17-29 October 2008

“The ideal form of government, Karl Valentin said, is anarchy – with a strong anarchist in charge.” Thus the philosophy of Hans Hurch – starken Anarchen an der Spitze of the Vienna International Film Festival since 1997 – as expounded during a web-chat on the eve of his event’s latest renewal. The festival – which started life in 1960 as the Vienna Film Week at the Künstlerhaus cinema, organised by Austrian members of FIPRESCI (the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) – was rechristened the Viennale by the city’s then-mayor Franz Jonas, in 1962. For five years the Viennale was officially a “Festival of Gaiety”, held in June, a showcase for international comedies – an emphasis which may surprise those only familiar with the more eclectic, challenging, highbrow event that it became after a reorganisation under Otto Wladika in 1968.

Four decades on, the Viennale would appear to be in pretty rude health – with a record 92,100 admissions to its 332 screenings (an average of 77% attendances, with 116 full houses). This is particularly impressive given the fact that the Viennale has never – thankfully – been a “red carpet” festival attracting the kind of Hollywood names and world premieres one associates with Europe’s long-running, paparazzi-haunted “A-List” events at Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Indeed, whereas in recent years, when the likes of Jane Fonda and Lauren Bacall were lionised during visits to the festival,  2008 was decidedly light on “star” names. Isabelle Huppert did pop into town for a day, but that was to support the lavish tribute to veteran German director Werner Schroeter (with whom she collaborated on Malina [1990] and Deux [2002].)

In fact, if there is a “star” presence at the Viennale, it’s arguably that of Hans Hurch himself: tall, black-clad, bright-eyed, bearded, every inch the European bohemian intellectual. An event of this scale is anything but a one-man show, but the spirit of Hurch (Hurchgeist?) seems to infuse everything that goes on within its many precincts. Maybe it helps that, in so many corners of this spectacular and historic former imperial capital, one comes across the Viennale poster and/or promotional materials, all of them featuring an annually-changing “motif”: this year, a white, one-eyed lizard.

Explaining his latest choice during the web-chat, Hurch noted that while other festivals usually choose poster-images and motifs “directly related to film… the eyes, light, film-strips, we prefer little ‘lucky charms’ or ‘heraldic animals’ (wappentieren). This year’s gecko is such a fine, fast, sensitive animal” (“Der heurige Gecko ist so ein feines, schnelles, sensibles Tier”). (1) And its gravity-defying agility, one suspects, is something the Viennale may well need to deploy during the difficult financial years that will surely rock the film festival world in dramatic, perhaps even catastrophic style.

On closer investigation, Hurch’s wappentier (2) is, given its reported derivation from an “Arabic textile pattern” most likely the Baluch Rock Gecko (in German, Felsengecko), a.k.a. Bunopus tuberculatus. Among the Viennese denizens of the Viennale, however, it was quickly christened the Hurch-lurch – “lurch” being a semi-slangy term for any kind of amphibian. There’s a further, hidden, naughty/affectionate gag here involving another meaning of lurch – namely the little clumps of dust and fuzz that can be found under chairs and sofas (as seen in Hartmut Bitomsky’s documentary Staub [Dust], a hot ticket at the 2007 Viennale).

It’s the kind of word-play that would have delighted Hurch’s beloved Karl Valentin: legendary Munich comedian and cabaret-artist, subject of a Viennale retrospective in 1967, and praised as a great wortzklauberer – one who tears language apart in order to get at its innermost meanings. Something of a bierpalast Confucius, Valentin’s aphorisms included one which seems particularly apt for the Viennale (indeed, all film festivals) – counselling, as it does, that intelligence only gets us so far: “Two little boys climbed up a ladder, The one was dumb, the other clever. But when the ladder tumbled down Both little boys fell to the ground.”

The King of Roses

In German, Hurch-lurch is decidedly a noun – but in English, it can be a verb as well. It sounds a bit like a variation of one of those 1950s or 1960s dances (“The Hully Gully”, “The Mashed Potato”) celebrated in song by the B-52s, or on celluloid by John Waters. In fact, I rather like the idea of festival-goers swaying woozily out of some particularly discombobulating screening and down the street as performing an impromptu the “hurch-lurch”. For myself, I reckon I properly “Hurch-lurched” thrice during my eight-day, 34-movie trip to the 2008 Viennale: once after Schroeter’s 1986 Der Rosenkönig (The King of Roses) at the Metro kino, once after H. B. Halicki’s 1974 Gone In 60 Seconds at the Austrian Filmmuseum… and, most hurchy-lurchy of all, after the late-night screening of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler at the Viennale’s spiritual home, the Gartenbaukino.

With regard to the latter, I recall what David Thomson wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film at the start of his entry on Angie Dickinson: “The author is torn between his duty to everyone from Thorold Dickinson to Zinnemann and the plain fact that Angie is his favorite actress.” Likewise, I am torn between my duty to all the other 33 films and the plain fact that The Wrestler was by far my favourite, by far the best, of the features I saw.

After encountering Eugenio Polgovsky’s Tropico de cancer (Tropic of Cancer) at my first Viennale, in 2004, then James Benning’s casting a glance and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures (1986) during my second, last year, and now The Wrestler, I reckon the Viennale is, of all the festivals I’ve been to, the one most likely to yield masterpieces: I’m already plotting the possibility of attending for all or most of the event in October 2009. Every year it presents – mainly in characterfully opulent movie-palaces – a selection of the most critically-esteemed features from Berlin, Cannes and Venice, plus most of the more select venues on the global festival-circuit (Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, Turin, Pusan, Sundance, etc.)

But what lifts this particular festival above the others that I’ve personally experienced is the intelligent attention it pays to cinema’s past, as well as the present and possible futures. There is always an irresistibly generous offering of sidebars dipping judiciously into the first century of movie history – the only problems being that not all of the selections are shown with English subtitles (an issue afflicting some of the newer fare, including, this year, Christian Petzold’s latest, Jerichow) and also the small matter of fitting everything into a single crowded visit without succumbing to what 2008 festival-honoree John Gianvito (whose Profit motive and the whispering wind I lauded in my IndieLisboa report earlier this year) nicely diagnosed as “overeating”.

The only one of the “Gianvitos” I managed to catch was The Flower of Pain (1983) in which elliptical fragments relate the story of three characters – impoverished, disaffected, over-articulate bohemian intellectuals in an unspecified American city near the start of the Reagan era. Coffee and cigarettes are consumed; a book on Antonin Artaud is consulted (at least one or two of the protagonists are actors); the nature of relationships is talked over and over, to a destructive degree: this is, essentially, the anatomy of a very painful break up, conducted under the shadow of inescapable mortality. Anticipating the “Mumblecore” genre by a good 20 years, Gianvito’s earnest, semi-experimental debut feels like an acutely personal act of self-expression – occasionally guilty of groping a little too strenuously towards symbol-heavy profundity, but fruitfully challenging on a formal level and still of more than mere time-capsule interest.

Other sidebars saluted Miguel Gomes (only 36, but already regarded in certain influential quarters as the next big thing from Portugal), Nora Gregor (a long-neglected Teutonic starlet, best known for Renoir’s Rules of the Game); and, in the Viennale’s nod to the relative “mainstream”, Bob Dylan, via an eclectic sampling of movies tangentially or directly connected with Minnesota’s favourite son. The latter afforded an exceedingly rare chance to catch Jean-Luc Godard’s 1986 anti-TV-movie Grandeur et decadence d’un petit commerce de cinema d’après un roman de James Hadley Chase (Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company, Based on a Novel By James Hadley Chase) on the big screen.

Godard’s contribution to TV crime-show Serie Noire is a characteristically subversive/nihilistic mashup that deconstructs everything it touches: television and cinema (which are presented as mutually exclusive and antithetical), acting, casting, storytelling and, most specifically, the folly of “adapting” a work from one medium to another. Elusive shards of quasi-plot involve a two-bit movie-company’s doomed attempts to film James Hadley Chase’s potboiler The Soft Center – in French, Chantons en choeur, which translates as “Let’s sing in the choir”; Godard, however, is most emphatically a lone voice – and his “song” may not always exactly be musical, but his wilfully discordant form of take-no-prisoners, scattershot intellectual slapstick is often surprisingly hilarious – and occasionally penetrating… when it actually comes close to hitting its myriad targets, that is. (Godard’s one-minute Viennale-Trailer, meanwhile, was such a superb example of the form that it was decidedly mystifying that it should be screened only every now and again, rather than before each and every feature.)

Rather more rarefied delights were on offer via the Schroeter retrospective – which the gravely-ill maestro himself graced with a personal appearance, during a tribute evening that featured a suitably uninhibited concert by Fassbinder-muse (and sometime wife) Ingrid Caven. Far too few of the Schroeter films incorporated English subtitling, but those that did included the movie regarded as his chef d’oeuvre, The King of Roses from 1986. It’s a ripe example of the unapologetic, floridly symbolic, too-much-is-not-enough Art Film which used to crop up regularly late at night in the very early days of British TV’s Channel 4, but which so rarely gets funded any more – and whose opulent grandeur, in this specific case, quickly transcends what initially looks like unbearable pretentiousness.

What plot there is involves one “Anna Rahma” (Schroeter’s favourite diva Magdalena Montezuma), a tormented, mentally-unstable, imperious grande dame – spiritual cousin of Billy Wilder’s Norma Desmond and Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss, perhaps – who moves to a rambling mansion on the Portuguese coast to grow roses. But this is the merest of pretexts for a series of intense, operatically sensual reveries. Not for everyone, by any means, but yielding unexpected rewards for the patiently indulgent.

The problem with experiencing a picture like The King of Roses – especially in the ornate splendour of the Metro cinema (“a great place to assassinate a president”, as Iranian-American director Rahman Bahrani quipped before a Q+A) – is that everything afterwards can seem decidedly semi-skimmed. And it’s an inadvertent problem of the Viennale that the archive material is always so reliably strong that it can cast a daunting shadow over the brand-new stuff.

No festival which presents sixty new features and sixty new documentaries every year can guarantee universal quality, of course – but I do find that, unlike, say, Rotterdam and Berlin, it’s actually quite hard to find a bad film at the Viennale. And it’s almost impossible to spend a whole day at the event and come away feeling that one could have spent one’s time in a more productive manner. I also admire the way that it insists on the primacy of celluloid in an era when digital formats are encroaching in so many festivals – a topic illuminatingly discussed in the Austrian Filmmuseum’s new book Film Curatorship: Museums Curatorship and the Moving Image, edited by Alexander Horwath (Filmmuseum director and Hurch’s predecessor as Viennale chief), Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis and Michael Loebenstein.

The Savage Eye

I always say that I’d rather see a film (i.e. a work made on film, and made to be shown on film) via flawed celluloid than a perfect DVD. It’s a rough kind of magic, of course, and things can go wrong – as with the Filmmuseum’s screening of The Savage Eye (1960), by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick, shown with Strick in attendance, when a reel was shown out of sequence. But cinema is and always should be an unpredictable, collective experience.

The Savage Eye was showing as part of Los Angeles – A City On Film, this year’s “parallel programme”. Every October the Filmmuseum – a magnificent cinémathèque run in a discreet corner of a former Habsburg palace – hosts such a retrospective, organised by a guest curator (last year Jean-Pierre Gorin, who assembled a survey of “essayistic cinema” under the Manny-Farber-saluting banner The Way of the Termite.)

For 2008 the honour fell to American director/teacher Thom Andersen, whose Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is one of the most stimulatingly brilliant cine-essays of the decade: a portrait of California’s sprawling mega-metropolis over the past century as seen through the countless movies shot within its environs. From acknowledged classics such as Chinatown down to video-destined obscurities like Dead Homiez, each is revealed as offering invaluable psychogeographic glimpses of the ever-changing Angeleno landscape.

Asking Andersen to assemble a season of Los Angeles films was, therefore, an inspired move. The results allowed Viennale-attendees the privilege of experiencing an array of rarities in glorious 35mm, courtesy of the Filmmuseum’s impeccable projection facilities: Jack Hill’s smash-em-up B-movie Pit Stop (1969); Irving Lerner’s hitman opus Murder By Contract (1958); Andre De Toth’s hard-bitten noir Crime Wave (1954), plus Andersen’s own pungently atmospheric time-capsule short Olivia’s Place (1966).

Best of all: H. B. Halicki’s sui generis demolition derby from 1974, Gone In 60 Seconds. Hardly anything to do with Dominic Sena’s notional 2000 remake starring Nicolas Cage (not a terrible film, but still…), Halicki’s original is a berserk low-budget underground classic – albeit one that takes absolutely forever to get going: the early and middle stretches laboriously set up some kind of insanely elaborate car-theft plot via impenetrable, incomprehensible exposition, stiff performances, vile costumes/wigs, and oddly “narrated” visuals.

But then proceedings suddenly click into gear for a breathtakingly kinetic, exhilaratingly exhausting final half-hour: essentially one long, long, long, long cops-v-criminal demolition-derby car-chase. Thrills and hilarity come breathlessly thick and escalatingly fast in this poundingly entertaining triumph for writer/director/star H. B. Halicki (who plays “Maindrian [sic] Pace”) and his editor Warner E Leighton – who learned his trade, appropriately enough, on TV’s The Flintstones. Screened in a suitably scuzzy, grindhouse-vintage, Swedish-subtitled print, the picture provided a thunderously entertaining night-out-at-the-pictures experience for a (gratifyingly, sell-out) audience.

If I’d been a completely free agent in Vienna, I could easily have spent most or even all of my time chasing down the older fare on offer in the sidebars. Indeed, many long-time attendees see hardly any of the newer titles. “After all these years, my hopes for V ’08 (or V’ xx) rest entirely with the retrospectives”, a Vienna-based friend of mine wrote in an email just before the event began. “And, voilà! Triumph. I only skim the rest”, she concluded.

However, my time wasn’t really my own during this visit – I was serving on the FIPRESCI jury (the Viennale, perhaps as a nod to its origins, has no other “main-competition” jury) and so had to make my way through 17 new features, by first- and second-time directors. Of these three stood out of the pack for me. The Order of Myths is certainly timely, but Margaret Brown’s unobtrusively anthropological profile of the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama (the oldest such festivities in the country, and long since “segregated” into a pair of parallel, wildly elaborate events, one organised by the black community, one by the whites) would be worthy of attention at any juncture. Deft and even-handed, it’s surprisingly illuminating about the past (countless eye-opening details emerge), a colourfully vibrant record of the present, and also a cautiously optimistic peek into possible futures. Though hardly groundbreaking in form, the film’s rich content provides bountiful compensations.

The Inheritors

Then there was Los Herederos (The Inheritors), Eugenio Polgovsky’s follow-up to the aforementioned Tropic of Cancer. Though not quite up to the level of his devastating debut, the film confirms him as a high-calibre documentarian. Once again, he delivers an unadorned, uninflected look at poverty-striken lives in today’s Mexico – the emphasis now on various forms of child labour. There is no voiceover, no on-screen titles to provide information about the subject, forcing the viewer to come to their own disturbing deductions. We’re initially surprised that the children seem so happy – smiling for the camera like youngsters do. But the implications of those smiles are, we realise, more troubling and haunting than pages of statistics.

Also focussing on the younger members of society – albeit at the opposite end of the financial spectrum, and in fictional rather than documentary format – was Celina Murga’s Una semana solos (A Week Alone), a quietly absorbing, unobtrusively acute study of childhood and class in modern-day Argentina. The setting is an affluent, gated community patrolled by private security-guards; the principal characters a group of kids (of various ages) whose parents have gone away on holiday, leaving them under the nominal care of a housekeeper. Complications eventually ensue – the arrival of the housekeeper’s brother, who is evidently of a different social stratum from the rest of the kids, exacerbates various simmering tensions – though proceedings generally unfold at a pretty low-ish boil. Even when mayhem erupts towards the end, melodramatics and histrionics are carefully eschewed.

Among the remaining 14 titles in competition, I’d put Tout l’or du monde (End of the Rainbow), Marz (March), Medicine for Melancholy, Must Read After My Death, Tony Manero and To See If I’m Smiling in the “worth a look” category, with Shorei X (Symptom X), Flower in the Pocket, Tout est parfait (Everything Is Fine), El braun blau (The Blue Bull) and Salamandra a notch below in the “interesting but unremarkable” classification. That leaves three, two of which – Cómo estar muerto (How To Be Dead) and Ein Augenblick, Freiheit (For a Moment, Freedom) I’d say were so unsatisfactory as to be unworthy of competitive slots. And then there was our prize-winner, Miguel Gomes’s Aquele querido mes de agosto (Our Beloved Month of August). My first viewing of the film, a public screening, at the Gartenbau, produced a severe negative reaction: I found it pretentious, wildly overlong (2½ hours), patronising. But then, during early jury discussions, I found that two of my colleagues regarded it as a masterpiece. I decided to give it another try – via DVD – which meant that I spent no less than five hours watching this particular enterprise. The result – I still have my doubts about Gomes, and much prefer the trio reviewed above. But I wasn’t so “anti” that I could, in conscience, impose any kind of “minority report veto”.

Ambitious in structure but wayward in execution, the film shows evidence of ample talent – but director/co-writer/co-editor Gomes is fatally prone to self-indulgence. His first half largely comprises ethnographic / anthropological documentary sequences about a rural Portuguese backwater during mid-summer, when cheesy pop bands tour from village to village performing sentimental romantic numbers. The emphasis then shifts to a soap-opera-style fictional story involving one of the groups, involving a puppy-love triangle and an awkwardly-handled incest theme. Larkish meta-fictional inserts featuring the actual filmmakers punctuate the narrative, lending an off-puttingly smart-alec air to an enigmatic, boisterous but ultimately unsatisfactory enterprise.

Gomes is just the latest filmmaker who seems to think that simply by combining documentary and fiction, the results will by definition be interesting and artistic. It just made me think of the famous exchange during the literary lecture during The Third Man:

Popescu: I’d say you were doing something pretty dangerous this time.

Holly: Yes?

Popescu: Mixing fact and fiction.

Holly: Should I make it all fact?

Popescu: Why no, Mr. Martins. I’d say stick to fiction, straight fiction.

Holly: I’m too far along with the book, Mr. Popescu.

My jury-duties, and retrospective attendances, meant that I could only squeeze in less than half a dozen new, hors concours features. Among these, I very much liked Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), the playful, rather lovely cine-autobiography by Agnès Varda. Now marking her 80th birthday, she takes us on a tangent-happy amiable amble through her globetrotting life and work – with cameos from friends/collaborators ranging from fellow Nouvelle Vague / Rive Gauche luminaries Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker to Harrison Ford, Alexander Calder and Jim Morrison. Reflectively rambling but always clear-eyed, Varda emerges as the best kind of eccentric elderly relative – one whose idiosyncratic creativity remains inspiringly undimmed into her ninth decade.

I also want to give a strong mention to Jeon Soo-il’s Geomen tangyi sonyeo oi (With a Girl of Black Soil), which I didn’t actually see at the Viennale – I caught it at the Edinburgh International Film Festival back in June – but which shows many signs of slipping under most people’s radars. This would be a harsh fate for a film which I regard as one of the decade’s very finest, so please forgive my bending the “rules” of festival reporting to discuss it a little here.

Jeon (as in many east Asian countries, Korean surnames come first) has made three features before this: Saeneun pyegoksuneul keruinda (The Bird Who Stops in the Air), which premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1999,Naneun nareul pagoehal gwolliga itda (My Right To Ravage Myself, 2003) and Gae oi neckdae sa yiyi chigan (Time Between Dog and Wolf, 2006). I must confess to never having heard of him before Edinburgh, presuming Black Soil to be yet another of the dark thrillers which Korean cinema so regularly produces.

The film is, however, a stark and austere slice of social realism about lone father Hye-Gon (Jo Yung-jun) and his two children, set in the mountainous coal-mining region of Kangwon. When Hye-gon loses his job in the coal-mine which provides the area with most of its employment, he hits the bottle and enters a rapid decline. It falls to his eight year-old daughter Young-Lim (Yu Yun-mi) to look after her dad, herself and her slightly older brother Tong-Gu (Park Hyun-woo), who suffers from learning difficulties. Young-Lim proves resourceful, decisive and inventive – but her actions yield dramatic consequences for all concerned.

With a Girl of Black Soil

After a somewhat slow start, With a Girl of Black Soil gradually builds to a pitch of quite remarkable intensity – a portrait of a particular area’s tough socio-economic circumstances, and simultaneously a piercing chamber-piece of family dysfunction. The cinematography of Kim Sung-tai is unobtrusively brilliant – a symphony of coal-blacks and snow-whites, and diminutive debutante Yu is simply one of the great child performances in cinema history.

Knock out “child” from that sentence and you have a fair description of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (a.k.a. Robin Ramzynski), a washed up star of 80s wrestling eking out a living on the hardscrabble New Jersey circuit. The film accorded the unusual accolade of three screenings at the cavernously atmospheric Gartenbaukino and it’s not hard to see why the movie won the Golden Lion at Venice in September.

What is surprising is that the contributions from pretty much everyone else involved in the film – director Aronofsky (previously known for visually tricky, smart-alecky enterprises Pi [1998], Requiem For A Dream [2000] and The Fountain [2006]) first-time scriptwriter Robert D. Siegel, and their entire technical team – should match or, in many cases, exceed Rourke’s superlative work. Gritty, hilarious, moving, thumpingly entertaining and unobtrusively multi-layered, The Wrestler deals lightly but penetratingly with notions of reality and representation, celebrity and self-image, the American dream, the nature of performance, and so much else besides.

The next day, attending the morning screening of Our Beloved Month of August in the same Gartenbaukino, I actually found myself looking for the seat in which I’d been ensconced the previous night – remembering how it had felt to be… what, exactly? No longer a critic, no longer a cineaste, or a FIPRESCI-juror, or a contributor to Senses. Just a cinemagoer, along with hundreds of others, all of us looking up at the screen in exhilarated delight – preparing to launch into our latest “hurch-lurch”.

Viennale website: http://www.viennale.at

Endnotes

  1. Geckos are a superhero’s envy when it comes to their ability to climb rapidly up just about any vertical surface. Unlike other climbing animals and insects, the small lizards have no need for suction cups, Velcro-like hooks, electrostatic attraction or sticky secretions. A gecko can dash up a smoothly polished glass surface as easily as we can fall off a log, sticking and unsticking its feet 15 times a second. It can hang from a ceiling, if it feels like it, by a single toe. Even in a laboratory-created vacuum, where suction would do little good, a gecko’s foot will still stick.
  2. Das neue Wappentier

    Den letzten Drachen schlug St. Georg tot,
    die letzten Adler sind schon abgezählt.
    Wo ist der Löwe, der uns noch bedroht? –
    So sei der Mensch zum Wappentier gewählt!
    Denn was die Löwenpranke nicht vermag,
    vermag die Menschenhand, die nicht erbebt.
    Mit einer Unterschrift führt sie den Schlag,
    und nie vergißt ihn, wer ihn überlebt.
    Er, den die Arche trug zum Ararat,
    schont nicht der Waise und der Witwe Haus.
    Er, der die Sonne nicht erschaffen hat,
    löscht sie in hunderttausend Augen aus.

    English translation can be found here.

    Franz Kiessling (1918-1979), Vienna civil-servant.