AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2010 – “DIRECTOR’S STATEMENTS”
SHOOTING FROM THE LIP
by Harlan Kennedy
“In 2006 we started shooting dead insects on a revolving trash can….”
“The future is pure speculation. So is love.”
“The only reason you are not transparent is because particles move at high speed inside your body.”
“We are scum! We are barbarians!”
“In the beginning was the great cosmic egg. Inside the egg was chaos, and floating in chaos was Pan’ku, the divine embryo…”
Wow. You mean filmmakers actually talk like this? They certainly write like it. Or they do so every year - come rain, come shine, come storms or shortfalls of logorrhoea - in the annual Venice Film Festival catalogue.
Every September this incomparable tome, a lavishly presented companion on the road to enlightenment at Europe’s top end-of-summer flickfest, includes, in each entry for each movie, a ‘director’s statement’.
In a paragraph the auteur is allowed to explicate or mouth off - or show off or goof off - about his product, in much the way an executive at a board meeting might have two minutes to make a ‘presentation’ about his mad, brilliant or revolutionary new idea.
Some director’s statements are long, some short. Some are sane, some deranged. Some are even non-existent: those instances in which a creator, invited to attach a message, prefers to remain mum. (This year actor-helmer Vincent Gallo did so. Maybe he remembered his crucifixion at Cannes in the year of BROWN BUNNY, 2004, when everything he said intensified the ridicule over what he had made. Gallo offered the words “No comment” in this year’s catalogue.)
But what a vehicle these directors’ statements are. How they help us peer into the conscious schemes or unconscious follies of a work of cinema. What do film artists say when they have the freedom of the literary mike - when they are handed the conch and told to address the invited crowd?
Inspired by the muse of speech, they can be varied, eccentric, beatific, unpredictable. As a veteran of these Venice verbals, I consider the director’s statement - hereinafter referred to as the DS (which puts it two letters away from BS, a safe but not fail-safe distance) – an underrated form. It is often more entertaining than the movie. Certainly it can be crazier. Take this.
“Forgive, vengeance, justice and innocence. Desires are produced due to the gas mask serial killer…. At last, we are going to be the enemy itself, then we can recognize what it is, what it wants, and how black it is. It is a huge black hole that sucks one by one…..we recognize that something impolitical is political…belief in completeness is totally incomplete. One truth – nobody can escape from politics: that is the reason that anybody can be the next victim of the gas skin serial killer.”
The writers are Kim Gok and Kim Sum, co-directors of BANGDOPKI, a metaphysical revenge thriller cum political allegory from Korea, showing out of competition. Not everyone at Venice saw the movie, but there were dozens of ‘hits’ for the DS. The surreal style owes much to the catalogue’s wobbly English: we have a somewhat sporadic idea of what the two Kims are talking about. Those who saw BANGDOPKI say the film makes nothing clearer. There is something marvellous, though, in their blurb, something haiku-hieratic and also haiku-hypnotic.
Consider too that “political/impolitical” thought and its formulation. Another ‘director’s statement’ can say the same thing more rationally yet less persuasively. Jerzy Skolimowski, in his DS for ESSENTIAL KILLING, insists that his chase thriller involving an escaped Taliban fighter (played by Vincent Gallo in actor mode) eluding rendition captors in snowy northern Europe is “neither political nor apolitical”. We scratch our heads. It has to be one or the other, doesn’t it? You can’t say of a shop it is neither open nor shut. Yet when the crazy Kims dish out this fancy-footed mysticism, we buy it. Sort of.
The moral? Don’t make your DS ploddingly logical or literal. Give it some of the whack and wackiness of your movie. Spook the reader. Puzzle him. Provoke him.
Listen next to this. You know the director. And you have most certainly heard about the film in question – a cause celebre - even if you haven’t seen it.
“Be careful how you interpret the world: it is like that. It is impossible to state what one in fact believes because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same time. A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words. Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble. Nobody gossips about other people’s secret virtues. When the fight begins within himself, a man’s worth something. Only dead fish swim with the stream. I am honoured and humbled to have this film at the Venice Film Festival.”
Phew. Any guesses? Yes, Casey Affleck, blowing hard, blowing vatic, about his Joaquin Phoenix documentary. I’M STILL HERE was revealed as a gigantic super-con only after the festival. Casey, in his auteur’s blurb, cleverly combines DS with BS, essayed profundity with artful b***sh*t. A bit like the movie itself.
The ‘honoured to be here’ trope is a popular one and has many variations. It is hard to resist the way Japanese director Takashi Miike schmoozes his Venice hosts in the director’s statement for his superhero movie with a surreal edge, ZEBRAMAN.
“I never thought this work would make it into the Venice Film Festival, because:
- no attention to gain praise from audience was paid in creating this work;
- no thought was given to making a profit for the investors;
- this work was shot with brawn and guts rather than brainpower. Maybe this is why you allowed my film to be shown? Oh, you Italians are so wonderful. I love you all.”
Is he on the level? Or is Miike taking the mick? Waggish irony, or a contender for the 2010 Brown-nosing Award?
Rather than blandish or flatter their hosts, some directors at Venice prefer to bare their pain. Agony, they seem to want to point out, is important to the creative process. Especially when the creator is Spain’s Alex de la Iglesia, bringing a film as tormented and grand guignol as SAD BALLAD ON A TRUMPET. Circuses, tragic clowns, mutilation. Iglesia, in his DS, goes on about the anguish of artistic birth. And on, and on.
“I’m making this film to exorcise a pain in my soul that just won’t go away, like oil stains. I wash my clothes with movies.” (!) “I want to annihilate the rage and the pain with a grotesque joke that will make others laugh and cry at the same time. I want the film to take place in 1973, when I was eight years old. I remember that time as a dream, a nightmare – “
Mind you, SAD BALLAD ON A TRUMPET was a favourite of Jury president Quentin Tarantino, who gave Iglesia the Best Director prize. Wonder what he washes his clothes in.
Sofia Coppola offers a succinct if self-important introduction to SOMEWHERE, her etiolated comedy about a hotel-marooned celebrity (Steven Dorff) which – talking of Tarantino’s favourites – unexpectedly ran off with the Golden Lion.
“I wanted to make an intimate portrait of a man’s existential crisis in contemporary Los Angeles.”
There’s still time, Sofia. Just don’t keep repeating the plot of LOST IN TRANSLATION with diminishing returns. But a Golden Lion is its own answer, she would no doubt say, to us critics opining that SOMEWHERE is a long journey to nowhere. Least of all to an “existential crisis.” (Notes towards a better world. Can we stop chucking the word ‘existential’ around as a ten-dollar homonym for ‘pertaining to existence’? Existentialism is/was a particular philosophy, founded in a particular country, France, at a particular social-cultural-historical moment. Use the word Sartre-ianly - or not at all).
No, the best director’s statements exist, I have discovered, at extremes – extreme extremes - of artistic accomplishment. Either they come with films so bad that the DS is like a gem born in slime, one of those miracles that prove there is a ministering angel of counterbalance, who ensures nothing is so poor it doesn’t boast a compensating facet or dimension. Or they accompany films so good that the maker’s mission statement partakes, like everything else, of the work’s irradiating glory.
In the first category, honourable mention must go to Joao Nicolau’s Portuguese A ESPADA E A ROSA (THE SWORD AND THE ROSE). Shame about the movie (pirate adventure with mystical-allegorical trimmings), but you could spend a year happily with the director’s statement as bedside reading.
“…In the beginning was the great cosmic egg. Inside the egg was chaos, and floating in chaos was P’an Ku, the divine embryo. P’an Ku Myth (3rd century, China) Plutex is probably an acronym, the meaning of which nobody knows. (illegible section)” – sic! – “…..When we accept that our familial dimensions were created in the genesis of the universe and that, simultaneously, in some symmetrical anti-genesis, the other (6?illegible section)” – sic! – “dimensions extinguish themselves in order to create room for a more harmonised relocation of forces – one star, one proton after another, quarks with raspberry jam – we understand that Plutex is an entropic receptacle of energy…..”
And more. Believe me, more. Transcendental, bonkers, fabulous, Nicolau’s DS goes on to incorporate “the universe’s constant panting”, two more “illegible sections” and winds up with a sentence that reverberates in the reader’s heart and brain.
“A microscopic splinter in a lab dish can create 75 pocket-size Valhallas or the most abrupt and (only) End.”
Teleogical or what? Nicolau spoils the landscape for everyone else, or nearly, with this director’s statement. Who could match it for mystagogic transport? It deserves its own Golden Lion,
The Silver Lion, if I were handing these gongs out to gab-gifted filmmakers, would go to India’s Mani Ratvan. His director’s statement for RAAVAN, a Bollywood-style bandit adventure set in Tamil Nadu, is a perfectly formed Sybilline riddle.
A Hundred Voices
Did such a man ever exist?
Was he just a man…or a metaphor?”
Clever stuff. (And there’s a bit more). Ratvan’s DS encrypts the film and story’s essence.
However, I would give the important Special Grand Jury award, possibly accompanied by the International Critics Prize, to a director’s statement proving that simplicity can be the best path of all. Aleksei Fedorchenko’s OVSYANKI (SILENT SOULS) was many critics’ favourite film of the competition. Its simple, seriocomical, subtly symbolic tale of life, death and mourning rituals in a Finno-Russian community deserved and got a gimmick-free DS. Fedorchenko’s statement is both masterly and economical in its sign-pointing. It succinctly introduces the themes and main characters. And it is wryly educative along the way.
“’Osvyanki’ is the Russian word for the bunting bird, a cousin of the American sparrow. These small greenish-yellow birds found almost everywhere in Russia usually go unnoticed. Miron Alekseevich, director of a paper industrial complex in the small Kostroma town of Neya, Aist Sergeev, the official photographer of the same industrial complex, and Miron’s beloved wife and painter Tanya, are ordinary people. What is unseen all along is their vision of the world, inherited from an ancient tribe, and the unimaginable passion raging through their deep and silent souls. They could be compared to these small birds: simple, common at first glance, yet revealing riches only sensed by keen eyes.”
The director speaks. The director thinks. The director states. What more does one want from a director’s statement?
Though of course we wouldn’t want to be without the fun stuff either! Pass me some fried mystical eggs from the Pan’ku.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved