Glasgow Film Festival 2017

Blake Backlash was at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. He tried to keep a diary…

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How many films can you see in one day before you start to go crazy? For me the perfect number is three, I can just about handle four, five or more though and I start to become a little frayed.

That’s both an apology and a warning. I covered the Glasgow Film Festival for MostlyFilm last year and the year before. This year I returned to the festival – but without my MostlyFilm hat on (they would make me take it off anyway, those things are massive, and I always sit in the front row). I was there as an audience member, not as a reviewer. But  I did keep a diary (of sorts) during the festival. These are some extracts from that diary.

Wednesday 15th of February – Opening Night Gala, Handsome Devil

There’s something special about walking into a cinema that’s radiating a sense of occasion. Before I arrive, I’m on the subway, checking out Glaswegians in their swish clobber, trying to guess which of them are going to the Festival. And at the entrance to the Glasgow Film Theatre, the red carpet is lit up by camera flashes and everyone’s nervous anticipation.

I get my fizzy wine and take my seat, this year’s tote bag is keeping my seat for me and is my favourite one yet. The film for the Opening Night Gala is Handsome Devil. It’s a generous film, and well-performed by a very likeable young cast. It’s set at an Irish Boarding School and made me think of John Hughes – a film that could make teenagers laugh – but one that still tries to capture something of the pain and sadness of those year. Everyone around me in the cinema and on the walk to the party afterwards seemed to have liked it. And even if I was too much of a curmudgeon to enthusiastically contribute to such positive vibes, the soundtrack featuries songs by Prefab Sprout, Big Star and The Trashcan Sinatras and that went a long way to (almost) winning me round.

The Opening Gala party afterwards, land of canapés, hats and man-buns. People’s eyes slide over your shoulder as you talk to them, because they’re either: checking out someone hot, spotting someone famous, or preparing to flag down someone passing with a tray of free booze. I’m reminded of Sam Fuller’s definition of cinema in Pierrot le fou ‘love, hate, action, death… In one word, EMOTION!’ At Glasgow,  if the film lacks any of these, you can find them at the party afterwards.

Thursday 16th February, Mifune the Last Samurai and Salt and Fire

Before Mifune the Last Samurai starts I eavesdrop on a man in the row behind me, talking to his pal about the universal basic income and how it will become increasingly important as society starts to depend more and more on robots. As well as this documentary, the festival is also showing some of Mifune’s best-known collaborations with Akira Kurosawa. The doc is a perfect introduction to this strand: it makes you want to see all the films but it also makes you think about what’s so lovely about watching old films in the first place – the sense of loss that’s somehow nourishing, which comes from seeing people who have grown old and died, in black and white, back when they were young and vital.

This is what I wrote when I came out of Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire:

‘There are moments, several moments, that I hated as much as I’ve ever hated anything made by someone I might have thought was a genius. There are other striking, maybe beautiful, moments and I… maybe liked it at the end? Good god. Everyone should see it. It’s terrible.’

Just after I finished scribbling this, another audience member, less forgiving than me, passed me saying to his pal ‘That was shite. His artistic flame has been extinguished.’ Jeez. One duff film, Werner, and Glasgow says you’re finished.

Friday 16th of February: Leave Her to Heaven, Stray Dog, The Road to Mandalay, Berlin Syndrome and The Autopsy of Jane Doe

[This is the day I started to lose it a bit.]

Leave Her to Heaven was on at 10:30am and the theatre was as packed with people as the screen was with Technicolour. Heartening to watch a film from 1945 surrounded by people. The two women behind me are noisily disapproving of Gene Tierney’s villainy.

Stray Dog is Mifune and Kurosawa, a rewatch for me and it’s good to be back in sweaty post-war Tokyo. It makes me crave Japanese beer.

The Road to Mandalay is Midi Z’s film about Myanmarese immigrants trying to make a new life in Thailand, negotiating a world of forged papers and corrupt officials, trying to avoid being ripped-off by their boss or mangled by one of the machines in his factory. It reminded me of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados: unsentimental realism, a moment of brutal violence, a striking surreal sequence.

Berlin Syndrome: Cate Shortland directs Teresa Palmer (really impressive, especially after seeing her endure playing a barely-written character in Hacksaw Ridge) in a thriller about abduction. Maybe it’s wrong to call it a thriller – Shortland does put together some unbearably tense scenes but, in collaboration with Palmer, she also evokes a real sense of the anguish of being trapped, as well as the ways days might become unmoored and dream-like for a captive.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a (kind of) horror film. I’m not sure it totally works but I would watch at least five other films where Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox play a father and son team of morticians battling evil.

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Saturday 18th of February: Personal Shopper and Headshot

I loved Clouds of Sils Maria, the last collaboration between Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas, but found Personal Shopper much less involving. Where the earlier film was intriguing and absorbing, Personal Shopper answered the questions I didn’t want answered and… well, vice-versa. So the ambiguity doesn’t work (or DOES IT?). Also [spoilers] the saucy texts (that may be emanating from beyond the grave) were a bit too clichéd to be really unsettling. K-Stew as good as ever, though.

Headshot features several amazing fight-scenes, the best of which involves finding deadly uses for several piece of office equipment.

Monday 20th of February: Old Stone

Chinese-Canadian film-maker Johnny Ma wrote and directed this film about a taxi driver whose life unravels after he is involved in a hit and run accident. Other critics have name-dropped Kafka and Dostoevsky. For me it was a film about how wrong things can go when they start to go wrong and how, for people without much money or power, one piece of bad luck can mean the world will turn on you and choke the life out your life.

At the Q&A afterwards, Ma compared the film to I, Daniel Blake and spoke about how he didn’t want the film to be viewed as a critique of Chinese society – he wrote it intending it to be set in the US (with Michael Shannon in the lead). The Q&A also provided us with a sweet moment… Ma spoke about how he’d spent months in Guangde before he filmed there, “it’s this small town – well small for China, it’s got about 600,000 people living in it”. He spoke about how the bamboo trees outside the town found their place in his film and how he didn’t like the food. The last question in the Q&A was from a Chinese woman, a student at Edinburgh University who had taken the train over to see the film. “I want to thank you,” she said “because this place is my home town and you have made me very homesick.” She teased him about what he had said about the food (“you must have gone to the wrong places”) but also spoke about how familiar the forest and places in the town were to her. She even spotted one of her friends as an extra.

Wednesday 22nd of February: I Am Not Your Negro and Free Fire

This was my last day at the Festival and the day I had to go back to work after taking time off to see films. That might have been why I woke up with a mild case of the blues. Or maybe you can get festival blues, even if you love films. Too little sunlight, too little sleep, a bit too much booze and dreams crammed with other people’s imagery.

In different ways I Am Not Your Negro and Free Fire made it impossible to feel sad. That might seem like a strange thing to write about I Am Not Your Negro, which is a film that sometimes seems to be built out of James Baldwin’s despair. When he died, Baldwin was working on book about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin had known all three, so had to endure all three being assassinated. Raoul Peck, who made the film, uses Baldwin’s words from that unfinished project to show us how acute Baldwin’s analysis of American anti-blackness is. Samuel L Jackson reads passages from Baldwin’s writing (and he’s really good at that) but it’s the footage of Baldwin, at an Oxford debate, on The Dick Cavett Show, that lives on in my memory. Baldwin is funny, angry and often so close to despair his eyes fill with tears. And always right – Peck uses contemporary footage, so Baldwin’s prescience is impossible to ignore. Being sad when it was over felt too much like missing the point. I was angry and guilty and my mind was racing with Baldwin’s words and what they told me about America and Britain today.

Free Fire is a violent, oddly joyful celebration of things going wrong, like Noises Off with flesh-wounds. And just to prove I was there (and so demonstrate the authenticity of the whole diary), here is the picture Ben Wheatley took of the audience at the Q&A afterwards. The blob circled in red is me. I probably felt as fuzzy and indistinct as I look here, but I was happy.

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