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Rotterdam: Barely There

By Gavin Smith

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Decay

Let’s start with some numbers. At Rotterdam this year, 37 of the festival’s 189 new features were world premieres, as were 76 of its 280 or so new shorts. Among the new features, had you attended the Cannes, Venice, and Toronto film festivals (never mind Locarno, Vienna, and elsewhere), you could have already seen 48 of them. This year, over the course of eight days, I viewed 38 features. Of these, eight were world premieres. Of these eight, frankly only two were any good. (One of them was the inexplicably sudden if welcome single screening, hastily announced halfway through the festival, of the riveting Egyptian anti-sexual-harassment drama Six, Seven, Eight, by Mohamed Diab, which had to be shown on a watermarked DVD because the print was—big surprise—not forthcoming.) Out of that total 38, I’d only recommend 12 features plus three of the 17 shorts I saw (Ben Rivers’s Slow Action, Yang Fudong’s transfixing Prada promo First Spring, and Luc Moullet’s droll protest against the increasing automation of modern life, Less and Less).

In a nutshell, two-thirds of what I saw was a waste of time.

For Netherlanders without access to the international festival circuit, Rotterdam is a cinematic feast, provided you choose wisely or are just lucky. But for spoiled and jaded people like me, the exotic film-history sidebars often seem so much more alluring: a 16-film program of Soviet and Warsaw Pact Westerns; a fine 19-film historical sampler of wuxia (martial arts) films from China and Hong Kong; an inventively programmed survey of fashion design promos, including efforts by Kenneth Anger and, inevitably, Harmony Korine, not to mention a 50-minute video-diary, Une sorte de vidéo journal, by agnès b, who most likely shouldn’t quit her day job; complete retrospectives of American avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, French cult indie F.J. Ossang, and Spanish director Agustí Villaronga (I caught the latter’s quasi-transgressive 1987 psychodrama In a Glass Cage and unclassifiable 1989 paranormal/occult fantasy, Moon Child, and on the whole wished I hadn’t).

Rotterdam continues to be a cornucopia of short films, exceeded only by festivals like Oberhausen which are expressly dedicated to the form. A large proportion of these hail from the precincts of experimental cinema—hence not just the long-overdue and enthusiastically attended Dorsky retrospective but two fine programs of SoCal avant-garde rediscoveries presented by Academy archivist Mark Toscano. The Lantaren Venster, a year-round film/music/club venue and home to all the shorts programs, has long been an alternative locus within the festival for younger, more adventurous viewers. This year, however, those accustomed to making the most of the festival’s entire range of offerings discovered that while the Lantaren had relocated to a superb, vastly expanded new facility across the river, it was now well out of walking range of the festival’s hub. This made for tough screening-schedule decisions, precious time expended traveling back and forth, and the further marginalization of work that’s already considered, well, marginal. In fact, it was here that I saw the best film of the festival, Klaus Wyborny’s Studies for the Decay of the West, a five-part landscape film (originally shot on Super 8 some 30 years ago in New York, Hamburg, the Ruhr, and East Africa), which performs the breathtaking feat of synchronizing preexisting musical compositions to footage edited in-camera so that each note corresponds to a cut—all 6,299 of them. “Before Final Cut Pro, you had to be very inventive,” Wyborny tellingly observed afterwards.

As for the 14-film tigers competition section, predictably, I missed all of the winning entries, and the eight I caught were a string of duds. The one exception was Russian writer-director Vladimir Kott’s deft, engrossing Gromozeka, whose title is the name of a pop group in which the film’s three protagonists played during their high-school days. Now in discontented and troubled middle-age, the trio have gone their separate ways—surgeon, cop, taxi driver—and Kott follows them as they each face and at least partly surmount personal crisis, struggling to come to terms with their misfortunes and mistakes. These three quietly gripping interwoven narratives together constitute a very recognizably human take on the moral dilemmas and emotional impasses of modern urban life and although Kott gives us a dose of the familiarly grim aspects of life in today’s Russia, he never succumbs to nihilism and despair, instead offering a measure of cautious hopefulness.

Compared to what I saw of its competition rivals, Gromozeka had the virtue (or sheer temerity, depending on where you stand) of being well-directed, well-acted and well-shot. Why are such old-fashioned (or reactionary) values so out of fashion these days? More than any other festival, Rotterdam is driven in part by a missionary zeal to encourage and fund independent directors in the developing world and in places where there’s a paucity of filmmaking infrastructure or support. There’s nothing dishonorable in this well-meaning impulse, and, as ever, this year’s lineup was chock full of films programmed with an eye to redressing the underrepresentation of this or that culture or make room for alternative narrative or representational modalities. But when you combine this with the global availability of digital cameras and editing systems, filmmaking becomes as easy as falling off a log. The next stop: point-and-shoot cinema, with the camera relegated to the status of an “image-capturing device.” Worst of all, independent world cinema is now facing the blight of an increasing visual homogeneity that digital photography fosters—or even enforces.

Day after day I sat through one indifferent-looking digitally shot film after another—and they were virtually interchangeable in their visual monotony. The default digital look tends toward either a washed-out sickly grey palette or an assaultive, unnaturally bright green-and-blue onslaught, and image definition is unforgivingly hard-edged. And since the cameras are so portable, handheld shooting is often the default style. Representative of this in competition this year were two films from South Korea: Yoon Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night, a confusingly structured and edited saga of high-school frenemies, and Park Jung-Bum’s The Journals of Musan, about a clueless young North Korean defector trying to subsist on the mean streets of the South. Aside from the fact that these were the nth iterations of now-banal subject matter, they, like so many others (Zhao Dayong’s The High Life from China, Michael Krummenacher's Beyond These Mountains from Switzerland, Ed Gass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs from Canada, Rona Mark’s The Crab from the U.S.) use the camera so waveringly and so bluntly that the result is mostly a joyless if not actively noxious visual experience.

And curiously, that joylessness is echoed in these films’ chilly, dysfunctional conceptions of modern human relationships, in which everyone seems to either be exploiter or exploited, victimizer or victimized, manipulative or manipulated; an a priori despairing view of life’s possibilities prevails. Modest attempts to try something different, like Michael Tully’s Septien or R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem, which both take character-based approaches to byways of Americana, never transcend the impersonal flatness of the digital aesthetic.

At its worst, the handheld digital approach is an enabler of manic energy for its own sake, as in such teen-angst-fests as Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel’s Wasted Youth, about a skateboarding Athens misfit (it took two people to direct this?), and David Dusa’s Fleurs du mal, in which a hotel bellboy and parkour practitioner falls for an emotionally distraught Iranian girl who has fled to Paris to evade the political clampdown in her home country (cue much up-to-the-minute recourse to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook). Both films faces the double bind of being hackneyed and stylistically DOA.

Conversely, in quieter films that pursue observational or minimalist imperatives dependent on nuance, atmosphere, and presence (whether of the “slow cinema” persuasion or otherwise), the digital image, unless it’s as painstakingly worked as Pedro Costa does, is too intrinsically inert and insubstantial, too disengaging and too unresponsive to texture and gradation to sustain the desired visual poetics. As a result, a film like Yulene Olaizola’s Artificial Paradises, about a young junkie holing up in an off-season coastal hotel, aims for a becalmed, nodding-out ambience but teeters on the brink of tedium—it’s barely there.

That said, and perhaps contradicting all of the above, three of my festival highlights were in fact shot digitally! Although Koji Fukada’s Hospitalité suffers from the same gray, anonymous non-look described above, this increasingly strange, parable-like story of escalating home-invasion is so inherently idiosyncratic and unclassifiable that it proved irresistible. Recalling the work of Miranda July in certain respects, Daniel Cockburn’s playful Canadian whatsit You Are Here was, if anything, positively at one with its digital essence—conceived as a kind of “concept album” of interconnecting shorts about cryptic systems of organization, classification, mapping, and control, it defies summarization other than as a 21st-century exploration of consciousness. Or not. And finally, circling back to Mother Russia, Alexei Balabanov’s A Stoker was a sardonic moral fable about an elderly, doddering war veteran who tends a furnace in a warehouse. The old man never questions the whys or wherefores of assorted cops and gangsters who drop by to dispose of corpses in the flames—until things go too far... Defiantly garish, and shoddily made, Bad Boy Balabanov seemed to be making a declaration: ugly films for uglier times. Indeed. 

© 2011 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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