Saturday, 1 March 2014

GFF2014: Festival Diary #2

'Stay indoors! Stay indoors all day and watch films!' That’s GFF co-director Allan Hunter there, using his introduction to Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai D’Orsay to invitingly suggest that we spend the rest of this dreachit Thursday in the bosom of the Festival. I don’t need to be told twice – or indeed, at all, with Tavernier’s political farce marking the midpoint of five back-to-back screenings for which I won’t even be required to leave the building.

The binge began with Chilean drama Things the Way They Are – an experience notable for both the quality of the film (in which a withdrawn/creepy-as-hell landlord awkwardly initiates a relationship with one of his tenants) and, on a more personal level, for the fact it’s my first glimpse inside the GFT’s recently completed third screen; a soft, leather-pewed Valhalla that feels particularly comfy after the brick and hard plastic on which I’ve been perched for some of the week’s other screenings (more on which in tomorrow’s diary). A short while later, I’m back in the exact same seat for The Red Robin – a well put-together if sometimes clumsily scripted psychological drama centring on a night of grim revelations in a snowbound family home. Writer and director Michael Z Wechsler battles jetlag to attend the screening (another UK premiere) and asks the audience whether we’d mind recording a brief video message for his kids back home in the States; a sweet display of paternal affection that, inadvertently, makes the ensuing tale of dark childhood traumas even more grim.

Next is the aforementioned Quai D’Orsay, in which Tavernier has fun skewering the frothy emptiness of governmental rhetoric. Named after the street on which the real French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is situated, the scattershot satire follows a young scriptwriter’s turbulent induction into ministerial life; a world of backbiting and endless blethering, where an errant word has the potential to spark diplomatic crises the world over. The comedy is broad (particularly a running gag in which the hubristic Minister sends papers flying every time he strides self-importantly through a room), but as a portrait of barely functioning pomposity it proves highly entertaining.

It’s followed by something of a novelty: an event at which the Q&A is twice the length of the work it accompanies. The legend of Black Angel’s resurrection has been covered extensive elsewhere, but to recap: personally commissioned by George Lucas to precede The Empire Strikes Back, director Roger Christian’s short fantasy film subsequently disappeared, and for over three decades existed only as a clutch of memories. With original prints either destroyed or missing from archives, it took the recent rediscovery of the negatives to bring the film back to a wider public; a wider public now all-but-filling GFT1, whooping enthusiastically as the film’s director walks out to provide an introduction.

Christian starts by asking us to 'set our clocks back thirty-three years', framing his film as an artefact from a differently paced era of filmmaking. It’s a needlessly defensive disclaimer: from its opening scenes, the film’s oneiric allure prove to be as pronounced as its fans have always claimed, with fading edits and wind-whipped sound design underscoring the dream-like atmosphere. Would it be held in such high regard had a long disappearance not fed the film’s mythos, romanticising it for both newcomers and devotees alike? Without taking anything away from the film’s many qualities I’d hazard not, but its re-appraisal is nonetheless fully deserved.

Inevitably, given the history of both Black Angel and Christian’s own professional career, Star Wars casts a shadow on the event. During the screening, I’m surely not the only person inadvertently recalling Lucas’s space saga at every turn, with triggers ranging from the cowled old man cackling like Palpatine to the echoes of Dagobah in the slowed-down combat scenes; the design of the Black Angel itself, meanwhile, evokes a medieval Darth Vadar, with sable armour obscuring its features and heavy breathing accompanying each appearance. Christian later explains that the resemblance is the consequence of a 'similar origin', with both characters visually inspired by all-black samurai armour; just one of several influences (Kurosawa, monomythic heroism) that Lucas and Christian apparently share. Later, ‘Q’s relating to Christian’s role as set decorator on A New Hope are given obliging and crowd-pleasing ‘A’s, covering hodgepodge light sabre prototypes and the difficulties of making cars fly with nowt but a broom and a mirror.

Finally, we come to The Zero Theorem – the latest act of cinematic delirium from director Terry Gilliam, who is given a rapturous welcome from tonight’s sold-out crowd. 'Some of you are going to love, some of you might not' he mischievously warns, and its testament to the film’s bewildering impact that, a day later, I’m still not 100% certain which of the camps I belong to. If pushed I’d go with ‘loved’, citing a riveting central performance from an existentially (and follicularly) challenged Christoph Waltz, inspired production design that eschews dystopian gloom for riotous day-glo fashions, and a metaphysical plot that sees the once and future Python square up once again to the bottomless quandary that is The Meaning of Life.

As the credits roll, however, I start to actively dread the Q&A that’s about to start, fearing that too much clarity will puncture the spell; that trying to 'explain the inexplicable', as Gilliam puts it, will send the film’s mysteries tumbling and render it humdrum. Thankfully, initial questions veer towards logistical matters, with Gilliam summarising a quick production turnaround that tested the crew’s resourceful in colourful ways. (On a semi-related note, he also confirms that his much-vexed Don Quixote project is once again being readied for action, with filming due to start in September in the Canary Islands, thanks to 39% tax relief and a Spanish producer 'who doesn’t know any better'). Later questions pertaining to the film’s religious and philosophical themes, meanwhile, are given thorough but thankfully non-prescriptive replies, leaving everyone with plenty to mull over as we file out.

And what do you know: it’s even stopped raining.

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