A Tale of Two Festivals
By Olaf Möller
Venice’s programming worked in practice but not in theory
Whenever the Venice Film Festival coincides with its parent event, the International Art Exhibition, it’s worth arriving early and/or staying on after the film festival is over. You can ease yourself into The Zone that every major film festival becomes by strolling through the Biennale’s Giardini and the Arsenale, hopefully getting high on a dose of beauty and invention, readying you for what lies ahead. Or, when the festival is done, you can gallivant about the city visiting the exhibitions by nations without a Giardini pavilion, easing you back into daily life. Sometimes you’ll see art that puts the festival’s films into perspective and maybe chance upon intriguing parallels.
The Inner Self in Outer Space
This year, for example, Melvin Moti’s splendid The Inner Self in Outer Space diptych, Eigengrau and Eigenlicht, which was projected on 35mm in a darkened room, functioned as a meditative low-tech Other to festival opener Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s surprisingly fine 3-D mix of Hawks and Tarkovsky, with each work enriching the other. And in the Biennale’s Austrian Pavilion, Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life, a prohibitively expensive three-minute handcrafted homage to classic late-Thirties/early-Forties cartoons, made the hipped-up retro chic of the film festival’s TV short Disney Mickey Mouse O Sole Minnie look cheesy and soulless.
Disney Mickey Mouse O Sole Minnie
Despite the unpromising lineup (especially when compared to the Biennale’s roll call of serious heavy-hitters), there was actually more glory to be found at the 70th Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica—who knew that Edgar Reitz still had an oeuvre-defining masterpiece in him or that agnès b. would prove a decent filmmaker? Yes, this year’s edition turned out to be a joyous experience, even if festival director Alberto Barbera’s overall approach to programming remains troublesome.
As predicted last year, the festival’s retrospective section has been eliminated. In its place, Venice Classics, a section presenting recently restored films plus documentaries about film history, was expanded and given its own jury and awards. The value of a well-thought-through historical program is purely cultural; at its best, it offers viewers an opportunity to think about a moment in the past and its relevance to the present day, while affording the institutions involved a chance to strike new prints or undertake large-scale restoration projects. That said, the standard approach implies that film history is written by archives, museums, and cinémathèques, and not by studio home entertainment divisions and DVD distributors. Barbera and section head Stefano Francia di Celle seem to believe the opposite, offering a pleasantly bountiful smorgasbord of films from the recent past. But often “restored” just means creating a new digital transfer; Venice Classics presented DCPs that are supposedly better because they’re brighter and cleaner (just like the images and sounds familiar from home entertainment and digital projection), even though in some cases new 35mm prints were available. Like Cannes, its big brother, Venice wants to propagate digital as the inevitable future for commercial and cultural exhibition, and educational and avant-garde cinema. Always be wary of those who tell you that there are no options and that call the cautious “purists” and “traditionalists,” as Barbera and Francia di Celle do in the festival catalog. As Pasolini said, there’s a difference between development and progress. The only thing that’s certain is that the digitalization of cinema has immensely strengthened the power of the industry and weakened that of cultural institutions and agencies when it comes to preservation.
24 Frames Per Century
Among other things, the catalog made the puzzling claim that the growing importance of documentaries at the festival was demonstrated by the inclusion of Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known and Gianfranco Rosi’s Holy GRA in the main competition. Documentaries have played in competition as far back as Harry Schenck’s big-game-hunting expedition film Beyond Bengal in 1934, and as recently as 2009 with Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Few noticed and commented on the nixing of the Orizzonti section’s documentary wings, or that the documentary competition had been done away with, relegating films like Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part, and Anna Eborn’s docufiction hybrid Pine Ridge to out-of-competition status. Barbera’s catalog essay also pointed out that shorts have now been integrated into Orizzonti—something enacted by his predecessor in 2010 in order to include the kind of experimental films sorely missed in the festival’s overall mix. This year’s shorts competition mainly consisted of by-the-numbers calling-card films (the sole worthy short around, Miguel Gomes’s wickedly funny 26-minute appropriated-footage essay Redemption, was screened out of competition). At the very least this re-definition of the selection’s ethos is bad strategy: since the middlebrow audience pays no attention to these two programs, why not use them to score points with other film cultural factions, as past artistic director Marco Müller used to? And while Müller enjoyed featuring Romero or Tsukamoto in the competition, now the festival’s attitude toward genre cinema—“for which no form of bias can exist but which are not always easy to position within the programming of important festivals,” as the catalog puts it—is to keep anything that might challenge middlebrow taste at a face-saving minimum, so as not to seem too square. Hence Greg McLean’s disappointing if watchable Wolf Creek 2, Lee Sang-il’s ill-advised Unforgiven remake.
Why Don't You Play in Hell?
It was ironic, then, that amid the easy-watching fluff aimed at an audience that likes to think of itself as edgier and more discerning in its taste, the only points of interest in the remodeled Orizzonti were both genre exercises. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, one of Sion Sono’s minor efforts, executed familiar ero-gro-nonsense with relish and gusto, while Ti West’s The Sacrament, about a religious cult’s collective suicide, is a cut above most exercises in faux-vérité horror and had surprising back-of-the-mind staying power.
Venice’s shift toward art-house populism runs the risk of making the festival a provincial if not parochial affair—a daunting prospect, especially on its 70th anniversary, which was celebrated with 70 brief shorts and a selection of newsreel snippets that capture the festival’s glorious history (both available online under the project’s title, Venezia 70: Future Reloaded). Barbera, backed or encouraged by his boss, Paolo Baratta, is trying too hard to ingratiate himself with Italy’s cultural mainstream—which works well enough in a country that in recent decades has shown a grotesque disdain for what others might think of it. In the short run, this works, but in the long run, not so much. And, in truth, it doesn’t take much—half a dozen slots to serious films would make a world of difference. Inclusiveness, not exclusionism, should be the order of the day.
How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File
With his admirable “Encyclopedic Palace” exhibition over in the Biennale, Massimiliano Gioni demonstrated the breadth for which every 21st-century art event should strive. Hito Steyerl’s stunning agitprop video investigation into the self-defeating dimensions of the panoptical age, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, found its rightful place alongside Dieter Roth’s terrifying video installation exercise in auto-surveillance, Solo Scenes (1997/98). No false borders between image-producing practices separated Channa Horwitz’s sonakinatographic visual works from the geometric drawings Emma Kunz made for her healing rituals. At the Biennale, it was artistic achievement that mattered, not the marketplace.
Cut to the awards. The Golden Lion for Best Film deservedly went to Gianfranco Rosi’s Holy GRA. Like Below Sea Level, his 2008 Orizzonti documentary prizewinner, Holy GRA looks at the nameless people living literally on the fringes, along the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a gigantic ring road encircling Rome. Since few of the lives glimpsed conform to “normal” patterns, many mistakenly viewed the film as an assembly of eccentrics, if not a freak show. Not unlike Ulrich Seidl or Donigan Cumming, Rosi uncovers both the extraordinary to be found in the seemingly everyday and the absurd blandness hidden within outwardly glamorous lives. Holy GRA is less a documentary than a piece of nonfiction prose whose protagonists play themselves in their natural habitats, some hamming it up and having fun reinventing their quotidian routines as seriocomic dramas. Propelled with casual ease by Rosi’s sense of wonder, Holy GRA avoids indulging any mondo tendencies, instead presenting human existence as a treasure trove.
Wiseman and Wang’s documentaries are also frescoes, albeit more expansive. While most of Wiseman’s investigations into the running of America examine the state of things, At Berkeley finds him negotiating the maze that is the University of California, Berkeley, at a moment of financial crisis. As the first three of the film’s four hours depict, comme d’habitude, the different aspects of the institution’s life (teaching, research, administration, etc.), it becomes increasingly clear that something’s up. In the final hour Wiseman shows a student protest and its aftermath. At Berkeley sends us away with mixed feelings, having seen the strictures imposed on freethinking, a lot of double-talk in euphemisms, political confusion among the young, and a certain arrogance among their elders. Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part brings us into a world that consists entirely of restrictions: an asylum at an undisclosed location in the People’s Republic of China. Wang focuses on one wing whose inhabitants are forced literally to run in circles, with little else to do except watch TV and cuddle up in bed. Where are they from and why are they there? The end titles suggest that cops, doctors, or simply family members can send just about anyone who behaves unconventionally to this Ninth Circle.
’Til Madness Do Us Part
Two other apt awards—the Grand Prize for Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs and the Special Jury Prize for Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife—outraged the middlebrow arbiters of taste for daring to demand something from their viewers instead of simply giving them what they supposedly want. Alexandros Avranas, director of the execrable Miss Violence, and his star Themis Panou won respectively the Best Director and Best Actor prizes, while Elena Cotta was voted Best Actress for debut director Emma Dante’s labored car-set kammerspiel, A Street in Palermo, and Tye Sheridan received the Best Young Actor award for a job well done in another amiable David Gordon Green film, Joe. Finally, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope won Best Screenplay for Stephen Frears’s more-written-than-directed Philomena.
Stray Dogs divided Tsai’s followers. Some said he’d run out of ideas and was repeating himself, albeit in an overtly artificial fashion, while others regarded these aesthetic developments as an advance. But variation and the search for ever more extreme creative measures rather than originality are what drive Tsai artistically. In Stray Dogs he arranges a series of tableaux, within which the actors move more than ever like performers, especially when they’re set down in an essentially uncontrollable situation (like Lee Kang-sheng singing against the drone of dense traffic and the clattering of a torrential downpour). Tsai embraces the perplexing motionlessness of the digital image, its irritating depth of field, and color palette, and creates darkly alluring cinematic spaces and experiences like none seen before. The core of Stray Dogs is a vision of dispossession and exploitation—the perverse images produced by a society where too much is in the hands of too few.
The Orizzonti Best Film Award went to Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys, which, with its depiction of rent boys from Eastern Europe and a middle-aged man’s passion for one of them, can be seen as a well-meaning comment on the displays of homophobia seen earlier this year in France. Still, Campillo’s run-of-the-mill realism is both too tasteful and too eager to appear risqué. Uberto Pasolini landed the Orizzonti Award for Best Director for Still Life, the story of a council worker (Eddie Marsan) who tries to bring a little dignity to the forgotten dead—another case of mistaking sentiment for feeling. For similar reasons it was inevitable that Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s miserabilist weepie Ruin would win something, and so its Special Orizzonti Jury Prize was no shock. And I suppose Fish & Cat’s Orizzonti Special Award for Innovative Content was deserved, if only because Shahram Mokri’s unclassifiable exercise in time- and perspective-shifting plan-sequence, which focused on anthropophagy and kite-flying, was the most outrageous, willfully weird film in sight. The Venice Classics Best Restored Feature prize was bestowed on Elio Petri’s 1973 Property Is No Longer a Theft—why exactly, in technical terms, I can’t say, but if the jury of 24 students considered it a great and timely work, they were quite right. (There were a few grumbles, since the digital restoration of Petri’s film was undertaken by Barbera’s Turin Film Museum.)
Gabe Klinger won the Venice Classics Award for Best Documentary on Cinema for Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, a good decision since the film does justice to both auteurs and succeeds in showing what connects their respective styles and attitudes. The only other contender for this award was Samantha Fuller’s boisterous paean to her dad, A Fuller Life, in which a dozen or so celebrities read extracts from his autobiography. It’s a bit unruly if not outright messy but no matter—Sam Fuller’s films were rarely neat and tidy. Last but not least: the Lion of the Future Award for a debut film went to Noaz Deshe for White Shadow, in which the henchman of a witch doctor hunts for albinos whose body parts are needed for religious rituals. According to a fly on the wall of the jury deliberation room Aleksei German fils insistently called for “balls, a film with balls.” White Shadow certainly delivers in that respect, but it’s a tad weak on artistic discrimination and a sense of proportion. But be that as it may, it was certainly among Venice 2013’s few noteworthy debuts.
The truly strong first film was the festival’s most surprising and engaging work, artist Anna Odell’s The Reunion, which had two halves. Part one is a self-contained short in which Odell, playing herself, attends a high-school reunion to which she was not invited. Unperturbed and curious to find out why she was excluded, she goes to the restaurant, meets her embarrassed ex-schoolmates, raises hell when they talk sanctimonious bullshit about their years together, and when things get out of hand, is literally kicked out. In part two, still playing herself, Odell tries to show her old schoolmates (played by actors) the first part of the film to get their comments, and winds up capturing their evasions and self-serving white lies at every new attempt. Becoming more aggressive, she corners the most recalcitrant in situations where they are forced to face her. What she finds is an abyss—at least according to Odell, most of them haven’t changed a bit, they’re still the bullies of yesteryear, incapable of understanding the damage they inflicted on her. Read more generally, the film suggests that society’s hierarchies are enforced from the earliest stage, and that individual freedom is often accompanied by acts of spiritual or physical self-mutilation.
The Police Officer's Wife
Which brings us back to the bruised bodies and battered souls of Miss Violence and The Police Officer’s Wife. The latter, for all the unease and disquiet it provokes, is a remarkable achievement: a darkly cruel antipode to Gröning’s lightly festive 2005 documentary about monastery life, Into Great Silence. This tale of domestic violence escalating to infanticide is also structured around seasonal and religious cycles and rituals. The aesthetic device of beginning and ending every chapter with a title card was maddening to most—and there are a lot of chapters, some consisting of only one or two shots. Gröning’s rigor might look self-serving or vain, but these fade-ins and -outs are the film’s meter: regardless of what happens in the scenes and from one scene to another, these identically timed intervals recur with absolute regularity—another ritual, so to speak. As religious cinema, The Police Officer’s Wife is an extraordinary meditation on suffering and sacrifice as the bedrock of Christian belief,
If audiences found The Police Officer’s Wife annoying, Miss Violence enraged many, though not nearly enough. Imagine a version of Dogtooth without any of its magic, absurdity, or mystery, in which the paterfamilias beats his wife into submission, rapes his children and grandchildren, and pimps them out to pedophiles of all stripes; a version that ends in slaughter and mutilation instead of a quiet rebellion, making an audience applaud where Dogtooth left viewers wondering what will happen to this deeply twisted Eden of weird rituals. It’s nothing less than frightening that the jury considered this vile, self-righteous, feel-bad art-house exploitation worthy of two important awards.
The Biennale’s Japanese pavilion provided an antidote in the form of Koki Tanaka’s videos documenting attempts at collaborative creation—yes, it’s still possible to put a half-dozen people in a room without havoc breaking loose. While their endeavors don’t necessarily end with something earth-shattering, what counts is the unity and harmony of the dialogue. The most engaging was a poem written by five well-known Japanese poets, each representing a different school. Imagine what happens when someone whose art is rooted in stringent adherence to a precisely circumscribed set of rules meets a master of free-floating associations. The result is funny, at times hilarious, but above all deeply moving, like so many efforts in the name of the common good.
And now for a few final nods, as always. At the Biennale: The Electric Assemblage Videomural, based on in Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome project, as well as the chapel-like space devoted to the 16mm-shorts of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva—wondrous audiovisual overkill, green pasture upon which the eye could feast for hours; Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue, a gloriously impossible attempt to come to grips with the Smithsonian’s collection by relentlessly piling up knowledge through layers of digital images; and Romuald Karmakar’s 8th of May, a medium-length video documenting a neo-Nazi demonstration on the 50th anniversary of the Armistice—call it a close-up of a shadow Europe. At the film festival: Bruce LaBruce’s subversive masterpiece, Gerontophilia, a lovely rom-com in which everybody fucks one another across all age and gender borders—desire shall bind us together; Juno Mak’s Rigor Mortis, a touching albeit grim look at loss and damnation in the form of a Chinese hopping-vampire movie, with many a nod to the subgenre’s clichés and conventions; Jealousy, Philippe Garrel’s latest tale of love ground down by the mill of daily life, raw and naked even by his ascetic standards; Hayao Miyazaki’s troublesome The Wind Rises, which frames the story of a fighter-plane designer as a grand romance of struggle and failure, with animation’s supreme living master contemplating the price mankind can sometimes pay in the name of one dreamer’s self-fulfillment, and the willful blindness and egocentricity it takes to realize one’s vision; and finally to Yorgos Lanthimos’s Necktie and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s 24 Frames Per Century, their contributions to the Venice 70: Future Reloaded omnibus, not to mention the untitled pieces by Jean-Marie Straub, Monte Hellman, Amit Dutta, and Haile Gerima. The greats will create something worthy even when it’s a commissioned project and they’re only given 90 seconds to make their point.