International Relations

On April 28, 1996, I took a short, unpleasant flight from Copenhagen to Oslo. I was one month into my tour of showing films in Europe. Oslo would be my second annual appearance at the Underdog Animation Festival. I was met at the airport by the unforgettable Line Sandsmark, a very pretty blond woman, who was at least six foot four inches tall. The shows were in the fabulous 1950’s spacecraft styled movie theater, as in the year before. Both of my shows were well attended. I didn’t know what the crowd expected of me. In the program I was described as being “Lively and inspiring in person”. I did my best.

It was the last night of the festival. A big crowd, at least twenty, went out for dinner at nine. We were seated at an extra-long table in a Japanese restaurant. My new friend from Stuttgart, the first stop on the tour, Marv Newland was there. I was befriended by a pretty Finnish girl, Bettina, who engaged me in conversation for the rest of the evening. In what I hoped was a gallant battle against the juggernaut onslaught of American fast foods global dominance, the service was glacially slow. Many waiters flitted around delivering very little. At least there was plenty of red and white wine. Most palates seemed to prefer the white, leaving plenty of red for me. One serving consisted of a single raw egg in a bowl that was plunked down in front of each of us. I did not see one person who ate the raw egg. Maybe we should have been given a glass of whiskey with it. They were left to age in the open air for half an hour.

As in most European restaurants smoking was permitted. Possibly we would suffice to dine on smoked egg. The next thing to appear were four little camp stoves. Presently four frying pans containing oil were placed on the stoves, which were lit, turned up to high, and promptly neglected for several minutes. Finally, real food appeared. A big plate of raw meat and sliced vegetables was deposited beside the sizzling frying pans. We wondered aloud if we were expected to cook our dinner ourselves. Sophisticated dining: Oslo style. We talked and drank wine. I learned from Bettina that my Finnish surname was actually Swedish, a fairly common happenstance in the frozen north. All at once several servers, having given up on us finding our own way, swooped down on our party and feverishly began throwing eggs, meat and vegetables into the sizzling frying pans. The food was excellent. It was past midnight when coffee was served. No worry. None of us was planning to leave while there was still any wine left.

At one in the morning we stumbled out into the freezing night. I shared a taxi with several others and was dropped at my hotel. I stared with trepidation at the sign: HOTEL TERMINUS. I considered it an ominous sign. Could this be the end of the line? A sort of roach motel: you can enter, but you can’t get out? My room did include a bath. I flopped into bed and spent a restless night. Weird noises filled the room. They must have been coming in through the ductwork. There were sounds of people walking in a room occasionally punctuated by an oomph noise. The sort of noise produced by an airlock being closed. In the morning I felt grateful to be able to leave the room and go to breakfast. It was OK, plenty of bread (with a toaster), bacon, weak coffee, and thin orange juice. I was apparently on my own. No tall Viking women appeared to drive me to the airport. I took a taxi and was soon winging my way back to Copenhagen.

On the plane I looked back through my notes on the previous night’s dinner. Among the guests at the table I had written down “Andrei Tarkovsky.” I stared at it. How could the most famous Russian film maker since Eisenstein have been sharing a meal with me? Especially one who had died in 1986? I recalled having a pleasant conversation with a grey haired Russian gentleman. We talked about Ladislas Starevitch and artistic life under Stalin and Khrushchev. Had he been a hallucination? Better lay off the wine, I thought.

I arrived back at 2:00pm in Copenhagen and walked to Jack’s. I had some time to kill before taking the train to the small Danish town of Holbeck. My show that evening would be at a high school. At four we walked to the train station. Before leaving the apartment Jack put two beers into my bag. Along the way we stopped at a hotdog stand. We each got a couple of dogs. Mine were the long skinny ones wrapped in bacon. Delightful. We sat on a bench in a small park to dine. Jack hauled a bottle opener out of his pocket. He told me that Danes pride themselves on being able to open a bottle without an opener, and that using one branded the drinker a sissy. It was a warm, clear afternoon. The meal was the most convivial of my trip. Upon leaving the park bench Jack carefully sat the empty beer bottles on the ground. I said “Shouldn’t those go in a trash can?” He laughed and told me that there was a 30 cent deposit on each bottle and they would be gone as soon as we turned our backs.

I was met at the station in Holbeck by a teacher from the school. The campus was pleasant, comprised of several buildings from the 1920’s. I was taken to the headmaster, a gentle, understated man. The three of us talked about global encroachment of Americanism, and what a sad thing it was. There was very little sign of it in Holbeck. I was taken to the auditorium nice little theater with sloped seating and a small stage for theatrical productions. I got busy in the projection booth, watching through the port window the blond students filing in for the show. I was kept busy right up to show time. The headmaster gave me a short introduction before I addressed the assemblage. I went back to the booth, dimmed the lights, and started the show. The first cartoon was Everready, a wildly funny, pornographic romp, made surreptitiously c. 1930. As soon as it hit the screen a terrifying thought struck me: These were teenagers I was showing it to.

I considered stopping the projector. If I had done this in America I would have been thrown in jail and the headmaster of the school would never been allowed to teach again. It would have made the national news. Donald Trump would have called for the execution of both of us. I stilled my quaking heart and let the film run. The students roared with laughter.
After the show I walked through the campus with the headmaster. It was a warm evening. There was no noise at all except the wind in the trees. The campus was beautiful. Dim lights shone through the windows of the old buildings. The sky was dark, dark blue. I asked him if there was in any problem with my showing pornography to the kids. He gave me a quizzical look and replied, “No. Why should there be?” I told him what the reaction would be in the United States, a land where sex is used to sell products and forbidden as a subject of reasoned discourse. He just shook his head at the absurdity of it. I was offered a bed in a dormitory to sleep in, but turned it down. It was probably co-ed. I still felt like I’d dodged a bullet. I took the 11:20 train back to Copenhagen.

In the morning I packed my duffel bag with all of my films, books, clothes, CD’s. That would leave room for the35mm prints of She Devils on Wheels and The Meatrack, that I had left with Jack the previous year. He would collect them from me in Lille and take them to Munich for a show. The bag was almost too heavy to lift. I found the only way was to approach it like I was competing in an Olympics weight lifting event. I would squat down and grab the bag. I would take several deep breaths. I would jerk it up, driving upwards with my legs, bend my neck underneath it and let it fall onto my shoulders. My legs would start to buckle and through a tremendous surge of will I would straighten them. I would then rest for a while, and then, begin walking, one careful step at a time. Ahead of me were stops in Viborg, Hamburg and Halle. If I could get that far, the next stop would be Lille, the last gig on the trip.

I got very little sleep on the train. The light in the compartment would dim, but not go out. When I would finally drop off to sleep I would soon be awakened by a conductor checking my ticket and my passport. It happened several times before I arrived in Köln to change trains. It was Sunday, no news, but I bought some pastries for breakfast. In Lille I was met at the station by Jack and Jean-Jacques. They were standing on the platform when I stumbled off the train. Jack offered to carry my bag. I said, “Fine with me” and set it on the landing. He bent to pick it up and having lifted it inches off the gave me an amazed look and said “I can’t believe you got this thing this far”. I had him put it down. We each took one end and carried it through the station like it was a strong box full of Confederate gold. We took a taxi to the four star Hotel Carlton. I would be sharing a room with Jack. It was beautiful old building in perfect condition. I decided to lay down for a nap. Jack left me there. I was told that the Freak Zone would pick up the lunch tab at a cafe called Le Porthos.

After my nap I found the place. I ordered a Porthos specialty, Croquettes Crevettes Grise. The waitress then said something to me in French that I didn’t understand. I finally figured out she was asking “What else?” I was content with my selection. She left. My plate arrived with three croquettes, each about a big as a hardboiled egg, accompanied by a single leaf of unhappy looking lettuce. I asked if I could get some bread with it. The croquettes were deep fried with an interior that tasted like hot thousand island dressing. A small brown-haired boy, maybe four or five years old, noticing that I had no newspaper to read, decided to entertain me while I ate. He came to table and jabbered at me. He seemed to be making some sort of demand. Not understanding, I would occasionally shrug. He had great staying power and was not discouraged by my obvious lack of understanding. After a while his mother came to collect him. I smiled to indicate that I was not being annoyed. Mistake? He soon came back, with his blond headed sister. She appeared to be about three. They jabbered at me until it was time for their mother to leave. Noticing her heading for the door they sprinted away from me. They got to the door first and bolted outside, barely missing rushing headlong into the street into the path of a speeding auto. My “Sex, Jazz and War” show would be that afternoon. It was the last day of the festival.

All of the festival events were held in an Industrial-Chic Pompidou Center sort of place. The crowd included lots of punks. Many of the displays were openly pornographic, or sadomasochistic, or both. The main auditorium was a huge charmless room with steeply raked chairs. It was more like a college lecture hall than a theater. The crowd of around a hundred looked lost in the airplane hangar-sized room. I gave a short introduction which, after being translated by Jean-Jacques, became even shorter. The jaded audience showed mild interest in the cartoons.

The big event that evening was the awards ceremony. The crowd of around two hundred looked lost in the great pyramid size room. Awards were given to several films, with clips shown of all of them. The Spiral Zone was made by a Japanese film maker I had talked to earlier. The Virgin Beast was made by an Australian named Toby. It was a very gory, very funny film. Toby was a lively speaker. He was awarded the top prize, several thousand dollars, and confessed that he had paid his way to the festival and was broke. He now had enough money to make it back to Australia. I wondered what would have happened if he had not won the prize? Jack would have probably had to book him a tour of Europe to scrape up escape money. Jon Moritsugo also won an award and gave a very gracious acceptance speech. He said “It’s hard to be alone struggling with your art. In these few day I’ve made so many friends. In America I feel alone. Like I’m the only one trying to make films this way, but I come and find others trying to do the same thing and I feel I am not alone”. I was glad to finally meet Jon. I had shown his film Mod Fuck Explosion in Seattle and New York, but had only talked to him on the phone. After the ceremony most of the film makers hung out in the auditorium and talked. I was talking to Toby, and an actress from his film, when I heard the name Darryl MacDonald mentioned. A compactly built blond American was excoriating the director of the Seattle International Film Festival. I excused myself from Toby and introduced myself. It was Greg Wild, actually a Canadian, who had made the film Highway of Heartache. We exchanged Darryl MacDonald stories. His were from the previous year. Mine were from the mid 1970’s. Time had apparently not mellowed Darryl MacDonald.

At 10:00pm I found myself with about twenty film makers and festival hosts at a restaurant having dinner. Greg was seated next to me, making it very difficult to talk to other people, or even to get a word in edge ways. After several bottles of wine had been emptied the director of the festival stood up and dictated that each person at the table would have to stand up and tell a story. Jack was happy to comply. After several lackluster speeches, his talk exceedingly livened up the proceedings. It had something to do with Greg Wilde and a samurai sword. I followed with my tale of first meeting Jack in Seattle in 1990, which elicited lots of laughs and seemed to embarrass Jack. The dinner broke up around one in the morning with Greg, a remarkable bundle of energy, trying to round up a posse to cruise the gay bars. Sleep didn’t seem to be a part of his agenda. He found no takers. Most of the attendees begged out by claiming that they had trains or planes to catch early in morning. Jack’s train was at 6:01. Mine would be a train ride to Paris, a short flight to Frankfurt, and then the flight to New York. We shared a taxi back to the ritzy Hotel Carlton.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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