A Dispatch from Out West: the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival

Both the opening and closing films of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival can be described as ‘coming- of-age’ films: Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and Brian Welsh’s Beats. It may be more accurate to label them films about being inducted into new social milieus. In the far superior Beats, this concerns entry into the put-upon Scottish rave-scene. The film follows Glaswegian pals Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), who are pulled between the proto-New Labourite promise of staid neo-liberalism and the freedom promoted by a faux-Marxist radio station. Shot in lovely monochrome and backed by a head-bopping soundtrack, Beats is an expression of how friendships liberate and redeem the boring days before adulthood, which will throw up its own challenges.

Welsh’s film is the best that Glasgow could offer in British cinema at this year’s festival, and the gulf is notable. Marilyn Edmond’s Connect, starring the Goya-eyed Kevin Guthrie, is too earnest for its own good. A film about the high rate of suicide among young Scottish men, Connect plays out like a 75-minute BBC special, with over-egged performances and a knack for awkward contrivances.

Much better is photographer Ray Billingham’s debut film Ray & Liz, a portrait of destitute living in Birmingham. The picture moves between past and present by visual cues, fixing upon intimate details of domestic life. Although the images are searingly memorable (a drink filled near as possible to the brim, the bubbles winking in the glass; the way the cigarette smoke seems to become the colour of the warped and curling wallpaper; a breeze which makes the white curtains float), the narrative is confused, as the perspective of the frame differs from the one emphasised in the flashbacks. The screening of Ray & Liz however was an especially frustrating one: a character in the film has an undisclosed mental disability, and his every utterance (during a scene in which he’s abused) was met with a snort of derisive laughter. Usually, film festival audiences are a delightful bunch — only occasionally are they this ignorant.

Glasgow tends to follow the examples, in programming terms, set by the London Film Festival, meaning, in any given year, you’re guaranteed some prime auteur fare. One of those names is Carol Morley, whose Out of Blue, a neo-noir of sorts, albeit with more of an inclination for Quantum Theory than any kind of cinematic atmosphere, screened this year. It’s an odd movie. Patricia Clarkson is detective Mike Hoolihan, who’s investigating the apparent murder of an astrophysicist with high-ranking family connections. Up to a point, Clarkson makes the material engaging, but Morley’s direction is too abrupt, and whole scenes go by without making a semblance of a point.

Another familiar festival name is Radu Jade, the Romanian director, whose film I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians, is a heady proposition indeed, a theoretically dense meta-fictional exploration of Romania’s anti-semitic past. It has a great deal to recommend it; the actors are valorous in their immersion into exigent dramaturgy, its documentary impulse incites a viewer into difficult ethical territory, and there’s a brilliant format change from celluloid to digital. You will come away with a list of further reading, which is never a bad thing, but that’s where the problems begin. The intellectual digressions in the film can become stiflingly wayward. At certain points the film is demoted to listing off truisms.

One of the best films this year is Transit, Christian Petzold’s extraordinary drama of displacement. Based upon the novel by Anna Seghers, but crucially altered in its precise staging, Transit is the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski), a man fleeing Paris for Marseille, to escape from a fascist invasion, and reach the port city to obtain a “transit” to Mexico. His plan is complicated by having to adopt the identity of a dead writer, Wiedel, to secure safe passage, and constantly running into the wife of the man whose identity he’s assuming, Marie (Paula Beer).

The political events of the film look as though they’re set in the present, but there are anachronisms. People communicate by letter, the writer’s manuscript is written on a typewriter, and the passports are those you’d find in mid-twentieth century Europe. The absolute conceptual brilliance of this comes into light as Georg becomes involved with his friend’s North African family, and the contemporary refugee crisis enters the discussion, as a parallel to how the Jewish characters are attempting to escape the country’s borders. It’s both 1942 in modern dress, and today. Already a complex film, it’s made all the more elusive by its narration, the source of which is a mystery, and its nature as a love story. Transit is terrifyingly, fully tuned into the perplexing way people ignore history and cling to normality, even as the world around them falls to pieces, as the places the characters call home are lost, beyond recognition.

While film festivals are definitely places to come for the latest work from favourite directors, they’re also sites of cinematic surprises. One such is Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo, an Argentine crime slow-burner, with a wicked and jolting sense of deadpan humour. It peters out towards its conclusion, but the film’s introductory set piece in a busy restaurant, as the lawyer-protagonist engages in an inscrutable rebuttal of a hot-tempered patron, is as tense and oddly hilarious as a sequence in a Coen brothers’ movie. Another delight is Patrick Wang’s two-part A Bread Factory, about the running of a community arts centre in the fictional town of Checkford, New York, which is under constant threat of losing its funding.

The best of the surprises is The Grand Bizarre, by Jodie Mack — whose short films, many of which are on Vimeo, are worth investigating. This is a travelogue, though not in any conventional understanding of the word. Mack is more present in this film than any of her others; her passport flashes up on screen, as do the phrasebooks and pocket-dictionaries she’s using in the various countries she visits. But Mack is interested in shapes. She amasses textiles, patterns, groups of colours, and makes them move. Even the alphabets in her books become a part of her geometrical scheme. Using stop motion, editing, animation, and music, Mack’s patterns move around the screen. Her films obsess over rhythm, repetition, texture, and tempo. Many of the films screened this year have absolutely no desire to extend beyond a functional flatness of imagery, so it is elating to see a filmmaker observe and demonstrate a love of image-making.

That said, The Grand Bizarre was the most walked out of film of this year. One viewer ducked out after one minute of the film starting. Conversely, seemingly no one made for the aisles during the surprise film, which turned out to be the new Sebastián Lelio picture, Gloria Bell. Julianne Moore is on roaring form as a divorcee looking for a more vigorous way to enjoy her life, and it features an excellent score by Matthew Herbert. But it strikes you as a cold, and, with its unfeeling use of duration and narrative manoeuvres, a slightly academic film.

But beyond coming across a small selection of great new films, the highlight of this year’s festival was to be found in the retrospective strand — Glasgow screened all four of Elaine May’s feature films: A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and Ishtar (1987). Each one of these, including the much-maligned Ishtar, is wonderful; the best of the bunch, Mikey and Nicky, deserves singling out. Paramount, the studio behind production, took the film away from May before its release in cinemas, citing exorbitant costs and time wastage. But, in exactly the same era, Stanley Kubrick was demanding an inordinate number of takes of his actors to get scenes right by his estimation, and film culture celebrates him as a genius. May does the same thing, with two great films behind her as director (many more as performer and writer), and her movie is confiscated from her.

As Mikey and Nicky exists, it’s still an outstanding tragi-comedy. It’s about the friendship between a pair of small-time hoods, nervous Nicky (John Cassavetes), sure that someone has put out a hit on him, and the smooth Mikey (Peter Falk). These two fabulous actors play against each other’s vivacity, and the film’s improvisational air means you never can tell which note May will make the pair hit. They can become hectic, and flustered, and aggressive, or they can perforate the other’s exuberance, and bring a scene (like the excursion to the graveyard) to a sincerely affecting level.

Mikey and Nicky serves as a reminder that we need festivals, cinemas, streaming services, programmers, critics, and audiences together to make these films available. In an age of extreme monopolisation, when cinemas are full of studio tentpoles, requiring audiences only as the financiers of the next instalment, these screenings are essential. Otherwise great films like May’s could pass us by. Let’s not allow film history to become an untouchable archive, when it’s meant to be savoured, questioned, debated and loved.

Image: Stinglehammer via Wikimedia Commons. 

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