Escaping the round of conferences at work I took in a round of movies at Edinburgh Film Festival, but since I was celebrating with graduating students last night I awoke with the proverbial “sore heid and a pocket full of sticky pennies”, too late to attend the press screening of Lucky McKee’s RED, starring Greatest Living Scotsman Brian Perfect Cox.
(The name Brian Perfect Cox derives from a graffiti on a big wooden gate at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Ferry Road. Reading simply “BRIAN’S PERFECT COCK”, it managed to be both obscene and yet oddly moving. The anonymous author simply wanted to exult in one of life’s rare perfections, and since actor Brian Cox often seems like another of those splendid anomalies, the two have become linked in my mind.)
There was more red on display in Martin Radich’s visceral art film CRACK WILLOW. I have no idea what the title means, and little idea about the film, but it’s a searing, often lurid piece of work. Martin’s photography is even more stunning than I expected, with sodium-lit night scenes looking like scratched copper, and nightmare interiors tinged iridescent red and green. The Bennett’s, father and son, stars of Martin’s first film short, IN MEMORY OF DOROTHY BENNETT, are back, but the years have done their destructive work. One is overweight, the other aged and disabled. The scenes of son caring for father will strike a chord with anyone who has cared for an older person. But a shift has occurred — by moving the Bennetts into a fictional storyline where the father dies and the son undergoes a crisis, Martin has changed the relationship between subjects, artwork and audience. We are no longer getting a window into the private world of the Bennetts, but are seeing them perform for us, and there’s an uncomfortable element of exhibitionism to it. It’s doubtful if the younger man would be lying in his bath and urinating into the air if the camera wasn’t there to capture it. Intimate scenes of human behaviour are interspersed with show-off stunts. While the use of improvisation maintains an air of absolute emotional authenticity to the interplay between the “actors”, some scenes seem added for sensation’s sake. Long and rather nauseating scenes of the pair noisily eating seem to gloat over bodily revulsion, sabotaging the human sympathy which was the hallmark of the earlier short. Some of the nudity and swearing seem forced, straining for shock effect that refuses to come. There is a whiff of the freakshow.
(Publicity gurus please note: when promoting a low-budget film that’s a hard sell, you could at least provide more than one still. Also, “synopis” is not a word.)
More problematic still are the interpolated scenes of stylised photography and theatrical performance, in which an apparently psychotic man capers and cavorts in a tinted apartment space, sometimes thrashing in accelerated motion like that fellow in JACOB’S LADDER. If it weren’t for the more compelling spectre of the Bennetts, this might be disturbing, but it seems both tame and melodramatically contrived by comparison, even though imagery and sound design are impressive in themselves. The guy (credits are unavailable) is a brilliant physical performer though.
Nothing directly relates this action to the main thread of narrative, save a brief scene in which Bennett fils glimpses the twitchy man on a beach. A similar encounter loosely connects Bennett to a woman seen confined in what seems to be a psychiatric hospital (although it doesn’t feel like anybody connected to the production has any experience or understanding of mental illness or psychiatric care in this country), so there are three basically free-floating units of action drifting around in the film, unattached by any detectable structure.
Martin is a graduate of the Cinema Extreme shorts programme, and this is exactly the kind of thing they love — “strong” subject matter, “radical” treatment, uncertain meaning or purpose. It’s nevertheless pretty compelling, due to the skill with which it’s made. Chris Morris’ TV show Jam is cited as an influence in the Film Festival programme, but the mission of that series, to push comedy deep into the disturbing until 99% of humour is suffocated, is not shared here. Perhaps this film is heading in the other direction, driving drama into the realms of the grotesque until empathy snaps and we are left with absurdity and horror. There ARE a few laughs along the way though. The younger Bennett’s brilliant malapropism ”I quite like that Allied Llama,” is my first favourite line of the Fest.
Grabbing a muffin for sustenance, I plunged into OBSCENE, a documentary on the life of Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Naked Lunch in America for the first time, battling through the courts to do so. It’s a fascinating story, but such an iconoclastic subject perhaps deserves a less conventional approach. Talking heads were of a high calibre though — I particularly enjoyed John Waters’ dismissal of the once-shocking I AM CURIOUS YELLOW: “It’s a limp dick and an ugly girl and talking about communism.”
A third bout of disturbed cinema followed — FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is a French animated feature anthology, interweaving several short stories written and designed by top cartoonists like Charles Burns and Lorenzo Mattoti. I liked most of the sequences, and was blown away by Richard McGuire’s wordless ghost story in which a traveller sheltering from a snowstorm is persecuted by an avenging female figure in an old dark house. Pellucid darkness (pure b&w without use of gray), tense, gasping sound, elegant movement and design clearly influenced by Edward Gorey but stopping short of the usual wholesale plunder.
Why is b&w animation suddenly so big? First PERSEPOLIS, now this — I wonder if the repulsive SIN CITY isn’t in some strange way partially responsible, in which case, it deserves some credit.