Cinema Rediscovered 2019 – Renewal and Reflection

The 25th to the 28th July saw Cinema Rediscovered take over Watershed in Bristol for the fourth year. This fast-growing festival, focused primarily on revival and archival cinema, is one of the freshest and most vital in the UK, despite its focus on *ahem* old things. It seems to engender a mood given to thinking critically about film in a way that faster paced festivals, geared towards new releases, hype and securing distribution,can sometimes struggle to cultivate.

For this writer, the working week and my inability to be in two places at once precluded me from seeing quite as much as I would have liked, so before any wide-ranging coverage I’d like to give a shout out to the various screenings I was gutted to miss: the shorts collections by Nigerien filmmaker Moustapha Alassane (including some stop-motion frog wrestling that I was reliably informed was amazing) and by female pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché both looked exciting, as did Vêra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise. I also somehow managed to miss all five Nic Roeg screenings. Whilst his films have a habit of occasionally underwhelming me, I have no doubt their enveloping and alien atmospheres would have won me over in a cinema.

The first film I did manage to get to was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989). The Chilean surrealist’s ‘comeback’ film at the time was hailed as a madcap psychological horror, and a welcome return after the 16 years since The Holy Mountain, much of which was expended on the infamously never-completed Dune, with a minor sideshow to make the largely forgotten Tusk (1980).

On the big screen, Santa Sangre has lost none of its overwhelmingly visceral power and visual imagination, but where Jodorowsky’s two breakout films – El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain(1973) – were a mashing together of whatever surrealist and occult imagery happened to be swimming in the director’s head at the time, Santa Sangre distils such imagination in service of a story with real kick and narrative drive.

In his early films, you get the sense that Jodorowsky is just messing about, enjoying whatever class-As were available to him at the time, but Santa Sangre works on another level entirely. The throughline of the story is that we follow Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky), the son of two circus performers. One day, he sees his womanising father attacked by his mother with some acid, and in turn the father chops off both her arms and then kills himself. As you do. Traumatised, Fenix grows up in a mental institution and, upon release, falls under the spell of his mother, who psychologically enslaves him to ‘act’ as her limbs, standing behind her. In this wild mix, Alejandro Jodorowsky constantly throws incredible images our way: the sight of a dead circus elephant in a comically large coffin, thrown over a cliff for poor scavengers to tear it apart; the young Fenix, given a tattoo by his father with a knife, chest bleeding; a cult-like church with a pool of menstrual blood in the centre. Each sight as if direct out of the subconscious.

Whilst some aspects of the film have dated – Jodorowsky’s view of disabled individuals (particularly in the mental institution) seems to mostly use them as naïve and innocent individuals, which reads rather patronisingly – few filmmakers have his sheer vitality as an image-maker. Part of the festival’s strand commemorating the Scala cinema in London – an infamous repertory theatre that specialised in the down ‘n’ dirty, the experimental, the outright weird of cinema – Santa Sangre ticks every single one of those boxes. An earlier talk between Mark Cosgrove (Watershed’s curator) and Jane Giles (a former programmer at the Scala) delved into the history and context of the cinema, a forefront of the counter-culture in the Thatcher-era, standing fast against the puritan moralism of the government. Oh lord how we need cinema that’s as alive and wild as this.

The Saturday of the festival was the busiest, at least for this viewer. Kicking off with Le Grande Bouffe, Marco Ferreri’s 1973 vision of gluttony, self-loathing and decadence, we are treated to two hours of its four central characters predominantly stuffing themselves to death. The cast, a smorgasbord of French and Italian cinema stars of the time – Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognazzi – all engorge themselves in not very flattering roles (can you imagine some of today’s stars willingly stuffing themselves like this?).

It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. It feels much longer than its two-and-a-bit hours, and structurally it is repetitive; it’s the sort of film that could have easily benefited from a hard-nosed editor. Where it strikes is the peculiar mood it engenders – over time, the gluttony turns inwards; each character arrives at the luxurious house within which the film takes place, with a steely determination to obliterate themselves. We’re never told why – on one level you can read it as a bourgeois satire, each character unsatisfied with the decadence their safe careers afford them. On another level you can see it as a reflection of some sort of deep-seated fear of being unable to enjoy life, and so engorging yourself instead. Ferreri has a habit of placing his four stars – plus scene-stealer Andréa Ferréol as a mousey schoolteacher who joins and helps the men on their self-destructive mission – in the form of wide-screen tableaus, as if to provide us with still snapshots of everyone shuffling slowly off this mortal coil. Ouch.

More succinct and certainly more plainly entertaining was the 1970 Czechoslovak film The Murder of Mr. Devil by Ester Krumbachová. Krumbachová was predominantly a costume designer during her career and this film remains her only directorial credit, though she did have a hand in a few films as a screenwriter, most notably Vera Chytilová’s seismic Daisies, for which this film was intended as an unofficial sequel. Krumbachová evidently had her compatriot’s sense of goofy playfulness – this offbeat comedy tells the story of a lonely woman (Jirina Bouhdalová) who is visited for dinner by an old school friend, who is conveniently called Mr. Devil. She obsesses over food, the state of her house and her looks. He eats everything. Loudly and disgustingly. And keeps eating. He complains nobody takes care of him. Eventually, the two start a strange relationship, whereby she does everything in her power to satisfy him, to no success.

It’s quite hard to describe exactly what happens – but it is a delightfully nuts film. Labelling it as a ‘battle-of-the-sexes’ style rom-com doesn’t even begin to do justice to how surreal it is. The Czechoslovak directors of the time, many of whom had been involved in the New Wave of the country but side-lined or exiled after the Soviets imposed control in 1968, were certainly consistently wild. And whilst The Murder of Mr. Devil isn’t as defiantly political as its predecessors, its depiction of two archetypes – one of femininity and one of masculinity – locked in perpetual battle, with the former eventually winning over, is perhaps a provocative riposte to the Soviet Bloc’s promise of gender equality. What arrived as promises to liberate the people in the wake of Nazism descended into stodgy orthodoxy. Confining itself to the domestic sphere, The Murder of Mr. Devil depicts that orthodoxy as self-defeating, and it’s hilarious to boot.

Onwards to perhaps the only thing approaching a dud at the festival. The Eyes of Laura Mars(1978), a giallo-inspired thriller starring Faye Dunaway as a fashion photographer renowned for staging violence-drenched images of beautiful women, who finds she’s able to see the POV of a serial killer as he or she begins striking at her friends and colleagues (yeah, don’t ask). Directed by Irvin Kershner, who would go on to helm The Empire Strikes Back, the film doesn’t really manage to make its many strands work. There is an inherently interesting philosophical idea here; Dunaway’s photographer reproduces images of violence against women, of which the film adds plenty of its own scenes, in a film directed by and written by men. It reads well on paper, but in execution is let down by some frankly preposterous writing. Whereas a genius like Dario Argento can get away with a lack of logic through sheer dreamlike visual pizzazz, The Eyes of Laura Mars is just that little bit too drab to surpass that.

On a completely different end of the spectrum is FilmFarsi by Ehsan Khoshbakht (2019). It’s a quintessential Cinema Rediscovered film. Khoshbakht, a co-director at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (in many ways this festival’s primary inspiration), digs into his Iranian upbringing to produce a work of half-documentary and half personal essay, looking back at the pre-revolution genre cinema of the country. He unearths a wealth of insights into the popular cinema of the time and the wider context of Iranian social and cultural history. Today, nearly all of the films he refers to survive mostly as VHS tapes, which in many cases Khoshbakht has kept hold of and digitised himself, giving the film a grainy, half-remembered quality at times, criss-crossing between films, tropes and stars to paint a wider picture of a society rife with contradictions and juxtapositions at every turn.

I was reminded of Mira Turaljić’s Cinema Komunisto(2010), which similarly delves into another mostly forgotten cinematic past: that of the former Yugoslavia, and of President Tito’s love for cinema, resulting in a wave of gloriously OTT WWII films produced in the country, and what remains of a once great and thriving industry in the fall of that great land. Both cinematic histories focus around one or two key historic moments – for Turaljić it’s WWII and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, for Khoshbakht it’s the Revolution of 1979. These moments function as flashpoints, dividing lines in a country’s history – there are before and afters, clearly delineated. FilmFarsi is the better of the two, however; Khoshbakht brings humour and lightness to a subject that could easily be crushed under the weight of history, whereas Turaljić is turgidly, humourlessly Yugonostalgic at times (and this is coming from a hardline Yugonostalgic!)

Following that was Mike Hodges’ Black Rainbow from 1989. The Bristol-born director is something of a lifelong cult director, having helmed both Get Carter (1970) and Flash Gordon (1980) via a whole litany of wayward and offbeat projects. Hodges, now 87, is becoming a festival regular, with a more in-depth retrospective screened last year (and he always looks like he’s enjoying himself). Black Rainbow is certainly an uneven film, starring Tom Hulce as a reporter who picks up a story about a medium (Rosanna Arquette) and her father (Jason Robards) who tour the US with their paranormal heebie-jeebies, until Arquette starts predicting deaths instead of convening with the dead. Even worse, those deaths seem to have something to do with a corporate cover-up gone wrong, where would-be whistle-blowers are executed bit by bit.

There’s plenty of Southern Gothic here – and the film’s main strength is its opulent, noir-ish atmosphere, taking place in a rundown South that’s quickly being taken over by property redevelopers, already ganging up to push the working class away. The trio of lead performances is strong, especially Robards’. As an alcoholic huckster, he brings every ounce of his snakelike Southern charm, but there’s a genuine fear seated beneath those eyes as the plot takes ever wilder turns out of his control. The film as a whole is a bit disjointed but remains a solid and somewhat overlooked noir piece.

Onwards onto the final day, which for this writer contained only two films, but each was a superb (re)discovery. Adoption won its Hungarian director Márta Mészáros a Golden Lion in Berlin in 1975. It’s a low-key drama about Kata (Kati Berek), a middle-aged woman, working and living on her own. She wants kids, but her lover, a married man with two kids of his own, is absolutely against it. Kata starts a friendship with Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a teenager from a local boarding school, the two sparking mutual appreciation for each other.

It’s so rare to see films that express the kind of novelistic interiority as Adoption does. I suppose it’s one of those things that films in general struggle to do; a novelist can simply describe how a character is feeling, but films can’t do that without resorting to voiceover or visual metaphor. The camera in Adoption loves a close-up, often landing on a face after panning across the room, but the key is that Mészáros draws such realistic performances from her cast that we notice every flash of uncertainty, recognition, or wayward thought in its characters. Kati Berek gives such complete interiority to Kata and yet she appears to make such little effort in doing so – though we only spend 85 or so minutes with her, we get the sense of a person with a complete backstory, with struggles, victories, good times and bad times.

Rooted beneath its drama are a number of power dynamics at play. Kata frequently brushes up against the bureaucracy of the Hungarian Communist state, but not necessarily in an adversarial way. The doctor who checks her health for childbearing and the boarding school principal who admonishes her for letting Anna sleep in her house both represent a kind of bland mediocrity. Neither are Kafka-esque monstrosities and neither is malevolent, but both don’t fully understand what’s going on between these two women, both of whom are searching for their own kind of freedom on their own terms.

Kata, being a lonely middle-aged woman, seems to be regarded warily (reflected in Berek’s own tired stare when dealing with unwanted questions), whilst Anna, beautiful and in love, is seen as an uncontrollable wildcard. Neither is true of course, but their being regarded as such limits their personal freedoms in subtle ways, and so is the behaviour of the men romantically linked to both. Mészáros was once feted as one of the best directors from the other side of the Wall – since the fall of Communism it seems her star has faded – I suspect her films are too personal, too low-key to really ‘sell’ readily in today’s modern arthouse market. Thankfully, her work is being rediscovered and released. What little of it I have seen is always incredible, and I can’t wait to see more.

From the ‘smallness’ of Adoption to the breathless scope of Hoop Dreams (1994). The famed documentary, one of Roger Ebert’s favourite films, tells the story of two boys who, over the course of the film’s five years, grow into men. Both have dreams of playing in the NBA, both get scholarships to a fee-paying high school on the basis of their skills as 14-year-olds, but neither quite get there due to a mixture of bad luck, injuries, and the plain ol’ impossibility of prevailing against the institutional bedrock of America – if you ain’t white and rich, you gotta work 100 times as hard to get anywhere.

Throughout, it is the film’s focus on its human participants that keeps its story grounded. You can read into it all manner of ideas about racism, class, the American Dream and the gruesome exploitation of modern capitalism, and director Steve James certainly encourages it. But he doesn’t get polemical – the film engenders debate and questioning rather than hectoring and fury, far more productive as a result.

The film’s two protagonists, William Gates and Arthur Agee, are smart young men; life threw both of them numerous challenges in the making of the film. They didn’t beat every single challenge, but I don’t think we’re supposed to win everything. They do, however, rise and learn and move forward. At the end they emerge tougher, a little bit disillusioned, but with a sense of identity and independence that gives the film a glimmer of hope. You wonder just how many millions of young people there are around the world each year, just as smart, just as talented, who never even get a chance to do anything. Ebert often talked about films as ‘empathy machines’. It’s no wonder he loved Hoop Dreams so much; few films are as effective at generating it. And few festivals as successful as Cinema Rediscovered at generating it too.