Unfinished Diary Las Palmas ‘09
1. (March 6-7, 9, 10, 12)
If you start a Film Festival with Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac, you hardly need watch anything else; you may as well go home. But strangely – the way these things happen at Festivals – the film set a tone, or a theme, that captured many subsequent screenings in its net: the archetypal situation became the too-close relations of a family (not necessarily a traumatised or Gothic family, it could even be a Happy Family) – parent-child, or sibling intimacy – interrupted and reorganised by an incoming stranger.
Un Lac is not a violent film the way Grandrieux’s previous features, Sombre (1998) and La Vie Nouvelle (2002), have been: no serial rape, prostitution or socially-sanctioned abuse. The filmmaker announced, in Zagreb at the end of 2007, that he was through with the Gothic themes of malign evil and the perverse: from now on, his work would only be about joy. Un Lac is a sublime film about, not uncomplicated joy exactly, but the exquisite pain of a transition: the daughter (Natalie Rehorova) must leave her home, the sister must leave her brother, in the arms of her newfound lover. The plot of the piece amounts to not much more than that, with this almost Hitchcockian ethical twist or transference: the stranger (Alexei Solonchev), whom the brother (Dmitry Kubasov) at first seems disposed to hate with all his might, actually saves his life after he suffers an epileptic fit. So, a debt of trust and love intervenes, easing the way to the affective handover.
The power of Un Lac comes from the way it pictures and figures this womb or cocoon of the primal family. There is not the slightest realistic detail in the film on the level of its narrative verisimilitude: here is a family in a cabin in the snow, completely cut off from the entire world, from time and history. The young man chops and fells trees: that’s it for a vocation, employment, money, whatever. Realism questions (when, where, how come?) count for nothing here; the film compels us to accept its extraordinary abstraction and subtraction from the ordinary world. What we see is, on the one hand, brute nature (the cold, the ice, the mountains, the barely-glimpsed lake of the valley, the sound of the wind gently shaking the giant trees) and, on the other hand, the sensual embodiment of human drives and desires: has any film started so powerfully as this one does, with the boy’s chopping of a tree (apparently the sonic composite of twenty different noises)? That is, in a sense, Un Lac’s true subject: the channelling of desire, the taming of the drives. From the indistinctness of the family womb – in an extraordinarily brave artistic gesture, Grandrieux films the home interior with almost no discernible detail of rooms, contours, spaces, volumes, except for a dining table here or a bed there in the darkness – to the forging of a necessary (and necessarily sexual) relation to the Other.
There is no obvious sign of a radical political agenda here – of the kind that slightly overbalanced the presentation of Eastern Europe as a setting in La Vie Nouvelle, determining a large part of what was written about it in its defense – but Un Lac is stronger for its absence: the film marks an extraordinary purification of Grandrieux’s art, and a better coming-to-account with the drive to tell a story, which is arrived at here minimally and mythically ... with some strikingly classical moments, such as the rhyming movement of the camera, out on the water, into and out of the shore from which boats arrive and depart (such a central spot in this fable!). Reminiscent again of Zagreb, hearing (unforgettably) Philippe explain the fold from the start to the end of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) ...
One can smother Grandrieux’s films with all the culture one brings to them: cinematic references (Murnau, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Brakhage ... ), pictorial (Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, John Martin), literary-poetic (Georg Trakl, Adalbert Stifter) ... including, naturally, his own previous works. Yes, the camera shakes, trembles, lingers long out-of-focus; yes, the darkness reigns; yes, dialogue is sparse and elemental (‘You don’t know who I am’ / ‘But I know what I want from you’); yes, the soundscape is again all-important, this incredible bed of aural sensations and layers. And there is indeed one, sole moment of cultural reference in the film itself: the breathtaking birth of music (in a film with no score otherwise), first as a voice, then (uncannily) with piano accompaniment, this performance of a Schumann Liederkreis which comes out of nowhere and marks a very precise moment of transition in the film: ‘Your voice is not the same anymore’, says brother to sister. That passage alone sends Un Lac (and me) to heaven.
But one has to resist this assimilation of Un Lac to previously known or experienced co-ordinates. The film lives in the viewer to the extent that it offers, one after another, a series of first-time visions (and sounds), and the gradual revealing of the family members is structured for just this impact and effect: suddenly, there is a mother, a stranger, a father ... and don’t forget the horse, who is just as significant a character here. To really feel this film is to be struck by all this virginity: the freshness of air, of skin (how made-up and artificial all skin in every other movie looks after this one!), of every posture and gesture ... as International Jury member Grant McDonald pointed out, Philippe Grandrieux poses a study of the human body, and in particular the body in a particular position: with the head up, the neck exposed, and the eyes open or closed, looking at trees, listening into the distance, feeling the falling snowflakes on one’s hair and face ... that was the ambiguous pose at the end of La Vie Nouvelle, too, poised between angst and rebirth, contorted in a cosmic scream; but here, it’s a serene trance, the look of love.
(On Closing Night, Un Lac won awards for cinematography and innovation, and I had the thrll of reading out this speech sent by Philippe via SMS: ‘I thank the Grand Jury of the Las Palmas Film Festival for having awarded two prizes to Un Lac. And I am happy they will be delivered into Adrian’s good hands. I am also very happy that these awards come from a country that I especially love. Light and innovation: what a beautiful definition of cinema, of its vitality and greatest energy. I am unable to attend the Festival, because my film is being released in France in a few days – but, despite the distance that sadly separates me from you this evening, I joyfully accept these prizes at the very same instant that you give them to me, because they are coming from Las Palmas to Paris carried at the speed of light: the light of cinema, which is the light that illuminates all our lives. Thank you once again - Philippe Grandrieux’.)
Love permeates Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums, too, a tender depiction of the about-to-be-broken link between a father (Alex Descas) and grown-up daughter (Mati Diop). Denis took a big risk with this Ozu homage, but she’s up to it: it’s one of her everyday films (alongside Friday Night, 2003), the stream of her work I like best, and a beautiful weave of locations (rooms that look lived-in, streets that are unfamiliar), working-day actions (with even a hint of O’Henry in the framing plot detail), music (Tindersticks back together again) and sentimental (sometimes cryptic) incidents that veer from the tragic (an old friend laid off at work) to the sensually charged, such as another indelible Denis dance scene (‘Claire Denis is the only French filmmaker who knows how to film black skin’, announced Jury member Hamé, and better he says it than me).
35 Rhums put the artless, unbearable Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski) – here, the suffocatingly close identical twins never get to part, even when it seems about to happen in the final scene – firmly in its lowly place. Everything that is supposedly so natural, untouched and unaffected in this deep-dish Americana film looks so contrived. In an odd way, in the days to follow at Las Palmas, it came to sit for me on a continuum with more obviously ambitious and artfully-intentioned minimalist works like Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool and Lav Diaz’s black-and-white video Melancholia (of which I saw only about a quarter of its eight hours, almost the only person in the hall for most of that time): after the absolute, all-out expressionism-without-apology of Grandrieux, it was hard to take these films (both of which disappointed me) as anything much above a degree-zero of filmmaking, frustratingly self-deprived of aesthetic resources. (Bring back découpage!) I started to think that the crowded Festival context is no place for such deliberately drained, stretched-out works (although I saw it last October in Valdivia, I’ll add Albert Serra’s terribly thin Birdsong to the pile); but then again, where the heck else is anyone going to get to see them on a big screen these days?
In Joe McElhaney’s superb contribution to En tránsito: Berlin-Paris-Hollywood, the book edited for Las Palmas by Carlos Losilla to accompany a program of rare screenings, he suggests of the ‘underrated Cluny Brown’ by Ernst Lubitsch that it ‘stands on the brink of two moments of extraordinary historical transition: the moment in which it is set (June 1938, almost exactly one year prior to the beginning of World War II) and the moment in which it was made (late 1945, only several months after the end of the war). It looks to the immediate past from the perspective of the war’s immediate end’. The profundity of this insight – and the analysis it prompts from McElhaney of the ways in which ‘history in these films is at once absent and fully present’ – hits home hard during the first of two historical revelations at the Festival: Lubitsch’s only drama, The Man I Killed (aka Broken Lullaby, 1932). It is hard to overestimate the significance and gravity of this extraordinary work; I was fortunate to see it twice in Las Palmas, as with Un Lac.
Single-mindedly fixed on the atrocious legacy of World War I – and the society of patriarchal ‘elders’ which sent its sons away to die, thus making that War possible – it is a story of collective guilt, internalised by one ex-soldier from the French side, Paul (Phillips Holmes), desperately seeking some sort of closure and redemption. After the somber introduction and contextualisation (complete with stunning and very modern ‘mental image’ interpolations) of this premise, many, many years before the current intellectual passion for ‘trauma studies’, The Man I Killed turns into something that strikingly prefigures so many contemporary intimacy thrillers: Paul indeed becomes, once more, that Stranger who moves in on a family circle (the Holderlins!) in a small German town, comprised of father (Lionel Barrymore), mother (Louise Carter) and the dead man’s fiancé, Elsa (Nancy Carroll). But he cannot tell the truth and reveal himself, leading to an agonising masquerade that inadvertently triggers a love affair with Elsa. A horrible lie, or a handy fiction that allows the regeneration of a broken family and, in Paul himself, the broken lullaby of his musical expression?
The Man I Killed is not devoid of Lubitschian comedy – Elsa’s pathetic and opportunistic suitor (Lucien Littlefield) is a familiar fop, here presented even more cruelly than usual; and the sequences devoted to the growing love of Paul and Elsa are handled lightly, with cutaways to every busybody in town, and a boldly musical montage of off-screen doorbells – in three descending then ascending tones – that outdoes even the split-up syllables of ‘Dan-i-lo’ in The Merry Widow (1934). (The more truly Lubitschian film, also in the En tránsito program, was Lang’s marvellous Liliom  – with that ending which, although in clear ideological fashion an apology for male domestic violence, nonetheless seems to be the inspiration for the finale of Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien .) But, in general, The Man I Killed is as serious as a heart attack, and it is marked by a solemn poetry of accusation: Paul’s words to a Pollyanna priest (‘They call that sane – I want to be insane!’), the initial abyss between the young and old man (‘Millions of dead lay between us, a dead world’), and especially Holderlin’s declaration to his stuffy old, racist drinking companions: ‘Fathers drink to the detah of sons ... My heart is with the young, dead or living, everywhere, anywhere’. And the wordless (but richly musical) finale, moving through successive phases of hopelessness and renewal, on a knife-edge of ambiguity all the way past the fade-out, is surely among the greatest sequences ever realised by this greatest of all filmmakers. The Man I Killed is not easy to see at present, but it is available on DVD from Bach Films in France.
On the Internet, some fool wrote that, during a Festival screening in Australia, ‘I announced that Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn was only a mime away from becoming The Single Most French Film of All Time, striking every cinematic cultural cliché dead-centre’. (As a wise person once said: anyone has the right to write such garbage, but no one should have the right to publish it.) But beyond being among the most crystalline and perfectly realised films of Garrel, very exact in its materialist abstraction (what year is it set in? how much fictional time does it cover?), Frontier of Dawn (Dawn’s Shore could be another translation) is also profound in its truly psychoanalytic insight into what haunts any ‘life transition’: the entire film builds to a wedding day, in which the haunted hero will (hopefully) finally leave one morbid attachment behind and renew his tie with life and birth ... but Garrel renders the difficulty of this disputed passage with such lucidity. It is only on repeated viewings that the tight, poetic construction of the piece on every level of theme and form – concentrated in the incredible, off-hand line that one ‘falls’ into happiness, like ‘jumping out of a window, but in reverse’ – becomes agonisingly apparent.
As with the Grandrieux, it’s too easy to flip retroactively through the Garrel back-catalogue here, to tick off the nakedly autobiographical references (Nico, Jean Seberg, electro-shock treatment ... ), to puzzle over moments of excess (the string of Holocaust references), to see this intimist chamber piece as a comedown or scale-down after the triumph of Regular Lovers (2005), to think you’ve seen all the stylistic tics and tropes before ... Frontier of Dawn has been taken in some quarters as a new departure for Garrel, because of its supernatural element. In fact, even this is not quite the case: phantoms, appearing in dream visions (here, the astonishing, just slightly out-of-focus shot of Louis Garrel waking up, hand raised in the air, panicked), have previously haunted Garrel’s previous work. And the crucial film in this regard, the short Rue Fontaine (1984) – an imaginative recreation of the filmmaker’s relationship with Seberg in the ‘70s, at the time of Les Hautes Solitudes (1974) – was explicitly linked by Garrel, in a diary entry written twenty-five years ago, to a literary source of inspiration that is still clearly on his mind today: ‘As in Théophile Gautier’s Spirite, the woman who has suicided appears to the young man in the mirror and calls him to his death’.
In a way, it’s another trauma study: about grief and cryptonymy, about the lost one who takes up residence within you, never properly mourned or idealised, projected externally as a phantom ... or maybe (the richly cinematic hesitation of the fantastique, as Todorov tracked it structurally long ago) actually there, a real horror-movie demon. The depth of Garrel’s vision was brutally evident when put up against not only Lucrecia Maretel’s overrated Red Desert/Marnie riff The Headless Woman, but especially a recent art-crowd favourite, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. What an obscene, grotesque film this is (Hamé said, straight after, that he needed a good shot of gangsta rap to blast this filthy experience out of his system): single-mindedly devoted to exploiting and manipulating every viewer’s queasy feelings about grave illness and impending death, and appending that whole contrived, hyper-busy dance to some tidy thesis about grieving for an absent brother ...
The Desplechin movie is superficial in the worst sense: such evasive moves on the surface to avoid an encounter with any depth, and to take our attention away from how mechanical it all is (while telling us how richly human and epiphanic and Renoiresque/Truffauldian it’s being: in this, it’s the ugly twin of Assayas’ almost equally empty, if less strenuous, Summer Hours). Garrel has gotten to another level altogether: his film never congeals into a thesis because he remains focused (as ever) on the messy signifiers, not the tidy signifieds, and the patterns and affects alike are born with the ever-so-off discontinuities of sound and light and gesture and posture from shot to shot, scene to scene, frame to frame, block-sequence to block-sequence ... And that music, just a piano (Jean-Claude Vannier) and electric violin (Didier Lockwood), but so concrète in its stark cues, its cold commentary, its flutters and fluctuations, sudden starts and hard stops ...
The ‘cinema of the signifier’ (it’s time to start talking about it again, now that most everyone has discarded psychoanalysis as a useful film theory tool – and a good thing, too, if psychoanalysis is to be just a repertoire of thenes and structures rather than a sea of reversible drives and affects) made another, unexpected appearance at Las Palmas (prepared for, in the same session, by the possibly faux-naif but endearing clumsiness of Robert Frank’s family-portrait curio Conversations in Vermont): in a rare projection of Godard-Miéville’s Photos et cie (‘photos and co.’) from the TV series Six fois deux (1976), as part of the well-curated Cinema Thinks Art gallery program devoted to laying out ‘paths of the creative process’. First amazing point out of the many apparent here, even in the lousy, colour-faded tape copy (are there any better copies of this stuff?) shown: from the start of the Dziga Vertov period right through to end of the TV work, JLG basically stops sound mixing, at least in the elaborate way of the mid ‘60s or early ‘80s. (Sauve qui peut marks the rhapsodic return of the mixing desk.) One track, sometimes two: that’s it – and the only available sound is often the ungainly clunks and thuds and internal speed-motions of the video machinery itself. Second amazing point: what an archive of mass media imagery (magazine photos and off-air clips) Godard and Miéville once assembled, an archive whose only trace today is surely what we see on screen in the work itself – it’s a true Cultural Studies period before the differently slanted ciné-archaeology of the Histoire(s) begins. Third point: isn’t Godard’s loopy way of writing (‘automatically’) and thus annotating or inscribing on-screen some stray words and phrases overheard during the ‘professional reporter’ interview we are hearing exactly the kind of ‘punctuation of the chain of signifiers’ provided by a good shrink? Fourth: fantastic ending, which takes the minimalist strategies of Godard-Miéville’s video filming – camera aimed at a pile of photos, hands sorting through them – into the ritual realm of performance art or action art: systematically tear out all the pages of a glossy magazine or respectable newspaper which have ads, or images, and then finally just trash the pathetic scraps of stupid capitalistic text that remain – the sound of the tearing is like fingernails on a blackboard, one sound souped up to the max. Godard in his severest text-and-image phase: we need to all get back to that, too.
The signifier was at play, too, not only in Manoel de Oliveira’s perfectly, typically droll ‘illustration’ of a deceptive moral tale in Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (pity there’s still not a proper print available to screen), but jarringly so in Julio Bressane’s Herb of the Rat, a crazy conceptual-horror-allegory piece – a little Ruiz and Buñuel (and also Oliveira), also a little The Entity and The Exorcist – that alienated almost every viewer who came near it. It’s a recalcitrant movie (seemingly about a control-freak guy who turns his imprisoned girlfriend into a rat), uneager to please: the long durations are unbearable, the ironic repartee is inelegant, everything is stretched out (repetitions included) like a torture rack. In the Las Palmas context, it hit like a malign exaggeration of the ponderous but intriguing Russian big-film Yuri’s Day, which started out like an ordinary (read: awful) art movie (mother and son on a trip into the icy heartland) and then eventually spun into a species of enigmatic grotesquerie more comfortably Polanski-like than madly Ken Russell-like ... I hated Herb of the Rat, too, while watching it – how do films like this actually get funded, I found myself wondering? – but now I remember it fondly. Something else you’ll only ever see at a Film Festival far from you.
Will there be another Las Palmas Festival? Is this maybe the last? Yes, no; yes, no: the rumour pendulum kept swinging from day to day, and still so beyond the event. What’s at issue? The Spanish problem (it was explained to me) of centrism (the big cities send down official culture to the provincial outposts) vs autonomism (local interests – like Gran Canarian short film production – should rule). This predictably enough, and as in other places and events, gets mapped onto the battle of the Internationalist Cinephile Dream versus its Regionalist Backlash Critique: national/ist cinema (boring) is marginalised in the program (expertly guided by Luis Miranda, Lorena Morin, Antonio Weinrichter) in relation to the great World Cinema (new and exciting) coming together from other places (and partly gathered already in programming hot-spots like Locarno and Rotterdam – hence the panel discussion on Film Festivals as an alternative exhibition circuit) ... but is the local Las Palmas audience willing, curious, adventurous enough – also numerous enough – to return this World Cinema embrace? As everywhere, there is one well-dressed bourgeois crowd that comes faithfully to Opening and Closing Nights, and does not come to much else in-between. Opening and Closing Night films are, appropriately, awful, unwatchable fare (respectively, The Baader-Meinhof Complex and The Secret Life of Bees): almost cynical choices (you’ll see them on a 2010 plane trip) designed to get some pan-global star (like Bruno Ganz) onto the stage for a photo op, and send you immediately, ten minutes into the film or earlier, into the all-night bar.
All the paradoxes of the international and the regional are played out (so it seemed to me in Las Palmas) in Miguel Gomes’ already greatly acclaimed Our Beloved Month of August: strange and curious that a film so absolutely local (even ‘folk’) in orientation should find such a resonance in the floating, fickle world of festival-fed cinephile tastes and enthusiasms (not to mention ritual ‘I just didn’t get it’-type demurrals and outflanking strategems). But Gomes will be, I predict, a stayer. (His next film, he told me, features a crocodile named Dundee.) Our Beloved Month is an open, leisurely work through which life itself teems: children, rivers, animals, old people, trucks, dancing, motorcycles ... and above all, stories and songs, re-told and re-performed for the thousandth time. For this is a film about popular music, and in its most kitsch, everyday forms: religious parades, karaoke, a marching band, all-night accordion parties, radio programs, and MOR cover bands who favour sentimental ballads of the Julio Iglesias style. But maybe even if you don’t love this music before you see the film, you may admire it afterwards ...
It is truly ‘between documentary and fiction’, sometimes an essay-film, sometimes a family melodrama. What is brilliant is its slippery status, how it slides, without announcing it, from one pole (documentary) to the other pole (fiction). Gomes, a true trickster, covers his tracks, and surrounds the production of the film with what he calls ‘big lies’: every viewer will get lost trying to figure out what came first, the real people or the imaginary characters they play, the stories told in the old, corny songs or the story devised by the director ...
So we have the rich reportage of life in Arganil during the holiday season in August. On top of that, seemingly emerging out of it, we have a story, sometimes touching, sometimes terrifying: the overly close bond between a father (Joaquim Carvalho) and his teenage daughter (Sónia Bandeira), both members of a modest touring music group. And then we have, very slyly, interposed scenes of what Nicole Brenez calls la fabrique or (as in English) the making-of: Gomes with his worried producer (who ends up in the cast), his crew members, his massive script ... But these scenes are not casual or raw cinéma-vérité; they are as chiselled, as droll as any comedy scene by Tati, Luc Moullet or Jean-Daniel Pollet. By the very end – in a end-credits sequence that keeps every audience member in their seat, for a change – this making-of has transformed itself into magical realism à la Apichatpong Weerasethakul: the sound recordist is picking up, through his microphone, musical sounds that are not even occurring in the real, natural space ...
Everything here depends on the inventive art of transitions. The film is always moving us along, jumbling us up, spacing us out in simple but ingenious ways, through the de-phasing and superimposition of image and sound. The film is not so long by contemporary Film Festival standards – a mere 147 minutes – but you will still hear that it’s too long, that it could have easily ‘lost an hour’ in editing and still amounted to the same film. Not so. It needs time to roam between its different levels, to slowly find its unique register. Gomes’ film offers its own, remarkable vision of an ‘expanded cinema’, a cinema of multiple levels interacting in space and time – freeing the viewers’ minds and letting their emotions roam. It is, indeed, a revelation.
In Las Palmas, there is, however, one value that cuts through and beyond all tensions, all oppositions, all dialectics: something fabulously weird, radical and popular all in the same stroke. It is la noche más freak – the freakiest night! The dusk-to-dawn of cult/trash/exploitation/gore/B cinema. Again, a whole new crowd of people – and so many of them, filling multiple theatres for the same shuffled triple-bill (plus shorts, including Nash Edgerton’s Spider – for me, a more bearably concentrated dose of Australiana than the weak mock-TV-doc Lake Mungo). Is this the same old, one-size-fits-all moving festival of cult cinema? Under the guidance of programmer Jesús Palacios – celebrating, indeed, his década freak, the one unassailable commercial and cultural success of the Las Palmas Festival – something different and more particular takes shape. I didn’t make it through to Tokyo Gore Police – that seemed the most predictable, familiar item to me – but I bathed in the French/Canadian Martyrs and the extraordinary Embodiment of Evil, José Mojica Marins’ directorial comeback. Is Jésus the only trashmeister in the world who can introduce such work to a hungry crowd of costumed freaks complete with erudite references to Foucault and Bataille? Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is, in this context, an extreme but thoughtful movie: surely one of the few in the Saw/Hostel cabal that goes all the way to the absolutely logical but usually desperately avoided association of all this body-torture with Nazi medical experiments and death camps. As for Embodiment of Evil, it is a supreme cult movie of the highest order: exhibitionistic, outrageous, deeply political, constantly inventive and surprising. And a completely unique amalgam of modern digital effects and vistas with old-school surrealist gore. It will be interesting to see what level of respectability it can win ...
Embodiment of Evil is dedicated to filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla and critic Jairo Ferreira, his underground compatriots from the ‘60s – when experimentation and politics were not so far from horror-gore-exploitation genres as they usually are today. However, it is not only Marins’ comeback which signals a generational transmission of tough, poetic film culture in Brazil, but an extraordinary movie which counted for me as one of the outstanding discoveries in Las Palmas (and might also have possibly found a berth at the Freakiest Night): Kiko Goifman’s resolutely divisive FilmPhobia – although surely CinePhobia would have been a more apposite English title, given that it begins with the tale of how even the canonical cinephile cult object Rome, Open City (1945), viewed by a little child on a cruise ship, can register as a horrifying film of fear! The guy telling that story is the legendary critic of Ferreira’s generation, Jean-Claude Bernardet, and one of the delights is the scene where Coffin Joe (Marins) himself pops up in the editing room to evaluate the footage Bernardet has been accumulating of willing participants facing their greatest fears: ‘I think I see a semi-erection there’, Marins notes.
Promotional material claiming that this was an exaggeration, parody or critique of Reality TV, or Saw/Hostel torture-porn fantasies, turned out to be highly misleading, and probably an obstacle for some viewers – although one can’t help but note the affinity (entirely unintended by the filmmaker, as it turns out) of what we see with TV programs like Fear Factor or especially I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!. In fact, what we are seeing is far closer to ritual performance art, some very modern outgrowth or descendant or Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty ... at least until the strong, lurking dose of the Absurd in all this (thousands of buttons being hurled at a button-phobic, toy cars buzzing around with condomed phalluses on top underneath a suspended woman, a Lynchian dwarf scurrying up a beach to menace Goifman himself in the very first shot) dawns in the viewer’s consciousness.
But does it dawn for everyone? From many post-film discussions (arguments, actually), it seems not. ‘It is just the same, or worse, as what it pretends to address’ – meaning Reality TV and horror movies – was a refrain I heard a lot, signaling a blanket refusal to engage with it further, or see what it really is, and is doing. But what is so special about CinePhobia is its absolute ambiguity of status as a gesture or object. What is it: a psychodrama, a elaborate gag, an exposé? It is astounding what viewers – highly intelligent viewers – simply do not register in this relatively short but agonisingly protracted feature: such as the Brechtian ruptures of the participants’ reactions being directed and rehearsed! The film is structured as a ‘slow reveal’, but the ambiguities are never dispelled, they merely get deeper: Bernardet really does have AIDS and is approaching blindness, and quite a lot of what he says resembles things he says in his own interviews down the years – while, at the same moment, he is clearly also ‘playing a part’, with no small amount of gruesome jollity, for Goifman’s conceptual meta-film project. Add to this the fact that some of the participants in the project (the director included) really do seem to be flipping out at various points.
But CinePhobia, by its end, turns around almost 360 degrees, even if you haven’t been aware of the gradual metamorphosis: and if it’s about anything, it’s about the pretend-director’s mad dream of using the ritual of fear and phobia to produce a ‘true image’ from the reaction of the sufferers ... not at all far, I would think, from the emblematic figure of (say) Dennis Hopper as Mickey Ray in Ferrara’s The Blackout (1997). But this impossible quest for the ‘missing image’, the ultimate ‘truth in an image’ that he keeps musing about, is pervasively contradicted by, on the one hand, his own encroaching blindness and, on the other, Goifman’s increasingly avant-garde attention to sound as overtaking and finally virtually replacing the image (surreal Godardian detail: every fear-ritual dispositif comes complete with a live sound mixer!). CinePhobia is among the essential film events of the year: get ready to fight it out.
It was great to discover, or rediscover, some of the films in Rouge’s own ‘Teenage Wildlife’ selection: Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story, for instance, so popular with the local crowd: absolutely systematic (and thus prefiguring his later, more conceptual black-comic work) in its alternation and comparison of adolescent and adult worlds, determinedly grim in its final tableau (from which the teen lovers have – mercifully – disappeared). But the total delight of this film is in its texture: the greens and yellows of early ‘70s film-stock carefully restored; the reverb-crazy pop tunes (with lyrics by Andersson himself!) that trigger the melancholic sensibility of an entire age, society, time and place; and every brilliantly crafted transition from shot to shot, scene to scene, and sound to sound. The film offers a mixture of stylisation and naturalism that was to tip decisively in the direction of the former in Andersson’s later career; all the more reason to celebrate this jewel quite recently rescued from the oblivion of contemporary cinema history.
Fascinating, also, to (as it were) pull in pertinent teen-wildlife films from elsewhere in the program, such as the very small, much-derided but commendable Cómo esta muerto/Como esta muerto (no bilingualist could quite explain that tricky title to me) by young Argentine filmmaker Manuel Ferrari. This modest, black-and-white video-piece seemed to be in the recent tradition of Matias Piñeiro’s memorable The Stolen Man, which received a prize at last year’s event (and received an encore screening as part of Jamie Peña’s fulsome Argentinean Cinema block, with Piñeiro – a juror for the José Rivero ‘new director’ prize – on hand). An enigmatic, heavily play-acted piece, seemingly filmed mostly on one main commercial strip in Buenos Aires, it features a band of teens who are truly deadbeats, bad scammers, and apparently without parental homes of any kind: they keep trying to chat up the same, reappearing tourist girls (no conclusion to that), one (who becomes, almost by default, the central character) listlessly attempts to stage his own kidnapping and ransom demands, they keep themselves artificially awake until they start falling unconscious on the street, in trains ... and in its final, haunting scenes, the anti-hero begins hiding out in the back rooms of churches (grand organ music booming on the soundtrack), like the breakfast-club of Stolen Man very disconnected from every kind of classical cultural tradition ... The ‘to be continued’ credit at the end elicited audience groans (and was surely half a joke), but Ferrari will be worth watching, when and if he continues.
Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Sound and Fury, my god! (Miguel Gomes and his editor Telmo Churro were keen to see it; asked me if it had any sex in it. Who called Brisseau recently a ‘reliably randy auteur’?) 1988: it’s always instructive to confront one’s memories, one’s constructed mental picture of a film from the past, with the real thing. I remembered Sound and Fury – a movie about tough suburban life, and delinquent teenagers at school – as a much smoother, more fluidly developed, more conventionally coherent film than it actually is. My memory had completely rearranged its jagged, lurching, elliptical progression of events into a classic three-act structure – shame on me! My memory had also beefed up the production values of the film: it’s sparse, quite austere, with very few locations, precisely a B film. But it had retained (with some re-editing) the wild moment of youth revolution, which takes Vigo and If ... (1968) all the way to Murnau: when the chief delinquent hurls himself out the classroom and along the ledges of all the adjacent rooms, urging his fellow students to rebel and rip it up – and them, all in the same shot as the camera tips down, hundreds of kids stream, yelling, into the yard. The cellule of the future!
It’s always the mix of things that disturbs critics of Brisseau (and our pale world is full of them): absolute perversity, absolute decadence, right alongside absolute sweetness, light and innocence, and with no real way to tell them apart or separate them. In Sound and Fury, the social issue/social problem/social concern of the film, which is so palpable – it offers an incredible portrait of the social and familial conditions that brutalise kids – suddenly comes up against a moment of outrageous spectacle that made the Las Palmas audience explode with liberating laughter. A prim, bespectacled school councillor decides to visit the council flat of her problem student, unaware that the father she seeks to have a rational discussion with, stalks the passageways of this tiny space with his favourite shotgun in hand. When she finds the front door open, she walks in; instantly, the Bad Dad grabs her brutally from behind, puts the firearm to her head, and focuses her attention on the words writ large all over the facing wall: this text reads, ‘Death to the Social Worker’. And how often we have all dreamt this scene, the vulgar, vibrant anti-social revenge against the social functionary do-gooder ...
You know the cinephile game that consists of proclaiming, ridiculously but passionately: ‘cinema is Rio Bravo, is Le Mépris, is Viaggio in Italia, is Gertrud, is Eyes Wide Shut’ ... ? Well, now I too can play the game, because cinema for me is, categorically, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Le Départ (1967). How can this amazing film have counted for so little in the annals of post-Nouvelle Vague film history, when it should figure as one of the great culminations of ‘60s cinema? (It does happen to be Louis Garrel’s favourite film, as I learnt from some stray fashion magazine.) It is cinema in so many ways: as a city film (about Brussels, hypnotic in all its aspects); as the portrait of an iconic young star (Jean-Pierre Léaud) at the paroxysmic height of his histrionic, acting-out energy (and Skolimowski misses no opportunity for a lark, a disguise or a prank); as surely among the very finest fusions of image and incident with an almost non-stop jazz score by the legendary Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) – whole, complex passages (bridging many scene and location changes) seem shaped around the dynamics of the large ‘cues’ in this score; and as freewheeling, masquerade comedy (Léaud dubbing himself – the whole film, I think, is post-sync, ‘sounds like a porno’ as critic Antonio Weinrichter observed – in mock-Indian is a highlight). The print was old and falling apart, but it didn’t matter. On screen it was great; nonetheless, it is The DVD We Need.
Le Départ is sheer dynamism, sheer dynamite: although Skolimowski strikes me as the least cinephilic of directors (in the sense that filmic quotes and allusions rarely figure here – cars and girls are what really fire his imagination), his palpable joy in the conjuring, capturing and configuring of movement, scale, speed (is this, outside of Richard Lester, among the first films to kick off with an unbridled act of the hero running?), musical mood (what joy in those lyrical, free moments when post-sync voices and ambient sounds are dropped altogether! - as in the motorbike ride where Léaud confesses something unhearable to the sublime Catherine Duport – what an intro she gets, the descending lift bringing her into close-up! – while that sad French pop song pours out) and gradations of light and dark in black-and-white: it’s like watching the cinema invent itself before your eyes, from silent days right up to now. Especially in the immortal sequence – Richard Lester meets Grandrieux – of Léaud and Duport carrying a mirror and clowning around with it: all the way to the reverse-footage moment where the mirror breaks and then unbreaks so the scene/plot/film can just go on intact! And I’ll be damned if Monte Hellman didn’t get the burning-frame (under the sound of racing cars) ending of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) straight from Le Départ (rather than the artier Persona) – Brad Stevens even agrees with me on this.
As a romantic comedy, too, it’s right up there with It Happened One Night (1934), from overnight-in-car-boot to hesitant bedroom glances and the morning of the big race that finds him still there with her – it has the ardent brio (and nervous candour) which the Nouvelle Vague itself rarely if ever achieved, not even in Truffaut (sedate compared to Skolimowski). And what a modern sense of humour: sudden stasis (paralysis) broken by shouts and mad gesturing, immediate contradictions (this car freak is a hairdresser by day?), scenes whisked away without a backward look. I have to catch it again in Jeonju in May, it’s hard to come by ...
6900 words and the diary is still unfinished, unfinishable (I saw some movies on the plane, too), ephemeral, yet (Monte fast-car memory again) ‘a set of emotions that’ll stay with you’ ...
© Adrian Martin and Rouge March/April 2009. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.