Monday, December 31, 2012

Apocalypse in Real Time

Turin Horse (2012) - Tarr
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Set in a barren landscape in an unrelenting windstorm, Turin Horse follows the daily routine of a bearded man and his daughter in almost real time (or at least it feels like one): they get up- the woman first, who puts on layers upon layers of clothes, then helps her father who seems suffered a stroke (his right arm is limp) get dressed, walks through the gale to get water from the well outside the house, boils a couple of potatoes, then they proceed to eat, then stare out the window or the lamp for hours on end then go to sleep. Repeat. Again. Again. Their mangy horse refuses to work or eat. Then their well dries out over night. They have to move, so they pack, leave with the horse in tow, then come back, probably because of the horse wouldn't budge, or there isn't anywhere left to go. Then the oil lamp wouldn't light even though it's full. What does all this mean?

What is said to be Bela Tarr's last film, Turin Horse is a bleak vision of apocalypse. The preface of the film explains Nietzsche's breakdown and decline after seeing a horse being thrashed and throwing his arms around the beast and sobbing. The Beast of Burden. Very Biblegorical. Very Bresson.

The old man's neighbor visits him, informing the town in ruins- 'the wind swept it away. And there is no god or gods, therefore we don't exist either'. A band of marauding gypsies visit them for water, only to be shooed away. With his typical long takes and sparse dialog, Tarr paints humanity's end in grim silence. But I feel that its glacial pace and two and a half hour running time are not really warranted, for there is less visual poetry here.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Michel Houellecq on Haneke et al

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Just finished reading Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq. Loved it. I've read his Elementary Particles some time ago. It really repulsed me at the time. Now I think his observations in human behavior, however painful they are, are very truthful. I just wanted to share with you guys about what the main character says about Haneke. I thought it was funny and biting:

I had decided at that particular time to remain in Madrid all week, and two days later I had a little argument with Esther on the subject of Ken Park, the latest film by Larry Clark, which she had been keen to go and see. I had hated Kids, and I hated Ken Park even more, the scene where this dirty little shit beats up his grandparents was particularly unbearable. That filmmaker completely disgusted me, and it was no doubt this sincere disgust that made me incapable of stopping myslf from talking about it, while I strongly suspected that Esther liked him out of habit and conformism, because it was generally cool to approve of the representation of violence in the arts, and that she liked him without any real discernment, in the same way she liked, for example, Michael Haneke, without even realizing that the meaning of those sorrowful and moral films by Michael Haneke was completely different from that of those by Larry Clark. I knew that it would have been better for me to keep quite, that abandoning my usual comic character could only bring me trouble, but I couldn't, the imp of the perverse was the stronger. We were in a bizarre, very kitsch bar, with mirrors and gold fixtures, full of paroxysmal homosexuals who buggered themselves silly in adjacent backrooms, yet which was open to everyone, with groups of young boys and girls calmly drinking Coca-Colas at neighboring tables. I explained to her while rapidly downing my iced tequila that I had built the whole of my career and fortune on the commercial exploitation of bad instincts, of the West's absurd attraction to assert that among all the merchants of evil, Larry Clark was one of the most common, most vulgar, simply because he unreservedly took the side of the young against the old, because all his films were an incitement to children to treat their parents without the least humanity, the least pity, and that there was nothing new or original about this, it had been the same in all the cultural sectors for the last fifty-odd years, and this supposedly cultural tendency in fact only hid the desire for a return to a primitive state where the young got rid of the old without ceremony, with no questions asked, simply because they were too weak to defend themselves. It was, therefore, just a brutal for any civilization could judge itself on the fate it reserved for the weakest, for those who were no longer either productive or desirable, in short Larry Clark and his abject accomplice Harmony Korine were just two of the most tedious-and artistically the most miserable- examples of the Nietzschean scum who had been proliferating in the cultural field for far too long, and who could in no way be put on the same level as people like Michael Haneke, or like me, for example- who had always made sure to introduce a certain element of doubt, uncertainty, and unease into my shows, even if they were (I was the first to admit it) otherwise repugnant.

*Just to give you a little bit of background info. The main character Daniel in the book, has made career out of being the most cynical, racist, sexist, any number of negative -ist comic persona. He realizes, at this juncture of the book, that he is aging and there is no turning back (he is in his 50s). Even though he is banging a 22 yr old girlfriend, Esther, who gives him the greatest physical pleasure he ever experienced in life, he gradually learns that the young generation doesn't seem to be aware of the concept of 'love' or 'compassion'.

Daniel is in many ways a despicable character. What I like about Houellebecq is that once in a while, asserts certain truth he believes in through his protagonist and doesn't try to hide it. And I tend to agree with him.

Billyoh

I Know Where I'm Going (2009) - Rivers
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A scientist narrates about the significance of human existence on the earth as we separately follow three eclectic, troll-like men living out of the grid (one of them is Jake Williams, the sole subject in Two Years at Sea). What would remain of our actions or traces a hundred million years from now? Are we leaving an indelible mark on the earth to be remembered? When the earth recycles itself and brings out what's been buried above ground again, would someone find our intact fossilized city? Probably not.

Another lovely short (30 minutes) musings on human existence by Rivers in the backdrop of Scottish Highlands, shot in grainy anamorphic 16mm. His color stuff is even lovelier. Can't get enough of Ben Rivers. I'm hooked!

Two Years at Sea Review

Some nice person put this on youtube in its entirety as I just found out:

 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Torpedoed Heart

Submarine (2010) - Ayoade
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One of the many reasons I don't like Wes Anderson movies is that his protagonists, regardless of their age, are arrogant pricks. They all represent selfish, cocky twenty somethings in a child/older man's body that even their mother would find disturbing. Maybe it is my disgust with the recent viewing of Anderson movie that hindered/alleviated watching this film but I was very taken by it.

Craig Roberts plays a Wales High Schooler, Oliver Tate, who forever wears a my-dog-just-got-run-over-by-a-train-in-front-of-me expression (I wonder if Aoyade based Oliver directly off of Bud Cort in Harold and Maude). The film trails Oliver's trials and tribulations in saving his parents' marriage and being the best boyfriend (to Jordana, played by Yasmin Paige) in the world. Jordana is a type of a girl who'd light your leg hair on fire for fun and return all your book recommendations unread. But Oliver's still enamored by her.

I didn't mind Ayoade's somber visual quirks as it didn't interfere with the story. The location and softly dark photography adds to the film's melancholy mood. Oliver's not so perfect parents (played wonderfully by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) are all too human, their imperfections and awkwardness in full display. Paddy Considine shows up in his trumped up Kajagoogoo-do as a new age/martial arts guru, testing the Tate marriage. He made me laugh so hard every time. I also liked the film confronting life's awkward moments, not skimming over or attributing them to some character defects. Being adolescent does/did feel like you are under the lukewarm bath water. And no, you don't feel like you've figured everything out when you are 38.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dustin's Top 10 Films 2012

A serious year 2012 in cinema it was: the global economical downturn churned out some of the most exciting films, especially in Europe where filmmakers seem to be reflecting on the collective state of identity crisis. On the other side of the pond, other than Paul Thomas Anderson's Master, there was no real grand experiment to be found. Quieter still, and curiously so, was the Asian cinema which lacked both substance and form.

Earlier in the year, my personal exploration took me to documentaries of Les Blank, silent gems, Powell & Pressburger, Japanese New Wave, more Godard, Portuguese Cinema, Raul Ruiz, Christian Petzold and Berliner Schule, Jose Luis Guerin and made me revisit Tarkovsky, Chytilova and Chris Marker. And what started out as a simple question if there was an adequate name to describe the current crop of shape-shifting postmodern cinema pulled me into the very depth of the cinematic rabbit hole, left me exhausted and confused and exhilarated at the same time. As I was reminded watching Film Socialisme, Sans Soleil, Fontainhas Trilogy, Tren de Sombras, Tabu, A Man Vanishes and Two Years at Sea that I am just scratching the surface of this great artistic medium. At the same time, I feel glad and relieved that there are so much more to explore.

Please Click on the titles for full reviews

1. Holy Motors - Carax
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My interview with Leos Carax

2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Ceylan
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3. Amour - Haneke
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My interview with Michael Haneke

4. Goodbye First Love - Hansen-Løve
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My interview with Mia Hansen-Løve

5. Cosmopolis - Cronenberg
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6. Two Years at Sea - Rivers
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7. Barbara - Petzold
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My interview with Christian Petzold

8. Tabu - Gomes
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My interview with Miguel Gomes

9. The Master - Anderson
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10. Faust - Sokurov
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And others:

The Kid with a Bike - Dardenne
Wuthering Heights - Arnold
Skyfall - Mendes
Leviathan - Castraing Taylor, Paravel
This is Not a Film - Panahi
Oslo, August 31st - Trier
Dredd - Travis
I Wish - Koreeda
Almayer's Folly - Akerman
Found Memories - Murat

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Portuguese Cinema Blocked!: Miguel Gomes Interview

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Tabu, a film that playfully evokes the golden age of silent cinema, took home the FIPRESCI Jury Prize and Alfred Baeur Prize for Artistic Innovation at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Its director, Miguel Gomes, along with Pedro Costa, Manoel de Oliveira and other notable filmmakers working today in Portugal, is the driving force behind Portuguese cinema's opposition to the economically strapped government's austerity measure that cut funding for its small but vibrant film industry. The subject dominated our brief conversation at this year's New York Film Festival. As a great admirer of Portuguese cinema, his insights on the matter were very informative and helpful to understand the state of their struggle.

Seeing your last film, OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST and now TABU, I can't help thinking that you aren't interested in the traditional narrative filmmaking. Are you just tired of straight up storytelling in general?


I don't know if I can do films any other way. In Portugal, there is a saying that sometimes good things come from bad circumstances. The fact that we are making films with very small budgets, even compared to other countries in Europe: Spain, Italy, England, Germany, we don't have the pressure to make the money back. We are not expected to do big box office hits or anything. That's our only advantage in being poor.

In the case of Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu, the connection was their lack of money. During the production of both of these films, there were moments when my producer came in and told me, "Miguel, we don't have the money to do what's in your script." So I dumped the scripts in the garbage can. And of course in Our Beloved Month of August, that's in the film. The fact that we were not able to do a film that we planned to do became part of the film.

While filming Tabu, the same thing happened. It may not seem that way for someone watching the film but we were not able to shoot the film the way it was written. Shooting in Africa for instance, we had the general story you see in the film but we didn't have money for certain things. There was a wedding scene that was written with about 100 white people in mind but the place I chose to shoot in had like 5 white people. The bride and groom were supposed to make an entrance sitting on an elephant and there were no elephants in that area. I just had to get rid of 100 white people and one elephant from the film.

So what I do is recreate, reinvent as I shoot the film along. So we just went there with the actors who knew a bit about their characters but they didn't know about which scene they were going to play each day because there was no script. I formed a little group in the crew called the Central Committee. The job of the Central Committee was to come up with a menu list of possible scenes. We had about 150 possible scenes that we wrote up in small cards and put them on the wall and everyday after shooting, we took down the cards of ideas that made it into film and then we put up some more new ideas. It was little bit of a mess. I think the actors were quite generous, them being professionals and all: they were in the hands of this Central Committee, not knowing in advance what they were supposed to do.

We knew all the time that by the end of the process we would have a voice over. We did have the first draft of the script with the voice over and everything but only in the editing process did we rewrite the script, restructuring the whole movie with what we had.

How long does the process take when compared with a normal production with locked script and schedule and all that? I assume it takes longer.

Well, in the case of Tabu, the shooting was about 9 weeks for the first part, and about 5 for the second part, which takes place in Africa. But what takes time is in-between. It takes time to know the people for instance. Some of the things that you see in the second part of the film were things that we discovered while shooting there, like the waterfall. In this rural area where we shot, there was a man who was a cook for this Portuguese plantation owner's family. And so we asked him if he could play a cook/wizard in the film. He became the character who foresaw Aurora being pregnant. So you see him preparing the chicken in real life, which we used in the film. We just gave him some props, like a chef's hat and some colorful necklace and made a story out of him being a wizard in the voice over, incorporating the real setting and real life characters in to the film.

That's very interesting because what you see on screen is very effortless. The film is not messy at all. And it does have that lived in feeling as if all the characters have known each other for a long time.

That's how I work. It takes time.

The legacy of colonialism is not portrayed with Aurora in the second half of the film, but with Pilar in the first part of the film, which takes place in the present. It's as if she is taking the burden of being white.


There are a lot of opposite elements between the first and the second part. One of them, in the first part, people are much more aware of, politically and socially, what's around them, maybe even the failure of the society. I mean the world is quite unfair.

Right.

But this awareness doesn't seem any way to bring her to be fair to anyone. But in the second part, characters seem to be completely unaware politically, that they just don't care, as if they are playing in a Hollywood film- having fun. One of the things we had in mind was to start the film with the vague sensation of guilt. Something that we wanted Pilar to be the main character in the first part of the film because she is kind of a character that wants to repair the damage, dealing with the guilt of other people.

The African part is the taboo that we westerners don't want to talk about. There is a strange relationship going on with Santa the maid and Aurora. But there are no mentions or signs of Africa anywhere in Aurora's apartment. I wanted to let the audience see that this old woman who looks senile and then you see the second part and say, "yeah, she has some reasons to be guilty, the way she is acting in the first part.

I heard about the big crisis in Portuguese cinema that ICA (Institute for Film and Television) stopped funding all the national film productions early this year to go along with austerity measures in the midst of the country's financial crisis. Is it still happening? What's the latest news?

At this precise moment as we are talking here, we are waiting for a new law for cinema funding which is already approved in the parliament and it's going to be implemented, we hope, by the end this year/early next year. We are still waiting for these new regulations to see if everything is still the same as before. As you know, what's at stake here is that all the personal filmmaking with such filmmakers as Manoel de Oliveira, Pedro Costa are very different than others, has been taking advantage of the (support) system.

As we were talking about the making of Tabu and Our Beloved Month of August, maybe it doesn't show on the screen the messiness behind the scenes but it's always a process for me- from the script to editing, I am constantly renewing my desire to make films and that's where the freshness comes from. But if they are stopping this support system, all this will be in jeopardy. This fight is not only for us, but also for the generations of Portuguese cinema to come.

It seems only in the last ten years or so that we have discovered this new Portuguese cinema, which seems very vibrant. Indielisboa festival is a household name now among cinephiles who want to look up and see what's going on in global independent cinema. It's amazing to see the amount of small productions, festivals that are being helped by this government subsidy. Then I hear they are not getting funding anymore.

It's a general thing that's happening across the board- even the Lisbon National Cinemateque for instance: when I was flying over here I read the newspaper that the cinemateque showing Russian and East German films without subtitles for the first time because they don't have money to translate them. So people in the theater could not understand what they were seeing.

That's terrible.


So it's a general thing that affects cinemateques, festivals, production of films, everything. But you know what's funny about all this? The funding for the films does not come from the national budget. It comes from the tax applied to the television networks on their advertising profits. 4 percent of the taxes usually go to the Institute of Portuguese Cinema. It would be understandable if the lack of funding was because of the financial crisis, but it comes from a very specific area. Just like everywhere else (I'm assuming here too), politicians are subservient to the financial power of big conglomerates. These big companies are saying now that they don't want to pay that.

Let me get this right. So they are basically saying. "OK. That 4 percent, we want to take it now."


That's what they have always been saying. But what's changed was that politicians could say that they had to pay because it was the law before. And Portuguese cinema has been a minor issue for them. It was surviving because they regarded it as 'public service'. They could care less. Now with the financial crisis, they don't want to lose that 4 percent and there is no political will to stop them.

As a fan of Portuguese cinema, I hope this will work out for you.

My inkling is that the Portuguese government now is more like the Tea Party here ideologically. They believe the market should supply everything, and that the state has nothing to do with the well being of its citizens, that we will all live in capitalistic paradise, even though things are not going well in Portugal and everywhere else.

I have so many questions about the film. But it seems I'm out of time. Good luck with you and your fight for the survival of Portuguese cinema.

Thank you. The fight will continue.

An update on Portugal's new cinema law:

According to The Hollywood Reporter, as of December 5 of this year, the Portuguese government again delayed the new law to be implemented, which means there won't be subsidy money flowing in for the country's audiovisual sector.

Fears that the law would be further delayed sparked an online protest by Portugal's filmmakers. A number of the country's most prominent directors, including Manoel de Oli veira, Joao Botelho, Miguel Gomes and Teresa Villaverde signed a letter of protest, titled "Portuguese cinema blocked!" published on the official blog of the Portuguese film director's association blog.
The letter claims the Portuguese government lacks "the political will" to enforce "the law that it drafted."

For the complete article, please click here.

Tabu opens in New York today, December 26, at Film Forum and rolls out to additional U.S. cities starting in January. For more information, please visit Adopt films' website

My Tabu Review


My Our Beloved Month of August Review



Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sex and Fury

Sing a Song of Sex (1967) - OshimaImage
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It's 1967. High School students are finishing their college entrance exam. Four friends have only one thing their puny minds - sex. A girl who sat at a desk #469 in exam becomes an obsession. After the night of drinking with a hunky teacher and some girls, learning dirty sex songs and fantasizing about raping #469, they find their teacher dead in the morning in what appears to be an accidental death. With the help of the dead teacher's girlfriend, they confront #469.

Oshima's provocative film takes place in the background of flurry of political activities, shot in beautiful anarmorphic - a march against National Foundation day, petition drive against Vietnam War and singalong of protest songs in English. As one of the boys, Nakamura, faults his passivity for the death of their teacher who preferred bawdy songs of the working people rather than songs of nationalistic fervor, the film equates boys' pent up sexual desire to the political action. Further condemning and destroying the myth of the rise of Japanese Nationalism, it ends with the reenactment of the fantasy rape (the boys couldn't go through with it even in fantasy because they wouldn't know how) with the speech about how Japan's first emperor was of Korean ancestry. Complex and fiercely political, Sing a Song of Sex has a real bite to it.

Sing a Song of Sex plays part of MoMA Presents: ATG and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960-1986.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hullabaloo

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - Anderson
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Wes Anderson:

Maybe I'm just jealous that I was never as cool and articulate as you were as a child. But over the years I cultivated a true hate for your insular WASP upbringing and your cutesy tendencies (neatly) splattered all over the screen. Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps the most heinous display of all your white-upperclass-precocious-sensitive-boy-fantasies that I love to hate. Your 'Anderson production design' now falls between early Tim Burtons and a sugary gingerbread house. The whole goddamn thing is so harmless and so light and so devoid of meaning and feeling and humor and soul, it makes me angry. It's also the whitest of the white movie you've ever made. But that's understandable. You should stick to what you know. If not, everything nonwhite in your movie becomes gross fetishization. For whom do you make movies? Certainly not for children. Do you really want to show off your clever boy shtick in your forties to your peers? Why?

I don't know. I'm not expecting Schindler's List or Blue Valentine from you. But by golly, why keep repeating yourself? Do you even understand that the color of your room or the tape recorder you own or listening to Françoise Hardy doesn't define who you are? Why do you hide behind all these material things? Who are you really? If your being clever gets you all the fame and money and you are happy, good for you. But I can promise you that I'll never watch one of your movies ever again for as long as I live, not even for lazy Saturday afternoon entertainment.

Abstract Distance

The Dream and the Silence/Sueno y Silencio (2012) - Rosales
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An upper middle class Spanish couple with two pre-teen daughters live pretty normal life in France- Oriol is an architect and Yolanda a teacher. One day, they lose their older daughter, Celia, in a car accident. It was Oriol who was driving. He doesn't remember the accident and recovers quickly, mind and body. It's hard for Yolanda. She doesn't understand him not grieving as much as she. She wants to blame him but she can't. This all sounds like an emotionally charged melodrama but Sueno y Silencio is nothing but.

Rosales's detached approach accentuates the disconnect btwn the couple and the weight of their loss - dialog often happens off frame as in monologues, the fluid camera hovers aimlessly through the outdoors in grainy b & w photography and we often watch characters through the corridors in a distance and through the doors ajar.

There is a great poignant sequence where Yol talks to someone (off frame) in the playground, explaining her childhood memories of playing with her sister (she has a twin sister). It turns out that she was either seeing a ghost of her daughter or hallucinating. She insists to Oriol that he needs to go down there and see her himself. He goes down to the playground, looking for the ghost but finding nothing.

There are many things in Sueno y Silencio we are not seeing, like the fateful car accident or Ori grieving but that doesn't mean it never happened or happening. Glimpses of life's abstraction including brief color and painting sequences adds another dimension to what's already obscure. Sueno y Silencio has a lot in common with Lucretia Martel's Headless Woman. The socio-political aspect is not present in Rosales work but nonetheless, the film signals another major arrival of a potent filmmaker working today. I gotta check out Jaime Rosales previous films.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pobbish

Mekong Hotel (2012) - Weerasethakul
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I remember the famed Thai director mentioning this Mekong river project back in 2010 when I interviewed him via Skype for his award winning film Uncle Boonmee. Commissioned by French TV, this slight, less than an hour film doesn't quite work as a standalone. His regular actors show up playing loose characters, ever so softly talking about themes in his other films- ghosts, incarnation, Thai-Lao geopolitics plus recent devastating flood in Bangkok in a grand, if too-modern looking hotel by the wide, sluggish Mekong river. There is a spirit called 'pob' floating around the hotel, inhabiting human bodies, preying on humans and livestock alike. Mekong River lacks hypnotic power and visual grace other Weerasethakul films possess. Accompanyed by an accoustic guitar most of the time by a musician the director interviews in the beginning of the film, the film ends in a languid, long take of jet skiers jig-jagging the muddy river seen from the veranda of the hotel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Envision All These Great Small Movies in the Ruins of Hollywood: Christian Petzold Interview

ChristianPetzold
Christian Petzold's fantastic new film Barbara opens in the US on December 21, after garnering critical acclaim; Petzold won the Best Director award at Berlin International Film Festival this year and the film is the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. It was exciting to talk to one of the key figures in new German cinema at NYFF this past September. 

I have to admit that I wasn't really familiar with new German cinema until recently. My idea of German cinema always has been that of the 60s and 70s by directors like Schlendörff, Fassbinder and Wenders.

That's also my experience. That's the time I was brought up. Back then we never went to see a German film in theaters. When we did, it must've been to see Jaws or something like that. My first 70s German movie experience happened to be Alice in the Cities by Wim Wenders, partly shot in Wuppertal, the town I grew up in and the music by one of my favorite bands, Can. It was my town and my music! But it was a kind of strange reflection of Germany I knew in the seventies. That was the movie that opened my eyes for the first time.

I met Wenders later on and I told him my story. He told me that Germans are always attracted to something that is very close to them yet strange. I think GDR (East Germany) is just that- very close and very strange.

Far away, so close.

Yes, exactly.

This is very interesting because when you think of Wim Wenders's films and the current crop of German films, Berlin School if you will, there is this ongoing theme of transient life: people are always going somewhere or they are forced to move. I mean, in BARBARA, it's the same. She is being punished for trying to go to the West, so she is sent to a small town ...

But there is a difference. The thing you just brought up is very interesting. I'm sorry but now it's on my mind...

No, please go ahead.

In the 70s, everyone was rich in Germany. We thought that we've won 68' and we thought we could change the society...

Right, right.

Films by directors like Wenders- when they are on the road; they are on the road not because of economic reasons or pressure. They are like Novalis or Hölderlin. They are on the road because they are romantics.

There is a connection to the 70s in Berliner Schule (Berlin School) movies but people are not on the road because they are looking for something. They are on the run; they are migrant workers or refugees. They can't stay in one place.

There is also a theme in your movies that is in relation to the 60s and 70s. More of a reaction I should say. With the social upheaval of that time, the traditional family structure had broken down. In your movies there is a yearning for this ideal family life. Usually it's a mother figure in your films that is needed - Barbara somehow ends up as a mother figure to the young girl who ran away from the labor camp. That theme also plays a pivotal role in GESPENSTER (Ghosts).

That is interesting. When we made Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In) in 2000, the metaphor was something to do with the sea. Say, there is a shipwreck, and people are scrounging up to build a raft out of what's left over. Since 2000, all my movies are about this structural collapse (both economic and familial) and people trying to build a lifeboat to survive. So what's happening on the raft? In Barbara, there isn't a father figure anymore. There is no love (at least for now) between the doctors. In Ghosts, the woman is not the girl's mother. All these films, they are trying to rebuild something you can live with, out of the ruins. Obviously we can't rebuild, say, Russia. The capitalist system is in the ruins. Fascists tried to nationalize the whole world and failed, we can't blame our woes saying Greeks are lazy and Muslims are the enemies and so on. We have to find little survival structures and I think that's what my movies are about.

It's amazing how complex your movies are. At a first glance, they are full-on melodramas and don't seem political at all. But more and more I think about it, it is very political and everything's got to do with the German society. And it fascinates me, especially BARBARA.

It's something to do with me being a novelist. But making film is different. Not everything that you see on screen is on my mind when I write a script. I'm not Orson Welles. The film you see is not the realization of what's in my head. I have an open, short story and the group of people I work with, the (acting) ensemble, the team (crew), we discuss it for weeks before the shooting begins - we go on long walks and to libraries together. The whole team and the actors, we go to cinema together ten times. For instance, Jerichow, about this Turkish immigrant worker, who tries hard to be a German, by reaching that German Dream - fantastic cars, a big house and a beautiful wife. But he becomes stranger and stranger still. Very melodramatic. It's not based on a novel that I've written. But it was born out of our collective, as we built upon it. You realize how the political side of it is scurrying around just beneath the surface, that our collective work makes everything not too in the face. But to have that kind of result, it takes a lot of work and time.

That leads me the next topic. Nina Hoss. What an amazing performance!

She is so disappointed that she can't be in New York. I think, in two hours, she needs to be on stage in Hamburg. You know, theater in Germany is very important. In Germany, film is like a dilapidated house and theater is like our Parliament. It's the culture: the distinctions between the two disciplines are very big. I hate that. But she is the most famous actress on stage in Germany right now. She really hates not being here but like Barbara, she can't leave. (laughs)

She is really amazing. From what I've read about you, you make a big distinction between what is written (script) and actual filming process. That your filmmaking is all about communication. So when you are not rolling the camera, you are constantly talking to each other?

Yeah. For our first meeting (for Barbara), we met at this fantastic loft building and everybody was sitting there and I talked for three hours. I was really exhausted. I don't think I talk too much but others have different opinions about that. (laughs) I told them the chronology of the project - how I found the story, what I thought about it, what I've made in the last half years, what music I listened to when I was writing it. Chopin... why I used Chopin's Nocturne because in The Deer Hunter by Cimino, this barkeeper plays Nocturne when Walken and De Niro and others are all lying around there in the bar. They hear Chopin, mind you that they are all working class steel mill workers. Their lives destroyed by the war and for that little moment while listening to Chopin, they realize something. But it's too late. And around the same time (Barbara is set in 1980) in GDR, Barbara's playing the same music. But she is playing it like a weapon to keep those Stasi police away. So I put on a Pollini's Nocturne CD and we listened the whole thing together. These are the things I love so much.

That's really fantastic.

It is not a typical film shoot. I consider it as a collective.

I've  got to ask you about the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. I totally get that it is the reflection of the character André as he shows Barbara the painting. He made a mistake and he is pointing to something else to evade the eyes of authorities. But the whole time I was thinking that you were saying something about the folly of Communism.

Yeah, it is a metaphor for Communism.

So I wasn't wrong about that. How did putting that Rembrandt in the film come about?

I've read a book Rings of Saturn by Sebald. In the novel, he is thinking about this Rembrandt. For him, Rembrandt is criticizing the Age of Reason- Descartes, Kant, "We are now the owner of our fate," "We build our own society." attitude. And we got it for free without violent upheavals like the French Revolution. But we lost something on the way- faith, respect and so on. In this picture by Rembrandt, there is a group of scientists who haven't got any empathy nor sense for the complexity of life, but just looking at the anatomy book with pictures. For them the world has to be like the pictures. That kind of thinking creates violence. Communism is the direct result of Descartes and Kant, so as our current capitalistic society.

That's exactly right.

Right now new German cinema is not really well known in the States. A good friend of mine introduced me to your work and other German directors' films. So that's how I found out about Berlin School. But their films are not really available even though I want people to know and watch these films.

Yeah, there will be a big retrospective of Berlin School next year at MoMA. I just had a lunch with the curator there. It will be in September some time.

That's great. I'll definitely cover that.

Let me give you an example: Kelly Richardt's, Meek's Cutoff is a fantastic movie. I think it's the best Western I've seen in years. We have two cinemas playing that in entire Germany. We have about five cinemas playing a Gus Van Sant movie. Yes, Americans don't know about Berlin School but I think there is a crisis in cinema internationally. There is no relationship anymore that existed in cinema in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s or even in the 70s- Truffaut was in a Spielberg movie and Arthur Penn got to direct Bonnie and Clyde because Truffaut hadn't had the time. They were in connection. They were looking at each other's work. When an American director met a German director, they talked about movies. This relationship was interrupted at some point. And it's not the fault of the directors but this big industrial structure we call the film industry. American companies own all movie theaters in Germany, so they have 800 theaters playing this and 800 theaters playing that. There is no room or time for small films. I read a lot about some great American movies but I can't see them. Margaret was a fantastic movie but you can't see it in Germany. You have to buy DVD online. We have all these resources, we really have to open the channels again and communicate with each other.

Would you ever consider doing an American production if you were asked?

They did ask me two times now. But I don't know anything about America really. I've read Howard Zinn's book...

People's History of the United States?

Yes, and I grew up in this Americanized culture but I'm still a German. I don't really know how to tell the story there other than maybe the Germans in America. But as far as doing an American film, I don't really see it happening.

You are not going Hollywood and doing big movies as Tom Tykwer does?

My goal has never been Hollywood. I'm dreaming of the new Hollywood. I don't live in the 50s. I'm not a retro man. I envision all these great small movies in the ruins of Hollywood.

Barbara Review

Monday, December 17, 2012

Love and Death: Michael Haneke Interview

Haneke
Austrian film director Michael Haneke took home the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes for the second time after his The White Ribbon in 2009 and swept the year end European film awards with his austere, devastating film Amour. I got a chance to attend a roundtable interview with the director at this year's New York Film Fest. As the interview unfolded in the Executive Room at the Trump International Hotel where myself and six other journalists were served with 'Donald Trump approved bottled water', my expectations were met -- Haneke outright avoided many pointed questions we asked and when he did answer, they were very concise and to the point. But also, there was a lot of laughter to be found in the room. This mild mannered, white bearded old man could be anyone's grandfather, I thought, temporarily suspending the truth that this is the director responsible for Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. But in his answers, I found that his films are not so cut and dry as they often appear to be.


Q: Amour is being called as a very humanist film. I don't argue with that. But I feel there is something more at work here. I feel that the film is pushing the audience to an end point that there is no option but to condone the unconscionable act. Was that your goal, if so where did that desire comes from?

A: That's not my impression at all. My impression is that I'm not trying to condone what I'm showing. I'm trying to present the film in its entirety. This film and that scene in particular, is presented in such a way that it's open to a number of interpretations.

The title of the film is very simple, yet provokingly so. I've heard that it was not your first choice. Why did you go with it?

I chose the title because I couldn't come up with a better one. I had a list of about 20 titles. None of them I was satisfied with. I was having lunch with Jean-Louis (Trintignant) and I read him the list of titles. And Jean-Louis said, the film is about Love, why don't you just call it that? I thought that was a very convincing argument. If I were making a conventional love story I would've never chosen that title because it would've been too obvious.

For Trintignant it must've been very personal approach since he starred in A Man and a Woman and its sequel twenty years later and now Amour, almost 50 years later. Did you talk about this symbolism with him?

You have to ask him about that. We never talked about it. I'm not a fan of A Man and a Woman.

What was the effect on shooting with Emmanuelle Riva ? You take her to a place where even in films that are that are supposedly looking at the subject, most films usually turn away before you do. Considering the amount of time and her coming back day after day to this role, what was the impact on her?

You have to ask her that. I can't answer that. (everyone laughs). From some of the interviews I've heard of her talking about the film, she had said that it was a pleasure working on this film.

Did you lipserve anything during the filming?

One scene was very difficult for her. Because she was scared to death of that electric wheelchair, the one with the control stick. After we completed shooting for the day, we spent two evenings getting used to the wheelchair. In fact, I had to learn it before she did so I could show her and reassure her that it wasn't that difficult.

Did you do any preparations and research for the film? If so, how extensive were they?

Yes of course. It was a personal story that motivated me to deal with this theme. I have nothing to do with what you see on the screen. So it was necessary for me to do a lot of research. For that I went to hospitals and spent time in old age homes and talked with doctors. I also sat in on number of speech therapy sessions for the stroke victims where they regain their speech. Emmanuelle didn't want to do a research herself and asked me to do it for her and show her what she had to do. She had that trust in me and that's how it worked. I felt that it was important that we have that precision of accuracy in the film.

You started the film with what could be called a 'happy ending' to just reveal everything in the very beginning and the whole film is kind of a continuous flashback. I understand that it was a crucially important structural decision you made. Is it because in order to eliminate any kind of suspense for the viewer?

Yes.

Can you elaborate on that?

No. (everyone laughs)

As you said, I wanted to eliminate any kind of false suspense. It is quite clear quickly in the story how it might be the only possible ending. But what interested me was not how the film ended but rather the events that lead up to it.

What interested me was not the death per se, but how to cope with the suffering of a loved one.

I've read something about the film being advisory for young couples. The quote is, "the film should be shown to any young couples who are considering getting married and committing their life together."

Who said that?

I read it in one of the reviews.

Oh good, that means that it will have larger audience. (laughs)

Many of your films takes place in France and in French. I was wondering where your love of France comes from?

When I was going to school I studied French rather than English. Sorry if I studied English I would be speaking directly to you now. Back when I was at your age, France was the core attraction for young intellectuals, the object of our desire. It was the age of existentialism and Nouvelle Vague. Now everyone's looking to America. But it was a matter of chance collaboration that brought me to France. Juliette Binoche had seen my Austrian films and called me up and suggested to work together and that lead to our first project (Code Unknown) and the collaboration worked very well since then.

I have a related question about language. When you write a script, do you write it in French or German then translate it?

No I can only write in German. Ever since I started making films in French, I've worked with the same translator. He does the first draft of translation and we revise it together. My French is not good enough to judge in a dialog that that's what I'm looking for.

When you write a script, do you have certain actors in mind?

It is the case for this film. I wrote a script with Trintignant in mind. Similarly, I've done this for certain German or Austrian actors in the past. It's more efficient means of writing a script because you are able to write into the scripts when you know who (the character) it is. But that's not always possible.

In the case of The White Ribbon, I've written the part of Pastor for Ulich Mühe, one of my favorite actors who played a lead in several of my other films and you may also know him as the lead in The Lives of Others. Unfortunately he died before I made the film, but I never gave up the challenge to replace him. However I was lucky enough to (the role eventually went to veteran theater actor Burghart Klaußner). So you never know.

Do you think if the story was told in America would it be differerent?

I've never really thought about it because from the very beginning, I wanted to work with Jean-Louis. So right now I can't come up with any American actors who would be able to play the part, certainly not the ones who exude such warmth as he does.

Did you choose to set the majority of the film in the apartment to illustrate the confines of their lives?

Yes. When you are elderly or infirmed, then your life is restricted to the four walls that you live in. That was the external reasons for the choice. In terms of aesthetic reasons for the choice, it occurred to me that when you are dealing with such serious theme as this, you have to find a fitting place like a stage. That's why I went back to a form of classical theater- real time based action seemed appropriate for the reduction of their lives.

Did you attempt to shoot this film in sequence given the limited setting and if not how did you take your actors through the extreme states that they had to go through?

We sought as far as possible to shoot the film chronologically. The one exception was the nightmare sequence, which we left for the end. But we had to tear down the sets and rebuild them. On the second half of the shooting, we had to make changes because Jean-Louis had broken his hand and we couldn't show it in certain scenes because of the scheduling issues.

You do a lot of long takes. I think it's good because it adds depth to the real old couple's rhythm of life. It's very slow and stretched out. But also I was wondering if you sometimes decide not to use long takes, cutting them before the audience to see what you'd like to avoid, for example, the mirror scene or the toilet of this ill woman whose body is unresponsive.

(Immediately after translator has finished translating the question)Yes. (laughter from everyone)

That's cruel. (another round of laughter)

Since the fate of the female character is predetermined as revealed in the opening sequence, and therefore the suspense is gone. I couldn't help focusing on the pigeons. At the press conference after the screening that you said it's up to the viewers to decide the symbolism of the pigeons. The guy next to me joked that if it was the early stages of your career, the pigeons would have been killed. The message is that now you are not into torture and cruelty, but more humane and mild. (again, laughter from everyone)

I'm OK with every interpretation anyway. As long as the film drives many interpretations out from audience, I'm open to them. Perhaps the revision of it will change in my next film.

Is there a script for the next film?

Not yet.

Can you describe an idea for us?

Not at the moment.

If you are OK with whatever the audience takes away from it--

It has to be OK. (laughs) Sorry. Go on.

However, they approach you to get you to endorse their view, say in favor of euthanasia, are you willing to sign on for that?

That's not my task.

If you are writing a film like this in sort of questions rather than themes, like how I deal with the suffering of a loved one rather than death, was there something sparked in your personal life to pursue this?

Yes there was. But I don't want to talk about it. It was a private, personal experience.

Could you talk about the music or the theme of the music in your films? I've noticed that you seem to be drawn to musicians or characters who are musicians. In fact, the characters in Amour are both music teachers. I'm wondering if you know how to play any instrument or trained as a musician.

When I was a young man, it was my dream to becoming a musician. If it had been up to me, if I was up there when the talents were bestowed, then I would've liked to have been a musician instead of a director. I would have liked to be a conductor or composer. My stepfather who himself was a conductor and a composer warned me that I was only a mediocre pianist. That stirred me away from becoming a musician. And I count myself lucky to have become a director because there is nothing more depressing that a mediocre concert pianist.

Nevertheless I've maintained my love of music and always enjoyed whenever possible to use it in my films when the occasion arises. But I don't use it the same way as how it's usually done in mainstream cinema where it's applied to cover up the directorial sins and weakness. I love music too greatly to use it for those reasons.

Do you think then other filmmakers use music as crutch?

I don't think so. I'm sure of it. (laughs)

Why do you say that?

It really depends on what kind of films. If it's a genre film, say Spaghetti Westerns, you can separate them with the music of Ennio Morricone. The music in those kind of films has a fiction in them. I have nothing against musicals or genre films for example: films of Fred Estaire or films of Hitchcock. Without Herrman, there would be no Hitchcock. But those aren't realistic films.  But for most of the films, the music is there to fill the emotions there otherwise lacking. Most films claim to be realistic. I understand if there is a musician present or radio playing in the scene, but find it problematic to make up for lack of tension or emotions the director failed to create.

The pianist in the film is the real concert pianist (Alexandre Tharaud) isn't he? How did you get him involved? Did you just discover his music?

We did auditions for pianists and actors. And he was the best actor who was also a pianist among them.

As a writer/director with a definite vision, do you find that you are very demanding of your actors or do you have a lot of trust in them?

Both. I have a lot of trust in my actors and I expect a great deal from them.

In this country, it's really hard to have a rational, mature conversation about assisted suicide. There was a case recently in Britain where the High Court struck down the case of Tony Nicklinson, a former athlete who had been suffering from lock-in syndrome and his right to end his own life. I wonder if it's any different in Europe to have a mature discussion about keeping one's austerity and dignity in euthanasia cases.

You'd have to ask someone who are more knowledgeable than I am about that.

Were you at all concerned about avoiding making this film about assisted suicide?

As I said, I wasn't making a film about assisted suicide, I was making a film about how one copes with the death of a loved one. There are any number of related tangential issues and themes that are touched upon because of that question. But I never set out to deal with these themes. That is never my approach. My starting point is always certain feelings that I experienced or witnessed or read about and that emotion leads me want to explore. It's the opposite approach of television where they deal with theme of the day or theme of the week. That's not my approach.

It's always dangerous especially politically when you decide to make a film about a certain theme. In television, you say, 'oh this theme is talked about a lot. It's a hot topic, let's make a film about it'. In Austrian film history I can only think about a handful of films that dealt with themes successfully. The results are usually quite terrible. And when I say successfully, I mean not from the box office point of view but artistic point of view.

You say political dangers. Yet many of your films you deal with topics that eventually step on some potent political landmines. Are you not afraid of doing that?

If you are a film director who is making films today and you are dealing with our contemporary reality, then you are automatically expected to talk seriously about the society you are living in. And you are automatically going to touch upon raw points which you can't cover up or alter. You can't avoid that. But the point is that you are not seeking to exploit those but sticking to what you are interested in, your vision.

In many of my films I talked about the role of the media in our society not because it seemed to be important theoretically but rather  because I am part of that media landscape: it touches me and part of it angers me and that's why I want to deal with it. Theoretical films are terribly boring and well-intentioned films are even more boring.

Talking about actors. The two leads are magnificent.  But Isabelle Huppert is in your film again who has a brief role as the daughter. What sets her apart from her generation of actors?

I've worked with her before and we have a great working relationship. It would be foolish to change that and use some other actors I've never worked with. I asked her for the role and she did it for a personal favor. She is used to playing the leading roles and here I was asking her for a supporting role and she accepted without a moment's hesitation.

I don't know if you might not want to answer this question but I wonder since it's such a personal film and personal subject, you might consider it to be your most personal film that you've made? And thus far, I wonder if you discussed the content of your film with your family prior to making the film and what their reaction was to it?

First of all, both of my parents are dead. And the second of all, as I said in my acceptance speech at Cannes, my wife and I promised to each other that we will do everything in our power to avoid the other person being shunned off to the old age home or hospital at the end of our lives. And that's all I have to say about the question.


Just in time for Christmas, Haneke's harrowing film Amour opens in NY  and LA on Dec. 19. Please visit Sony Pictures Classic's website for more information.

My Amour Review

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lovely Solitude

Two Years at Sea (2011) - Rivers
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To call Two Years at Sea an observational documentary is too simplistic, inadequate description at best. We follow a bearded fellow who resembles poverty-stricken Gandalf, a wizard on skid perhaps. He lives in a dilapidated, cluttered old house in the woods. He does house chores while listening to some Ravi Shanka tinged music on his tape deck or turntable. He constantly whistles and sometimes mumbles to himself. Seasons change. He finds his trailer on the treetop one morning. Hmm, nice tree house idea. Let's do some fishing on a makeshift raft made out of window frames, an air mattress and some plastic water jugs. There are remnants of his past, shown in cutaways- the old postcards and photographs of children, women. We don't know who the bearded man is but we get to live in his house, intimately observing his life weathering seasons in the English wilderness together.

It's rarely the case for me to look into those DVD extras of any movie: the making of docs, interviews and whatnot. I honestly have absolutely no interest in seeing technical, logistical side of filmmaking in general. Ben Rivers's name was mentioned here and there before and have seen some of his experimental shorts. I hear Rivers develops his own films, often exposing the negatives to the environs each film was shot in. Two Years at Sea seems apparent that this is the case. Its grainy B & W anamorphic photography, blinking, stuttering exposure and all the blemishes and scratches are quite lovely.

But more importantly, I wanted to know more about this Jake Williams (we only get to know his name at the end credits). Unlike the title suggests, there is no hint of loneliness in Williams' life. As the film's only inhabitant (not counting his cat), Williams seems to be in complete ease at being alone. While watching the film, even though I knew some aspects of it were staged, I had a strong desire to communicate with him. I wanted to get his attention when his back was turned. What are you thinking? What are those photographs? What are you writing in that notebook? Aren't you at least a bit lonely sometimes? As the 8 minute ending sequence comes to a close where he falls asleep in front of the bonefire, I thought to myself, I'd love to be like him. This ends up in my year end top list.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Devil's Contract

Faust (2011) - Sokurov
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Alexandr Sokurov's interpretation of Faust is one extraordinary, hallucinatory trip. It starts with Dr. Faust dissecting a corpse, looking for/failing to locate the exact location of the soul. Living in extreme poverty, he tries to pawn his ring to a dark eyed, deformed, devilish pawnbroker (Anton Adasinsky). Instead, the pawnbroker convinces Faust to sign away his soul in blood (ink is expensive!) in exchange for one night with virginal Magarete (Isolda Dychauk), whose brother he just killed during a fit of rage in the bar brawl. Last of his tetralogy (Moloch, Taurus, The Sun) about power/seduction of power, and not based on an actual historical figure, Faust can also be read as parody of the Age of Enlightenment.

Technically, it's an amazing looking film. Even though it is not shot all in one take like Russian Ark, it's visually so cohesive and fluid, you don't get to notice the edits much. It's soft edges and shallow depth of field, dutch angle, dark, rembrandt cinematography and mirror tricks give it its hypnotic, nightmarish feel. Adasinsky is perfect as a ratty, Goya-ish Mephisto. I haven't seen Moloch or Taurus, but Faust is much more engaging than The Sun, the one about emperor Hirohito. There is no stuffiness in Sokurov's period pieces: the camera and actors are constantly moving. Giddy and playful, it almost works as a comedy. It does have enough beautifully weird moments that are not out of character as a whole, Faust provides a fascinating movie experience.