Filmfest München 2012
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
It isn’t often that a single film festival commemorates the milestone anniversaries of both a birth and a death; even rarer still, for them to be numerical twins. This year Filmfest München (Filmfest Munich) celebrated its 30th year while honoring the memory of one of the city’s greatest filmmaking progeny/prodigies, one whose truly prodigious output — 47 films as writer, 45 as director and 46 as actor in just 16 years — played out over an abbreviated lifetime that came to an end 30 summers ago as Filmfest München was, in both senses, just getting started.
Photo from the Munich Film Festival website.
This year’s fest got started with a film that took this DC Film Society member back not 30 years but 3 months, to a Filmfest right in her own back yard: Filmfest DC’s opening-night offering, Starbuck (Ken Scott, Canada, 2011). Filmed in French by a bilingual director with an anglophone name and deemed “a French film” by a Munich paper, it had been the “surprise success” of the Munich film fair after winning audience hearts at TIFF and Palm Springs, and of course, DC. Indeed, Starbuck’s successes seem to be multiplying like ... ah, no. Not going there.
Let’s go instead to the German TV station TELE5, which interviewed director Ken Scott during his visit to Munich. According to Scott, Starbuck itself will be reborn as an “American remake” by DreamWorks, starring Wedding Crashers’ (2005) Vince Vaughn. Scott, who wrote the French script, is also writing the English one, and will again direct.
Did someone say “American”? While American Independents has historically been one of Filmfest München’s featured and most popular program sections — coincidentally, one of this year’s most (film-) historically intriguing films was an independent feature called Americano, about which more below — the festival’s new director, Diana Iljine, has a new POV.
“Film is the art of telling stories, and that’s international.” [All translations are by this writer unless otherwise indicated.] “Where a film comes from isn’t that important. What counts much more is how a story is told. Independent filmmakers with personal ‘signatures’ that mark their work can be found in every country,” hence: International Independents, “young, innovative, uncompromising” filmmakers from New York to New Zealand, shooting in places where shots can be lethal, from Tel Aviv to Tahrir Square, filmmakers who find that if needed, “a Smartphone will do.”
As it would to snap candid shots of the stars who come out at Filmfest München. This year’s cluster included Todd Haynes, Melanie Griffith, Julie Delpy, James Franco, Nicholas Winding Refn, Giorgio Moroder and Ingrid Caven, and — as always at this friendliest of festivals — they were close enough to touch.
Haynes, a Filmfest favorite whose first guest appearance was in 1995 with his “horror film of the soul” Safe, was honored with a Retrospective that spanned the range of his work, from a marathon, 344-minute screening of last year’s five-part, multiple-award-winning HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce to the half-hour cult fave, Dottie Gets Spanked (1993).
In a Black Box interview with Filmfest programmer Robert Fischer, whose 2006 video short A Powerful Political Potential: Todd Haynes on Fassbinder and Melodrama would be screened as part of the fest’s commemorative Rainer Werner Fassbinder celebration (see below), the congenial Haynes revisited key points in his career, reflecting with equal equability on triumphs and disappointments. And one unlikely happy ending: After the ill-fated Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar, which was never officially released because of legal challenges from the Carpenter estate, Haynes expected producers — not to mention the subject of the film — to be gun-shy when he proposed a picture about the phenomenon of Bob Dylan. It probably sounded soothing to nervous studio lawyers when they learned that Dylan himself would not be appearing in the film (although it’s not known if there were nervous chuckles at the title: I’m Not There).
Any relief was short-lived. Dylan was indeed “not there” onscreen, but he was certainly there in the guise of the six (or seven) actors who played different aspects of him, among them Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and Heath Ledger. At the Black Box, Haynes expressed amazement that he got the rights to do the picture after all the brouhaha over Superstar. Indeed, he got “full life rights and full music rights” after bringing writer/director Oren Moverman into the discussions, said Haynes. Dylan himself was sent the script and gave it a nod.
Pop culture homages, “windows into the past” — where did these come from? They “involve a means of telling a story in the most acute way,” said Haynes. Even Safe (1995) was set back, if only a few years (to 1987). Haynes wants “to use the past as a way of looking at the present,” in two ways. First there are his domestic/suburban-life “melodrama” films, drawing from Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk. Then there are his “more pessimistic” films, describing “the constraints that draw people into atavistic milieus and limit their possibilities.” We feel “trapped in suburbia,” said Haynes, and “great art liberates us,” allowing us to move beyond the daily grind of everyday life.
Are there autobiographical elements in your films? “Dottie Gets Spanked,” said Haynes, in which six-year-old Steven Gale tries to sort out his fascination with a Lucille Ball-type TV sitcom star named Dottie, “is very closely related,” and was inspired by a book he found of his childhood drawings. “I actually met Lucille Ball and handed her the book,” Haynes told us. Her response? A curt “Thanks, kid,” punctuated by a rough puff on her cigarette — expertly mimicked by Haynes.
As a boy, the director loved drawing women — “they all looked like whores,” he added pleasantly — but his father would have none of it. When he begged his dad for a new drawing book, the response was conditional and unequivocal: “Only if you draw more men.” But that was not to be, for the director who would become one of the leading exponents of what has come to be called the New Queer Cinema.
Haynes, however, “considers himself part of a tradition that is far more,” as the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Hans Schifferle wrote in an erudite and appreciative essay in the festival catalog. Indeed, the tradition encompasses the ambivalent-rebel legacies of Welles and Fassbinder as well as the Hollywood soap-opera melodrama filmed with an ironist’s eye of Douglas Sirk. In Velvet Goldmine (1998), which Schifferle calls “this wonder-mix of melancholy and irony, poetry and beauty” (it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won for Best Artistic Contribution), Haynes gives us the story of a newspaper reporter assigned to investigate the ’70s glam rock star who faked his own murder fifteen years before.
Shades of Citizen Kane? Of course. “Classic films are always present” in Haynes’s work, he told the Black Box audience. “You always do it respectfully; you invite the audience to play along with your own game.” In Velvet Goldmine, “I took the Citizen Kane structure one step further, and made it about the reporter.” In Far from Heaven (2002), “probably the most disciplined” of his films, the influence is not just the acknowledged one of Sirk, noted Fischer, but also Max Ophuls.
I’m Not There (2007), the stylistically hydra-headed Bob Dylan biopic in which Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw each play one of the six “incarnations” of Bob Dylan, and which won or was nominated for a slew of international awards,“was an experiment in cinema, in music, in all the visual arts” and more, noted Haynes. Velvet Goldmine, with its “messiness of textures and forms, sexual ambiguity, mutability of sexuality,” was set in the ’70s, a time when “the boundaries were being blurred,” and he and DP Maryse Alberti took special pains to make the actors feel comfortable “going places they may not have gone before, although Ewan McGregor,” Haynes added, “will drop his pants at the drop of a hat.”
Christian Bale was in both films, almost a decade apart. Was there any difference in working with him on the two shoots? Haynes didn’t hesitate. Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There “are kind of impenetrable as scripts,” he confessed, but each time, Bale knew right away what to do. “An utter professional.” (And more: The star of The Dark Night Rises would bear out Haynes’s praise in ways the director could not have imagined, in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings. Visiting victims in the hospital, Bale was “humble and dressed casually in a black T-shirt and jeans,” reported the Associated Press. “He did this out of his heart, and you could really tell,” said a hospital official. “It was so sincere.” WTOP radio confirmed: He did it not at the behest of the studio, but “of his own accord.”)
At a screening of I’m Not There, Haynes recounted for the audience how his early interest in Bob Dylan seemed to have faded for 20 years after early fandom, and then, suddenly, “I found myself seeing Bob. We’ve all been there,” he added as many laughed in recognition. “Even while I was writing Far from Heaven” — five years before the Dylan film would become (un)reality — “I was listening to Dylan,” curiosity about him began to germinate, and Haynes began reading biographies. All of which said that in the Sixties he was “an extraordinarily young guy that was like a sponge that sucked in things that were all around him.
“You’d see him in June and he was like Woody Guthrie. Two months later he was a different guy. He would almost kill off the last guy and plug in the next one.” Alan Ginsberg, Haynes noted, once said Dylan “is like a collection of American archetypes.” Even religious belief was mutable: “In the late ’70s, he became a born-again Christian,” which Haynes posited was “a survival mechanism for someone who was so besieged” by fans, admirers, and people who wanted to use him or take advantage of him.
Today, while Dylan is less of a recluse, he still guards his privacy and keeps it under lock and key. How did Haynes obtain it? As it turns out, Dylan’s son Jesse was the key. An admirer of Haynes’s work and a filmmaker in his own right, as well as the founder, director and CEO of the media production company Wondros, Jesse sent his dad “all 45 of my movies,” and Bob, through his manager Jeff Rosen, gave Haynes “the key to the city.” And while the two men have never met, “Bob calls me all the time.” And he liked I’m Not There, which Haynes, ending his introduction, called “a cross-pollination of music genres and personalities.”
Back to the Black Box, and on to Mildred Pierce. Why didn’t you cast Julianne Moore, so memorable in Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002), in the title role? It was a matter of fidelity to the book, said Haynes, in which the heroine is much younger than we tend to think of her from the Joan Crawford portrayal, and Kate Winslet was the ideal choice. The HBO miniseries format also allowed him to use every word of dialogue in the book. (Cameraman Ed Lachmann would say the same about this last point to the audience at the marathon screening the next morning; Haynes had left at 5 a.m. to catch his flight.)
Unlike the screenwriters for Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film, who were compelled to compress the text of author James M. Cain’s book to make the film fit studio standards for length, Haynes had no such constraints. And while the Curtiz film focused more on the book’s dramatic and didactic potential (according to IMDb, “Producer Jerry Wald ... envisaged the idea of a climactic murder, then restructuring the story using flashbacks” and “infused the project with a higher moral tone that is in the original novel”), Haynes saw it as “much more a story of economics ... in ways the Curtiz film didn’t convey.”
A story of economics at the upper end of the scale — or so even Mildred’s initial poverty would seem to the gentle, winsome but strong-willed heroine of Andrea Segre’s award-winning (10 alone for the director, including three at the Venice Film Festival and the Satyajit Ray Award at the London Film Festival) Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, 2011).
In China, we are told, Qi Yuan, China’s foremost poet, is celebrated with lanterns on a lake, lit by small flames, which are said to protect his soul. In Chioggia, a small island city in the Veneto lagoon, we see Chinese immigrant girls set brilliant red-orange, lotus-shaped miniature paper lanterns afloat in a tub of water, lit by tiny candles. A young man explains the ritual to a group of grizzled card players huddled around a small wooden table. “Who gives a shit? We’re in Italy!” yells one. “Maybe he’ll make me win a hand,” smirks another.
Shun Li, a textile worker in a factory just outside Rome, has been transferred to Chioggia to take on a new and unlikely job as a bartender in what we now see is a pub. In letters to her little boy, illustrated with shots that, like those of the girls lighting lanterns on the water, have the narrative and visual rhythm of a fairy tale, we learn that she is working to repay her ogre-like overseer for arranging her passage and job, and for bringing the child to Italy — which will happen when he says she has repaid her debt.
Requesting a day off to buy a birthday gift for her son, Li is met with a rough, grunting refusal from her Chinese boss, who scoops out the last of a luscious dessert without even the courtesy of a glance. (For those who caught Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at Woolly Mammoth this summer, Li’s “When the boss says do 30 shirts, I do 40,” in a letter to her son explaining how hard she’s working to get him there, will be wince-inducing. The tentacles of Chinese worker exploitation appear to have a long reach.)
The customers, some of them seamen who still work the docks (or if not, certainly the bar) well past retirement age, take easy advantage of her inexperience and willingness to trust, vulnerabilities compounded by her limited fluency in the language. Tolerant, forgiving, warm, with a gentle, twinkling smile, almost like a mother (although she could be their daughter), Li knows what they’re up to and doesn’t believe the guff they’re handing her, but doesn’t hold it against them.
Tao Zhao, whose sweetness, gentleness and decency as Shun Li are almost palpable, was a worthy — or at least, this reporter not having seen all the nominees, credible — recipient of the Best Actress award she won from the “Italian Oscars,” the David di Donatello Prizes, “awarded by people in the industry, the filmmakers themselves,” according to the Academy of Italian Film. Not so, said a “leading [independent] Italian newspaper,” contending that “the awards were selected by a jury of ‘the relatives [of important industry figures], politicians, building contractors, and the usual suspects,’ ” wrote The Guardian. (Regardless, in this case they seem to have made a defensible choice.)
The story gathers momentum as Li one night is closing up and Bepi, a Slavic fisherman and recent widower nicknamed “the Poet” for the verses he writes whenever he can find a slip of paper, remains behind. She shows him photos of her son and tells him about the tradition of the poet; he brings her samples of his own work, which charm and move her. The city floods, which everyone is used to, and he brings her a tiny flower candle and sets it in the water that has flooded the bar.
Their growing friendship — and that is all it is; Segre hints at the potential for something more, but it remains a hint, never fulfilled — becomes the talk of the town, whose gossips (all of them men) turn it into a (nonexistent) steamy, miscegenetic affair when it’s learned she’s visited him on his rickety boat, where he has offered her the use of his telephone to call her son in China. Here may be a story that hits even closer to home than Daisey’s “Agony,” reminding us of our own immigrant heritage and those in the previous century who, like Li, tried to fit in and become part of a new country and culture largely on their own, without the support of a large community of their fellow countrymen.
Time passes. Through mixed messages, missed messages, secret messages and chance encounters that seem almost Shakespearean in their agonizingly consequential randomness, Bepi and Li, the solitary fisherman poet and the benevolent but “different” foreigner who tries so hard to fit in, come full circle. Asked in a note he has left that she “bury him like the poet,” the gentle Li does it in style, brings his ashes aboard the boat, and sets it ablaze in an explosion of red and orange flame.
“I still remember my encounter with a woman who could have been Shun Li,” writes Segre, a celebrated documentarian for whom this was a first venture into feature filmmaking. “It was in a typical Veneto pub, where local fishermen had been going for generations. The memory of this woman’s face, so extraneous and foreign to these places weathered by time and worn by habit, has never left me. There was something dreamlike in her presence.”
Little could be called dreamlike about Susan Froemke’s musically luscious, dramatically nail-biting documentary, despite its deceptive title. Wagner’s Dream (USA, 2012), which played at Silverdocs just a week before its European premiere at Filmfest München, thrusts us headfirst into the heady milieu of grand opera while simultaneously slipping us backstage into the very grounded work of singers, conductors, directors and production designers.
Introducing the film, Froemke thanked us for foregoing Fußball on the final, decisive night of the Euro 2012 Championship games, and wished us a good screening.
The film is something of a first: nothing prerecorded, all filmed live. We find ourselves in front-row seats for an operatic version of reality TV, its trills and triumphs as thrilling as its pitfalls and pratfalls are jarring. “It’s the movie Wagner wanted to make before movies existed,” says Froemke. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.” Washingtonian’s Ian Buckwalter offered another useful analogy: “Perhaps not since Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo—which featured an attempt to build an opera house in the middle of a Peruvian jungle, necessitating the carrying of a 300-ton river boat up a mountain—has any attempt to put on an opera been plagued by such adversity in the face of outsize ambition. Of course,” he added, “Fitzcarraldo was fiction; LePage’s Ring was real.”
LePage would be director Robert Lepage, recruited from Canada by Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb to design and stage Richard Wagner’s musical behemoth, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung), a 15-hour, four-opera cycle few houses take on in a single season. (The Bayreuth Festspielhaus, built for Wagner with a grant from Ludwig II, being a notable exception.) And “outsize ambition” may not be much of an exaggeration.
While conductor James Levine’s blissful countenance suggests he is enjoying every moment, it’s a bit harder on the singers, who find the physical demands of their roles suddenly as difficult as the notoriously throat-straining vocal ones. Watching Wagner’s Dream, one can’t help but contemplate how it’s hard enough for a singer to negotiate the vocal peaks, shrieks, crags and chasms of “The Ring.” Doing it while gingerly scrambling up and down slippery mountains that shift beneath them must have made some of them nervously reassess their insurance policies. “There is not so much good basses in the world,” says one, shaking his finger at Gelb.
It’s even more of an ordeal for soprano Deborah Voigt, a WNO favorite, who is doing her first-ever Brünnhilde while dealing with potentially life-threatening staging. She’s wonderfully game about it, though, and jokes with Froemke and cameraman Don Lenzer as they become a combination of friends, colleagues and part of the scenery. We see her trip and fall, then pick herself up and continue as if nothing happened, saying afterwards that she hoped to make the audience think it was part of the show.
It was a gamble in every way, and the reviews were mixed. But the sight of hundreds, if not thousands of diehard opera fans and curious city dwellers and tourists in ponchos and umbrellas filling a rainy Times Square for the HD broadcasts must have made the effort seem worthwhile on a count no one would have counted on. And interviews with audience members turned up a couple of kids no doubt dragged there by their parents who suddenly thought opera was rad.
And they weren’t alone. At the post-screening podium discussion, Froemke told us that a common reaction of people around the U.S. seeing the HD screenings was, “I want to see the Ring now!” She also surprised many of us by saying that the film came about through Met director Peter Gelb’s initiative. It became clearer when she explained that the two of them have made several classical music films together (among them last year’s James Levine: American Maestro, part of the American Masters TV series), so when he became general manager of the Met and told her about the Ring project, she asked if she could film it.
Wagner’s Dream is now available on DVD, Froemke told us, which particularly pleased one audience member, a teacher who will use it in her classes. Music classes? Oh, no: HR classes. “To teach them how teamwork solves problems, how people from different cultures can work together.”
Well ... yes. But it does depend on the people. In Julie Delpy's trio of family relationship films, 2 Days in Paris (2007), Le Skylab (2011), and her most recent, 2 Days in New York (2012), which opened in DC last month, teamwork does not even come into play, much less solve problems. And work together? Here it’s hard for people from the same culture to even exist together without trying to kill each other. But that’s just ... so French. And Delpy wouldn’t have it any other way.
Delpy was in Munich to present the latter two films and proved to be as delightfully forthright and uninhibited as some of the characters she has created, not just as actor but as director and screenwriter. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Note: as the interview was conducted in either French or English and published in German, my translations are “best guesses”), Delpy defended her portrayal of the family of Marion, who come to visit her and her new husband (Chris Rock) in 2 Days in New York, as typical of her countrymen. “French people aren’t afraid to ignore conventional rules of behavior when they’re among themselves, and to be politically incorrect, without really meaning to be mean.”
So the most fun and the best jokes are products of boorish behavior? “France is a big cultural nation full of free-thinking people. Please don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of assholes in France, but there’s still a broad-based culture of intellectual independence.” More than with Americans, who place individuality first and foremost? “Say you’re at an American dinner party, and there’s a Frenchman provoking an American. Right away all the other Americans will get behind their challenged compatriot and will all have the same view. Now turn it around, and make it an American who provokes a Frenchman. The other French people will all be at odds with each other. There would be immediate chaos.”
To what do you attribute this aversion to group among French people? “Very simple: It’s the way we’re brought up. Everybody in France has to take at least a year of philosophy in school, meaning everyone develops their own critical capacity. American schools offer philosophy courses, sure, but only as an elective. And actually, some of the smartest people I know are Americans. But that’s because they chose that course of study. In France, on the other hand, everyone has to learn how to form their own opinion on things.”
What about the obscene language in Le Skylab and 2 Days in New York? “I wouldn’t call it obscene. That’s normal slang in France.” Here the interviewer, clearly experiencing a mild form of culture shock, had to object: Please. The whole time they’re talking about sex organs — in detail. Delpy — oh, to have been a fly on that wall! — agreed. “You’re right. So what? It’s no big deal.” The interviewer tried again: It’s not the sort of stuff you hear in Germany every day. Delpy didn’t dispute that, but in France? “The way I talk in the film is the way every radio host on French radio talks. And you know what? Ten times worse.” Not only that: “The most important radio program in France is all sex. But nobody there gets upset about it.”
Still no sell. So Delpy took the historical-cultural approach. “In French culture, intellect and sexuality aren’t mutually exclusive,” she said. In fact, it’s “quite the opposite: Intellectuals particularly enjoy toying with sexual slang. I’d call this attitude ‘Rabelaisian’.” Maybe it’s something about the French language. “Take Georges Bataille,” a 20th-century French intellectual, author and philosopher “who wrote many books that are linguistically beautiful, but full of sex. When you read these works in French, it’s poetry. When you read them in English, it’s pornography.”
But you live in the U.S. “Because I love the U.S. I love the American work ethic,” a refreshing change from the French, who “are always complaining. And Parisians wear you out. Always tooting their own horns, yelling, fighting. I love France, but if I’m there for more than three months, I go nuts.” Americans “more civilized,” and are “capable of self-criticism.”
In the last five years you’ve exercised all of the decisive functions in your films yourself: screenplay, direction, leading role. Did you enjoy being able to control everything? Delpy’s reply, printed as it was without a comma, must have come out almost as one with the question: “Oh yes.”
But control, in life as in work, is fleeting. In a Black Box Q&A, fest director Diana Iljine asked Delpy what it’s like to be so talented in so many ways, and received a rueful reply. “I wish I was better at booking nannies. I just lost mine,” she told us, making immediate friends with half the audience.
Continuing the thread, Delpy informed us that she was “a failure as a singer.” How so? “In France nobody came to my concerts, and my CD went bust because when I released it in 2002-2003, nobody was buying CDs anymore.” So like life. And so like Delpy’s wacko-family films, which now seemed, if no less funny, perhaps less purely farcical.
What’s the difference between directing yourself, which you’ve done for your last four films, and acting for another director? Let’s not sugarcoat it: “I’m really bad at faking things, and you have to convince the director you admire his work.” Plus, being both writer and director gives you, as she’d told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, enormous control. Something she certainly didn’t have two decades ago when she played the title character, an abused hooker, in Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe (1993), the subject of much rapid and enthusiastic discussion up there on the podium.
(Never having heard of the film or the director, your reporter, with apologies, tuned out. Subsequent research unearthed Roger Ebert’s reliably humorous, no-holds-barred assessment, calling it “an ultra-violent screamfest. It must have been even more exhausting to make this film than it is to watch it. Watching this movie, it occurred to me that after years of waiting we are finally harvesting the fruit of the film generation.” This, in 1994.)
Back to les douleurs de Delpy. “From 1997 to 2002, nobody wanted to work with me” as an actress, which in retrospect was probably good because it led her to explore other facets of filmmaking. Which brings us to The Skylab and 2 Days in New York.
“The Skylab is my madeleine,” said Delpy, referring to the cake in Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” which, when accompanied by a sip from a cup of tea, brings back a warm childhood memory. “The source of what I came from.” The script “took me forever to build, because I didn’t want it to be a plot-driven film.” The plot, rather, is “within the arc of the characters.”
And what “characters” those characters are! Delpy “fell in love with the actors and actresses I cast,” perhaps connecting them with the family members who served as models for them. In brief, The Skylab brings back, writ large, everything you remember (and a few things you wish you could forget) from the family barbecues of your childhood, told from the POV of a pigtailed and precocious 10-year-old girl.
The dozens of attendees being French, there’s a lot more kissing and slapping (and yes, sex) than you probably remember from your own family gatherings. (Which may be another reason Delpy, whose boyfriend is the Munich-born film composer Marc Streitenfeld, feels at home in Munich: According to an article in the Abendzeitung published during the festival, Bavaria, of which Munich is the capital, is the “kiss-meister” of Germany.) Adding fuel to the grill fire it’s 1979, and rumors of the imminent plunge of pieces of NASA’s damaged space station Skylab have some of the guests imbibing even more than usual. (Probably the wiser course, given the goings-on.)
There’s the inevitable thunderstorm; in this case, two (after the equally inevitable and delusory interruption of a minute or two of sultry sun). The second time they forget grandma, and have to run out in the pounding downpour and carry her into the house — as she’s stuck to (or in) the chair, it has to be chair, umbrella and all. And then there’s the mini talent show, where the kids are asked to show their stuff to the grown-ups. Let’s just say if your tykes learned that stuff from their older brothers and sisters and friends (which they of course have), it’s not something you’d let, much less ask, them to sing for Uncle Jack and Auntie Jane. (Unless the wine flows freely at your picnics too. Well, we shared revolutionary ideals a couple of centuries ago. Why not vinicultural zeal?)
While sex talk is par for the course, political arguments (which also sound familiar to American ears; just replace the names, the positions and passions are the same) are considered unfit for the dinner table. Which doesn’t stop anyone from having them. And while the lamb chops come fresh from sheep slaughtered in a backyard barn, which the children are forbidden to visit (they do anyway, and find the bloody carcasses as fascinating as they are horrifying), Delpy displays a subtle ambivalence about the accepted norm by intercutting the family festivities with shots of grazing sheep watching the headless, legless body of one of their children roasting on the spit. Staring into the camera with knowing, angry and accusing eyes as the family laughs fatuously at what we imagine to be another lewd or rude joke, they leave us with uncomfortable uncertainties, if only for the seconds it takes for the shot to leave the screen.
Uncomfortable uncertainties are par for the course for Delpy’s Marion — whom DC viewers will remember from 2007's 2 Days in Paris — and her new SO Mingus (Chris Rock) in 2 Days in New York (France / Germany / USA 2012; the film screened briefly in DC as this article was being written), when Marion’s incorrigible family, led by her father (played by Delpy’s father, Albert) comes from Paris for a visit that turns into an extended, exhausting, patience-draining, and for us in the audience, sometimes exhaustingly entertaining stay. (The Hollywood Reporter called it “a madcap inter-family romp that deftly keeps many comic balls in the air for a good hour,” while Variety concluded: “The French are smelly, vulgar, racist and oversexed, or so it would seem based on 2 Days in New York, a scattershot culture-clash comedy that goes down like yesterday’s foie gras.”)
In an interview with the newspaper Abendzeitung, Delpy was asked about her dad, for whom she’s writing increasingly larger roles. “Yes, and he’s getting increasingly larger,” Delpy replied, unable to resist. “But all joking aside, I love working with him, he’s such a sweet teddy bear. He’s been through a lot in the last year, and I’ve been worried about him. But I think working with me and the fact that he could see his grandson on the set gave him strength.”
The raw humor and other aspects of the film that may have offended some critics had their roots, in part, in Delpy’s having to deal with the death of her mother (to whom the film is dedicated) and the birth of her child in the space of three weeks. “That experience hit me hard. But when something so tragic happens to you, you can either shoot yourself or simply carry on.
“For me, getting through hard times can only be done with humor. Otherwise, with all that’s happened to me, I’d be depressed or crazy.”
In a curious subplot, Marion has decided to sell, in addition to the paintings and photographs on which she’s worked so long and hard, and which fill the Manhattan gallery that is the site of her exhibit, something that must be bid on: her soul. “As a concept,” she explains to the concerned Mingus. (“The idea came to me,” Delpy told the Abendzeitung, “because these days you can sell anything. So why not your soul?”) Perhaps appropriately, it will be bought by someone whose most controversial film has been called “a haunting portrait of a lost soul.”
Back at the Black Box, Delpy was taken back to the two films that probably did the most to put her on American filmgoers’ radar; stories not of lost souls, but of searching and (at least temporarily) found ones: Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), both of which she co-wrote, Delpy told us, although she didn’t insist on credit for the first. In fact, Jesse and Celine’s catch-up stroll through Paris nine years after that magical night was inspired by a real-life experience that was less romantic than frantic. It was New Year’s Eve, and Delpy and a girlfriend, thinking the metro would be running extended hours — it wasn’t — found themselves stranded late at night with no way of getting home. So they wandered through the streets of Paris, not really worried but also not sure how to get home, and knowing they had a long way to go.
Delpy would go a long way — to L.A., where she feels free to speak her mind and to be an actor and filmmaker without fear of being “objectified.” That said, there’s another fear there. “Real freedom of thought and action is very difficult to achieve. There’s a lot of fear in Hollywood, because there’s always someone on top of them who could fire them.”
What’s next? Maybe the much-anticipated sequel to Before Sunset? Keeping with the nine-years-later pattern, it will be time for one in 2013. And one is in the works. But “there’s no screenplay yet.” Why? Delpy had told the Abendzeitung that she, Linklater and co-star Ethan Hawke “at this point have only one idea, and we don’t want the film to be bad. So we’re delaying the shooting a bit.” But at the Black Box, perhaps recognizing a friendly group of people who may have read about the public talk and come because they were fans, cinephiles, or just out of curiosity, Delpy picked up a previous thread — and the perfect punch line: “I don’t have a nanny!” And invited “anyone who has one” to come up after the talk and offer names and numbers.
Enough Black Box. We need to stretch our legs, our minds, our spirits. So, call your nannies; we’re going On the Road (Walter Salles, France/USA, 2012), while production-wise, as you’ll have noted, staying pretty much put. Nominated for the Palme d’Or, this French-American co-production by the Brazilian filmmaker who may be best known here for 2004's Oscar-winning (for Best Music) Che Guevara South American road trip The Motorcycle Diaries, takes us on an American one by Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise.
It could have been a combination of factors (and actors, including a couple of names doing cameos) that made a nearly full house turn out for a 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning (public, not press) screening; no doubt Cannes was one. But there was a sense inside that cinema — with 412 seats, the largest of the MaxX’s seven halls — an almost palpable one, of familiarity edged with anticipation, as if they were there to watch the filmic enactment of a story they knew well.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” So wrote Kerouac in the novel that would come to define him and those of the post-war generation who, in the words of writer Amiri Baraka, “came to the conclusion that society sucked.” And which Walter Salles’s film, the fruit of eight years of research, negotiation and production, is either faithful to — the director having “already traveled the route traveled by Kerouac and met all the figures involved in the Beat adventure,” according to American Zoetrope head Roman Coppola (whose father, Francis Ford Coppola, bought the movie rights in 1979, and decided Salles was the man for the job after seeing The Motorcycle Diaries at Sundance in 2004) — or too faithful to.
Acknowledging that it “pulses with youthful energy,” Variety nevertheless found it “overly calculated in its bid for spontaneity,” but softened the criticism with “attesting to the difficulty and perhaps futility of of trying to reproduce Kerouac’s literary lightning onscreen.” In trying to “render Kerouac’s recollections of postwar America in a vibrant, present-tense idiom,” On the Road, in the critic’s view, “employs a jittery syntax — fleet handheld camera work, frequent jump cuts and a swinging jazz score that erupts at regular intervals — to supply a superficial equivalent of the author’s restless prose.”
Restless indeed, as were the people who populate it. There is, of course, Sal, an aspiring young New York writer whose father died five months before. As the story opens, we see Sal hitch a ride in a pickup truck with four or five grizzled guys passing around a pint of whiskey. Then there’s Dean, movie-star handsome, an ex-con and current part-time car thief, pot-smoking intellectual, and all-around cool cat. But he wants to write, and he wants Sal to teach him.
Along the road, in a four-year odyssey that takes them, together an
d separately, meeting up by plan or by chance, “zigzag[ging] across the American landscape in a headlong quest for freedom,” Sam and Dean fall in and out of love and relationships. Always looking for something, thinking they found it, and watching it slip, or walk, or run away, or pushing it away without realizing it; or intentionally, realizing only too late, or not at all, that it’s what they’d been searching for. And always taking photos, to mark where they’d been.
I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.
A sentiment that would not be unfamiliar to another Dean, Rebel Without a Cause’s (1955) James Dean, who was played by another James in a 2001 television biopic that made him a star, a teen dream and fodder for fan magazines — and who was another guest at this year’s Filmfest München. James Franco, whose 69 (at least; IMDb listed another four films in post-production and two in pre-production when this was written) film and television roles in just 14 years, plus 16 as director, 12 as writer and seven as producer, demonstrate a dynamism and a determination to practice and improve his craft while expanding his range of skills, is also “an art freak, and wants to visit all the museums,” Diana Iljine told us in the days leading up to the festival. Franco proved an earnest and engaging guest in a Black Box interview with Filmfest programmer Susanna Gomes.
For those who need further testimony to Franco’s intellectual bona fides, here’s the London Art Network Artylist: “A perpetual student, Franco has garnered a reputation within academic circles for his vociferous approach to study, often enrolling [in] a number of graduate programmes at once from fine art to creative writing; he is currently in the process of completing a doctorate in English at Yale.” In fact, Franco had just gotten in from London where, he told the packed Black Box, every one of its 225 seats taken and standees peering over the rail, he was at the ICA, giving a similar talk. His book Palo Alto: Stories, which takes its name from the city he grew up in (and which just came out in German, he told the crowd of mostly Münchener) is fictional, but inevitably includes bits and pieces of people he knew and events he experienced.
His latest film, Francophrenia (or: Don’t Kill me, I Know Where the Baby Is), is Franco and co-director/editor Ian Olds’s creative amalgamation of behind-the-scenes footage from Franco’s eponymous appearances (54 episodes, 2009-2012) on the TV soap, “General Hospital.” Franco and Olds had done a documentary short on SNL, Saturday Night (2010) at NYU for their professor, SNL’s Bill Hader, which led to an invitation from SNL producer Lorne Michaels to come to the studio for a week and watch as an episode of the show was created. The result? A “humorous psycho-thriller” ... “Like an art-school reimagining of the standard making-of featurette,” per The Hollywood Reporter. “Simultaneously an existential exploration of out-of-control celebrity and a send-up of the movie-star ego. Like its subject, the movie is at once mystifying and relatable,” opined The Atlantic.
As it should be. Film stars have been known to go pop — with mixed results — but soap? And even then, it’s usually in the twilight of their careers. But for a young heart-throb to take on a role as a regular? “In the United States there’s a hierarchy of entertainment,” agreed Franco. “No one would ever imagine a film actor would go to soaps.” But Franco is interested in soaps “because they’re serial in nature. Not only is there no end to the story, there’s no end to the characters; they die and come back to life.”
The enthusiastic response to his appearances on “General Hospital” gave him the idea to take the concept, which was already meta, one step further. Francophrenia “was the culmination, almost the final piece,” of “how we interact with entertainment.” He’s heavily made up, though, he cautioned, and “the dialogue is insane.”
So it’s not really “you”? Well, yes and no. “There are sides of it that are like my life,” Franco conceded, but “the character James Franco in that film I hope is not an accurate portrait of me.”
Outtakes of another kind comprise much of Franco’s My Own Private River (USA 2011), whose title plays on that of his favorite film as a teenager (and still one of his favorites), Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), a “[s]urreal character study focusing on the friendship between two male hustlers, Mike [River Phoenix] and Scott [Keanu Reeves], in Portland Oregon” who “live on the streets, do drugs, and sell themselves to men and women” (IMDb). The film is a tribute to Idaho’s young star, River Phoenix, who died at 23 of drug-induced heart failure, two years after the film’s release.
Upon meeting Van Sant, “I told him how much I loved the film”; a few years later, when Milk (2008) came out and Franco was cast as Harvey Milk’s lover Scott Smith, Van Sant gave him a tour of all of Idaho’s shooting locations during Milk’s L.A. and San Francisco premieres. (Franco, sensing the presence of film buffs, informed us that My Own Private Idaho was shot on film and cut on a Steenbeck.) As soon as he learned that there were 30 hours of unused material, he insisted on seeing it. “It took two days.”
Those two days were valuable for both directors. Watching the rushes, Van Sant commented to Franco that this is the process he goes through when he edits a film, and that seeing them again made him want to re-edit it — if he could afford it. So Franco found financing for it, and Van Sant, we can only assume recognizing the younger man’s abilities and respecting his devotion to the film, gave him the go-ahead to digitize it and recut it himself, even unearthing previous scripts for the film and handing them over to Franco. He used one of them as the basis for his film. “It’s not meant to compete with the original in any way,” Franco told us. “There’s no pressure to sell tickets.” It was clearly a labor of love, and has screened at numerous festivals around the world.
But that was not the end. My Own Private River seems to have exerted a magnetic pull on the two men, who subsequently made a 12-hour film using all of the source material. When will it be available? It won’t. “River’s brother Joaquin was uncomfortable with that,” Franco told us, reasoning that “When an actor makes a movie there’s a pact between the actor and the director” wherein the director shows only the best results of their collaborative effort, and anything else is released by mutual agreement. That, of course, would not be possible here.
What is possible, is for audiences to see an actor and the character he plays, and to never be absolutely sure which they’re watching. Since Phoenix did play guitar as a child busking for money on street corners with his impoverished family, he was no stranger to the character of Mike. Street hustling is “the quickest way to get money,” he tells an interviewer in Portland. “If I needed food for the night, I street hustled.” Very matter-of-fact, a cigarette dangling from his upturned hand or hanging from his lower lip. Mike, or River? Not only is there no end to the story, there’s no end to the characters; they die and come back to life.
In Seattle, he sits huddled against the cold in a hooded windbreaker as a gaggle of macho guys pass by and try to pick him up. He refuses their price; they curse him and drive off. A friend brings him a bag of coke; he first snorts it, then devours it. Fly-on-the-wall, or cinéma vérité? Franco is fastidious about his documentary projects, he told us, and will do only those “that allow me to be true to the subject.” Neither, then, or both. Or one that became the other.
Stefano Savona’s Tahrir: Liberation Square (France/Italy, 2011) to a degree achieves all three. A documentary filmmaker and frequent visitor to Cairo, Savona found himself “glued to the fragmentary and low-resolution online chronicle of the Egyptian Revolution” in late January 2011, and “decided to go there and see from close up who was on Tahrir Square, who were the thousands of people challenging the regime’s state-of-emergency laws.”
Sometimes fly-on-the-wall — when facing rifle-bearing Egyptian soldiers and armed thugs; sometimes cinéma vérité — when filming the people who gathered on Tahrir Square, “people from all backgrounds and social classes,” said the director in a press interview, “together for the first time, united in the sole cause of bringing down dictatorship,” Savona’s film is indeed “true to the subject.” Drawing the viewer directly into the demonstrations and discussions that rock the square (and occasionally his camera) over a 12-day period from the end of January to mid-February 2011, Savona elicits responses from his subjects that recall both the cries for freedom we saw live on CNN and the demands for accountability we witnessed firsthand with the Occupy movement, spiked with claims reminiscent of political rhetoric that here, ring out with a sense of exigency.
One man says officials are corrupt because they earn a pittance, not enough to survive. Another says he’s 46 and has never received anything from the government. To the surprise of anyone aware of how women’s rights and political power eroded under Mubarak, girls and women, students and housewives and grandmothers, are some of the most vociferous and effective organizers. “There needs to be a million of us!” shouts one as she plows through the crowd, thrusting leaflets and flyers into outstretched hands. “Be here at nine tomorrow!”
And they are. And they stay. As night falls, men in business suits and ties lie on the ground with workmen in worn uniforms and teenagers in jeans, warmed by a single fire. The majority seem to want a secular state, and are skeptical of the Muslim Brotherhood. “They change their position like the wind,” says one. There are dissenting voices, too, and Savona captures them. One man says he and his brothers worked hard and scraped by so that all seven of them could go to college. Now he’s a millionaire. The implication being: So what’s the problem? But they are few.
More typical is the reaction of a crowd listening to Mubarak’s speech, broadcast on the square, in which he assures them he has heard them, they have legitimate complaints, but they’ve been exploited by people who are using them for their own ends. They listen; many shake their heads, others erupt in hoots and jeers.
It’s no longer a peaceful protest. Injuries are starting to add up as some cut rocks from boulders and building materials and stack them in piles. We begin to see the walking (and carried) wounded, seeking medical assistance. A huge conflagration ensues. Rocks are thrown by the hundreds, answered by rifle fire. Stretchers are ferried through the crowd (“May God have mercy on him!” we hear as one passes), cries of anger and anguish (“Hosni Mubarak, you fired on our children! Hosni Mubarak, you’re a dead man!” yells a father). Women bang loudly, steadily, rhythmically on metal gates.
The testosterone level is high. “God is great! The revolution is growing!” chant a group of men, their voices as loud, as steady, and as rhythmic as the women’s banging of metal against metal, and growing in volume with each iteration. “The Egyptians are here!” shouts another group repeatedly, filled with pride and patriotic fervor. If it weren’t so real, with lives hanging in the balance, it might almost sound like a sporting event.
But it is all too real. One person says the police are releasing criminals from the jails and setting them on the protesters. “College students!” cries a 62-year-old man, who vows to stay and protect them. Two women are looking ahead to an Egypt without Mubarak, and debate whether the articles of law in the governing constitution will go when he goes. Regardless, the protesters are resolved to remain until he does. “We won’t leave until he leaves!” shouts thousands in hijabs, T-shirts and wrinkled dress shirts.
When word comes of Mubarak’s agreement to step down and cede power to the army, the crowd erupts in celebratory shouts. “We’ve won! We’ve won! The kids of KFC [a favorite hangout] have won!” Told that Mubarak has left, a woman asks, “What if he comes back?” But the Army is in charge. She regards her companion warily, then wearily. “When has the Army ever been on our side?”
For director Stefano Savona, “It’s easy to say that in Egypt, five months [now, a year and seven months] after those incredible days everything is still in limbo, that the situation is complex and risky, that we are still a long way from the goals of the protests and the arrival of democracy. The demonstrations continue, the young protagonists of my film are still taking to the streets to make the military understand that they haven’t gone back to sleep.
“... Nothing was ever more free than Tahrir Square where complete strangers organized long debates, where after 30 years anybody could express themselves and nothing and nobody could cut off this stream of words. Documentary film is the ideal medium to account for the arresting power of collective action.
“The people on Tahrir Square were not simply a crowd, they are individuals who together became aware of their collective strength.” Even if subsequent events may have dimmed that strength, its optimism and confidence. “If developments since the winter of 2011 — killings of demonstrators by the army, exoneration of many Mubarak lieutenants for deaths at Tahrir, the possible reversal of the ex-dictator’s recent life sentence — temper the feel-good climax of Tahrir,” observes Slant Magazine’s Bill Weber, “the voices of this revolution shout with the energy of self-discovery and the promise of persistence: “The Egyptians are here!”
A sentiment the protagonists in another film by an Italian filmmaker screening here in Munich might also have uttered, but in another tone — and about other North Africans. In Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma (Italy, 2011), Italy’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards, it is not the Egyptians but refugees from another North African land who have arrived, seeking shelter after escaping certain death at sea.
Winning 12 international awards, including the UNICEF Award and the Special Jury Prize in Venice (where it was also nominated for the Golden Lion) and the Bridging the Borders Award in Palm Springs, Terraferma’s narrative is fictional, but all too familiar. Even to us here on the other side of the Atlantic, whose most desperate refugees may come by land rather than sea, and whose trek is often as treacherous, but who often have family, or if not, community to welcome and support them. For those who arrive shivering on the shore with only the soaked clothes clinging to their backs and no family or compatriots to ease the way, the “welcome” they receive can be as cold as the waters they emerged from.
Terraferma places us on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa during the annual tourist invasion, which for decades has provided most of its inhabitants, whose subsistence fishing has become less and less viable, with the means to live an agreeable life. (An article on the website bonjourtristesse.net rightly calls it “a stunningly captured film”; the opening shot alone, a gargantuan fishing net reaching into the ocean depths, weaving and waving with an almost sea-anemone-like undulation, stark black against the water’s rich, dark blue, is both “breathtaking” and utterly mesmerizing.)
Out on their fishing boat, Filippo and his grandfather Ernesto spot a raft crammed with dozens of desperate black men, women and children. Some have jumped, fallen or been push off, and having spotted the fishing boat, swim towards it. The two men pull them aboard, taking as many as they can, including a very pregnant woman.
Once ashore, the woman gives birth, her son observing sulkily as Filippo’s mother Giulietta, her resentment a match for the boy’s, helps deliver the baby. She then tells the woman she will give her and her son something to eat, but that they must leave as soon as she can walk. The woman’s dark, toned, angular, deeply expressive face, her ink-black eyes set in whites of snow, flickers between fury and reluctant acceptance.
The baby comes, but the mother is unable to comfort her. Hearing the baby’s wails, Giulietta reluctantly picks her up and begins to comfort and sing to her. The baby’s cries subside, and she falls asleep. “She smells your hands,” says the woman knowingly. “She was born with the smell of your hands.”
Outside, the men are discussing the quandary of the boat people. One says they can’t rescue illegals because it ruins the tourist trade, on which their livelihoods depend. Ernesto rebukes them: “But what about the laws of the sea? Don’t they obligate us to come to the aid of people in distress?”
Giulietta learns that the woman, whose name is Sara, and her son started out from Addis Ababa two years before, and have been wandering the seas, seeking a place to rest, and to settle, ever since. Meanwhile, Filippo takes a pretty blonde tourist out on the boat at night; the flirtatious romancing is interrupted by the sound of desperate voices calling out for help and begging to be allowed to board. Filippo is determined to let them on, but is deterred by the girl, who screams that the boat will never hold them all and will capsize, and they’ll all drown. Realizing she’s right, he painfully begins pushing the people back into the water.
Back home, Giulietta — and we, thanks to the quiet intensity of the two women, and the adroitness and sensitivity of Crialese’s direction and Fabio Cianchetti’s camera work— no longer sees Sara as an unwanted intruder, but as a mother. Just like her.
In recent years the island of Lampedusa has seen an influx of ever greater numbers of immigrants from poverty-stricken and war-torn African nations who see it as a destination or transit point for a life of peace and stability, qualities their lives have sorely, and at times violently, lacked. (The London Daily Mail reported a total of 19,000 migrants arriving there from Libya and Tunisia in the three months from January through March 2011, including 3,000 in a single three-day period in late March 2011.) Terraferma dichotomizes the comfort of old ways against the challenge of new, discomfiting realities, raising questions about both that are resolved Hollywood-style for the purposes of the film, but nonetheless remain in the mind.
Filippo Pucillo, who plays Filippo and has worked with Crialese in several films, including The Golden Door, calls Lampedusa home, but — like his mother in the film, who in one memorable scene ferociously tears the wallpaper from the walls in a frenzied cycle, the camera locked on her in close-up, plunging and rising, so that we not only hear but feel each savage rip — is himself itching to leave. In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Pucillo agreed that at the heart of Terraferma is a sad, but wholly understandable irony: While some risk their lives to reach the island, the family who takes in Sara and her son want to get away and move to the mainland.
“Yes, that’s what it’s about. The refugees want a better life, but so do we. There’s nothing for me in Lampedusa; I want to get away, too.” And for good reason: “Everything’s become harder. In Lampedusa lots of people my age don’t have a job. And everybody — those of us who were born here, Romanians, Argentinians and the Africans — competes for the few jobs there are.”
What were the reactions to Terraferma when it opened in Italy? The message of the film is clear: namely, refugees should be welcomed. “Half of Italy was on our side and half was against us. We screened the film at the Venice Film Festival and then in Linosa [a neighboring island, part of the municipality of Lampedusa] where some of the people wept, there was lots of applause. I got goose pimples. Audiences in other countries have also been very enthusiastic.”
As have those with intimate knowledge of the difficulties the film delineates. This past winter the U.N. Refugee Agency helped organize the Paris premiere of Terraferma, and invited the director and the actress who plays Sara, Timnit T., a refugee from Libya whose experience was not unlike Sara’s, to attend the screening. “This film has helped me to see my own story from another perspective,” she said.
Her own story indeed, and that of too many others: According to UNHCR, the dinghy she sailed on “drifted at sea for 21 days. Of the more than 70 people on board ... only five were found still alive.” And the situation is worsening. UNHCR estimates that more than 1,500 people — men, women and children — “drowned or went missing while attempting the cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2011,” making last year “the deadliest year for this region since UNHCR started to record these statistics.”
Italy has a long history of emigration, observed the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporter to Pucillo. (To be sure, Italian immigration in the last century enriched this country culturally and scientifically in virtually every domain.) “Yes, but it was different.” How? “The Italians in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, emigrated for the most part to find work, and everything was more ordered. The refugees who manage to reach us now come from such terrible living conditions that in the beginning, they’re satisfied with something to eat and a place to sleep. They’re so desperate that they come no matter what awaits them.”
And the Lampedusans? “We look after ourselves, we work, we fish, we greet tourists. There are no big initiatives to change anything. Mainly we want to get off the island, most of my friends too. But hardly any of them,” he added, “actually go.”
The same might be said metaphorically of actor Mathieu Demy. The son of French film legends Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda (quite literally, a child of the New Wave), his star-studded feature-film scriptwriting and directorial debut Americano (France, 2011) is an hommage — or maybe not — to his cinematic heritage. The film tells of a man, played by the director himself, torn between trying to break away from his past and being inexorably drawn back to its earliest beginnings. With Salma Hayek as a sexy, slithering songstress in a Tijuana bar, Geraldine Chaplin as the neurotic, nerve-wracking neighbor who cared for his dying mother and Chiara Mastroianni as his puzzled, long-suffering girlfriend, Americano may be both Mathieu Demy’s salute to, and farewell to, the film language of his parents and their generation.
The film begins in Paris. Martin (Demy) and Claire (Mastroianni) awaken after a night that seemed, at least onscreen, to have a satisfying end. But Martin is not a man who expresses his thoughts and feelings easily, and things go rapidly downhill when he gets a call telling him his mother has died in California. Claire is perplexed, then angry, that he’s not at all curious how it happened. “What good would it do?” he asks. “It won’t bring her back,” then adds, with eyes as cold and as dead as those of his distant parent, whom he’d seen only intermittently since his the divorce that sent him to live with his father: “It’s all in the past.” Which has now intruded on the present: As her only child, he must fly to L.A. to take care of her affairs.
Landing at LAX, he’s greeted by his mother’s hysterically weepy, tear-stained neighbor Linda (Chaplin), who paws him anxiously, telling him how much she loved his mother and (in gory detail) how she nursed her to the end. At the house, the sofa still disheveled, a rumpled blanket thrown across it — an inanimate, yet eerily living reminder that his mother lived, and probably died there — Martin goes upstairs to her bedroom.
Emptying the dresser drawers, he stops short as he opens a folder and finds a cache of his early childhood drawings, cut-outs and collages. Stunned, he weeps, then briskly sets about the task of clearing clothes out of closets, mechanically thrusting everything into big black plastic trash bags, dragging them down the stairs, and catapulting them into the complex’s refuse bins out back. Returning to the room, he sweeps it up, empties it of furniture, and briskly measures its dimensions. Somebody has to take charge, right? Isn’t that why he flew 9,100 kilometers, left his Paris apartment and girlfriend?
His mother left no will, no written instructions, or so he is told. But a childhood photo of him with his mother and the little girl Linda resentfully tells him his mom doted on, Lola, piques his curiosity. Particularly when he learns that his mother left the apartment to her (“She was here for her, you weren’t,” Linda, whose loyalties seem to have shifted, tells him reproachfully) and everything in the garage — filled with her paintings — to him.
Told by a neighbor that Lola got deported and now works in a Tijuana bar as a singer, Martin, after sitting through a dispiriting hour at the mortuary narrated by another of Linda’s matter-of-fact, stomach-churning descriptions of his mother’s last hours (interrupted only by the mortician’s invitation to see his mother’s body) bolts, steals Linda’s red convertible, and squeals off. He will find the bar in a seedy part of town (his car will of course be vandalized, but a mysterious young Samaritan will come to his aid) and meet “Lola,” who slinks onstage dressed to the nines, the stage decked out in shimmering lights. But their meeting will be inconclusive.
At a podium discussion in the Gasteig’s Foyer, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Demy said that he’s been acting for 35 years, having started as a child — his first appearance at age five in his mother’s 1977 women’s rights film L'une chante, l'autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) — and used his free time to write stories “to keep from dying of boredom.” Spending much of his time behind the scenes, he got to watch technicians, and became interested in their work.
Do you see yourself as keeping up a tradition, or starting a new one? Demy spoke frankly. “Since the Dogma thing, there’s no real ‘new movement,’ ” he said, disparaging 3D as “just some kind of commercial BS” that “doesn’t affect the way we tell stories,” which for Demy is the essence of filmmaking. “Maybe in 20 years we’ll be able to look back and see something” that made its mark, that changed the way we look at film, but not now.
Let’s look at Americano, “this road movie about grief,” in the words of the host. “I thought it would be interesting,” Demy said, “to make a film about making your own path,” a theme with personal resonance. And yet — at the same time, Americano, to quote from Variety’s Toronto review, is “a ruminative exploration of family, loss and corrosive memory” that “also pays homage to the work of [Demy’s] parents, Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, whose respective trademarks of unadorned documentary realism and poignant romantic fantasy are threaded through the film in explicit citations.”
Tell us about those flashbacks, where Martin thinks back to his childhood. Weren’t they... ? They were indeed: clips from his mother’s 1982 film Documenteur (in French, a play on the words documentaire, documentary and menteur, liar) in which he appeared at the age of eight in the role of Martin. The subjects of grief and “making your own story” were already set, but the decision to incorporate the flashbacks “made it more personal.” (Maybe too personal for his mom, who was “a little surprised,” reading the script, to find that “on page 2, the mother dies.”)
So, setting the story in Los.Angeles was not just a haphazard choice. “Documenteur was shot in L.A., so the story took me there,” said Demy. How so? Seems his father had come to California in the summer of 1979 after coming up with the idea at Cannes for a film to be called “Skaterella” — yes, Cinderella on skates — in which Francis Ford Coppola had expressed interest. And? “It didn’t go anywhere.” (A delight in wordplay seems to run in the family.)
Is Americano semi-autobiographical? Demy didn’t bite. “It’s a combination of a quest for identity and a detective story, but one where the detective learns more about himself than about the case and the guy becomes obsessed with the woman.” Demy wanted the three women, Claire, Linda and Lola — each, as he told Film Comment, representing the cinematic and geographic aesthetics of their respective lands — “to embody the fact that he’s going away from home and his roots.”
The film had good press in France but not very big audiences. Which is fine with the forthright Demy. “I’d rather have good press and a sh---- box office,” he said, “than the other way around.”
A philosophy that another filmmaker, whose ties to America were creatively close but who never visited the U.S., would probably have reversed. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, enfant terrible of the New German Cinema who died three decades ago at the age of 37 after a lifetime of unceasing productivity in a dozen different disciplines — coupled with, and maybe even enhanced by, an unceasingly creative profligacy — wanted to please his audiences. At one time, he told British writer and commentator Tony Raines (translated back from a German edition of the interview), “I thought that if you [showed people] their own reality, they would take action against [it]. I don’t think that anymore. Nowadays I believe that [my] first obligation is to satisfy the public, and then after that to bring the political content of a film into play.”
But political content was never far from even those works intended by Fassbinder to be above all, audience-pleasing. One of those is 1978's Despair (Despair – Eine Reise ins Licht, tr. “A Journey into the Light”), which has long been unavailable but came out last fall on both DVD and Blu-Ray. At a very special screening at the Filmmuseum, Todd Haynes introduced the film, which was issued on Blu-Ray late last year.
Despair “falls outside the scope of most of Fassbinder’s films, [which criticize] systems of dominance and coercion,” said Haynes, who highly recommended Robert Fischer’s 2011 documentary, screening the following day at the MaxX, as an accompaniment to the film. (As did Blu-Ray.com’s Jeffrey Kauffman, who in his review of the disc dubbed it “stellar documentary filmmaking.” More on the doc below.)
Haynes explained that Fassbinder had intended his film to reach a wide audience, but when he took it to Cannes, the critics were cool. He’d also brought another film as a back-up, The Marriage of Maria Braun, thinking little of it. As luck would have it, Despair, true to its name, landed like a lead balloon; Maria Braun, hastily screened for German film producers a day or two later, took off, becoming both a critical and a commercial success. Fassbinder called Despair his “most optimistic” work; Haynes called it “intensely cohesive visually,” both “a visual feast and a literary feast,” the mirror sequence “a masterful piece of filmmaking.”
The film, based on the 1937 English translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s short 1936 novel of the same name, was originally shot in English with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Osman Ragheb, the film’s dialogue coach and a guest at the Filmmuseum screening, told us that Fassbinder (whom he referred to by his middle name, Werner) was very shy. This threatened to throw a wrench into his relationship with the film’s star, Dirk Bogarde, when Bogarde refused to avail himself of Ragheb’s services and insisted that Fassbinder speak to him directly — in English. And Andrea Ferréol, who plays Hermann Hermann’s one-sandwich-short-of-a-picnic wife Lydia in a wavy blond wig, flamboyantly busty Jayne Mansfield dresses and fire-engine-red lipstick— “intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality,” her husband tells her airily — allegedly said that she was disappointed because “it was the only film she’d ever made without having an affair.”
Despair opens with a broken eggshell rocking merrily on a countertop to Fassbinder favorite Peer Raben’s bouncy music as other broken shells are tossed into a basket, and a drink is being mixed. Suffice it to say, the eggs aren’t the only things in this story that could be called cracked. Hermann (whose doubled name recalls Humbert Humbert of the author’s notorious “Lolita”), a wealthy chocolate manufacturer in early 1930s Berlin, begins to see himself watching himself — not imagining, but physically seeing himself reflected in a mirror, sitting across the room, doing things he is not doing — and asks a “doctor” about split personality: “I’m thinking of doing a book about it. Maybe,” he adds, “two books.” [The Filmmuseum audience mock-groaned at that one.] The “doctor” is actually an insurance broker who sells him the life insurance policy that will seal his “double’s” doom — and his own.
So Hermann tells Lydia he has a twin brother he never told her about who wants to die, and wants Hermann to take his place. Hermann meets the fellow (Felix), who in Fassbinder’s film, far from being his double, looks nothing like him. (In an interesting twist, he is played by Klaus Löwitsch, whom Fassbinder would cast as another Hermann, in The Marriage of Maria Braun.) Hermann dresses him in his clothes, gives him a Hermann-like haircut and manicure — and shoots him in the back. Felix, true to his name, smiles happily, and with a perky “thank you,” falls dead.
The end has Hermann holed up in a sleazy mountain hotel, hiding out from the cops, who catch up with him (natch). Convinced he’s acting in a film (here, as opposed to on the page, another “double” concept), he implores them not to shoot and calls, hands raised, tears streaming down his face, in a phrase which — talk about interesting twists — in its English vernacular may have been irresistible for Fassbinder: “I’m coming out now. I’m coming out!”
And he wasn’t the only one. Several of those who knew and worked with Fassbinder came out for Filmfest München’s tribute to the director. Still others were interviewed for the above-mentioned documentary, The Cinema and Its Double: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair Revisited. In introducing his film, Fischer noted that he’d found lots of material in archives or “hidden away” in places that even Christian Braad Thomsen hadn’t known about. Thomsen, a Danish director, producer, writer, authority on and friend of Fassbinder, had given a fascinating lecture on his relationship with the filmmaker, titled “Love Is Stronger Than Death,” illustrated with never-before-seen video clips, the week before. (More on that below.)
The Cinema and Its Double contains interviews with Tom Stoppard, cameraman Michael Ballhaus, actress Andréa Ferréol and others. Stoppard remembers feeling it a rare opportunity to work with writers such as Nabokov and Fassbinder, although “not being a cineaste,” he was “more aware of [Fassbinder’s] reputation than of his movies.” Knowing it would be Fassbinder’s first English-language film made Stoppard feel “very complimented.”
As for Ferréol, she recalls being offered the part if she spoke English. “I said yes — which was a complete lie.” So she started studying, which only got her so far, given the inventiveness of Stoppard’s language (“I didn’t understand a word of the script”). It didn’t help, either, that she felt emotionally disconnected from the character. Lydia is “very far from me,” an “innocent,” unlike the self-described “very down-to-earth” Férréol, who nonetheless felt out of place when Fassbinder invited her to a gay bar — “lots of leather.” (The liquor, though, helped relieve any awkwardness.)
Bogarde, on the other hand, called it “the most important film of his career,” declares John Coldstream, who wrote the actor’s authorized biography, something “to challenge him, to test him.” Challenge him it did. Even the distinguished British actor, who had gained international prominence for his portrayal of German characters in two films by Luchino Visconti: Frederick Bruckmann in The Damned (1969) and Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1971), must have found it trying when, having memorized his lines in all their abstract metaphorical glory, he (and the other actors) would come on the set and have Fassbinder hand them a new script. (Bogarde got so involved in his portrayal, we are told, for which he affected a German accent, he kept the accent when he went home after being on the set all day.)
But there was reason to party: Along with the film’s doubles and mirror images, Fassbinder was celebrating a numerical twin: his 31st birthday, his 31st film. The doc contains great shots taken on the set. We learn that the film was also a felicitous meeting of music and mise-en-scène, with Fassbinder, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and composer Peer Raben exploring the way music could imitate the characteristics of the zoom. And the silent film footage in Despair was created specifically for the film, says Juliane Lorenz, head of the Fassbinder Foundation, who remembers having “to get the film scratched so it would look old.”
Lorenz also remembers Fassbinder as being quite different from the difficult and demanding, tantrum-throwing director of popular lore, calling the image “completely untrue. He was like a soft meringue inside.” Which made it hard for him when Despair, which assistant director (and erstwhile member of Fassbinder’s antitheater theater group) Harry Baer hypothesizes was “too intellectual” for the Cannes audience, was not the international breakthrough for him he had hoped it would be. It would take Maria Braun, brought in as little more than an afterthought, to achieve that.
Coming onstage after the screening, Fischer said he’d had “incredibly good luck” that Tom Stoppard agreed to be interviewed for the documentary, and was even more surprised when Stoppard called him a taxi afterwards (he’d come in by public transport). Stoppard was also unusual, noted Fischer, who has directed dozens of documentaries and documentary shorts on and with well-known directors, actors, and other film artists, in that, despite the short amount of time he had available, “virtually all of the 20 minutes of the interview could be used.”
The same could be said for Ingrid Caven, who — unlike those stars who politely wait for questions, or who, for whatever reason, need to be gently prodded or led to talk about themselves and their careers — was off like a house afire in her Black Box interview. Caven, so-called “muse to Yves Saint Laurent,” who was married to Fassbinder for two years and acted in several of his films, and who has been in a longtime relationship with French writer Jean-Jacques Schuhl, whose book, "Ingrid Caven: A Novel" won the prestigious "Prix Goncourt" in 2000, flew in from Paris to be honored by the festival. The actress, who described herself as “an interpreter” of the great director’s works, spoke openly about the years she lived and worked with him, calling them “very contentious.”
Making films with Fassbinder was as challenging as the films that resulted. The natural stress inherent in the process was intensified by the director’s micromanagement of the smallest details, exacerbated by his insistence, when they traveled as a film troupe, on having everyone share a single room and a large bed. “He was very attuned to who was there,” said Caven, and “was able to control them.” Although “he was a good listener,” as well as a voluble talker who told her a lot about himself, he could also be “very commanding” and “threatening,” and “did not want to be dependent on anyone.”
Caven conjectured that “he needed resistance,” and “liked it when it came from a woman.” A revealing remark, given the problematic nature of Fassbinder’s relationship with his mother, Lilo Pempeit, who raised her only child as a single mother and whom he cast in many of his films. According to the Fassbinder Foundation, the boy became “a cinema addict ... from a very early age, not least because his mother needed peace and quiet for her work as a translator,” and quotes him as saying that "the cinema was the family life I never had at home." The ability to choose his own family (“die Wahlverwandtschaft”), continued Caven, which his acting troupe, first in theater and then carried over to and expanded in film, provided, was important to him.
Being a close-knit company of friends and associates whose work gave them insight into the lives, thoughts and feelings of other people, the Nazi period and its implications were anathema to them. It was, after all, the time in which their parents became adults, and either actively supported the regime or at the very least, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to its atrocities. “I cannot tell you what the Holocaust photos did to us,” said Caven, shattering for them the image of the Germans as “romantic thinkers” who were capable of “seeing things from different perspectives,” and causing them to want to “separate ourselves from our parents’ generation.” Even his openly asserted homosexuality, said Caven, may have been as much a middle finger raised to “respectability” as it was an indication of his “true feelings” and sexual identity.
“He could be dangerous,” and hurt her; he couldn’t sleep, “he never stopped,” a statement verified by his prodigious output. He also “never did anything without a subtext.” But he could also be “very gentle, lovable, and generous,“ and wrote many poems, one of which she recited to us. And while he tormented those who knew him, who worked with him, who loved or just tolerated him, “he tormented himself even more.” In the end, two notes were found after his death, delineating plans for the future. So, no, it’s highly unlikely he committed suicide. Nevertheless, “I couldn’t have saved him,”said Caven, adding: “No one could have.”
Love is Colder than Death. So goes the title of Fassbinder’s first feature film, the one that introduced the director to the man who would become a friend and confidant, and whose book, “Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius,” has become a standard work on the director. In a wide-ranging and provocative presentation. “Love Is Stronger than Death,” Thomsen showed clips from interviews and press conferences, as well as behind-the-scenes photographs taken on the set of many of Fassbinder’s films. Born in 1940 in Denmark, Thomsen hated everything German until the day he saw two of them: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Effi Briest (1974). “And then, I discovered how wonderful the language could be.”
Thomsen first met Fassbinder in 1969, at the Berlin premiere of Love is Colder than Death (Die Liebe ist kälter als der Tod) where, he told us, “Everyone booed except me.” Seeking out the director, Thomsen found him in a bar, introduced himself, and asked him how how liked the latest Godard film, Le gai savoir (The Joy of Learning), in which “Night after night, not long before dawn, two young adults, Patricia and Emile, meet on a sound stage to discuss learning, discourse, and the path to revolution,” according to IMDb. “I think it would have been better if all 90 minutes had been black,” said the barely 23-year-old director. Thomsen knew he had found a friend.
From that first press conference till Thomsen’s last interview with him, seven hours before he was found dead of a drug and sleeping-pill overdose in Munich, Fassbinder remained both a friend and a subject for Thomsen’s camera and pen.
In the first video, we see the young director at a press conference after that disastrous premiere in Berlin, explaining that his films are about feelings, and whether there’s a connection between love and violence. It is one he never stopped exploring, ending with his last film, Querelle (1982) in which, wrote The New York Times’s Vincent Canby, “he murders one sailor, seeks 'execution' for his crime by allowing himself to be brutally sodomized, which he enjoys, and then finds his own salvation by becoming a stool pigeon.”
Echoing Caven, “He was a monster,” Thomsen told us. “But he was also the most gentle person you’d ever meet,” and “the most childlike person I have ever met. And yet the most mature person.” After a night of carousing, he looked like hell. “But when he worked at the camera, or the camera looked at him, he turned into the most beautiful creature you could imagine.” And a master filmmaker. After seeing Love is Colder than Death, “I had the feeling that here, cinema starts from scratch.” A fan of the French New Wave and Italian neorealism, Thomsen was shocked when Fassbinder told him his favorites were Hollywood films. “But without the lies,” he would add.
In a taped interview with Todd Haynes (one of Fischer’s video shorts) screened at the presentation, Haynes tells us that Fassbinder “opted for the melodramatic over the radical, Marxist, intellectual as a way of critiquing his society. He used artifice as a way of getting to the truth, and wanted to use emotion to get there, although as a German, he never could be as naive as Hollywood.”
When his father left, he was alone with his mother, but she was often ill (tuberculosis) and away, “and that was tragic for him,” said Thomsen. He could go where he wanted, do what he wanted, seemingly a dream for a boy. Instead, he identified with Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Thomsen even suggested that German terrorism had its roots in Fassbinder’s Aktion-Theater, and started with the affair between him and its manager, Ursula Stratz, whose enraged husband broke up the group. “It was so stupid what these terrorists did,” said Thomsen. “And they were not stupid people.” So a personal animus was a more likely impetus than simply a desire to see social and political change. Asked why he didn’t make a film about the terrorists, Fassbinder told him that he couldn’t: “The terrorists are my friends.”
But Thomsen sees an oedipal nexus in Fassbinder’s rebellion, calling the killing of the father “such an important theme” for him (although his mother would probably have argued that it was more an extension of his infatuation with his stepmother), and hypothesizing that the terrorists’ attacks on the “Establishment” were essentially attacks on the father, especially since so many of their fathers — and current corporate heads at the time — had been Nazis. Thomsen once asked him why he was sadomasochistic. “It’s all in the upbringing,” he replied.
Thomsen still has dreams of Fassbinder, he told us, in which his friend tells him he isn’t dead. “The burial was a trick; I wasn’t in the coffin.”
Sounds almost like something out of ... Hitchcock. Mix it with Filmfest, the “monster” Fassbinder could be and the Hollywood he loved, and you get the daughter of one of Hitch’s most famous (and, as the forthcoming and much-bruited HBO movie The Girl shows, one of his most abused) actresses. As Diana Iljine told IN magazine, Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren of The Birds fame, is a woman who “as hardly any other American actress of her generation, embodies to perfection the concept ‘Hollywood.’ ”
Griffith was the recipient of the prestigious Cinemerit Award at this year’s Filmfest München, which honored her as well with a huge cover photo on the widely distributed festival magazine and the world premiere of her latest film, The Grief Tourist, a serial-killer psycho-thriller suspense film by British director Suri Krishnamma.
There was more suspense than usual in the ever lengthening line outside the Black Box, as the time for the talk with Griffith neared and no one was being allowed in. (Having rushed from another cinema at the halfway point of a film, your reporter was torn between wondering what was holding things up, and what was happening in that film. She never did find out, either one.)
Informed at last that the talk had been moved up an hour, some reluctantly abandoned their places; others decided that having made the commitment, and with the next hour fast approaching, it might be better to stick it out and pass the time reading, chatting, or surfing. Once inside, as the appointed hour came and went with no sign of anyone approaching the stage, the reading, chatting and surfing resumed, interrupted only (and if only for some) when the cameramen who’d been waiting outside the door started wheeling or carrying their equipment in, some positioning themselves while others took seats in the front row, its chairs (and many in the next) labeled “Reserviert”.
Soon festival officials began to gather onstage, the atmosphere charged as they quietly, but with palpable urgency, consulted with each other or checked their cells or the materials they’d brought. One of them paced the stage, his arms tightly crossed, his grim expression then breaking into a smile as he turned to comment to a cameraman.
It was worth the wait. Melanie Griffith, dressed in a black v-neck cocktail dress with black sweater jacket, smiling sweetly as her necklace and drop earrings sparkled in the studio lights, warmly greeted her hosts and the audience. As Griffith would be accepting her Cinemerit Award in less than an hour in a gala ceremony, the questioning cut to the chase. What was it like, growing up as Tippi Hedren’s daughter?
The answer may have surprised many, notably those seeking the scandal so often associated with the city known as the Movie Capital of the World. “I was not really around a lot of Hollywood things,” said Griffith, whose mother kept her sheltered from the city she associated with hard work and career-ending sexual harassment at the hands of an acclaimed director — something a young starlet on the rise would keep to herself in the sixties if she wanted to remain on the studio’s (and by extension, Hollywood’s) shortlist.
That’s not the list she wound up on; saying no to Hitch ensured that. (That Hitchcock’s Vertigo would ascend to the top of Sight & Sound’s annual “Greatest Films of All Time” poll of 846 critics and 358 directors, the article accompanied by “a selection of behind-the-scenes images of the master at work” just weeks after Hedren’s press conferences on the HBO movie The Girl is ... well ... vertigo-inducing.)
But now to Griffith’s own career. Tell us something about your early experiences. “I learned a lot on Night Moves,” Arthur Penn’s 1975 private-detective film in which Griffith plays the teenage-runaway daughter of a retired movie actress. Her biggest concern was that she wouldn’t be able to move. The director solved that. “Arthur Penn grabbed my hips,” she said with a swift yank to that part of her anatomy, “until I could really move.”
Which of your films really set you on the path to stardom? No hesitation here: “Body Double,” Brian De Palma’s 1984 peeping tom film that earned Griffith nominations for both a Golden Globe and a National Society of Film Critics award. “Yes, that was what I thought,” said the host, as did many in the audience, from the appreciative reaction. But Griffith wanted everyone to know that she is an actor second and a mom first, and that for her, “having children was the most important thing.”
Time being short, it was now time for questions. “I have to say,” came the first, from a gentleman in the back, “I’m gay, and you’re the sexiest creature on Earth.” No response to that, save for laughter and applause (and a whistle or two). “How do you become a successful actor?” came the next. A lexically simple question that could have elicited a pretentiously complex reply, but instead was met with simple directness. To be a successful actor, said Griffith, you have to be be able to get into a character, to want to portray that character, and not because you want money or fame.
And now, a question about The Girl, the HBO film about Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock. Have you seen it? What did you think? Griffith was frankly amazed at how the director treated her mother. “He really blackballed her in the business. He ruined her career” when she resisted his advances. Her mom, now 82, had never told her.
Tell us about your daughter. “Dakota is a force,” said Griffith about her daughter with Don Johnson. At 22, “she does exactly what she wants to do ... I think she’s gonna be better than all of us at it.”
But let’s turn back to Griffith. What about Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (in which she played what Roger Ebert called “an alcoholic sex machine with a very creative imagination”)? Not wild at all, it seems. “It was such a magical shoot,” said Griffith, the memory clearly still strong. “It was just a short amount of time, but it’s enough to last a lifetime.”
The Grief Tourist will have its world premiere in Munich. Antonio (Banderas, Griffith’s husband) said it’s the most fabulous movie he’s ever seen. Do you see motion capture as a threat? Griffith sees a bigger threat elsewhere. “The way movie making has gone more to money making, from art — that’s the scary part.”
The scary part for your reporter was that she’d just looked at her watch and found that she had only 15 minutes to get to the cinema at the farthest end of the “Isar mile” (actually closer to an American mile) to make the final screening of a film that had not only come accompanied by a glossy, full-color brochure and poster, but had been highly recommended by everyone who’d seen it — something so unprecedented, she knew she’d have no choice. That it was a children’s film was irrelevant; in fact, the “Kinderfilmfest” offerings had been excellent overall, and rather than catering to or talking down to their audience, generally treated them with respect for both their innocence and their intelligence.
Der Mondmann (Moon Man, Stephan Schesch, Germany/France/Ireland, 2012), an animation film based on a 1966 children’s picture book by Tomi Ungerer whose lessons about home and friendship recall another children’s classic, “The Little Prince,” was as enjoyable for many of the adults who’d come without kids as it was for the small fry. That one of its co-production countries was Ireland, and that the English subtitles were spot-on, make one wish it would be brought here. Since it probably won’t, let it be said that the film is true to Ungerer’s self-description as both storyteller and satirist, its vibrant detail and rich color palette true to the book’s illustrations by its multiple-award-winning author.
Ungerer, who has lived in the U.S. since 1956 and has published more than 140 books, may be most familiar to American filmgoers and collectors for his poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Love the Bomb, and to cartoon aficionados for his work in The New York Times, Esquire, and The Village Voice. Here, renowned German actors such as Ulrich Tukur (whom DC filmgoers will remember from 2009's Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon and 2007's Oscar-winning The Lives of Others), Katharina Halfach and Corinna Harfouch provide the voices.
Voices are part of the tonal landscape of sound film, but in the fourth edition of Bavarian Radio’s annual “filmtonart — Day of Film Music,” the emphasis was on the sort of sound you can sing to or play on your favorite instrument, and will have ringing in your head on the way home. This year’s program was headlined by “synthesizer legend” and three-time Oscar and Golden Globe winner Giorgio Moroder (one of each for Top Gun, 1987; Flashdance, 1984 and Midnight Express, 1979), a guest of honor at Filmfest which showed seven of his films in free, late-night Open Air screenings in the Gasteig’s courtyard.
The 12 sections in this year’s program — also free, and open to all — were spread out over seven hours, including lunch and two coffee breaks, and were almost impossible to choose from. But choose we did — the first one, fittingly, having to do with choice.
“And who makes the music? Criteria for choosing a composer,” a panel of five German writers, composers, directors and producers, offered interesting insights into the process. Max Färberbock, who may be best known here for Aimee & Jaguar (1999), confessed that while “I’m not musical and I don’t know how to sing,” he works very closely with his composers. Once he had to tell one that he didn’t like the music he’d written for the film. “The poor guy looked so depressed, I invited him in for a drink.” After several vodkas, the composer was so soused he staggered back to his room — and stayed up all night writing. The result? He produced “so many wonderful tunes and themes,” said Färberbock with a beatific smile, still remembering the impact, “I couldn’t absorb them all.”
“When silent pictures sing: Aljoscha Zimmermann and his music,” which took its title from the 2005 TV documentary of the same name written and directed by Zimmermann’s daughter Irina Goldstein (scenes of which were shown), explored the creative genius of the man who, according to the filmtonart website, set more than 4,000 silent films to music. Goldstein was joined, in a panel discussion moderated by Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting) feature and documentary film editor Walter Greifenstein, by her sister, violinist Sabrina Zimmermann, and pianist/composer Mark Pogolski, who would accompany in duet a scene from one of Marlene Dietrich’s early films with music composed for it by Aljoscha Zimmermann.
While her father was endlessly inventive — 4,000 scores? — Goldstein noted that unlike with talkies, in writing music for silent films the composer’s job is facilitated by the ability to cite from famous, often classical works without worrying about attribution. Zimmermann particularly enjoyed writing music for his friend Ernst Lubitsch. “It’s easy to compose for Lubitsch,” Zimmermann quoted her father as saying, “because his films are cut so musically.”
How real is reality? Film music in documentary films gave attendees a dose of Reality with a capital R (no pun intended, although as a noun, in German the word is spelled with a capital R) — a competition among young “up-and-coming composers,” preceded by performances by students of composer Enjott Schneider, professor at the Munich College of Music and Theater, conducting music they’d written for the opening scene from August Pflugfelder’s documentary film Schnee (“Snow”). As part of the project, the students were shown only the title frames. Meaning? That unless they’d caught it at a documentary festival, they were writing music for a movie they knew virtually nothing about, thereby in theory both expanding their individual conceptual palette and ensuring that no two compositions would be too much alike.
The experiment was intriguing; its results, revealing. “I’m impressed,” commented Pflugfelder afterwards, “because [each time] I discovered the frames anew. It’s fascinating what storytelling possibilities lie in an opening scene.” For film composer Chris Heyne, “That’s what’s so fantastic about music: just as there are always several ways of seeing something in a film, there are differences in musical tastes.”
And when the film is also a play, the actors playing variations of themselves — all having been selected by the disabled director because they, too, have physical or emotional disabilities — and no one, including the director, knows where the playacting ends, and reality begins (How real is reality, indeed?), the “ways of seeing something in a film” multiply many times over.
In Alles wird gut (Everything Will Be All Right, Germany, 2012), director and screenwriter Niko von Glasow’s “acted documentary film” about 14 disabled actors who answer a casting call for a play and find that they’ve been forgotten in the waiting room, the POV shifts from scene to scene and from shot to shot — at one point, one of the actors seizes the camera and starts shooting his own film — leaving the intrigued viewer never really sure what’s real. Glasow, a “thalidomyde baby” whose gnome-like stature and armless fingers emerging from a short-sleeved shirt become less and less noticeable as he leads his troupe of actors to confront their characters’ (and their own) doubts, fears and prejudices and to challenge him in turn, sums it up simply: “Everything is staged and everything is real.”
A third level of reality would strike in Munich, first figuratively and then literally, one week and one month, respectively, after the festival. “Artist in Wheelchair Unwanted,” read the headline in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which told of a hotel’s refusal to accommodate an actor who because of an injury is using a wheelchair. “That’s nothing short of discrimination against the disabled!” he told the paper. “I’m just using a wheelchair temporarily. What must it be like for someone who is permanently handicapped?”
The question was answered three weeks later, when the paper reported a rash of attacks by members of a militant group clad all in black, from their head coverings and sunglasses to their jeans, shirts and shoes, allegedly attacking with baseball bats those they derisively called “cripples,” beating them bloody. Fortunately it was a piece of theater, staged by an organization established to promote the rights of the disabled.
“People with disabilities are immobilized,” explained the organization in a statement. “They’re immobilized when they are hidden, repressed, excluded, cursed at, abused and locked away”; they suffer repeated “blows” to their rights, and to their dignity. “With our ‘Beat up a Cripple’ demonstration we wanted to present in a stirring and theatrically entertaining way things that otherwise are usually hidden away and — without the fun factor — happen everywhere.”
As does director-scriptwriter Franziska Schlotterer’s debut feature film Closed Season (Ende der Schonzeit, Germany, 2012), although the things “usually hidden away” that “happen everywhere” happened in Germany not now, but 70 years ago. Closed Season, which would go from Munich to screen in competition last month in Montreal, attracted a huge turnout at its second of three screenings (and, one would assume, a comparable one at the other two).
Its significance was hinted at by its treatment in the Tagesspiegel, which gave the film and its stars half a paragraph in a five-paragraph article about the entire eight-day, 186-film festival. It was also nominated for the German Cinema New Talent Award. Still, Munich critics were only moderately impressed, one calling it “too symbolic, too metaphorical,” by this story of a young Jewish man on the run from Nazi pursuers who finds refuge — and an offer he cannot refuse — at the home of a Black Forest farming couple.
Fritz and Emma are facing financial calamity because he’s unable to perform his husbandly duty and produce an heir to inherit the farm. The story is framed by a prologue and epilogue set in Israel in 1970, where a young German has come to a kibbutz to find the man he has just been told is his father.
Flashback: Germany, 1942. Back from a fruitless deer hunt, Fritz brings home a young man he found hiding in the woods who begged him for a place to stay. Seeing him as a potential worker for the farm, whose last hand was recently drafted, he reluctantly agrees. His wife, however, is against the risky proposition from the get-go: “Do you know what could happen to us if they find out we’re hiding a Jew?” Seeking to remain on good terms with the nervous, querulous couple, Albert makes a pendant for Emma out of a piece of scrap metal — “My father was a jeweler,” he tells Fritz — and suggests that he give it to her as a birthday present.
Unfortunately, when Fritz tries to use the opportunity, after his stunned wife thanks him, to get her into bed, his attempt — not to put too fine a point on it — falls flat. So he comes up with the idea of using the young man as a sperm donor. (Well, what he actually says is, “When you want to breed a cow, you bring a steer to mount her,” adding, as if to reassure the young man, “I’ll be there watching, of course.”) Albert at first refuses, but eventually, threatened with being handed over to the Gestapo, accedes to the unusual, and for him, immoral request.
Emma is equally if not more appalled by the suggestion. Her reasoning — “He [their son; how could they even contemplate a daughter?] will be a Jew. You know what happens to them!” — may be intended by the director to subtly give the lie to the once often heard we-didn’t-know contention, while Fritz’s “Who will know?” does the same — even if the couple never make the extrapolation — to the Nazis’ virulent propaganda.
The deed is done, the terrified Emma experiencing a tenderness in the act that awakens both her libido and her emotions. But it will doom the young man, and leave both Fritz and Emma — and Albert, who emerges from the camps years later, a virtual skeleton — forever embittered.
As was one of the actors, although probably only as long as the sting lasted, by a review written after the press screening. The reporter had written, among other things, that these rural Black Foresters “speak a remarkably colorless standard German” (the equivalent here would be characters in a film about bayou dwellers speaking like midwesterners) — “always,” he added dryly, “a mood killer in these films” — and complained that “the relations between the characters remain without any depth,” lambasting the actors for “selling themselves” by taking the roles.
“You call yourself a film critic?” the actor raged in reply. Calling the reporter’s opinions “spiteful stupidity” while allowing that, “of course, taste is individual,” he advised the critic to “at least improve your style if you want to call yourself a journalist,” and took him to task for daring to insinuate that he accepts bad scripts, concluding: “In any case, we had a successful premiere yesterday in Munich. And I’m glad you weren’t there!”
All in all this journalist, while recognizing the validity of this and other critics’ points, was glad she was there. Readers who see it in Montreal will have the chance to judge for themselves.
Which they won’t — but won’t have to do without a review, which follows — with first-time writer, director, co-producer and editor Mark Jackson’s Without (USA, 2011), which is not on Montreal’s schedule but has racked up 10 awards at as many international festivals from Sarasota to Thessaloniki, and four times as many (largely) laudatory reviews.
Set in a remote island off the Seattle coast, Without opens with a pensive young woman on the Seattle ferry. Nineteen-year-old Joslyn has been hired to care for an elderly man named Frank while his family is on vacation. The friendly but very businesslike suburban husband and wife give her detailed instructions, rapidly rattling them off and handing her a thick stapled booklet with the written version plus emergency phone numbers.
Joslyn approaches her near-catatonic charge with a hesitant half-smile, attempting to make small talk even when she realizes he’s not taking it in. Though it takes place for the most part in the cottage, this minimalist film, a “chilling exercise in precisely measured ambiguity,” per The Hollywood Reporter, is shot episodically and cannily framed and edited, yielding what Variety called “stunningly evocative visuals” that challenge the viewer’s sensory and intellectual equilibrium.
We see her dutifully going about her often queasy tasks, aware that she’ll be “roughing it,” as the husband genially warned her, dealing with the lousy reception that makes Internet access virtually nonexistent and reduces her Smartphone to little more than an overpriced alarm clock. While Joslyn is the nominal protagonist, in the best sci-fi-thriller suspense mode the POV occasionally shifts, making the viewer the queasy one as he suddenly sees everything from that of the elderly, physically and (to all outward appearances) mentally incapacitated man.
At one point. she sees a deer through the window. In a magnificent shot, the two cameras reveling in the film’s high-definition (HD-to-HDCam) format, the deer observes her curiously, silently, the hairs of its coat nearly palpable. After several seconds of what begins to feel uneasily like telepathic exchange it departs, flicking its ears as it turns and looks back at her, its dark eyes penetrating, disapproving. She meets its gaze.
The scenes are short, and do not immediately relate; but there are threads. We learn that she loved an Asian American girl who died, sexual videos of whom she watches when her Smartphone gets reception; she critically appraises her own naked body in the mirror. She dresses Frank in a brightly colored sweater, then wheels him outside in the dead of night to toast marshmallows over a fire. She shows him a family photo album, asking him questions and providing a narrative when he fails to respond. She sees what look like photos of herself in the album, one taken with Frank. She has nightmares.
After several days, her solitude interrupted only by trips to the pharmacy for his pills, by the leering attentions of the man who gave her a lift from the ferry and returns uninvited, and by the unexplained hostility of the friendly girl at the drive-in take-out who suddenly threatens her violently, civility slowly begin to unravel. She starts using the woman’s clothes, garishly slathers on her makeup, and kisses Frank on the lips. For Jocelyn the freedom of being unobserved in someone else’s home and responsible for a helpless, non-responsive person becomes a license to push the boundaries of behavior beyond what she (or his finicky, self-absorbed family) could have anticipated.
For Danish American director, producer and writer Nicolas Winding Refn, honored with this year’s Homage, pushing the boundaries beyond what his New Wave and classical cinema-loving parents could have anticipated is a point of pride. Refn — whose Pusher trilogy has made him a cult figure in American cinema, and whose most recently released feature Drive (2011) won Best Director at Cannes (and was nominated for the Palme d”Or) and eight major other international awards — also “pushes the existential envelope in his work,” writes Filmfest programmer Christoph Gröner, who interviewed Refn in the Black Box.
With his parents classic film lovers, Reyn, like any self-respecting teenage boy — “The one thing I knew would piss my mother off is if I saw horror movies” — knew what he had to do. “For me European cinema was, you know, the antichrist,” Truffaut’s revolutionary 400 Blows (1959) “generic — I didn’t realize it was a masterpiece until later” — and “American cinema was, like, real art,” particularly (the original 1974) Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “I realized that a film didn’t really have to have a narrative structure; it could just be an emotion.” There was another, practical draw: “I’m color blind and dyslexic and can’t work with clay,” he chuckled, “so filmmaking was the only way for me to go.”
His mother supported his enthusiasm, if not necessarily his taste, and let him use her video camera. “And we’d be killing people in the apartment and shooting them on film, and my mother would be making the lunches.” But she wanted him to go to film school in Denmark, where “everyone is very correct. But I was a product of New York,” having spent half of his life there, “so my attitude was ‘Fuck off, I’m gonna do it my way.’ ”
As everybody and his brother (and sister) are doing now. “Today we all have an iPhone, and it has all the apps,” so in theory, anyone can be a filmmaker. “Art can’t be taught. It’s who you are.” And public approval is no barometer. “The minute everybody loves your movie, you know something’s wrong.” Still, “filmmaking is a director’s medium; at the same time it’s a commercial commodity. So you have to make yourself marketable.”
FearX (2003) was made under difficult circumstances — he owed the bank $1 million, and his wife was pregnant with their first child — and at the time he thought it couldn’t get any worse. In retrospect, though, “it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” With his first three films he wanted to make “great art,” which, he has concluded, is impossible. Now he’s a “fetish filmmaker. It’s all fetish.”
Let’s talk about Drive — “Everybody wants to talk about Drive,” the director interjected, his slight eye-roll suggesting that talking about what may be his most marketable film for a broader audience may have reached the saturation point — what inspired you to make it? Although Refn doesn’t have a driver’s license himself, he finds cars “sexy.” And unlike driving, directing is not dependent on one person’s efforts alone. In fact, it’s not hard at all. “Being a director is easy. You just have to inspire everyone around you to do their best. It’s like being a kindergarten teacher.”
These days the kiddies aren’t only in front of the camera. With ever younger directorial aspirants inspired by the ready availability of filmmaking equipment — or what readily passes for filmmaking equipment, with continual advances in technology — more and more teens and even preteens are trying their hand at what was once a specialized, and even venerated domain. And celebrated in places we here in Washington wouldn’t normally associate with free expression, if we would with excellent expatriate (and courageous indigenous) independent filmmaking.
In the father-son team of Ali Shah Hatami and Hamid Shah Hatami’s enjoyable (and safely uncontroversial) Cinema Dream (Iran, 2011), one of the Kinderfilmfest selections, for which the lead actor would win the Best Young Adult Award at the 25th International Festival of Film for Children and Young Adults, the young teen has a burning desire to be a film actor. And will do just about anything — including taking a dare that will take him, rather than to stardom, to the local hospital — to achieve it.
Yes, Kazem is film-crazy, and has among other pastimes running a business trading Angelina Jolie CDs. Caught by his teacher passing around “autographed” photos of stars and sent to the principal’s office, Karem, a natural charmer, convinces the principal — whose knowledge of film is, to put it generously, limited — that the photos he’s passing around include members of his own family.
Back with his pals, he’s offered a “signed Brad Pitt photo.” Suspicious, he asks how he can be sure it’s Pitt’s signature The other guy’s ready: “How?! Can’t you read? Don’t you recognize the foreign alphabet?” Clearly, an irrefutable argument. The photo’s not free, of course. To get it, he must pay a “penalty”: eat 30 eggs at one sitting.
What a true film fan won’t do for a photo — an autographed one, no less! — of his idol. Of course, Kazem winds up in the hospital emergency room, and when he (and the contents of his stomach) get out, his dad has another confinement in mind, and locks him in the basement. “It’s called ‘tough love,” he tells his distraught wife, adding: “Here’s the key.”
Kazem must get out: there’s an audition for actors for an upcoming film, and he thinks he’s perfect for the role. What he may not be perfect for is the audition, which requires him to memorize and recite lines from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” in English — the language of the film, which is being shot in Canada, and a language of which he knows exactly two words. Using his salesmanship skills (Ali Shadman really shows his stuff here), Karem persuades them that he can learn English in a week. And he is impressive: asked if he knows “any other tricks,” he does a wrenching, astonishingly accomplished turn as a person severely crippled with cerebral palsy.
Karem seeks help from his uncle, a classic film lover like Refn’s folks who proves to be a patient mentor and who speaks fluent English, yet is compelled by his religious beliefs to hew to the imams’ party line. (His words of wisdom will form the film’s epigraph, thus subtly legitimizing his beliefs for young audiences.) Karem proves a quick study, practicing night and day and driving his dad crazy.
Which may be enough to add to the stress the poor man is undergoing, due to financial worries as the director of a small cinema that’s going broke, to seriously impair his health — and to put an end to his son’s cinema dream. But, this being a kids’ film, all will work out in the end. Karem will reach out to the snotty-rich-kid child star (as clever and insightful as it is in places, its sensibility does harken back to Bright Eyes) who will discover after all the hidden director — and inner “mensch” — within.
That appellation, imbued as it is with affirmations of humanity and dignity, belongs in a stronger and deeper sense to a man who both used it and earned it. Alexander Granach: Da geht ein Mensch (English title: From the Stetl to the Stage: The Odyssey of a Wandering Actor, Angelica Wittich, Germany, 2012), presents the story of a “forgotten man” of cinema whose flourishing career was cut short by the Nazis’ rise to power and resumed on stage and screen on Broadway and in Hollywood, only to come to a tragically premature end just two months before the collapse of the dictatorship that had claimed the lives of most of his family members.
Wittich’s film, which takes its title from Granach’s autobiography of the same name, republished in English in 2010, is an affecting and informative film that both dramatizes and documents the actor’s life. Beautifully shot and edited, it begins with a woman (Juliane Kohler, Eva Braun in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 Oscar-nominated Downfall) and a man (Samuel Finzi) reading passages from the book, and from the more than 300 letters Granach wrote to his “life’s partner” and “great, eternal love,” the Swiss actress Lotte Lieven, described by Granach’s son Gad in an interview as “very aristocratic, a commanding presence.”
As was his father, when the occasion or role demanded. Granach was very malleable as an actor, we are told, and actively sought transformative roles. “In the home of Expressionism, he was the most Expressionist.” His Mephistopheles was more a “little devil” than a demon.
But he was pursued by very real demons, from Hitler to Stalin; the latter had him imprisoned in 1938 on spy charges for his fearless outspokenness, and it was only due to the intercession of an intermediary who knew both men that Granach was released. He headed for America, and found a community of fellow European film and theater artists who also had escaped, and brought their talents, dreams and ambitions with them.
Once in Hollywood, Granach picked up the friendships and professional relationships he had established in Germany with directors such as F.W. Murnau, in whose classic “symphony of horror” Nosferatu (1922) he played Knock, the mad real estate agent who, as it were, gives the downbeat for the gruesome events that will unfold. His work with Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht was marked by his memorable performance as a “shrewd, calculating and ruthless” Gestapo inspector, which was, according to that critic, ”particularly outstanding,” in Hangmen Also Die! (1943). In a richly mordant irony, we learn, Lang “would have given him more roles if he hadn’t had such a strong accent,” and was instead compelled to cast his colleague — a Galician Jewish refugee who would be the sole member of his family to escape the Nazi genocide — as high-ranking Nazis.
Granach showed his comedy chops in his friend Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 Garbo vehicle Ninotchka as the capitalism-crazy Russian commissar Kopalski, and his versatility when he appeared on Broadway as an Italian fisherman in John Hersey’s “A Bell for Adano.” Theater was his life — he wrote rapturously about it in “Da geht ein Mensch” — but it would also be his death; the role would prove to be his last, when he had an attack of appendicitis onstage that would prove fatal.
In a Foyer podium discussion following the film’s world premiere in the Gasteig’s Carl Orff Saal (Carl Orff Hall), actress Julianne Kohler noted that she’d had Granach’s book for years and so was familiar with the letters she would read in the film. “I tried to put myself into the mood of the letters, into the role of the wife, how she must have felt as she read them. It created such an unbelievably beautiful mood” for her, reading them in the film.
What inspired Wittich to make the film? A combination of things. First, she knew the book, and had been deeply moved by Granach’s story. And then: “It made me so mad that so many of these people brought so much and gave so much, and today they are forgotten.” The letters Granach wrote to Lieven are in Berlin, and there are more yet to be discovered. Given the inexorable passing of time and the ever increasing age of the participants, these films should be made as long as they still can, the programmer host observed. “Yes. There was one great actor-director we got to too late,” just days after he had become incapable of communicating, noted Wittich.
But the director’s passion for her project has made even some of the near century-old photos in her film communicate in ways that make them seem almost literally to spring to life, using a mix of CGI and other intricate editing techniques, some venerable and labor-intensive, that make the silent figures in the photographs move with human ease and energy, like characters out of a dream.
“Slow-moving, almost dreamlike ... a tropical Tarkovsky or a Bela Tarr movie with better weather.” So Variety, half-tongue-in-cheek in an otherwise regardful appraisal of a film whose characters live in a world as physically black-and-white as Wittich’s photographs, but whose protagonist is as metaphysically phantom-like as hers were vibrant inhabitants of this world.
The critical dichotomy is apt on yet another level. For this first feature film of Brazilian director Eduardo Nunes, whose five previous shorts have captured a remarkable 40 international awards, is also diegetically of two worlds that live in uneasy proximity. Southwest (Brazil, 2011) begins mimetically, with a man and a small girl in an open carriage pulled by a lone horse, seen through the black branches of a tree, the only sounds the steady clip-clop, clip-clop of the horse’s hooves.
It ends one day later with the girl, now aged and wizened, in a small room, the tree branches and shadows visible in the light of a lone candle. “Listen to the sound of the rain,” sings a child’s voice metadiegetically, as we contemplate the meaning of a lifetime that has passed while for her family, friends and neighbors, she has been not one, but many. In the space of a single day, oblivious to the enchantment occurring around them, those who pass through her life will have lived theirs, and interacted with hers, from their own normal temporal perspective, while she has aged from nine to 90. “Drip-drop,” sings the child. “Plip-plop.”
“Since there is no Brazilian Southwest,” noted the Variety review, “the title works as a metaphor for an otherworldly space.” And one conceptually akin to that of a Turkish film that screened to an audience easily eight times the size of the one for the Brazilian — owing in part, no doubt, to the importance and popularity of Turkish cinema in Germany. But rather than “an otherworldly space,” this one’s “title works as a metaphor” for a conflict that is completely of this world, one whose roots go back nearly a century.
The subject of Özcan Alper’s Future Lasts Forever (Gelecek uzun sürer, Turkey, 2011) is arguably agitprop (as viewers of Turkish heritage might contend) ably couched though it be in “compassion and artistic integrity,” with “moving and painful moments,” abetted by “a deeply affecting [lead] performance,” in the words of a leading socialist journal that was one of the few to review the film in a language other than Turkish.
As with any film that deals with ethnic conflict from a partisan perspective, its reception could be expected to be as much a function of one’s position on the conflict as it is a reflection of the quality of the film itself. So it’s not surprising that an IMDb user who anticipates the praise wants it known that “For more than 30 years Turkey has been fighting against [the] PKK — supposedly a Marxist-Leninist — actually — a terrorist organization that keenly relishes the slaughter of Turkish public officers....” There we have it: the two poles between which people who are impartial on the issue must decide what if any impact it will or should have on their viewing experience.
The story is of a beautiful young Armenian woman named Sumru who is preparing her master’s thesis and has come to the university in Istanbul seeking recordings of Anatolian elegies sung by Kurdish women — mostly mothers and grandmothers — made in the wake of military operations by the Turkish army that resulted in the loss of their homes and loved ones.
The young woman has an ancillary interest that keeps her in Istanbul. Her soldier-poet lover has given her a letter — we see the two of them in a train compartment, the muted colors of the rolling landscape and the quiet but insistent, rhythmic, chugga-chugga of the train a backdrop to their somber discussion — that she promises not to open until they have parted. It’s a farewell letter, lovely and poetic, expressing his resignation to the likelihood that he will not return.
To take her mind off her worries, Sumru focuses it on her project. She is aided by Ahmet, who works there and, as it happens, has made and saved hundreds of such recordings, audio and video and, deciding with regret that it might be becoming an unhealthy obsession that no one shared, was about to throw them out. When she tells him why she wants them, he looks at her, disappointed and disbelieving, as if to say: So this is what it’s all come to. A school project.
The footage he shows her — first-person recordings of the things people saw and did, some noble, some shameful, some indifferently quotidian in the face of violence and injustice against friends and neighbors; video and cellphone camera clips of an alleged massacre, the screams of people inside a house being burnt to the ground, soldiers firing into it — leave her shaken.
Alper’s film is not without humor. In one scene, after Sumru leaves, Ahmet archly examines himself in the mirror and alternately fancies himself as Mastroianni, Belmondo and DeNiro, with snippets of the appropriate scores skillfully and sassily sending up each one. But it’s the personal testimonies, the stricken faces and voices, the director’s skill in interweaving them with Sumru’s story, and the journey she will insist that Ahmet take her on, that remain with the viewer.
Similar elements have a similar effect in Laurent Bouzereau’s 2011 documentary, Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (United Kingdom/Germany/Italy), which screened at Cannes the month before Munich. It asks the sort of questions a reporter never would have dared (or if he had, it would have been a very short interview), because the interlocutor is producer Andrew Braunsberg, a longtime friend whose inquiries probe Polanski’s psyche, seeking to illuminate his at once illustrious and notorious career and life history.
Shot in Polanski’s home in Gstaad in 2009, where he was under house arrest after having been seized by Swiss police on a 1977 U.S. statutory rape charge while on his way to the Zurich Film Festival, the film, fittingly, would premiere there two years later. Polanski, having been released following Swiss authorities’ long-delayed decision not to honor the California court’s extradition request, would at last receive the lifetime achievement award for which he had come to Zurich two long years before.
Being a friend, Braunsberg can dispense with the polite preliminaries. “At what point,” he asks Polanski, “did you realize you were in deep shit?” Polanski returns the frankness. “It’s like when you’re told you have a serious disease. At first you think, oh, it’ll be OK.” But after a while, the reality sets in. “And you have to deal with it.” And he deals with it here, apologizing for the first time in a public venue — he has, he says, expressed his profound regret to Samantha Geimer and her family — for his actions that led to his arrest and trial.
Polanski has had to deal with many serious realities over the years, as the film — “Handsome, smooth as silk, well-edited and movingly scored,” writes Hollywood Elsewhere — portrays. The music is by the gifted Alexandre Desplat, no less, whose scores for The King’s Speech (2010), Fantastic Mr. Fox(2009), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button(2008) and The Queen (2006) were all nominated for Oscars. Using film clips, photographs and documents, many never before seen publicly and commented on conversationally by the two men, it begins with a childhood in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where the boy saw his father, who worked for the His Master’s Voice recording company in Paris but had missed his homeland, marched off to a transport wagon bound for Auschwitz. “Beat it!” he hissed to his son, Polanski remembers, knowing that had Roman revealed his presence, it would have sealed his fate.
Polanski does not go into detail here, but his childhood memories were no doubt too strong for Braunsberg’s portrait of his friend. As Mitchell Glazer wrote for Rolling Stone three decades ago: “Truth and myth about Polanski merge in a grisly, Jerzy Kosinskiesque tale: at six, slipping through the Cracow sewers with gangs of Jewish children to steal food for their families; having his mother hauled away before his eyes to perish in Auschwitz; at seven, being hidden by various non-Jews (for a fee) and finally being sent to a Polish farm to live with a peasant family. The stories become even darker: near fatal beatings (he has a metal plate in his head), starvation, night escapes across the freezing Polish countryside. And all this before he was twelve.”
The end of the war did not signal, as all had hoped and believed, the end of desperation and privation. Instead, the Nazis were succeeded by the Russian “liberation,” Polanski relates, and “the starvation was worse than before.” But he survived; and when Andrzej Wajda came to Warsaw in 1954 to shoot A Generation, about young people coming of age during the Nazi occupation of Poland, he invited the young film enthusiast to sit in on it, and even cast him in a small role.
Polanski speaks emotionally of his love for his wife Sharon Tate, who was slaughtered in the infamous Manson murders of 1969, and of the compounded barbarity of her having been pregnant at the time with what would have been their first child. What made it even worse, he tells Braunsberg, was that, in a coincidence that would send even people who had not already had their fill of atrocity over the edge, his mother had been pregnant when she was murdered in Auschwitz, and for that reason, rather than proud and pleased, he had been distraught to find out Sharon was pregnant.
Why did Manson’s minions target the beautiful young actress? Polanski would later learn, adding yet another layer of ghastly misfortune that sounds like something out of a screenplay, that Charles Manson had been rejected by Terry Melcher, who owned the house that Polanski, who at the time was in London, was renting. It was she who had been Manson’s intended target, a difference his drugged-out “family” never noticed.
The press in general treated Polanski shabbily, he tells Braunberg with a bitterness that time has only slightly diminished, at one point accusing him of the murders, despite his being 8,000 miles and an ocean away when it occurred.
But that is something Polanski understandably would prefer not to be remembered for. What he wants people to remember is his films, which have won a total of 69 international awards, including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Writing Oscars for his most personal, The Pianist (2002). When asked, “Which film would you most like to be remembered by?” the director’s reply comes without hesitation. “If the cans of film are put on my grave,” he says, “I would like it to be The Pianist.”
While this “film memoir” is, unapologetically, also a tribute to a cherished friend — “a plea to the jury” that the “lifting of the legal proceedings against [Polanski] in July 2010 renders obsolete,” as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reminds us — there are few who would begrudge him that final tribute.
As your reporter hopes you won’t begrudge her a final recommendation for those who have not yet visited Munich and its exciting, surprising, gemütliches international film festival. This year the city’s transportation system celebrated its 40th anniversary, making it just four years older than ours. Having experienced and enjoyed the relative reliability of the MVV over the years, I did a quick comparison to see if the difference could be one of size. The short answer: Not.
While Metro serves a populace more than twice as large (3.4 million versus the MVV’s 1.4 million), its ridership pales beside Munich’s. With Metro’s highest ridership pegged at 1,120,000 on Inauguration Day 2009, the MVV served 645 million passengers last year — that is, even if DC Metro served as many passengers every day of the year as it did on its most heavily trafficked day, it would still serve fewer than half as many as Munich’s.
Of course, the “Isar Mile” — the distance between the two Kinos that are farthest apart — is eminently walkable, and if the weather’s nice, there’s no urban stroll, with its shops, restaurants, cafes, and world-famous Viktualienmarkt (outdoor food market), more relaxing and agreeable. Either way, Filmfest München’s the place for cineastes and cinephiles of every stripe, no matter which color line you follow to get there.
See you here, on this site (or there, onsite?) next year!
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