Taxidermia

26 July – 13 August, 2006

Excepting an Opening Night publicity coup, of which, more below, the Melbourne International Film Festival’s last year with James Hewison as Executive Director unfurled much as has been its wont during its six years under his auspice with all the familiar strengths and weaknesses in evidence. The strengths, chiefly, the rude motley wealth of films programmed, will be examined in some depth immediately below. Afterwards, I will look to the future and offer a gloss of some of the festival’s shortcomings that this scribe would like to see addressed by Hewison’s low profile-keeping successor, Richard Moore.

The films: strength in numbers

Happily, I can report that I heartily enjoyed myself as I extensively sampled every section of the MIFF smorgasbord, affording me the opportunity to relish some curious motifs as they came to light. For me, the most significant and welcome was a big return of The Uncanny; its 2006 flagbearer, the fine and little understood art of taxidermy, served as an apt metaphor for a gluttonous two-and-a-half weeks’ engagement with this year’s festival. Indeed, that peculiar business of stuffing once animate, sentient things featured prominently in several, and some of the very strongest, films at this year’s festival.

Best of the whole unblinking lot of them was György Pálfi’s Taxidermia (2006), a compelling and unsqueamishly beautiful exercise in widescreen grotesquerie. Spanning three generations of a Hungarian family, Taxidermia takes great joy in its finely composed depictions of peculiar masturbatory practices and porcine sexual couplings in its first act, before moving onto profusely vomitous competitive speed-eating in its second and the love that can arise within that field between the underrecognised sport’s elite. Best is saved for the last act: a young taxidermist, with Michael Jackson his poster boy, tends to the needs of a father lost to delusional nostalgia and immobile through morbid obesity. The son harbours designs on his father’s vast repository of tissue and organs, with which he will yet stuff himself! An inspired post-script sees him exhibited as the centrepiece in a gallery of the future to a rapturous reception. Brilliant!

Tideland

Not far from it in terms of artful gross-out and human taxidermy is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2005). I wasn’t in an ideal position to enjoy this film; I’d had to make a mad dash from another screening and, such is Gilliam’s pulling power, a capacity crowd ensured I could only get a neck-seizing front row seat far off to one side. With Gilliam canting his restless camera more than ever, this all conspired to make it as hard as could be to engage with Tideland, yet I still really enjoyed it; it’s good, sick Southern Gothic fun, and demands to be put on a White Trash bad parenting double bill with Asia Argento’s film of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004).

Benoît Delépine and Gustave de Kervern fit the one discomfiting scene of canine taxidermy into Avida (2006), a film rich in capital-S Surrealism and pushing the line that precious little separates mankind from the animals more commonly considered to belong in a zoo. Oftentimes hilarious, rich in unlikely cameos (Claude Chabrol; Fernando Arrabal as a matador whose M.O. is to go mano a rhinoceros!) and riddled with narrative non-sequiturs, Avida, like Taxidermia, closes with a wonderful fine art gag, as the closing composition’s mise en scène animates itself to form an ingenious Dali homage.

Taxidermy serves as visual shorthand for a principal character’s mental state in the Australian psychological thriller Like Minds (Gregory J. Read, 2006), pointedly heralded at its premiere by its director to contain no red herrings. I’m inclined to agree. It’s a solid, thoroughly professional policier, and I’m fairly confident the first Australian feature to incorporate the Knights Templar in its narrative. It carries a nice sting in its tail, one in the eye for the psychobabble that is a mainstay in the dialogue, as in the exposition upon character motivation in the denouement, of so many of its genre stablemates.

Of less consequence, critters were stuffed in The Aura (the late Fabián Bielinsky, 2005) too, with the epileptic lead character a taxidermist by trade. It however resonated less with the abovementioned films and more with Georgian-born Géla Babluani’s superior debut feature, 13 (Tzameti) (2005). In both, a listless nowheresville lead character finds himself way out of his depth when bumblingly appropriating another’s role in a criminal enterprise. The Aura, while gloriously shot in backwoods Argentina, aims higher but reaches lower than 13; the former’s story gets a little lost in the film’s aesthetic reverie, while 13, also shot with considerable, if rough ‘n’ ready, panache, and with evident affection for b/w Gallic noir, has as its centerpiece a sequence so strong, so tense – a veritable Russian Roulette roundelay – that the film will stick much longer in the mind than The Aura can ever hope to.

In a halcyon year for the unheimlich, the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe smiled upon the new features from animators-cum-feature filmmakers Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, whose new features both incorporated their trademark animation amongst perfervid live-action surrealism.

In Lunacy (2005), charting one well-intentioned young man’s Sisyphean efforts to evade incarceration in bedlam and free others wrongly such impounded, Svankmajer makes clear we are all naught but meat puppets amok in one big madhouse through animated interludes in which offcuts perform animated commentary upon the narrative. He also makes explicit Lunacy’s debt to capital-s Surrealist forebears Poe and Sade in a droll address to camera at the films’ outset, the auteur-as-master of meat puppets acknowledging that he himself is just as subject as anyone – his characters, his objects, his audience – to the insidious influence of others. (I note that Tideland will now feature an introduction from Terry Gilliam when it hits the cinemas in release. (2))

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

There was nothing in this year’s MIFF that I more wished I could immediately watch again than the Quays’ The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, which passed right over me in a lovely narcotising oneiric wash. Sure as sure it ain’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as attested to by the frequent walk-outs during the screening. Any poor souls for whom irony is the chief asset in Guy Maddin’s delirious films would be best advised to steer well clear of The Piano Tuner; like Maddin’s films, it references/displaces countless influences and is beautiful to behold, but unlike them there are no gags, there is no burlesque. One either gives oneself up from the get-go and is ensnared by its hermetic dream logic, paralleling the course of the very E.A. Poe entrapment of the eponym of the piece (Cesar Sarachu) and the abducted opera singer (Amira Casar) with whom he becomes smitten by a mad but brilliant creator of musical automata (Gottfried John) – or the hour is lost.

Piano Tuner is set upon an island very much inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s “Island of the Dead”; I was reminded of Norman McLaren’s stunning short animation similarly inspired, A Little Phantasy on a 19th-century Painting (1946). The two have melded very happily in my mind ever since.

Three more films screened that merit passing mention in this same half-light. Sheitan (Kim Chapiron, 2006) works Gallic fish-out-of-water horror to even more perverse an end than 2004’s Calvaire (The Ordeal) (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004) and is enlivened hugely by a toothsomely sinister performance by an unrecognisable Vincent Cassel, whose goatherd, Joseph, has made a pact with the devil, necessitating the Yuletide garnering of some fresh human flesh to combine with doll parts in a most peculiar birth ritual. Brothers of the Head (Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, 2005) is tedious and a bit too smug. Has the mockumentary genre not just about played itself out? Ah, were that it had been played along conventional narrative lines and directed by Ken Russell rather than merely granting the mad old maestro a cameo as himself, director of “Two-Way Romeo”, his allegedly abandoned film based on Brothers’ titular conjoined twin rock stars!

Lastly, there’s The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005), a slickly produced horror film in which a group of women ciphers-cum-extreme sporting aficionados go spelunking off the beaten path. The film would have been perfectly effective as a mainstream suspense thriller had it only run to a succession of claustrophobic near-entrapments and fraying tempers within a realistic and unstable subterranean labyrinth lit solely by the cavers’ own headlamps – très scary! However, as it transpires, the caves are populated by ravenous quicksilver semi-human creatures. Repeatedly then the women must contend with these CGI phantoms in fight and flight scenes wherein rapid editing greatly diminishes tension and conviction. I’m sure these encounters would have been far the more effective had they been shot in longer, sustained takes, even if this necessitated actually placing some dingbat inside a rubber monster suit for the women to be seen to physically grapple with.

And it’s on now to a spotlight-by-spotlight illumination of MIFF 2006.

“Australian Showcase”, including Opening and Closing Nights

Cannes-premiering Australian features bookended the festival in the trumpeted Opening and Closing Night slots. This was of a little more significance this year than usual; MIFF was getting great mileage out of not disclosing the Opening Night film until the night itself, under the premise that those attending would

…have that rare opportunity to have a virginal cinema experience. A pure experience… (3)

2:37

The film that did in turn open the festival was the one most widely conjectured to, Murali K. Thalluri’s 2:37 (2005). I saw it at a repeat screening two nights later by which time of course the cat was truly out of the bag. I can’t account for the impact it might have had upon me had it been sprung upon me unawares, but I don’t think I would have formed a different opinion of it: it’s no great shakes, and is every bit as derivative of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) as many other pundits have claimed. I’ll certainly give it credit though for utilising Elephant’s thatchwork approach to get its point across, thusly: establishing in the opening sequence that a high school student is going to be found to have suicided on school grounds, and with it clear the remainder of the film will meander towards disclosing just whom and why as it tracks the movements of several select characters, logic demands that the interviews punctuating the film with those same characters cannot include the dead amongst their number. As the travails of these characters, whose manifold problems and mounting pressures are revealed inside and outside of their intermittent addresses to camera, occupy most of the screen time, the point is made: it’s not those who obviously have got problems who kill themselves, it’s those who pass unnoticed.

Rats and Cats (Tony Rogers, 2006) is an enjoyable light comedy which will play better on the small screen. Clearly shot on video, its image quality is inconsistent and is the film’s greatest drawback. Compensating, there is some hilarious dialogue and the script is a good deal stronger than that of so, so many films to have much more money thrown at them in Australia than must have been the case here. Performances from its two leads, Adam Zwar as a credulous investigative entertainment reporter and Jason Gann as a gormless celebrity lying low, are note-perfect. As these two are the film’s scriptwriters I imagine that Rats and Cats should serve them well as a calling card. May they have a greater budget to work with next time.

Parallels can be drawn between two new Australian documentaries, Gillian Armstrong’s Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2005) and Alec Morgan’s Hunt Angels (2005). Perhaps the greatest testimony to the success of the former is that it has led to the reopening of the investigation into the very suspicious death of its subject. While the film is not coy in casting aspersions towards a particular someone a few of its talking heads consider the likeliest culprit, it still generates a certain frisson from the tacit possibility that any of its many now quite elderly interviewees could have been her killer, based on the commonly expressed assertion that the late socialite-cum-wallpaper magnate must have been murdered by someone she knew.

Along with talking heads, pertinent archival footage and re-enactments, Unfolding Florence and Hunt Angels similarly employ some less conventional documentary strategies. Most notably, both animate archival still images.

So named because it’s one name of many assumed by its principal subject, dedicated maverick and occasionally outlaw Australian filmmaker Rupert Kathner, and his MO – “angels” being his term for prospective investors (4)Hunt Angels is especially ingenious in digitally compositing Kathner (played by Ben Mendelsohn), his filmmaking partner Alma Brooks (Victoria Hill) and others into only recently excavated photos of a seedier Sydney than was ever widely documented at the time outside of Kathner’s own suppressed newsreels, Australia Today (1938-40). One is aware of the artifice of this approach throughout, but it’s darned effective nonetheless and the archival materials featured in the film are nothing short of fascinating. Kathner’s concerns were that Australians weren’t being delivered Australian stories due to Hollywood monopolisation and that the broadcast news(reels) tended to gloss over the harsh realities of urban Australian life. Right on both counts, the alien-ness of many of the striking images in Hunt Angels give great credence to his indictments.

Many films could yet be made documenting Melbourne’s longtime vital independent music scene. May they all be more consistent than Mark Butcher’s Sticky Carpet (2006), which frustrates more than it enlightens through its maker’s haphazard command of production and post-production basics. It may play a little better on TV. It certainly looked a dog’s breakfast on the big screen, with footage of greatly varying image quality edited in an utterly slipshod fashion. I doubt many outside of the music scene in Melbourne will be able to make head or tails of it: far too little is explained about the import of its selected talking heads and profiled artists and it jumps from one such to the next seemingly willy-nilly.

Paul Goldman’s Suburban Mayhem (2006) won the coveted Closing Night slot. Yes, there was some mayhem. Yes, it was set in suburbia. However, I found Suburban Mayhem tiresome and unconvincing, that through its mockumentary framework it cast too anthropological a gaze upon its hellion protagonist (the admittedly terrific Emily Barclay) and so placed its audience at too great a remove from its setting and her unconscionable antics. This distance was magnified by a soundtrack that was far too indie rock-credible to rhyme at all with the visual depiction of nondescript Australian suburbia; surely it should have been all Cold Chisel, The Angels and perhaps a little Metallica blaring on the soundtrack rather than non-mainstream luminaries Mick Harvey, Magic Dirt, The Spazzys et al.

“International Panorama”

Aside from a few films already expounded upon, clear highlights from this section were Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (2006) and Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun (2004), strong works from very assured classicist filmmakers and quintessential film festival big screen experiences.

My experience of Climates though was marred by the subtitles half an hour in significantly pre-empting their corresponding utterances on the soundtrack, throwing the film’s rhythm off-kilter and proving distracting. Nonetheless, that couldn’t detract one jot from Ceylan’s glorious widescreen compositions and from his own naturalistic performance as the film’s lead, the selfish yet very sympathetic Isa. Much kudos to Ceylan too for the extraordinarily physical and sustained sex scene he engages in midway through the film.

The Sun

The Sun is a transfixing yet ascetic account of the day in the piteous life of marine biology enthusiast Emperor Hirohito (brilliantly embodied by Issey Ogata) in which he came to terms with Japan’s necessary capitulation before the Americans and their chief military representative, Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson). Not just a biopic, The Sun peculiarly also belongs to the coming-out genre as it documents Hirohito’s outing-as-human being, his renunciation of his nationally accepted divinity. For all its minimalism and attention to minutiae, the film is not without humour or tonal variation – Hirohito’s resemblance to Charlie Chaplin is the crux of a comical scene where he isn’t recognized on the imperial grounds by a group of American GIs. There is also an astounding, Breughelesque sequence depicting the Americans’ devastating bombing of Tokyo.

Jean-Marc Valée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) is a more conventional addition to the coming-out canon. It’s a sweet French-Canadian family drama with magic realist touches, abundant humour, a terrific cast and a much-lauded diegetic soundtrack graced by such notables as Charles Aznavour, Patsy Cline, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. It is however the lesser known Roy Buchanan’s glorious instrumental “The Messiah Will Come Again” that makes the most telling, if ironic, contribution to the score and to the film at large.

Edmond (Stuart Gordon, 2005), a strong and compact work, is a neo-noir in which pasty beancounter William H. Macy is the patsy and lady luck the femme fatale. It follows Macy’s Edmond as he comes violently undone along a surefire trajectory towards a poetically just comeuppance. Edmond has a great score from Bobby Johnston and milks to good effect several cameos, including one I found very discomfiting from Julia Stiles who somehow gives the impression that it’s every bit as much her as her character who’s out of her depth in this very dark film.

In the highly polemical Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006), a testingly long mock trial, in which an exchange of orations in an outdoors courtyard between aggrieved impoverished villagers and representatives of The World Bank, the IMF and the like, is occasionally punctuated by scenes of everyday life in Bamako, Mali. Bamako often drags but its arguments are highly eloquent and persuasive.

Forest Whitaker plays the lead in both Abel Ferrara’s Mary (2005) and Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s A Little Trip to Heaven (2005). The former, in its icy allegorical interrogation of such as Mel Gibson and his The Passion of the Christ (2004), did little for me – can that be blamed on my secular upbringing, or on the film’s shortcomings? I don’t know which. The latter film disappointed perhaps principally because the festival guide threw me a curveball; I was expecting an Icelandic film, which to me precludes the Forest Whitakers and Julia Stiles of this world from being in the cast! A Little Trip is but one more of a spate of recent competent but uninspired American neo-noirs, admittedly shot in Iceland and helmed by an Icelander but with no real advantage or appreciable difference thus gleaned.

Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) is good, but not quite that good. Documenting in turn both aspects of the Irish “troubles” – the battle to rid Irish land of wrongful and brutal British occupying forces and the internecine conflicts that rived Irish society in the wake of their oppressors’ expulsion – it packs a real punch in some scenes, including its very last, inevitable though that final scene surely be. I thought a few narrative developments in its third act were handled mechanically and a little perfunctorily, yet for all that, I found myself teary as the credits rolled. Furthermore, the screening I attended, with the film in wide release, was enlivened by animated responses from members of the audience to whom the film clearly spoke of wounds even now still raw.

Paul Giamatti is brilliant in, and the whole reason for seeing, The Hawk is Dying (Julian Goldberger, 2005), a blackly comic tale of an inept falconry obsessive who finally contrives to assume mastery over a raptor rather than deal with a tragedy that befalls his dysfunctional family. It’s an incredible performance, furthering Giamatti’s claim to the title of present day American character actor par excellence.

You gotta keep ’em separated?

Looking for Cheyenne (Valérie Minetto, 2005) and Grbavica (Jasmila Zbanic, 2006) were the two representatives I caught of MIFF’s “Emergence: New Women Filmmakers”. I’m none too convinced of the need to segregate these films in the programme in this manner but I can report that both are fine, naturalistic films with uniformly strong performances. Of the two, Looking for Cheyenne is the cheekier and lighter, throwing in a few quirky fourth wall breaches in its affecting account of the awkward reconciliation of a lesbian relationship. Grbavica hits hard when a terribly painful secret, well-kept in everyone’s best interests, has to ultimately be revealed by a struggling single mother (Mirjana Karanovic, in a commanding performance heavy with weltschmerz) to her importunate daughter (Luna Mijovic) regarding the latter’s father and the nature of her fathering during the Balkan War. It’s a powerful and ambivalent denouement to a very impressively staged film.

Asia Specific

MIFF’s annual “Regional Focus” featured a few Asian Pacific titles this year burdened with considerable reputations that, for mine, they couldn’t meet.

I had been really looking forward to Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005) but found myself disappointed. I was gobsmacked by Oldboy (2003), the second in Park’s revenge trilogy begun with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), but I didn’t find myself half as gripped nor exhilarated by Lady Vengeance’s dizzy tale of vengeance as I had hoped. Perhaps this is attributable to Lady’s protagonist carrying the film’s agency, whereas Oldboy derives massive clout from its drip-feed disclosure of the awful, gruesome enormity and miscreant criminal mastermindishness of the revenge plan being enacted upon its lead. Oldboy, for all its tour-de-force sequences and shock corridors, is I think so devastating because one is only ever as wise to his predicament as Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is himself, whereas in Lady, the intrigue is the lesser for being rooted in how its beautiful lead (Lee Yeong-ae) manipulates her accomplices to an end that is already largely understood.

Considerably more disappointing was Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005), a tedious load of bog-standard gangster tripe ballyhooed to the eyeballs in the programme. Greater though than the disappointment of being diddled by the guide was the disappointment in knowing it the work of the same director behind both Miike’s Katakuris-inspiring Fawlty Towers-body count comedy The Quiet Family (1998) and, in particular, the very eerie, Florence Broadhurst-on-quaaludes set-designed A Tale of Two Sisters (2004), perhaps the most beautiful horror film yet this millennium. Alas, A Bittersweet Life is undone through an utterly unappealing, bland lead in Lee Byung-hun as a dolorous hitman and through a second half that takes on any number of implausible twists and turns before winding up with a boringly spectacular gun-fu-by-numbers routine in a shiny, shiny restaurant. Who cares?

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2005) is good fun but was not the “revelation” the programme promised. In short, it’s a South Korean mutant/monster movie playing equally for scares and laughs. It gains some capital from a real-life incident of a few years ago in which an American army officer ordered the tipping of gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River. The Host postulates that this, according to the logic established by the Godzilla films, has led to a furiously predatory (CGI) creature monstrous in proportion menacing vast tracts of human-populous land.

The Host hones its menace down to a family-sized focus, which is the film’s strength and its weakness too. In the former, it gives the film a core and personages about whom to care (even if some of them are a bit loopy); in the latter, it takes a turn for the grossly implausible, if genre convention-approved, when this one family proves capable of outwitting and out-Gumshoeing the combined South Korean and US military and police forces, and the monster too! That said, The Host is entertaining, carries a satirical bite with regards US interventionism in the region, and the first sighting of the monster as it galumphs along the riverside spreading human folk every which way makes for an indelible memory.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

The last film I saw from this section was the one I found the most successful and the one which arrived with the least bombast. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Auraeus Solito, 2005) is the delightful Filipino tale of a crush held towards a do-gooder policeman by a prepubescent gender-variant boy, Maxi (Nathan Lopez), born into an impoverished, criminally-disposed family for whom he is the maternal figure by proxy, happily assuming all domestic tasks, feminine garb and mannerisms. Ah – a terrific premise for drama (and one hard to imagine being pitched to any Western producers any time soon). Sure, the film doesn’t look a treat on the big screen, with its digital provenance very apparent (the outside world always appears massively oversaturated through windows in interior shots), but the film has such heart and a real immediacy. It was one of a number of films this year to make a virtue of its handheld DV origins in evoking an absorbing sense of place and vérité.

“Transience: The Asian Metropolis”, brought me two joyous discoveries in the one one-off session: the film The Goddess (Yonggang Wu, 1934) and its luminous leading lady, matinee idol-cum-suicide Ruan Lingyu. You’ve got to love a melodrama in which a 12-year sentence to be served for murder constitutes a happy ending! A silent film, MIFF did it a great service in imposing no soundtrack upon it. One scene in particular, with no sound cues whatsoever as my co-pilot, I found excruciatingly suspenseful: crosscutting between our beleaguered heroine stashing her savings in a newly found makeshift safe and ghastly bully-boy Zhang (Zhang Zhizhi)’s approach, I couldn’t have been more on tenterhooks.

Resplendent in a cheongsam, Ruan Lingyu was a revelation, possessed of one of the most magnificent toothy smiles in the cinema and working her craft without resort to the pantomimicry of so many of her contemporaries. Eccentricities of subtitling and continuity (whether through absences of [deteriorated] material, or just clunky démodé technique such as with a surfeit of arrhythmic close-ups) distracted me not one whit from the fine performances and from a compelling evocation of a terribly depressed, conservative Shanghai.

The other “Transience” film I caught was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005), already well covered in Senses (5). I really can’t understand what the fuss is all about. That’s not just with this film, but with Hou generally. I find his films aloof and frustrating, all the more so for feeling I somehow ought to have a greater appreciation of them than I do by dint of his estimable reputation. Clearly, Three Times is not the film to make a convert of me. I found its three stories dramatically inert and lugubrious. They left me cold and sluggish and still wondering why Hou is held in such esteem when other canonical classicists have produced work every bit as composed but so very much more affecting (and here I’m thinking of Bresson as exemplar, with Au hasard Balthazar (1966) as apotheosis).

Wishing, on the basis of post-festival good word, that I had caught Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005) and especially the reputedly utterly deranged Funky Forest: The First Contact (Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine & Shunichiro Miki, 2005), I otherwise saw most everything I wanted to in the rather naffly yet enduringly titled “Brain Monkey Sushi” section, for better and for worse.

Best was Takeshi Kitano’s hilarious Moebius Strip doppelganger comedy, Takeshis’ (2005), in which Kitano – playing both himself (Beat Takeshi) and a down-on-his-luck, dead ringer, out-of-work actor – takes great delight in debunking, yet at the same time furthering, his own celebrity mythology with particular regard to his yakuza (screen) personae. For all the scrambled references to his film oeuvre that I picked up (most especially, and with zealous absurdity, Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997)), I wonder just how many sequences in Takeshis’ were riffing on performances I’m not familiar with. But even with gaps in one’s knowledge of Kitano lore, Takeshis’ is terrific absurdist entertainment. Can he ever make a serious yakuza flick again after this?

Further reflexivity abounded in Heart, Beating in the Dark (Shunichi Nagasaki, 2005), if to much more sombre and lethargic effect. It’s “a remake, a sequel, a making of and a continuation of Nagasaki’s 1982 Super 8 classic of the same name”, and I found it dreadfully dull, a gaze continually circumnavigating its own navel describing ever decreasing circles until disappearing altogether up its own umbilical thread. Perhaps that’s precisely its ambition: to be its own metaphor for the tale it is telling of a tale of a retelling of a boring infanticide not made more interesting for layering it beneath spirals of metaphysical obfuscation. Feh.

Just the two features from Takashi Miike this year. Representing chalk was Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006), a truly inscrutable homoeroticised policier set in a prison with a flawed fourth wall affording splendid views of, to one side, a rocket ship poised to lift off, and to the other, a Mayan pyramid. Perhaps the rocket and pyramid respectively represent technology and spirituality as alternate strategies to transcend the drear monotony of imprisonment (whether within or without gaol walls), one to match the temper of each of Big Bang Love’s two gay lead protagonists, one of whom will murder the other… which is possibly not important. I was equal parts intrigued and bored, yet would like to see it again.

The Great Yokai War

Representing cheese was The Great Yokai War (2005). A crying shame to have been screened off DVD, Yokai War is a cracker, equal parts Wizard of Oz, live-action Miyazaki, Nightbreed and Tetsuo-for-kids (6). I would definitely like to see this one again on a big screen, off a 35mm print, thank you very much, to do justice to its great visual accomplishment in filling the screen with endearing and astonishing Japanese folklore-inspired beasties and mecha-creatures. I loved too that the film isn’t treacly sentimental; some terrifically appealing characters are killed off, sometimes gruesomely and sometimes quite comically, and the main character, young doubting Thomas, Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), is a bit of a pillock whose lesson learnt will be that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are quite loaded concepts.

Lastly from this section, I saw all but ten minutes of Rampo Noir; the DVD it was being screened off froze and apparently ejected itself! Never mind the projection hiccup – its stories, based on the work of a venerable Japanese Edgar Allen Poe, I’m told, didn’t make half the impression I had been anticipating anyway. I stuck out the session more out of a sense of obligation than out of any engagement with any of the film’s four freak-out star vehicles for Tadanobu Asano.

Elsewhere and Otherwise-how

Of the Danish contingent in this year’s MIFF dubbed “Danmark Nu”, praise must be lavished upon A Soap (Pernille Fischer, 2006) and Princess (Anders Morgenthaler, 2006). A Soap is a lovely flick of the odd-coupling ilk: a jaded young woman, Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm), abandons a conventional relationship and its drudgery, moves into a no-frills apartment block and by degrees hooks up with her troubled male-to-female transsexual neighbour Veronica (David Dencik, superb). It’s a very warm film broken humorously into chapters by voiced-over successions of freeze frames, in a rhyme with the soap opera that obsesses Veronica and comes to engross Charlotte, too.

Princess combines eye-catching animation and crude live-action in one vicious mongrel of a (sort of) rape-revenge fantasy and makes for as stewed an engagement with the manifold issues surrounding pornography, organized religion and ultra-violence as I believe I’ve ever encountered in the cinema. Hellbent on depicting extremely violent revenge exacted upon callous pornocrats by a missionary with a child as witness and even accomplice, Princess casts its narrative in the murkiest shades of grey in stark contrast to the crisp lines and gorgeous palette of its visuals.

Other animated treats were to be found, natch, in the “Animation Gallery”. Plenty else will have been written by now about Richard Linklater’s rotoscopic Philip K. Dick adaptation, A Scanner Darkly (2006) (7), so suffice it to say I think it a certainty to have a distinguished future as a “head” flick, the stuff of paranoid spiked-punch get-togethers for many long years to come, in which respect I feel it a most apt tribute to that great drug-addled paranoiac Philip K. himself. (It also inspired me to pore over MIFF’s privacy policy immediately when next I was online, where I noted the following: “In the course of conducting MIFF Filmfest may disclose your personal information to other parties [such as to sponsors and promoters of MIFF]”. What does a scanner (such as those processing tickets at point of entry) see, indeed?)

Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa (Studio 4°C.), 2004): inane title, but as joyously unhinged, freewheelingly lysergic an animated feature as they come. I’ll this once forgive the video projection, so enraptured was I by Mind Game’s pataphysical whimsy and cell animation hypnogogia commensurate with outsider claymator Bruce Bickford’s finest work. Somehow it manages amidst all the madness (and oh the madness! – where does one start? – the use of soccer’s ‘offside trap’ to evade pursuers in a frantic car chase, a psychedelic dance-off in the belly of a whale, outsprinting God…), and with but a soupçon’s initial plotting, to make one care about the fate of its small core of disparately loopy lead characters. In a film as wholeheartedly demented as this one, that’s extraordinary. A masterpiece!

Talk of things offside brings me to the festival’s “filmmaker in focus”, Jafar Panahi, whose superb crowd-pleasing soccer-mad exercise in feminist ficto-vérité Offside (2005) was another festival highlight. Panahi already had a parochial audience eating out of his hand when, introducing the film, he paid Australia’s World Cup soccer team a hearty compliment. By the close of his latest film, the mood in the cinema was cheerier still, so infectious was the celebratory mien of Offside’s jubilant cast. Offside is, I’m certain, the first ever Iranian drag caper flick, and a marvelous accomplishment all round. That much of this tale of a few girls’ illegal attempts to attend a soccer match in Teheran was filmed at the very stadium the Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifying match was played at while that very match was being played is testament to Panahi’s great ingenuity, nerve, commitment and adroitness.

Panahi was also represented in the programme by one-off retrospective screenings of earlier works, of which I could only catch 1995’s much-lauded The White Balloon. A young girl’s wish for a goldfish is all that drives it. Yet I spent much of its running time mopping tears from my eyes. It’s a beautifully simple and very moving film, and, like Offside, is wonderful in evoking very a real sense of place and of time’s sometimes heightened passage.

“Homelands Now” featured additional Middle Eastern offerings. I disliked The Willow Tree (Majid Majidi, 2005) and found its central hypothesis shaky – that a man who had been sightless for over 30 years should, his sight returned, perceive beauty in a conventional manner (in turn leading to the collapse of a marriage and all that he had hitherto held dear as he falls for the superficial charms of a conventionally beautiful in-law). Others I spoke with about the film felt its premise to be sound, but I will take solace in the recently published results of a survey (8) which support my position. But that said, an article in this very issue of Senses (9) reads the film in a whole ‘nother way and suggests to me I simply didn’t have the tools to read this film properly. Well, that’s as maybe. I still didn’t like the film.

I was thoroughly engaged, however, by Paper Dolls (Tomer Heymann, 2005), an Israeli documentary on transgendered immigrant Filipino carers for the elderly in Tel Aviv who, their stay in Israel already quite fraught, by night form an amateurish but enthusiastic drag troupe with starry ambitions. Apparently what I saw was excerpted from a TV series; I’d very much like to see the entire thing.

I also caught Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2005). I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it, but I think – as with many documentaries screened at MIFF this year – that’s quite beside the point. It gives glimpses of quotidian lives, lives lived very differently, as differently in fact to mine – one of relative comfort – as to each other’s in focusing in three acts upon wildly disparate regional representatives of an Iraq further fragmenting by the hour.

Work is the new sex

Further feel-bad documentaries ruled the roost in the “Globalised” sidebar. As one quite fond of a caffeine jag once or twice a day, Black Gold (Marc and Nick Francis, 2005) was upsetting in its exploration of the wretched plight of third world coffee farmers but also inspiring in the figure of Tadesse Meskela, jetsetting evangelist for fair trade and battler for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of those poor farmers, who, Tadesse’s and your efforts notwithstanding, won’t be significantly better off any time soon.

Workingman’s Death

The ne plus ultra of feel-bad docodom was achieved by Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005). I wouldn’t have been the least surprised had I read the days following its screenings that Forum-sized crowds had suicided as one in the City Square.

Atop just how bloody well I’ve got it with my lot in life, despite my sometime lame protestations, watching Workingman’s Death inspired some further musings.

Workingman’s Death is how the mondo genre dresses itself today, because work is the new sex. The titillative mainstays of the disreputable mondo films of yesteryear – peculiar sexual rites and practices, body modification, exotic cuisines, lunatic physical endeavours, etc. – are all now so absorbed into mainstream Western cultures that all that’s left for seen-it-all us to gawk at is what other people do when they’re just going about their business. Yes, for all the ‘extreme’ this and Jackass that that pierced and tattooed-all-over, sexually liberated Westerners might nowadays engage in, I highly doubt any of them would wish for the extreme lives documented in Glawogger’s magnum opus, to perform the work that folks in Workingman’s Death must perforce do day in, day out, just to get by.

A cartoon I am too inept an artist to draw to best illustrate this point is captioned as follows:

SHE (June Cleaver-like Mother): And where do you think you’re going dressed like that?

HE: I’m going with a few drunks to lay face down mining coal for hours on end in an illegal abandoned shaft in The Ukraine so that we might eat this winter and be able to heat our home. (beat) I might not be coming back.

There are also aesthethic conundra raised by Workingman’s Death, with its loving compositions, yet so much grisle and suffering within the frame! What ever can one make of the lengths Glawogger et al must have gone to, in setting up and capturing each extraordinary sequence, aloofly documenting such charnel acts as relentlessly occur in a chaotic, grossly unsanitary Nigerian slaughteryard/marketplace or the extreme peril faced by minimal wage workers scrapping mountainous ship hulks on an oil-slicked beach in Pakistan? And what on earth possesses so many of us to view the finished product? Do those of us who don’t walk out, who elect to grin and bear it, do so just to assuage leisure-class guilt? Are there any theorizations of “visual pleasure” that can account for full houses sitting through Workingman’s Death?

To wrap up this portion of this report, here’s a quick take on a last few documentaries. Between the Lines – India’s Third Gender (Thomas Wartmann, 2005) is a warm and moving investigation into the ways of members of India’s transgendered hijra caste, loathed and revered in equal measure but an essential part of Indian society. Mystic Ball (Greg Hamilton, 2006) documents a Canadian man’s obsession for the little-known ball game of Chinlone, a non-competitive Burmese sport where the attainment of beauty is the goal. It too is a film of considerable warmth, and its director-subject’s great enthusiasm for this arcane game becomes perfectly understandable. Rock the Bells (Denis Hennelly and Casey Suchan, 2006), a vérité Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), is a riveting documentary entry into both the ‘putting on a show’ and ‘disaster’ genres as one man does his darnedest to realise the seemingly impossible: a reunion show for the notoriously unreliable nine man strong hip-hop outfit, Wu-Tang Clan. Highlights include some great live performances from the Clan’s warm-up acts, most notably M.C. Supernatural, a preternaturally gifted extemporizer. And Katherine Linton’s Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig (2005) is a treat for fans like myself of (the music of) Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an enduring gender-bent rock musical stage show made into a great film in 2001 by its star turn, John Cameron Mitchell. Follow My Voice features various notables (The Polyphonic Spree, Frank Black, Yoko Ono, Jonathan Richman et al) from the rock world re-interpreting songs from Hedwig for a benefit album to raise funds for queer schoolchildren in New York, a small number of whom feature, video diary-style, throughout the film. Delightful!

Looking ahead

In finishing now with an account of the festival’s few failings, I would like to imagine I’m not ending a largely laudatory report on a bum note but rather on an upbeat one brimming with hope. I’m optimistic that at least some of the following gripes might be addressed by the 56th MIFF’s Executive Director, Richard Moore, by way of making a strong mark upon his first festival in charge.

The foremost failing, and MIFF’s one truly glaring deficiency, is the much-maligned festival guide. The guide is just ghastly, a-glut with poor film précis scrabbled together from press kits and other festivals’ programmes. It lends a very impersonal, non-curatorial and inauthoritative air to festival preliminaries when one simply reads of how someone at another festival wrote up a film, meaning one finds oneself all too often merely reading descriptions of descriptions. Here’s an especially farcical example:

Described as having “enough sex and violence to make the boys of Glengarry Glen Ross blush like nuns in a strip club”, Edmond (10)

Described by whom exactly?

A further failing of this approach is that patently erroneous synopses can find their way into the programme and betray lazy research and expropriation. The case of Brothers of the Head, which, further to my point above, is

[d]escribed by the Toronto Film Festival as “a raucous ride through a burning flash of glory in 70s British rock music” (11)

serves as a particularly egregious example:

the filmmakers […] draw inspiration from the book Helliconia trilogy by sci-fi legend Brian Aldiss. (12)

Scriptwriter Tony Grisoni and directors Fulton and Pepe drew from a sci-fi epic about the hardscrabble existence weathered by a warring aboriginal population and transplanted humans on another planet in their mockumentary about conjoined twin rock stars? This is, of course, nonsense, and an embarrassment; they drew on another work of Aldiss’, one of the very same name as the film!

And while I appreciate that the guide is distributed freely and widely, were that it might be far more robust or, even if at a price, also made available in a bound (rather than stapled) edition so that the festivalgoer might retain a useful and attractive artifact documenting his or her engagement with the festival, rather than a tattered tabloid travesty that won’t stand up on a bookshelf.

An increasing irritation is the number of films screened off DVD. Granted, to the attentive eye it’s all there in the small print beneath each film’s abstract. Caveat emptor, and all that. But even with foreknowledge it’s still disappointing to have one’s cinemagoing experience diminished by a poor screening format whenever better alternatives are known to exist.

Another bugbear is MIFF’s latter day disinterest in retrospective programming, barring opportunistically picking up the odd rediscovery/restoration already traipsing about the festival circuit.

My final beef is with the great number of films destined for release. I counted 58 listed in the media pack I was given at the festival’s outset. More distribution deals have surely been inked since.

Pledge to remedy any of these situations, Mr. Moore, and you’ll instantly have gone some way to winning over this filmerato ahead of your first festival. Hell, of course I know I’ll be there anyway, gorging myself stupid on whatever goodies are dished up, along with ever increasing film-mad proportions of the greater Melbourne populace, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t appreciate my next MIFF dished up with a little better garnish.

Endnotes

  1. Quoth Jay McInerney on the front cover of Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge & Myron (London: Abacus, 1993).
  2. Tasha Robinson, “Interview: Terry Gilliam”, The A.V. Club, Oct 11 2006.
  3. James Hewison, 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival Guide, p. 6.
  4. It seems this term still has some currency. I have just stumbled across Asher Moses, “Wanted: 50,000 angels for collective film”, The Age, Oct 27 2006.
  5. See especially www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/39/contents.html#hou.
  6. Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939); Nightbreed (Clive Barker, 1990); Tetsuo (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2000). Ah, Tsukamoto. Why on Earth has he fallen out of favour with MIFF? He had been a regular up until Gemini (1999), but since then, nada!, short of a kooky cameo in Miike’s Dead or Alive 2 (2000)! I can’t be the only one who misses him.
  7. Including in this very issue. See Nathan Kosub, “Clearly, Clearly, Dark-Eyed Donna: Time and A Scanner Darkly”.
  8. www.theage.com.au/news/National/Beauty-easy-on-the-brain-study/2006/09/28/1159337274837.html.
  9. See Rosa Holman, “‘Caught Between Poetry and Censorship’: The Influence of State Regulation and Sufi Poeticism on Contemporary Iranian Cinema”.
  10. 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival Guide, p. 16.
  11. 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival Guide, p. 15.
  12. ibid.