Remember when sex had power? I don’t mean the act but the portrayal. When I was a teenager, genuine cinematic classics like Last Tango In Paris, Betty Blue, In The Realm Of The Senses and Blue Velvet were talked about in hushed tones wherever teenage boys gathered and illicit VHS copies were passed around schoolyards. Beyond their sexual content there was something transgressive about these films, something forbidden and something undeniably attractive. We knew there was something wrong in these films and we liked it.
In today's permissive society there are few taboos left. Sex is everywhere. All kinds of sex. Straight sex, gay sex, BDSM sex, vanilla sex, group sex, solo sex, wife-swapping, swinging, gang-bangs, fetishes. Open your newspaper in the morning and there’s a model telling all about her coke-fuelled sex with a footballer (or MSP). Turn on your TV and there’s the half-wits on Big Brother doing nothing but talking about sex for three months or the Sex and the City girls discussing blow-jobs and back-door action or a fat American marrying his pony on Jerry Springer. And the prevalence of the internet now means that the majority of teenagers have seen more explicit hardcore action than John Waters (a point John Waters himself makes in Kirby Dick‘s excellent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Anything goes in our impolite society and we’re free to talk about it whenever and wherever we want.
Sex just isn’t shocking anymore.
In fact, these days if you really want to shock someone you have to depict an obese teenage Goth anally raping his comatose grandmother back to consciousness to the greater glory of Satan (Germany’s Black Sheep). And even then you have to play it for laughs. If the best cinema holds up a mirror to our society then this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival had mirrors on the ceiling, was wearing a gimp mask and sniffing amyl nitrite. Now in it’s 60th year, Britain’s longest running film festival isn’t quite ready for the pipe and slippers just yet.
Sex and it’s censorship was the major preoccupation of Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Having run afoul of the monolithic Motion Picture Academy of America (the industry body who award film classifications in the US) in the past, Dick’s documentary set out to expose this cabal of secretive self-appointed moral guardians by, how else, hiring a couple of lesbian private detectives to track down the board members responsible for giving his and other filmmaker’s movies the restrictive NC-17 rating. While there’s a certain amount of amusement to be had from watching a lesbian private dick go through someone’s garbage, Dick has serious points to make; namely that an inherent double-standard exists at the heart of the MPAA which penalises independent films while favouring the major studio releases that are it‘s bread and butter and exposing, through interviews with some of the US’s leading filmmakers (Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan, Kimberly Pierce) and a dizzying montage of sex scene excerpts, the MPAA‘s hypocrisy when it comes to portrayals of sex and violence (sex - bad, violence - good). It’s no surprise then that when Dick submits his film for classification in the final reel he receives the dreaded NC-17 rating.
Also sure to get an NC-17 rating is Destricted, a collaboration (consisting of five short films) between prominent artists and filmmakers exploring the place of pornography in today’s society. Gaspar Noe’s segment was as cheery and life-affirming as his previous films Irreversible and Seul contre tous, Cremaster director Matthew Barney’s Hoist has to be seen to believed, Marco Brambilla’s collage of love scenes was reminiscent of the sublime Cinema Paradiso while BritArt stalwart Sam Taylor-Wood’s film of a man wanking to orgasm alone in the desert had nothing to say but at least looked pretty. Perhaps the best segment was Larry Clark’s documentary Impaled which offered a critique of the porn industry by exposing it’s workings; he gives a young man the chance to audition a series of porn actresses and to star with the actress of his choice. The final result is anything but erotic.
Sex was played for laughs in two very different films this year, Germany’s Black Sheep and the USA’s The Oh In Ohio. A sophisticated and rather gentle comedy The Oh In Ohio chronicles one sexually dysfunctional middle class wife‘s (Indie darling Parker Posey, surely a poster girl for frigidity) search for an orgasm which involves seeing an Annie Sprinkle-style hippie sex therapist (whose mantra of “Liberate your labia….Value your vulva….Claim your clit!” MASTURBATION spelled out in rhinestones on her robe is one of the funniest moments in the film) experimenting with sex toys and dallying with Heather Graham’s wholesome lesbian before finding fulfilment in the arms of Danny De Vito’s swimming pool installer. Gentle and sophisticated aren’t words that could be used to describe Black Sheep. As well as the afore-mentioned scene of Satanic incest, Black Sheep, also featured a sex scene right out of a Confessions…movie with the action speeded up for comic effect, 3 randy teenagers comparing morning erections in extreme close-up and some scatological moments that would turn the stomachs of the Farrelly Brothers. Crude and vulgar, Black Sheep proved why so few German comedies gain a release in the UK.
They’re not funny.
A dreamy eroticism suffuses Seven Heavens and The Ring Finger. Shot in both film and high-definition video, Seven Heavens is a dark, disjointed love story and may be the most formally challenging film of the Festival. With it’s splintered narrative, it’s distorted soundtrack and hallucinatory images which waver in and out of focus as if the film were projected on the surface of a pond (an effect achieved by shooting through layers of rippled glass), Seven Heavens is hypnotic and feels like a half-remembered bad dream. While far more conventional in terms of style and narrative, The Ring Finger, is how Secretary might have turned out had it been directed by David Lynch. Dark, sexy and mystifying it’s a film that gets under your skin.
At first glance this year’s programme, the last of Artistic Director Shane Danielson’s tenure, ma have seemed a little drab, lacking in sparkle. There were no big-budget spectaculars like last year’s Serenity or the year before’s Hero, no critically-acclaimed Motorcycle Diaries, nothing as rabid as Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy or as controversial as last year’s Battle In Heaven. Sure there were visits by the likes of Charlize Theron, Kevin Smith, Arthur Penn and last-minute addition Brian De Palma who all gave an insight into their careers through the Reel Life interview events but on paper all the must-see films were, for the most part, 30 years old. The They Might Be Giants retrospective celebrated the forgotten US filmmakers eclipsed by the Movie Brats, whose uncompromising, often idiosyncratic, visions and their determination to say something about the world around them just didn’t fit in after Jaws and Star Wars. In fact, the must-see film, Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter was eventually cancelled due to the protests of animal rights campaigners and a surprising failure of nerve on the part of the EIFF management team.
Controversy also overshadowed the screening of Israeli director Yoav Shamir’s documentary 5 Days when the EIFF was accused of anti-Semitism. The row was sparked by the management team’s decision to refuse financial aid from the Israeli government (at a time when Israel was busy bombing it’s neighbours back to the Stone Age) in bringing Shamir to Edinburgh, instead choosing to meet the cost of Shamir’s trip themselves. The film covers the 5 day run-up to the relatively peaceful eviction by the Israeli Defence Force of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and, despite Shamir’s political opposition to the settlements, the film is remarkably even-handed and non-partisan presenting both sides views with respect, Shamir gaining unprecedented access to all parties involved. The only voices absent from the film were Palestinian ones which is surprising as you might think that the Palestinians might have something important to say about the restoration of Palestinian land. Given that Shamir quite happily took part in a Q&A session after the film, I think the charges of anti-Semitism can be squarely laid to rest.
Thank God the animal rights protestors who blocked Cockfighter didn’t see Clerks 2, uber-geek Kevin Smith’s long-awaited sequel to his 1994 breakthrough hit and a welcome return to form after the disappointment of his recent films. It features a scene of, ahem, ‘inter-species erotica’ that probably wouldn’t amuse them. What plot there is revolves around the decision of one of our slacker heroes to quit his dead-end job for marriage and the good life in Florida leaving behind his best mate and the woman he really loves. We’re never in much doubt how things are going to turn out but that isn’t really the point. Like the 1st film, Clerks 2 is vulgar, profane and damn funny as Smith and his shabby heroes take pot-shots at racism, religion, the disabled, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (“All about the walking. 9 hours of the hobbits walking. Man, even the trees walked in that movie!”) and all things pop culture. But there’s a sweetness that runs through the movie that the original lacked, a poignant affection for his slowly maturing characters, a sign perhaps that Smith himself is finally growing up.
As ever this year’s crop of British films were a mixed bag, none of which you really felt the need to see in a cinema. In fact Shoot the Messenger, the BBC’s controversial racial identity drama appeared on primetime TV a scant week after it’s Festival screening. The other films were the usual mix of life-affirming triumph over adversity (The Flying Scotsman), the ginger kid from Harry Potter’s growing pains (Driving Lessons) and gritty urban drama (London to Brighton, Dead Man’s Cards, Lives of the Saints and Life and Lyrics). The Michael Powell Award went to Brothers of the Head a cod-drama/doc about a fictional band featuring conjoined twins who single-handedly invented Punk. I may have made it sound more fun than it was.
Far more crowd-pleasing were three films from the US, Hoodwinked, a Rashomon-style retelling of the Red Riding Hood story, Wristcutters, an afterlife love story and the hit of this years Sundance, Little Miss Sunshine. Firmly in the tradition of Shrek, Hoodwinked takes the familiar story of a little girl, her grandma and a big, bad wolf gives it a post-modern twist and allows each of the major players the chance to tell their story (“Ah, ‘the wolf did it’….talk about profiling”). It’s fast, funny and satisfying for kids, both big and little. Wristcutters imagines an afterlife populated by suicides, a greyer reflection of this world where everyone has a Mcjob and the jukeboxes only play records by rock ‘n’ roll suicides (Nirvana, Joy Division….etc). When our hero discovers his lost love has also killed herself, he sets off to find her accompanied by a Russian rock star and a beautiful hitchhiker. But the path to true love never runs smooth, not even when you’re dead…. Families don’t get much more dysfunctional than that in Little Miss Sunshine. Dad’s a failing motivational speaker, Mom’s buckling under the pressure of being the family’s primary breadwinner, big brother is a nihilistic loner, Uncle Frank’s a suicidal gay academic and Grandpa is a heroin-snorting Victor Meldrew. So when 7 year-old Olive makes it to the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, loading the entire family into a camper van and driving cross-country to the contest probably isn‘t the best idea in the world. Smart, funny and refreshingly saccharine-free, Little Miss Sunshine has you rooting for the hopeless underdogs even though you know they can’t possibly win.
One of the highlights of any EIFF are the Late Night Romps, visceral, extreme slices of future cult cinema which in the past have given us the Ringu movies and Takashi Miike’s Audition, films every bit as likely to shock and offend as they are to entertain, and this year was no exception. H6 - Diary of an Assassin was a repellent study of a Spanish serial killer and featured some nauseating scenes of sexual violence. Demented French horror movie Sheitan mixed devil worship and an almost goatlike Vincent Cassel in what felt like a Gallic Wicker Man. The Red Shoes reimagined Powell & Pressburger’s dark fairytale as a Korean splatter movie where anyone who wears the titular pumps ends up getting their feet cut off. Best of the bunch however was William Kaufman’s The Prodigy, a low-budget gangster thriller with an unkillable bad guy straight out of an ‘80s slasher flick which delivered the kind of down and dirty thrills you want around midnight.
Even The Prodigy’s demonic killer ‘Claude Rains’ (the Invisible Man….geddit?) would probably think twice before tackling the German girl gang in Brigit Grosskopf’s gritty Princess. A gang of teenage girls spend their final day as a group hanging out, drinking, getting in fights and experimenting with sex before one of their number has to report to prison to begin a sentence for beating another girl. Unsurprisingly it all ends in tears. Harsh, bleak, brutal and funny, Princess is the kind of film Ken Loach would’ve made had he been an angry young German woman. And it isn’t afraid to thumb it’s nose at Citizen Kane with an ironic final scene payoff.
Perhaps the best American films of the Festival both featured performances by the same actor, Jeremy Renner. In Neo Ned, Renner plays Ned, a Nazi skinhead who falls in love with a young black woman who believes she is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler whilst in Twelve And Holding he’s a suicidal ex-fireman who becomes the focus of a 12 year-old girl’s awakening sexuality. In both films Renner gives subtle, expertly judged performances which hint at the vulnerability and humanity of such disparate characters. Get used to him, he’s going to be around for a while.
Post 9/11 paranoia cast it’s dark shadow over two very different French films, Hotel Harabati and Them. Reminiscent at times of Michael Haneke’s Caché, Hotel Harabati was a sedate, measured examination of a middle class couple’s mental unravelling after a chance encounter with a Middle Eastern-looking gent who never poses any real threat. By contrast, the terrors plaguing the nice bourgeois couple in Them are all too real, a point hammered home by the fact that the events portrayed in the film are based on a true story. They might be selling Al Gore’s eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth as “the most terrifying film you’ll ever see” but trust me; it’s Them.
Which isn’t to say that An Inconvenient Truth isn’t scary; it is. Without resorting to cheap effects or Michael Moore-style buffoonery, Al Gore (who jokingly refers to himself as the man who “who used to be the next President of the United States.”) makes his case for the dangers of climate change and global warming in a cool, rational manner, presenting his evidence clearly and concisely, his low-key but relaxed delivery lending Gore an everyman quality that he so sorely lacked during his doomed Presidential campaign making him a persuasive champion of some bitter truths. The US Presidency’s loss may yet prove to be the world’s gain.
This review of the 60th Edinburgh International Film Festival appeared in the British Journal of General Practice.