In the interest of heading off false expectations, it may be most prudent to introduce this blog by listing those things readers should not expect to find here. For starters, there will be little to no discussion of the cultural sickness known as “awards season”—a once genial parlor game that has, in recent years, erupted into a year-round industry unto itself, spawned countless different types of awards, turned a number of previously respectable film festivals into glorified whistle stops on the campaign trail, and given rise to an army of self-appointed experts whose endless prognostications and petty turf wars (amongst their fellow columnists and bloggers) are as collectively meaningful as so many “for your consideration” ads.
In addition, you will find here no thinly rewritten press releases masquerading as actual news or opinion; no reviews of posters or trailers instead of actual movies; no trend stories about nonexistent trends; and, above all, no logorrheic, first-person monologues about perceived slight from publicists, hotel service quality while traveling, or other equally naval-gazing pursuits. Rather, the goal of this blog’s author, as it has been wherever he has written, will be to keep his head down and stay focused on what really matters: the work.
To that end, what you can expect to find here are serious films—those that aspire towards significance, or which don’t at all but nevertheless have an impact on the culture—discussed, one hopes, with due seriousness. One also hopes that what is written here will not be a terminal point but rather an invitation to further discussion—to wit, there will be comments on this blog, albeit judiciously regulated to ensure a certain prevailing civility. Alas and alack, the level of discourse that too often erupts in the internet feedback corridors calls to mind a wonderful scene in the second act of Tom Stoppard's 1982 play The Real Thing, in which the playwright (and Stoppard surrogate) Henry is attempting to explain to his girlfriend Annie why he won't cave into her demands to revise a didactic, poorly written play by an imprisoned Scottish soldier. After a memorable monologue in which Henry compares careful writing to cricket bats and crude writing to cudgels, he concludes, "I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect."
So, as I once advised to readers of the LA Weekly on an earlier incarnation of this blog, while I do hope very much to hear from you, please do try to send more cricket bats than cudgels.
But enough of that: I am writing this in the early morning hours of the first full day of the 61st Berlin Film Festival, tradition ally the start of the world’s annual major international festivals (followed by Cannes in May and Venice in September), and typically the one with the least Hollywood star wattage—a negative indicator only for those reporters more disposed to covering cocktail receptions rather than actual movies. Thus, while Berlin got underway last night with the European premiere of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, most of the next 10 days will be devoted to stars of a different sort, like the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose long-awaited The Turn Horse (originally rumored as a candidate for Cannes 2010) screens in the main competition here on Tuesday, and the avant-garde filmmaker James Benning, a Berlin staple for decades now, who returns to the Forum—the parallel section, like the Directors Fortnight in Cannes, that is regularly home to the festival’s most daring work—with his latest, 20 Cigarettes.
Then there is the case of Jafar Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker whose name has become known worldwide in the last months, not because of a new film but rather for his inability to make one. Sentenced (together with colleague Mohammad Rasoulof) to six years in prison and banned for making films for the next 20 on the charge of fomenting anti-government propaganda, Panahi had been invited to serve on this year’s Berlin competition jury, and a place remains reserved for him in his absence. In the meantime, the Berlinale is rallying support behind Panahi in other ways, presenting five of his films across different festival sections, including a gala screening this afternoon of Panahi’s subversive 2006 comedy Offside, about female soccer fans who disguise themselves as men in order to sneak in to a World Cup match in one of Iran’s all-male sports arenas. The screening will be introduced by Berlin festival director Dieter Kosslick, while Cannes and Venice festival heads Thierry Frémaux and Marco Müller are expected to be in attendance.
Meanwhile, the latest news from Iran is that Panahi and Rasoulof are both out on bail and living in a kind of legal limbo, their sentences not yet enforced, but not yet rescinded either. And so Berlin—and the rest of the world—looks on with anger, sadness, and hope.