The Oldenburg film festival runs for just five days (7-11 September) but manages to pack in about two weeks worth of programming and offers intimate surroundings where movie goers and guests get to interact. At many film festivals guests are swept up by taxi and have to leave the next day, but at Oldenburg there’s a famous artiste on every corner. Most importantly, independent film makers get to mingle freely with distributors which is why the festival attracts so many up and coming indie film makers.
There were a number of exceptional indies and this was evidently the year of the romantic comedies with lots of quirky, feel-good angst. Pick of the crop was Love, Ludlow (2005) the debut feature from Adrienne Weiss where two of the screen’s most unlikely lovers triumph over all adversity and get together. Myra (Alicia Goranson) is a no-nonsense sort of gal who practically terrorises everyone at the office where she works as a temp. Reginald (David Eigenberg) is a geeky nice guy, frankly the kind of nerd we expect Myra to eat for breakfast; so for the first twenty minutes we’re laughing at them not with them. However, Reginald’s kind persistence pays off and he gets a first date with Myra where he encounters Ludlow (Brendon Sexton III) the mentally disabled brother whose child-like whims both shock and amuse us as he feels his fragile world threatened by Myra’s love interest. The film’s accomplishment lies in the fine line it draws between creating such eccentric characters and making us root for them. Screenwriter David Peterson is an experienced playwright and director Weiss cut her teeth directing theatre, and it shows: masterful performances, tender emoting and even a kind of happy ending. What more do you want?
A surprise hit was the literal ‘killer comedy’ Johnny Slade’s Greatest Hits (2005) directed by Larry Blamire. The brainchild of former Sopranos actor John Fiore, it is both a homage and tongue-in cheek play on some of the darker aspects of the mafia series; it benefits from a cast littered with Soprano’s regulars like Vincent Curatola, Richard Portnow, Frank Santorelli and Joseph Gannascoli. Here Johnny Slade (the ever versatile John Fiore) plays an aging down-on-his-luck singer who’s failing to pull in the gigs and the girls, and driving his agent crazy with his insistence on refusing to sing cover songs. Although we know it right off the bat, no one wants to tell him he’s not a great singer and the joke is that he remains a hammy prima donna who refuses to accept criticism or bow to reality. A lucky break comes in the form of Mr Samantha (the phenomenal Vincent Curatola) a terse, silent partner in a club who insists that Johnny sing the odd lyrics he gives him. The songs seem to be nonsense, but Johnny starts to notice a disturbing correlation between his lyrics and murder reports in the newspaper. Despite inadvertently finding himself a mobster’s puppet, Johnny never loses his enthusiasm. A real feel-good film with that delivers the intrigue of the mafia, stellar acting and some very strange songs.
One of the most unusual films on offer was the Greek film Testosterone (2004) directed by Giorgos Panoussopoulos. Petros, a young sailor, spends his leave on a small Greek island visiting his aunt. His plan is to borrow his grandfather’s old car and drive around the islands with some friends (the other sailors assure him having access to a car is a sure fire way to turn women on). However, shortly after arriving, the women of the island begin coming on to him, a novelty he at first enjoys, but gradually the female attention becomes overwhelming and just like Xander in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ this ideal scenario quickly turns into something resembling psycho-horror. The film deals successfully with coming-of-age yearnings but leaves the viewer confused, although it depicts a lot of sex, it’s not erotic and the last segment doesn’t quite fit with the film’s opening. Is all this wanton lust just Petro’s wishful thinking or is he in a hell of his own making?
The question of how film makers attempt to fictionalise personal tragedy crops up in two personal, low budget films: Zombie Honeymoon and In Between. When director David Gebroe explained his motivation for making Zombie Honeymoon (2004) – his brother in law was killed in a surfing accident and the events in his movie (apart from the zombie element) follow real-life events and details, even down to having the protagonists having the same names and physically resembling the couple. Gebroe got incredible performances from his cast, especially from Denise (Tracy Coogan) but the film is so personal that it would have worked better without the zombie element, especially as he significantly changes the ‘Zombie rule book’: the way to become infected is more like a strain of the Ebola virus you have to ingest the blood of a zombie. Maybe you find this an interesting twist, but there are other oddities: when people are bitten through the jugular, they fail to spurt blood, and in this film the horror about Danny (Graham Sibley) becoming a zombie is put on a par with the former vegetarian eating meat. A brave effort, but it’s much less of a horror film than the one it’s trying to be.
Actress/producer Deborah Twiss made a deeply personal film with her directorial debut In Between (2005). Twiss moved to an apartment six blocks from the world trade centre just weeks before 9/11 and this film examines the tragedy though four relationships where each couple loses a partner in the blast. We become intimate with their lives before the tragedy (observing petty worries and romantic trysts) and then get to take a long, hard look at their partner’s mourning period, observing them a year after the tragedy where they are still hurting and struggling to get on with their lives. Of course, most films are more concerned with the mechanics of creating tragedy than showing its effects, and the script benefits from the creation of an interim world, the ‘in between’ where the dead still very much present, unaware that they have been killed and reluctant to listen to Bob who is trying to send them to California (a sort of modern day heaven). Rather than being ghosts, they remain normal characters, so at first the audience assumes that they had amnesia and were missing persons. If there is a fault with the film, it’s that the life after death scenario only hinted at, and that the audience is left unsure of the real forces in play. No doubt the depiction of such raw tragedy will have a particular resonance to American audiences.
This year the festival held a Ken Russell retrospective and it was a privilege to meet and interview the ‘bad boy’ of British cinema who surprisingly didn’t feel his work was particularly erotic. There was an opportunity to see some of his early films like Liszotmania (1975) a flamboyant biopic of the musician Franz Liszt, but even more rewarding to see the VIP screenings of his documentaries, his own biopic: A Very British Picture (1989) where his own young son played his character throughout, and his documentary on Coleridge Clouds of Glory: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978). The characters he chooses to make documentaries about are suitably frenzied, and his skill lies in creating a drama that enables the viewer an insight into their obsessions. His complete work offers a fascinating picture of cultural life, and he’s just as enigmatic as any of the real-life subjects of his biopics.
Finally, the festival’s programme of international shorts was exceptional. Marc Meyer’s German short Sonntag im August (Sunday in August) is a suitably sensuous film where there’s a tragic demise for two good looking lovers who have lost their desire for each other. The award winning Irish film The Ten Steps (2004) directed by Brendan Muldoney was deliciously creepy, and it’s simple but convincing story forces the viewer to imagine their own personal view of hell. Samantha Davidson’s Dead End Job (2005) about an obituary writer who imagines her own death is a treasure. All in all, with so much originality, low budget triumphs and quirky material to watch, you leave this festival on a creative high.