28th Flanders International Film Festival ­ Ghent 2001

The 28th Flanders International Film Festival in Ghent (8 - 18 October 2001) opened with Jeroen Krabbé’s The Discovery of Heaven, a Dutch-Belgian-British coproduction shot in English, and closed with Amos Kolek’s Queenie in Love (USA), a sophisticated, rib-tickling Manhattan comedy. The Discovery of Heaven, based on Harry Mulisch’s novel with the same title, is best described as a theosophic metaphor. Its general theme embraces such scholarly and quasi-metaphysical issues as the secrets of the universe, the brotherhood of man, the study of comparative religions, the divine powers latent in the human consciousness, and that phenomenon known as intuitive insight ­ all of which relate, in this case, to the discovery of heaven! As the story goes, God in heaven is both tired of man and concerned about his deluded creation on earth, so he sends an angel to retrieve the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments before things get too far out of hand. Meanwhile, Onno (Stephen Fry) and Max (Greg Wise), two »psychic brothers« ­ read: eccentric playboy intellectuals who happen to be born on the same day under the same star (24 November 1933) and thus feel that their fates are intertwined ­ are resolved to unravel ancient religious manuscripts and decode complex astrological formulas that might possibly »open the gates of heaven« and thus expose its secrets to the modern world. To waylay the pair through the years of their maturity, the angel brings them into contact with Ada (Flora Montgomery), a lovely cello-player, with whom they both make love on a spontaneous visit to Castro’s Cuba. A son is born ­ Quinten (Neil Newbon), who in turn endowed with the ultimate in psychic powers. It’s he who later discovers the hiding place of the original Ten Commandments and attempts to return the tablets to their original resting place: the Golden Temple in Jerusalem. Solid acting performances and cameraman Theo Bierkens’s striking images prompted spontaneous audience applause ­ the Flanders festival was off to a good start.

       Under festival director Jacques Dubrulle, Flanders prides itself on entries that spotlight the »Impact of Music on Film«. Composer Henning Lohner was commissioned to write a new score for Robert Wiene’s Orlacs Hände (Orlac’s Hands), the 1924 silent German Expressionist classic, to be performed in the Ghent Opera House by the National Belgium Orchestra. Vladimir Godár was awarded Best Musical Score for his contribution to Martin Sulik’s Landscape (Slovakia), a folkloric trip through the past century thanks to stories passed down by Sulik’s own grandparents. A Special Mention was given to Manesh Judge for scoring Digvijay Singh’s Maya (India), the biting story of a 12-year-old girl who is forced to undergo a traditional ritual on the threshold to womanhood. As for the festival’s other three awards, the Grand Prize of the Flemish Community for Best Film went to Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat ­ The Fast Runner (Canada), based on an ancient Inuit legend and set at the dawn of the first millennium. The Prize for Best Director was awarded to Hou Hsiao Hsien for Millennium Mambo (Taiwan), an apocalyptical portrait of Taipei’s pill-popping techno-discos and night-bars peopled by hostesses and gang bosses. The Prize for Best Screenplay was given to the trio of Goran Paskaljevic, Christine Gentet, and Stephen Walsh for scripting Paskaljevic’s How Harry Became a Tree (Ireland/UK/Italy/ France). Set in the 1920s, this whimsical tale stars that marvelous, matchless actor comedian Colm Meaney in a role that fits his talents like a glove: he’s an Irish farmer who tells his son that a man has to pick a powerful enemy in order to take a full measure of himself ­ so he chooses the local pub owner!

       Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, awarded the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize, was the talk of the festival. Starring Nicole Kidman as a mother of two children living on the Isle of Jersey towards the end of the Second World War, it was written and directed by a Spanish auteur with but three feature films to his credit and already an internationally recognized name. The setting is a large Victorian mansion that gets spooked by strange, unexplainable events: the children see apparitions, the servants disappear and are replaced by new ones, an intruder has found his way into the house. A highly stylized ghost story, it gets better as the tale winds down to an unexpected ending. Another film that prompted discussion among cineastes and film historians at Ghent was Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow (UK/France/Germany), a screen adaptation of Steven Peros’s play about the mysterious death of Hollywood pioneer Thomas H. Ince aboard Hearst’s yacht in November of 1924. According to Peros, it was "W.R." who killed Ince ­ and got away with it. As for the title, it’s Ince’s ironic reference to the coming cruise on the yacht: »The Oneida is the cat’s meow!« Much has been written ­ even more conjectured ­ on whether or not the 42-year old Ince had been shot (accidentally or otherwise) by Hearst on the Oneida ­ instead of dying of a heart attack compounded by acute indigestion, as recorded in the coroner’s report. Since at least 14 potential eyewitness were on the cruise, none of whom were called into court to testify, it appears that Hearst’s impulsive act was prompted by a suspicion that his protégée, Marion Davies, was having an affair with Chaplin. Ince, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Chaplin, just happened to be wearing Charlie’s bowler when the shot was fired in the dark ­ a case of mistaken identity. The Cat’s Meow features a rich assortment of Hollywood characters: Elinor Glyn (who narrates the story), Luella Parsons, Margaret Livingston, Marion’s sisters Ethel and Reine, to mention just a few. But it’s Kirsten Dunst ­ a fairly close copy of the real-life Davies ­ who shines as the witty, bubbling, stammering flapper comedienne.

       A prominent member of the Walt Disney family showed for the retrospective homage to man and legend, insisting as well that security guards were hardly necessary since she wanted to enjoy her stay. The magnificent »Joseph Plateau Exhibition ­ A Life Between Art and Science« in the Ghent Museum of Science was worth many visits to absorb the whys and wherefores of visual mechanical experiments researched throughout the middle of the 19th century. And if you lost your way down those winding narrow streets in the old quarter, then this, indeed, is the city to get lost in.

Plateau Exhibition at Science Museum in Ghent

Film historians with a tick for the archaeology of the cinema are well advised to pay a visit to the Museum of Science in Ghent to view the exhibition honoring the 200th birthday of Belgian scientist Joseph Plateau. It was Plateau’s experiments on optical deception and the persistence of vision in the middle of the 19th century that led to the invention of the anorthoscope (distorted view) and the phenakistiscope (deceitful view), the direct precursors of the first moving picture inventions. The entire range of related optical inventions ­ the stroboscope (whirling view), the thraumatrope (magical turning), and zoetrope (life turning), to name just the key scientific discoveries that led to cinematography ­ were placed on mechanically driven display at the opening of the 28th Flanders International Film Festival in Ghent (8 - 18 October 2001).

        Visitors to the Flanders festival were also presented with an invaluable catalogue to accompany the exhibition: »Joseph Plateau, 1801-1883 ­ Living Between Art and Science« (Gent: Provincie Oost-Vlaaderen, 2001) by Maurice Dorikens, with additional essays by David Robinson, Laurent Mannoni, and Giusy Pisno-Basile. Robinson’s contribution on »Plateau, Faraday and Their Spinning Discs« focuses on the fruitful competition between Joseph Plateau in Belgium and Michael Faraday in England on experiments relating to optical deception. Plateau won that race by a few months to perfect the anorthoscope in 1936, a concession readily made by Faraday upon reading the Belgian scientist’s published papers. To Robinson's credit, however, he offers well researched evidence that Faraday’s 1830 paper on his own experiments influenced in turn the invention of the phenakistiscope in 1832, a scientific honor shared in the end by Joseph Plateau in Belgium and Simon Stempfer in Austria. Also, you can forget that canard about the dedicated Belgian scientist blinding himself by staring at the sun to test the effects of optical stimulus on his cornea. Maurice Dorikens and the Plateau Exhibition document that Plateau’s eventual blindness stemmed mostly from natural causes.

       If some of that odd-sounding classical terminology for rather ordinary looking cut outs, cranks-and-screws, whirling-discs, and spinning-tops muddles the waters of modern day rational comprehension, then know that the 19th-century wizards had tipped their hats to the Greek mathematician Ptolemy. Nearly two centuries ago, he observed how a colored portion of a revolving disc tinted the whole surface ­ the first factual recording of the phenomenon of persistence of vision. This said, historians wonder why the »movies« took so long to be discovered as the seventh art.

Ronald Holloway