99 Years of My Life

October 10–17, 2004

Like any substantial film festival, the Cork program presents an imposingly dense block of cinema out of which each viewer must carve his or her own micro-festival defined by the exigencies of taste, interest, appetite, free time, available money and even social pressures. Fortunately, year after year, personal taste has always been the decisive factor in governing my festival viewing choices. The reason that this is worth stating – or confessing – at the outset is that “my” Cork can sometimes exclude the Festival’s more prominent offerings. My habitual avoidance of the much-hyped opening and closing night gala presentations pales beside my relative reluctance to attend the numerous Irish and International short film programs. Given that Cork’s reputation is as a short film festival, it is arguable that this disinclination renders any account of the Festival I might put forward somewhat oblique. I gravitate toward the foreign language features, older movies and, especially, experimental film programs. More often than not these are abundant enough to smother any confused promptings of duty to catch up on the Festival’s mainstream. Cork 2004, running from October 10 to 17, certainly left no time to succumb to such twinges, distinguished as it was by a welcome and commendable emphasis on experimental work. This was prominently announced by the presence of stills from an installation by Malcolm Le Grice on the program cover and a new section in it, the Free Radicals, to highlight the work of formally adventurous filmmakers like Michael Brynntrup and Mike Hoolboom.

If any reader found the unashamedly self-expressive tone of the above preamble objectionable, he or she would probably prefer to avoid Michael Brynntrup’s E.C.G. Expositus – the Broadcast and the Artistic Media (E.K.G. Expositus – die offentlichen und die kunstlerischen Medien) (2003). At first glance – and, perhaps, at several subsequent glances – this self-devouring monster of a self-portrait may seem single-mindedly concerned with gleefully pushing the boundaries of unrepentant narcissism. Its dense structure frames within a promised fictional hospital drama (that hardly gets beyond one scene!) four complete short films Brynntrup completed in the ’90s, fragments of other previous films, and footage of TV crews interviewing the filmmaker at his home. Rather than being a film about the omnipresent Brynntrup as a person, E.C.G. Expositus exhaustively explores the obsessive reproduction of images of the self, superficial and glib in themselves, both playful and unsettlingly claustrophobic in their seemingly endless variations and elaborations. The whole movie can be looked at as the extension of one of the shorts that it contains, Heart.Instant/iation II (Self-Generated Manipulations) (Herzsofort.setzung II (autogene Manipulationen)) (1996), which follows an image of Brynntrup for over seven minutes as it is subjected to numerous alterations and manipulations by being passed through a variety of different media. This largely jocular interrogation of the image is carried through many of the intricate processes of doubling, repetition and sometimes subtle recontextualisation that he subjects his material to throughout E.C.G. Expositus. The result is a vertigo inducing audio-visual hall of mirrors, the subjects of which are Brynntrup’s own voice, face and body.

E.C.G. Expositus - the Broadcast and the Artistic Media

In spite of the overall lightness of tone, an increasingly disturbing level of existential anxiety or even despair haunts this game of self-regarding excess. In at least overtly eschewing psychological or emotional depths and essentially reducing himself to an empty, endlessly manipulable image, Brynntrup already undermines the notion of three-dimensional human identity as a grounding central focus of experience. Instead he offers himself as an ornamental given subject to the generative regime of an elaborately baroque folly. And he is not the only sacrifice. Another of the older short films gobbled up by this vortex, Loverfilm – An Uncontrolled Dispersion of Information (Loverfilm – eine unkontrollierte Freisetzung von Information) (1996), is a rapid, 20 minute list of the director’s past lovers, a dash through 20 years of gay history that matches names to images whilst slyly posing questions about both the viewer’s right to be watching such a private document – one that pointedly includes invasions of privacy – and whether or not the images actually depict the people they are supposed to represent. On its own, this film could be taken at face value. Within the broader context of E.C.G. it becomes apparent that Brynntrup is reducing both his past and the men who peopled it to the status of almost emotionally meaningless elements in a manic media game – the same process through which he mediates his self-image elsewhere in the film. The lovers’ specific identities are eradicated in favour of a simplistic image-function.

Yet all this willful capriciousness does have a very definite centre of gravity: death. It is most evident in another cannibalised short, Aide Memoire – Gay Document for Remembering (Aide Memoire – ein schwules Gedachtnisprotokoll) (1995), an unassumingly tender documentary in which photographer Jurgen Baldiga talks to Brynntrup about coping with AIDS. Baldiga’s talking head is intercut with still pictures of him close to death (he died in ’93) and apparently unstaged footage of a deranged alcoholic woman in Brynntrup’s courtyard screaming threats and abuse at the filmmaker who is hiding, filming, in his flat. The sense of danger to Brynntrup that she implies is answered in the campy hospital scenes that open and close the film, in which Brynntrup is rushed into Accident and Emergency, his face completely disfigured. Not only is the ever-mutating narcissistic image superficial, it is also fragile. The scenes devoted to Baldiga are the statement of that fragility. They alone root the film in an emotionally resonant, lived-in reality but do so in highlighting its transience, a transience echoed in the grotesque hospital scenario.

Mike Hoolboom’s Public Lighting (2004) also sets itself the task of arranging films that could function independently as several shorter works (its most impressive segment, Amy, was in fact screened on its own elsewhere in the Festival) into a conceptually unified feature format. Whereas the brilliance of E.C.G. Expositus was the result of Brynntrup’s fiendishly clever layering and repetition of images and narratives, Hoolboom adopts a more straightforwardly anthological structure in exploring the imaginative diversity of a writer’s mind. The opening episode introduces this writer by showing her negotiating her day-to-day urban existence. In voiceover she describes the fulfillment that she finds in writing, while the images fragment her environment, subjectifying reality through oblique camera angles that present an impression of the world simultaneously in line with her sensing of it and liberated from her physical perception. If Brynntrup’s film saw a universe overcluttered with representations of his physicality proliferating ad nauseum, Hoolboom’s mise en scène here offers an antidote: an option for apprehending the world through an appreciating consciousness that is not completely tied to the identity as body, but is capable of creatively engendering other identities and other experiences to explore.

Public Lighting

The form this exploration takes is the subsequent series of short films, each representing a story that the writer has completed. Rather than providing her with an assortment of alternative bodies, Hoolboom’s method of illustrating the diversity of her imagination is giving each film a different style. Public Lighting‘s bravura stylistic eclecticism is constantly arresting, although the episodes are often united by frequent recourse to first person narration, as either onscreen text or voice off, and found footage. From the surprisingly effective simplicity of superimposing the text of a letter written to Madonna by a man dying of AIDS over images from her videos, to the aggressive audio-visual density of a photographer’s nocturnal experiences, the range of Hoolboom’s ability is never less than striking. In one of the earlier sections he is to be congratulated on finding a refreshingly new approach to the cinematic appropriation of Philip Glass’ music. While an ever increasing list of filmmakers – Reggio, Morris, Schrader, Scorsese, Daldry etc. – have relied heavily on his infectiously persuasive scores to drive their stories, Hoolboom’s enraptured account of the composer’s importance to one admirer’s life shows cinema for once foregrounding and paying tribute to the music that it has so often drawn upon for its own narrative ends.

Of the two remaining films in the Free Radicals slot, I was regrettably unable to make the screening of Jem Cohen’s Chain (2004) and, in spite of one or two moments of trippy beauty, found little to like in Remy M. Larochelle’s tired, heavy handed and clumsily conceived pseudo fairy tale Mecanix (2003).

Although screened as part of a different program, Finnish director Marja Mikkonen’s remarkable 30-minute film 99 Years of My Life (99 Vuotta Elamastani) (2003) is nothing if not “free” and “radical” and certainly one of the unexpected highlights of the Festival. Like the Brynntrup and the Hoolboom, it uses experimental techniques to engage with the displacement and reassignment of identities with respect to a unifying idea. Also like them, it integrates specially shot scenes with found footage. The spoken narration, delivered by a young woman, describes important events from a woman’s life, proceeding chronologically from childhood through to extreme old age and death. As this narrative briskly unfolds, one becomes conscious of historical anomalies. According to the program notes, the experiences recounted are compiled from the lives of four women of different ages fused into one story. The image track unites home movies and other found footage spanning several decades in a non-chronological sequence, which nevertheless illustrates the events chronologically described in voice-over, with highly stylised staged shots, and even animation, in a dense montage. The film’s strategy of linear time unfolding ahistorically, forming parallel chronologies aligned by their internal, intimate specifics instead of being separated by a broader encompassing temporal paradigm, results in a concentrated and rather dizzying impression of life as a series of vivid fragments subject only to their own unique emotional charge. They might pass through history, but their times are always experienced as part of a vivid present. In other words, Mikkonen refuses to historicise any event in her film, imbuing every moment with the intensity of a vibrant “now”. This accounts for the astonishing degree of “communication” across the generations that the four narrative strands are able to achieve, blending seamlessly in the overt rejection of memory-work as narrative tool. 99 Years of My Life is both emotionally draining and vertiginously life-affirming cinema.

Another rewarding experimental program consisted of a compilation of minute-long works by prominent American and European filmmakers commissioned annually as trailers for the Vienna Film Festival since 1995. The most memorable were Martin Arnold’s Der V’97 – Trailer (1997), the most successful “sampling” of the much mucked about with Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) to date, which makes chillingly effective use of just one slowed down shot, water pouring from the shower in that scene; Bruce Baillie’s Pieta (1998), a heartstoppingly lyrical selection of three shots from his Memories of an Angel, all taken at sunset and including what must be cinema’s single most beautiful shot of birds in flight; two films by Jonas Mekas, Wien und Mozart (2001), in which he films the lights of nocturnal Vienna in his usual joyfully jittery style, and Elvis (2001), a comical setting of Presley concert footage to a Strauss waltz; and, from 2002, one of Brakhage’s exquisite, fleeting hand painted films that alternates dense bursts of colour with a predominantly white screen to ethereal effect.

Berlin Horse

Another major figure in the history of experimental film and video was in town for the week, along with a generous selection of his work: British filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice. In addition to a 15-film retrospective screening, the Triskel Arts Centre hosted a three-projector installation version of his “Cyclops Cycle” of recent work that ran along with several more of his videos looped on a monitor. From the structuralist classic Berlin Horse (1969) to the magisterial digital masterpiece Even a Cyclops Pays the Ferryman (1998) by way of Digital Still Life (1989), there was ample evidence on show of Le Grice’s ability with elaborately ambitious projects. Yet often equally impressive were the many videos which seemed snatched from life with an unassuming or even informal intimacy. Although structured around definite, sometimes very clever ideas, the images in these videos retain the immediacy (although not the crudeness) of home movies. The result is the vivid record of a mind restlessly engaged with the possibilities for cinematic representation that constantly surround us in daily life; in images of flowers (Balcony Water Colour, 1994), passers-by outside a hotel window (Warsaw Window, 1994), plants blowing in the wind (Rape, 1990), rain on a car windscreen (Beware, 1988), a woman with a crystal ball in a street (Seeing the Future, 1994), water in a weir (Weir, 1993). Even though Le Grice’s sensitivity to atmosphere is such that these works could often hold their own as simple, impressionistic documentary snapshots (as the very beautiful Veritas [1988], a celebration of winemaking, demonstrates particularly well), he invariably conceptualises his images through montage. The slow, lyrical repeated pans across a field in Rape, for instance, become increasingly fragmented and staccato, with the editing, as it were, doing violence to the image; the actions of people in the street in Warsaw Window seem to promise a narrative that remains unknown to us; the anxiety of increasingly heavy rain hitting the car in Beware leads to equally anxious messages appearing as text across the (wind)screen.

These videos were mainly screened in the second half of the retrospective program and on the gallery monitor. The first half of the cinema screening was dedicated to older works. Berlin Horse proved as hypnotic as ever while Horror Film (1971) presented a valuable document of the extended cinema performances Le Grice was involved in during the ’70s, and After Lumière – L’Arroseur arrose (1974) offered a series of witty variations on one of cinema’s first comedies. Yet none of these screenings proved more exciting than the best of the films in three-screen exhibition. Particularly memorable were: Neither Here nor There (2001) which, by zooming in on a monitor, reduced news footage of Afghanistan to abstract processions of flickering TV grain every bit as relentless as the columns of soldiers depicted in the newscast, before juxtaposing these images of “there” with windswept trees by a lake manifesting “here”; Traveling with Mark (2003) that transforms images taken from a train window into a glorious blur of colour in movement; and the magnificent Even a Cyclops Pays the Ferryman, described by Le Grice as a requiem for his father, which makes brilliant use of densely textured visual superimposition to imagine a journey into the afterlife.

I wasn’t able to go to as much of the week-long Brian Desmond Hurst retrospective season as I would have liked. After a spell as assistant to and friend of John Ford in Hollywood, the Irish-born Hurst pursued a workmanlike career in British filmmaking distinguished by the wonderful Dickens adaptation, Scrooge (1951), starring Alistair Sim. One of the Hurst films I did get to see proved astonishing, a 1934 adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (also known as Bucket of Blood). This was one of Hurst’s earliest works, made on a shoestring and released as a “quota quickie”. Yet rather than smacking of exploitation, this uneven, occasionally ponderous but also haunting and sometimes brilliant dream narrative seems steeped in the influence French decadent literature and avant-garde cinema, with Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1930) an apparent model. Little appears to be known about the film, but a conversation with Hurst biographer Christopher Robbins confirmed the filmmaker’s keen awareness of Cocteau and his milieu – before entering cinema, he had been an art student in ’20s Paris and was personally acquainted with the poet.

Although remarkably faithful to the plot of Poe’s entirely subjective internal monologue, this adaptation makes two significant changes: a framing device introduces the hero, here identified as a young artist, as an asylum inmate, with the main story unfolding in flashback as he tells his tale to two doctors; and a love interest is brought in. The starkly shot asylum scenes are striking in the way that they prefigure more famous images to come. The most startling example is the drawing of giant eyes scrawled by the paranoid painter on his cell wall – they are almost shockingly similar to those painted by Dali for Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944). Rather than a sop to commercialism, the presence of a girlfriend for the young man is more likely motivated by the abstract concern of creating a zone of light, literal and spiritual, against which the darkness of the hero’s home and mental illness can gradually triumph. The film’s most successful scenes generally fall within its almost dialogue-free first half and none is more impressive than the lovers’ ravishingly lyrical romantic idyll in the sun drenched countryside that is undercut by the hero’s dark visions. The resulting unease is not unlike that created by Dreyer in Vampyr (1931) in which a creepy sense of evil permeates even the brightness of apparently peaceful summer days.

Filmed for the most part in formally framed medium shots with an austere rhythm that allows for some comparatively long takes, The Tell-Tale Heart abounds in memorably oneiric images. Appropriately enough, many of these centre on the old man who shares the artist’s house and, more specifically, on his “evil eye” which ultimately drives the unhinged younger man to homicide. This dead, staring eye, focus of the murderer’s obsession, keeps cropping up in his hallucinated version of reality, sometimes echoing the image of the statue’s mouth on the poet’s hand in Blood of a Poet. The actors in Tell-Tale Heart are very well chosen, not so much for their acting ability – which is of little importance in view of the effectively somnambulistic performance style Hurst imposes – as for their physical appearances. John Kelt, the actor playing the old man, is particularly memorable, an older, scrawnier, shabbier Boris Karloff, naturally possessing the pathos that the Frankenstein star worked so hard to achieve.

Although the other Hurst films that I saw served only to confirm his reputed mediocrity, The Tell-Tale Heart is obviously a special case. This strange and ambitious orphan of early ’30s European art cinema, lost for too long amid the dross of run-of-the-mill “quota quickies”, deserves, at very least, recognition as a fascinating curiosity.

Marco Bellocchio’s bold Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, Notte, 2003), the best film that I saw outside of the experimental programs, proved hardly less dream-like than The Tell-Tale Heart. Surprising, perhaps, for a movie that tells the story, however fictionalised, of a major and still controversial historical event: the kidnapping, imprisonment and murder of Italian president Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade in 1978. But viewers expecting a straightforward, no frills dramatisation will find much to be surprised about here. Bellocchio films the situation as a claustrophobic nightmare, spatially claustrophobic in its enclosed setting but also claustrophobic in its sense of the crushing weight of images of history bearing down on the protagonists. This is cinematically literalised in both found footage representing the ideals that spur the kidnappers on and in TV footage that reflects their current predicament.

The pressure of their decisions is perhaps key to the film’s form, filtered through the subjectivity of one of the kidnappers (Maya Sansa) who begins having second thoughts. A traditional approach to bringing such a story to the screen “objectively” would employ a deterministically linear structure, steadily building in suspense as it narrows to the crucial point of a single action (the murder). Even if ostensibly leaving the ending open or the events subject to further interrogation, such a narrativity would almost inevitably give rise to a sense of comforting distance, of history being tied up into an emotionally coherent statement.

Good Morning, Night

While taking a point of view on the Moro kidnapping and certainly not rejecting suspense, Good Morning, Night unfolds in a brilliantly unconventional and challenging manner by starting with an apparently straightforward course of action, seemingly guaranteed by the definite ending that history imposed on it, and then, as if overwhelmed by the intensity of its subject matter, splintering into its constituent emotional, psychological, historical and ideological elements. These fall into anything but a conventional linearity, functioning instead as discursively jostling monads that engender more doubts and alternative courses of action rather than less as the inevitable murder approaches. In concert with its heroine, the film could be described as sinking into a sort schizophrenic crisis brought about by the immense implications of what she is helping to carry out – a responsibility to the past and the future as well as growing ambiguity with regard to the conflicting political interests involved that are too large to cohere neatly.

Bellocchio’s method of creating this painfully charged confusion is largely predicated on a startling, at times almost Buñuellian, juxtaposition of naturalism with surrealism. As if holding the President prisoner in a cell constructed in an ordinary flat and carrying on a semblance of normal life wasn’t enough of a strain on reality’s substance, dream events increasingly intrude on the action of what Bellocchio seems to identify as an attempt at realising a historical dream. Moro’s fate in this film is no longer determined simply by an interpretation of the facts of the case but by the interplay of levels of distorting subjective perception. Rather than safely distancing the killing in history, the resulting film troublingly leaves the case, on an emotional level, wide open again – it is up to the viewer to pick up its pieces.

Three other features left varyingly positive impressions. The restoration of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) did not disappoint. In fact it revealed his autobiographical war epic as not only among his major works but also, with Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), as among the very, very few American films devoted to the Second World War approaching greatness. Fuller’s taste for the grotesque and the hyperbolically expressed brutality that defined his confrontational style are widely present but now rooted in a movingly weathered, dry-eyed view of war that gives this film its unique dignity. It has violent spectacle to spare, and often very well handled. But the been-there-done-that tone of this veteran’s movie is such that it remains grimly unimpressed by its own fireworks and this is where it puts almost every war film made since to shame. The Big Red One‘s stubborn rejection of sentimentality or self-pity is admirably embodied by Lee Marvin, never more wonderful. And second lead Mark Hamill’s presence makes one regret that the Star Wars saga swallowed up the career of this extremely able and potentially interesting then-young actor.

For sheer entertainment value, it would be hard to match Park Chan-wook’s exceptionally savage Old Boy (2003). Except perhaps with Jim Jarmusch’s exceptionally civilised Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). The operatic Old Boy tells the story of a man kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years before being released and given only a few days to discover who abducted him and why. But, in common with most of the more vital genre cinema today, the plot is less important than the sheer conceptual and visual inventiveness with which each scene is invested – and Old Boy is nothing if not exceptionally inventive. Lead actor Choi Min-shik is very striking, the demonic expressiveness of his face accentuated by a wild shock of black hair. Particularly memorable is a scene in which he gobbles up a live squid, the writhing tentacles snaking out of his mouth to attach themselves to his face.

In Jarmusch’s film, on the other hand, no one seems to eat at all and the drawbacks of an all coffee and cigarettes diet are much commented on. Shot in attractively elegant black and white, this wonderfully informal, laid back collection of humourous coffee-house vignettes is, in my view, a return to form for a filmmaker of considerable talent but equally considerable limitations. Although a fan of the ’80s comedies, no one has been able to convince me of the worth of the more ambitious but relentlessly tedious Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog (1998). That Coffee and Cigarettes‘ earlier episodes date from the ’80s perhaps dictates a reversion to the tone of the earlier films for the newer scenes. Although unevenness is almost inevitable in a project of this nature, an impressive majority of the sketches work with only two falling completely flat. Among the highlights are a study in body language over speech content from Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright; RZA and GZA’s encounter with a quietly deranged Bill Murray; a science lesson from the White Stripes; and an interesting angle on showbiz etiquette with Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina. But the best is saved for last – a poignant final scene featuring a magnificent turn from Taylor Mead as a worker dreaming of Mahler steals the whole show.

2005 promises to be an important year for the Cork Film Festival, in which its 50th anniversary coincides with Cork’s year as European Capital of Culture. If ’05 is as good as ’04, it will have much to celebrate indeed.

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.