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Cinema of Attraction, By Christina Newland
THE IMAGONAUT venue is tucked away in an alley alongside the HAU Hebbel am Ufer (HAU1), one of the main venues of Berlinale Talents. In true Kreuzberg style, the curved 180° screen fills most of a cramped little room, lined with space heaters and mats on the floor in lieu of seats. The atmosphere is intimate and friendly as a small group settles in, anticipating a throwback to the "cinema of attractions" and the special film made to be shown on it. The 180° screen was a popular attraction on fairgrounds and theme parks in the 1980's, a spectacle reminiscent both of silent era experimentation and 1950's Cinerama (which only used a 150° screen). The effect, of course, is designed to engulf its audience; it is a truly immersive, sensory experience, opening with the rocking of a boat on a river and simulating a sense of genuine physical movement. When the camera is placed gazing down several flights of stairs, the vertigo becomes overwhelming.
While the 180° format has its limitations, and is typically now used for art installations and non-narrative film, THE IMAGONAUT by Philipp Wenning is a rather traditional feature. It has something of a flimsy science fiction plot, dealing with the nature of memory and those who would exploit it. It loses traction as it goes, but it remains engaging through the novelty of the experience. THE IMAGONAUT never attempts to shove spectacle into scenes where there is none, unlike many showcase films. Additionally, it presents some novel choices; it swings from a futuristic observation desk to the eyes of a young child, all in first person point-of-view. One is made hyper-aware of the camera's position, aided by the ongoing shifts in perspective. The audience's feeling of physical proximity in the 180° format heightens the voyeurism inherent in cinema, a concept which makes any experimentation exciting. THE IMAGONAUT was a mind-expanding opportunity for a singularly unique viewing experience.
After learning that he's been told a lie since a childhood incident left him blind, a young Chinese man, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan) slits his throat. Blood spurts out like a shotgun blast as he falls to the ground with an eerie, blank face. For Ma, it's the truth, not lies, that destroys his willingness to live. Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye's drama BLIND MASSAGE, featured in the Berlinale Competition, is a poetic study of human desire and a search for what is beautiful – and, more importantly, true.
After his attempted suicide, Ma accepts his situation and moves on with his life. Despite a visible scar on his neck, a symbol of the painful truth, he begins to work at a massage parlour in Nanjing, where all of his co-workers are also visually impaired. He soon finds himself being sexually attracted to his co-worker Kong (Zhang Lei), who is many years his senior and in a relationship with their mutual colleague, Wang (Guo Xiaodong). We also meet Fuming (Qin Hao), another of Ma's co-workers. He falls for Du Hong (Mei Ting), who the sighted customers call "the most beautiful” among all the female workers at the parlour. Having never seen Du Hong's face, he wants her only after learning that she is perceived as "attractive” by those who can see. Du Hong rejects him, saying what he calls love isn't love, and that it is, in fact, obsession and vanity. "No woman is blind to true love,” Du Hong tells Fuming. "Especially the ones without their eyes.”
And Ma, feeling confused and even guilty about his lust for Kong, visits a brothel. There, he meets Mann (Huang Lu), a young prostitute with whom he eventually falls in love. It starts off with just sex – he even calls Kong's name out loud while having intercourse with Mann – but he eventually comes to ‘hear' Mann, both literally and metaphorically. When Mann's co-workers lie to him, telling him that she's not at the shop when she is in fact with an abusive customer, Ma recognizes her voice at a distance and finds her. While their feelings for each other are evident, the two rarely exchange words. All stories, after all, are lies, the film's narrator says.
Many scenes of the film are depicted with an almost dreamlike intensity, with very dim lights and blurry images. It's as if we are in the dark, or in a world of uncertainty and danger, in search of something that matters, something rare. BLIND MASSAGE is a compelling tale of growing up, of someone who learns an essential lesson the hard way: that accepting truth often requires courage – and so does finding beauty in life.
Deeply steeped in the traditions of the Western, Austrian director Andreas Prochaska's THE DARK VALLEY (Das finstere Tal) from Berlinale Special jumps from cliché to cliché with the recklessness and wild abandon of a madman with a rifle. In 19th century Austria, an American traveller, played by Sam Riley, comes to rescue a village from despotic, uncivilised rule, saving a Mädchen in distress while he's at it – a brazen piece of undisguised ideology. The obligatory scenes are all there: the confrontation between the threatening outsider and the locals; the revel of the merry band of bearded brothers; the chase; the confession. They appear as nothing more than checklist boxes. Although the premise of transplanting a genre that is particularly American to an Austrian cultural setting is promising in the abstract, the result feels like a pastiche of a Western forced into European clothes.
The opening cinematography has hints of a distinctly European pseudo-arthouse sensibility and does its best to peck a little flesh off a narrative corpse. The film opens out from claustrophobic close-ups of fragmented faces in chiaroscuro to slowly swooping panoramas of rugged snow-covered mountains. The camera approaches figures from the back and follows ominous thudding footsteps to create tension, much of which is also carried by a masterful original score. But the weak script is not able to sustain the element of mystery. The motivation for the protagonist's vengeance feels like blind monomania in the absence of psychologically motivating factors in a performance that is as bland as the hackneyed lines it delivers. There is no dark secret beneath the avenger's forever brooding eyes; the mist of the mountains is just a scientific phenomenon; the token beauty is as pure as snow. A narrative that could easily lend itself to darker layers remains a gleaming, thin surface.
THE DARK VALLEY's accumulation of genre referencing culminates in a bombastic shoot-out that leaves a cargo of splayed bodies like geometric patterns on the snow. This finale is an exercise in excess, but lacks the taut stylization of, for instance, Tarantino's bloodbaths. It descends into farce. The very last reaction a drama wants from its audience is laughter at crucial moments of supposedly heightened tension.
The funny thing about genre is, if you don't satisfy the audience's generic expectations enough, you will disappoint; give them exactly what they want on a silver plate, and you will disappoint them even more.
Complex characters, intimate dramas, beautiful surroundings – today's German cinema is more concerned with observation than with action. On Monday, a Berlinale Talents talk about the Berlin School introduced the main characteristics of the movement as well as some of the most well-known directors connected with it, among them, award-winning director and producer Maren Ade.
It all started in 2001. "First we just wanted a camera and a couple of female actresses”, said Christian Petzold, one of the filmmakers present at the Berlinale talk. "But then it turned out that we unconsciously started a new chapter in German cinematography.” By casting an artistic eye on the country and relationships among people, the filmmakers stand in opposition to the trend of modern cinematography that's full of car chases and superheroes. Having made the award-winning FOREST FOR THE TREES and EVERYBODY ELSE, Maren Ade was considered part of this movement after the release of her second feature.
"Although it's critics who decide who's in and who's out [of the movement], for me it was natural,” Ade said. "I've been friends with other directors associated with the movement. We share thoughts and have similar notions of what we want to focus on while making movies. But it's not really what films are like at the end, it's rather about the exchange of thoughts.” When asked about one unique quality all the Berlin School directors share, she remarked: "The reason the movement has existed for so long is that we are all very individual. What I value the most about the Berlin School films, however, is that they don't present just one side of the truth but instead end up with various messages.”
The Berlin School may be well known, but few would associate the term with successful box-office results. "If there are any constraints about being labeled a Berlin School director it's that there are often financial problems. Although everybody in Germany knows the name of the movement, it's usually difficult when it comes to the audience reception – with the exception of BARBARA, by Christian Petzold, which was a huge success.”
So if you're still unfamiliar with the Berlin School, it's worth checking out Benjamin Heisenberg's SUPEREGOS, premiering in this year's Berlinale Panorama. And, of course, look forward to Ade's upcoming movie, which deals with father-daughter relations. "The rehearsals are over, I have the whole cast – we start shooting in May,” Ade said. "Until that time there is much to be done. I work every day as much as I can. Hopefully, I will survive.”
Trying to explain in a word an experience which goes beyond expectations would be an impossible task for a reviewer. But I will use (and abuse) the term "surprise”, because that's exactly what this retrospective of Jack Smith's unreleased material was: not only did Jerry Tattaglia do a fantastic job curating the reels Jack had left behind; the images were vibrant in colour, with a breath of new life infused not only by the restoration but by avant-garde composer John Zorn, who set two of the short films to music using LPs from Jack Smith's own collection. Filmmakers, Ken and Flo Jacobs were also there, sharing their memories of the late Smith.
The programme of Berlinale Forum Expanded, dedicated to drag performer Mario Montez (famous for his role in Smith's own FLAMING CREATURES and in Andy Warhol's films), attracted a vibrant, full-house and an emotional reception. There was respect and admiration for the man so highly regarded (and defended) by many intellectuals in his time (it was Susan Sontag, who said Smith helped break the taboo between sexuality, censorship and high art). And today, the effort and resilience of those involved in this huge project was still obvious.
Five shorts were shown, and their titles were equally surprising: MILK BATH SCENE FROM NORMAL LOVE, BOILED LOBSTER OF LUCKY LANDLADY LAGOON, IN THE GRIP OF THE LOBSTER, EXOTIC LANDLORDLISM and OVERSTIMULATED. Psychedelic experiences, avant-garde gestures, filmed performances overloaded with eroticism and sexuality, and much more, defy categorization. To quote Sontag again: "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art" and it's exactly what being a part of the Jack Smith experience is about: pure unadulterated sensuality and sexual mysticism. And Mario Montez shines with all his power, as the diva Jack Smith needed to perform in his bizarre world.
Few experiences on film will carry such emotion for a cinephile, and this one in particular will certainly remain in the memory. Surprise indeed: Jack has popped out of the box, again.
NAGIMA, the latest film by the acclaimed Kazakh director Zhanna Issabayeva, takes a bleak view of the situation faced by single working-class women in patriarchal Kazakhstan. The film in Berlinale Forum introduces us to the central character, Nagima (Dina Tukubayeva), a restrained 18-year-old orphan who works as a kitchen porter and takes care of her pregnant friend Anya (Mariya Nezhentseva). They live in a ruinous house next door to a prostitute, Ninka (Galina Pyanova), and barely make ends meet. When Anya dies during childbirth, leaving her baby girl behind, Nagima is faced with a shattering loneliness she hadn't experienced before.
Tukubayeva's arresting performance contributes to the film's gloomy quality. Often surrounded by silence and without much expression, she communicates with the audience nonverbally, giving the impression of a ghostlike figure whom life has passed by. Cinematographer Sayat Zhangazinov accentuates Nagima's aloneness by placing her in the midst of vast, spare spaces. Nagima's desolation also comes to the fore with most of the people around her, as her quiet appearance contrasts with their harsh and aggressive demeanor.
Issabayeva depicts Kazakh society as a crude, unloving place where men hold the keys to the cash-desk and make most of the important decisions; meanwhile, the upper-class women obey men's rules without offering empathy to the deprived. The marginalized women suffer the most. The society's harshness leaves its mark almost literally on their bodies. Nagima, with her bony frame and patchy skin, appears to be on the verge of starvation. Anya dies as a result of her difficult pregnancy, and Ninka makes her living by selling her body to strangers. If you are a woman without a family, a husband and a respectable job, you are destined to remain at the bottom of society – a fate that awaits Anya's child, as well.
Although Issabayeva fails to bring significant depth to her characters, she manages to present the horrors and irrelevance of this deprived group of women. By making their desperation palpable, she pinpoints the flaws of the society in which they live and asks the audience the same question Anya does: Is something really wrong with them, and are they really worse than other people?
The well-known stereotype of struggling filmmakers bemoaning the death of the industry could be about to change. Beadie Finzi, one of four directors from BRITDOC, talked excitedly about what an era without rules might mean, encouraging filmmakers to be original.
Documentary filmmakers from all over the world listened intently as she and Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, Head of Industry Office at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), answered a range of questions that covered everything from development funding to landing the right sales agent after completion.
First there is "the credit card period”. Unless you are fortunate enough to hail from a country with a plentiful national film fund, getting your project off the ground will often involve personal debt. But even this has its silver lining: "There's no funders anymore controlling what we do and how we do it”, Finzi says. In an era where partial crowd-funding and self-starter campaigns has become the norm, filmmakers are experiencing greater creative control.
Getting the film from development to completion, however, is another story. At this stage of the game it's important for filmmakers to cut together an impressive show reel or trailer. There's no point in submitting your work if you can't demonstrate visual talent and good storytelling. Other than that, you're free to do whatever you want, because, according to Finzi, "there are no rules anymore”.
Nieuwenhuyzen emphasised that it's important to show in your submission that you've already worked hard and that the footage you have will match your final vision. Written proposals and visual material must be congruent.
Both speakers were keen to emphasise that there are no hard and fast rules to follow: individual projects have individual needs. So, is getting your film into a prestigious festival still important in the digital age? Given that a lot of festivals won't accept a film if it's already premiered elsewhere, exercising good judgement here is vital. The greatest challenge, it seems, is making the right decision. In a competitive global market, reputation is important, but it won't always lead to a paying job.
In the bubbly panel discussion "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Successful Screenwriting", renowned screenwriters Claudia Llosa from Peru (ALOFT, THE MILK OF SORROW), Răzvan Rădulescu from Romania (CHILD'S POSE, FIRST OF ALL FELICIA) and Tony Grisoni from the UK (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) discussed their different approaches to working. Popular thinking has it that writers are much better at doing their work than speaking about it. But these three screenwriters talked about their approach to creating characters with charming honesty and humour.
Llosa's THE MILK OF SORROW, Rădulescu's CHILD'S POSE and Grisoni's forthcoming British TV mini-series SOUTHCLIFFE – the three works under discussion – all examine the volatile nature of mother-child relationships. THE MILK OF SORROW takes its title from the Peruvian folklore notion that suffering is passed on generationally through a mother's milk. Rădulescu's film is part of his continuous exploration of generational conflict and strong middle-aged female characters. SOUTHCLIFFE, set in a nondescript English market town, charts the gradual breakdown of social worker and mother Clare.
The respective screenwriters have radically different ways of writing characters. Llosa explained that she was aware of using non-professional actors in THE MILK OF SORROW and therefore kept the script sparse, predominantly using strong images to tell the story. According to her, the framing of fragmented bodies acts as a visual metaphor for the mutilation in and of Peruvian history, and the silence of the film – the reluctance to speak about the traumatic cultural past. Llosa claims to use evocative singing as a cathartic release that replaces and supersedes dialogue.
Rădulescu's signature script style is dialogue heavy; his ear for the nuances and comedy of everyday banal conversation is marked. In response to suggestions that his reliance on dialogue is perhaps not in the cinematic vein of storytelling, Rădulescu uses Eric Rohmer's defence that film is not just another form of literature or theatre just because it has dialogue in it. However, unlike Rohmer's theatrical speech, Rădulescu's conversational dialogue comes across as authentic even to a non-Romanian ear.
British Tony Grisoni works very closely with directors both during the scriptwriting and filming process, so that he can alter or re-write scenes according to how the shoot naturally progresses. His continuous re-working of the now 13-year old Terry Gilliam project "Don Quixote" is a running joke in the film industry. But Llosa applauds the fluidity of Grisoni's collaborative approach, revealing how useful she finds it to have a screenwriter on board during shoots. The one thing all three screenwriters agreed on is that during the writing process their characters become people to them. Their aim is that the same thing happens for the audience.
Lars von Trier's uncut NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1 presents a plethora of questions about one's approach to film criticism, and the crossroads between moral and aesthetic judgment. With this in mind, here's a timely confession: it was my first walk-out. I'm no believer in undue moral outrage, as a rule; nor in hasty decisions. It may have been a gut reaction, but it was also a measured one. The question, of course, is why is NYMPHOMANIAC so troubling? Our introduction to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is in an alleyway that the camera pans around, free-floating in the darkness. An older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers her, injured, and takes her back to his apartment, where Joe shares a long series of anecdotes about her sexual history and addiction. Stacy Martin, as the younger Joe, offers a delicately aloof performance, but is stifled by the director's vacillating perspective of her, creating a detachment that seems neither intentional nor warranted.
Von Trier's aesthetics reveal a polished formalism, but his technical virtuosity simply cannot raise the film out of its stultifying, posturing dankness. Joe and the others who populate her universe are, in their own ways, hermetically sealed in their misery. The film displays a narrow, perverse vision of the world, where each individual is shackled by sexuality and embalmed in dreary solipsism. Scenes peripheral to the plot feature a gynecological view of an abortion procedure, or a nurse sopping up feces. We are shown in great detail the worst of human behavior and bodily functions, and given no intellectual grasp on why we are being made privy to such ugliness.
This, to me, gets to the heart of the matter. At a certain point in the proceedings, there is reasonable hope that a contextual rationale will emerge. But it comes to nothing. There seems to be no organic, genuinely felt emotion or thought contained therein; and therefore no anchor for almost three hours of a smarmy, knowingly nauseating experience. Instead we get tenuous, overwrought analogies, or cod-philosophical dialogue. NYMPHOMANIAC is a suffocating attempt to put the audience through an ordeal, and then to justify it with philosophical platitudes. It smacks of smug, shallow provocation that had me searching for the door.
Now that production and, especially, projection on 35mm has been almost completely abandoned – we sometimes have to generate such clumsy verbal monstrosities as "film shot on film” – the word "film” has lost its original meaning. For the Philippine avant-garde director Raya Martin and the Canadian critic and programmer Mark Peranson, the decline of the analogue is the apocalyptic event in the world of cinema. It is explored in their collaboration LA ULTIMA PELICULA – emphasis on "pelicula” which, just like the English "film”, means both "movie” and "film stock”.
Inspired by Dennis Hopper's acid meta-film THE LAST MOVIE, LA ULTIMA PELICULA follows an American indie filmmaker Alex who comes to Yucatan in December 2012, planning to shoot a movie about the Mayan apocalypse. The decentralised gallimaufry of a plot sees him working out the concept, scouting locations and eventually shooting the movie. Just like in the word "film” the correlation of the signifier and the signified is discordant, truth and fiction in LA ULTIMA PELICULA blend in a very twisted way. It is not just a film within a film – through many deliberate mistakes, including visible crew and equipment or "scene missing” cards, we are aware that what we see is, in turn, made up.
Alex is farcically overfull of himself, constantly scoffing at his pseudo-spiritual compatriots who are swarming the touristic sites, but it is never made clear whether his arrogance is justified – we see only one scene from his film in the making, and, frankly, it looks like a piece of junk. The same may be said about LA ULTIMA PELICULA itself. The film champions old-fashioned technique, which goes hand in hand with haughty accusations of new things being phoney. Concurrently, LA ULTIMA PELICULA does look like a junk movie with its goofs, narrative incoherence, negligent framing and random editing. Its liberated form also makes it akin to digital rather than analogue movies.
Here's the rescuing irony – LA ULTIMA PELICULA is made in many different formats, including 8mm stock and an iPhone video, but none of them is 35mm. It's only projected that way. Basically, it is not a real "pelicula”. Transition to the digital has occurred within it, just like the Mayan apocalypse didn't happen – instead of it, a new era has started.