Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Short Films Seen at the 2007 Cork Film Festival

These are various and sundry short films that were shown before the evening features and/or part of the 8 Great Shorts program…

Catch Fish, among other things, ponders the possibilities of the dual meaning of “fish nets.” Normally, the fishmonger’s stall at a dockside public market isn’t exactly the first place that would come to mind when thinking of amorous locales. But when a humble musician comes to buy a fish, well, the human mind can make even dead fish erotic. This Australian gem by Adam Arkapaw is quietly provocative and sweetly kinky. (Seen 16 October 2007)

Dog Altogether is a repellent but poignant portrait of a man in England at the end of his tether and perhaps near the end of his road. The director is Paddy Considine, who has starred in movies like In America and Stoned. The star of this mini-movie is sometime director Peter Mullan. He plays a man who has clearly been beset by demons for some time. This film is not particularly easy to watch, but it does end on a note of possible grace and redemption. (Seen 21 October 2007)

Frankie is another socially relevant Irish vignette. Young Frankie is going to be a father, but he is still only a child himself. But, gamely and perhaps naively, he is determined to be the best dad he can. As he tries to prepare himself and be supportive to the girl carrying his child, he meets obstacles and discouragement at every turn. Despite his best efforts, will he be able to do any better than his own parents? The writer/director is Darren Thornton. (Seen 21 October 2007)

Georg Wächst (George Grows), a brief, clever, animated look at the cycle of life, takes us through all the male stages in two minutes. The cocky prime of life is reached rather quickly. Then it’s all downhill from there. (Seen 21 October 2007)

The Girl Who Swallowed Bees feels a bit like an accompaniment to a bit of verse along the lines of Ogden Nash or someone like that (it was written by director Paul McDermott) or maybe even an elaborate honey commercial. Its mixture of live action and animation is inventive, but the story told by this Australian film is extremely slender, and it is hard to discern a point to it all. The voiceover narration is read nicely by Hugo Weaving. (Seen 21 October 2007)

It’ll Always Be 11:16, at four minutes, is a brief elegy for a Cork cinematic landmark. Director Christopher O’Neill lingers on different aspects the abandoned (for nearly two years now) edifice of the Capitol Cineplex, a local movie landmark and anchor for the city center’s Grand Parade. Interspersed with the forlorn static shots, a film projector is loaded—perhaps giving hope that the world of cinema goes on? (Seen 14 October 2007)

Kein Platz für Gerold (No Room for Gerold) is a riveting bit of animation that amazingly makes its anthropomorphized animals look and sound eerily real. Its five-minute story deals with the repercussions among flatmates after a newcomer has a moved in. Is Gerold being discriminated against because he is a carnivore? The director is Germany’s Daniel Nocke. (Seen 21 October 2007)

Lampa cu Caiula (The Tube with a Hat), by Radu Jude, offers a glimpse of life in rural Romania. A child pesters his father to bring the all-important TV set to the repairman. The boy is dying to see a Bruce Lee movie in the evening. But getting the extremely old and bulky set there (with no car) is no easy matter. We fear disaster at every complicated turn or obstacle in the journey. And we know that the pace of technology is probably working against them. But the box is their one window on a wider and brighter world. In the end, the film is, intentionally or not, about the imperative of globalization as much as it is about the strength of the human spirit. (Seen 21 October 2007)

New Boy, adapted by Steph Green from a short story by Roddy Doyle, takes a common situation in contemporary Ireland and turns it into a mini-epic. As the titular lad faces the rough and tumble of Irish schoolchildren, we get intermittent flashbacks of the traumatic events in Africa that led him to become a refugee. We cringe at the childish ignorance of his new schoolmates, but the film posits that, if left to their own devices, ultimately the kids will be all right. (Seen 21 October 2007)

Den Sista Hunden i Rwanda (The Last Dog in Rwanda) seems like it could nearly be a pitch reel for a feature film. Written and directed by Sweden’s Jens Assur, it is essentially a cautionary tale about the contrast between the youthful romance and excitement of war and the reality. The narrator begins by telling us of his lifelong fascination with war—before we meet him as an adult, having become a press photographer cum war tourist. His latest war is the one in Rwanda, and this one feels different to him—probably because it is more of a massacre than a war. And, as he and the war correspondent he is accompanying find out, combatants don’t always respect the right of safe passage of the press. (Seen 21 October 2007)

Soft might describe the father in this little mini-drama by Simon Ellis—or at least his son’s view of him. The story—about a son and father both bullied by young thugs in their own neighborhood—could have been, as they say, ripped from today’s headlines in England. (The very day I saw it, a London judge sentenced five schoolboys to two years’ detention for stoning a man playing cricket with his son, resulting in his death.) The father in this short is paralyzed when faced with the young aggressors, but finally the son decides to take action. Is this movie making a political point? About law enforcement? Or even foreign policy? Or is it just a story? (Seen 19 October 2007)

Szalontüd (Tripe and Onions) is ultimately about 1) social boundaries and 2) awkward and embarrassing situations. Artistically oriented filmmakers love to focus on food, and the title dish of this seven-minute film, by Hungarian Márton Szirmai, definitely provides visual food for thought. A well-dressed man stands out at a food stand, where the clientele is otherwise the salt of the earth. He orders onions and tripe, but then things get territorial. Wait for the punch line. (Seen 20 October 2007)

Uitverkocht (Sold Out), by Dutch animator Marie-José van der Linden, evokes, in seven and a half minutes of moving and morphing pencil sketches, the passing of a different time in the Netherlands (and Europe generally) when the family home and business were one and the same. This is the world of small shopkeepers, as seen from the nostalgic view of a daughter over the years. Evocative and elegiac, we watch society go from close-knit communities to the impersonal vastness of supermarkets. (Seen 17 October 2007)

Public Interview with John Dahl

For a change, the Cork Film Festival did not bring down some big-name film critic from Dublin to conduct the public interview with the festival’s special guest. Instead, the honors were done by festival director Mick Hannigan, lending his comfortably rumpled presence to what was a low-key and intimate event. The crowd that turned out at the Crawford Gallery’s auditorium was small enough that it was less an interview than a group conversation with the director, a pleasant, tall man with a closely shaved head and a disarming manner.

Like a lot of people, I have followed John Dahl’s directing career since I first saw The Last Seduction at the 1994 Seattle International Film Festival. The fact that there were passing genre similarities to his films (my own personal label for The Last Seduction and Red Rock West was neo-noir) and that he never quite seemed to transition to big commercial projects always made me think of him as some kind of auteur. So it was a surprise to come away from spending more than an hour with him with the new impression that he is really more of a journeyman director. But not merely a journeyman. It also comes through that he has tremendous integrity about his work and prefers to work on small-budget projects because there is more opportunity to do things his own way. But I don’t think I have heard anyone else in the movie business talk about their work with less pretentiousness. He clearly likes his work and is determined to do it right, by his own standards, but he is also completely tuned into the fact that he is in a business, and that fact needs to be taken seriously.

Since the “interview” turned out to be unstructured, details about Dahl’s background came out in dribs and drabs (as the Missus would say) in the course of meandering conversations. We learned that he is a self-described “small-town guy” from Montana, who went to art school, then worried about how he could make living with art, became a commercial artist, got bored with that because of its isolated nature, and wound up getting into film directing. When asked to name his directing influences, he was nothing if not straightforward: Hitchcock first, followed by Kubrick and then David Lynch, a fellow Montana native. When asked about his favorite actors, he surprised I think everybody by first mentioning Robert Redford and adding, with a humble movie fan’s excitement, “I got to meet him once.” His other actor mentions were anything but contemporary: Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck.

One of his first crew jobs was on a movie that came to Billings to film scenes for a movie that featured Raquel Welch, who was playing a Native American character. He said he was appalled at the all the complaining the movie people did about being there and at the way they treated the locals. “As if it wasn’t insulting enough that Raquel Welch was playing an Indian,” he said, they treated the actual Indians with extreme rudeness.

He told about how The Last Seduction came together. He had trouble finding a female actor willing to take on the completely amoral lead role, until Linda Fiorentino read the script. “She totally got the character,” he said. Likewise no male actor wanted the role of her hapless dupe until Peter Berg, who had been working in off-camera jobs, agreed to take it on. Dahl said that Berg spiced up the dialog with cursing, an acting crutch used by many young actors. Dahl knew it was wrong for the character and, in what he considers one of the best directions he ever gave to an actor, told him he needed to “be Jimmy Stewart.” That brief anecdote was a rare instance of self-congratulation. I don’t think I have heard anyone in any profession less willing to take credit for his own work than this man.

Like all filmmakers, Dahl had his stories about studio interference, but he is more sanguine about it than most. While he allowed that sometimes all the meetings and miscommunications of working with so many people frustrated him, he knows that it is part of the job and he will get precious little sympathy if he whines about how hard it is to be a film director. With the production of The Last Seduction, he was lucky in that the studio guy who greenlighted the project was forced out a week after production started, meaning that none of the suits was paying attention to it until the end. At that point, the new studio guy came to look at the movie, clearly intent on changing something, so as to have made his own mark on it. Fortunately, his suggestion took care of itself since he didn’t realize that what he was watching did not have the sound effect track laid in yet. Dahl noted that that wouldn’t happen today. The Last Seduction was the last film that he cut on actual film. After that, post-production has all been on computer.

Interestingly, the original title for the movie was Buffalo Girl, playing on the film’s setting and at least a couple of other film elements. The studio wanted to change it to The Seduction Game because of all the buzz recently generated by Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. Dahl held his ground, and the film (in my opinion anyway) wound up with a title that was pretty darn good.

Dahl was asked to film the poker world movie Rounders and the studio wanted him to cast Matt Damon on the strength of his performance in the not-yet-released Good Will Hunting. He said that Damon was very good to work with, totally grateful to be doing what he was doing and completely blown away by his half-million-dollar salary. In those days, co-star John Malkovich was commanding much larger paychecks but agreed to have his salary pro-rated on the basis that he would only be needed for a week’s filming. At the end of the week, the wily Malkovich double-checked with Dahl that he wouldn’t be needed for any more filming and then shaved off the beard that he had worn as the character, effectively making it impossible to bring him back. Dahl said that Malkovich, who played a Russian, turned down the offer for a dialect coach, preferring his own method. He recorded a Russian friend reading all his lines and then memorized them phonetically before each scene. His accent came out a bit strange, and Dahl said he has always gotten flack over it.

Much of our time with Dahl was spent discussing his latest movie, You Kill Me, which had been screened at the festival the night before. The script came to him with Ben Kingsley attached, which meant that it was relatively easy to get a budget. In typical Hollywood fashion, things got still easier when he got Téa Leoni to sign on as well as actors like Luke Wilson and Bill Pullman. He had hoped to get a budget of $7 million for it but wound up with $4 million. Shooting was done in less than four weeks, mostly in Toronto with a few days In San Francisco. Costs were cut by adding digitized snow after the fact. (The story involves a family in Buffalo, which is in the snow plow business.) He praised Kingsley as a “real gentleman,” who is very approachable and loves to act and who is constantly working. There were test screenings for You Kill Me, although Dahl said he was not a big fan of that exercise. (There were no test screenings at all of The Last Seduction.) He said he understands, however, that it needs to be done for commercial reasons, and he takes it as an opportunity to improve a movie. He made a few minor additions to You Kill Me to clarify areas that audiences found confusing, including adding a scene between Kingsley and Leoni’s characters that showed only their feet—because the actors were no longer around and had to be substituted by extras.

Inevitably, there were the Ireland-specific questions, like, would he want to make a movie in Ireland? He said he would, although he allowed that there had to be great many directors around who would be more logical choices. One young woman even asked for his impressions of the Northern Ireland peace process (things looked pretty peaceful to him, he said gamely) and, in one of the more surreal queries, asked if he had thought about how the name of Ben Kingsley’s production company (which appears, among others, at the beginning of the film), Bipolar Pictures, might affect audience members with mental health issues. (In a disarming answer, he more or less said he thought it was a cool name.) Dahl said, when making the film, he hadn’t really thought about the eventuality that someday audiences in Ireland would be watching the movie with its oddball take on Irish-American gangsters in Buffalo (not to mention that an Irish-American wake in San Francisco that gets carried way). He was assured that the film’s deadpan black humor was a good match for the Irish sense of humor. Dahl mentioned more than once that it blew him away to learn that there are only a few more than 4 million people in Ireland. “You might Irish people everywhere you go in the world,” he offered as evidence of an apparent contradiction.

Some of the audience questions were honest expressions of innocent curiosity. One young man wanted Dahl to help him get his head around what it is really like to be making movies with so many people and spending so much money. To his credit, Dahl spent a good while trying to transfer his experience and thoughts. It was clear that he hadn’t lost the wonder of the fact that he has come to be where he has come to be—even though he knows, at the end of the day, it is just a business like any other. That is how Dahl handled all of the questions put to him. He was laid-back, comfortable with himself and completely respectful of everyone who had come to hear him talk and to ask him questions. Lots of people (including me) like to ridicule the otherworldly values and shallowness of Hollywood. But it is good to remember that there are people working there who are as nice and as down-to-earth as John Dahl. (Attended 20 October 2007)