Pioneer Room Rhapsody

A slightly cagey throng of greying cinemagoers mill nervously in the lower foyer of Sydney’s State Theatre. Red liveried ushers assure us the theatre will be opened soon. A quick trip to the toilet past the antlers and oaken tables of the “Pioneer’s Room”, a few moments wondering why cinema in the cinema no longer appeals to the young, and the herd is suddenly on the move. This morning’s film? Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s second work, the slightly over-sugared Les Amours imaginaires (Heartbeats). Eventual winner of the festival’s coveted Golden Poodle (I think that’s what it’s called), the film is reworking of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. A recurring formal pattern of sound/image disjunction begins with the first scene, in which percussive food mutilation overlays slowed, muted glances and hastily muttered disavowals. Dolan presents the interruptive jouissance of triangular love, its cycles of infatuation and apprehension, as a series of riff-like variations. If the uninspired monochromaticism of the sex sequences are the result of an occasionally coarse repetition, the interspersion of several non-diegetic anecdotes, each one shot as though addressed to an absent interviewer, reinvigorates the film’s rhythm. I put it down to the lusty twang of the Québécois vowel-set.

Also screened was J’ai tué ma mère. (I Killed My Mother), Dolan’s first film. Lashed with the citations of a jeunesse littéraire, and inhabited, literally, by Rimbaud, Cocteau, Truffaut, its electrifying staging produces moments of irresistible hilarity. It strains the threads which connect two different sorts of language: the wail, the therapeutic sound of the voice, the being-heard-by-mama, and the adolescent discovery of language as truth, as world. Utterly without justification (although Louis Garrel does appear briefly at the end of Les Amours imaginaires) I cite Philippe Garrel’s early films, and in particular Le révélateur.

The dossier labelled “youth” also contains Estonian Veiko Öunpuu’s Buñuel-Lynch romp The Temptation of St. Anthony and Sophie Letourneur’s trashy ode to the drunken female conversation-mob, La vie au ranch. The pace of the latter’s dialogue was surely not much slower than Hawk’s His Girl Friday.

Retrospectives are important in Australia because of the absence of non-first run cinemas. While well-curated (except for allowing a digital version of Murnau’s Nosferatu to be shown), the presentation of yet another selection of vampire screenings smacked of lazy, reflex programming. Apart from a reasonable print of Browning’s Dracula (I’d forgotten the sheer force of Lugosi’s open vowels) only Bigelow’s Near Dark interested me. A lusty child vampire, debauched and in search of an eternal bride, an inexplicable plot non sequitur (why does he tell his sister to run on ahead at the end?) and blatant Terminator references (the burning truck scene; but also the roadside robbery, Arnie’s bare-buttocked stick-up in the Hollywood Hills anyone?) made for an enjoyable genre session.

Nevertheless it wasn’t all vampires; I most certainly embrace the pairing of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and Visconti’s Senso, and their exquisite, recently restored Film Foundation prints. How does one film the rhythms, the creases and moving lines, the “colours” of a woman’s face? Matisse wrote that the depth of movement in an image shrinks if the lines themselves move. In the first hour of Cassavetes’ lyric portrait of the mania-cycle Rowland attains such dizzying heights as Gena/Mabel that her come-down inevitably disappoints, as it should. In the cinema of Cassavetes the actors are unhinged, fattened up on a sort of unending freedom, which is just like unending capital, and at times their inflationary-deflationary fluctuations yield the most captivating inflections of growth and decline. The same mechanic or “law” governs all melodrama from the weepies of Sirk, to Visconti’s Nietzschean Überfülle, including many crime films like Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties or Coppola’s The Godfather. David Thompson once quipped that Cassavetes actors are pampered house pets, in A Woman Under the Influence, these pets dream horrible nightmares of the “wild” they cannot survive, and yet so desperately need.

The bulging eyes of Tilda Swinton’s Emma (Bovary?) are the counterpart to the aghast paroxysms of Livia in Senso and of Mabel’s sparkling “rises”. As a flurry of Götterdämmerung brass bellows into the last gasping intercuts of Luca Guadagnino’s Io sono l’amore the death of Emma’s son suddenly makes sense. It is Emma (a name given to her by her husband) who dies and not her son. The last sequence is a death fantasy begun as she tastes the fish soup of her childhood, of her son’s boyhood, and her new lover’s manhood. In other words, Emma, in a feverish masturbatory reverie, brought on by the aroma of the soup, kills off her problematic son, and towers to orgasm in a climactic vertigo of Wagnerian trumpets, Hitchcockian tension and Viscontian largesse.

In Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me a sheriff who listens to Mahler (I’m not sure if he hears Mahler though) mocks the governing codes of chivalry in Hank Williams’ fatherland, Texas, or thereabouts. Whether the film is self-reflexive truth, yanking the bloodied women of noir into the open, into the light, or a jaded exercise in gratuity, or both, or simply a straight mix of ingredients (sex, violence, perversion, cops) and of unintended consequences, The Killer Inside Me is for the most part a mediocre film. Truffaut once remarked of Welles’ Touch of Evil that it makes us shed a virtual tear on the body of a prestigious monster. Casey Affleck’s monster repulses our tears, and hopes for an absent minded, incriminating chortle.

In recent Cannes winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Lung Boonmee raluek chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), João Pedro Rodrigues’ Morrer como um homem (To Die Like a Man) and Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Bal (Honey) the question of the difference between death and dying is posed. Boonmee’s mélange of recollection, of reprojected comic monsters in animal costumes, of eroticised TV nostalgia suggests a kind of perennial audiovisual animism, a double world of undigested memory, of cinema unencumbered by titles, endings and plots. The aesthetic paradox of Uncle Boonmee is that what’s new, puzzling, unassimilated seeks its image in what’s remembered, in dead images, and in images of the not so dead. Weerasethakul has said that the images of his past are not concrete, that they don’t have specific models, and that they are no longer separable one from the other. Similar to this non-decompressive delayering, in Bal the reordering of child Yosuf’s experience is figured by his stuttering estrangement from the rules of syntax; the path to and from home, as in Kiarostami’s Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where is My Friend’s House?), is an allegory of childhood stasis.

After the cringeworthy The Tree, I turned to Australia’s cinema past and spent the morning in convalescence at the AGNSW, watching Cecil Holmes extracts. Grimy chiaroscuro against the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s pylons, the familiar grinding acceleration of the old “red rattler” trains long since scrapped, the lucid sincerity of the lead actors all introduced me to a Sydney on celluloid I thought long ago exterminated and forgotten.

The first fifty minutes of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Politist, adj. (Police, Adjective) are made up of a cylce of repeated shots, balanced recapitulation, and drawn out work-observations. After this follows a maieutic dénouement during which the police chief defines the words “conscience”, “moral”, “law” and “police” dialectically. Police, Adjective is in fact the abstract prequel of an action film. A few minutes from the end, this “film” appears in the form of an elegant plan, as the diagram of a proposed “sting” operation.

What happens when rock stars don’t die young? Lemmy from Motörhead, no surname. By soaking his entire circulatory system in high concentrations of amphetamines and bathing his inner ear in intolerable pain-threshold distortion, Lemmy stumbled upon the philosopher’s stone, the elixir alchemists have been seeking for millennia. Forget the rules of criticism, Lemmy doesn’t express an idea of the world nor an idea of cinema, it merely announces, that somewhere in the environs of Los Angeles’ Rainbow Bar and Grill there exists Lemmy, the majestic, shambling Frankenstein’s monster of rock’n’roll.

The screening of Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch was the most blatant example of the festival’s infuriatingly inconsistent standard of projection. Dumont’s pattern of slow inexorable close-ups, his likening of the camera’s movement to the inexorability of respiration, was surely marred by the sub-DVD quality of the image. At the root of the problem was the absence from the program of any indication of image format.

No one marvels at miracles anymore in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes. The healing of a young MS sufferer provokes insincere praise, various degrees of envy, and gives the captain of the travelling security detachment ideas. Being visited by the virgin and the healing of an incurable disease are akin to winning employee of the month and catholicism ends up just another generic, bingo-like pastime for over sixties, not unlike the Sydney Film Festival. I’m joking!

The Mexican anthology film Revoluciòn housed two of the most stunning works of the festival. In Amat Escalante’s Hanging Priest, pools of water appear like heat-thickened swirls of air and small bushes shot from above suddenly become the canopies of large trees. Emerging from a Dantean Jodorowsky desert we stumble upon a freeway; with this the allegory is swept away and collapses into the meaninglessness of a fast foot road stop. Carlos Reygadas directed the segment This is Our Kingdom in which multi-camera direct cinema crew infiltrate a party, covering its slow expansion and eventual transformation into an all-consuming inferno. Just like Rouch’s early seventies drumming film Tourou et Bitti the film is exhilarating, authentic cinema of engulfment.

– Paul Macovaz

Dogged by the past

Oh, what beautiful times they have been!

An oasis of cinema in the desert of tedium that is Sydney’s cultural scene, for the best part of a decade, I have knelt down and imbibed from the waters of the Sydney Film Festival. Giving me the opportunity to slake my thirst for cinema, and ready myself for the barrenness of the year ahead, the festival – like the city itself – inspires and disgusts me in equal measure, but, like the city, it never fails to arouse my passions.

I realise that, as far as festival longevity is concerned, I am still a novice among attendees, large numbers of whom seem to have held on to subscription passes since the silent era. But this year the festival shines its lantern on me for the last time. Next month I will leave the city of my birth. How can I possibly describe the tumultuous sentiments swirling inside me about my impending departure from these shores – an emotional maelstrom engendered by many factors, a minor, though not insignificant, one of which being the fact that, for the foreseeable future at least, my early Junes will no longer be consumed by the festival’s offerings.

I therefore beg your indulgence for what you are about to read. This is not a report on the 2010 Sydney Film Festival. What, you wanted an account of the films on offer? A rundown on what was good and what was bad, on which feature debut was a surprising discovery, on what established director made a self-indulgent let-down? You wanted me to give scores out of ten, five-star ratings, thumbs up and thumbs down?

But what is the point? Either you have not seen the films in question, in which case how could you possibly understand what I am talking about? Or you have seen the films, in which case what need have you of my opinion, when you can so readily form your own?

What of the festival as a whole, then? Perhaps you wanted me to tell you how the festival rates against the efforts of previous years, if it is going from strength to strength, or moribundly lurching towards its inevitable demise; whether it continues to stand as a bulwark of aesthetic independence against the forces of commercial barbarism, or whether its resistance is wilting, ready to cave in like so many artistic maquisards before it.

But how could I possibly know? How can I possibly be objective about these things? A festival report is convulsive, or it will not be at all! True festival reports must be the product not of daylight and chitchat, but of darkness and silence!

And is there anything more predictable in a festival report than to lament the fact that out of the 147 films screening in this year’s festival, I only saw 29 of them, or 19.728% of the total? For 13 days of screenings this is not such a mean feat, and my selectivity was made easier by certain hidebound prejudices of mine: no animation, no shorts, documentaries only under exceptional circumstances. But my earlier intentions to simply spend the entire fortnight watching films – which Gustav, my partner in crime, did manage – were scuppered by my looming thesis submission date.

What will stay with me from this year’s festival – as is the case every year – is therefore not a holistic image of what constituted the SFF, but rather my personal, subjective impressions of the period. My abiding memory of the last ten years of festival-going is not any film in particular, but rather the settings in which I have watched them. Here Sydney is blessed with one of the most beautiful festival venues in the world. The State Theatre may have its shortcomings on a functional level: the sightlines from many seats are less than ideal, and the quality of the sound is sub-standard, but these are overshadowed by the sumptuous baroque excess of the theatre’s interiors, with its gilded wall fittings, expansive chandeliers, monumental arches and effigies of imperturbable knights.

I know of almost no fonder experience than to attend a 10am weekday screening, along with a clutch of festival diehards, and to walk out of the State Theatre when it is still morning, into the driving rain (statistically speaking, I am sure there have been some days when the festival has been accompanied by clement weather, but in my mind it always rains outside of the State Theatre), and invariably a bus will drive through a puddle and splash me (I don’t even think buses go down Market Street, but in my mind they always drive past and splash me).

Of course, the films themselves have a far from nugatory presence in my memories of the festival, but for me, much more than ordered narratives or integral works, what lingers is a succession of moments, images from films which detach themselves from their contextual surrounds and implant themselves in my mind like the final seconds of a dream.

Much as I would like to see myself as a maverick in these matters, a rebellious nonconformist who thumbs his nose up at the diktats of received taste, I must confess that the films which instilled such moments of sublimity in me were precisely those works which have garnered the most hype, the warmest praise, the highest accolades from the global festival circuit.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives provided the most indelible of such moments: Boonmee’s son, transformed into a “monkey ghost” covered in thick black hair, pausing in the middle of a rainforest and transfixing me with his glowing red eyes; the princess deriving sexual pleasure from a catfish in a satiny pool at the foot of a waterfall; and the final scene in the hospital room, which contains one of the most stupendous cuts in the history of the cinema. Here I must confess that I watched the film at a 10am screening in a somnolent state, as I had slept fitfully the night before. But I am convinced that such a state constitutes the optimal viewing conditions for this film: the scenes that have stuck with me would not have done so in the same way, had they not caught me at a rare lucid moment before I inexorably slid back out of consciousness; the images would not have had the bold forcefulness that they did, had they not been inadvertently re-framed by my drooping eyelids. In fact, I will go further: every great film is immeasurably improved by watching it while half-asleep.

But, of course, Uncle Boonmee’s magnificence can hardly be a revelation for the informed reader, who will well be aware of Weerasethakul’s crowning at this year’s Cannes, and of the hyperbole surrounding a filmmaker whom Dominique Païni has claimed to be the only significant auteur to have arisen in the 21st century.

Xavier Dolan’s two films – Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother – contained similarly arresting moments: the party sequence of the former, in which strobe lighting ushers in a montage-study comparing the “self-satisfied adonis” played by Niels Schneider to Michelangelo’s David and sketches by Cocteau; the performance of Anne Dorval as the eponymous mother in the latter, climaxing in her virtuoso telephone call to the boarding school director.

But, of course, Dolan’s ascendance too has hardly been unaccompanied by acclaim, doubtlessly accentuated by the 21 year-old’s precipitous precocity. Indeed, I must here admit to distinct feelings of envy upon witnessing his mastery of the medium – this marks the first occasion in which I have been impressed by a film made by a director who was born after me.

If I was taken by surprise by any film in this year’s festival, then it was João Pedro Rodrigues’ relatively unheralded To Die Like a Man. What a glorious mish-mash of styles – stretching from the camp splendour of the transvestite nightclub to the austere precision of the forest “snipe hunt”! What audacity to assail the viewer, expecting an Almodóvaresque romp, with what can only be called a “plan Straubien”, as the camera departs from the characters and slowly pans across the forest! And what verve to channel Petra von Kant with the imperious performance of Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida as Maria Bakker!

And then there was Brillante Mendoza’s Lola: the sparring between two frail yet indomitable grandmothers, the funeral procession languorously filing through the canals of Metro Manila, and the rain, oh, the ever-present rain!, irrepressibly teeming down on-screen, much as it was teeming down outside.

Outside of these pinnacles of contemporary cinema, much of the festival’s offerings were unremarkable. I will spare you the castigation of their shortcomings – is there anything more tiresome? Few were unmitigated disasters, but most were what Noël Simsolo has called “urinal-films”: I would go to the toilet after the screening and piss out the film. This is not particularly the fault of the programmers. The cinema is dying from its quantitative mediocrity, as a philosopher once said. I can only applaud the decision made by the festival organisers last year to streamline the program, to cut it back in duration and breadth. But if anything this does not go far enough. Out of all the thousands of films which are made each year, and which maunder from one festival to the next, how many are actually any good? Maybe six, in a good year. The rest is just filler.

So this would be my dream festival: you simply have six screenings, but they would be the six greatest films of the year. And you put it on at the Entertainment Centre, or, why not?, the Olympic Stadium. And people will pack the place out, because, goddamnit!, it’s the cinema.

And what about the retrospective program, you ask? Most years, this is usually – for me, at least – the highlight of the festival, although this year’s vampire theme paled in comparison to the comprehensive director tributes of previous editions. Well, seeing as Sydney, a city of 4.5 million people, seems incapable of supporting a full-time Cinémathèque, my suggestion is to simply make the retrospective a year-round program, encompassing the entire history of the cinema, with a special building permanently devoted to it.

If there is one area, however, in which the festival organisers need to be mercilessly attacked, it is their apparent contempt for the medium of film itself. As Gustav and I settled in to watch Hadewijch, a sense of revulsion overcame both of us: what we were watching was not the visceral splendour of the 35mm print we were expecting, but an appalling shadow thereof. Even by the standards of digital projection, the image quality was atrocious: if anything, it seemed like the organisers had simply downloaded an .avi file of the film and projected that. Omar Rodríguez-López’s The Sentimental Engine Slayer was even more lamentable. The film may have been great, but I could not see anything beyond the pixels.

The bitterest betrayal of all came with the screening of Nosferatu at the Opera House. Neither my beloved Alphonsine nor I had ever seen the film on 35mm, and so we were anticipating the occasion with a rare alacrity. But, when she came to meet me beforehand in the lobby of Customs House, it was incumbent upon her to break the news: reliable sources had informed her that the screening would be digital, as the Opera House does not have the capacity to project film. Abandoning Nosferatu, we instead saw Letourneur’s agreeable French teen-comedy La vie au ranch.

So why include the Opera House as a film festival venue, if you are unable to show films there? Maybe for TV documentaries or works shot on digital anyway this is not such an issue, but if there is one filmmaker who commands to be watched on celluloid, whose films incorporate the emulsificatory process of film into the aesthetic impact of the work itself, it is F.W. Murnau. Projecting his films on video is an insult, for which I reserve my most profound contempt, and the festival organisers should know better than to have acceded to the idea.

Aux armes, then, friends of the cinema! The cancer of digital projection is spreading. Even the citadels are under threat. The rot must not be allowed to continue.

But it is here that my scribblings must come to an end. On a Queen’s Birthday Monday, I attend my final film of the Sydney Film Festival. As fortune would dictate, the session takes place in the State Theatre – an unexceptional film set in the Russian tundra (How I Ended this Summer, for those who are curious). I sit and stare ahead of me, but for the most part, the film, for me, consists of nothing more than a series of flickering lights, dancing across the screen. My thoughts are rather more absorbed by the festival report I am to write (what can I say about it? I still don’t really know).

The film finishes. Beyond conveying a vague impression of colour, setting and movement, I can tell you nothing about it. The credits have stopped rolling, the cinema disgorges its patrons, but I stay in my seat. I am urgently required to give solace to my heartbroken friend Theobald, but I do not want to leave. A force urges me to remain. I can feel the steely gaze of the unflappable knights on the nape of my neck. I must leave. I can’t leave.

I look over. There, to my right, Gustav is sitting: as with me he is motionless as if paralysed, a glazed expression in his eyes. The festival is over for him too. Noticing me, he approaches. We reminisce about past years, past festivals, relating stories to each other in a prolix fashion, each of us supplementing the narrative where the other’s memory failed; and, when we finish our tales:

“I believe that that was the best time we ever had!” I said. “Well, perhaps! Yes, I, too, believe that that was the best time we ever had,” said Gustav.

But, despite the festival’s huge role in my cinematic education, I should not be so sentimental. As I begin, with this festival report, to paint my grey in grey, I must realise that a shape of life has grown old, and that it can not be rejuvenated. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.

Yes, evening falls. The holidays are over. We live in a system where we can do everything, except for the report of what we have done; where we can complete everything, except for the report of this completion. I can attend the 2010 Sydney Film Festival, but I can never write the report for the 2010 Sydney Film Festival.

– Daniel Fairfax

Sydney Film Festival
2-14 June 2010
Festival website: http://sff.org.au/cms/