Hallam Foe, Edinburgh 2000, Protagonist, Rataouille & Planet B-Boy
"You know, everytime someone says they don't believe in cinema, someone, somewhere makes a sequel to a bad movie."
I'm slammed head first into multiplex A&E. Pulse falling, blood pressure dropping fast. I don't believe in anything any more. A sugar rush of Butterkist popcorn barely gets me into the trailers.
And then suddenly a film arrives.
Let me take you, a director is saying to me, let me clutch your soul in my fingers for a while as I fly it across the rooftops of Edinburgh. Let me lift you out of your broken shell and drift, briefly into the shape of a fairer form than yours - say, Jamie Bell - as I show you enough that you recognise of yourself to believe that this is you, and enough that is alien to make you not sure what will happen next. And maybe, just maybe, if this is a good film, when you are thrown back to your all too human form at the end, you will feel better armed to tackle those woes and foes that have so broken you, and left you before this massive light show of make believe. Or at least leave you with the perspective that problems, like all good films, have beginnings, middles, and most importantly, ends.
Forgive me reader if I write as if we are in the last few days before a national ban on words is imposed. But I feel this write-up of Edinburgh's 61st Film Festival is as much a confession as a set of reviews - after a too long absent passion for cinema. We can talk about the future and the industry and the technology and the finance, the winners and the losers, the jokers and the wankers - in fact I have already written, but not published, the reviews of Edinburgh's parties and the hot topics of gossip (I joke not). But to discuss the films, the actual throbbing heart that pumps cultural blood into bleary brains, and to which all the rest of it is but servant, is oddly, too often, forgot.
Hallam Foe (David Mackenzie, Scotland, 2007) opened the Edinburgh Film Festival, as you probably know. I missed my 7.30am bus from Glasgow to see the press screening so instead had only the chat to build a view on it from. I heard the bitching that it wasn't a proper UK premiere having played in Inverness earlier that week, that Buena Vista were very stingy with tickets to the opening night party, that someone managed to blag 15 of there friends in there, and that Franz Ferdinand who did the soundtrack, played a gig there.
No one mentioned to me that it was actually really bloody good. A fact I found out for myself (as I wholeheartedly recommend you to) in a multiplex last night. It looks like a film, which is more than can be said for many a British effort, and more amazingly, Jamie Bell acts like a proper brilliant actor, with perfect timing, a half decent Ewan MacGregor brogue and tiny nuanced face twitches. The music, for the most part, works that rare Trainspotting-esque feat of sounding both of its time and timeless. The city glows like a tinderbox, and the story smudges enough charcoal blacks with chalky whites to avoid easy cliches.
It was, ironically, at the Balmoral Hotel, which forms the stage for much of the movie, where I first saw Jamie Bell, during that unforgettable Edinburgh 2000. He strolled into a hotel room, all gangly rough edges, as I waited to interview Stephen Daldry, and was presented with a pile of photographs. 'What just sign them all?' He sounded bored already.
It was the year of in The Mood for Love, Ring, Time Code, One Life Stand, Dark Days, Billy Elliot, Chopper, Dancer in the Dark, and it wet my whistle for the city, the country, and, of course, the festival circuit. As years passed, the excitement of spending half an hour with a director of your dreams talking about movies, of watching films back to back from 9 to 7, before spending the night drinking for free while you argue about them, somehow died. It's hard to explain that one to myself, least of all to someone else.
So I don't get up with the crack of dawn as I should have done to go see Hallem Foe. Perhaps I'm still sulking about party invities. Don't these guys know how important I think I am? How seriously I take myself?
I hop off the bus, after an interesting conversation about National Service with my senior companion, rush up to the delegate centre, rudely grab my pass and run to the Cameo for the first movie of the day, sure that I will be late, and smugly gleeful when I realise I'm not. In fact I'm there in time, but sadly in the wrong cinema, and I run back down Lothian Road to the Filmhouse where Protagonist (director Jessica Wu, US 2006) has already begun.
The democratisation of the hero is perhaps a natural consequence of the YouTube/Cluetrained world where a Dax Flame or Ronald Jenkees can connect with an audience far more than a chiselled two dimensional Tom Cruise-a-like. Our desire to see "people like us" has been satisfied by neither reality TV or 'life's shit innit?' social realism.This is perhaps one of Hallam Foe's strength - the sweet and sexy, yet slightly psycho protagonist, but it is rare. Instead we normally get a one-size-fits-all everyman of a hero that the widest possible 'marketing demographic' can identify with.
The Greeks, however, had a far more eloquent method. By giving their actors masks, the audience is able to more easily project themselves into those that they watch. The drama is in the language, and the relationships it defines. In Wu's brilliant docudrama, the Greek tale of Euripides, told through puppetry, backbones the narrative arcs of four fascinating, if very different, individuals. There's the reformed kung fu obsessive and the evangelical Christian hiding his homosexuality. There's a holocaust survivor turned terrorist, and a violent criminal. Each describe their backgrounds, journeys, loss of reality and eventual turning point with such similar rhythms that you begin to see the common story to each, which in turn was depicted by Euripides thousands of years before. It's fantastic viewing: both laugh out loud funny and moving, which, in spite of pedestrian photography. And it illustrates in an instant the essence of great drama - a frame we can all hang our stories onto.
As I left the cinema, feeling like I understood something about the Greeks, I tried to think of modern equivalents. It was only as I sat down to watch Ratatouille that it hit me.
Give a character a mask in a movie and he becomes Jason in Friday 13th. Make him a toy cowboy or ant or rat and he becomes everyman.
"You can't change nature" preaches the father. "Change is nature" answers the son.
Ever since being totally destroyed watching Animal Farm as a kid, I've long seen cartoons, and in particular Pixar movies, as brilliant allegories. There's the socialist revolution of A Bug's Life, and the decommissioning and repurposing of the arms and oil industries in Monsters Inc. My tongue is slightly in cheek, but it's an argument I wheel out whenever some highbrowed filmtellectual sneers at my deep love of a good cartoon (early that day I had found myself apologising for choosing the press screening of Rataouille over Tarantino's Death Proof, both oddly, or cleverly, programmed at the same time).
So Ratatouille (Brad Bird, USA, 2007). Well, this is obviously a discussion on Judaism and patriarchal faith systems. In many ways it is the companion piece to Finding Nemo. There we have a father hunting his lost son, in the face of bad humans. In Ratatouille we have the son, trying to break away from the authority of his father, in the face of, well, at least one good human. Do we stick to our family group, our race of fellow rats or trust the evil humans with their rat traps? "You can't change nature" preaches the father. "Change is nature" answers the son. It's poetry, and had me curled up in my seat like a Babybel in waves of delight.
At the centre of this is the question of who can be a good chef. Does it take years of training and strict following of laws, or is it something which, with a bit of imagination and awareness any of us can do. Do we blindly follow commandments to know what is right and wrong, or do we develop and mature our own sensitivity to better understand moral questions?
And does, in fact, any of this matter too much in the face of such a magical film, and one which so masterfully merges philosophical debate with mass market entertainment. I left the cinema stunned into silence, and crept to the bar upstairs where I struggled to write a review in my notebook, as I watched Jason Solomons talk to his editor about it on his mobile ("I think we should do something on this soon").
The words didn't come, so I finally forced myself to go and watch Planet B-Boy (Benson Lee, USA, 2007) and crept to the back not intending to stay but feeling curious. After I saw some of the French action tho, I was hooked and had to stay. B-Boy takes the safe documentary root of an international competition to introduce us to the jaw dropping world of break dancing, following five of the world's best teams.
If Hip Hop has a central message as an art form, it is that of Rataouille's Gousteau - that anyone can do it. You want to paint, pick up a spray can; to dance, find some floor space; to rap, just rhyme quick enough. Of course this is easier said than done, which is why, I'm sure much of the mainstream cultural establishment would struggle to admit that it was art - a masters won't teach you to freestyle any more than ballet lessons will help you to spin on your head. But the best scratchers, beat boxers, break dancers, freestylers and graff artists get even the most unhip of us dropping their jaw.
But best of all is the internationalist nature of it - the world nation state of Hip Hop - as one of the dancers calls it. And the film illustrates some great examples of art offering a common language between quite different cultures - from Las Vegas show-world, French projects, Japanese celebrity through to South Korean poverty - it's all one rhythm and dance.