Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Short Films Seen at the 2008 Corona Cork Film Festival

These are various and sundry short films that I have seen during the course of the festival…

Féileachán (Driving Lesson) won the festival’s award for Best Irish Short Film. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of a mother with mental health issues and her teenage daughter. The beauty of the seaside Gaeltacht setting (I think I saw in the credits that it was filmed in Donegal) belies the troubled relationship between the two. It is something that anybody who’s been a parent or who has had a parent can relate to. (Seen 19 October 2008)

Hasta los huesos (Down to the Bone) was shown before the Cork Film Festival’s Opening Night film, and it was certainly apropos, given the sponsorship of Corona beer. It is part of a program of Mexican short films included this year in honor of the Corona connection. This humorously macabre stop-action animation, by René Castillo, is like nothing so much as some of Tim Burton\s more fanciful work. Think Corpse Bride with sombreros. If there is any question as to why it was picked for its high-profile slot on the first night, the amusing after=the=credits product placement for Corona definitely answered it. (Seen 12 October 2008)

Pockets is about exactly what it says. A three-minute film for Britain’s Channel 4 by James Lees, several people on the street in London show and explain what they have in their pockets. Some items are cute and innocent, some are touching, and some are a bit dark. (Seen 18 October 2008)

Reise zum Wald (Journey to the Forest) is a bit misleading as a title for this intriguing seven-minute film from Gerany. Directed by Jörn Staeger, it is a tour de force of technical effects that create a world of trees of all shapes, sizes and locations that seem to pulse and breathe energetically before our very eyes. There is something primordial going on here, and definitely something about the tension between man and nature. (Seen 13 October 2008)

The Suicidal Dog was Paul Merton’s own contribution to the silent comedies on display in his Silent Clowns program. A 12-minute movie that was originally filmed with some dialog, the version we saw was a silent one with subtitles. Very much in the spirit of the old one- and two-reelers, but also very contemporary, it tells the story of a man and his wife and a dog and the fallings-out they all have with each other. In homage to the old flickers, the film is mostly in black and white, although it explodes into color when the couple go to a fun fair. In the end, we learn that a dog is not always man’s best friend after all. (Seen 14 October 2008)

La Valise (The Suitcase) tells a simple and brief story about a woman going off on a holiday with friends and how her crotchety husband deals with it. (Not well.) A Swiss short in French by Kaveh Bakhtiari, its two-character story is wry and poignant and says a lot about people who have clearly lived together for a long time. (Seen 15 October 2008)

Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns

What better thing for a film festival to program than an evening’s retrospective on some of the earliest pioneers of cinema, those comedians who popularized movie-going with their onscreen antics in black and white and without sound during the first decades of the 20th century? And what better way to present it than with a host who clearly knows and loves and lives the world of early onscreen comedy. The Cork Film Festival had such a host in comedian and British TV and radio personality Paul Merton, whose many credits include presenting a BBC series called Paul Merton’s Silent Clows. Merton also has a local connection, as his mother is Irish and he spoke of fond memories of visiting cousins in Cork.

In the first half, Merton presented excerpts of classic comedies produced by Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. We were treated to a very funny sequence with Charlie Chaplin in 1916’s The Pawnshop, Laurel and Hardy getting into absurd shenanigans with a goat, and Harold Lloyd spinning around in a tiny bullet car propelled by an oversize magnet that allowed him to latch onto passing cars. (Merton said that when he saw that Lloyd bit as a child, he desperately wanted one of those little cars. Wouldn’t we all?) The inventiveness of these geniuses was amazing, even by our current jaded entertainment standards. Especially entertaining was the live accompaniment by pianist Neil Brand, who gave a delightful commentary on how he improvises during the course of a movie. Included with the old classics was Merton’s own 2000 short The Suicidal Dog which, despite its recent origin, was clearly in the tradition of the old classics.

The second half of the program was devoted to a complete screening of Buster Keaton’s amazing masterpiece Steamboat Bill, Jr.. (Attended 14 October 2008)

A Public Interview with Terence Davies

This was English director Terence Davies’s first visit to Cork, but his movies have been coming here for years. That includes his earliest shorts and his 1988 feature Distant Voices, Still Lives. And all of his movies were back here this week for a retrospective, up to and including his latest, Of Time and the City, a poetic meditation on his native Liverpool, which was selected for screening at Cannes earlier this year and played to positive reviews.

Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer was back doing the interviewing chore, and the two men quickly settled into a chat that felt like a conversation between old friends that had begun earlier in the cab ride over. To have seen any of Davies’s movies is to feel that you already know the man because they are nothing if not intensely personal. But if we expected to see a lonely young boy with a Liverpool accent, that memory was a bit hard to reconcile with the wittily impish white-haired man who beguiled us with his pithy and sometimes acerbic observations about film, art and pop culture. There is something about his voice that forces you to pay attention. It is deep and mellow with just a hint of a rasp, and you need listen carefully lest you miss any of his carefully chosen words. He frequently referred to movies and songs he liked as “poetry,” and that goes a long way to understanding his approach to filmmaking. Another frequent accolade he would give was the word “gorgeous,” but pronounced with an exaggerated and lingering emphasis on the first syllable.

After seeing such films as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, his discussion of his childhood would seem nearly redundant. We already feel we know his childhood well. Still, there was the odd surprising tidbit. He suggested that his father was even more of a monster than depicted in the fictionalized Distant Voices. He also noted that Pete Postlethwaite, who played the character in the film, very much looked like him, although that was not the reason that he was cast. Davies said that one thing that always surprises people is to learn that his father was not a drinker. “He took one drink a year on New Year’s,” he recalled, adding wrily that perhaps he would have been a nicer person if had drunk more.

Raised Catholic but now an avowed atheist, Davies said (with a trace of bitterness in his voice) he gave himself to “mother church” from the ages of 5 to 22, at which age he lost his faith. When asked by a member of the audience why he still referred to the soul and if he believed that people had souls, he replied that he did but “why does it have to be immortal?” His other institutional complaint was about the British monarchy which, as Dwyer noted, he referred to in Of Time and The city as “The Betty Windsor Show.” He called the royals “parasites” and recalled with contempt all the talk about “duty” during the young Elizabeth’s coronation in 1952. If she wanted to do her duty, Davies suggested, she would have told parliament to do something about the conditions people were living in at the time.

Not surprisingly, Davies grew up in love with movies. He recalled wistfully that, during his childhood, there were eight cinemas within easy walking distance of his home, with another eight not much farther away. The first movie he saw was Singin’ in the Rain and he loved musicals. He said he particularly loved Doris Day. “I wanted to meet Doris Day,” he said, enthusiastically. “I wanted to be Doris Day,” he added mischievously. Asked by Dwyer if he had ever gotten the chance to meet her, he replied no and that he didn’t really want to because, if she wasn’t perfect, it would ruin it for him.

Davies told how he had had a long dry period since the release of The House of Mirth in 2000. The problem was finding financial backing, but that ended when he was invited to apply to make a movie about Liverpool as part of the Digital Departures scheme, set up by North West Vision and Media to tie in with Liverpool’s City of Culture status. He wasn’t sure that he could make such a movie until, while at a traffic light, he looked up and got the inspiration of using a sequence about high-rise public housing with the old song “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” As with all his movies, classical and popular music plays a large role in Of Time and the City. But, as Dwyer noted, Liverpool’s most celebrated musical group is not only absent but the Beatles are actually castigated in Davies’s own voice on the soundtrack. Sounding very much the curmudgeon, Davies said that, when he first saw Elvis Presley, “I thought he looked ridiculous, and the Beatles were even worse.” He blamed Presley and the Beatles for putting an end to the popular songs he loved and admired as a child. But that didn’t stop him from including the Fab Four’s contemporaries, the Hollies, singing “He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother,” over a sequence about the Korean War. Actually from Manchester, the Hollies’ song was included because it was “great poetry,” according to the filmmaker.

While Davies was clearly a fan of Hollywood movies of the 1950s and could list (for a member of the audience) a few well-known directors who may have influenced him, he did not have much good to say about contemporary mainstream cinema. He particularly complained about crane and tracking shots that made absolutely no sense, dismissing them as “bad syntax.” He gave, as an example a really well done tracking shot, the opening scene of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. “By the end of that scene you have learned everything about those characters,” he proclaimed.

It seems to be de rigueur for every conversation with a European filmmaker to have some venting about clueless American studio executives, and this was no exception. “Does she have to die at the end?” asked Davies, mocking one such type. Another of his favorite studio annoyances is the suggestion that he give every character a backstory. Answering the phantom exec, he pointed out that Debbie Reynolds’s character in Singin’ in the Rain didn’t have a backstory and (with mock surprise) “imagine, 56 years later, people are still watching it!” He said that British film and television were being ruined by American influence, and that there was pressure on Brits to like, for example, the same sitcoms as Americans. He insisted that many British movies were bad because they tried to be like American movies. Reprising a line he has used before, he said, “There’s only one thing more embarrassing than an actor with a gun: a British actor with a gun.” Saying he was not anti-American, he declared that Britain needed to turn to Europe rather than America culturally. “Otherwise, it’s just going to get worse and worse,” he warned. “We’ll wind up Hawaii, but with worse weather.”

He also told, with an apparent bit of pride, of how a woman, after a screening of The House of Mirth, called out, “Why are your movies always so bloody depressing?” Replied Davies (presumably without missing a beat), “It’s a gift!” (Attended 15 October 2008)