by Harlan Kennedy


GROWL. ROAR. (Applause.) ROAR, CHEST-THUMP, CHEST-THUMP. (Applause.) Celebrating 60 years in showbiz at this year's Berlin Filmfestspiele, King Kong was given the keys to the city and expected to deliver some speeches about art, culture, and world peace. Instead, he stood on a roof making violent gestures. Some beasts are never grateful.

The 20-foot statue, perched on the Competition-hosting Zoo-Palast theater, became a landmark for festgoers and an ocular knockout. I suspect it owed its appeal, Kongishness apart, to the confla­tion of great Hollywood logos. Mantled in snow, it was Paramount; strafed by searchlights, Fox; holding one arm high, Columbia; hirsutely roaring, MGM; swirled by cosmic breezes, Universal and RKO.

I can't fit in badge-logo'd Warners, but then Warners had the festival's other untamed beast – theoretically – in Spike Lee's Malcolm X. This came to Berlin with many a preludial roar: Lee really talks a good movie. But the film when shown proved as sedative as fellow U.S. entry Hoffa: two political bio(e)pics undone by the compromise between radical ideas and conventional narrative. "Faction," if we must have it, was better served by two films that delighted audi­ences and fed orthodox storytelling to the shredder.

Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein is a voy­age round the Austrian-born philosopher who went to Cambridge, England, to radicalize our thinking about logic and the role of language. Jarman's voyage is taken in a rocky boat with constant cries of "Script overboard!" The dialogue, co­fashioned with Jarman by Oxford profes­sor Terry Eagleton, sounds as if it was subject to much on-the-hoof revision: just like Chris Marlowe's shooting script for Jarman's recent Eddie Two-The Untold Story. The images blitzkrieg the script in any event. Middle distance: Karl Johnson (Ludwig), Michael Gough (Bertrand Russell), John Quentin (May­nard Keynes), and Tilda Swinton (Lady Ottoline Morrell, thinkster's moll to the Bloomsbury Gang), soaring and sizzling like Fourth of July fireworks as they re­pattern the cerebral landscape of the early century.

You could call the film camp. But then, calling a Jarman film camp is like calling a Rembrandt painting Rem­brandtesque. Wittgenstein's advance on prior Derekworks lies in the serenity of its kitsch. Instead of being asked to gasp at the outrages to taste or plausibility – Ludwig's family dressed in neoclassical gear as if limbering up for a Handel opera, Ottoline going barmy on a four­poster, a green Martian (sic) engaging our hero in philosophical chat – we accept them as legal tender from the Bank of Jarmanland. Result: Jarman has passed through the soul of his first mas­ter, Ken Russell, to a cinematic "other side" where his work has the ethereal potency of unstressed metaphor. Witt­genstein's holy-fool approach to philoso­phy-he called it "just a byproduct of misunderstanding language" and talked of "a lifetime spent disentangling myself from my education" – is ideally served by Jarman's pixillated, picturebook Cam­bridge. And our hero's rumored gayness is inked in with two gentle pillow-talk scenes and a couple of companionable trips to Wittgenstein's favorite medium, the cinema.

Ludwig liked Westerns and thrillers what would he have made of Atom Egoyan's Calendar? Shoot-up at Lizard Gulch it ain't. The Toronto-based helmer shapes an existential teaser about love and loss, set partly in Can­ada, partly in his ancestral Armenia. Here the "hero" (Egoyan) is a voice behind the camera, quizzing his Arme­nian-born wife who is acting as English interpreter to the native guide who is showing them round the Byzantine churches that Egoyan is snapping for a calendar-art commission. (Keep paying attention, it gets easier.)

Small problem: Egoyan is worried that an affair is starting up between wife and guide. Large problem: It is starting up. So let's flash-forward, not once but several times, to post-trip Canada. Here Egoyan is into the singles scene, enjoy­ing (or not) a series of near-identical dating trysts that are staged like psycho-symbolic still-lifes. A girl; a dinner table; two last glasses of Mouton-Rothschild; chat; "May I use your phone?" (her); breaking of spell; and that calendar star­ing from wall as girl gushes down receiver while Egoyan reaches wearily for scribbling work on his latest script.

Past and present – or present and future? – are interlayered with the com­plexity of an office-block wiring system. While the Armenia scenes are a subtle chaos of language systems visual and verbal – video, film, and still images mixed as disorientingly as Armenian and English-the Canadian scenes are tab­leaux vivants, pure and frozen as a Char­din painting. The film is about time, history, and closed-versus-open emo­tional lives. As someone says in a line in the movie that could refer to the humans and/or the churches and/or the doubtful solace of art, "All that's meant to protect is bound to isolate. And all that isolates is bound to hurt."

This hourlong diary film frees up all the themes and motifs that were driven into a cul-de-sac of narrative contrivance in Egoyan's last film, The Adjuster. As in Wittgenstein, the act of flirting with (auto)biography, instead of constraining the filmmaker, releases him and the audience into a zone of energizing guesswork. Here "truth" is a multiform chimera playing come-and-get-me as impudently and provocatively as a Ghostbusters sprite.


Calendar was shown in Berlin's Young Film-Makers Forum, Witt­genstein in the Panorama section. These are the kinds of movies that don't get into the Competition at Berlin.

At times this event was a problem. Too often, expectations dimmed along with the houselights as the curtain parted on a new melodrama about single mothers in Sweden (Nils Malmroos' Heartache) or another bourgeois com­edy about how philistine the bourgeois are (Denmark/Norway's The Telegra­phist) or the latest turbid film noir from Holland (Homecoming). Festival chief Moritz De Hadeln has a near-impossible task. Juggling multiple mandates, he must satisfy novelty-hungry critics, avoid alienating conservative benefac­tors, and salvage what prime celluloid he can from the annual David-and-Goliath selecting tussle with Cannes. Amazing in the circumstances that there were two memorable Competition films. More amazingly, the jury voted them the ex­aequo Golden Bear. Joy and justice are rare bedfellows at Berlin, so hooray for the twelve wisefolk who thumbed-up China's The Woman of the Lake of Scented Souls and China-Taiwan's The Wedding Banquet.

The first, directed by Xie Fei, is a class-act village melodrama. Our hero­ine is Mrs. Sesame Oil Factory Owner who, as if not busy enough assessing takeover bids from Japan, must cope with a retarded son, brutalized daughter-in-law, drunken husband, and longtime lover who now wants to pull the plug. It might have been a daytime soap, Chinese-style. Instead, the film's dark-edged passion bestows a reverberant symbolism on the plainest objects – the sesame-milling machines, the bird-fes­tooned boats that ply the silvery lake and provides a foil for Siqin Gaowa's superb performance as Ma Sesame Oil. She should have won Best Actress, but in the fair-shares-for-East-and-West handout, that trophy went to Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field.

If Xie Fei's pic pleased the schaden-freude crowd, Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet was the feel-good favorite. Gay politics, always a popular Berlin theme, stamps Liberal Correctness all over this tale of a Taiwanese-American yuppie (Winston Chao) in New York who makes a marriage of convenience with a fellow Oriental (May Chin) seeking a green card. Looking on in various stages of aghastness are visiting Ma and Pa who can't believe their luck that Sonny is finally getting spliced – and lover Mitchell Lichtenstein, who can't believe his luck when the girl gets pregnant.

We've seen a lot of this before. The skits about gay life going undercover when the parents arrive (hide the mus­cle calendars and Armistead Maupin books); the jokes about who does the cooking; the matitutinal rituals – straighten tie, stiffen wrist – of the office gay. But the gags and aperçus have sel­dom been better delivered. And even when Lee turns on the sentimentality in the final reel, where the mass reconcilia­tions outnumber those in a Shakespeare comedy, he never cheats on behavioral truth. The secrets and coverups, we note as the end credits roll, haven't been eliminated: they've just been artfully redistributed. Great flick.

One AC/DC film about girls and gay men kipping or kibitzing together does not a subgenre make. But how about three films? Joining The Wedding Ban­quet were Cyril Collard's Les Nuits fauves (Savage Nights) from France and Takehiro Nakejima's Okoge from Japan. These prove that in the fun-starved age of AIDS we can at least have some merriment with the notion of sexual sec­tarianism. Okoge is two hours of so-so-convincing smiley-badge jollity about a girl who lends her life, love, and spare bedroom to two gay lovers. And Les Nuits fauves is a slambang, take-no-pris­oners tragicomedy about an HIV positive writer (played by the director) who swings between a teenage girl and a hunk who plays rugger.

The "comedy" here is black as pitch: unsafe sex and rampant promiscuity pre­sented as the anarchic currency of despair. But it's filmed as witheringly as any French psychodrama since La Maman et la Putain. The movie has the courage of its up-yours egotism right until the ending, when a Rohmerian sunset cues a sudden too sudden – gear-change into redemptive decency. Criticism, though, pales somewhat before the news that Collard himself died of AIDS shortly after Berlin.


Meanwhile, the sunsets over the city were thick with VIPs thermaling in from Hollywood. Messrs. Danny De­Vito, Spike Lee, Gregory Peck, and Billy Wilder stepped off planes, said howdy-do in German, then cut the rib­bon on movies or retrospectives. Peck and Wilder had a retro each, flanking the larger CinemaScope season featur­ing 40 unsqueezed works from the famous director Ana Morphic. Miss Morphic was in town herself. She attended several parties, a pencil-thin presence who would suddenly spread sensually and horizontally whenever a projectionist came near. She was finally thrown out of town on indecency charges. But we loved the naughty pho­tos she left behind: the yellow taxicabs in Bigger Than Life, the Biblical letter­box tableaux in The Robe, the bubbling submarine vistas in 20,000 Squids Under the Sea.

Can you imagine flashy, let's-keep-up-to-the-minute Cannes bothering with a retrospective? Berlin is still a history-conscious city culturally and politically. This year, though, there was a dimin­ished diet of those rearview dramas and documentaries about Europe's past – or the world's – that usually feed us be­tween the fun films. The few political anatomy lessons had a dusty, creaking air, like yesterday's lectures in yesterday's classrooms. Erwin Leiser's Pimpf War Jeder, collecting memories of the Nazi youth movement from his surviving schoolmates of the 1930s! Le Bateau de voyage, flaccid tale of love and betrayal in Vichy France....

Dull films, dull choices. With the Wall down, is Berlin losing interest in playing keeper of Europe's political con­science? Or is this self-flagellating genre – the Present sitting in tribunal on the Past – now flayed out anyway? The Berlin crowds, weary with history and ready for escapism as a new recession looms, responded more to erotic movies flown in from Neverneverland. Fairy-tale romance and interracial bonding from H'wood in Love Field; incest, black comedy, and wacko burial procedures from England in Andrew Birkin's slyly funny film of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (winner Best Director prize). Why, there was even laughter at Barry Levinson's Toys, from which audiences emerged happily humming the Oscar-nominated costumes and décor.

As for Robert Rodriguez's Spanish-speaking El Mariachi U.S.-made, Mexico-set – it brought every available roof down. Seven thousand dollars' worth of action comedy about a pair of identical guitar-cases and their good guy/bad guy owners, it sports Sergio Leone visuals, snarling stichomythia in the dialogue, and the highest hit-rate for verbal and sight gags since Airplane!. No wonder Columbia has bought it for world release, although we quail at rumors of a planned $7 million English-language remake. The Vanishing has taught no one anything?

There's one category of movie-world transplant we would approve of, how­ever. If only, sighed the multitudes of Berlin festgoers, this event's welcoming efficiency and gemütlichkeit would spread to other film sprees. Like – men­tioning no names Cannes and Venice. Once again Horst Benzrath shows that a festival press chief doesn't have to hide behind a million doors, to which the vis­itor hacks his way through a jungle of minions all making Masonic gestures and speaking no known language. Benzrath is out there in front, delivering the smiles and helpful responses. The response may not always be "Yes," but at least there is one. Note this example, O Canniensi et Veneziani.

One other good thing about Berlin: The short films are watchable. No Trout Fishing in Quebec or abstract East European cartoons designed to make Mel Brooks say, "Vot de hell is dis?" There was a six-minute Czech cartoon, Pavel Koutsky's At Zije Mys (Cat and Mouse, which copped the "Bearlet"), but it was a fauve-naïf impromptu in wit­tily lithe and smeary colors: Tom and Jerry as seen by Egon Schiele. Better still was another eight-minute cartoon, Jeff Newitt's Loves Me... Loves Me Not from Britain. A narcissistic besuited bachelor's amorous petal-picking esca­lates from routine frown/smile responses to a fugal frenzy of angelic transport (real wings) and demonic despair (real horns and sulfur). He ends up yo-yoing between Earth and Heaven, just as we had done during the twelve days of Berlin.

Even the last day had a surprise: not a little movie but a little boy's remote-controlled toy biplane seen buzzing King Kong in the mists atop the Zoo-Palast. Witnesses insist that the ape could not have swatted the plane with his paw, but the plane went out of con­trol for several seconds before returning – sporting a dented wing to the Berlin toddler. Moral (there should always be one): You can expect anything at the Berlin Film Festival except to leave it unmarked.

Now, take me to the hospital.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.