AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE 47th BERLIN FILMFESTSPIELE
by Harlan Kennedy
THE EYES HAVE IT. This 47th
Offscreen, it all came to a head one day in my own hotel room. Standing on a tall chair to exercise an injured knee, I looked down into the Ku'damm and damned if I didn't see Kim Novak. Everything went giddy and the view concertina'd – my fall was broken by a passing chambermaid. Doctors call it vertigo.
Kim was in Berlin for a retrospective of her work – sharing tribute honors with that greatest through-a-glass-weirdly genius G.W. Pabst – and the only other time I thought I saw her (these dizzy spells) was through a plate-glass door. I was passing the Intercontinental Hotel, the fest's HQ. She was standing with her back to me staring at a giant still from Vertigo. Her blonde knot of hair was mimicked by the image of a woman with a blonde knot of hair staring at a portrait of a woman with a blonde knot of hair. Ah Carlotta....
Views lead to views lead to mirror-images. As James Stewart discovered in the pre-Vertigo Hitchflick, if you gaze through enough voyeurist openings you finally confront your own soul.
Among new movies, the best
single genre-cluster at
Coolest and cruellest
of the three films was Bruno Barreto's Four Days in September. This is
about that intricate corridor of moral mirrors: means and ends in political
action. U.S. Ambassador to
If this cluster of political movies was about the long gaze of predation or inquisition ending in self-discovery, Yim Ho's Kitchen performed the same trajectory in a domestic setting. This was the best single Competition pic. The Hong Kong helmer who won last year's Berlin Silver Bear for Best Director with The Sun Has Ears – love 'n' death in Dynastic China – has gone from Mizoguchi to Ozu in a single bound. Based on Hanana Yashimoto's best-selling novel about grandmother-bereaved "Aggie," who grows up through meeting pain and loss, it could have been Schmaltzville-on-the-Pacific. Instead we have a movie like a planetarium. Yim's roving camera, quasi-extraterrestrial lighting (phosphorescent greens, yellows, silvers), and eye for the extraordinary in the ordinary – like the grove of concrete park tables like giant toadstools high above nighttime Hong Kong – turn this three-handed chamber drama into a metaphysical epic.
The other characters are Aggie's platonic boyfriend Louie (Jordan Chan), who seems gay but isn't, and the boy's campy mother Emma (Vasuko Tomita), who seems like a sex-changed man and is. We hairpin through their story, which begins as romantic comedy, takes in murder and suicide, and then returns to romantic comedy.
This pic's variant on voyeurism is our curiosity about the stricken. Our feelings can reach out like Louie's – part morbid, part compassionate – and if they reach far enough, the story shows, they end by telling us as much about ourselves as about others.
As before, Yim makes objects as much as actors tell his story. A lava lamp, a full moon, or a weirdly cambered view through Aggie's apartment window – commuters on an up escalator seen through an adjacent picture window look as if they were stairwaying to heaven – pitch the domestic into the galactic. And there are beautiful toyings with the theme of Time. Time standing still, after loss, while people recharge their hearts. Or time vanishing altogether on the soul's darker nights. In one beautiful riff on movie convention the camera dollies towards a wall clock whose dial hands we expect to dissolve into the usual "hours later" configuration. Instead the post-dissolve image is an empty wall: only a pale moonlike circle indicates where time used to be.
THE REASON, this Windows 97 filmfest said, everyone
watches everyone else, if not through suspicion, then for reassurance. Three
other memorable home-and-heart dramas, in which the human gaze seeks a path
to love through seeming hate or certain loss, were
In the first, Tsai Ming-liang, whose Vive l'amour copped
In Secrets of the Heart a 10-year-old boy's voyeur instincts, spying through every crack, keyhole, or casement, help him break the enigma code of adult behavior, from the mysteries of a "haunted" villa to the secret of his estranged mother's love life. Director Montxo Armendáriz prowls his camera across Velazquez-shadowed faces that seem to have lived a hundred years, and that never lie to the camera even if they lie to the boy.
In Today, an unknown director, Eija-Liise Ahtila, gets my Golden Kennedy award as most promising newcomer. (This award has already brought you Jane Campion and Lars von Trier, so place bets now.) Scenes like image-splinters depict the crash and capsizing of a young girl's mind after her mother's death in a car crash. Nothing is explained, nothing attenuated as FLASH we watch her watching her weeping father bundled like an embryo on the bed FLASH we watch her bouncing a ball against a wall like a rhythmic comforter FLASH we reenact the crash itself with a giant, unexplained shadow rearing up from the road. (Was Mom killed by a car or by a Stephen King apparition?) It is all made pure and chilling by the girl's offscreen narration, an affectless inventory of observation as if Camus had scripted Firestarter.
Seeing is a deadly weapon. Only
consider the fest's locale: All around me, the soon-to-be-ex-center of what
used to be "
This stared-to-death city will rise again to be stared at more. And the yearly dose of movies in Berlin, for Berlin and about Berlin – like, this year, Daniel Eisenberg's Persistence from the U.S. and Wolfgang Becker's Life Is All You Get from Germany – will have to change, subtly, to allow for urban genetic mutation.
Eisenberg's documentary is
already fairly dead on the shelf: a semiotics exercise bristling with structuralist subheadings ("Presences,"
"Absences") and lordly condescensions of
tone. The cut-ups of old newsreels are interesting; the voiceover instant apophthegms aren't. Do we really need someone telling us
the air in
Becker's pic is way in front. He depicts a city where ruin is a natural state. Its people get their existential agility from growing up like mountain goats on a zauberberg of rubble and memory. Becker's hero (Jürgen Vogel) is that quintessential Berliner: a no-hoper who hopes. He and the movie jump about over screes of subplots and subthemes – sex, HIV, unemployment, bereavement, TV quiz shows, German guilt – finding meaning at each point of seemingly ultimate meaninglessness. In this city as much as anywhere, a historical maze of mirrors, the further the gaze seems to range the surer it will end in your own reflection.
Not all movies at
Less auspiciously for the
States, Lauren Bacall had scarcely pocketed a
Lifetime Achievement award from the fest than she was booed for the dopey and
expensive French film she starred in with Alain Delon,
Le Jour et la Nuit.
(How quickly they turn; but then, the mirror has two faces.) And
And thus it went and so I went.
On the fest's last day I had a busy time trying to catch a helicopter to the
airport. Racing across
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1997 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.