Spotlight | From Sundance to Berlin: More Films About Buildings and Fools

By Mark Peranson

The overwhelming sensation resulting from a jaunt through the major premiere-heavy festivals of winter 2007 is that originality is a precious commodity. One could pick a through-line of Sundance and Berlin films that dealt with, say, crazy Christians (a trend easily readable as a liberal reaction to the perception of the current American administration as harbouring conservative Christian criminals) or bad mothers (a liberal reaction to said administration’s two-faced support of “family values”), but I’m more interested in investigating what’s the same this year as opposed to what makes Sundance or Berlin 2007 one for the history books. (The answer to the latter, from a nationalist standpoint, may be the unprecedented Canadian participation.) And that’s because premiere-heavy festivals such as Berlin and Sundance do just as much harm as good to the world of cinema.

Most obviously, this harm results from nurturing a specific kind of festival film, one with potential crossover success. The major festivals always feature numerous examples of films attempting to replicate the success of more talented ancestors. The more egregious of the recent crop of Sundance Rushmore clones, Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science, is watchable and amusing, but one would expect nothing less from a dramedy set in the cutthroat world of high-school debating. But even on paper its premise—that a preternaturally shy protagonist burdened by a hefty speech impediment would become a debater out of a misguided attraction to a conniving bitch—is simply ludicrous, and the paint-by-Anderson screenplay doesn’t help. More poignant—perhaps because of the added points for being British and focusing on younger kids, who by nature are cuter—Hammer andTongs’ Son of Rambow mined the same vein and hit a rich ore of filmic references, adolescent friendship, and, in a tolerable fashion, French-baiting.

Such feeble attempts at what’s known in the biz as a “Sundance film”—often involving emotionally damaged characters, and featuring costume design as character shorthand (ugly glasses=retard, especially on Dylan Baker), as exemplified by Ryan Eslinger’s turkey, When a Man Falls in a Forest—are no longer the protected territory of the Lab that developed it: Eslinger’s Sharon Stone-starring film premiered in the star-heavy Berlin Competition, and will go down in history only for its press kit, clearly written by Stone or a representative (which I find very hard to refrain from quoting, but you can email me for a copy). Speaking of French baiting, Berlin saw the premiere of the inexplicably popular Sundancey 2 Days in Paris, a delusional rant from Julie Delpy’s subconscious, which took pleasure in portraying the French as, depending on the moment, racist, sexist, delinquent, obnoxious, and, in general, a lower life form (Delpy’s parents in particular). Back at Sundance, its mirror image, Zoe Cassavetes’ Parker Posey-starring Broken English, still left Xan as the most talented of the siblings. The two festivals are becoming more similar than either would admit, thanks to a similar cross-colonization: the larger a festival gets, the more weakly it is able to define its own space.

Both Berlin and Sundance, like any of the behemoth festivals, have attempted in recent years to change the way they present themselves. Sundance’s first, and most successful historical move was to nurture the documentary through its Documentary Film Fund. Though the most impressive features this year came from outside, with two cinematic Documentary Competition stand-outs Zoo and Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) bracketing this piece (the former soon to be distributed, the latter still awaiting a deal), the general agreement is that the Sundance documentary crop continues to impress. Then the Sundance powers came up with the World Cinema Competition, featuring a number of forgettable films that turned up as cannon fodder in Berlin sidebars, which can be interpreted as a strategy to attract foreign sales agents in a market-less environment, as if there really need to be more people in Park City. This year Sundance felt impelled to expand its “alternative” programming—the same alternative strand that spawned the non-experimental Old Joy—just like the Berlin Forum “Expanded” last year: the Frontier has spawned the dimly lit installation bunker New Frontier (one eagerly awaits the “Final Frontier”), and Park City, if not the world, will never be the same.

With these moves, Sundance is attempting to move from being a showcase for American independent films to being another one of the festival behemoths, like Berlin, Cannes, or Toronto. These behemoths are driven internally by a constant need to expand, whether or not it’s necessary, creating a spiral of escalation reminiscent of the Cold War arms race, but rarely in response to the realities of a changing film world. Does any film festival really require, like Berlin, a “Talent Campus?” Why the sudden interest in colonizing the Third World through world cinema funds? (An example of a behemoth festival widely regarded as expanding unnecessarily is the decade-old Pusan, which in recent years created both a market and a production forum, a la Rotterdam’s Cinemart.) And to throw out a thesis, because of this internal drive, these big festivals are ill equipped to confront actual change.

In reports, one often sees the comment that a festival is “many festivals in one,” and that each critic “makes his own festival.” These “many festivals” act in concert, the more obscure sidebars serving the more art-demanding critics and audiences, the more openly commercial elements—often in the form of the Competition—serving the daily critics, the sponsors, the sales agents, and that amorphous entity known as “the audience.” And there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a festival. A Competition becomes a kind of “mini-festival” selected by the programmers to guide critics to write their trend pieces, and to appeal to those viewers who would rather not be confronted with the possibility of choice and the probability of originality. Yet the lowest common denominator approach of most Competitions is being noticed by critics who have (a) seen times when being “in Competition” meant something and (b) are daring enough to actually venture towards the good films in the sidebars. In this respect, the behemoth festivals are sowing their own seeds of discontent.


In a context like this, is it at all surprising that one is very rarely surprised in the cinema? Yet there will always be contrarians: “That film is awful,” a certain critic sniffed at Berlin, referring to an entirely harmless, generally well-received prizewinner. “It’s too original.” Shocking comments, indeed, if one considers the overwhelming onslaught of originality experienced in today’s festivals and, consequently, art houses, but this unnamed, hirsute German critic from Köln has a point. In a setting like Sundance or Berlin, originality can be a mug’s game, taking different forms. Three propositions:

1. The bad, possibly evil kind of original, the kind that’s perceived by its creators as aesthetically ground-breaking, and often comes across as little more than cloying, nerve-jarring, look-at-me narcissism. This pejorative sense of originality is exemplified by Bruce MacDonald’s split-screen, jackhammer The Tracey Fragments, which has to be the most feel-bad film ever to open Berlin’s gay-friendly Panorama. A more generous critic might give MacDonald points for trying, because boy, does he try, tossing up multiple frames, more music-video director than Warhol or even, dare I say, Figgis. All I can say is, and remember this zoophiles: HORSES. (Patti Smith will never be the same.) Its Sundance equivalent is the Dramatic Competition entry On the Road with Judas, a messy, needlessly complicated and extremely uninteresting film that intentionally confuses fictional characters with their real-life counterparts (including the film’s writer and director, one JJ Lask, herein adapting his own novel), creating a film that Sundance director Geoffrey Gilmore deemed “the most original storytelling I’ve seen this year.” Well, at the time it was only January.

2. Films that mix genres in surprising and appealing ways. Strange Culture, one of the select films that merited screening at both Sundance (in the Frontier, of course) and Berlin (opening the documentary section of the Panorama), represents Lynn Hershman Leeson’s most watchable and least narcissistic film to date, and comes with a readily provocative subject: how innocent individuals are trapped in the web of terror resulting from the domestic arm of the war on terror. With the aids of indie stalwarts Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan, Strange Culture mixes dramatic reconstructions and testimonials from University of Buffalo professor Steve Kurtz, who was arrested following his wife’s sudden death under suspicion of bioterrorism, when police discovered materials in his house used for an art project on genetically modified food—one type of “strange culture” proposed by the title. The case is still pending trial, so Kurtz is unable to speak about certain issues, thus putting his words in the mouth of an actor (Ryan) is something essential, as opposed to a directorial flourish.

The other strange culture is of course the one that allows such a travesty to happen. The case is as anger inducing as anything Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald could concoct, but the film’s aesthetics enforce the black-and-white issues involved: the interviewees are shot hovering in a dark void and the re-enactments are interspersed with frames from a monochrome comic book, the comic being doubly appropriate as the true-life events are a farce. A seemingly bemused Kurtz, however, takes it all in stride, and even provides a note of humour: as Kurtz and his avatar, Ryan, both admit, the gangly prof bears a physical resemblance to one Steve Buscemi. That Buscemi was not enlisted—and we all know he’ll do anything, adapting a lousy Theo Van Gogh movie included—is more grist for the thought mill.

3. Films that have content that can strike some viewers as unbelievable or off-putting. The plots of both Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters and Maria Speth’s Madonnas (both coproductions, though essentially German) are head-scratching; only the former is based on historical fact, the other psychological postulation. For some reason, this legitimizes the first—the story of a Jewish counterfeiter who manages to survive the Holocaust by helping fund the Nazi war effort by leading a crack squad that manages convincingly to copy American currency (I’m not sure how it ends, but I can guess)— and causes laughter for the second, the story of a barely-out-of-her-teens mother (inhabited by Sandra Hüller) who, despite no inclination for motherhood, keeps procreating. Best count has her at five or six, a number of them with Black American servicemen (at one point the screenplay, which can truly be described as daring, posits that, according to one Army wag, “Germany is a paradise for Black men.”)

Truly distinguishing the two films, however, is a question of style: Speth has one. Though the film is a Dardennes production, Speth’s blocking, framing, and propensity to shoot her characters through glass—a natural outgrowth and real step forward from her graduation film, the Rotterdam Tiger-winner The Days Between (2001), a film where literally nothing happened—is light years from the Dardennes’ handheld aesthetic. And her treatment of the subject matter is nothing like last year’s Sundance entry Sherrybaby, a film that still manages to hold a permanent place in the mind of American film critics, though by all rights it should have been buried the moment it was brought into the world, still-born. With Madonnas, Speth graduates into membership in the New German Cinema club, but amongst the English-speakers, its subject matter was ridiculed and its style never earned a mention. It’s not rocket science to figure out why The Counterfeiters was in Competition, while Madonnas—supposedly rejected for last year’s Cannes in a longer cut—was in the Forum.* [FOOTNOTE – SEE END]

But why, indeed, must originality be praised?  The standouts in the Berlin Competition, Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache and Joseph Cedar’s solid war film Beaufort, delivered the goods, and god bless them. Sundance Midnight entry Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face, the story of a day in the life of a pothead (the criminally underrated Anna Faris), is just like spending a day with a pothead: initially befuddling, intermittently hilarious, and, ultimately, well, you’re glad when it ends. More to the point, two Berlin Forum documentaries essentially present the argument for the familiar and the expected, with the frissons within the films provided by moments of surprise. In this they find common ground with the dominant trend of minimalist narrative cinema, where, if analogized o a car driving along a straight highway, even a small bump can cause a significant jolt to the system.

Heinz Emigholz’s latest entry in the Photography and Beyond series, Schindler’s Houses presents 40 of the Austrian-born architect’s modernist Los Angeles dwellings; as anyone who has seen Emigholz’s films knows, what is described is what you are going to get: Schindler houses, 40 of them. Without a voiceover, with on-site direct sound. But the greatest shock of the Berlinale came with the opening shot of Schindler’s Houses, a typical Los Angeles corner with garish billboards, foliage, a jumble of buildings…and a narrator!! In a faintly German-accented monotone, the narrator announces that somewhere in this shot is a building designed by Rudolph Schindler, and, in this milieu, to talk of authorship would be “criminal.” This is precisely what Emigholz does for the next 40 houses, beginning with Schindler’s own West Hollywood communal dwelling, the Kings’ Road House and proceeding chronologically to the ‘50s.

In Schindler’s Houses, one can argue that Emigholz is working with his best subject matter to date, and he’s taken it into account. As opposed to his last feature-length effort Goff in the Desert (2003), where American Bruce Goff’s ornate, sometimes circular inner spaces cried out for pans, here Emigholz proceeds without camera movement—better to reflect Schindler’s designs. Watching the film is akin to experiencing the sensation of being inside the house, helped by Emigholz’s impeccable eye and camera placement, which dissect the space along straight lines through an oft-canted frame. The houses themselves are modernist works of art, yet a close look reveals many of them to be in states of disrepair, with cracks and water damage (don’t get me started on the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Compton, which is a bit of a cheat anyhow, only being a house of God). These edifices are like nitrate prints slowly dissolving, films that beg for restoration: though Schindler may have accounted for the houses’ immediate environments—Emigholz often films them peeking out from trees or bushes that weren’t as prominent as when the houses were first built—he seems to have underestimated Mother Nature.

As far as surprises go, Emigholz had one more up his sleeve: in the middle of a film which, to that point, has been bursting with traces of humanity but lacking in corporeal presence (save for a woman who crosses the street in the first shot, and whose presence is explicitly mentioned by the one-time-only narrator), Emigholz’s camera enters a house with a very distinctive, and familiar, interior, first manifested by a poster of the Viennale’s retrospective on the Hollywood Ten. Soon enough, the camera reveals none other than Thom Andersen himself typing at his desk, and Schindler’s Houses becomes more than an architecture film, turning into the latest perceptive look at Los Angeles (Andersen’s house, one rightly says, plays itself).

To express admiration for such a work of architectural tourism might strike some readers as willful perversity: the most common criticism of Schindler’s Houses at Berlin was that it amounted to a slide show, a comment that completely ignores the acutely captured soundtrack—including the sounds of silence—plus the perceptible movement within the frame, especially when it comes to the natural surroundings that Schindler carefully considered when deciding where to build his houses. (An astonishing number of Angelenos adorn their porches with wind chimes.) The more willful perverts out there placed their weight behind a much more acceptable hero: Fred Wiseman. Matter-of-factly titled as always (though I suppose it could also have been titled Boring Politicians), State Legislature is a nearly four-hour behind-the-scenes of the Idaho State Legislature over one policy-making semester; it has already been hailed as a masterpiece of unoriginality. In theory—and there are critics who I am sure will argue that Wiseman’s film is about democratic theory—such a topic can be transfixing, but in practice, as any viewer of CSPAN will attest, it can also be painfully tedious. So the theory: yes, democracy is an unshapely, cacophonous mass of differing viewpoints, and, yes, the process of democracy is far more important than the outcome. But isn’t that like showing a film about the building of a house, from the plans on paper, through to the groundbreaking, and the pouring of concrete, without ever actually showing the final product?

Wiseman withholds the political make-up of the legislature, which one might be able to infer by the fact that we’re in Idaho—where crazy women in committee hearings denounce “humanism”—and most of the representatives are white males; the House is composed of 51 Republicans and 19 Democrats, and the Senate is divided 28-7. (I have just provided you with more information about the Idaho state legislature than Wiseman does.) One implication of Wiseman’s typical vérité approach is to barely acknowledge how the legislative’s political make-up impacts decision-making (one assumes that the lobbyists who generate most of the legislation would do the same irrespective of who was in power, but that’s just an assumption). The claim cannot be made, however, that these politicians are boobs: the Speaker of the House exhibits a remarkable mind when it comes to how a bill on water can affect every single county in the state…and what does it say about our attitudes toward contemporary American politics that such a bravura moment comes off as a surprise?

To summarize my speech, Madame Speaker, State Legislature is likely a film that is more valuable to think about than to watch. In a strange move, ARTE France, one of the film’s funders, demanded that a message be read prior to the press screening making note of their disapproval of the film’s exhibited cut. Reasons were not given, but I’m sure it has to do with more than just a nagging desire to see if the Republicans in the Idaho legislature came out in favour of the water bill.

Another way the behemoths have attempted to vary their presentations is by way of the live, very special event that cannot be replicated elsewhere (often due to the cost involved). Presenting Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! with orchestral, foley, and Rossellini voiceover accompaniment at the Deutscher Oper—posters on the U-bahn: this week, Wagner! Next week, Isabella and Guy!—is a double-faced strategy inasmuch as (a) it manages to bring respectability to Maddin while shunting him aside as something less than a regular filmmaker, and (b) it enables the sales agent, Celluloid Dreams, to have a grandiose platform from which to impress buyers. Brand can strike one as original if one hasn’t seen any of Maddin’s recent works, though it’s more accurate to say he’s working in an admixed genre of his own creation. More cynical critics, and there are some, might place his brand of filmmaking in the exclusive camp of “original narcissism,” and I doubt that Maddin would disagree. Its excessively self-conscious narcissism separates Brand from the pack, though it may be Maddin’s unwillingness to ever take himself seriously that continues to find him shunted into sections like the Forum Expanded. Still, where else would he really want to be?

In comparison to this Berlinale spectacle, there was nothing all that original (or expensive) about the Sundance New Frontier presentation, Soapbox Agitation #1: Proving Ground, a scabrous assault on American imperialism inspired by the theoretical writings of Brecht and Lenin that featured Travis Wilkerson speechifying in between rockabilly protest songs as interpreted by “death folk” Los Angeles band Los Duggans. Yet the sheer presence of Wilkerson’s first attempt at performance in a festival that lists virtually all of the US mini-majors as “Sundance Institute Associates” in its trailer is nothing less than astonishing. Did anyone actually vet this thing? Probably not, as Wilkerson mentioned he wasn’t even given a filmmaker’s pass to get him into screenings. This is also a by-product of divesting oneself from a festival’s initial purpose: when so much is going on, good things fall through the cracks.

In its immediate context, Soapbox Agitation became a Marxist response to the State of the Union address, delivered by the President the night before. Just like Bush’s speech—though I’m sure Wilkerson would balk, and for good reason—once you’ve seen five minutes, you’ve seen about all the “variation” that is required; as is their wont, the protest songs all sound relatively the same (the standout being a rather raucous version of “Which Side Are You On”). The rest more or less repeats, but accrues, progressing forward historically like a steamroller over the injustices perpetrated by American imperialism over the second half of the 20th century (peaking with a shout-out to all the countries the US has bombed since WWII). The images also regurgitate, with bombing runs ad nauseum—but the gorgeous, horrific image of a mushroom cloud never gets stale.  The “cinematic” was very much present in this low-ceilinged, Sony-sponsored dungeon, as Wilkerson et al transported the audience to another time, when radicalism existed as a legitimate artistic form (call it the ‘60s if you want to), and another place, certainly one where the sponsor logos and the bad art dissolved into nothingness. It is an example of what social art can do, and will still be able to do even when you can download all the films you want without leaving your couch: incite armed rebellion.


*Another more dubious example of this comes with—and this is the last time I will write this title, which I am intentionally relegating to a footnote—the Berlinale Competition entry Irina Palm, which features a seemingly sedated Marianne Faithfull as a hand-job granny with “penis elbow” giving it her all to raise enough money to send her ill grandson to Australia for an experimental treatment. Much to all the Anglophones’ astonishment, the Berlinale Palast screening was met with a near-rapturous reception, causing the Variety reviewer to postulate that boffo b.o. might ensue on the continent.

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