Glasgow Film Festival: Blowing the fans away

THE sixth Glasgow Film Festival draws to a close this weekend and over the last week or so its ongoing mission to be an audience-driven festival seems to have succeeded in a big way.

The day after the sold-out screening of American: The Bill Hicks Story, for instance, co-director Matt Harlock told me one of the best things about it was the opportunity it gave him to talk to all the Hicks fans in the queue as it snaked around the cinema before the film started. The ranks of Star Wars fanboys awaiting the arrival of James Earl Jones outside Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday also seemed like a testament to the populist, inclusive spirit that festival co-directors Alan Hunter and Allison Gardner have brought to the event over the last few years.

The Jones event has certainly been one of the highlights. After spending more than an hour cracking wise about his career with a refreshing lack of ego, some entertaining anecdotes about the directors he's worked with (Stanley Kubrick was a master of chewing gum, apparently), and one bad Marlon Brando impression, Jones graciously answered a barrage questions from the audience, including more than a few related to his rasping turn as the voice of Darth Vader.

And, in case you're wondering, no, he didn't get a cut of the merchandise, and yes, he was pleased with the $7,000 he was paid for two hours' work, especially since it spawned a lucrative career doing voice-overs. He was even kind enough to praise Thomas Ikimi, director of the festival's forthcoming closing-night film Legacy, when he took the opportunity to do a shaky impression of Darth Vader for Jones in front of the sold-out crowd.

With such fanaticism on display among the audiences, it seems oddly appropriate that one of the festival's best films should revolve around that very subject. Marking the directorial debut of Robert Siegel (who wrote the screenplay for The Wrestler), Big Fan is a tragicomic drama about an American football fanatic (Patton Oswald) whose obsessive love of the New York Giants results in his favourite player being suspended from the team. The film is a beautifully judged story about the dark side of fandom that has shades of The King of Comedy, particularly in the scenes featuring Oswalt diligently scripting the impassioned rants he delivers nightly to sports phone-in shows – rants that he subsequently pretends are off-the-cuff observations. Perhaps due to the American football backdrop, the film has yet to find a UK distributor, making it a nice coup for Glasgow. Still, it would be a shame if it didn't get picked up. It's not really dependent on any kind of knowledge of sport; like The Wrestler it immerses us a strange subculture driven by performance and full of human frailty.

A much more disturbing look at fanaticism is present in another of the festival's best films: Until The Light Takes Us, a judicious look at the Church-burning hysteria that emerged from the notorious Norwegian black metal scene in the 1990s. Premiering tonight at the Glasgow Film Theatre, the film examines the phenomenon primarily via interviews with two of the scene's leading figures: Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes, seminal leader of the black metal band Burzum, and Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, drummer with rival band Darkthrone. An appreciation of their music certainly isn't necessary. Instead directors Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites – who spent two years researching the film – concentrate showing what a combustible mix fanaticism and music can be, especially when combined with a reductive media only interested in generating copy-selling headlines. It's the sort of film that Glasgow's audiences will undoubtedly take a chance on. Indeed, over the past nine days I've been reminded once again of the passion and respect with which the festival's audiences seem to greet all the films. It's one thing, for instance, lapping up Kristin Scott Thomas's astonishing turn in the classy French drama Leaving, but it's quite another to sit through the jabbering inanities of Takashi Miike's juvenile and pervy sci-fi oddity Yatterman, which I watched in a state of heightened agitation with a near capacity GFT crowd on Sunday, most of whom seemed much more forgiving.

The same went for From Time to Time, the second directorial outing from Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes. I couldn't tell if the laughter that greeted this period ghost story starring Maggie Smith was of the derisory or the delighted sort, but the film was pretty terrible, the sort of stodgy TV-style drama you might expect to trip over on the ITV3 schedules.

From a British perspective, hope did arrive in the form of Down Terrace, which had its premiere last night. Shot on a microbudget in just eight days in debut director Ben Wheatley's parents' home, the film, which uses a mix of actors familiar from British TV comedy (most notably Spaced), as well as members of Wheatley's own family, was a remarkably assured debut. A pitch-black comedy revolving around the travails of a close-knit family whose business is crime, what started off as a seemingly knockaround, naturalistic comedy, about a father and son readjusting to life on the outside, gradually mutated into something much darker as they became obsessed with rooting out the person responsible for grassing them up to the police.

Brilliantly performed, and rich in detail, it's the sort of low-budget British production that is all too rare these days: something that feels effortless and is effortlessly entertaining – much like the festival itself.

&#149 The Glasgow Film Festival continues until Sunday. For more information, visit www.glasgowfilmfestival.org.uk

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