Such dregs: Edinburgh 2014

30 December 2014

An unpublished article from June 2014. For more coverage of this year's EIFF, click here.

Any film festival that includes Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Edgar Reitz’s Home From Home and a retrospective of the late and very great British playwright and filmmaker John McGrath in its lineup can’t be too bad. Kudos to Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), then, which for its 68th edition tried its best to be very dreadful indeed. I’m talking specifically about the filler and the fodder: those flippant and frivolous films with which a festival as sizeable as EIFF seemingly needs to fill its large, otherwise empty pockets of programming space.

Tsai’s film by now needs no introduction, but this card-carrying fan has grown increasingly weary each time its greatness needs to be mentioned. While the idea that any paying public can access a film like Stray Dogs is exciting (only one walkout from its first showing, I’m told, which is far less than the tally at its 9am Press & Industry screening days earlier), the idea that it’s still such an immovable standout nine months after bowing at Venice suggests an alarming lack of competition.

Indeed, if you twist this double-edged sword at a certain angle in the stubbornly summery late-night Edinburgh light, you’ll spot a ghastly reflection. EIFF is a rather saggy affair, truth be told, at which anomalously great works of art are fetched out like embarrassed high-achievers to share the end-of-year stage with those undeserving, anemic hangers-on around them. And the playing field and honor roll are leveled by the insistence upon a black-tie dress code—on opening night at least. It’s not Tsai’s fault.

Highlighting the lowlights is dispiriting for everyone—and in its selection of new UK fiction film, EIFF is in the gutter. But if you throw enough of your budget at the wall, some of it sticks, and Edinburgh’s a big enough festival that in percentage terms you can’t go too long before the quality improves. Seven films into my trip I caught an absolute corker—the aforementioned Home From Home, the latest addition to Edgar Reitz’s Heimat series, which also premiered at Venice last year. This is a prequel to the three previous Heimat films, taking place in 1840s Hünsruck, Germany, in a period caught between the promise of industrialization and the uncertainties of economic hardship and war.

With all the splendor and sensitivity that only a naturally talented and socially attuned artist can muster, the film hits several tonal registers simultaneously throughout its 226 minutes. In framing a macro history through the micro details of a particular social unit, the Heimat films were, even at their best, always more about dramatic intimacy rather than historical analysis. The latest narrative stops before 1848, freeing Reitz from having to deal with the momentous revolutionary events sparked that year across Europe—material that would, I suspect, compel the writer-director into commitments he’s presumably unwilling to make.

An opportunity missed, perhaps: someone needs to give Reitz that last push of confidence required to convert his clear ambition and obvious formal control into an artwork that’s as endurable as the Heimat series’ central family. Only then will his already-breathtaking juxtaposition of continuity and change rank alongside the consistently radical likes of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974), Border Warfare (1989) and John Brown’s Body (1990)—whose incendiary, polemical overviews of the complex history of Scottish-English political relations had the local audience in regular and audibly emotional agreement.

Though none of them seemed to have the consistent muscular swagger of artistic audacity (forget matters of taste, I’m on about works that seem to be doing something), less immortal films were not without interest. These include El Rayo, the low-key debut feature by Fran Araújo and Ernesto de Nova, about an out-of-work Moroccan laborer who takes his tractor and returns home from Spain, and Violet [pictured], the debut feature by Bas Devos, in which an otherwise functional Flemish teenager navigates unspoken emotional traumas after witnessing his pal get stabbed to death. I’d seen both films previously elsewhere. In the case of the latter, one scene in particular, featuring the Deafheaven track whose title lends the film its otherwise mysterious name, had been an obvious reason to revisit.

American films were of little note—though unlike their UK equivalents, the three I saw were at least halfway bearable. I’ll leave it to others to remark upon more appreciably marketable films like Cold in July and The Skeleton Twins. A final, perhaps torn word, then, on Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything, which tells the subdued tale of a Tennessee woman who leaves her neglectful husband after suffering from a miscarriage. In search of new purpose and meaning, she also opts for a career switch—from a successful estate agent to stacking shelves in a library—a riches-to-rags decision supported by her resumption of friendship with an old flame who has recently become a possession-free monk.

With its wall-to-wall sorrow, the film demands a lot in its opening 30 minutes, and its distinctly humorless procession thereafter is further marred by stilted acting. Still, in its focus on a female character determined to draw upon dormant inner strengths rather than rely on others (notably men) for life fulfillment, the film has in its very premise a built-in potential. I really did want to like it more. But how does such conceptual strength translate to a fully convincing execution? That has never been a fixed science, though whatever the answer is, it might also give us a clue as to the difference between a competent director and an incompetent director, between a natural filmmaker and an also-ran, between a film that forces an opinion one way or the other and one you can’t even be bothered to sit through in its entirety.

This glutton for punishment didn’t walk out of any films at EIFF this year. Indifference is the one thing all festival delegates must retreat ahead of. But not too much, lest we find ourselves expressing thanks for those infuriatingly bankrupt examples of British filmmaking that EIFF scrapes from the barrel year after year. Such dregs, in this report at least, shall go unnamed.*

* They don't go unnamed here.

Originally written in June 2014.