Conferencing in the U.K., 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival, celebrating film’s past (and future) at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna
The day of my arrival in Dublin was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, though there was no carousing evident. My own (cinematic) carousing had to be put on hold because I had a conference paper to write for Console-ing Passions, my primary reason for coming to Ireland. Unfortunately for the Dubliners but fortunately for me, given my tendency to wax regretful over missed movie-going opportunities, there are not so many art houses in town and mostly they were playing quasi-art films (Dear IMC Screen Cinema: Entourage, really?!). Thus I didn’t feel overly bereft about leaving them unexplored. I’d liked to have made it to The Lighthouse, but when forced to choose, the premier venue was clearly the Irish Film Institute.
Unfortunately for me, the film I elected to see there, Black Coal Thin Ice, was a disappointment, despite the enthusiastic reviews that had preceded it and its intriguing title/premise and atmospheric setting. (Note: In the interest of space/time constraints, I won’t be editorializing about films here – though a review of my festival screenings will be forthcoming.) Even more unfortunate for me (but very fortunate for Dubliners), my conference paper was scheduled on the same morning that the box office opened (and nearly instantaneously sold out of tickets) for what’s known as “Open Day,” a morning-noon-and-night of free screenings for which I would have happily remained ensconced within the IFI’s confines. By the time I’d presented, everything was sold out; I especially regret having missed Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders, which won the 2014 Grand Prix at Cannes but still hasn’t received U.S. distribution. And yet the conference paper (on “late queer” politics of representation in LGBT web series) was written and delivered successfully, and in the swanky surrounds of The Marker Hotel, so all’s well that ends well.
On to Edinburgh for the 69th annual communing of what’s (according to its Twitter handle) “the longest continually running film festival in the world.” Edinburgh is a big enough festival that it is ostensibly forced to rely on such charmless multiplex-style venues as the CineWorld; I much preferred festival headquarters’ Filmhouse and the neighboring Odeon. With yet another conference paper to write, this one for Screen at the University of Glasgow, I spent the majority of my days in town huddled in front of my laptop at the thoroughly cozy Lovecrumbs café, recommended by my Wellesley classmate (and published Scottish-American poet!) JL Williams, with whom I got to catch up while in town.
And of course I made time for evening screenings at the festival: Michael Mann’s debut feature, the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, evocatively filmed entirely inside Folsom Prison; fairly predictable thriller and bona-fide “festival film” The Incident, most interesting for starring Ruta Gedmintas (of Lip Service fame), her stunning wardrobe, and an equally stunning modernist dwelling in Yorkshire; and another laboriously festival-formula film, the much-hyped, Schwarzenegger-starring “alt-zombie” indie Maggie.
My personal favorite-of-fest was Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a documentary directed and produced by the sister team that is Vernon Films, who led a spirited Q&A afterwards together with Ilina Nistor, a woman whose voice is intimately known and beloved by Romanians due to her having dubbed thousands of bootleg movies distributed on the black market and watched at illegal viewing parties during the Ceausescu regime. It was an inspiring if ideologically one-sided film that I look forward to writing more about.
Fortuitously, one of the big winners at Edinburgh (and another film-about-film) was The Wolfpack, which my Screen conference paper focused on along with its fictional counterpart Dogtooth (see a condensed version of my take here). To bookend my conference presentation, I made two trips to the Art Deco-designed, elegant but expensive Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) for two re-viewings. Both exceeded my memories of having first viewing them: with Andrew Bujalski’s Results, its dialogue’s subtleties must have been a bit lost in the sold-out Sundance screening I saw in January; with the 2K restoration re-release of The Long Good Friday, a good many of the dialogue’s subtleties remained lost on me (due to the thick Cockney spoken by its characters), but it was nonetheless an electrifying viewing. Apart from an obtrusive synth soundtrack and curiously ill-judged shower sequence shot in slow-mo soft-porn style yet featuring the hairy fireplug Bob Hoskins, who is transcendently terrifying in every other scene as mobster-“businessman” Harold Shand, the film doesn’t just hold up but proves both a worthy culmination to the British gangster films of the sublime 70s as well as impressively ahead of its time in its (and Harold’s) envisioning of the “new London.”
My only complaint about the GFT and other UK art cinemas, which mostly seem to belong to the Europa Cinemas exhibition group, is the endless stream of noisome ads – far more than in the U.S. – that one is forced to endure before screening’s start. Having recalled from my college study abroad year in London such ads as being artistically and conceptually innovative (this being before we had ads in U.S. cinemas – so as far-fetched as it now sounds, then it seemed to me an enticing custom), it was a shame to find they’d deteriorated and proliferated. Also frustrating, Glasgow’s other primary venue for art film exhibition, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), was on hiatus with its film programming – apparently in preparation for its series in conjunction with Glasgow’s Comic-Con (which I’m very much glad to have missed).
With the most intellectually taxing (due to the stress of writing two conference papers in ten days) and expensive (due to the conversion rate of the British pound) portion of the trip complete, it was on to Bologna, Italy for Il Cinema Ritrovato. I knew this festival’s focus on rediscovered works of film history and issues of preservation and archiving were not strictly in keeping with my project’s focus on 21st century independent cinema/s. Yet I was tempted into going both by the allure of my paterfamilial homeland (and its delectable cuisine) and by the rapturous reviews I’d heard of this, “il festival più bello del mondo” – according to, among others, esteemed guest Isabella Rossellini, whose mother Ingrid Bergman’s face was plastered across town on festival publicity materials promoting a retrospective of her work.
The highlight of the festival so far has been a screening of Casablanca, preceded by Rossellini’s introduction, held al fresco and under a full moon in the Piazza Maggiore. (The photograph below comes courtesy of the festival’s Twitter feed; as a festival pass-holder, I was sitting closer to the screen so out of view of the 5,000-strong crowd that apparently availed themselves of every possible viewing position). In keeping with their (our, if I might include myself) reputation for vocal opining, a protest in support of Greece (and against EU-mandated austerity measures) roundly received cheering from the assembled Italians. Earlier that day, an audience at the Arlecchino Cinema had managed to successfully applaud off stage a windbag delivering an endless pre-screening introduction. Working on the same cultural stereotype, I might have assumed the audience would be more audibly appreciative of the film, but there was respectful silence throughout – something I was grateful for, given that a good many outdoor screenings result in drowned-out dialogue, even if I would have liked there to have been a round of “bravos” after the rousing La Marseillaise sequence, or at least at film’s end.
The prospect of expressing an original take on Casablanca is daunting, given its canonicity, but I’ll risk it to share a few thoughts. First, it struck me that, with Bergman’s Ilsa being guilted/manhandled by Bogart’s Rick into rejoining her Nazi-resisting husband at film’s end, Casablanca is essentially a reversal of Bergman’s decision a few years later to leave her husband (and child) for Roberto Rossellini, presumably (and to quote When Harry Met Sally) “the man with whom she had the greatest sex of her life.” Very much a Production Code film, and a pre-feminist one at that (see Ilsa’s line to Rick, “You must do the thinking for both of us” – which did solicit some female-sounding groans from the audience). Not to mention highly problematic, racially speaking, in its characterization and treatment of pianist Sam. And yet its charms do not wear off: the allegorical but not overstated case it makes against political isolationism, the screwball-speed dialogue innervingly exchanged by its stellar cast of European character actors (Marcel Dalio! Sydney Greenstreet! Peter Lorre! Claude Rains!). Strangely, the other Bergman film I saw in Bologna, Rossellini’s Europa ’51, seemed nearly to condemn her character with the same rationale used by those who denounced her in Congress, when child neglect provokes her to guilt-ridden extremes of martyrdom.
Another revelatory festival screening was the three hour twenty minute (all of them riveting) Jeanne Dielman…, which I had yet to see on the big screen, and which was recently restored by the Belgian Cinematek, though alas its director Chantal Akerman was a no-show. A day trip to the neighboring town of Ferrara turned up a charming art house of its own, the Apollo, though given that it wasn’t affiliated with the Cineteca di Bologna it defaulted to Italy’s penchant for dubbing – leaving me bereft at not being able to enjoy a screening of Paolo Sorrentino’s latest (and first English-language) film, Youth.
In an attempt to correct my imposter-like ignorance of the pressing concerns around film archiving and preservation shared by those who run and religiously attend Il Cinema Ritrovato, I attended the “Future of Film” panel moderated by Variety critic Scott Foundas and featuring an array of prominent filmmakers and archivists – though only one woman, FIAF’s Rachael Stoltje, among them. It was an informative discussion that, for all its despairing about the current state of emergency regarding the processing, projecting, and preserving of print film, was rousing for the calls to arms and for collaboration that each inspiring panelist delivered. This panel, along with a (delectable) lunch with my dissertation director and festival-regular Janet Bergstrom, made me feel like I’d nearly jettisoned my Il Cinema Ritrovato-interloper status.
Apart from festival-going, Bologna has provided some outstanding meals (natch) as well as record heat – not always the best combination, but managed well enough with the addition of an Aperol Spritz or proseco at regular intervals. This life of film-going interspersed with leisurely meals and aperitivo is easy to get used to, and so I’ll be sad to leave…but glad for a worthy send-off with tonight’s Piazza screening, which seems ideally timed not just for my farewell tomorrow but for the celebration of July 4 back in the U.S. – at least I can’t think of a cinematic happening that would come closer to imitating the soaring bombast of a fireworks display than a 70mm-projected outdoor exhibition of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another contender for the pantheon of most memorable movie-going experiences…
Coming attractions: Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Prague, and Paris