I remember the first time I got a Press Pass for the Edinburgh International Film Festival – I was 16 and the programme of films that lay before me was full of promise. Myself and two other writers attempted to see everything, which was our first mistake. I saw some terrific movies that year – OldBoy stood out – and some of the most unendurably self-important twaddle I’ve ever sat through. Remember Los Muertos? Of course you don’t. No one does. It’s about a guy who gets out of prison and spends the next hour and a half on a boat on a river. That’s it. A bad festival can do that; no matter how cynical you are about Hollywood, during a pretentious navel-gazing borefest you may find yourself wishing a car or two would explode.
One of the few entertaining elements of seeing such movies at the Film Festival is reading the Catalogue afterwards to see the intellectual acrobatics involved in defending and praising it. I just opened it randomly and found myself reading this:
The lure of islands, their fundamental thereness, their separation from and fragile connections to the rest of civilisation, their isolation and their direct correlation in the imagination with existence – all these, and more, make islands powerful places for filmmakers to land.
Uh huh. I’m always disappointed when an island doesn’t live up to its thereness. But what exactly does that tell me about the movie? Does it suggest that it’s good, or that someone’s having to go to a lot of trouble to cover up the fact it isn’t? I won’t say what film that quote applies to, because it’s irrelevant and I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on it (I’m not). But the line walked between analysis and publicity at a film festival is a fuzzy one.
Why am I being so negative about a Festival that I love? I suspect it’s because last year’s Festival, the 13th successive one at which I’ve attended, was such a let down. Celebrating the 65th birthday of the Festival, it did away with the glitz and red carpets (of which the Festival only ever had a finite supply), threw out the Awards, and stopped using a local multiplex for screenings, instead splitting its screenings between the (roughly) 250-seat capacity Filmhouse and Cameo art cinemas, and the 1900+ capacity Festival Theatre. The problem of this dichotomy was highlighted on the opening night, when The Guard, though an entertaining film, only filled about two-thirds of the theatre. It was, I have reliably been informed, the first time ever that the opening night film hadn’t sold out.
The response, from critics and audiences, was decidedly muted, with several people criticising the money-saving decisions; the removal of any glamour and celebrity from the festival only had the effect of reducing the festival’s visibility, with many people in Edinburgh barely noticing it had taken place. This has, thankfully, been addressed. This year sees a new artistic director, Chris Fujiwara, at the reigns; the Awards have been reinstated (this year’s Jury is led by Jim Broadbent), the multiplex is back in use and even a little dose of celebrity has returned; I for one cannot wait until Elliott Gould’s Q&A next week.
Since the Festival moved from August to June there have been fewer attention-grabbing titles in the programme. This year’s Festival, however, opens with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which strikes me as a better choice than The Guard. Friedkin, legendary director of The Exorcist and The French Connection will introduce his movie at the Festival Theatre on Wednesday where he will be joined by the film’s co-star Gina Gershon. Although there are still seats available, a glance at the website suggests that they’re going better than last year’s. I saw the film today and wonder how the audience will respond on Wednesday; it’s a film that may sharply divide people, with material that might provoke gasps from some audience members and laughs from others. The audience will come out arguing about what they’ve just seen, and that is as it should be.
9 years on from my overly optimistic 16 year old self, I find myself looking at the programme with cautious hope. This year there is an usually high percentage of foreign-language films, the vast majority of which I am completely unfamiliar with, and I hope to find at least a few gems there. Among the genre flicks are the promising horrors Guinea Pigs and Lovely Molly (the latter from the co-creator of The Blair Witch Project, which was playing at the Film Festival, to much hype, the first year I attended). James Marsh, who has brought his impressive documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim to the Festival is back with a fictional work, Shadow Dancer, starring Clive Owen. Mark Cousins, who recently made the 15-part “Story of Film” documentary series for the BBC and can often be spotted in and around the Filmhouse, has made a documentary called What Is This Film Called Love? Another intriguing documentary showing is The Imposter, about a young con man who convinced a family he was their missing child.
Finally, the Film Festival will close with the new Disney-Pixar movie, Brave. This was something of a no-brainer; the Festival has developed good links with Pixar (previously screening Ratatouille, Wall-E and Toy Story 3) and this one has a Scottish connection. It will also screen in the Festival Theatre, and I can guarantee that it, at least, will sell out. Although the programme isn’t ostensibly the most exciting I’ve seen, the Festival in general does seem to have a better balance this year between its need to make money and sell tickets (its budget has been cut fairly severely in recent years) and its duty as a Festival. It’s not, like Cannes, a marketplace; it is a Festival where what matters most is what’s on the screen. And for that, I still have a great deal of affection for it.