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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Short Films Seen at the 2005 Cork Film Festival

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

At the Quinte Hotel is a poem read by its author, the late Canadian poet Al Purdy. Director Bruce Alcock accompanies inventively with animated images of yellow flowers and beer bottles in a small town tavern. National Public Radio listeners may find Purdy reminiscent of Baxter Black, except more rowdy and mischievous. As a nice touch, the filmmakers reveal some of their animation techniques during the closing credits. (Seen 13 October 2005)

Killing the Afternoon is an “experimental” film by Margaret Corkery, and it got the prestigious Jameson Award for Best Irish Short Film, as well as a Special Mention by the jury for the Irish Examiner Made in Cork award. It is a mysteriously unsettling 10-minute account of how various and sundry people pass the afternoon on a beach. With not a word of dialog and music that gives us mixed cues, there is something sinister underneath its sunny surface. Are we actually witnessing a crime at the end of it? (Seen 16 October 2005)

Museum Piece (Hotel Diaries 2) was selected as the Best International Short of the Cork Film Festival. The jury liked the way English director John Smith mixed humor and social and political issues. He accomplished this by spending 15 minutes wandering around a hotel room, the corridor and finally the elevator with a handheld camera and providing a deadpan commentary. It is mildly amusing and entirely set up to end with one groaner of a punch line. The political and social relevance comes with an occasional onscreen crawl of the day’s headlines. The temptation is to say that Smith makes it all look deceptively easy. But I don’t think it’s deceptive at all. (Seen 16 October 2005)

Preface is a four-minute Dutch film that consists of lingering shots of three little girls. The tone, the music and the sudden bursts of motion, on what is otherwise a still frame, makes it all quite mysterious. Preface to what? (Seen 11 October 2005)

Milk gives us Brenda Fricker as we have never seen her before (and didn’t particularly want to). She plays a cross old granny getting a milk bath from her granddaughter, who makes a good job of not acting like she doesn’t want to be there. By the end of its 10-minute running time, they will achieve something of a breakthrough in their relationship. Scotland’s Peter Mackie Burns wrote and directed. (Seen 12 October 2005)

While Darwin Sleeps begins by announcing that we will see 3,500 species of insects in the course of this (5-minute) English short. This is only a portion of what is on exhibit in the museum in question and only a tiny fraction of all known species. Flashing by a frame at a time, the bugs seem to be animated and morphing. Finally, a disclaimer advises us that no creatures were harmed in the making of the film. “…At least by me,” adds its director Paul Bush. (Seen 14 October 2005)

The Magical World of Georges Méliès

One of the amazing things about cinema is that, because of its very nature, it is actually possible to revisit its earliest infancy. The date of birth of cinema as we know it is considered to be December 28, 1895. That is the day on which a program of films by Louis Lumière was shown to an audience, using the recently patented invention by him and his brother Auguste, a combination film camera and projector. In the audience was a man named Georges Méliès (sounds like “male yes”). The Lumières made scores of short films, but they were mainly just single-shot glimpse of reality, the original cinéma vérité, if you will, or documentaries. It took a magician to stumble onto film’s potential for making the impossible seem real and to tell fictional stories. That turned out to be Méliès, an impish man who was a professional illusionist. The Lumières wouldn’t sell him one of their Cinematographe machines, but he would later improve on their design with his own equipment. When a jammed camera ruined a standard street scene he was shooting at the Place de l’Opéra, he was amazed, upon viewing the film, to see a bus change, as if by magic, into a hearse. The illusionist quickly saw the potential for the technology to create fantastic illusions. (Meanwhile in America, Thomas Edison made a similar discovery but barely exploited it.)

Upon viewing Mélès’s surviving films today, we are struck that so many standard storytelling conventions and special effects were already there in the first few years of cinema’s life. And really, the basic technology behind the illusions would not change significantly until computers would make it possible to manipulate visual reality digitally. Méliès’s films make use of stop-action animation (still in use this very minute, as Wallace & Gromit attest), double exposures, fades and dissolves and more. It’s as though, when cinema was born, it arrived not as a baby but nearly full-grown, like Athena, out of the head of Georges Méliès.

For the past 60 years, Méliès’s family has worked to trace, restore and exhibit his films through the Cinémathèque Méliès. His great-granddaughter Marie-Hélène Méliès presented the following films at a special program at the Cork Film Festival. An enthusiastic and engaging woman, who nearly confounded her interpreter by delivering long monologues non-stop and breaking into occasional English herself (“Guinness is good for you!”), she had many anecdotes about her immortal ancestor (“one of the three Ms,” as a young film fan once told her, along with Mozart and Molière). She got extra time for more anecdotes when the initial film reel turned out to have been loaded onto the projector backwards. When the reels finally started turning for real, she interjected narrative at appropriate spots into the film, as well as providing the occasional sound effect by tapping on her microphone. Her son Lawrence provided musical accompaniment on the piano.

When it was over, her enthusiasm and joy for her great-grandfather’s work had been duly imparted to the entire audience. (Seen 12 October 2005)

Au Royaume des fées (Kingdom of the Fairies) is an early fantasy epic. Drawing elements from various fairy tales, the story has the witch Carabosse abduct a prince’s bride over a social slight. A posse of sorts is organized to rescue her. The prince and his mates travel over land, over sea and under sea (their boat sinks in a thrilling storm scene; was this the first use of miniatures?) to reach the witch’s castle. The beginning of a long line of adventure flicks can be seen here, leading all the way to The Lord of the Rings and beyond. (1903)

Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard) has married seven women, who have all died soon after their weddings. Will No.8 find a similar fate? And, when he leaves on a trip, why does he hand her that big key to the forbidden room and tell her not to go in there? A lively romp that ends with the villain impaled on a sword, presaging many teenage terror flicks well down the line. (1901)

Le Cake-walk infernal (The Infernal Cake-Wake), although a better translation might be The Cake-Walk from Hell. Does anybody even know what a cake-walk actually is anymore? (Other than a popular expression meaning “a breeze” or “a cinch”?) It was a popular dance around the turn of the last century, and this film mocks it by having it performed in hell itself. (1903)

Les Cartes vivantes (The Living Playing Cards) evokes memories of Alice in Wonderland. Face cards from a deck grow bigger and, beginning with the Queen of Hearts, turn into real royals. (1905)

La Chrysalide et le papillon (The Brahmin and the Butterfly) is another tour de force of stop-action trickery. A magician turns a disturbingly large silkworm into a enchantingly anthropomorphic female butterfly. Even the magician himself is enchanted by her, but before he can act, there is one last transformation. (1901)

Le Diable noir (The Black Devil) doesn’t want a bothersome human lodger disturbing his peace in the hotel room he has taken for his own. As the impish devil (not to mention the room’s furniture) disappears, reappears, moves and multiplies in frenetic non-stop action, the hapless interloper soon decides that discretion is the better part of valor. (1905)

Dislocation mystérieuse (Extraordinary Dislocation) might well have inspired the phrase “Pull yourself together, man!” In a dizzying display of special effects wizardry, a man’s limbs and head unattach, reattach and go traveling all over the place. Gives new meaning to the term “going to pieces.” (1901)

La Fée Carabosse (The Witch) is good at telling fortunes but gets quite cross if she is not paid. A young troubadour comes seeking knowledge of the woman who will be his true love. This is an early version of the standard movie plot that is set in motion when the hero crosses the wrong person, setting off a desperate cat-and-mouse chase. Will our hero rescue his princess and live to tell the tale? This is one of several Méliès films shown which was painstakingly colorized (ages before Ted Turner!) by hand-painting each frame of the print itself. (1906)

L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Head) definitely ends with a bang. Méliès, naturally enough playing a magician, comes up with a new idea for a trick. He severs his own head (quickly replaced by a spare, that is screwed into his neck like a light bulb) and connects it to a bellows. As the head inflates, it grows much bigger. As it uninflates, it grows smaller. (All without the benefit of a zoom lens!) The magician’s assistant takes a turn at the bellows, but he gives the poor head a tad too much air. (1902)

L’Homme Orchestre (The One Man Band) is a phrase that is given a whole new meaning, as Méliès is able, through the magic of double exposure, to multiply himself to become an entire orchestra. (1900)

L’Impressionniste fin de siècle (The Conjurer) provides more sight tricks. As a magician, Méliès must have been like a child in a candy shop when he realized the illusions that film made possible. The program notes say that the Cinémathèque Méliès found another version of this movie in a flea market. (1899)

La Mélomane (The Melomaniac) is a word for a music enthusiast. That certainly describes Méliès here, as he literally throws himself into the music for “God Save the King.” Through the magic of double exposures, his head multiplies and becomes a string of musical notes. (1903)

Le Merveilleux eventail vivant (The Wonderful Living Fan) is demonstrated to a representative of King Louis XV in the garden of Versailles (in studio, not on location). When the giant fan is opened, it looks like something out of a Las Vegas show. We think the king will be impressed. (1901)

Le Sacre d’Edouard VII (The Coronation of Edward VII) is perhaps the very first docudrama or at least the first dramatic recreation of a news event. Denied permission to film the crowning of the late Queen Victoria’s heir (the lighting at Westminster wouldn’t have been sufficient in any case), Méliès painstakingly recreated the event in studio. Unlike the real coronation, however, Méliès’s version was on time and complete. As the king later told him, the real crowning was postponed due to the king’s illness and shortened from the original program. (1902)

La Tentation de Saint Antoine (St. Anthony’s Temptation) was banned by the police (there was not yet any film censor) for outrage à la religion. While tame by today’s standards, the concern would be understandable. This St. Anthony’s temptations are rather persistent (thanks to stop action motion that makes them appear suddenly in the strangest places) and, well, rather tempting. (1898)

Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is the one that started it all. The great-granddaddy of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars to Serenity, this is the first science fiction movie. Six decades before humans really traveled to the moon, Méliès’s team of scientists make the journey, and the details are surprisingly prescient. They leave the earth in a capsule and, on their return, are retrieved from the sea into which their craft has dropped. In between, they have broached the final frontier and tangled with the cinema’s very first space aliens. Beam us up, Mr. Méliès! (1902)

A Public Interview with Stephen Woolley

Advisory: Spoilers for The Crying Game lie below.

Stephen Woolley is not a name familiar to most of us outside of the biz. Until recently, he has been pretty exclusively a producer, and they tend not to get a lot of attention, unless they are somehow larger than life like, say, Jerry Bruckheimer. But Woolley is responsible for some of the best and most interesting movies we have seen over the past 20 years. A good few of those were Irish movies and, appropriately, Englishman Woolley was invited to the Cork Film Festival to be honored with a trophy and screenings of some of his best films, be interviewed in front of a an audience by Irish Times critic Michael Dwyer, and to present his first directing effort, the Brian Jones biopic Stoned.

Dwyer was nearly able to catch up on his sleep (festival director Mick Hannigan introduced him by saying that he has coming off “a long night,” and not even one in Cork, but in Dublin), as any question, no matter how narrow, was enough to send Woolley on the most interesting and rambling and lengthy of monologs. Yet he seemed not at all like someone keen to talk about himself, but rather someone so in love with movies that he couldn’t help but go on about them. He told of growing up in Isington in London and how he his passion for movies brought him through the whole business, from the bottom up. In the 1970s, he took tickets and sold concessions at London’s Screen on the Green, eventually running the projector and helping to manage. He later had his own cinema, The Scala, that weas renowned for its choice of screenings. He finally became a producer because people kept telling him, “You should be a producer,” which meant that he had to find out what a producer was. He began a close working relationship with Neil Jordan, that continues to this day, after seeing and being blown away by Jordan’s debut film, Angel (with Stephen Rea as a traumatized saxophone player), in Cannes in 1982. He saw it with Sam Raimi, who managed to talk the security people into letting Woolley in even though he didn’t meet the dress code. Woolley and the young Evil Dead director remained friends. He told an amusing anecdote of how Raimi had an unfortunate, and ultimately painful, encounter in a dodgy bed when they were staying in Edinburgh together. Two decades later, when Raimi invited him to the London premiere of Spider-Man, the now-mega-successful director introduced him as “the man who gave me my start… and who gave me crabs.”

Woolley and Jordan’s first collaboration was The Company of Wolves, a very strange fantasy-horror flick, starring Angela Lansbury. It was infused with Jordan’s penchant for psychology, essentially updating the Little Red Riding Hood myth. It did not do well in the States, mainly because, as Woolley explained, the studios tried to market it as A Nightmare on Elm Street. This was only one of a series of frustrations Woolley would encounter in dealing with U.S. distribution for his films, many of which proved extremely popular in the States but tended to perplex the American studios. Still, Woolley was never anything less than gracious when talking about Hollywood. He was careful to underline that he was only talking about specific individuals and not Los Angeles in general and certainly not America in general. Indeed, he comes off as one of the most reasonable and generous people I have listened to in a long time. In talking about how he didn’t want any “heroes or villains” in Stoned, he said that it generally doesn’t work to see things in completely black or white. Then, as an example, he brought up the Iraq war. Now, it is not at all unusual to hear someone in the movie business make a comment on Iraq, but it is unusual enough for them to actually say something thoughtful and intelligent about it. “It’s a complex situation,” said Woolley. “There’s no point in demonizing America.”

Jordan and Woolley had subsequent success in 1986 with Mona Lisa, starring Bob Hoskins, but their real breakthrough was 1992’s The Crying Game. Woolley was very funny, as he recounted the American distributor’s reaction to the film. “You want me to distribute a movie in America where the hero is a terrorist? And his girlfriend is black? And she’s a man?!” Of course, Woolley’s confidence in Americans, and people in general, was validated and the film was a hit in the States. They had even broader success two years later with Interview with the Vampire, which gave them more freedom to make the films they wanted. That meant a project that Jordan had been wanting to do for a decade, a movie about Irish liberation hero (and Cork man) Michael Collins. While he had been coming to Ireland for years, said Woolley, it was working on this movie that gave him his real appreciation for Ireland and the Irish people. He spoke at length about the casting of Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan. He insisted that there had been no pressure from anyone to cast her and that he and Jordan honestly decided she was the best actor for the role. He had been warned that she could be demanding and difficult but, he said in all apparent sincerity, she was “a dream” to work with and very gracious, throwing weekly parties for the cast and crew. He claimed that no one in Ireland questioned her accent (I actually vaguely recall a bit of grumbling about her casting, although Kiernan’s family seemed quite happy with her), but what he didn’t foresee was the reaction of American critics when the film was released in the States. The Yanks were much more critical of Roberts’s Irish accent than the Irish in Ireland ever were and much less willing to see her if a different role than they were accustomed to.

Woolley became a director essentially because he finally realized that the only way one of his ongoing projects, a movie about Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones about which he was quite passionate, would get made is if he directed it himself. Indeed, his work on the movie was nearly as much as journalist and private investigator as producer and director. He sought out all the witnesses from the night that Jones was found dead in his swimming pool, as well as reading every book on the topic. The result is a climactic scene that he thinks is the accurate version of how Jones died. Moreover, the film is a paean to wild and (no pun intended) woolly world of the swinging 1960s, something that fascinated Woolley as a youngster but he was too young to participate in. At the festival screening of Stoned on Friday night, Woolley acknowledged one of Jones’s sons (“he had five children with five different women and didn’t really acknowledge any of them”) and the man’s mother, who were in the audience. I can only imagine what it was like for the two of them to see Jones’s brief life (he died at that dangerous age, for muscial stars anyway, of 27) portrayed on the big screen in all its warts-and-all non-glory.

One of Woolley’s best stories was about an encounter he had with Tim Burton during the filming of Stoned. He had known Burton for years, since Burton had been a big fan of The Company of Wolves and credited it as being a major influence on his own movies, particularly Batman. Burton was filming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Pinewood Studios at the same time as Stoned (but with sets that were more numerous, much larger and more elaborate). Woolley went over for a chat with Burton and Johnny Depp and other cast and crew and, on his way back, got lost. He amusingly recounted trying to negotiate his way through the river of chocolate, trying to get back to his own four simple sets.

Other Neil Jordan films that Woolley has produced include High Spirits (with Peter O’Toole), The Miracle (with Beverly D’Angelo), The Butcher Boy, In Dreams (with Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr.), The End of the Affair (with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore) and The Good Thief (with Nick Nolte). Their latest is Breakfast on Pluto, starring Cillian Murphy (but not my nephew).

Woolley has also made quite a few significant films with directors other than Neil Jordan. These include Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (with Alfred Molina and Peter Finch), Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (with David Bowie and Patsy Kensit), Michael Caton-Jones’s Scandal (with John Hurt and Ian McKellen), Richard Stanley’s Hardware (with Dylan McDermott), David Leland’s The Big Man (with Liam Neeson), Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem (with Forest Whittaker and Robin Givens), Peter Richardson’s The Pope Must Die (with Robbie Coltrane in the title role), Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Waterland (with Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack), Richard Stanley’s horror film Dust Devil, Iain Softley’s Backbeat (with Stephen Dorff and Ian Hart), Angela Pope’s Hollow Reed (with Martin Donovan and Joely Richardson), David Caffrey’s Divorcing Jack (with David Thewlis and Rachel Griffiths), Mark Herman’s Little Voice (with Michael Caine and Ewan McGregor), Deborah Warner’s The Last September (with Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith), Conor McPherson’s The Actors (with Michael Caine), John Crowley’s Intermission (with Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy) and Bille August’s Return to Sender (with Aidan Quinn). He was also executive producer of the ill-fated George Sluizer (The Vanishing) thriller Dark Blood, which was not completed due to the death of its star, River Phoenix, 12 years ago this Halloween.

Whew. That’s quite a track record for someone who started out tearing the tickets of movie patrons. Big-time directors and producers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas clearly love the movies, but it is hard to think of anyone offhand who has done so much to bring so much offbeat, unusual, challenging or just plain enjoyable films to audiences around the world. Woolley deserves every accolade he gets. (Attended 15 October 2005)