10 on Ten

On the opening day of the 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) I find myself watching Abbas Kiarostami’s 10 on Ten (2004). While not quite a manifesto, 10 on Ten is a kind of declaration of principles on the emerging aesthetics of digital filmmaking. Yet it is also a polemic against a cinema of waste. Scale it down, Kiarostami seems to be saying, and you will hit a richer vein of visual and sonic essence. One suspects that the programming of 10 on Ten on the opening day of the Festival was a form of invitation to festival goers to think through Kiarostami’s ideas, to let them resonate in the spectator’s mind as the subsequent festival unfolded. Whether many in the audience picked up on the invitation is hard to say, yet as the loud, fast and furious Asian action films kicked in over the following two weeks, for many, Kiarostami’s “voice” would have been reduced to little more than a distant whisper. The director had been a festival guest the previous year, in which Ten (2002) – the ostensible subject of this new film – was screened, together with a significant number of his previous features and shorts. In part, film festivals shape their identities through the kind of associations they form with individual filmmakers, and the continuities they maintain in their programming from year to year. Being associated with a filmmaker of stature can add immeasurably to a festival’s profile. As a follow through to his presence last year, Kiarostami was represented again not only with his own films 10 on Ten and Five (2004), but also via a range of films from fellow Iranian filmmakers specifically selected by the director under the spotlight banner “Abbas Kiarostami Recommends”. This selection of films was itself a subdivision of a larger spotlight program titled Homelands: The Middle East in Focus that incorporated the further categories New Fiction and Documentaries, Emergence: New Woman Filmmakers from the Middle East, and a section devoted to the distinctive essay/diary films of Elia Suleiman.

Where once upon a time festivals had a generalist approach to programming – featuring broad templates like features, documentaries, shorts, animation – over the course of time there has been a noticeable drift towards more defined and discreet divisions within these existing templates. There is a greater sense now of curatorial intervention in programming, in selecting, guiding and focussing the filmgoers attention. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the framework within which a film is placed inevitably can impinge on the spectator’s reception of the film. Contexts matter to the generating of meaning and interpretation. For example, both 10 on Ten and Five sit uncomfortably, if at all, under the rubric of “homelands”, let alone “the Middle East”. The former film addresses a cine-literate audience on the subject of cinema, technology, and aesthetics as applied to Kiarostami’s evolving conception of mise en scène – the director comments on issues such as the treatment of subject, actors, landscape, and so on. If 10 on Ten is the theory, Five is the praxis. Composed of five “vignettes” of varying length – a seascape as a piece of driftwood undulates upon the rippling waves, a stretch of pavement as passers-by move to-and-fro, dogs at rest by the seashore, etc. – the film asks the spectator to look, listen and contemplate the reality before them. Kiarostami seems to be consciously distancing himself from notions of the regional filmmaker of local themes, and asks to be seen as a filmmaker pure and simply, without any pre-defining boundaries to his work.

As MIFF has grown in scope and ambition – this year it presented several hundred films over 19 days – I’ve often heard it said of late that no two patrons have experienced quite the same Festival – like too many package tours on offer taking people in differing directions. Here are just some things that where on offer: Thai Breakers: New Cinema from Thailand; Northern Lights 04: New Scandinavian Cinema; a genre grouping of films under the banner D.O.A: New Crime Scene; and Hidden Hero: The Films of Chang Cheh – the one true retrospective in the program, containing seven films by the Hong Kong based director who has left his mark on the legacy of the wuxia pian genre. As cinema from Asia takes an ever-increasing hold of the public’s imagination, retrospectives of this kind are all the more important in helping place contemporary Asian films in a historical context. There was also the popular Animation Gallery, which contained a mini-retrospective of the works of Studio Ghibli; though often seen, it was nonetheless a welcome opportunity to revisit these films, in particular the wonderful My Neighbours the Yamadas (Takahata Isao, 1999).

Australian Showcase featured both the new and the old, recent local fiction and documentary features together with a number of new prints of landmark films like Pure Shit (Bert Deling, 1975) and Peterson (Tim Burstall, 1974) courtesy of ScreenSound Australia. Pure Shit, about a group of characters in search of their next drug hit, has lost none of its raw energy, a film wired to the frenzied moment-by-moment movement of the narrative. The films comes across as if an electrical current runs through it, and, in style and treatment of its subject matter, it remains open to the possibilities of cinematic storytelling in ways foreclosed by many more recent Australian films. Peterson was screened together with two early shorts by Burstall as a sort of memorial to the recently deceased filmmaker. The narrative short film is a difficult form to master, many a practitioner has crashed on its rocks. Using the one location, the St Kilda Pier, Hot Centre of the World (1971) successfully evokes a world in microcosm in which two homeless drunken derelicts voyeuristically “feed” on the lives of random strangers – a would-be suicide, lovers looking for a quite spot – that stray into their milieu. It works so well as a short dramatic piece because, unlike so many short films, it has a strong core idea that doesn’t feel as if it wants to over-extend itself, or, as is sometimes the case, a bigger dramatic premise artificially curtailed. As a “people on the fringe of society” story it would have made an ideal companion piece to the similarly themed Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos). Burstall’s 1960 short Black Man and his Bride: Australian paintings by Arthur Boyd, in its use of narrative and painting, prefigures by decades some the techniques put to effect in Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002). Scripted by David Williamson Peterson now seems like a film about a bygone Australia, especially in its portrayal of academia. Made fresh on the heels of the Whitlam government’s policy of higher education for all, the story of former football star and working class tradesman Tony Peterson juggling family, work and an Arts Degree at Melbourne University tapped directly into the zeitgeist of the times. Ironic then, that the film’s critique of the liberal bohemian lifestyle of the university culture of the time, should now, after years of Government intervention enforcing corporate values onto the public higher education system, seem to the younger graduates of today like little more than a pipe-dream. Courageous too – if somewhat short-sighted – is the film’s engagement with the sexual politics of the time, that messy encounter between feminism and ocker masculinity. While he falls short of auteur status – something that did not seem to interest him anyhow – he is nonetheless a director of merit and a figure of considerable importance in the emergence of a new Australian cinema. Burstall’s death came too soon to mount a fully considered retrospective of his work – films like Last of the Knucklemen (1979) and Duet for Four (1982) deserve airing, perhaps something worth considering for a future festival.

Someone who is already being positioned as an auteur avant the oeuvre, so to speak, is Cate Shortland whose debut feature Somersault (2004) screened on Opening Night. It is a small, modest film burdened by misplaced critical praise. Would local critics have been less forgiving of its shortcoming if it were not an Australian film? Would they have so readily overlooked its script failings (Sam Worthington’s character is underwritten, and the final scene seems to offer the kind of summary conclusion found in tele-movies)? Would they have accepted its fairly one-dimensional use of landscape and climate, part metaphor reflecting the emotional “climate” of the characters, part visual decor affording the opportunity for some photogenic atmospherics? As to climate as metaphor, Hang Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man (2004), a film from South Korea also in the festival, makes better use of similar elements. Inevitably, the word “innovative” has been used to describe Shortland’s work, more so for her short films which were also screened as part of Australian Showcase, yet real innovation is more in evidence in independent local films made on the fringes of the industry, such as, for example, with James Clayden’s Hamlet X (2003).

Tropical Malady

The Re-living

“A man walks into a room where there’s a ghost”.

The line is a repeated refrain in Hamlet X, yet it could equally do service as a description of Jacques Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien (2003), and as metaphor it resonates through Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004). Or, in a perverse variant, the idea is also very much there in the biopics that exhume the dead in one way or another as with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (Stephen Hopkins, 2004) (mimicry of the dead at its worst) or the documentary Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons (Gandulf Hennig, 2004) in which the legendary story of the music star’s corpse being stolen from the mortuary is re-enacted. The metaphor is also there in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre musique (2004) and David Barison and Daniel Ross’s The Ister (2004) in the way these films intelligently deal with the haunting of history. And is there not a kind of “sonic haunting” taking place in the vogue for live score accompaniment to old films? This year there were Ernesto Maurice Corpus’s scores to Tod Browning’s classic The Unknown (1927) and the Australian film The Man From Kangaroo (Willfred Lucas, 1920), In The Nursery’s score to the remarkable Japanese avant-garde film A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1927) and perhaps most interestingly, Philip Brophy’s sonic “intervention” to Philippe Garrel’s silent film of 1968 Le Révélateur, and, to mark the breach between Garrel’s original film and the new entity that emerges through Brophy’s score, the event was titled Aurévélateur.

A debt to the dead may take the form of vengeance, or not, yet either way your conscience is haunted by the need to act. In Kim Ki-duk’s Samaritan Girl (2004) a young school girl decides both to have sex with and return payment to the men that her dead girlfriend has prostituted herself to, believing that her friend’s soul will be purified via this strange, perverse logic of reversal and sacrifice. In Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) – one of the best films of the Festival – a former underworld hard man looks to avenge the death of his brother, yet in effect it is less vengeance he seeks than the Antigone-like need to give the dead their rightful burial. For the living, the dead are never asleep if accounts remain unsettled. Nothing is ever quite dead in the cinema, but nor was it ever quite alive. From its inception the cinema was an apparatus for the making of these shimmering phantasmagorical images that necessarily accompany our lives. “A man walks into a room where there’s a ghost” ultimately describes the spectator entering any movie theatre. Especially if the movie house happens to be that Taiwanese theatre screening King Hu’s 1967 classic Dragon Inn in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. What a delightful hall of mirrors Tsai has created with this film. Two of the actors from Dragon Inn are present in the theatre, now as older men, watching their former selves on screen. Their meeting in the foyer after the screening is quietly moving, a few spoken words yet pregnant with unspoken emotions – something true of all the encounters in this virtually dialogue free film. One of the actors Miao Tien, together with the little boy who has sat through the screening with him, will reappear in the final scene of The Missing (2003), the directorial debut of Lee Kang-sheng, a regular and iconic actor in Tsai’s films (he plays the projectionist and object of the disabled usher’s unrequited love in Goodbye, Dragon Inn). Is it possible that events in these two separate films occupy the same fictional time, with a fragment of one film looped into the other? Perhaps more fanciful is the thought that given The Missing deals concurrently with, on the one hand, the death of a grandfather and the search for his “spirit” by his teenage grandson, and on the other, the day long search by a grandmother for her infant grandson who has disappeared from a park one morning, could it not be that what we glimpse in that final scene of The Missing is the ghost of the grandfather and the figure of the missing infant returning from the movie house of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, as if they had gone missing for the day at the cinema? Improbable perhaps, yet it is the same actor Miao Tien who we glimpse playing the part of the grandfather before his death in the opening of The Missing, and it is he also who plays the ghost of a dead father slipping time zones in Tsai’s What Time is it There? (2001), screened at MIFF in 2002.

Story of Marie and Julien

Slippages in time may also be at the heart of the strange tale of l’amour fou between a man and a woman who is a ghost, or rather, the “re-living” as she is referred to, in Story of Marie and Julien. Former lovers Marie and Julien reunite some time after the enigmatic Marie had disappeared from Julien’s world. There is a mystery to Marie’s unexpected disappearances and reappearances that Julien seeks to solve and in so doing comes to learn that she may not be what she seems. The temporal flow of narrative events may also not be what it seems. Julien works at fixing old and rare clocks, and at one point explains that it is important to listen carefully to the mechanism of the clock’s wheels to register whether they are marking time imperfectly or not. Time out of joint may be what divides the realms of Julien’s life of quotidian reality and Marie’s phantom existence. Rivette is a master of the elliptical edit that cuts into the flow of time, jolting our understanding of narrative temporality. Love, of course, will bring these asynchronous beings into harmony. While nowhere near the great masterpieces of his former years like L’Amour fou (1967) or Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), the film is nonetheless another entertaining stay in Rivette’s house of fiction.

It is not time out of joint that fractures the narrative of Tropical Malady in two, but desire out of joint. The first part of the story is told in a naturalistic observational style as we watch the growing attraction and love between a soldier in the Thai army and a naive, reticent young man. The soldier is the pursuer to the boy’s pursued, as they navigate their desire through mostly fleeting glances and soft caresses, everything – to the soldier’s regret – remains unconsummated. In the second part of the film, through an extraordinary process of sublimation, the story is transformed and retold through a style more akin to magic realism. It becomes a kind of ghost story or folkloric tale of a half-human, half-beast tiger figure that ravages the jungle devouring both animals and humans alike. The solder sets off after its trail, soon to realise that he is not the hunter but the prey. Repression and sublimation are the flip side of the one coin. Clearly now, the rational, civilised tone of the first half has given way to a sexual allegory of the uninhibited libido at the service of unconscious desire, savage as it is. Freudians would have a field day, so laden with symbolism this film is. Director Weerasethakul is held in high esteem by some critics, yet on the evidence to hand, his works contains an equal mixture of the interesting and the tedious. For the time being the jury remains out.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the ghost in the machine of Clayden’s Hamlet X, though not as adaptation, but rather fragments of the text weave their way through a very illusive and fractured narrative. The mood of the film seems close to film noir – dark and tense, and full of constricted spaces – as a small ensemble of characters are either rehearsing a play, or, plotting a robbery, or both and more at the one time. Betrayal and murder may also be involved. At best, the plot and characters remain opaque as if like pieces of a puzzle whose overall design escapes us, though wonderfully evocative in its layering and repetition of text and imagery. Hamlet X is one of the few feature films in the Festival that could genuinely be called experimental.

History Lessons

One of the effects of seeing so many films in a concentrated period of time is that they begin to set in play a dialogue amongst themselves, with the spectator as a kind of moderator, or, a conduit that facilitates their communication. This is literally the case when, for example, listening to Kiarostami speak about the limitless possibilities opened up by the digital camera in 10 on Ten, and then watching that priceless close-up of a mute Godard when asked by a film class in a scene from Notre musique whether “the small digital camera will save the cinema?”. Kiarostami comes across as a little disingenuous, and short on film history – the talk of the lightness and portability of equipment had already been rehearsed in debates at the time of the “direct cinema” and/or cinema verité movements. Godard, of course – as a great admirer of Jean Rouch’s cinema – was directly engaged with such debates, and indeed in the 1980s was involved with the Aaton group in developing a small camera to his specifications (though he remained unhappy with the results). Godard knows well that if the ideas are not there technology alone can never save the cinema from much.

Notre musique

Notre musique was one of the real highlights of the Festival. The film has a three-part structure – or “movement”, given the musical allusion of the title – that mimics Dante’s Divine Comedy, that great allegorical poem narrative of the soul’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven. Yet Godard is less interested in the metaphysical allegory – though the sacred dimension is certainly there, most emphatically in the music – than in historical allegory.

No one knows how to raid the “image archive” better than Godard: the “Inferno” episode is totally composed of images from pre-existing movies, documentaries and newsreels, and proves once again what an extraordinary collagist he is. The episode both documents history, and, the passage of images through history. Watching it, one thinks of – paraphrasing Brecht – history as that nightmare from which we are yet to awake. At the tail end of the film, on the other hand, “Paradise” is rendered as a stretch of tranquil terrain on the shores of a lake as the young go about their past-times without a care. Access to paradise is of course limited and yet rather than St. Peter at the gates of heaven, a US sailor acts as sentry. The powerful always control prime real estate. The “Inferno” and “Paradise” episodes are mere, albeit important, bookends to the lengthy heart of the film that is “Purgatory”, and for Godard its setting is post-war Sarajevo as a conference of some kind – literary, cultural – takes place. Most likely literary given that many of the delegates are poets and novelists, and the issue most debated relates to what stories have been told, and which are to be written and bequeathed to future generations. Therefore, the references to Homer, Kafka, and the issue of the library that lay in ruins to be restocked with books. As is to be expected from Godard, thoughts and ideas come at you like a spray of machine-gun fire, some hitting their mark, others flying past. Some ricochet in that peculiar Godardian fashion, like the discussion of shot-countershot in cinema, and, the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s no surprise that Godard should linger most in the indeterminate interzone between the two certainties of heaven and hell, between history and story, between the victors and the vanquished, between the certainties of meaning and its total dissolution.

Unlike Godard, his former nouvelle vague colleague Eric Rohmer puts history to more conventional use in Triple Agent (2004). The story spans the years from the mid 1930s, with the rise of the French Popular Front, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, to the Occupation of Paris and the immediate end of World War Two period, these historical events all rendered via newsreel footage. But this is all merely a backdrop to what is in effect a chamber-piece drama of a former White Russian General living in Paris with his wife and acting as a representative in the interests of the Russian émigré community. In essence it is the story of a hollow man who has been sidelined by history, or, the centre stage of political power. On its margins he creates for himself and others the illusion of importance and influence. Mystery and secrecy surround him, but these are the ruses used to better conceal the absence at the core of his identity. When the house of cards falls, those, like his wife, unwittingly drawn into his game of fabrications, inevitably end up suffering most.

On paper, film festivals are full of expectation, anticipation, imaginings and the hope for new discoveries. In practice, once the films have begun un-spooling, they are a mixture of major and minor pleasures, surprises, modified expectations, and disappointments. For the spectator, at the end of it all, the gap between expectation and fulfilment is probably the gauge that measures the degree of satisfaction. This year, and for this reviewer, the shortfall between the two was very small indeed, and so the programmers should be complimented for putting together one of the best festivals in recent memory.