Thanks to the cultural hoarding of the Hapsburgs, a visit to Vienna’s delightful Kunsthistorisches Museum epitomizes the term “embarrassment of riches.” The institution was a rewarding stop during a recent visit to the city for the Vienna Film Festival, which had a rather more manageable scope but contained its own riches. The selections of the 51st edition, screened in an assortment of older cinemas each with its own personality, ranged from a program showcasing the Sensory Ethnography Lab to a sampling of 3-D Asian cinema (including a Vietnamese action film), while an in-person Will Ferrell tribute rubbed shoulders with the Austrian Filmmuseum’s Jerry Lewis retrospective.
The Viennale doesn’t strive to plant world-premiere flags, and its judicious scope and discerning sense of juxtaposition distinguishes it from other festivals. While you’ll find crowned heavyweights such as Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, they don’t hog attention, leaving space for a moviegoer to piece together an idiosyncratic journey and share in the sense of freedom demonstrated by artistic director Hans Hurch, who programs the festival.
And so why not pay a visit to Ricardo Bär, a Rouchian endeavor about an Argentine farmboy who is balancing studies for the priesthood with responsibilities at home? Directors Gerardo Naumann and Nele Wohlatz helped make Ricardo’s schooling a reality, and they devote a little too much energy to framing their reflexive role. But their incidental document of a German-descended rural community finds an intriguing settler’s mix of conservativism and experiment alive in Ricardo, an earnest young man prone to Asperger-esque discursions. Eduardo Cozarinsky’s personal investigation Letter to a Father also delved into Argentina’s rich immigrant history via the filmmaker’s Jewish gaucho grandfather and peripatetic Navy father.
Soft in the Head
The Viennale’s other adventures in filmmaking ranged from the latest by octogenarian cine-idol Jean-Marie Straub (Un conte de Michel de Montaigne, a world premiere), to Soft in the Head from restless Brooklyn filmmaker Nathan Silver. Silver, who directed Exit Elena, thrives on the buzz and clash of domestic anxiety and stories of intrusion, observing collisions and connections among personalities with different rhythms and backgrounds. In Soft in the Head, he contrasts two families, by way of a shy, slightly arrested neurotic named Nathan, out of place living at home with his Orthodox parents; and a young woman, Natalia, who escapes after a bad breakup into a small group home run by a slow-talking saint of a man. As others have observed, the dinner table (perhaps specifically the holiday dinner table) appears to be a key dramatic model for Silver, who brings forth a post-Cassavetean energy that remains to be fully harnessed.
In Double Play, filmmaker and cineaste Gabe Klinger brings together James Benning and Richard Linklater, a pairing that might cause a double take, until you learn all that they do share: later-in-life turns toward filmmaking, a love of (and history with) baseball, an openness to temporal experiment and formal rebirth, and a curiosity about defining American-ness that is itself particularly American. Drawing liberally from an onstage interview at the Austin Film Society, clips from the two directors’ films, and visits to Linklater’s editing room (where Boyhood is up on the console), Klinger creates a conversational structure for the film, making Benning’s visit with Linklater the throughline of the film. He also opens up the typical docu-portrait frame with, for example, long shots of Benning and Linklater playing ball—a flexibility of staging that lives up to the film’s billing as an installment in the venerable Cinéma, de notre temps series. Double Play illustrates how the two filmmakers’ sensibilities converge and diverge—Benning’s solitary approach, say, versus Linklater’s directorial self-identification as a kind of “coach”—as in an extended rendezvous you might find in certain Linklater films.
Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne and Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone’s Mouton both piece together troubled arcs of maturation. In the well-acted Suzanne, a pregnant woman leaves her trucker single-dad and sister, straining their fragile family bonds; in Mouton, an oddly patient young man, who procures legal separation from his mother in the opening scene, perseveres as a cook in Lower Normandy—until his life is blindsided by the kind of event you might find in a macabre, two-paragraph news item. Mouton performs a certain trick as its narrative cruises past this opportunity for rubbernecking to continue in unexpected ways, and Suzanne too revivifies a French subgenre of scrappy delinquency with its elegantly attenuated chronology and ably earned lump-in-the-throat sentiment.
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A Thousand Suns
The Viennale also pulled off the feat of unearthing a largely unknown quantity with its six-feature retrospective of Gonzalo García Pelayo, a Spanish filmmaker of the late Seventies and early Eighties later known as a shrewd casino gambler. You could also lose yourself in a cinematic universe of your choosing through the Filmmuseum’s Lewis retrospective—which, like so many 35mm smorgasbords these days, can feel like the last of its kind, and all the more vital for it—or Louis Feuillade’s surreally prolonged 1918 espionage serial Tih Minh. (My highlight: watching Shirley MacLaine out-Jerry Jerry in Frank Tashlin’s 1955 Artists and Models, at a packed screening where the person behind me sounded like she might actually die from laughter.) Another kind of retrospective came in the documentary-like stylings of A Thousand Suns (Mille soleils). Actor-filmmaker Mati Diop charts cinema and personal history by exploring the mythical past and the henpecked, mildly ignoble present of Magaye Niang—the urban-cowboy star of the 1972 Senegalese classic Touki Bouki, directed by Diop’s uncle Djbril Diop Mambéty.
Without prior direct experience of past editions, it’s hard for this correspondent to rate the Viennale’s 2013 showing, though certainly the nearly hundred-thousand-strong attendance numbers reflected robust popular interest. In any case, the Viennale is a place whose particular poise you’re almost hesitant to trumpet, lest it be overrun.