oddly like, well, a projector) through the city, something strange happens. Bit by bit, the whole city becomes a patchwork movie screen. This Australian short is visually interesting and even a bit moving. (Seen 14 October 2003)

Irish Shorts Program

This program was shown on 16 October…

Ardeevan concerns an older man in a wheelchair, who was stricken with tuberculosis as a young man. His current malady, however, is flashback-itis, in which the sufferer is constantly barraged by scenes out of his past. The production values of this film by Jonathon Richardson are very good, but unfortunately the story doesn’t all come together.

Bachelor Boy is a brief animation piece in which a mature bachelor, pint in hand, attempts to explain why he never married. He makes a good stab at self-analysis, but ultimately comes up empty. Directed by Andrew Crotty, this seems to be a dig at Irish culture.

“But I Let It Pass…” is another, even briefer, animation that gives us a slice of Dublin life. A man stands on a bridge, bellowing at rats. That’s pretty much it.

Fall Into Half-Angel, definitely the most confidently and artistically executed of this lot, observes a pair of trapeze artists who are also a couple. Their acrobatic maneuvers are visually fascinating, while their discussion of their work and their relationship illustrates that being partners on the trapeze mirrors perfectly all the fear, risk and need for trust in any relationship. In the end, we are all performing without a net. Directed by Róisin Loughrey.

Full Circle is essentially a romantic comedy, but one with a few philosophical pretensions. An employee in a chip shop and a security guard at a bank spend their days looking across the street at each other. Will either ever cross the busy street to speak to the other? The title refers to the circular/insular nature of islands (of which Ireland is one). The story, by Simon Fitzmaurice, suggests the occasional need to break out our circles.

Olive is something of a Gaelic update to My So-Called Life. In a girls school, shy mousy Deirdre becomes friends with the outrageous rebel. In a drunken moment on the dance floor, Deirdre discovers what we saw coming all along. This film by Neason Hardiman qualified for virtually every short competition (Irish, Irish language, gay/lesbian), and with its high-energy spirit, it deserves to win something. One particular accomplishment: never has a movie made men’s mouths look so unappealing.

Phantom demonstrates that you can do amazing things with computers. Photographs of a vacated Dublin flat are animated to make a colorful haunting dream. Reality shifts from solid to liquid, and a jazzy score emphasizes the wistful nature of what we are seeing. It’s a mesmerizing four minutes by composer Giles Packham, photographer Jim McGuinness and animator Ronan Coyle.

Way Past takes place in the vicinity of Omagh, and we are never sure if this significant or irrelevant. There is certainly a sense of foreboding through several of the film’s 10 minutes. Mairéad McClean evokes effectively the discomfort, possibly leading to terror, of a journey interrupted or detoured. A young girl is sent on a routine errand and takes a lift from a man. The car radio is playing an American country song, which for some reason makes things seem a bit frightening.

Lock Up Your Sons and Daughters

A couple of times over the years, I have had the opportunity to see a fellow by the name of Ken Smith present samples from his vast collection of “social guidance” films. These were short films created by “experts” and designed to be shown in schools in mid-20th-century America. The films are fascinating as a document of values that psychologists felt needed to be instilled in young people in the post-war era. They were a reminder that the job of psychologist and psychiatrist is ultimately to move people who are different toward the behavior of the majority.

Bill Taylor of Vancouver, British Columbia, has done something similar. But his focus is specifically on films that have an “anti-gay” message. Here are six examples he presented very late in the evening on 18 October…

Being Different, made in 1953, deals with the situation of a young boy who is laughed at because he has taken an interest in butterfly collecting. According to Taylor, this is code for being gay. Or maybe the film is just about being different. Unfortunately, the end of the film seems to be missing, so we can’t judge for sure what the film’s point of view really is. Was it meant to encourage butterfly collectors to give up their hobby and conform? We can’t be sure.

Activity Group Therapy, made in 1952, is fascinating because it was a film made by psychologist for doctors. A hidden camera observes boys, who are in a play therapy group because of behavioral problems. Taylor has edited the film to focus on one in particular, who is repeatedly described as having “feminine tendencies.” It is funny and weird to watch with the benefit of hindsight. Albert seems to be on the way to being cured thanks to a serious regimen of sawing wood.

Perversion for Profit stars someone familiar to people who watched Los Angeles television years ago. George Putnam (introduced as “outstanding news reporter”) gives a tirade about the evils of pornography. Actually, I thought pornography was evil, or at least demeaning. Some samples showing boys who appear to be under the age of majority are definitely unsettling. In fact, so many samples are shown (with the smallest of black rectangles to cover nipples, etc.) that we suspect that Putnam and the others behind this film really got off on it. And his rants against the homosexual lifestyle truly do qualify as homophobia at its most virulent. I always suspected that blowhard Putnam was the inspiration for the Ted Baxter character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Anti Disney Videos is a compilation of relatively recent films, meant to demonstrate that anti-gay propaganda hasn’t gone away. One, put out by the religious right, rails against Disney’s policies of providing benefits to domestic partners and renting out its parks to gay groups. (Yawn.) More interesting is the one that purports to show that Disney movies (examples are shown from The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) are full of thinly disguised gay and other sexual content. We aren’t told who made this outrageous film. It is so over-the-top, we can’t help suspect that it’s a twisted parody of a religious right film.

The Report: The Gay Agenda, another recent film, purports to reveal the devious political agenda of the gay community. A narrator, who seems to have been chosen because he sounds like Dan Rather, drones on ominously about the menace. There is much footage of the most offensive gay pride parade footage the filmmakers could find, as well as testimonies from formerly gay men who have been “cured” and a scientist who points out what is wrong with gay people. The problems with this film’s approach are best illustrated by…

The Heterosexual Agenda. This is essentially a remake of The Gay Agenda (above) and which basically just replaces the words “gay” and “homosexual” with “heterosexual” to make its point. The filmmakers have fun demonstrating that it’s easy to take any large subgroup within a society, find social problems among a portion of that group, and then generalize it to the whole group. It is noted that there is no small amount of straight porn and promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases. What the film doesn’t address (and doesn’t mean to) is that, for example, STDs have historically been more rampant among the gay community than the straight community. Anyway, that’s a dimension that needs to be dealt with in a more thoughtful medium.

Tribute to John Hurt

Public Interview

John Hurt is a very charming man. Or, being a great actor, he is very good at acting like a charming man. And, since being charming is essentially a way of behaving (or acting), what really is the effective difference? In any event, he completely charmed the audience that crowded into Cork’s Crawford Gallery to see him have a conversation with Michael Dwyer of The Irish Times. Hurt was gracious throughout and even afterward, as he stood in the foyer chatting pleasantly to the crowd around him and signing autographs—even as a limousine waited outside to whisk him back to the airport for a flight back to Britain in less than an hour. His visit to Ireland lasted a scant five hours, and he had two days filming left on a new six-part fact-based BBC series, The Alan Clark Diaries.

Dwyer more or less walked the actor down his c.v. and let him comment on key moments in his career, beginning briefly with his stage work but concentrating, naturally enough, on his huge body of films. His personal life was not touched on at all, although in discussing the steeplechase jockey bio Champions, he did mention that he considered dropping out of the film when his wife died but decided to carry on. (His wife, the model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, died in a riding accident. Hurt has been married a few times.)

In truth, the size and quality of his body of work is astounding. The man is always working, taking the best roles he is offered, even when the best ones are not all that great. After he made the superb Elephant Man for Mel Brooks, he went on to participate in a couple of Brooks’s silly comedies: History of the World: Part I (in which he was Jesus) and Spaceballs (in which he sent up his Alien character). He was also in the John Goodman comedy King Ralph. But these sorts of roles demonstrate a lack of pretentiousness rather than any sort of desperation for employment. And they do not detract at all from an oeuvre that includes work by directors as varied as Fred Zinnemann, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Sam Peckinpah, Stephen Frears, Jim Sheridan, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Robert Zemeckis, Chris Columbus and Lars von Trier. The man is the thespian equivalent of Zelig. He seems to be everywhere. One of his first movie roles was in A Man for All Seasons. He was the voice of Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings. He had supporting roles in Midnight Express, Rob Roy, Contact. He was Caligula in the miniseries I, Claudius. He was Jim Henson’s Storyteller and the narrator of The Tigger Movie. He was even in a Harry Potter movie. The list goes on.

Thankfully, Dwyer asked Hurt to talk about the thing that we really wanted to hear about. He asked about the famous alien “birthing” scene in Alien. Surprisingly, the whole scene was shot in one morning. Another shot was attempted in the afternoon, but it didn’t work out because lamb membranes weren’t as effective as pig membranes for the newborn creature. When Hurt lay on the table and the perspective changed to the side facing him, the lower half of his body was a dummy. He had us in stitches while recounting the work of the crew to push the alien up through the table. The rest of the cast knew what was coming but not exactly what it would be like. That is another reason that the first take was the best.

Hurt’s other best anecdote was about participating in Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate. He told of being virtually trapped for weeks in Kalispell, Montana, as the shooting dragged on. He hadn’t that many scenes to do but could not go anywhere in between because “at the time I didn’t drive.” So he spent much time idle, watching money being wasted. As the schedule kept slipping, he was in danger of losing the role in The Elephant Man, which was about to start production. Finally, he plotted an escape with T-Bone Burnett, who had a small part in the movie. They hired a vehicle and surreptitiously stole out of town early one morning and drove to Denver to catch a flight to Los Angeles.

Burnett’s voice was one of several that Hurt clearly enjoyed mimicking as he told his story. Another was that of Quentin Crisp, whom Hurt played in the ground-breaking British TV production The Naked Civil Servant. Using Crisp’s voice, Hurt quoted him as saying, “Mr. Hurt, every role you play is me!” When asked by a member of the audience what his favorite movie was, Hurt didn’t dodge the question. He said it was The Naked Civil Servant because it changed the world’s perception of him.

This being Ireland, he was asked about his connections to this country. He has worked in Ireland off and on throughout his career, beginning with theater work in Dublin. He has been back for various films, including Jim Sheridan’s The Field, filmed in the west of Ireland. In those days, he noted, John Huston, who had a home in the region, was “the king of Galway (at least in his own mind).” For a period, after he became a father for the first time, he and his family lived in Ireland. He said he had decided it was the best place to bring up children.

At the close of the interview, Hurt was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the film festival. There was a bit of irony in this since Hurt had barely finished talking at length about how awards do not matter to him. While many people in the movie business say this with clear insincerity, Hurt insisted that he really meant it. He said what was important was entertaining the audience. How many winners at the Oscars, he asked, in their long list of thank-you’s ever bother thanking the audience? This audience certainly felt thankful. They applauded this line heartily as well as giving Hurt a rousing standing ovation at the end of the chat.

When asked by a member of the audience how he manages to maintain personal space in his private life, he chuckled and said that he has never lived any differently, even after becoming well known. “I walk down the street, and no one bothers me. No one will look at you,” he said pointedly, “if you don’t ask them to.” Ben and J-Lo, are you listening? (Attended 18 October 2003)

Tribute Films

The following feature films were included in the Cork Film Festival’s tribute to John Hurt:

The Elephant Man
Krapp’s Last Tape
Love and Death on Long Island
Night Train
Nineteen Eighty-Four

The following short films were also part of the John Hurt tribute:

Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill was as mesmerizing this time as the first time I saw it (three months ago at the Galway Film Fleadh). I still don’t quite know what it means. It has all the logic/illogic of a dream. A black-and-white dream infused with post-war paranoia, as filtered through science fiction (specifically, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and War of the Worlds). Not the least surreal of its wondrous images is Che quaffing a Guinness and proclaiming that Ireland “could use a revolution.” (Seen 17 October 2003)

Two Nudes Bathing is a 30-minute ribald comedy by John Boorman. It imagines the provenance of the anonymous titular painting, which hangs in Paris’s Louvre museum. The painter is Charley Boorman, who has appeared in his father’s films previously. (He was Jon Voight’s young son in Deliverance and was the jungle boy in The Emerald Forest.) John Hurt is the count who wants his daughters painted before they have lost their “innocence.” By the time the paintings are done, it may well be too late. (Seen 17 October 2003)