Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Cork revisited

Clearly, the major event at this year’s Corona Cork Film Festival was going to be the screening of Hunger, the film by Steve McQueen (an English director and obviously not the late actor). It won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Discover Award at Toronto and has spurred much praise and discussion. So seeing it was a no-brainer. And, of course, I didn’t see it.

Why do I make choices like this? Well, it’s complicated. No, it’s not. “It’s complicated” is a great comeback that I notice people use when they really mean, “I know you’re right, but I’m not changing my mind, so let’s stop talking about it.” But I’m willing to try to explain it. As always, it came down to priorities, since film festivals have this annoying habit of screening one or more movies at the same time. And as often happens, with some time slots you could toss a coin and not mind which film you see, and with others it is an agonizing choice between two films both of which you are dying to see. (Sort of the same way the only two television programs you are interested in seeing all month will inevitably be broadcast at the same time on competing channels.) This agony is all part of the experience. Objectively, the decision for Friday night should not have been that difficult. The other movie I wanted to see was Brideshead Revisited. Now, rationally, that selection should have offered little competition to Hunger. For one thing, ever since I heard that they were making a new film version of Brideshead, I have been asking why anyone would bother. Like many people, I absolutely loved the 1981 TV minjiseries starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick. To do a briefer (the original ran a leisurely 11 hours), standard-issue movie version, seemed blasphemy. You certainly couldn’t improve on it. For another thing, it opened in the U.S. over the summer and not exactly to uniformly gushing reviews. And it opened in the UK last week. But here’s the rub. For some reason, it won’t open in Ireland until next January, even though it is fairly normal for UK and Irish releases to happen simultaneously. Hunger, on the other hand, will open here next week.

There’s another wrinkle to my decision making. If the new Brideshead is something of retread, then so is Hunger. By this I mean that there have already been a fair few movies made about the excruciating death of Bobby Sands, the subject of Hunger. His story has figured in Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son (played by John Lynch), Les Blair’s H3 (played by Mark O’Halloran), Maeve Murphy’s Silent Grace, David Bellerini’s Italian film Il Silenzio dell’allodola (played by Ivan Franek), Deborah Baxtrom’s short film The Rising of the Moon (played by Seran Conant), and Sands even makes a ghostly appearance in Ronan Carr and Brian Tucker’s unusual film noir spoof Cooklockland (played by Ryan Crisman). Word of mouth has it that McQueen’s film is the best of the lot. It may well be. But I also know that it won’t (and isn’t meant to) be an easy film to watch. Sands’s story is certainly extraordinary and has a hold on an awful lot of people. But, personally, I can put off seeing it one more time. In the meantime, I still have an un-answered question that I posed in my review of H3 seven years ago: “When will someone make a movie about the heroes who took great risks to reach a peace agreement in Northern Ireland?”

So, after all was said and done, do I think I might the right choice? Depends on how you look at it. The new Brideshead was pretty much as I expected it, maybe even a little better. But I would be extremely surprised if it turns out that it is as good or better than Hunger. On the other hand, it’s hard to put a value on having your curiosity satisfied.

So, if missed my chance to get an early look at Hunger, I made up for it by getting a crash course in Terence Davies. He is one of those very admired filmmakers whose work has somehow slipped through the cracks of my lifetime of movie-going. There are a lot of such filmmakers around because, no matter how many movies you go to, there is always some movie (or some whole category of movies) that you still haven’t seen. I was reminded recently of how inadequate my film buff efforts are when listening the final broadcast of the sometimes interesting BBC World Service program On Screen, which was broadcast Wednesday last week. The final interview was of a Welshman named Gwilym Hughes, who is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for Most Films Seen in the World. He has documented seeing 28,075 movies. I think I will give up right now.

So, anyway, I got a chance to play catch-up with the work of Terence Davies last week. Not only did I see his best known poetic quasi-autobiographical films, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, his adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth and his recent lyrical documentary on his native Liverpool Of Time and the City, but I also got to see him sit down for a public interview with The Irish Times’s Michael Dwyer. The phrase I keep returning to when describing Davies’s work is “intensely personal.” I suppose this is another way of saying self-focused or even self-absorbed. But, when talking about an artist with a definite version, it is also a way of saying poet, and that is clearly how Davies approaches his work. This is why you probably won’t see him directing a Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, likely not even another literary adaptation. What matters to Davies is the visual composition of the film as well as the verbal content and the music. He will never be what used to be called a journeyman director.

If Englishman Terence Davies approaches film as poetry, then Welshman Peter Greenaway approaches it as a painter. How do I know this? Mainly because he actually is a painter. You just have to look at any or all of his movies to see that every scene is composed like a painting. Greenaway was the other major filmmaker that I got to see at the film festival. He introduced his recent feature film, the Rembrandt biopic Nightwatching. Most directors, when introducing a film at a film festival, seem intent on getting off the stage as quickly as possible, but Greenaway was in no hurry. Sounding like nothing so much as a university professor giving a lecture, he proceeded to offer us a detailed explication of Rembrandt, his work and how the film tackled them both. If Davies came off as a deceptively shy man at a party trying to charm you, Greenaway was the epitome of self-confidence and authority. He has made a number of memorable movies over the years (partial list: The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, The Pillow Book), and they are all gorgeous to look at. They don’t always make a lot of sense to listen to, in terms of the dialog, but the soundtrack music is always lovely as well. Nightwatching was no exception.

While last year’s festival was a hard act to follow (with movies like No Country for Old Men, Days of Glory, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and especially The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), this year’s edition was another solid entry in the annals of Cork film festivals. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Many thanks, Mick, Eimear and Conor, for looking after me so well!

-S.L., 23 October 2008

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