Tarnation

October 15–27, 2004

Film festivals (…) work on more than one level: we are given – and not just through the documentaries – insights into other cultures, their traditions and daily lives. We encounter ways of living we never knew existed and are unlikely to come across in real life. We learn to understand the wider context and to establish connections between the films and ourselves. …[A]iming to inform and to educate as well as to entertain, it opens the doors to tolerance and understanding, it transcends barriers, creates opportunities for encounter and forums for discussions, and seeks to bring people together.

Epitomising the Viennale’s idiosyncratic atmosphere of critique, cultural engagement, belief in cinema, and hope, these are the words that Eric Pleskow, President of the Viennale, uses to welcome the audience in his foreword to the Festival’s catalogue. With only four screens and no competition the Viennale is a relatively small festival, primarily directed, it seems, towards Vienna’s local, amiable and playfully engaged audiences. This year the Festival again proved diverse in its programming, with a main program consisting of new and older features, documentaries and shorts, as well as special focuses on Jean-Pierre Gorin, Hirokazu Kore-eda and (in collaboration with Film Archive Austria) Paul Fejos, as well as tributes to Lauren Bacall, Amos Vogel, and Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, including their selection of John Ford films.

Having to choose from such a variety of films, I found the Festival to be akin to a rather eclectic and contemplative journey around the world, across cultures and throughout time. That journey took me to Argentina, on a hot-headed family expedition across the unruffled country with Rolling Family (Familia Rodante) (Pablo Trapero, 2003), and then on a rather more secluded voyage with Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004), co-winner of the FIPRESCI prize. I was then taken to France with The Sugarboys of Colleville (Les Sucriers de Colleville) (2003), Ariane Doublet’s documentary about the termination of the castor sugar factories; and to Cambodia with The People of Angkor (Les Gens d’Angkor) (Rithy Panh, 2003), an impressive documentary about a people who live in a constant dialogue with their gods and their past, as well as with crowds of American tourists who, rank and file, in cruel colours and with loud voices, come in droves to see their statues. And then back in time, with a special screening of John Frankenheimer’s paranoia masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and further back with Paul Fejos’ magnificent Lonesome (also known as Solitude) (1928), a film that gives face to the seemingly shapeless masses of New York during the gay ’20s. And then, as in a timewarp, back to the present and to the bitter reality of the endless pursuit of profit at the cost of the people and piece in Tanzania in Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004), winner of the “Wiener Filmpreis” award. And from there again to a closer, but by no means less strange, culture of industrial postproduction and corporate investment in Harun Farocki’s latest documentary Nothing Ventured (Nichte Ohne Risiko) (2004). And from Germany to Japan, to Kore-eda’s most recent film Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai) (2004), based on the “real-life” story of four very young children who were left to their own resources for over half a year, hiding from adult interference, after their mother had abandoned them. And to another Kore-eda film, Afterlife (Wandafuru raifu) (1998), in which the dead prepare for their afterlife by cinematically reconstructing their favourite memory. And finally from Japan to Israel, with the penetrating documentary Garden (Gan) (Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, 2003) about the 17 year-old Palestinian Nino and the 18 year-old Arab Israeli Dudo, who out of sheer necessity – as cultural and sexual queers and ethnic scapegoats living in Tel Aviv – have to provide for themselves by means of prostitution and drug-dealing, with only their friendship to confide in. Almost scornfully they assert at the very end of the film: “When are we going to love our lives? When God dies.”

“It’s still a beautiful world” – De/fragmenting the moving image

In addition to the retrospectives and special programs mentioned above, there were two other strong sections of the Viennale which I’d like to address here. Firstly, there were quite a number of music films, or rockumentaries if you like, such as DIG! (Ondi Timoner, 2003), Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons (Gandulf Hennig, 2004), Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2003), and finally Bob Smeaton’s sparkling Festival Express (2003) – in addition to which there was a forum titled “Film: Music”, at which filmmakers talked about the different ways of bringing music to the screen, and two dance nights where various festival guests such as Mark Milgard (filmmaker and co-founder of the Lakeshore Records label), Minze Tummescheit, Cui Z’ien, Lisandro Alsonso, Debra Granik and Jem Cohen, performed as DJs.

Ydessa, les ours et etc...

Secondly, there were several films displaying a certain kind of generic fusion that drew my attention with increasing curiosity and on which I’d like to elaborate a little further: the photo-film as formal experiment or experimental form. Its founding mother seems to be Agnès Varda, director of this year’s Viennale Trailer. In her outstanding Cinevardaphoto – comprising three films – Varda convincingly explores the relation between the photographic and the moving image, commenting on one single picture taken by her in the 1960s, of a man and a boy on a beach in her film Ulysse (1982), and editing numerous photographs of the Cuban revolution into a stop-motion animation in Salut les Cubains! (1963). My personal favourite however, and the most recent of the three, was Ydessa, les ours et etc… (2004), in which Varda absorbs the viewer into Canadian curator Ydessa Hendeles’ teddy bear project, a collection of thousands of early images of teddy bears: a girl holding a teddy bear, a teddy bear holding a riffle, a dead teddy bear lying on its back, a teddy bear riding a dog, two teddy bears holding hands, a boy with a teddy bear, a group photo with a teddy bear, in the far right corner, or somewhere in the middle, or, well, it’s supposed to be somewhere in this one too, another girl with a teddy bear. She looks rather sad, abandoned.

Initially overwhelmed by the vast amount of pictures and the way in which they were presented during an exhibition – filling the walls of three large rooms from bottom to top – Varda manages to capture and bestow to us the essence of the project by adding time, movement and sound. Blending the pictures into a collage of images, categorising, re-categorising, reading a hi/story into them, she brings the pictures to life and by doing so not only comments on history and the pictures themselves, but also on the obsession, the loneliness and the delight of their collector, Ydessa Hendeles.

With the rise of digital photography and a slide-show mode of viewing (one can speculate that because of the rise of digital photography we are more capable of reading successive static images on the screen as a story, and that we are more capable of understanding the images in relation to each other, even at an incredibly fast pace) we grow more and more accustomed to, one can only wonder in which direction the filmed photo-collage as a genre or a formal experiment is going to develop. At least one specimen of a possible second generation of foto-films can be found in Jonathan Caouette’s directional debut Tarnation (2004). In the film – classified by some as a narrative feature, by others as an experimental documentary – Caouette pieces together the story of his childhood via a seemingly endless amount of family photographs, old home videos and some additional short interviews, using the standard Macintosh software package iMovie and a budget of exactly US$218.32. The film revolves around Caouette’s traumatic childhood and focuses in particular on his relationship with his mother, whose personality had been severely altered by multiple abuse and posterior shock therapy – a more or less common treatment of psychic disorders in the USA in the 1970s. Even though I don’t think I particularly like the self-obsessed, morally conflicted, media-manic character Caouette displays, the film is smart and appealing in the way in which it manages to construct much of the narrative by accumulating textual commentary and numerous pictures in split-screen. In a way, its form adds a certain high-spirited comment to the – at times hard to digest – story itself, an irony which is subsequently captured by the final spoken sentence of the film. Although the situation is agonising, Caouette has decided to take his psychotic mother in to live with him, after which he explains without further bitterness: “It’s still a beautiful world”.

“The quiet insanity of America” – Re/framing America

Dandelion

One thing I especially like about film festivals is the possibility to see American independent films that usually don’t get a cinema release in Europe (or in America for that matter). These films in particular show us the multidimensional aspects of a country that we generally speaking see a very one-dimensional image of. And so we move from one dysfunctional family in Tarnation to the next with Dandelion (2004), Mark Milgard’s strong directional debut, in which he uncovers what he himself subtly described as the “quiet insanity of America”. “Dandelion” is a play on the French word for “lion’s tooth”. Milgard: “I was in a zoo once and was given the opportunity to feed a lion. I had fallen asleep and the lion roared and I woke up. Lions have a great will to live.” Referring to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), the film displays a search for authenticity in life, characterised by denial, family violence and suicide dreams, as well as by hope, compassion and the gift of “waking up and realising the truth about oneself”, as Milgard put it. The film tells the story of Mason Mullich (Vincent Kartheiser), an eccentric teenager growing up in a small town in Idaho, with a self-obsessed and over-ambitious father and an ignorant mother. Dandelion is a film about love and suffering, about the human condition and about being non-judgmental. In the end, Kartheiser’s character learns to trust life and to trust himself in it. His father is caught between who he is and who he wants to be. His greatest gift is to let his son go. “Independent cinema is such a unique place to tell stories,” Milgard states. “It’s a place where storytelling comes down to the stories themselves. We worked so hard and it has been so rewarding.”

Less impressive in my opinion was David Fenster’s directional debut Trona (2004). On paper (that is: in the catalogue), the story had a Paul Auster-like enigma to it that sounded promising, but which instead turned out to be disappointing on celluloid. In one of the first shots we see a man on a plane – a prior phone conversation has informed us bluntly that he has a drinking problem, a suffocating relationship and an uninspiring job. Next thing you know he’s walking in the desert, his clothes are stolen and he owns a scrapyard. The film is at times reminiscent of Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984), a reminiscence that doesn’t amount to much more than just a touch of Texas, despite its slow and likeable pace. Ultimately, the man appears to have left his unfortunate life to live one of even greater despair in the desert. Either I missed the point or the point really missed me.

A film I did like a lot was Ross McElwee’s engaged, witty and clever documentary/video-diary about the tobacco industry, Bright Leaves (2003). The film granted me my favourite festival quote, stated by a former queen of the annual tobacco-parade, when asked to comment on the industry’s ostensible responsibility for smoking-related diseases and deaths: “Well, we’re all gonna die of something, it might as well be of something that helps the economy.” Equally remarkable was Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004), Robert Stone’s rattling documentary about the rise and fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a small band of militant political extremists dedicated to fighting the established authorities in the mid 1970s. The film was disturbing in at least three ways. Firstly, I was perplexed by the fact that a group of left-wing students, who all claimed to be against ethnic discrimination, would choose to kill a black school principle as a first victim. Secondly, I felt morally ambivalent about the fact that the kidnapping, and later conversion, of Patty Hearst, the heir of William Hearst, resulted in Hearst Sr being forced to give away millions of dollars of food to the poor, as the SLA’s first ransom demand. This distribution of food triggered enormous chaos and riots ensued over the allocation of the food: people were smashing each other’s heads in to get their share. At the same time however, it put poverty and the unprivileged on the political agenda of even corporate industrials. Finally, I was stunned by the media frenzy provoked by the squad, which poses ethical questions with a persistent relevance, about the role of the media in modern America.

“A work of art is a promise of hope” – Re/thinking political documentaries

A similar critical inquiry of the mass media, here manifested as a mechanism of social im/mobilisation, is presented in Poto and Cabengo (1978), the first part of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s ingenious Northern California trilogy about language and exile (part two being Routine Pleasures [1986] and part three My Crasy Life [1991]). Gorin, who became famous in the 1960s as a member of the Dziga Vertov group, alongside Jean-Luc Godard, left Europe in the mid-’70s to accept a job as a lecturer at the University of San Diego, where he has been teaching ever since. To emphasise the break with his former life and work, Gorin at the Festival stressed three crucial differences between himself and Godard, which had driven them apart: “First of all, I wanted to tell stories. Secondly, I wanted to do something I had pleasure in. Thirdly, I went into documentary because I thought that it was the most fictional of them all.”

Poto and Cabengo

Poto and Cabengo unveils the story of the identical twins Gwen and Ginny Kennedy, whose “case” had generated the intense interest of the media and scientists in the late ’70s on the basis of their seemingly invented language. Gorin enters the story at a fairly late point and he realises all too well that uncovering the truth behind the girls’ “authentic” language will be a battle against time. Under the close observation of therapists and pedagogues, the two young girls are bound to lose the language which makes them so unique and which has turned them into an attraction for scientists, journalist and audiences alike. In addition to its intriguing topic, what is particularly fascinating about this film is its form, pace and rhythm, and the way in which it brings about an engaged and political awareness by compelling the viewer to be patient, associative and non-judgmental. Although Poto and Cabengo is a narrative film, it combines a hand-held cinema vérité style with various other types of footage, like images of the girls under strict scientific observation, of typewritten questions and remarks floating on-screen (“What are they saying?”… “Butter?”… or just: “???”), of burlesque German–American caricatures of the post-war period, and, finally, of a plain black screen with sounds in the background, of the girls chit-chatting, news headlines or Gorin’s vocal reflection. The result is a refreshing, clever and playful exploration of both the film’s subject as well as its form.

In pursuit of the origins of the girls’ speech, Gorin is irrevocably confronted with his own European heritage. With an American father, an ex-private who had fought in Germany during World War Two, and a German mother and grandmother, the young girls were exposed to only scattered languages: the broken English of their father, the broken German of their grandmother and the something-in-between of their mother. Thus at the end of the film we are irrevocably confronted with a reality which is far less headline-friendly than the girls’ initial twaddle. The mystery unravels itself to have been a mere riddle, a conundrum that could be solved by scientists. Their “language” was not invented but underdeveloped, and thus soon to be lost. It proved to be nothing more than a phonetic freestyle gibberish based on an English syntax. Sixteen ways to pronounce potato. As a result, the same scientific and media attention that had caused the family’s social rise, ultimately eradicated its own locus, at length bringing about the family’s harsh social fall and subsequent evaporation from the public sphere. Choosing to end there, the film primarily seems to be about the paradoxical relationship between Europe and America, about the power of the media and about social im/mobility in the United States.

In addition to the Northern California Trilogy, Gorin presented three lectures at the Viennale, entitled: “A Meteor Passes” (on The Honeymoon Killers), “Political Comedy is a Matter of Form” (on Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business and Shohei Immamura’s The Pornographers) and finally “Democracy, Their Fine Care” (on the ever-conflicting notion of democracy as conceptualised in various American films). Although the lectures were very entertaining, they were in my view still too much “works in progress” to be discussed here in further detail. It was, however, by all means a great pleasure to have the chance not only to see almost all of the later Gorin films, but also to have Gorin there for the occasion, providing enchanting preludes and afterthoughts to accompany almost all of the scheduled screenings. Of his films Gorin states:

They’re sketches. They never quite succeed. They’re not meant to be perfect. It works because it sweats, not because it’s perfect. And because they never quite work, I want to keep making films. In the end, I’m more marked by cooking than by filmmaking. Cooking processes into energy and into shit. I wish more filmmakers would think like that.

Gorin here displays a genuine and persuasive self-reflection that can equally be taken as an unquestionable critique towards other, unvarnished and predominantly more judgmental contemporary filmmakers. “As a documentary maker,” he adds, “you have to give dignity to your subject, no matter which side you are on.” And as such his comment not only seems to epitomise Gorin’s work and attitude, but also the atmosphere that demarcated this year’s Viennale and of which the general message indeed appears to be: “A work of art is a promise of hope.”

About The Author

Pepita Hesselberth teaches Film and Television at the University Utrecht and on occasion at the University of Amsterdam. She holds an MA in Media Studies, and is currently writing a PhD proposal.