The abyss gazes also

GFF Diary days 8 & 9: Werner Herzog, Vivienne Westwood, Frightfest and otherworldly experiences.

by Jennie Kermode

Thursday at the Glasgow Film Festival began with a focus on families. The Other F Word looks at what happens when punks grow up to be fathers, and is much more than just a let's-gawp-at-the-strange-people show, with a host of genre stars and both funny and heartbreaking insights into parenthood. No-one featured in it seemed to have faced the kind of difficult transition faced by Viggo Mortensen's family man with A History Of Violence, running in Mark Millar's Kapow!@GFF strand.

That led neatly into the melancholy themes dominant later in the day, from euthanasia documentary How To Die In Oregon to Werner Herzog's investigation of the death penalty, Into The Abyss. The latter resembles a present day In Cold Blood with its unflinching examination of the details of one particular crime, but it's the stunning interviews it features that really give it its power, bringing us face to face with loss on a scale that's difficult to grasp. Afterwards, audience members left in silence or sat hugging each other as the credits rolled, keeping close what was dear to them.

Later that afternoon, Stopped On Track presented the last few months of a terminally ill man and Wrinkles injected unexpected joy into the story of a man with Alzheimer's disease in a care home whose other residents are ready to use every trick in the book to help him hold onto his memories, his mind and his love of life. Finally, Mark Millar presented a story of life after death in The Crow – which, of course, young star Brandon Lee died whilst filming.

If all that sounds rather grim, the festival staff themselves were in good cheer, having just gone over 30,000 in ticket sales. Their target this year is 35,000 so with three days to go, things were looking good. There was also a party going on in central Glasgow pub The Old Hairdresser's – or, rather, a Psychocinematic Ritual, courtesy of occult project OV who brought Goblin to last year's event. Live film soundtracks blurred and blended with strange visuals for a truly unique and sometimes disturbing experience.

Friday was a day to set misery aside and start enjoying the darker side of life as the festival's regular Frightfest weekend got underway. It was sold out as usual, largely through weekend passes, though sadly this meant that the earlier films weren't full as some people couldn't get away from work – and in missing Corman's World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel, they missed a real treat. Our Frightfest correspondent Donald Munro reported that Tape 407: The Mesa Reserve Incident was not as strong, with a fun central idea but little to flesh it out. That said, he loved film noir style thriller Crawl, which had stunning sound work, a great score and excellent performances, all in the service of a tight little plot that reminded him in many ways of No Country For Old Men. As for closing film War Of The Dead, he said that it had lots of flashy ingredients – Nazis, zombies, military action – but pretty much no plot at all. I was reminded of festival director Allison Gardner introducing Wednesday's Surprise Movie and commenting on the fact several people had asked hopefully if it might be Iron Sky. “What's that, some kind of Nazi thing?” she asked playfully in a shocked voice. “We're the GFT!”

Also running on Friday was dark Scottish comedy Up There, the story of a man who is already dead but is yet to come to grips with life. I was unfortunately too ill to attend, but my colleague Lindis Kipp stepped in at the last minute and was very glad she'd done so. She found it hugely entertaining and also enjoyed the subsequent Q&A with director Zam Salim. You can see my interview with him here.

There were also fashion events running that day, starting with an industry gathering in the Vivienne Westwood boutique in Princes Square, where people talked about film and design, pored over racks of ties and enjoyed the free nibbles. The event was timed to complement a screening of documentary Vivienne Westwood: Do It Yourself, looking at her life and work. Running alongside it in the fashion strand was glossy but beautifully made documentary God Save My Shoes, the answer to a great mystery for those of us who have never managed to get our heads around certain women's obsession, and a delicious treat for those who understand it well.

On both Friday and Saturday, celebrated experimental artist and filmmaker Jan Švankmajer put on a special show to accompany the festival in West End venue The Glue Factory. Situated on a dark, narrow street, the former factory is instantly recognisable from the huge grinning mouth at its entrance. Inside, it was split into a variety of different sized spaces, including a (cardboard) gingerbread house where short films were being screened, and a café serving up human body parts. A tall, cowled figure instantly recognisable as Death wandered around asking people mysterious questions, then chaining some of them together, leading them up around a gallery and into a space where they could look down to watch a short film on the floor of a pit. Other figures wore crow-beak masks and nobody was quite what they seemed.

Just two days of the festival remain and it still keeps coming up with surprises.

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