Last May I saw The Arbor, by Clio Barnard, on the next-to-last day of the San Francisco International Film Festival. I was enchanted, disturbed, beguiled, and excited – it was my favorite film of the Festival. Which made me sad, because for the duration of the festival people had been continually asking what I’d seen that I liked, and this was the film that I would have liked to tell them about.
Here in Morelia I was getting another chance. I strongly urged my breakfast mates at the Hotel Los Juaninos--Peter Becker and Kim Hendrickson of the essential Criterion Collection, Steve Ujlaki, Dean of the Loyola-Marymount School of Film and Television, and artist/author Jackie Mancuso-- and whoever else I’d run across to catch this must-see film.
As it’s mentioned in the beginning credits, I tell them the amazing trick of the movie: the soundtrack is the real voices of the people that Barnard interviewed about the life and death of precocious kitchen-sink British playwright Andrea Dunbar, but that the people who are (expertly) mouthing the words are actors. Not only the people who arrived late at the SFIFF screening, but also people who were there from the beginning and didn’t grasp the explanatory sentence, gasped during the Q-and-A with Barnard when they realized just what they’d seen. The casting is so spot-on, the settings and actions so natural, that even when you know the trick, you engage with the story and go in and out between marveling at the best lip-synching ever and watching the Greek-tragedy story of Dunbar and her children play out.
Dunbar died at 29, of an aneurysm, in the bathroom of her favorite pub, after a scant decade of success that saw her first autobiographical play, The Arbor, produced at the Royal Court Theatre when she was 19. Her second play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was filmed in 1986 by Alan Clarke. She had three children by three different fathers. One, Lorraine, the daughter of a Pakistani, descended into drug addiction and worse, and her story provides most of the essential drama of the movie. Having talked it up, I find myself longing to see it again. I like The Arbor even more the second time.
However, I find that I have a somewhat disturbing fake memory: I’ve invented end credits that featured photographs of the real people. I remember being surprised at how well Barnard had cast her actors. I know where this came from: after seeing the movie, I hunted down photographs of Royal Court director Max Stafford-Clark and Lorraine Dunbar on the internet, and Barnard also used actual documentary footage from British television that revealed how well she cast. (Amusingly, the actor who plays Dunbar’s drunken, abusive father and the soigné, well-spoken Max Stafford-Clark is the same person. Positively the same guy, as Preston Sturges would have it.)
I’m relieved: everybody who saw the movie with me loved it. It occasions much discussion, afterwards: is it a documentary or a fiction film? We think it can be programmed either way. I’m not sure it’s a technique that can be repeated, but I have learned that Barnard used it once before, in a short film entitled Random Acts of Intimacy, where she interviewed people about sex acts with strangers in public places. Here’s another plus of random encounters at intimate film festivals: when I tell Barnard (whose first name, I learn, is pronounced CLY-OH) what a very clever genius she is, she gives me a DVD of The Arbor, and promises to send me a copy of Random Acts.
I see about twenty minutes of a 47-minute documentary about the craftspeople who create hand-made goods for the luxury retailer Hermès, entitled Hermès: Hearts and Crafts (clip below), enough to know that I happily would watch the entire movie – how is it that even French workmen speak like philosophers? – when I duck into Kansas City Confidential, the 1952 movie by Phil Karlson.
I’ve seen it several times, on both the big and small screens, but hearing several people talk about it has whetted my appetite, exactly as me talking up The Arbor did. It’s introduced by Steve Seid of the Pacific Film Archive, who talks about how Hollywood filmed Mexico in a variety of California locales, and Eddie Muller, who enthusiastically recounts interesting tales of its creative team. I remind him, when he sits in front of me to watch the movie, that Moonraker, which star John Payne optioned, hoping to play James Bond, was not, as he said, the first Bond novel -- Casino Royale was. He agrees. (I know better than to correct an expert during his spiel. Moonraker was in fact the third James Bond novel.)
I enjoy watching Kansas City Confidential tiptop, but afterwards I do not allow myself to be swept up in the general enthusiasm among some of my pals, who are going to see the newly restored (by the UCLA Film & Television Archive) print of Wanda, written and directed by and starring Barbara Loden. The new restoration is currently making the film festival rounds (London and New York, among others; fittingly, it won the Critic’s Prize in Venice in 1970, and sadly, Loden died of cancer the day she was scheduled to fly to the Deauville Festival for a ten-year anniversary screening). I haven’t seen Wanda in many years, but I’d feel too guilty watching three films in a row that I’ve already seen. This is an eclectically programmed festival! I’m in Mexico!
So instead I choose an unknown quantity, Nos vemos, papá (See you, Dad, a first feature directed by award-winning screenwriter Lucia Carreras. The room is packed (people sitting on the stairs and in the aisles, with no nonsense about fire marshalls kicking them out), and many of the cast and crew are in attendance. There’s a palpable excitement in the room. (Debuting in the Mexican feature film section in Morelia is an honor here akin to Cannes.)
Alas, the liveliness and anticipation I feel during the introductions is not sustained during the slow-moving and predictable movie. A young-ish woman, neglected during her childhood by her depressed father, fantasizes that he still lives with her after he dies, preparing him meals, playing chess with him, eventually even imagining incestuous relations. Weak attempts by well-meaning relatives fail to detach her from her fantasies. Buñuel and Polanski would have come up with something more disturbing and interesting (in fact, they did).
I’ve been invited to both an 8 p.m. cocktail party given by the Spanish Embassy, and a 9:30 p.m. festival dinner, but there’s still time to fit in an al fresco viewing of the 78-minute-long La historia en la Mirada (History in the Eyes), shown for free under a big white open-air tent in the Plaza Benito Juarez, right next to the baroque 17th-century Cathedral that dominates the city. It’s a movie made up of news footage, primarily shot by the Alva brothers between 1907 and 1917, mostly concerning the revolution, but interspersed with a few benign cultural and political events. The footage has been newly restored by the University of Mexico’s Film Archive, and the whole assembled and directed by Jose Ramòn Mickelajáuregui. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it since I lunched with two of the Archive’s directors, only a couple of days ago in Patzcuaro. The days have been so jam-packed and fun-filled that it feels much longer ago.
The film couldn’t have been shown in a better setting. The liveliness and chattiness of the crowd, who stay or wander off; the vendors of candies, ices, and cotton candy; the noise of the traffic and performers in the square; the light reflected off the pink stone of the cathedral: all combine to make it a truly magical screening. The images are both beautiful and disturbing: it seems one need only become president of Mexico (or lead a party) in order to become assassinated, a feeling born out by the film’s end credits.
Afterwards I wander over to the Spanish party, held on the rooftop of the Cathedral Hotel, but I don’t stay there long: everybody I know is already engrossed in conversation, I can’t snag a drink, I don’t want to eat the alluring canapés just before dinner (I’ve been told great things about its female chef, Luceto Soto Arriaga, who has an eponymous restaurant in the Hotel Casino), and there’s noisy un-ironic cover music coming from a band in a corner. (That’s me, the original party girl!) I do snap a few pictures of the amazing views of Morelia.
Next door at the Hotel Casino a huge daunting table has been laid out. Luckily when we’re seated I find myself next to the French director François Dupeyron, just arrived to serve on the jury for Mexican feature films. I’ve seen some of his work (memorably Monsieur Ibrahim, starring Omar Sharif), and I speak French, which he seems to prefer using tonight over his more than adequate English.
I prefer our conversation to the multi-course, rather overwrought menu, which is supposed to be inspired by the novel (and subsequent film; pictured) Like Water for Chocolate: most of the courses incorporate honey, somewhat to their detriment. I find myself recommending Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s new book (Luck and Circumstance) in which the mystery of his patrimony is revealed – he is Orson Welles’ son by actress Geraldine Fitzgerald.
I stagger back to my hotel after many glasses of wine. To sleep, and perchance to dream: of the numberless excitements and sensations of today, not to mention the past few days. As the French say, it’s good to change your air once in a while.