The Piano Teacher

Turning 50 is indeed a moment to pause and reflect. The 50th Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) does just that in its mini-publication, A Place to Call Home, where with sentiment and nostalgia, the people that not only shaped the Festival but also its loyal attendees over the past 50 years contribute and are paid tribute. As in any arts event that reflects on its history, that aspect which is most celebrated and evoked is strong and clear vision, one that aspires to a great ideal, and which is usually embodied in an individual or two or the agenda of a festival itself. Under the helm of Festival director, James Hewison, this year’s MIFF looks boldly toward the future, with an eye to the past (evident in its various retrospectives), its finger on the pulse of contemporary world cinema, with a particular emphasis on films from the Asia-Pacific region, a commitment to Australian film and a nod toward the many different segments of today’s audience (documentary, animation, short film, digital film, new media, music and film, genre-based). As has been noted elsewhere (1), MIFF 2001 returns to its “maverick” roots and consequently reverses the worrying recent trend of the increasing commercialisation of the program (how many films of last year’s program turned up within months on our local screens and cable TV?). This year’s program is very exciting with “Films Direct from Cannes 2001”, excellent documentaries, various national cinemas showcased, a Herzog retrospective and a world first retrospective of the films of Ishii Sogo.

If there is an underlying impulse – or ‘vision’ – that accounts for the content of this year’s Festival program it seems to be a combination of wanting the Festival to be a part of the major international festival circuit (like Rotterdam, Berlin and Hong Kong), evident in its strong International Panorama section, and a certain kind of youthful, ‘hip’, irreverent sensibility that is encapsulated in the Festival’s central retrospective – Electric Angels: The Films of Ishii Sogo. As a result, what is missing is a distinct cinephilic impulse or film history perspective underlying the Festival. For example, despite the excellent retrospectives devoted to Sogo and Werner Herzog, several other names come to mind who have more significantly shaped film history over the last one hundred years, are truly ‘underground’ figures whose films deserve to be screened locally or are today’s leading filmmakers whose complete oeuvre it would be a joy to see. This list might include, Lubitsch or Mizoguchi, Hou Hsiao-hsien or Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel or Murnau . to name but a few. In addition, one of the glaring omissions among the smorgasbord of spotlights is an experimental section – a genre of filmmaking that is normally not given ample attention by our local exhibition outlets on any day of the year. And one particularly annoying trait that becomes evident after having studied the program closely is the duplication of films in more than one section or the spurious cataloguing of certain films. But once you get over this, there is plenty to be happy about! Though the question remains will Melbourne, over the next 50 years, continue to develop and pioneer a unique aspect of its programming that will make the world turn toward it? Let’s hope so.

A main section of the program overall, the International Panorama section includes the following films that should not be missed: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, 2001), Liv Ullmann’s Faithless (Trolosa, 2000), Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000), Abel Ferrara’s R-Xmas (2001), Alexander Sokurov’s Dolce (1999), Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik (Otesanek, 2000), Takeshi Kitano’s Brother (2000) (although this will receive a local release later in the year), Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2000) (will also be locally released once the Festival is over), Jacques Doillon’s Totally Flaky (2000), Sandrine Veysset’s Martha.Martha (2000) and the Canadian film Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2000). Many of the touted highlights from this section belong to the group of films the Festival was able to secure direct from Cannes 2001: The Piano Teacher, (which won the Grand Prix, Best Actor and Best Actress Awards), Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (which won the Camera D’or), The Pledge, The Deep End (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2001), Rain (Christine Jeffs, 2000), R-Xmas, Martha . Martha, and Totally Flaky.

Adapted from a novel by Austrian writer-dramatist Elfriede Jelinek and starring the ever-radiant Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher is a psychodrama tale from noted Austrian director, Michael Haneke, whose previous films include Code Inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000), Funny Games (1997) and the trilogy, The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny’s Video (1992), and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994).

Another highlight is Liv Ullman’s Faithless, based on a script by Ingmar Bergman. Faithless is a riveting film in its own quiet way due to the very careful and intense performances, especially, Krister Henriksson, and the narrative structure of the film. The story is told piecemeal, in flashback to an old man whose identity and relation to the characters of the story remains mysterious (he in fact is an allusion to Bergman himself) yet who – like the viewer – is affected and deeply interested in the ensuing story told to him. It is a story about a marriage, the rise of an affair, the consequential discovery of this affair, the divorce and the paths that await each key individual (the woman and her lover, the husband, the child). Each minute of this 155-minute epic is engrossing and fascinating because of the very delicate way the threads of the story are told and the layering of information, intrigue and detail. Faithless is an intimate modern tale drama of tragedy that highlights quite starkly and piercingly the kind of devastating effect that impulses of lust and the search for happiness and fulfilment can have on others and in turn the self.

Werckmeister Harmonies is another eagerly awaited film of the program. This is Hungarian filmmaker, Béla Tarr’s seventh feature and first to screen in Melbourne. Along with Damnation (1987) and Sátántango (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies, which played at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes 2000, solidifies Tarr’s reputation as a major auteur in world cinema. Fergus Daly in an earlier issue of Senses of Cinema described Harmonies as engulfed in an “existential terror”. A director whose strongest supporters and admirers include Susan Sontag, and whose ambition is evident in the way he pushes toward the extreme and grand (Sátántango is 7 hours long; Harmonies comprises only 39 shots in a 145-minute film), this is one curiosity I’m glad to say MIFF is able to meet.

Iranian cinema is well presented in the International Panorama section, the highlight being Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000), which Stephen Teo discusses in this issue, including an interview with Panahi. Other highlights include A Time for Drunken Horses (Bahman Ghobadi, 2000), which will be locally released once the Festival is over, and Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (Bahman Farmanara, 2000).

For wit and inventiveness, there is Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik, an engrossing and humorous modern fable about a young couple who, unable to have children, adopt a tree trunk that bears resemble to a baby and inadvertently nurse it to life. Svankmajer’s particular appetite for the ‘little horrors’ and obscenities of every day life is wonderfully evident in this film, where the line between humour and horror is scarily blurred. His animation work is thrilling, in particular, the rendition of Otik as a monstrous man-eating tree trunk. The sound design and camera work, in particular, the odd zooming into ‘normal’ objects and expressions, generates an overall disturbing tenor in which the everyday is ‘made strange’.

Dominique Deruddere’s Everybody Famous! (2000) is a thoroughly entertaining film that takes the themes of The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982) and reworks them though with much less ingenious satire and more focus on the division between the ‘famous’ and the ‘aspiring famous’, their reversal, and a moving emphasis on what it takes to be a real performer. Everybody Famous! in addition to Disco Pigs (2000), directed by Kim Sheridan (daughter of Jim Sheridan), and Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute, 2000), will receive a local release later in the year. From Ireland, Disco Pigs focuses on a young couple bonded in a sacred and unspoken way and examines the dysfunctional qualities of this relationship and in particular, the male half, in the context of ‘social reality’. Nurse Betty, another meditation on the central role played by the TV world and celebrities in ‘everyday lives’, won the prize for best screenplay at Cannes 2000, hardly surprising given the film’s plot makes an unexpected turn in almost every scene. Worth seeing solely for Crispin Glover’s character as an earnest and charismatic newspaper columnist.

One hardly needs convincing when it comes to Sean Penn’s The Pledge. Even though it is of course getting a local release as soon as the Festival is over, The Pledge is still something to be excited about. Already debuted in the States early this year, it is Penn’s third film following on from The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Indian Runner (1991), and like the former it stars Jack Nicholson. Adapting a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge is a thriller based upon a retired detective’s (Nicholson) investigation of the death of a young girl, with a moral and psychological exploration of the detective’s character the centre of the film. Penn’s direction – “in terms of storytelling and coaxing first-rate performances out of a lot of talented actors” – has been described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as at times “masterful”. (2)

There are of course several omissions that are worth mentioning (though admittedly a festival can always be criticised on such grounds). Despite the spread of films from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, there is little from Africa, in particular, the films of Youssef Chahine, Souleymane Cissé or Ousmane Sembene. Other notable absences include Raul Ruiz’s The Comedy of Innocence (2000), Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s controversial Baise-Moi (2000), Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s Kippur (2000), Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2000) and various other films Asian in origin which will be mentioned further below. Then there are the films that we can only wish for: Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir (2001) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Éloge de L’amour (2001).

The Australian Showcase looks very strong with a spray of recent releases (Lantana [Ray Lawrence, 2001], The Old Man Who Read Love Stories [Rolf de Heer, 2000], Silent Partner [Alkino Tsilimidos, 2001], La Spagnola [Steve Jacobs, 2000]} and older films (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie [Bruce Beresford, 1972] and They’re a Weird Mob [Michael Powell, 1966]). The films most eagerly awaited are The Bank (Robert Connolly, 2001) and He Died With A Felafel in his Hand (Richard Lowenstein, 2001), with the Festival showing its commitment to Australian film by allotting these two as Opening and Closing Night Films respectively.

A major section of the program is the Regional Focus, which is dominated with films from Korea and Japan. Memento Mori (Kim Tae-Yong, 1999) is just one of the many films from South Korea, a hotspot of Asian cinema, which comprise almost half of the Regional Focus showcase. Others include Tears (Sang Soo Im, 2000), The Foul King (Kim Jee-woon, 2000), Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-Soo, 2000), Die Bad (Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2000), Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000), Joint Security Area (Chan Wook Park, 2000) and Tell Me Something (Chang Youn Hyun, 1999). Highlights here include the formally intriguing Virgin Stripped Bare . and the local hit Joint Security Area. Some omissions in this list of Korean films include Lies (Jang Sun-Woo, 2000) and Chunhyang (Im Kwon-Taek, 2000), both of which received a US release in 2000, and Lee Chang-Dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999). Other general absences in this section include not one Fruit Chan film, (it would be great to see his full trilogy one day: The Longest Summer [1998], Little Cheung [1999], Durian Durian [2000]), and the latest films from Tsai Ming-Liang, What Time is it There? (2001), Stanley Kwan, Lan Yu (2000), and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Millenium Mambo (2001). Still the Regional Focus program is a very strong one and includes films not to be missed like Zhang Ke Jia’s historical epic Platform (2000), discussed at length in this issue by Stephen Teo who also interviews Jia, Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide (2000) and Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (2000).

The problem of overlap occurs in some areas of the program and one example is the distinct overlap between the Regional Focus program and the spotlight titled Shadows: The Dark Side Of Cinema, which presumably brings together films with a horror slant. Almost half of the films included here are Asian in origin: Ring 0 (Norio Tsurata, 2000) is the latest in the hugely successful series of Ring films; Secret Tears (Park Ki-Hyung, 2000) from South Korea, which was part of the Directors Fortnight at Cannes 2001, Inugami (Masato Harada, 2000) and The Isle (Ki-Duk Kim Ps Eun Lee, 2000). In fact, the ‘dark side of cinema’ is a significant trend among contemporary Asian cinema in general – a certain sensibility concocted through various combinations and permutations of elements of the traditional ghost story, the samurai genre, popular genres such as the thriller, the film noir, the ‘gothic’ melodrama, horror and fantasy. Above all, these are dark stories told with a very careful and low-key almost delicate stylisation and evocation of mood that is suddenly interrupted with graphic displays of violence and blood. Seijun Suzuki, whose career comprised last year’s major retrospective, represents one extreme of these elements and influences configured in a sometimes truly avant garde play with narrative and mise en scène. It is a tradition that is also evident in Ishii Sogo’s Labyrinth of Dreams (1997). Another more recent example of this trend is encapsulated in Miike Takashi’s Audition (1999) that also played at the Festival last year. The Regional Focus itself includes films that could easily be regarded as ‘dark’ such as the moody and engrossing Memento Mori that takes teenage girlhood and ‘sister’ relationships to gothic realms.

Despite the overlap, there are other traditions of horror paid tribute in this spotlight, such as the tradition of American horror in Adam Simon’s documentary American Nightmare (2000), which includes appearances by John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg and John Landis. And there are films from France, New Zealand and an archive Swiss film, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922).

Time and Tide

Of the many spotlight programs featured in the Festival, the one that perplexes me the most both in title and curatorial purpose is mach 1. The catalogue describes it as “a high energy, innovative and edgy showcase of the raw and the new in film and digital arts”. Overlooking the inherent semantic ambiguity in this sentence, a scan of the films included suggest that what ties them together is a sense of attitude and futurism mediated by digital technology and electronic music, a morphing and crossing of boundaries in visual and aural design and corporeal boundlessness (hence, the inclusion of a documentary about the rise of skateboarding in Australia alongside the work of DJ David Franzke). But every single film in this spotlight – Wave Twisters (Michael ‘Syd’ Garon), Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts (Ishii Sogo, 2000), Tic Tac 2 Heelflip: Australia’s Skate-boarding History (Mike Hill, 2001), Onedotzero Lens Flare 01, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Chirstensen, 1922), Beautiful Cyborg, Scratch (Doug Pray, 2000), Scratch (Doug Pray, 2000) and Time and Tide (Tsui Hark, 2000) – appears in another section of the program, where the different qualities of each film are emphasised to fit whatever the slant of that particular program may be. Isn’t the festival goer intelligent enough to make the connections between films rather than having the Festival program generate spotlights that are in turn ‘summaries’ of its own program? Such duplication only makes a program this large even more confusing. The program catalogue states that the films on offer celebrate “the innovative excursions and incursions, envelope stretching and boundary testing that form the horizon of the modern filmmaking endeavour”. But is ‘attitude’ – and of a boyish slant too I might add – not being mistaken for ‘innovation’? In addition, transgressive sexuality is a glaring ‘blind spot’ here and the film that would most fit the bill in this regard is no doubt Baise-moi.

The Documentaries program is very strong and includes must-see films like Agnès Varda’s acclaimed The Gleaners and I (2000), Abbas Kiarostami’s ABC Africa (2001), Pie in the Sky: the Brigid Berlin Story (Shelly Dunn Fremont, Vincent Fremont, 2000) and the unforgettable Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (Jan Harlan, 2001) – the ultimate documentary devoted to this filmmaker, his life, his films and working methods. Made by those close to him, it is an honest, loving and balanced portrait of one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

The various spotlights on national cinemas are welcome events. One positive thing which Now! Britain suggests is that there’s more to British cinema then Billy Elliot or Snatch. However, a cinema with a history that includes the likes of Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Sally Potter, Terence Davies, Lynne Ramsay and the Brothers Quay, this spotlight chose to highlight the “British crime classic”, The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980) as a gem from the past. Highlights of this section include The Low Down (Jamie Thraves, 2000) and Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000), which has been touted as a “discovery” in the last twelve months.

Latin American Cinema is the other major national cinema to receive special attention in the Festival program, under the title: Viva: New Latin American Cinema. A highlight here is the Argentine film Fuckland (José Luis Marqués, 2000). Working within the Dogme tradition, Fuckland is a variant ‘home video’ taken by a young Argentine man, Fabián Stratas, throughout his visit to the Falkland Islands. His purpose of visiting the Islands is largely patriotic in nature – although in public he is pleasant to the British inhabitants and way of life, he is in private (a realm revealed only to ‘us’) hostile and bitter towards them and patriotically clings to the notion that the Islands rightfully belong to Argentina. Things get complicated when the political and the personal fuse and when Fabián’s irreverence toward the British rule of the Falklands’ is played out in his calculated betrayal of Camilla Heaney, a local rather naïve woman he becomes involved with. Part humorous, part horrific, Fuckland (the title is a pun derived from the Argentine pronunciation of ‘Falkland’) pushes the Dogme and ‘reality’ TV phenomenon to a new extreme. Though this spotlight overall doesn’t dig deep enough into contemporary Argentine cinema, with films like Waiting for the Messiah (Daniel Burman, 2000) or 76-89-03 (Cristian Bernard and Flavio Nardini, 2000), it includes some definite highlights such as Arturo Ripstein’s The Ruination of Men (2000) and Barbet Schroeder’s Our Lady of the Assassins (2000).

Mooks Backbeat: Music On Film looks set to rock with documentaries covering a variety of popular music genres like punk and rock (Penelope Spheeris’ We Sold our Souls for Rock and Roll, 2000), Latin jazz (Fernando Trueba’s Calle 54, 2000), and hip hop (Doug Pray’s Scratch, 2000). In addition, is the documentary Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970-2000), which is remarkable in terms of its footage and how closely it gets to the events of a Rolling Stones concert in December 1969, when four people died. The ’60s hippie counterculture gets radically questioned throughout this documentary. Tony Gatlif’s excellent Vengo (2000) is another case of program overlap. Although music plays an important role in the narrative, this film ultimately combines ethnographic documentary with high opera. The emotion and passion in the singing and dancing which take over certain parts of the story echoes and resonates the tragedy of a tale of revenge and honour typical of small villages. Gatlif continues in Vengo his tendency to convey the vigour and richness of small ethnic village communities that he did so well in Crazy Stranger (1998) and Lacho Drom (1993). And the soundtrack is to die for!

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the various other spotlights: Eyeball To Eyeball: The Many Obsessions Of Errol Morris, Animation Gallery, Sideshow: New Media, Electric Angels: The Films Of Ishii Sogo, Burden Of Dreams: Werner Herzog, the international short film competition, the many forums, panels and lectures, the guests . Perhaps let’s leave these – as every Festival encounter should be – as moments of discovery.

Endnotes

  1. Adrian Martin, “The Maverick Returns”, The Age, “Today”, Friday 13 July, 2001, pp. 1, 3
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Consider the Source, http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/2001/0101/010126.html