AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL – 1993
KING KONG COMES TO BERLIN
The 43rd BERLIN FILMFESTSPIELE
by Harlan Kennedy
ROAR. (Applause.) ROAR, CHEST-THUMP, CHEST-THUMP. (Applause.) Celebrating 60 years in
showbiz at this year's Berlin Filmfestspiele, King Kong was given the keys
to the city and expected to deliver some
speeches about art, culture, and world
peace. Instead, he stood on a roof making
violent gestures. Some beasts are
The 20-foot statue, perched on the Competition-hosting Zoo-Palast theater,
became a landmark for festgoers and an ocular knockout. I suspect it owed its appeal, Kongishness apart, to the conflation of great Hollywood logos. Mantled in snow, it was Paramount; strafed by searchlights,
Fox; holding one arm high, Columbia; hirsutely roaring, MGM; swirled by cosmic breezes, Universal and RKO.
I can't fit in badge-logo'd Warners, but then Warners had the
festival's other untamed beast –
theoretically – in Spike Lee's Malcolm X. This came to Berlin with many a preludial roar: Lee really talks a good movie. But the
film when shown proved as sedative
as fellow U.S. entry Hoffa: two political bio(e)pics
undone by the compromise between radical ideas and conventional
narrative. "Faction," if we must
have it, was better served by two films that delighted audiences and fed orthodox storytelling to the shredder.
Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein
is a voyage round the Austrian-born philosopher who went to Cambridge, England, to radicalize
our thinking about logic and the
role of language. Jarman's voyage is taken
in a rocky boat with constant cries of
"Script overboard!" The dialogue, cofashioned with Jarman by Oxford professor
Terry Eagleton, sounds as if it was subject to much on-the-hoof revision: just like Chris Marlowe's shooting script for Jarman's recent Eddie Two-The Untold
Story. The images blitzkrieg
the script in any event. Middle
distance: Karl Johnson (Ludwig), Michael Gough (Bertrand Russell), John Quentin (Maynard
Keynes), and Tilda Swinton
(Lady Ottoline Morrell, thinkster's
moll to the Bloomsbury Gang), soaring and sizzling like Fourth of July
fireworks as they repattern the cerebral landscape of the early
You could call the film camp. But then, calling a Jarman film camp is like calling a Rembrandt painting
Wittgenstein's advance on prior Derekworks lies in the serenity of its kitsch. Instead of
being asked to gasp at the outrages
to taste or plausibility – Ludwig's
family dressed in neoclassical gear
as if limbering up for a Handel opera,
Ottoline going barmy on a fourposter, a green Martian (sic) engaging our hero
in philosophical chat – we accept them as
legal tender from the Bank of Jarmanland. Result: Jarman has passed through the soul of his first master, Ken Russell, to a cinematic "other side" where his work has the ethereal potency of unstressed metaphor. Wittgenstein's holy-fool approach to philosophy-he called it "just a byproduct of misunderstanding
language" and talked of "a
lifetime spent disentangling myself from
my education" – is ideally served by Jarman's pixillated, picturebook
Cambridge. And our hero's rumored
gayness is inked in with two gentle
pillow-talk scenes and a couple of
companionable trips to
Wittgenstein's favorite medium, the
Westerns and thrillers – what
would he have made of Atom Egoyan's Calendar? Shoot-up at Lizard Gulch it ain't.
The Toronto-based helmer shapes
an existential teaser about love and loss, set partly in Canada, partly in his ancestral Armenia. Here
the "hero" (Egoyan) is a voice behind the camera, quizzing his Armenian-born wife who is acting as English interpreter to the native guide who is showing them round the Byzantine churches that Egoyan is
snapping for a calendar-art
commission. (Keep paying attention,
it gets easier.)
Small problem: Egoyan is worried that
an affair is starting up between wife and guide. Large problem: It is starting up.
So let's flash-forward, not once but several
times, to post-trip Canada. Here Egoyan is into the singles scene, enjoying (or not) a series of near-identical dating trysts that are
staged like psycho-symbolic still-lifes. A girl; a dinner table; two last glasses of Mouton-Rothschild; chat; "May I use your phone?" (her); breaking of spell; and that calendar staring from wall as girl gushes down receiver while Egoyan
reaches wearily for scribbling work
on his latest script.
Past and present – or present and future? – are interlayered with the complexity of an office-block wiring system. While the Armenia scenes are a subtle chaos of language systems visual and verbal – video, film, and still images mixed
as disorientingly as Armenian and English-the Canadian scenes are tableaux
and frozen as a Chardin painting. The film is
about time, history, and
closed-versus-open emotional lives.
As someone says in a line in the movie that could refer to the humans
and/or the churches and/or the doubtful
solace of art, "All that's meant to protect is bound to isolate. And all that isolates is bound to hurt."
This hourlong diary film frees up all the themes and motifs that were driven into a cul-de-sac of narrative contrivance in Egoyan's last film,
The Adjuster. As in Wittgenstein, the act of
flirting with (auto)biography, instead of
constraining the filmmaker, releases him
and the audience into a zone of energizing guesswork. Here "truth" is a multiform chimera playing come-and-get-me as impudently
and provocatively as a Ghostbusters sprite.
Calendar was shown in Berlin's Young Film-Makers Forum, Wittgenstein
in the Panorama section. These are the kinds of movies that don't get into the Competition at Berlin.
At times this event was a problem. Too often, expectations dimmed along with the houselights as the curtain parted on a new melodrama about single mothers in Sweden (Nils Malmroos' Heartache)
or another bourgeois comedy about how philistine the bourgeois are (Denmark/Norway's The Telegraphist) or the latest turbid
from Holland (Homecoming). Festival
has a near-impossible task. Juggling
multiple mandates, he must satisfy
novelty-hungry critics, avoid
alienating conservative benefactors,
and salvage what prime celluloid he can
from the annual David-and-Goliath selecting
tussle with Cannes. Amazing in the
circumstances that there were two
memorable Competition films. More amazingly, the jury voted them the exaequo Golden Bear. Joy and justice are rare bedfellows at Berlin, so hooray for the twelve wisefolk who
thumbed-up China's The Woman of the Lake of Scented
Souls and China-Taiwan's The Wedding Banquet.
The first, directed by Xie Fei, is a class-act
village melodrama. Our heroine is Mrs. Sesame Oil Factory Owner who, as if not busy enough assessing takeover
bids from Japan, must cope with a retarded son, brutalized daughter-in-law, drunken husband, and longtime lover who now wants to pull the plug. It might have been a daytime soap, Chinese-style. Instead, the film's dark-edged
passion bestows a reverberant symbolism on
the plainest objects – the sesame-milling
machines, the bird-festooned boats
that ply the silvery lake – and
provides a foil for Siqin Gaowa's
superb performance as Ma Sesame Oil.
She should have won Best Actress, but in the fair-shares-for-East-and-West handout, that trophy went to Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field.
If Xie Fei's pic pleased the schaden-freude crowd,
Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet was
the feel-good favorite. Gay politics,
always a popular Berlin theme, stamps Liberal Correctness all over this tale of a Taiwanese-American yuppie (Winston
Chao) in New York who makes a marriage of convenience with a fellow Oriental (May Chin) seeking a green card. Looking on in various stages of aghastness are
visiting Ma and Pa – who can't
believe their luck that Sonny is finally getting spliced – and lover Mitchell Lichtenstein, who can't believe his luck when the girl gets pregnant.
We've seen a lot of this before. The skits about gay life going
undercover when the parents arrive (hide the muscle calendars and Armistead
Maupin books); the jokes about who does the cooking;
the matitutinal rituals – straighten tie,
stiffen wrist – of the office gay. But
the gags and aperçus have seldom been better delivered. And even when Lee turns on the sentimentality in the final reel, where the mass reconciliations outnumber those in a
Shakespeare comedy, he never cheats
on behavioral truth. The secrets and
coverups, we note as the end credits roll, haven't been eliminated: they've
just been artfully redistributed. Great
One AC/DC film about girls and
gay men kipping or kibitzing together does
not a subgenre make. But how about three
films? Joining The Wedding Banquet were Cyril Collard's
Les Nuits fauves
from France and Takehiro Nakejima's Okoge from Japan. These
prove that in the fun-starved age of
AIDS we can at least have some merriment with the notion of sexual sectarianism. Okoge is
two hours of so-so-convincing
smiley-badge jollity about a girl who lends her life, love, and spare bedroom to two gay lovers. And Les Nuits
fauves is a slambang,
take-no-prisoners tragicomedy about an HIV positive
writer (played by the director) who
swings between a teenage girl and a hunk who plays rugger.
The "comedy" here is
black as pitch: unsafe sex and rampant promiscuity presented as the anarchic currency of despair. But it's filmed as witheringly as any French psychodrama since La Maman et la Putain.
The movie has the courage of its up-yours egotism right until the ending, when a Rohmerian sunset cues a sudden – too sudden – gear-change into redemptive decency. Criticism, though, pales somewhat before the news that Collard himself died of AIDS shortly
the sunsets over the city were
thick with VIPs thermaling in from Hollywood. Messrs. Danny DeVito, Spike Lee, Gregory Peck, and Billy Wilder stepped off planes, said howdy-do in German, then cut the ribbon on
movies or retrospectives. Peck and
Wilder had a retro each, flanking the
larger CinemaScope season featuring 40 unsqueezed works from the famous director Ana Morphic. Miss Morphic was in town herself. She attended several
parties, a pencil-thin presence who would suddenly spread sensually and horizontally whenever a projectionist came near.
She was finally thrown out of town on
indecency charges. But we loved the
naughty photos she left behind: the yellow taxicabs in Bigger Than Life, the Biblical
letterbox tableaux in The Robe,
the bubbling submarine vistas in 20,000 Squids Under the Sea.
Can you imagine flashy,
let's-keep-up-to-the-minute Cannes bothering with a retrospective? Berlin is still a history-conscious city culturally and politically. This year, though, there was a diminished diet of those rearview dramas and
documentaries about Europe's past – or the world's – that usually feed us between the fun films. The few political anatomy lessons had a dusty, creaking air, like yesterday's lectures in yesterday's classrooms. Erwin Leiser's Pimpf War
Jeder, collecting memories
of the Nazi youth movement from his
surviving schoolmates of the 1930s! Le Bateau de voyage, flaccid tale of
love and betrayal in Vichy France....
Dull films, dull choices. With the Wall down, is Berlin losing interest in playing
keeper of Europe's political conscience? Or is this self-flagellating genre – the Present sitting in tribunal on the Past
– now flayed out anyway? The Berlin crowds, weary with history and ready for escapism as a new recession looms, responded more to erotic movies flown in from Neverneverland.
Fairy-tale romance and interracial bonding from H'wood in Love Field; incest,
black comedy, and wacko burial procedures from England in Andrew Birkin's
slyly funny film of Ian McEwan's The
(winner Best Director prize). Why, there was even laughter at
Barry Levinson's Toys, from which audiences emerged
happily humming the Oscar-nominated
costumes and décor.
As for Robert Rodriguez's Spanish-speaking El Mariachi – U.S.-made,
Mexico-set – it
brought every available roof down. Seven
thousand dollars' worth of action
comedy about a pair of identical
guitar-cases and their good guy/bad
guy owners, it sports Sergio Leone
visuals, snarling stichomythia in the
dialogue, and the highest hit-rate for verbal and sight gags since Airplane!. No wonder Columbia has bought it for world
release, although we quail at rumors
of a planned $7 million English-language remake. The Vanishing
has taught no one anything?
There's one category of movie-world transplant we would approve of, however. If only, sighed
the multitudes of Berlin festgoers, this event's welcoming efficiency and gemütlichkeit would spread
to other film sprees. Like – mentioning
no names – Cannes and Venice. Once
Benzrath shows that a festival press chief doesn't have to hide behind a million doors, to which the visitor hacks his way through a jungle of minions all making Masonic gestures and speaking
no known language. Benzrath is out there
in front, delivering the smiles and
helpful responses. The response may
not always be "Yes," but at least there is one. Note this example, O Canniensi et Veneziani.
One other good thing about Berlin: The
short films are watchable. No Trout Fishing
in Quebec or abstract East European
cartoons designed to make Mel Brooks
say, "Vot de hell is dis?" There was a six-minute Czech
cartoon, Pavel Koutsky's
At Zije Mys (Cat and Mouse, which copped the "Bearlet"), but
it was a fauve-naïf impromptu in wittily
lithe and smeary colors: Tom and Jerry
as seen by Egon Schiele. Better still was another eight-minute cartoon, Jeff Newitt's Loves Me...
Loves Me Not from
Britain. A narcissistic besuited bachelor's amorous petal-picking escalates from
routine frown/smile responses to a
fugal frenzy of angelic transport (real wings) and demonic despair (real horns
and sulfur). He ends up yo-yoing between
Earth and Heaven, just as we had
done during the twelve days of Berlin.
Even the last day had a surprise: not a little movie but a little boy's remote-controlled toy biplane seen buzzing King Kong in the mists atop the Zoo-Palast. Witnesses insist that the ape could not
have swatted the plane with his paw, but the plane went out of control for several seconds before returning – sporting a dented wing – to the Berlin toddler. Moral (there should always be one): You can expect anything at the Berlin Film Festival except to leave it unmarked.
Now, take me to the hospital.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1993 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.