Go for the high, go for the low. That’s always the best way to get a rounded picture of any situation. The middle is … what the middle is. The extremities are where the fun lies and film festivals, as much as anything, demonstrate that with glee. In a world awash with “not bad,” you may as well head for the badlands. The good has a habit of flagging itself up, eventually.
With that in mind, the 2017 edition of the Glasgow Film Festival as a whole is relatively easy to program from a punters point of view. There may be high art in the former “second city of empire,” but there’s a hell of a lot across the city that fizzes off in the opposite direction entirely. It’s part of the vibrancy and life of this part of the West Coast. Of most great cities, in fact. Jammed right up against culture with a capital “C” is an equally prevalent filth and fury. Across the other side of Scotland, Edinburgh may have its own, rather marvelous and somewhat larger, annual festival to wrestle with, but, without that frantic August each year it is essentially a city set in aspic. Beautiful, for sure, but that very beauty makes it virtually impossible to evolve. Glasgow’s rather more anarchic place in the 21st century makes for a more disorderly approach to life.
It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, to book into the worst hotel in town and watch some films, to go from unrelenting grimness to the gloriously art deco Glasgow Films Theatre, the hub of the whole shebang. So it is we rock up at the St. Enoch Hotel. Coming in at a loft 92nd out of 92 on the TripAdvisor house of horrors, it’s every bit as foul as you’d hope. Optimistic clocks in the foyer give the times in Tokyo, Montreal and the like. Pissed-up miscreants give a stale flavor tinged with a touch of fear. Not enough fear to really put one off but still, with stairwells seemingly leading to basement building sites and beds on the hairy side, it’s hard to argue with previous assessments by traveling unfortunates.
In another town at another festival, it would perhaps be getting in on the cinematic vibe by rocking the Hostel look and atmosphere. Here, despite being meters away from some of the most expensive retail space in the UK, it’s all too real. They like showing films in site-specific places around these parts—Con Air in an old plane, for example. This isn’t that. Should you make the entirely wise decision to visit, don’t count on much sleep. And stay well away from the plumbing.
Either way, as a place to stay, it is a marvelously awful introduction to the city. Hard to argue with a trans-African traveller rating it as worse than anywhere they plonked their weary butt on the Dark Continent.
It’s an element of what this city is about, however. It may have made spectacular contributions to art, music, club culture and politics, but it’s equally at home being gleefully horrible. Murdering each other with admirable frequency whilst also fomenting and cultivating organized socialist ideals in the UK. Dropping dead of heart disease and having pollution the envy of Europe, whilst having alarmingly beautiful wilderness all around.
Leaving the delights of the hotel from hell behind, what’s abundantly clear from the programme of the film festival is the breadth of its ambition. There are world premieres, there are red carpets, but there’s also quirky little events—dreaded though that word so often is. Get in there early and it’s possible to see films such as Elle by Paul Verhoeven as a special, pre-release showing. Or flip to the other end of the spectrum and rock into the Centre for Contemporary Arts to meet John Paizs, the director, writer, star—and more or less everything else—of long lost beauty Crime Wave.
The latter is perhaps one of the most fun events of the whole ten days. The attritional nature of festivals means that emotion—is it an emotion?—is sometimes forgotten. When you’re dusting off the bed bugs, seeing flicks from dawn till dusk and writing varying degrees of rubbish about them, fun has a habit of becoming the last thing on one’s mind. Crippling hangovers, caffeine to ameliorate such poor behavior and wide-eyed survival becomes the name of the game. Paizs is so utterly charming, self-effacing and flat out surprised to have been flown into town from Canada that, just for a moment, that magic of cinema overtakes you. Slightly jittery but open and rightly proud of his all too brief filmography. Crime Wave is, of course, utterly bonkers. Man lives in a garage, man attempts to write, man never speaks, a cast of grotesques seethes about, alarmingly. A journey of sorts, in glorious hypercolor and hyperreality. You can tell it was made for five quid, of course, but as a somewhat insane look at the creative process, it really does stand viewing. Available in a restored version from the Toronto International Film Festival, the rewards are there, for sure. If you want to see a dog driving a car and characters seemingly forming the blueprints for Ren and Stimpy, it really is hard to argue with.
Cycling about town from place to place becomes an act of endurance in itself. You flee from the CCA to the next, barely legible scribble in the diary and have to admire the hopeless state of some of the roads. Elegant buildings around these parts but that dank darkness has a habit of producing foot-deep potholes hoping to transform you into the latest, and late, owner of an all-white ghost bike. Best not try and recognize the various parts of the city that have provided doubles for downtown Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall in recent years. That slow but sure disintegration is admirably kept at bay and not matched by the staff for the festival. PR people never see more than ten minutes of a film, spare a thought for that. Staff cope with punters hopping around drinking gin by the bucketful at one end of the day, sulking critics dousing them in coffee at the other.
This is where the joy of a film like Heal the Living becomes so bittersweet. It’s one of those, “everyone must see this immediately” moments. And yet it’s tucked away in the perfectly formed, but tiny, third screen at the GFT: sixty seats is my guess in the gloom. It’s a high-end and quiet contemplation next to frothing lunacy mere feet away in the bars. One of the most beautiful films of late, it actually manages to make a mark, seemingly without trying. Quite a feat when the subtleties of life are being molested by the chaos and strife inherent in any cultural marathon. Directed by Katell Quillévéré, it pulls you into the dilemmas that all too many of us may have to face. Astonishingly filmed and scored, it quietly dismantles the whole idea of organ donation, life and, inevitably, death. That death of a young man gives the chance to donate—to heal the living. Could you, the parent, make the choice to pull the plug and pass on those vital organs? Could you, the donee, make the choice to carry around alien material? Material that you could hardly be closer to but, necessarily, will forever remain anonymous.The word heart-wrenching is somewhat overused word, but, in this case, it is valid. Rarely is such personal horror shared with such sensitivity. Nor such beauty, superficial though that may sound.
Such juxtapositions are oddly quite at home in a city and country wrestling with itself. The decades-long cultural wars are being brought sharply up to date in country toying with removing itself from one union, whilst already, forcibly, being removed from another. Crudely, in this case, a city becoming ever more multicultural and internationalist, whilst staring into the pit of isolationism. Events such as this self-evidently don’t exist in a vacuum. Cannes has its ostentatious flaunting and flouncing along La Croisette, a demonstration of la belle vie. SXSW most definitely has its “soi-disant” hipster status and reactive element to the state of the nation. Glasgow’s festival in 2017, though not overtly political or taking a stance, does feel a part of a city reasserting itself. There’s a self-contained confidence about it all, whilst also being slightly unsure of its place in the world. Coltish, though at times slightly dragging, steps. Late-night conversations in the satellite bars and clubs at times seethe with a febrile and bullish desire. “This is us, we know who we are, we know what we are doing. Come join us … please”. That request at the end spurred by a sense of destiny not all feel they are in control of. It’s a curious mix. At once barrel-chested but also, “What the fuck is going on?”
That’s not particularly singular, of course. And not particularly unhealthy. Excessive self-belief is rarely a good plan, be it in a city, country or anywhere else. And truthfully, for every “hear me roar” you get a “hear me bore” as you attempt to escape under the table back to some good old-fashioned hedonism. For sure there is a perceptible crossroads being hopped around. A slightly nebulous but inevitable undercurrent that is the result of nobody really knowing what is going on. Brexit may put this country on its arse. Scotland may leave the UK. If some of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry was indulged, Glasgow would quite happily declare itself a republic. What is clear is that each festival that occurs, be it film, music, comedy or chucking paint over one’s head, feeds into an identity. Glasgow is becoming more Glaswegian whilst also more international.
Falling a touch too neatly in this discussion of contradictions is Elle. It’s certainly one of the most disputed efforts, no doubt to the delight of its archly provocative director. Masterpiece or spectacularly misjudged and misogynistic disgrace? Or both, of course. I’m inclined to believe the first assessment is true. Isabelle Huppert versus Verhoeven, Amour versus Basic Instinct. The doyenne of French cinema meets the king of schlock. It’s a shocking film—but then it’s supposed to be. Concerning the victim of some very real attacks from a masked intruder, it posts some very unnerving entries into the rape-fantasy folder. It is verbally violent, sexually violent and straight-up smash your face in violent. What is not in doubt is that it is put together with incredible style by the Dutch filmmaker. Whatever you think of him, Verhoeven knows how to string a few scenes together. However the pervasive doubt and dubious tastes in the mouth are present in almost every, impeccably filmed, scene. It may look glorious but, my lord, it is toxic. In a good way or bad way depending on the viewer. I side with the appreciative—but some will have problems with several scenes and indeed the film as a whole. Who is using who is one thing—there is an opaqueness throughout—and the visceral nature and flat-out nastiness of it will not be to everyone’s taste. “A well-deserved 18-certificate,” says co-director of the festival, Allison Gardner. Ain’t that the truth.
Orbiting these very few snapshots are dozens of films from all over the shop; not many parts of the world are left unplundered. Zoology, a Russian film about growing a tail, is marvelous. If you’re going to randomly grow a tail, work in a zoo—makes sense. A Change in the Weather by Jon Sanders really isn’t. A fine example of people with too much time on their hands. Lost in France is a jolly film about record label Chemikal Underground. Part travelogue part elegiac reminiscence and bitch-fest about the state of the industry, it allows the organizers to stick a cinema screen in a concert venue, open the bar and tell us all to get on with it. A fine and raucous evening is had. Stick Hexa—experimental composer Lawrence English and Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu—in an old glue factory and have them perform in front of David Lynch’s Factory Photographs, not so good. When the high point of an audio-visual event is realizing that the percussion is not part of the set but is, in fact, a colossally loud toilet door slamming, you know you’re in trouble.
That said, who the hell wants everything to be good? Without a liberal sprinkling of crap, the good stuff starts to touch that mundanity we should seek to avoid. Luckily the festival and the city do give you side orders of both. Great film right after two hours of self-indulgent tedium. Animated cultural discussions in a bar with a thoroughly acceptable Rioja right before observing three fights in ten minutes and a parade of screaming harpies. High and low, and whatever rung you can stagger to in between.
The festival closes with the first showing of Mad to Be Normal by Robert Mullan. Starring David Tennant, it’s a part-profile of psychiatrist RD Laing and sums things up, perhaps. Back in the ’60s, he had to leave the confines of Clydeside to become a star, both here and stateside. An incendiary genius with no little desire to be the iconoclast, for good and for ill, depending on which of his patients you talk to. A maverick son of a maverick city. Glasgow is currently reasserting its place in the UK and place in the world. By turns with confidence and then with some rightful trepidation. The next generation sees no need to escape its clutches to make their mark whilst also observing events over which they seemingly have little control. A situation both utterly glorious and utterly horrifying. Something these ten days in February and March reflect with spasmodic vigor. What more do you want?