AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
53rd INTERNATIONALE FILMFESTSPIELE –
BEAR IT ALL
by Harlan Kennedy
Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Have you ever thought what it must be like to look down on a film festival from the skies? All those black dots moving in and out of black blocks. All that ant-like flux. It would be like a satellite picture of human folly. “This, gentlemen, is a view of several thousand crazy folk going in and out of movie theatres, hoping to make sense of human life and history through art.”
The big-bang 53rd
Perhaps because it showcased the first generation of movies wholly conceived in the aftermath of two momentous ‘events’: 9/11 and – more frivolously but no less durably – the calendar year Kubrick made mythical in his space odyssey. 2001.
In both cases the Earth was made small and fragile-seeming by invocations from above: terror in the skies, visions of space travel. No wonder this year’s filmfestspiele fielded battalions of films contemplating Life Down Here as if from a Viewpoint Up There. Hydra-headed reality surged and teemed and seethed, connecting movies as different-yet-similar as – five Golden Kennedy contenders or Silver at least – Solaris, Adaptation, The Hours, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and Goodbye Lenin! Add to these the film to which an Atom Egoyan-presided jury led the Golden Bear itself: Michael Winterbottom’s In This World.
Digital video camerawork; dialogue in English, Pashtu and Farsi; and a narrative itinerary for which you need a seared-into-the-brain map of Asia-Europe, from north-west Pakistan to London via Tehran, Turkey and Trieste. No one said good films are easy. But once the two heroes start their asylum-seeking slog – an Afghan refugee and his boy cousin hoping to swap soup camp for sceptred isle – the ‘what next’ momentum takes over. Winterbottom paves their road with suspenseful incident. Perilous border checks; nasty Mr Fixits deaf to clients’ distress while robbing them blind; all-night foot trek over snowy peaks of the Iran-Turkish border; near or actual suffocation in a Channel-crossing lorry crammed with fellow migrants.
the boat a couple of times. After a chilling montage of panic – swirly close-ups veiled by darkness, screams, bangings – the payoff to the airless truck sequence is
perfunctory. A few bodies lie in painless, scenic disarray while the
surviving boy (Jamal Udin Torabi)
legs it towards
The winning cards are the fluency of a script largely improvised on location, the star quality of the boy actor (his tousled unblinking face and quicksilver responsiveness as compelling as Leaud’s in Les Quatre Coups) and the sense that by the time the film was shot – summer 2002 – the horrors of 9/11 had annexed a vast complexity of issues. Terrorism; homelessness; cultural division, intercontinental standoff, religious plurality. The movie has no answers but many haunting questions.
American pix at
The planet Solaris has that effect. It reincarnates the bygone. Clooney and cast, including the ever-quirky Jeremy SAVING THE MONKEY/SPANKING PRIVATE RYAN Davies as the weirdest spacenik since ‘Hal 2000’, wander through the blue-rinse visuals (Soderbergh works his own camera again, here under the name Peter Andrews) grabbing at weightless dialogue and wondering when a recognizable ‘plot’ will begin. But the distinction of Solaris is that it has no beginning and no end. Like time, space and life it is curved, delivering you back, after 90 minutes on the event horizon of eventlessness, to the perplexity you started out with.
Adaptation is even more crisis-stricken as a narrative. But
it became a Berlin favourite, dicing reality as challengingly as Last Year In Marienbad
(though it’s more fun) as Nicolas Cage plays the film’s true-life
screenwriter Charlie Being John Malkovich Kaufman plus his twin brother. Both look
like Gene Wilder since Cage has frizzed his hair and fattened his face. Meryl Streep hoves to as another true-life character,
journalist-author Susan Orlean whose book on
endangered orchids is being adapted by Kaufman for a non-true-life
There are gangsters, alligators, car crashes and a fatal swamp chase. Confused? You haven’t heard the half. But hang in there. This is human life as it might be viewed by the Man in the Moon: good surreal fun, a panorama seen through the haze of space, and nearer Earth through the smoke and sparks of “misfiring synapses” that have been part of human mental functioning – says Kaufman-Cage in his opening voiceover – since time began.
Meanwhile, for some
embellishing in-joke reason, Streep’s husband is
played by director Curtis La
Confidential Hanson, Brian Cox does a saucy impersonation of
scriptwriting teacher-guru Robert McKee and at one point there is a
time-lapse sequence depicting four billion years of
You don’t have to
be a certifiable cinemane to love this film, but it
helps. (It helped the jury give Adaptation
the runner-up Grand Jury Prize). Actually everyone at
In the whirligig reality of this turning world, truth-based hero Chuck Barris might be a once and longtime CIA hitperson (as claimed in his memoirs), was definitely a TV gameshow inventor back in the 1960s and is almost certainly the unghosted author of the rambling autobiography on which this lovable, overlong film is based.
Con-men, real or
supposed, are big in modern cinema. See Catch
Me If You Can. Or recall, come to that, the schizophrenic parallel life
that Russell Crowe as John Nash Jr enjoyed in last
year’s popular-in-Berlin A Beautiful
Mind. But Confessions is more
interesting than either: partly because Clooney as director has reinvented
the wheel – the colour wheel – doing visuals like handtinted
postcards; partly because Sam Rockwell’s hero is a quirky, compelling,
crypto-deranged dufus, far more intriguing than DiCaprio’s playpen Adonis and more believable than Crowe
with his Actors Studio fumbling and fidgeting. No surprise that Rockwell won
We all live fantasy
lives of a kind, some just as loopy and extravagant as Mr Barris’s.
So we can understand, especially sub
specie historiae germanicae,
why the characters in the best homemade film in
Marxist matron emerges from a hospitalised coma – following a pre-unification
heart attack – in the months after the Wall has come down. Too much
excitement will kill her, says doc, so the family pretends that Nothing Has
Happened. They redecorate the convalescent one’s bedroom in
The film rearranges its historical furniture with finesse, seldom bumping into it. And when the charade threatens to be too facile, writer-director Wolfgang Becker puts a sting in the tale with mum’s revelation that she has stored away a financial nest egg for the kids, now tragically worthless since the window has shut for exchanging Marks into Euros. The pile of once-precious banknotes sits there looking as useless as confetti for a cancelled wedding.
is fanciful, of course. Walk into the skyscraping
wonderland around the festival’s Marlene-Dietrich-Platz
– soaring slabs in beige brick and blinding glass, movie posters as big as
football pitches –
and you know
Clooney was socked
in the ego by a pressperson piping up that Solaris was “boring.” The star-producer extemporised affrontedly that the reporter-layperson didn’t understand
the complex hardships of filmmaking: to which the reporter-layperson could
have replied that he didn’t understand rocket science but knew when one fell
from the sky. Spike Lee was told by another heckler that he had “cashed in” on
moments were boil-offs from another tension; the
Dieter Kosslick, pointedly motto-ing
his 2003 festival “towards tolerance”, made sure that Russian president
Vladimir Putin blessed the fest while passing
through and that well-equipped young filmmakers did vox
pop interviews about the coming-or-not-coming war. So it seemed timely that
there was a larger-than-usual cluster of films at
France’s Patrice Chereau, who copped a golden
grizzly two years ago for Intimacy,
won the Best Director prize for this tale of two brothers reunited when the
older (Bruno Todeschini) falls ill with a rare
blood disease. He is hauled through the horrors of hospital life – from bossy
woman doctor to unflinching scene of all-over body hair removal (best single
**My Life Without
****The Hours. Ed Harris falls out of a
window, Virginia Woolf walks into a river, and
Julianne Moore votes with her valium. Mortality is ubiquitous in Stephen Daldry’s film of David Hare’s screenplay adaptation of
Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzered novel. It was
almost ready for release in September 2001, but That Event happened and
Miramax thought New Yorkers didn’t want more death shoved at them, especially
in a movie partly set in
***Flower And Garnet. Best surprise outside the competition. Just when you thought In The Bedroom had said it all on the loneliness of family life – on wives, husbands and children sundered from each other in pseudo-togetherness – here comes first-time helmer Keith Behrman’s tale of motherless siblings (teenage girl, 8-year-old boy) and the machismo-brainwashed dad who tries to raise them. It all goes wrong for him. Daughter’s pregnant, sonny is alienated and dad himself plays ominously with guns. But the ‘story’ counts less than the cracks and telltale fissures in it: asides, throwaways, silences, cutaway closeups that cumulatively composite a drama without words, a tragedy without noise. This director must be watched.
You never know what
unconsidered country will land at
Who’d have bet that
And then there was
Controversy and counterculturalism in general, and gayness in particular, have always been big in the Panorama sideshow. But what a jawdropper when the People’s Republic, no less, deplanes in Berlin with a quartet of off-message, off-Maoist movies on – respectively – homosexuality, police corruption, blue-collar criminality and the reach of totalitarianism down the decades.
flick was So-So’s The Old Testament. Imagine a gone-Mandarin The Hours, telling of three gay characters in separate but
theme-streamed stories. A boy ‘comes out’ to his horrified family. An old
flame moves in with his younger ex, while keeping a wife on the side. A menage a quatre
welcomes a cinquieme.
Johnny To’s Ptu won hurrahs in the Young
Filmmakers Forum for its violent tale of one night's cop action in
Li Yang’s Blind Shaft was the Main Competition’s
piece of Chinaware. Uproariously cynical and shot with grungy grace, it
traipses after two con-men who earn their keep by enlisting innocent
jobseekers willing to masquerade as a brother or nephew to get coalmining
work. Once the crooks get the rookie down the shaft they kill him, pretending
it was a mine collapse; then they claim family-member compensation. The black
comedy gets blacker by the minute. One victim is allowed a little spurious
compassion: “He can’t die yet, he hasn’t been laid”, so they troop off to the
nearest brothel. If the founder of Chinese communism could see the movie’s
Larkiest film of
all from the New
The festival blazed out in a bonfire of the vanities. Everyone threw pretension into the blaze. Dieter Kosslick caused clamours of shocked applause by removing his bowtie – I thought it was surgically attached to his throat – and several Hollywood stars, notably Norton and Hoffman, chucked their patriotic credentials into the flames by speaking out against the US-Iraq conflict. “It all contributed, I think, to the festival being a statement for peace,” said Kosslick on goodbye day, as half a million Berliners marched through town in a synchronous anti-war demo.
Togetherness is the last thing one expects from a festival whose selling point used to be its continent-dividing, culture-splitting concrete wall. But we got it this year, even out at the dear old World Culture House, that hat-shaped building which once housed the festival itself and this year hosted the new 5-day Talent Campus.
Youngsters swirled through the glassy spaces like lost, enchanted goldfish. They fiddled with computers; attended masterclasses; wielded DV cameras; grilled the great (Wim Wenders, Dennis Hopper, Atom Egoyan, Spike Lee); and were told by Mike Figgis in the afternoon-long Digital Photography seminar that in the age of DIY imaging there is nothing to stop someone making a film today – except fear of filmmaking.
positively Rooseveltian. A New Deal for cinema. Maybe
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.