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Articles - Directing

John Cusack in Being John Malkovich

The Venice International Film Festival

When I received my first prize in Venice 18 years
ago, a critic from Time magazine wrote ‘Nobody from nowhere
won,’” remarked Competition Jury President Emir Kusturica
(director of Underground, Black Cat White Cat) at the inaugural
press conference of the 1999 Venice International Film Festival.
“Maybe that will be the criterion for picking this year’s
Golden Lion winner.” The well-rounded international competition,
which began when the late Stanley
Kubrick’s
final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, screened
uncensored on opening night, boasted mostly well-established names
and seemed to offer few opportunities to reward bold newcomers
and unknowns.

Ranging from Chinese master Zhang Yimou’s latest
work, Not One Less, to Mike
Leigh’s Topsy Turvy
, Iranian Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and Lasse Hallstrom’s much anticipated The Cider House Rules, the competition roster, unmistakably
partial to the auteur, reflected the vision of newly-appointed festival
director Alberto Barbera. Famous for his undying support of emerging
filmmakers during his tenure at the prestigious Turin Youth International
Film Festival, Barbera again renewed his commitment to young directors
in the more cumbersome setting of the Venice Biennale, giving them
ample opportunity to shine in the festival’s many sidebars.
In addition to a new section called Cinema of the Present, Barbera
established the “Luigi De Laurentiis Prize” for best first
feature (equivalent to the Camera D’Or at Cannes). Intended
to assist first-time filmmakers in what he called “the most
crucial moment in a moviemaker’s career—the transition
to the second film,” the prize consists of $100,000 to be split
between the winning director and producer, and 20,000 meters of
film offered by Kodak.

American independents turned up conspicuously among
the 21 first features eligible for the De Laurentiis Prize. Kimberly
Peirce’s provocative directoral debut, Boys Don’t Cry (see cover story —ed.) jolted
audiences on the second day of the festival with the harrowing account
of the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena in Nebraska. On a lighter note,
Spike Jonze’s idiosyncratic comedy Being John Malkovich won over audiences with the droll acrobatics of an unlikely trio
of lovers in search of the perfect “love-requitable” identity.
Priceless ensemble work is delivered by stars John Cusack, Cameron
Diaz, Catherine Keener and an uproarious John Malkovich as himself.
Other highlights of the selection included Mark Hanlon’s brooding
and visually haunting first feature Buddy Boy and Lisanne
Skyler’s Sundance official entry Getting To Know You.
Ineligible for any prize but taking audiences by storm anyway was
indie enfant terrible Harmony Korine’s controversial Julien
Donkey Boy
. Largely improvised by Chloe Sevigny, Werner Herzog,
and Ewen Bremmer in the title role, the story of a schizophrenic
young man who works as an attendant in a school for the blind is
broken up into seemingly random issues/36/images and occasional lucid fragments
of Julien’s deteriorating perception. Realized according to
von Trier’s tenets of Dogme 95, Korine’s follow-up to Gummo was shot in digital video by Celebration’s cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, then transferred to 16mm reversal
stock and finally blown up to 35mm, which resulted in a volley of
shredded, raw issues/36/images of astonishing beauty.

Far from being a ‘nobody from nowhere,’
the winner of the Golden Lion turned out to be world-renowned Chinese
auteur Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) with Not One
Less
, a delicate tale set in rural China, arguably the most
deserving among a roster of impressive competition titles. Among
those was Jane Campion’s much- anticipated world premiere of Holy Smoke, co-authored by Campion and her sister, Anna Campion,
which feature

Aidan Gillen in Buddy Boy

d explosive performances from leads Kate Winslett
and Harvey Keitel. Another was Alison Maclean’s Jesus’
Son
, an edgy, rakish rendition of Denis Johnson’ eponymous
short story collection, adapted nicely by scripters Elizabeth Cuthrell,
David Urrutia and Oren Moverman and featuring a captivating cast that
included by Bill Crudup, Samantha Morton, and Holly Hunter. The Jury
Prize went to Abbas Kiarostami for The Wind Will Carry Us.
A Special Jury prize for best direction again went to China for Zhang
Yuan’s Seventeen Years, which participated in the festival
under the auspices of the Italian government and was officially disowned
by Chinese authorities—allegedly on account of scenes in the
final cut that were shot in a real Chinese prison. Best actor went
to Topsy-Turvy’s Jim Broadbent for his role as W.S. Gilbert,
and best actress to Nathalie Baye, star of the steamy A Pornographic
Affair
, by Belgian moviemaker Frederik Fonteyne.

Hollywood fare was kept to a threadbare minimum, with
only one title in competition: Antonio Banderas’s directoral
debut, Crazy in Alabama; and a few in the “Dreams and
Visions” section, most notably David Fincher’s nerve-hitting Fight Club. Out of competition was the world premiere of
Woody Allen’s bittersweet comedy Sweet and Lowdown,
starring Sean Penn in a compelling, tour-de-force performance as
the volatile, eccentric and ultimately irresistible jazz guitar
master Emmet Ray.

Martin Scorsese was in attendance, presenting his
work-in-progress documentary on Italian neo-realism Il Dolce
Cinema
at the closing night ceremony, where he also presented
a Golden Lion for career achievement to Jerry Lewis.
At the festival’s close it became clear that with Alberto Barbera’s
savvy and sophistication, the much-speculated Venice Renaissance
is now well underway. —A.G. Basoli

Toronto International Film Festival

This time of year the Indian summer breezes off Lake
Ontario swirl fallen leaves around the rock monuments at the Yorkville
“Festival Village,” which has become ground zero of the
Toronto International Film Festival. And like the scurrying leaves,
groups of festival goers constantly move back and forth from area
theatres and hotels, trying to make the most of their time at an
event where 317 films are presented in 10 days. With more than 250,000
attendees and 4,000 film professionals and press in attendance,
this festival can, by most standards, be considered the largest
film gathering in North America.

While a string of soon-to-open studio films dominate
the festival’s “Gala” and “Special Presentation”
series, the other sections—Contemporary World Cinema, Reel-to-Reel,
Masters, Midnight Madness, Planet Africa, Discovery and Perspective
Canada—offer something for every cineaste. Also included this
year was a section of New Spanish Cinema, a spotlight on brilliant
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) with a
retrospective of his works from 1985’s The Excitement of
the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl
to three new films—Barren Illusion,
Charisma
, and License to Live; a tribute to the late
Toronto programmer David Overby; and Dialogues: Talking with Pictures,
a series in which eight prominent moviemakers screened films which
“changed the face of cinema,” and discussed them with
audiences after the shows.

Here are some of the festival’s other cinematic
highlights:

One of the most remarkable finds was Shower,
the first feature from Zhang Yang, a pioneer of China’s underground
music video scene. The backdrop for this moving tale of changing
times is a traditional Chinese bathhouse, where customs date back
thousands of years. The bathhou

Sean Penn and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown

se experience, we learn, is designed to include
a full day’s worth of health-promoting activities—massage,
acupuncture, moxibustion, and other ancient healing arts, as well
as games and socializing—all in the framework of an ancient code
which strips away hierarchy and social rank from the patrons, along
with their clothes. The bathhouse building in the film, magnificent
though aged, not unlike the men inside, is part of an old Beijing
neighborhood slated for “modernization” and, along with
all the traditions it represents, the bathhouse is endangered.

Shower is the story of a son who is lured back
to his elderly father’s side by a letter, and reluctantly rediscovers
the magic of the bathhouse and the social purpose it serves. He
is forced to face the responsibilities of family and confront the
problems of modernization on a personal level. Shower is
a delight throughout, extremely well shot and paced. It’s humorous
and touching, and meaningful on a broader level, as it addresses
the challenges of modernization in China today. It was awarded the
Fipresci Prize by a jury of international film critics for a new
work by an emerging filmmaker “for humor and compassion
in its treatment of the tensions of family life in a rapidly changing
society.” In short, this Shower is most refreshing.

An “Eastern” theme, albeit transplanted
to urban America, is also the subtext of Jim Jarmusch’s newfilm Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Forest Whitaker is Ghost
Dog,
a loner gun for hire who lives by the code of the Japanese
Samurai, and is guided by the words of an ancient text that Jarmusch
shares with the audience.

Ghost Dog lives above the world on a roof-top with
his birds, carrier pigeons which serve as his means of communication
to the outside world. In the spirit of the Samurai, he has pledged
his loyalty to Louie, a small time mobster who saved his life many
years before. But Louie is a member of a dysfunctional Mafia family
in the throes of self destruction. Ghost Dog’s simple world
of mastery, loyalty and ancient wisdom parallel, and often clash,
with the crumbling code of the Mafia world.

Into the mix Jarmusch blends Betty Boop, Felix the
Cat and The Simpsons cartoons that help to inform the film’s
action. He incorporates Japanese teachings, hip hop, mythology and
pop culture, which lace the film with potent substance.

The clashing of worlds apart is a Jarmusch mainstay,
along with questions of communication (particularly non-verbal)
and absurdist juxtapositions of character and place, along with
ample amounts of irony and layered meaning which harken all the
way back to Stranger Than Paradise the film that first brought
him center-stage on the American independent film scene.

Culture clash takes on more threatening proportions
in My Father’s Angel, which represents Canada’s
tradition of emigrant internationalism, more a cultural “crazy
quilt” rather than a “melting pot.” Directed by the
Sarajevo filmmaker Davor Marjanovic, who now lives in British Columbia,
the film is set in Vancouver but cuts to the essence of the tragic
circumstances in Bosnia. The film centers around two Bosnian families,
one headed by Ahmed, a Muslim, the other by Djordje, a Serb and
former Yugoslavian soccer star, who now works as a courier in Canada.

Djordje and his family emigrated before the horrors
began and dismisses reports of monstrous Serb atrocities as “lies”
and media fabrications.

Ahmed and his family, on the other hand, are recent
immigrants who have suffered anti-Muslim horrors at the hands of
the Serbs. His wife

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog

is virtually catatonic after having been repeatedly
raped by Serb soldiers.
“Sarajevo was such a beautiful city, Bosnian and Serb together,”
Marjanovic says, “with four of the world’s great religions,
Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic, all thriving within a 200-meter
radius.” In Yugoslavia, Marjanovic was a top TV director doing
comedy serials. “When the Serb siege took place I heard about
my actor friends who were living in cellars to avoid the snipers,”
he says. “I decided to make a short film with them in a cellar,
but we had to do it near the front because it was the only part of
the city with electricity. I was so lucky not to have been shot. Lucky
300 times. But I saw Bosnian women being sent back into Sarajevo after
having been in the Serb rape camps. They were kept there until they
got pregnant, and then were sent back to Sarajevo to have these ‘Serb’
children. It was horrible.” Marjanovic confides, “At first
I didn’t want to talk about it, but Frank (Borg, the Vancouver
playwright who collaborated with Marjanovic on the script) drew it
out of me.”

Surprisingly, My Father’s Angel has its
humorous moments and is as much about the teenage boys of the respective
families as about their parents. The two grow to hate each other
at school, have fistfights “over history” and learn to
look beyond their differences and hatred to find peace. “I
still can’t believe this has happened in Sarajevo,” Marjanovic
says, obviously moved. “I had to make this film to try to understand
how this could have happened. It’s a film about humanity and
forgiveness.”

Another story based on real life events is from Australian
director Paul Cox, who was in Toronto with his film Molokai:
The Story of Father Damien
, the story of the young Catholic
priest who dedicated his life’s work to the well-being of lepers
on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The film explores Father Damien’s
tireless efforts to gain recognition and support for his forgotten
flock, but also examines his personal challenges as he develops
a relationship with a young Hawaiian woman. Typical of Cox’s
films, Molokai is layered and multi-dimensional, and challenging
for the audience.

In this case, however, the filmmaker had to face the
biggest challenge of his career. “I had to learn the Way of
the Warrior,” Cox confesses. “During the shoot trouble
started with the financiers. It was a real ‘war zone.’
When I work I have a script to start, and then mold it during and
throughout production. They didn’t like that and tried to sack
me during production, but it didn’t work. The teamsters, crew
and even the patients on Molokai wanted me to stay. They were my
dear friends. They went on strike for five days ’til I was
brought back. They were totally loyal to me. The money guys called
them the ‘Paul Cox Mafia.’

Shooting on the island itself was particularly tough
because there is no infrastructure. Everything had to be flown in.
“It was a miracle that we got a film out of it at all,”
Cox said.

“I did the first cut of the film and then they
took the film away from me and re-cut it totally. When they secretly
started to cut the negative I went to court and got an injunction
on the post-production. They showed a version of the picture at
a film market and I disassociated myself from it. When the foreign
buyers, who had pre-bought a ‘Paul Cox Film,’ found out,
and saw the producers’ awful, disjointed version, they pulled
out of the sales,” Cox says.

“I took them to court on artistic grounds and
won, after a long struggle. I shoot in a certain way, and my films
have to be edited as I envisioned them while shooting. I don’t
just cut from face to face, but shoot for the finished, edited film.
“Today’s version is completely different than the one
shown in the film markets,” says Cox. “There is some justice
in the world; now I have the film and I learned to be a relentless
warrior.” In the meantime, Paul Cox has shot another film which
is, naturally, under his own control, called Innocence.

Among the festival’s other noteworthy prize winners
were Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, which won the Air Canada
People’s Choice audience prize, and the Benson and the Hedges
Film Discovery Award winner, Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish,
by Kevin Jordan (see “How They Did
it,
”—ed.)

At the end of the festival, Toronto’s swirling
winds bring rain and with them a remembrance of Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog and its quote from the ancient samurai text, The
Hagakure
:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm.When
meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly
along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves
of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning,
you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking.
This understanding extends to all things.” —Stephen
Ashton


Margherita Bay and Silvio
Orlando in Not of This World

Montreal Film Festival

With Venice and Toronto following so closely on its
heels, the 23-year-old Montreal World Film Festival has rarely been
known for glitz or market activity. But this isn’t a detriment,
as the festival doesn’t try too hard to be glamorous. This
year’s typically diverse edition featured 307 films from 68
countries, and with numbers like that the focus naturally centered
on the films themselves.

Montreal remains a great place for a
moviemaker to gauge audience response because, while
practically every screening is jam-packed, only a small fraction
of a given audience is made up of press and “industry”
types. The citizens of this beautiful, French-speaking city are
pure movie lovers, and they turn out in force to catch everything
from new studio releases (there were a few) to the most obscure
Turkish, Swiss, and Croatian pictures. This year’s jury, considered
to be one of the strongest ever, included Stephen Rea, Bibi Andersson,
and directors Percy Adlon, Pat O’Connor, and Fernando Solanas.

The weather was unusually hot and sunny this late
August, and as a result, the annual outdoor screenings on rue St.
Catherine were especially popular. At 9 p.m. each night it was remarkable
to find a veritable sea of people gathered on the steps of the Place
des Arts watching, in utter silence, movies such as The Red Violin,
Central Station, West Beirut
, and Life is Beautiful.

In the theaters, the offerings were decidedly mixed.
Many films, such as Miramax’s Mansfield Park, (easily
the weakest of the recent Jane Austen adaptations) suffered from
a lack of visual storytelling, becoming nothing more than pictures
of people talking. Several first-time and independent foreign films
suffered the same problem. Off-beat subject matter is no longer
enough to stand out from the pack; what really stands out is technique
and storytelling, which ironically can elevate even the most simple,
mundane or over-used plots into something special.

One film that certainly succeeded on this level was Post Mortem, which won the Best Director award for Montreal
native Louis Belanger. A twisted tale of crime, true love, and necrophilia,
it’s riveting from first frame to last. Linda, a single mom,
leads a secret double life as a seductress who clubs her unsuspecting
male victims unconscious and then steals their money. When she meets
her match in a rough American, the film abruptly focuses on a new
character—a morgue attendant with a sad, solitary life—until
Linda re-enters the picture.

Belanger keeps his audience absorbed by forcing its
sympathy for characters whose actions are highly suspect, morally,
by inserting two incredible plot twists at surprising moments and
by using flashbacks in a way that leaves you wanting more each time
they end. Scene for scene, the young writer-director coaxes convincing
performances and knows where to put his camera in one of the year’s
most assured directoral debuts.

Exciting filmmaking was also found in the Iranian
film (and Grand Prix winner) The Color of Paradise, a simple
tale of a blind boy who returns with his father, a poor coal worker,
to his home village in the northern highlands of Iran. Feel


Director Phillip Noyce and Denzel
Washington in The Bone Collector

ing his son’s blindness to be too burdensome,
the father tries to leave him behind, in the care of a woodworker.
But in the end the father is forced to pay the consequences for his
own spiritual blindness in an event so shattering it achieves mythic
proportions.

What makes Majid Majidi’s picture so compelling
is the truly unique soundtrack, in which the sounds of nature and
animals are heightened to create a feeling similar to the boy’s
sense of sound. The cumulative effect of this over the course of
the movie is remarkable; it feels like a brand-new way to experience
a movie.

From Italian director Giuseppe Piccioni came Not
of This World
, a beautifully-realized portrait of loneliness
and life choices which won the Jury Prize. Caterina, a nun only
months away from taking her vows, finds an abandoned baby and gradually
her maternal instincts are kindled, causing her to call into question
her entire belief system. Meanwhile, she tries to track down the
baby’s mother and is led to a lonely, middle-aged man who runs
a dry cleaner and may or may not be the baby’s father.

At this point, the plot’s mystery element fades
as the picture focuses on these two characters, their emotional
paths and their very moving inner conflicts, without becoming maudlin.
Piccioni is such a talented storyteller that one could watch his
movie without sound and still easily follow along and be affected
emotionally. Shooting anamorphically with elegant, gliding camera
work, he makes it clear visually, in scene after scene, just how
much is at stake for these characters. He lends their dilemmas weight,
and in so doing makes his audience care and think. Ludovico Einaudi’s
music is gorgeous and used very well, commenting on the emotions
of the story rather than creating them.

Other popular films included the sensual, semi-pornographic,
and sold-out Romance by French director Catherine Breillat;
Fine Line’s The Cup, a whimsical tale of two boys in
a Tibetan monastery who try to rent a satellite dish to watch the
World Cup soccer tournament; The Last Word, part of the Irish
Cinema sidebar and a surprisingly poignant tale of a stuttering
teen; and the affecting drama The Bridge, in which Gerard
Depardieu (who co-directed) and ever-stunning Carole Bouquet find
their marriage disintegrating in the 1960s. American films were
in short supply, but included the world premiere of the final cut
of Happy, Texas, acquired by Miramax at Sundance and subsequently
re-cut by director Mark Illsley. Also premiering was Universal’s The Bone Collector, filmed in Montreal, with Denzel Washington
and director Philip Noyce on hand to add a touch of studio glitz.
Washington was introduced before a full house by producer Martin
Bregman but he surprised everyone, including Bregman, by not addressing
the crowd, instead just waving and smiling before leaving the theater
and the country.

Special mention must be made of Alexander Petrov’s
groundbreaking The Old Man and the Sea, a 20-minute, animated
retelling of the Hemingway novel in IMAX format. The stunning painting-like
animation was the result of two years of painstaking work by Petrov,
who finger-painted four layers of glass with oil paint to create
each frame. The final result—the first-ever animated IMAX film—is
not only physically beautiful but manages to retain the full emotional
essence of the novel.

The festival was well-organized, with five venues
and a total of 11 screens showing movies from 9 am to midnight.
Most theaters had excellent projection and sound. The festival nerve
center remained the Hotel Wyndham, which housed most participants
and contained a popular meeting space in its piano bar. After complaints
about last year’s dead party scene, there were more bashes
this time around, though with the low glamour quotient most were
rather restrained. —Jeremy Arnold MM

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