Age, as Aaliyah pointed out, ain’t nothing but a number: a dictum whose veracity will be confirmed at Edinburgh this month when one of the world’s oldest active filmmakers visits the world’s longest continually-running film festival. On Friday 26 June, Haskell Wexler, 93-year-old doyen of American cinematography, will appear in conversation with Seamus McGarvey, himself a revered director of photography, at the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival. If recent public appearances by Wexler are any guide, however, McGarvey may find himself supervising a monologue. At Palm Springs’ AmDocs festival this March, Wexler was on inspirationally piss-and-vinegar form, dominating proceedings with a blunderbuss insouciance worthy of Dennis Skinner at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Initially trained as an editor, Wexler shot his first film, as assistant cameraman, in 1947, the same year that EIFF kicked off. 2015 thus marks the 69th consecutive edition of an event which, while technically younger than Cannes and Venice (both established in 1932), boasts a longer unbroken run than either. It’s tough to maintain freshness and relevance after so many decades. And there’s something pleasingly paradoxical about this year’s festival programme being so very promising on paper, precisely because it includes such a large proportion of archival fare.
Nostalgia is, after all, inseparable from cinephilia, and the most revered and respected cinephile festivals are those which either judiciously balance the new and the old (Viennale, FIDMarseille, San Sebastian) or which concentrate on re-examining the art form’s inexhaustibly rich history (Bologna, Pordenone, UCLA). It’s apt that Edinburgh should apparently be moving in such a direction. This is a city where, to appropriate William Faulkner’s phrase, the past is not only not dead, it isn’t even past.
And while no Wexler film will be screened at Edinburgh – which introduces a new artistic director in critic Mark Adams, in the post since March – there are compensations aplenty via archival films included across multiple strands. Hong Kong giant Johnnie To, also present for an on-stage interview, is represented by 2006’s Exiled, “a crepuscular paean to male group loyalty and rueful joie de vivre” (J. Hoberman). Walter Hill: The Early Years is a strand comprising the first seven features of the genre-reinvigorating maverick, including two collaborations apiece with cinematographers Andrew Laszlo (Southern Comfort, The Warriors) and Ric Waite (The Long Riders and 48 Hrs.).
Focus On Mexico is dominated by current pictures, including Gabriel Ripstein’s fine thriller 600 Miles, in which Tim Roth co-stars with promising young performer Harrison Thomas. But the strand also includes rare chances to catch black-and-white classics Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960) and María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1943).
Little Big Screen belatedly highlights the quality often to be found in the upper echelons of American TV movies in the 1960s and 70s. Standouts here include Sam Peckinpah’s Noon Wine, a 48-minute Katharine Anne Porter adaptation; the 112-minute version of Tobe Hooper’s enduringly scary Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot (1979); and the feature-length debuts by Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg – The Jericho Mile (1979) and Duel (1971). Duel’s writer Richard Matheson was also responsible for Vegas-vampire cult favourite The Night Stalker (1972), directed by Argentina-born Brit John Llewellyn Moxey – an exotic, unsung maestro, still with us at 90.
But while it should be proud of its archival selections – also note Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972) and Wizards (1977), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Philip Leacock’s The Brave Don’t Cry (1952) – EIFF remains primarily an industry-friendly chance for UK audiences to see newer work. Two critical smashes from Cannes – Asif Kapadia’s Winehouse documentary Amy and Pixar’s Inside Out, by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen – are included, though Edinburgh’s mid-summer slot complicates the scheduling of Croisette titles.
Among films already on the festival circuit, J. P. Sniadecki’s bracingly immersive Chinese-railways documentary The Iron Ministry deserves attention, while lurking within the reliably robust experimental Black Box sidebar we find Tomonari Nishikawa’s Sound of a Million Insects, Light of a Thousand Stars, a beautiful and provocative conceptual two-minuter on Fukushima. Advance word on Mark Chapman’s new short Camrex, about a notorious Sunderland hostel, is also encouragingly strong.
Among a slew of contenders for the Michael Powell award for best new British film are Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut The Legend of Barney Thomson, plus a quartet of BFI-supported projects: Jane Linfoot’s The Incident, Simon Pummell’s Brand New-U, Martin Radich’s Norfolk (with French cinema’s hulking trump-card Denis Ménochet) and festival closer Iona, by Scott Graham (Shell). But the bookies’ odds-on favourite would be Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to Weekend, 45 Years. This study of a long-term marriage saw Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay pick up acting honours at this year’s Berlinale.
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