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Venice Uncut – Part 3
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Venice Uncut

The 68th Venice Film Festival – scene 3

George Fleeton

One lasting impression, difficult to shake off after a week spent at the recent Venice Film Festival, is that the cinema may be little more, to the perpetrators of such events, than a transitory blip in the history of the visual arts and moving image media.

Ironically Jane Eyre, by far the best film seen, was not even at the Festival but had to be sought out in a more conventional multi-screen cinema complex.

And the most entertaining event of the week was not on the Lido either, and that was a brilliant production of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville 1816 in La Fenice opera house in downtown Venice.

Back at Festival there was a low-key, some what cack-handed tribute to the renegade Hollywood director Nicholas Ray, although his widow Susan, who was present, was very warmly received.

Ray, who was born a hundred years ago, was a film maker of intense visual emotions – in his best work.

He brought out other sides in difficult actors such as Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, James Mason, Joan Crawford and of course James Dean in Rebel without a Cause 1955, the first film to depict the anti-establishment disenchantment of post-war youth.

The last years of Ray’s life were chaotic, restless, turbulent and discordant.

Just half a dozen of his films are of substantive interest today, from his first They Live by Night 1948 to Bitter Victory 1958.

What was highlighted at Venice however was a piece he did as a film studies teacher in New York State University towards the end of his life, We Can’t Go Home Again 1973, or more precisely  Susan Ray’s new documentary about the making of it, called Don’t Expect Too Much.

But even this was not the Nicholas Ray who left some distinctive fingerprints, like Sam Peckinpah a decade and more later, all over American cinema in the 1950s.

Another event at Venice, which in retrospect seems equally misplaced and inadequately thought through, was the so-called Glory to the Film-maker Award made to Alberto Pacino.

In 2009 Sylvester Stallone got one of these awards, which simply does not bear thinking about.

Frankly the Pacino award ceremony was just as embarrassing: little of relevance dealing with Pacino’s achievements as one of our greatest actors was in evidence, there was no montage up on the big screen highlighting those peaks, and his acknowledgement of the award was a vacuous pot-pourri of fluffed lines in both English and Italian.

Pacino dominated the Godfather films (1972, 1974), where his acting allowed the camera to look within and through the surface of Michael Corleone, a remarkable personal achievement.

But Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon made no attempt to replicate that experience, and so they suffer badly in comparisons.

Scarface was much better, much closer to the Pacino bone. Heat came close too.

But by then Pacino had been spending long periods away from the screen, getting up close and effectively personal with the theatre.

This resulted in Looking for Richard (1996) – as in King Richard the Third, last of the House of York – and it was his work in theatre that brought Pacino to Venice, to plug his new work Wilde Salomé, which turned out to be more about Al Pacino than Oscar Wilde, as he nonetheless honestly explores the complexities, trials and tribulations of Wilde’s life, and his play Salomé, written in French in 1891 but not seen on stage until 1896 in Paris.

Pacino has been living with Salomé since the Broadway production of 1992 and may still not have exorcised it from his bloodstream.

Perhaps he should try directing Richard Strauss’ third opera, Salome (Dresden, 1905). Now that is melodramatic catharsis writ large.

In Wilde Salomé which is neither feature film nor documentary (he calls it a happening), Pacino had the good grace to visit Dublin to explore Wilde’s roots, yet it puzzling why at no stage in the film, when in Paris, did he shoot in the Hôtel d’Alsace in St Germain des Prés where Wilde died, nor at his tomb in the Père LaChaise cemetery in eastern Paris.

Using cinema to explore theatre is something you should not try at home on you own, any more than thinking it is easy to film words.

Pacino’s credentials for this innovative sort of experimentation may be impeccable, but he shouldn’t think for one minute that he has it cracked.

Shakespeare’s Richard III, Shylock and Wilde’s Salomé are one thing, boxes all ticked.

The undisputed making of Pacino will only be achieved when he tackles, in similar fashion, master classes on two of Ireland’s even greater writers, Joyce and Beckett.

Venice excelled itself this year in  English-language world premières, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy included, and at 8am (Irish time), at the press screening, this film  was better  than an Ulster fry at breakfast.

By far the best thing John le Carré has written (and he expressed himself more than satisfied with this adaptation), this was text book stuff on how to tell a great story as a great film.

The screenplay was by Peter Straughan and his wife Bridget O’Connor who died last year aged 49. The film is dedicated to her.

Written from the inside out – le Carré had worked fourteen years for both MI5 and MI6 – and surpassing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Tailor of Panama and the Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the densest of great cold war thrillers, and this film version has taken extraordinary pains to capture the book’s complexity (349 pages in one edition) and to reflect it back to us in 2011 with a relevance and a resonance that is exceptional, in an era of trash films, where the values of ideals and loyalty are distinctly absent.

Le Carré doesn’t do interviews and so was not present at the press conference afterwards, at which his work was well spoken to though by Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Peter Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson (a protégé of AB Svensk Filmindustri which produced nearly all of Ingmar Bergman’s films).

Belfast’s own Ciarán Hinds was nowhere to be seen.

*

Further exclusive chapters on the 2011 Venice Film Festival will appear on DownNews later this month, while parts I and 2 were posted here on September 14th and 29th respectively.

Back home we find arts and culture continue to thrive like daffodils on a dunghill.

On October 22nd I am presenting Robert Wise’s film version of West Side Story, now 50 years old, in the QFT Belfast.

Then I’ll be reporting from the 60th Wexford Festival Opera, at the beginning of November, including interviews with some young Irish opera singers carving out careers for themselves on that international stage.

And there is a single performance of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly 1904, given by a Ukrainian company in the Waterfront Hall on November 1st, followed by a single performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker 1892, danced by a company from Moscow (but not the Bolshoi of course) on November 2nd.