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White Light 3

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It's a well-known phenomenon. At first you seldom see green shoes, if ever. Then you buy your first set of green shoes and you see them everywhere. I also experienced the green-shoe effect at Cannes this year. Well, I had decided to make a programme about drugs and cinema, but I didn't dare dream I would trip over drugs films. Could it be in the air? The pulse of the era? Or just in my jaundiced imagination? I looked at my shoes and decided to reserve judgement.

by Gertjan Zuilhof

The most noxious green shoe in Cannes and also one of the most discussed and hated as well as admired films was undoubtedly The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael by the debutant young Brit Thomas Clay. A strange film. A film in which several genres are mixed up nonchalantly and told from different perspectives.

First there is the sketch of a forlorn coastal resort. The TV-realistic portrayal of the frenetic yet undespairing bourgeois life. The community spirit. The school concert. The Robert from the title who is a rather lanky mother's boy. He practices politely with his mother on his cello. She is unaware of his sadistic sexual fantasies, as are the rest of the community. He doesn't know what to do with them.

Outside school, outside the village and outside the community, some kids are hanging round who won't fit in. They steal things. They mess with pills. Mother's boy Robert feels attracted to the wrong boys and girls. He swallows a pill a little too eagerly. That could have been okay for a while or could have gone wrong, if Larry hadn't turned up on the scene. He had just been released from jail and was looking for customers and victims. Larry is also only a petty dealer, but he introduces the kids to the real work.

What follows is the best dealer scene ever filmed. I would love to be convinced that it wasn't. This was probably enough reason for Clay to hire Angelopoulos' cameraman Yorgos Arvanitis. In a breathtakingly tastelessly decorated yet oh so cool space, an unlikely cross between an art gallery and a hotel room you pay for by the hour, the camera circles in slow motion between the total foolishness. A DJ monotonously plays his booming bass without taking any notice of the surrounding insanity. Almost carelessly, a drugged girl is gang raped in a side room, and most people in the room don't seem to mind.

In Cannes, that is when many people left the cinema. The combination of cinematographic talent and sadistic portrayal was apparently too much of a good thing. And the worst was yet to come. At the end is a gang rape under the influence of amphetamines and plenty else that most looks like an abattoir. Not a very nice film? Maybe not, but does a good film have to be nice?

Johanna by the young Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó was certainly "nicer", even though it isn't a sugary film. Variety described it as Gothic grunge and that was not meant in a positive sense. I think it was one of the most daring and original films in Cannes. It tells the story of a kind of contemporary Jeanne d'Arc (but in fact also a kind of Florence Nightingale) in the form of a film opera in which the original music was written especially for the film. Johanna is a junkie. When she lands up in hospital, she turns into a voluntary nurse who manages to heal patients as a very active bedfellow. Religious fanaticism or drugs high remains to be seen, but it's a very special film.

And those other green shoes? Barbera Kopple, an absolute veteran as a documentary maker, has made her first feature Havoc. A striking film about the attraction of the black criminal culture for spoilt rich white high-school kids in Los Angeles. This sketch of the various subcultures is very convincing thanks to the practiced eye of the trained documentary maker and a little less convincing in the dramatisation, but all in all a special film.

Havoc did not make it into the official Cannes festival and the same was true of Stoned by Stephen Woolley. Stoned is a crafted and entertaining feature about the "last days" of one of the most lamented of drugs victims Brian Jones. Woolley's film is artistically less than Van Sant's, but the release of Woolley's film could ensure that the Jones' case is reopened.

And, last but not least, there was of course Last Days by Gus Van Sant which for legal reasons may not be described as being about the last days of the martyr of Gothic grunge Kurt Cobain. Jim Hoberman wrote about it in The Village Voice: "...Last Days may be the most evocative heroin movie ever made..." And who would stand up and contradict him?

photo: still from Last Days by Gus Van Sant