AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL - 1994
44th INTERNATIONALE FILMFESTSPIELE
by Harlan Kennedy
Half an hour later, after
vainly hoping the vehicle would do a return loop, we were thrown terrified
into the snow. Miles beyond the West; beyond the
But then that's what happens when
a Wall comes down: nothing stops you going in the wrong direction. With the
East now a free-travel area, humanity can once more get hopelessly,
wonderfully lost. (We finally caught a taxi back to the West; it was driven,
we both swore, by Gromek, Hitchcock's
kill-resistant Stasi.) And
with film festival nations now one big happy family,
are we saying goodbye to that defining tension between cultures that used to
Near the start of the '94 fest I began to see the answer. It came during Alain Resnais's two films, Smoking and No Smoking. The titles, with their parlorgame adversarialism, indicate the Eurofilmworld's new flavor: Dialectics can be apolitical and fun. The new tension in pan-cultural pictureland is not between nationalistic blocs – the hell with them – but between opposed fiefdoms much more ancestral. Let us call them art and entertainment; or hedonism and hairshirtism; or modernism and triplepostmodernism.
Resnais's two pix, the most heraldic of the festival, are a dazzling vacation to apocalypse country from the man who started by giving us serious business trips thither – Hiroshima, mon amour and La Guerre est finie. Take an eightplaylet cycle by Brit farceur Alan Ayckbourn, turn it into two 140-minute movies, and milk the multiple-choice narrative potentialities from a story in which we keep rewinding to earlier scenes to rewrite destiny! Here are headmaster Toby Teasdale (Pierre Arditi) and his wife Emma (Sabine Azéma), playing amours musicales somewhere on the northeast English coast, sketched in picture-pretty on a soundstage by designer Jacques Saulnier. She runs off with the gardener or has a nervous breakdown or starts a catering business or stays faithful to hubby. (Rewind for further possibilities.) He falls for the daily help or has a stroke or... etc., etc. Finally, fate is retraced to its primal hinge: back to Scene I itself, and did she or did she not light up that all-important cigarette?
Many, including me, found the films fun. Many, including me, also found them a touch long and maddening. But conflicted response is also an honorable form of dialectics. And admit it, you had the same dual reaction to Last Year in M'bad.
Anyway, that was day two and
already we were picking up
point-and-counterpoint approach doesn't just stop at the Big Question about
the canonized cowgirl. His pendulum curiosity about everything gives this
pageant its prankish intelligence. (It was the best film in
Rivette moves his camera like a medieval portrait painter on casters. S-1-o-w parabolic glides in and out of faces or character groupings. And for dialogue scenes he favors the flat Bressonian beat with brief eruptions of emotion. A French critic I know, who loved Resnais's film, thought Rivette's "pedestrian." Mais oui, mon camarade! Absolument!! This is a feet-on-ground, face-to-face rendezvous with "legend." Never better than in part two's stunning coronation scene, where the higher lunacies of timeless human ritual meet the tiny discomforts of finite human endurance.
We filmfest veterans know all about that. We also applaud that in today's movie world a sore mind in a sore body is not regarded as an automatic guarantee of quality. If the de-Europeanization of cinema has achieved anything, it is the slaying of pretension. Any Emperor now caught wearing new clothes is carried away on indecency charges. Resnais and Rivette – even they – are telling "stories," giving us a good time. And so are Krzysztof Kieślowski, Ken Loach, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
Kieślowski's Three Colors:
White is part two of his Tricouleur Trilogy and
a pace-change after Blue. It scampers out of
Minor but masterly. Just like Gutiérrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate, co-directed – or rather, completed in TGA's absence through illness – by Juan Carlos Tabío. Maybe Gutiérrez Alea was ill. But maybe the grand old Cuban wanted to put a little distance between himself and this un-Castro-ish tale of gay passion. Artist Diego (Jorge Perugorrfa) falls in love with Young Communist David (Vladimir Cruz), even though D2 is spying on Dl's counterrevolutionary tendencies. Add a goodhearted whore (Mirta Ibarra), a set of wacky Christ statues, and much naming of the Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name, and you're surprised it ever got past Fidel – or that, in doing so, it remained brisk, witty, and humane. Come Bear-time, it also copped the Special Jury Prize.
Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird (International Critics Prize) is a beast of a different marking. Count the spots on this insect: they are the bruises inflicted on promiscuous, abuse-prone Maggie (Crissy Rock) by life, men, and British social services. Deemed an unfit ma, she has already been torn from her four-kids-by-different-fathers when she meets Paraguayan political refugee Vladimir Vega. Will they find peace and secure parenthood? Not a chance. This is a Loach movie. Send in the state terrorists – in this case, the welfare workers trying to protect tots from dodgy mothers – and wave court orders about like machetes. The movie has harrowing moments: poor Maggie seeing her new baby hauled off from the hospital only moments after she has given birth; or poor Maggie raving and wailing as the latest official "helper" (= welfare spy) drops by for tea and bikkies.
Yet how much is poor Maggie a
confection of the movie? Loach, with Crissy Rock
(Golden Bear for Best Actress) and screenwriter Rona Munro, makes her a great
sad-sack heroine, with a raw singing voice to pump up extra emotion at
karaoke evenings at yer local pub. But in this film
"based on a true story" we wonder how much truth got sidelined in
the desire to champion our lone multiple mama against the apparatchiks of Loach's
scarce-hidden antistatist agenda. The Paraguayan refugee
gets what seems to be the key bit of dialogue, about how authoritarian
States "need" human suffering. Still, comparing British welfare
bureaucracy, even on a bad day, to
Ladybird Ladybird, for all its tendentious tone and tellyish visuals, was at least a sit-up-and-react movie. Not so some other – indeed, many other – Competition flicks. Visualize, dear reader, those hope-filled minivan journeys out to the Kongress-Halle. The views of the birch-beautiful Tiergarten! The ice jewelled rivers! The statues to imperial glory with their poignant capes of snow! Visualize us entering the charming K-Halle itself, a building shaped like a funny hat, and saying good morning to Horst Benzrath, the patron saint and nonpareil of all festival press officers. And then picture us dumped in the Fassbinder-Saal to watch the likes of Aleksandr Sokurov's Whispering Pages (bits of Russian literature drowned in sea-of-mud visuals), or Reinhard Munster's Back to Square One (German moviemaking satire that never leaves square one), or Mario Monicelli's Dear Goddam Friends (warliberation Italian comedy that makes old Alberto Sordi movies seem like the complete works of Buster Keaton).
These, you see, are the layers
On the keep-'em-entertained side, though, how anxious
We reckon there's a plan here.
for live Americans, how good to see Tom Hanks and Brian DePalma
But the two best things to come from Showbizland were the veterans: Sam Fuller and Sophia Loren. La Voluptuosa, sharing retrospective screentime this year with Erich von Stroheim, appeared looking like a billion dollars, allowing for inflation. And Sam arrived to squire his star vehicle Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made through the Young Film-Makers Forum.
This documentary directed by Einland's Mika Kaurismäki is a
total joy. Room-filling
Sam reminisces. Sam and Jim meet the Karaja Indians who once appeared, or had relatives who appeared, in Sam's film. And Sam, Jim, and Mika screen the surviving footage so the natives can goggle – this is wonderful – at a moving scrapbook of their past.
Tigrero is not a movie, it's 90 minutes of sheer heaven. Fuller and Jarmusch make the cinema's best double act since Laurel and Hardy. And they end by joshing the very nature of these back-to-the-fount moviemaking docus. There (last scene) is Jim having his face daubed with tribal paint by a friendly Indian woman, and there is Sam moving towards the departure bank yelling time to go. But Jim says he's found peace and truth here (man) and he's gonna stay. Sam – great take – pauses; then rasps out Instant Understanding; then shuffles off into his chauffeured canoe; then cries, "Now I'll go back to the uncivilized world!" The movie fades on a piece of human and Hollywood history floating forth into the great cosmic mulch.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1994 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.