To the End of April

April 21, 2012

Great to see so many people enjoyed my RPIG/Solmukohta report (at least relative to my usual traffic).

I take this as a cue to resume blogging for a while, with somewhat shorter entries.

This semester I have presented on 3 diverse topics at 3 very different academic conferences. According to my CV, they were:

• “Adventures in Stagnation: Gottfried Kolditz’s Unfilmed DEFA Project Zimtpiraten (1984)” At: Northeast Modern Language Association Conference 2012. Rochester, NY, March 15-18, 2012.

• “DEFA and the Third World: A Taxonomy of Transnationalisms” At: Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2012. Boston, MA, March 21-25, 2012.

• “Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop Role-Playing Game Combat.” At: Role-Playing in Games Seminar. Tampere, Finland, April 10-11, 2012.

So, East German pirates, transnational film theory as applied to East German films regarding the Third World, and how tabletop role-playing combat frames time and bodies. I’ll leave all that to the reader for digestion.

Writing projects dominating the rest of my schedule until the end of April include:

1. My final dissertation chapter: Dyer on DEFA: White Labor Power in East German Musicals

…in which I argue for a critical race theory that can address the appropriations made by sorta-well-meaning East German musicals — particularly Revue um Mitternacht (1962, above) and Meine Frau macht Musik (1958). Some use blackface, exoticized revue sequences and the juxtaposition of free jazz as an East German progressive phenomenon (really?) vs. the oppressive big band revue music of the evil capitalists of yesteryear. A confusing hodge-podge to unpack to say the least. Oh, and I use Richard Dyer’s theories a lot.

2. The finished article on DEFA made-for-TV pirate films that I presented in embryonic form at NeMLA. It’s about DEFA’s willingness to adopt new genres and ideologically suspect material in order to compete for increasingly scarce East German TV eyeballs. Gojko Mitic makes one swarthy pirate.

3. A co-authored article with my advisor Barton Byg on film education in Germany: Divided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. We are presenting this work in Hong Kong in May and I am otherwise plowing through catalogs of student films, statements and charters inaugurating film schools and other items to get a sense of how German film education fits into larger pictures of German education across the Bundesländer.

Many interesting questions buzzing about me on my laptop, and so little time until the end of the semester to answer them. Here’s to a successful end-of-April push!

MLA

January 3, 2012

Soon I will be boarding a plane for Seattle, and the 2012 meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Unlike Ulrike Ottinger’s film Ticket of No Return / Bildnis einer Trinkerin (pictured above), however, I will eventually return.

Those of you who know the academic job search will also know more or less what my MLA experience will be like: a professional conference where the interviews for tenure-track and (increasingly) non-tenure-track jobs take place.  Where the weight of individuals and institutions in the humanities is hefted, tested, critiqued and measured. As opposed to my regular haunts, the German Studies Association conference, Film and History, or the Northeast Modern Language Association conference, the MLA is supposed to be a fairly stiff-necked affair.  Faculty have confided in me about it being a kind of “meat market” or a “desperate” place.  One need only look at the various paltry statistics about employment in the academic humanities in this country since the 1970s to know this (and I have deliberately refrained from linking to said statistics, dear reader, to keep your optimism intact).

That being said, the only way out of the abyss is straight through it. That has been my dissertation solution and, as I seek new scholarly venues beyond my dissertation, a way out of the familiar.

2012 is a time for change, whether it stems from the movements of the masses or the movements within ourselves.

 

Dear Family, Friends, Colleagues and Other People Who Might Know Me or (Because It’s the Internet) Don’t,

I thought I’d type up a quick summary of what’s going on with me this fall of 2011.

While economic institutions lurch around their avaricious withdrawal of all capital from 98% of the world’s population, poor/plucky little me is heading out onto the German/film job market.  This was something I knew since the spring, but the visceral fact of the matter hit home over the weekend at the German Studies Association 2011 conference in Louisville, KY.  Yes, there are jobs.  Yes, there will be fierce competition among colleagues for them. Yes, I stand a chance at maybe getting one.

That being said, I’ve found myself involved with too many projects and loose ends to wrap up as I turn my attention to the timely completion of my long-overdue dissertation and the endless writing of cover letters, solicitation of information, etc.  In response, Kat and I have formed a solidarity pact to keep the various other forces at bay.

So what does this mean?

If you are involved on a project with me, I will endeavor to keep my deadlines, side of the bargain, etc.  If you are my friend, I will attempt to keep appointments to see you.  But if it seems like I’m a little spacy, punch-drunk, disorganized or whatever, please keep in mind that I’m now engaged in an existential proxy battle for my future while trying to keep all these commitments.

Thanks for your understanding!

-Evan

(The Guy in the Black Hat)

Earl-y

September 5, 2010

Reality

All the graduate students are settling in.  Now comes the swarm of undergrads. Assorted departmental events require my attentions.  Fortunately, I enjoy being back in the swing of things.

Writing projects are swarming around me.  I am finishing up an essay on the Fantastic in German cinema for the World Cinema Directory, an article for the Knutpunkt 2011 publication on film documentation about LARP, transcriptions of interviews for a colleague (they’re almost done, Jon!), an article about asexuality in Alan Moore film adaptations and a presentation about Gojko Mitic for the 2010 GSA in Oakland, which I am visiting in a month.  Still committing several hours to dissertation reading/research a day, as well.

Our role-playing life also looks quite fruitful this fall.  We are planning on playing a weekly swashbuckling game (system undecided: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, Lady Blackbird and Swords without Master are all tantalizing possibilities.) Then we just received offers to play Apocalypse World, as well as a Smallville game hack based on The Lost Years of Merlin, and there are several game days in our future for September and October. Great to have a torrent of RPG opportunities after the drought of Berlin!

Speaking of torrents, apparently Hurricane Earl lost its steam as it swarmed up the coast, though some places got hit a little.

Fantasy

Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, USA, 2009)

I knew nothing about this film before I saw it, but Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen (2009) – a great multicultural farce – was sold out just when we arrived, so in we went.  A ballet film about the life of a Chinese ballet dancer who manages to make it to capitalist America during the 1980s to become a star.  I was struck by how much the film directly references The 36th Chamber of the Shao-Lin (1978) during his boyhood training montage, and how the musical score articulates redundant emotional cues in the fashion of a melodrama.  This would have been a fantastic made-for-TV movie, but on the big screen it was slightly silly.  Nevertheless, the revolution-kitsch sequence where all the ballet dancers are given guns and are marching off toward the communist future was worth the ticket.

Firefly (Episodes “Trash” and “Shindig”, 2002)

I have noticed in re-watching old Firefly episodes that the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere from the show stems not only from the snappy dialog, “aw shucks” guitar-twangy soundtrack, or absurd plot pickles, but from the characters’ eyebrows.  That’s right – situations tend to revolve around an interplay between some scenic element and the raising and lowering of a prominently placed character eyebrow.  Let’s look at some examples:

The episode “Trash” opens with Captain Mal sitting in a desert, naked. A close-up of his face has him raise his eyebrow prominently in the sunlight before sardonically stating: “Well, that went well.”  The eyebrow raise heightens the contrast already posed by his statement and his situation.

Flashback to earlier: Mal meets up with an old friend. The man’s moustache is huge, but the eyebrows are what make him sympathetic and avuncular, rather than merely sketchy.  We trust him on behalf of his eyebrows, which he uses most expressively.

Here’s Mal’s eyebrow raise expressing extreme skepticism toward a proposal.  Yes, we as the viewers would turn that crazy offer down, too:  eyebrow raising as a means of building sympathies with characters’ worldviews.

Inara’s eyebrows are clearly the most impressive in the show, and are the primary reason for our attraction to her – the way they help frame her eyes, along with her long black hair.  Expressions of mystery, tranquility and innocence – the eyebrows of a domesticated vamp.

Kaylee has a great idea. And how do we know it’s great? By raising her eyebrows during a moment of creativity and confidence. Eyebrows as indicators of inspiration and “thinking outside the box,” perhaps of thought itself.

Here’s a good example of eyebrows as a suspense mechanism: Wash the pilot tries to keep his ship steady by raising it and lowering it, just as his eyebrows similarly raise and lower.  Eyebrows can function as a suspense mechanism, building inherent tension through the uncertainty of their fluttering.

Last, but not least, Jayne is immobilized on an operating table.  Only his face can move, exaggerating the series’ idiomatic reliance on facial cues for humor to the point of near-absurdity.  Jayne is imprisoned in his facial gesticulations, demonstrating them to be useless in persuading others’ of his point of view.  The scene re-affirms the eyebrow as humor mechanism while self-reflexively pointing out its inability to have a lasting impact on reality, unlike the eyebrow twitches found throughout the rest of the show.

Now I could be reading too much into eyebrow characteristics found in all television, but this episode somehow illustrated them most effectively.

SoulCalibur (Namco, 1999)

After firing up my Dreamcast from a year-long hiatus, I revisited an old classic: SoulCalibur, one of the best games for the console and prettiest fighting games ever made.  In light of present-day CG technologies, the game’s look stands up to the test of time.  Hues and contrast in the background still remind me of 19th Century landscape paintings, and the fight choreography still draws me in to emulate it.  Cursory research revealed that the game’s success as a fighting title (in contrast with Tekken and VirtuaFighter) can be owed to something called “lenient buffering,” which allows for easier execution of complicated moves to both beginners and experts alike.  This flexible valence on the learning-curve makes it a remarkably egalitarian game, as button-mashers can still take on pros (especially with Siegfried or Misturugi), whilst the latter can always find new combinations of attacks and defenses for certain scenarios.  Later versions of the game diminished this balance by adding too many chain combinations, juggling maneuvers and gimmicks in general to the mix, which makes it a slighly nicer looking version of most other fighting games.  In the meantime, I enjoy the lenient buffering of the original.

An Exit

July 13, 2010

Or maybe it’s more like a transition.

A new entry point.

I have spent 10 months in a metropolis filled with the young, the internationally minded, the aging and the stolid.

As with the 1985 GDR children’s magazine cover to the right, the young and old mix their musical expression to form a cacophonic unity.

(With tanks in the background, of course.)

My writing and interests have drifted from a sardonic, socially critical look at the genre films from a period in which East German cinema ebbed to a invigorating interest in transnational film production, role-playing games as objects of serious academic study, film philosophy and the interplay of emotion/affect within all media objects.

There is much work to be done, and my dissertation besides.

As I sit back and reflect, however, it occurs to me that none of this year abroad would have really worked out had I not had the generous support of so many wonderful people.

Of Peggy, whose well-equipped rented apartment served as the perfect nexus with which to explore Berlin.

Of Luisa and Ming, who quickly befriended me, introduced me to their group of crazy artist friends (as well as their substantial John Ford/Jean-Marie Straub collection) and hospitably organized a spectacular film series.

Of Kira, who was there to talk shop, gossip, commiserate and drink copious amounts of coffee at all the right times with Kat and me.

Of Hilary, who steadfastly organized get-togethers, provided me with delicious food and played a mean game of Jenga.

Of Irene B., who revealed all the best cafés in Prague.

Of Jan E., whose film The Court of Shards provoked long discussions about the nature of filmmaking today and everything else.

Of Jan F., whose mixture of deadpan honesty and strange humor rivals my own.

Of Jon R., who provided me a copy of his invaluable Norwegian dissertation, several interviews and his generous academic support.  I owe him big time and hope to collaborate with him on future DEFA projects.

Of Amber and Simon, who opened up their charming flat in London to Kat and me, sipping tea and taking us on memorable adventures.  Even when they led to neither film nor karaoke. 😉

Of Matt, Melissa, Becka, David and Irene J., dearest friends and relatives that actually made the temporal/financial/corporeal commitment to visit us here in Berlin.

Of Julia and Chris, who visited us too, albeit via an awesome convention in Denmark.  That was a weekend, if there ever was one.

Of Emily, who networked us into having that weekend.

Of Juliette, Barton, Sarah, and Sky, all of whom academic acquaintances who made an effort to see us while on very busy schedules.

Of Susan, Jon, and Jonathan, my solid UMass support crew who helped me get the scholarship for next year.

Of Jason, Kyle, and Diane, who kept me posted on news from home.

Of Stefan K., Gojko, Otto, Erich, Rainer and Uwe, filmmakers who opened up their wealth of knowledge to me without asking for more than a kind word.

Of Markus, with whom I hope to work on future projects related to intersecting interests between gaming and my academic work.

Of Frederik J., who modestly organized an impeccable Fastaval experience for us fish-out-of-water Americans and went out of his way to make us feel at home.

Of Olle, a tinkerer and a mad poet, if there ever was one.

Of Nathan, Kaiser of the LARP world.

Of Tobias W., who sent me that .pdf file. Now I am disturbed.

Of Florian L., who tolerated my tardiness with my article and who has megalomaniacal visions for re-interpreting the world.

Of Henning, who dropped me a line and a short, fun-to-write article opportunity.

Of Andy R., who is a great ally in the bizarre academic game that is Film Studies.

Of Frau Goethe and Frau Scholz, without whom no useful archival research would have happened.

Of Tobias E., who defended a convincing dissertation primarily via a series of well-placed images and otherwise proved the friendly scholar around the HFF.

Of Michael W., a sage of Film Studies and a thankfully very patient man.

Of Tag, the other sage I got to know, who has opened up his vast collection of films to my perusal.

Of Florian G., who loved to quatsch with me about a certain director-producer. Maybe we’ll have a Boll marathon via Skype…

Of Christina and Andy M., for administrating an excellent sehsüchte 2010 festival.

Of Franzi K. and Franzi R., whose careers I (hope) helped push along, both possessing energetic personalities that inspire.

Of Paula, Anne, Philip and Manuel, for their company in the Berlinale ticket line.

Of the first-year Studiengang in the Medienwissenschaft department at the HFF, meaning Lukas, Lisa, Lea, Franzi D., Sarah, Anna S., Anna J., Hella, Hauke, Eric and Esther, who put up with my droning points in class and accepted an outsider as one of their own.

Of Fulbright, who funded the darn thing.

Of my parents and siblings, who sent me invaluable news/packages/love from the States and the whole nine yards.

And of Kat, who made every meal, trip, lazy day, wild adventure, nap and movie-viewing session pleasant and desirable.  I can’t wait to see her again tomorrow!

More candid, I cannot be.

You’ve all been part of the story.

Vielen, vielen Dank!

Summer in Berlin

June 11, 2010

Reality

(WordPress told me I should include more images to attract people to the blog.  Since I have no ambition to get a digital camera or draw anything myself, I am content to assembling abstruse images from fragments on my hard-drive.  Some call me strange… but now you’ve seen the creepy smile.)

Well, the one thing being abroad in Berlin-Potsdam has taught me is that I don’t really like to blog, but that I really like short academic projects.  Over the past several weeks, I have written a 1,500 overview of the German adventure film for the World Cinema Directory, a short entry on the Jugendzeitschrift (youth magazine) in the 1950s for Henning Wrage’s 2011 post-war Germany publication and a finished draft of my article on Uwe Boll appearing in the next issue of kunsttexte.de.  In addition, I have drafted new material for Mist-Robed Gate, as I’ve been promoted to co-author.  Other than that, I have been steadily gathering material for my dissertation, publications in the fall, and for other assorted projects.

Three interesting things that have happened over the last 6 weeks to whet your curiosity:

* An Italian sitting across from me in the S-Bahn mentioned it was a sunny day and then broke into a three-minute full-body aria for my pleasure.  Everyone applauded.

* I attended the Kreuzberg Freiluft Kino for the Eurovision contest and watched Lena Meyer-Landrut win for the first time for Germany since 1982.  Never have I seen such an “ironic” crowd switch over to sincerity once it seemed like their favorite was to win.

* I met Tag Gallagher, the world’s John Ford expert and was given a dressing down about how Straub/Huillet films are actually meant to excite one’s emotions…

Fantasy

(Here are two from many I’ve enjoyed)

The Twilight Samurai (dir. Yoji Yamada, Japan 2002)

A marvelous movie – materialist and elegiac at the same time.  A destitute samurai rises to one last mission before modernity overtakes him.  It feels like a Jane Austen novel set in mid-19th Century Japan, which is more than a compliment.

Soul Kitchen (dir. Fatih Akin, Germany 2009)

While on the topic of good writing, I recommend Soul Kitchen to any who want to see a tightly scripted comedy with none of the false turns that lead most Hollywood films astray.  Done in the proper farce tradition of Billy Wilder, Soul Kitchen tells the story of a Greek owner of a restaurant in Hamburg and his clashes with his own life.  I haven’t laughed that hard in a while!

RealityGojko Mitic

This week has been structured by two parallel visits with DEFA personalities involved in the creation of the studio’s genre films, namely:  star Gojko Mitic (pictured at right) and cinematographer Otto Hanisch.

On Tuesday March 2, I attended Mitic’s reading/q&a at the Urania cinema near Nollendorfplatz.  The event was in part blatant advertising for the recent DEFA-Stiftung fan book Gesichter der DEFA, and in part a kind of nostalgic service (in the religious sense) for the fans.  I was easily the youngest person in the theater, for example, whereas most of the people present were likely from the target demographic of Mitic’s Indianerfilme in the 1960s and 70s: GDR children aged 6-16.

The Serbian star narrated his life for the audience, repeating interview material from the newspapers with almost knife-like precision.  The man is a true professional.  Nevertheless, the legend proved moving:  the moderator confessed that he always wanted to become an Indian while he was growing up (whereas Mitic always wanted to be a sea captain) and Mitic claimed that he always stayed in the GDR out of the tremendous love his fans expressed for him.  He continuously returned to the kind of “spiritual socialism” (socialist spiritualism?) expressed in his films, namely utopian thoughts of correcting injustice around the world through culture and combating the greed of capitalism by re-writing history.  But the audience was truly moved.  Mitic’s speeches were greeted by spontaneous applause, approving laughter and enthusiastic questions.  After the lecture was over, the 70-year old actor was mobbed by 40 and 50 year-olds for autographs.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Mitic was perhaps the GDR’s only real star after all.

On Thursday, screenwriter Stefan Kolditz (Atkins, Burning Life) was so generous as to bring me to the Berlin apt. of Otto Hanisch, his father’s top cameraman.  I had done my homework for the interview, so I knew that Hanisch was a WWII veteran who had survived a sinking submarine and had spent three years in Soviet gulags, before becoming a painter and a cinematographer under the GDR’s genre film directors.  I knew he had apprenticed under UFA legends Bruno Mondi (Jud Süß, Das kalte Herz) and Robert Baberske (M, Der Untertan), and had to improvise a great deal to get the DEFA-Indianerfilm to “work” filmically in comparison with international westerns in the 60s.  Frankly, I had no idea what he would be like.

It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon.  Hanisch and his wife warmly greeted us and invited us to coffee and cake.  “What do you want to talk about?” Hanisch asked me.  I explained my interest in DEFA genre films and broke out the digital recorder.  “Put that away,” he said. “And I’ll show you all my production materials for Spur des Falken and Signale.”  Well, I couldn’t pass that deal up, so for the next 3 hours we pored over photos of stuntmen falling off horses and talked about his difficulties in getting the DEFA Indianerfilm genre off the ground, etc.  Hanisch openly bore great respect for Gottfried Kolditz (okay, his son was present, but still…), always referring to him as “The Doctor,” and they clearly saw themselves as “Fachmänner” of a sort — expertly trained filmmakers who overcame grave difficulties to create some of the most popular genre entertainment in the GDR, despite little recognition for their work from the government.  He complained of the “thin” scripts he received from Dr. Günter Karl, that they then had to convert into compelling stories on a limited budget.  He detailed production difficulties in Georgia and Mongolia, but reminded us constantly that his encounters with film professionals from those countries were always cordial.  “We all spoke the same language: film.” he remarked.  Only interactions with politics and political ramifications in the Cold War seemed in hindsight to be challenges he could’ve done without.  “But then at least we got to make films,” he said.  “Not like today where it’s very difficult to get work outside of specific networks.”  His point is well-taken, especially with what my colleagues at the HFF have said to this effect.

Both Mitic and Hanisch were seen as true experts at what they did, existing in some sphere outside of politics where all that matters is stunts performed and stunts recorded.  Is the “stunt” necessarily an apolitical act?  I’ll have to muse on this.

Fantasy

Chingachgook, the Great Snake (dir. Richard Groschopp, 1967)

The Last of the Mohicans, except with a happy socialist ending.

President (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1919)

A masterpiece of silent storytelling by Dreyer, following many of his usual motifs, namely  persecution, guilt, and religion.  A local judge seeks to do penitence for not marrying his childhood love because he promised his father he would not wed out of the nobility.  Even though the improvised piano soundtrack was lacking this time around, there is little damage it could do to a gorgeous print of a compelling film.

The Scout (dir. Konrad Petzold, 1983)

Ever wanted to see a movie about Native American cowboys?  Gojko Mitic plays one here: a Nez Perce sent to lead the white men and their horses astray.  Shot in Mongolia, this was the film that nearly killed Gojko in a stampede and only made after its original director Gottfried Kolditz died while location scouting in Yugoslavia.  No wonder this was the last DEFA Indianerfilm.

Come Drink with Me (dir. King Hu, 1966)

One of the early, pre-Bruce Lee kung fu films that left their mark on action-film posterity.  A general’s daughter is sent disguised as a man to rescue her brother from evil bandits, only to be helped by a beggar-kung-fu-master along the way.  The constellation of characters and narrative are simple, but effective.

Yes, I Am Busy

December 6, 2009

Reality

I figured a blog after a month was sufficient suspense for the world.  Summarized below are some of my experiences, assembled from the hazy recesses of my memory.

November 9, 2009: The 20th anniversary of socialism’s unexpected collapse saw Kat and I standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the rainy cold from about 5:30 p.m. until about 9:30 p.m., during which time most of what we could see was umbrellas.  Much of the crowd consisted of slightly drunk tourists. The orchestra played a handful of depressing modernist tunes and then the Berliner Luft song, which some people really liked. Then all the world leaders got up and gave trite speeches that amounted to more-or-less the same thing. Lech Walesa got up and struck down part of the “domino wall” they built, but got injured a split second later.  By that point, Kat was wet and freezing, so we tried to go home – to no avail! They had blocked off our subway exit, and they had barricades on every street.  Freedom without walls, my behind!  So we carefully wound our way to Friedrichstrasse to take the S-Bahn home.  The next day, I asked the Berliners at my school what their evening was like: they stayed at home and watched the events on television.

Far less mediocre was the retreat for the HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg retreat to Eberswalde.  The purpose of the retreat was ostensibly to party hard and plan sehsüchte, our student film festival in Potsdam-Babelsberg and the largest of its kind in Europe.  Needless to say, I think we did more of the former than the latter, which gave me a serious headache complex on Saturday.  Despite the aching pains from between my ears, I managed to see the absolutely stunning Brandenburg countryside, which reminded of me of Adventures of Werner Holt or I Was 19 (always DEFA films with me).

The following Friday, our sehsüchte team met at the Kino Arsenal for four hours with, oh, none other than the top figures of the Berlinale.  This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity for me, so I feel like a thorough description is in order.  We first spoke with Dieter Kosslick, director of the entire festival, about financing the Berlinale via the KVB (Kulturveranstaltung des Bundes Berlin) and how one must maintain financial control to survive as an institution.  He then described the Berlinale under Moritz de Hadeln (1980-2001) as organized like a “Stalinist hierarchy” (ouch!) and bid that we spread responsibility for our festival evenly amongst ourselves.  Some fun facts about the Berlinale I learned:  from about 5,700 films submitted, only 350 are accepted for the festival (and the submission fee is non-refundable, naturally); no films between 30 and 60 minutes in length are eligible; there are over 800 official festival guests, but 21,000 accreditations given out … including those for over 4,000 journalists; the Berlinale will be converting to a full HD festival, meaning everything will be projected within 3-4 years as JPEG2000.  Then we spoke with Thomas Hailer (Program Manager), Karin Hoffinger (Program/International Relations), André Stever (Film Materials), Maryanne Redpath (Generation – kids program), Christina Szápáry (Event Management), Susanne Willadt (Accreditation) and Frauke Greiner (Press), all one after the other and regarding what their job looks like, etc.  The chief concern that they seem to have in dealing with the Hollywood majors – but also independents – these days is with piracy, namely that the festival screening copy doesn’t fall onto the Internet somehow.  These days, they have orange, satellite-controlled hard-drives that control when movies can be projected from the data held within.  Crazy stuff.

From the Berlinale meeting, I ran over to Kino Babylon on Rosa Luxembourg Platz to attend the DEFA-Stiftung Award Ceremony as the representative of the DEFA Film Library.  There, I saw everybody from the Who’s Who of GDR cinema there – Erika Richter, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Andreas Voigt, Ralf Schenk – the list just keeps going.  The awards ceremony itself was rather dry – though the great German-language film journal Revolver deservedly won an award – but included a never-before-seen hilarious short about robbers breaking into a symphony orchestra house using the timing of the music being played in the hall itself.  Afterward, I got a chance to have a long conversation with Stefan Kolditz about his father Gottfried, and other topics, and then hit an excellent Vietnamese restaurant down the street with Kat.

On Saturday morning (11/21), we had brunch in Prenzlauer Berg with screenplay author Katharina Reschke and her partner Oliver Schuette, both of whom taught at Grinnell College for a stint.  The weather was so nice that the whole population of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be outside to enjoy the sun.  Then we followed the brunch with preparations for a dinner with Luisa Greenfield and Ming Tsao, which was both tasty and highly polemic.

The following Tuesday was the release party of HFF teaching assistant Tobias Ebbrecht’s book DDR erinnern – vergessen.  Okay, so it wasn’t so much a party as it was a roundtable discussion between Tobias, Ralf Forster, Peter Badel and Helke Misselwitz about making documentaries in the GDR.  I think the takeaway points were that they missed the kind of cohesive teamwork one found in film production under socialism, and that whatever anyone says about their work, they made films and those films are well-archived for future generations.

That Wednesday night, Moderat (Modeselektor + Apparat + Pfadfinderei) were throwing their last concert ever in the Astra Kulturhaus in Berlin … and I had to go!  I managed to get my ticket at a discount thanks to some generous scalpers, and then joined the 2,000+ throng of excited Berliners willing to sweat their way through the evening.  What a concert too – they played three encores, even though they’d run out of material!

On Saturday, the Medienwissenschaft students and I were charged with the interesting task of standing by the 3D cinema in the Zoo Palast and ask the incoming patrons why they chose to pay more for the 3D version of A Christmas Carol than simply see the 2D version.  Confronting random Germans with a questionnaire as a foreigner was certainly awkward, but somehow enjoyable.

For Thanksgiving, Kat and I actually decided to take the night off from cooking (which we do with great frequency) and went to the Ypsilon, a Greek restaurant around the corner.  We had fried cheese and mussels to our heart’s content, and it was a lovely time overall.  On Black Friday, we headed to Ming and Luisa’s for a film night – Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1980) and Jean-Luc Godard’s France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) – about children.  It seemed appropriate to depart said film screening and head to the 80s Night/Terror wave Party held near Jannowitz Brücke.  Awesome music (Soft Cell, New Order and all those folks) swept us away, though we were rather impressed by the fact that Germans tend to dance as if they were in their own isolated bubble/little world… as opposed to the American “bump n’ grind” style that plagues us all.

To counteract the Goth and Terror of the previous evening, we attended the Thanksgiving at the American Church in Berlin.  Even if given the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t.  The event was logistically poorly organized (over 1.5 hours waited to get our food… and they ran out of many things), expensive and not at all filled with English-speakers, as it turned out.  The weekend was much improved by a visit to the Jewish Museum the following day:  the exhibits were extensively researched and completely fascinating in every way.  One might say that the architecture of the building itself speaks volumes.

I saw Volker Koepp, another DEFA documentarist, at a Humboldt University talk.  Students tried to tell him his films were obscure and needed to be better advertised, to which he responded that he was both a prolific and internationally recognized filmmaker.  It made all the work on his and others’ behalf at the DEFA Film Library seem worth it right there and then.

One side effect of the awful Thanksgiving was that it alerted us to a FREE opportunity to see the inside of the Berliner Dom:  an English/German Christmas service, complete with singing.  The Berliner Dom is certainly a monument to Protestantism if I’d ever seen one, with statues of Protestant resisters such as Luther looking patriarchally down upon the parishioners.

My first visit to the Filmmuseum Potsdam Sammlungen department yielded a wealth of information on Gottfried Kolditz – so much that I had to make another trip there the following week.  Creepily enough, I think I read his last diary entry before he died, and he died a few months before I was born. Hm?

The Berliner Staatsoper became an agenda item, so we found ourselves watching a thoroughly modern performance of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus from the 4th row after paying very little.  I was glad for this fact, because I felt like the modern staging screwed with the fantasy elements inherent in the masquerade ball, though I liked (as always) the jail guard Frosch in the third Act, especially as a former GDR flunkie.

That Friday night saw Kat and I attending the weekly shindig held at the Another Country bookstore in Kreuzberg, an English-language bookstore known by every English-speaking expatriate in the city.  We spent an embarrassingly long time glued to the projector screen, watching the second season of The Restaurant, a “coaching” genre reality show from the UK where Raymond Blanc and other judges evaluate pairs of amateur restauranteurs making a go of it.  Beautifully shot and definitely intended for foodies, there were enough characters to sustain long-term interest.

And this week it rained a lot, we held a baking party on Thursday, and Kat and I ordered our tickets to go to Prague for Christmas.

Summary finished, folks.  Was it digestible?  Can I be “digested?”  Yum!

Fantasy

Let me preface this by saying I’ve seen far more movies than this over the past month, but too many titles are swirling around in my head to thoroughly document it in this forum.  THIS is a small selection of some notables:

Dreams that Money Can Buy (dir. Hans Richter, USA 1948)

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Ferdinand Léger, Hans Richter … the great modernists of the early 20th Century went ahead and made a film.  A work of surrealism that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, Dreams that Money Can Buy is about a guy who can sell people dreams out of this dark apartment.  Hilarity and trippy sequences ensue.

Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, China 2009)

The best film of the year, hands-down.  A condensed 138 minute version of the four-hour epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms literature, Red Cliff is (despite any cuts) John Woo’s finest cinematic achievement.  Ask me more and I’ll tell you.

Wedding Boxes and Bauhaus

October 1, 2009

Reality

Before I dive into any more long-winded exegesis, here are a few more fun things I’ve observed over the past few days (in digestible bullet point form!):

• Many of the musicians who play in the subway cars for money rely on some sort of pre-recorded musical back-up these days.  Case in point:  a violinist who wore a backpack with a giant hole where the speaker poked out.

• Americans are treated far better by Germans now that Obama is president.  No B.S.

• If an American walks into a German Starbucks, they put on some hits from back home… from about 2-3 years ago.  But most Germans don’t go to Starbucks because it’s too expensive and the coffee’s not that great.

• If you’re in you’re a male teenager, it’s your God-given right, even duty, to horse around dangerously close to the edge of the S-Bahn tracks.  Just observing.

I took several important steps within the past several days that make me feel more like a real citizen of Berlin rather than some weirdo pretender (though I am admittedly a weirdo).  One was to get a library account – took 3 minutes and was totally painless except for the 25 euros I shelled out for the year…  The second was to actually think about the menu for the week, make a list, and go grocery shopping at the Turkish open-air market on Großgörschenstrasse, Lidl and Netto for the things I will need to eat later on.  I will be baking myself a cake on Friday, because it happens to be my birthday, and I can’t get good donuts here.  The third was to have my semester ticket start, which means I can use the buses, S-Bahn and subway as much as I want without having to continuously count up the change in my pocket or put it on my bank card.  What a relief to be able to decide to go somewhere and not have to debate with my sore-ass legs about whether it was really within walking distance from my apartment!  Borrowing books, finding some order in one’s eating habits, and being pre-paid to travel around on a whim – I guess that’s citizenship to me, no thanks to the Ausländerbehörde!

Fulbrighter and filmmaker Luisa Greenfield was to join me at the Berlin screening of Ulrike Ottinger’s The Korean Wedding Chest at the Akademie der Künste am Hanseatenweg last night, so I showed up unreasonably early (as is my wont) and plopped down in front of the theater.  An older couple sat near me and smiled at me, which of course prompted a conversation about who I was, etc.  Then after the man had left to get her a tea, the woman asked me if, as a German film scholar, I knew a director named Hans Jürgen Pohland.  It turns out I did:  he made the jazz drummer semi-documentary/feature film Tobby (1961), which I watched in order to be remotely informed about a paper on a panel I chaired earlier this year.  Anyway, she revealed that her husband, Siegfried Hofbauer, wrote the screenplay that Pohland barely used anyway.  Hofbauer then went on to work as a production designer on Volker Schlöndorff’s Academy-Award winning The Tin Drum (1979) and still worked as a jazz musician and painter in Berlin.  I thought it was amazing that I was one of the few people from the U.S. who’d likely seen the film and was sitting across from its screenwriter!  So he came back with the tea and we talked film for awhile, particularly about how Tobby (the drummer) then got into some major-league drugs and the film was likely the high point of his career.  Then Luisa showed up and we talked more film before, during and after the screening.  Ottinger’s comments about her own film were incredibly insightful, and I’m now determined to see that which I haven’t seen of her oeuvre.  She’s way better than Herzog, and for good reason:  she took courses from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, Louis “I Accidentally Strangled My Wife” Althusser, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Her films are symbolically anthropological, for lack of a better description.  More below.

Anne Hector and I met up the next morning to go to the big Bauhaus exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which was jam-packed with tourists of all ages.  Squeezing through loud tourist groups while trying not to knock over valuable pieces of early 20th Century art, Anne and I managed to have a good time looking at some of the original Walter Gropius pieces as well as Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer and the rest of the Bauhaus scene.  I’m convinced I would’ve either gotten along great at the Bauhaus academies, or I would’ve hated it the first day and thrown a fuzzy amorphous shape at their form/color studies!  My trail then led me once again to the HFF, because it was October 1st.  Why October 1st, you ask?  Well, I’ve decided in October – December to devote each month to a particular genre I’m researching for my dissertation:  October’s for westerns, November’s for science fiction, December’s for musicals (since, heck, it’s Christmas Time!).  So I easily picked up several western DVDs to take home and watch, surprised at how little of a hassle it was to do so.  I think I’m going to like it at my host institution; it seems designed around film geeks.

Fantasy

The Korean Wedding Chest (dir. Ulrike Ottinger, Germany 2009)

Ottinger’s previous films, particularly Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia and her China series, explore encounters between our so-called “modern” world and more traditional ways of life.  Her latest film (NOT her upcoming vampire comedy with Elfriede Jelinek Die Blutgräfin (2010)) does exactly that:  nestled in the mega-city of Seoul lies a wedding industry so seemingly “traditional” it boggles the mind.  Seoul quite literally opened itself up to her so she could document one family’s journey through the engagement process to the wedding.  As one would expect, there’s a lot of coaching by women who work in bridal shops, who seem to be the real keepers of this tradition.  A married man myself, I asked myself where Kat and I might’ve gotten the money together to have even a remotely “Korean” wedding (actually, I also cried part way through because of recollections of our own wedding — I’m presently a lonely husband waiting until the end of the month…)  No answers present themselves:  these events offer none of the flexible glamour of the American wedding.  Like any wedding, all of what transpires is carefully scripted to pull off exactly the right photo/video documentation of the event.  That being said, Ottinger’s film succeeds in defying this convention and instead showing all the human bits of imperfection at the seams of these highly traditional, scripted affairs.  You should see it for the colors alone.

White Wolves (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1969)

A proper Gojko Mitic Indianerfilm, White Wolves is a fantastic mess of celluloid best watched by either a crowd of very cynical people or 5 year-olds.  Here’s the plot:  the Dakotas have been driven from their lands by General Mining Industries run by the evil capitalist Mr. Harrington.  Harrington’s so evil that he hires bandits to steal his own money from himself so he doesn’t have to pay his miners, and then continuously blames the attacks on the renegade Dakotas.  Mitic’s happy Dakota wife is, of course, melodramatically killed by the bandits, and so he takes merciless revenge on the bandits.  Now on to the important aspects like…

The Cool Gojko Mitic Shtick: At one point, he gets a hold of a box full of dynamite sticks, which he uses in combat by throwing them at people and shooting them in the air with his rifle.

The Strong Woman Scene: Most of these Indianerfilme have at least one scene to show they’re not totally misogynistic, and White Wolves is no exception.  The sheriff’s wife manages to trick a guard holding her captive into going into the saloon, at which point she steals his wagon.

The Heavy-Handed Communist Scene: The workers flat-out don’t believe the Dakotas stealing their money nonsense – in fact, no one but the villains believe it throughout the film – and demand their fair wages.  When the villain tries to ply them with cheap liquor, they turn it down outright.

Film Binge

September 23, 2009

Reality

On Saturday, I visited the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdamer Platz.  It is now a place with which I am thoroughly familiar:  after 5.5 hours of me poring over every inch of every exhibit, they had to kick me out since they were closing.  Of certain interest beyond original documents associated with films I know and love such as Joe May’s Asphalt, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, etc., was a giant wall with nothing but TV screens containing post-war German directors and buttons one could push to see a sampling of their work.  I loved it – I was able to get to know one or two new directors and their work in such a short time span!  It’s quite clear, however, that the museum is primarily concerned with Marlene Dietrich, her legacy and her estate.  They even had the Negerpuppe and the Chinesenpuppe that were featured in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which she brought around with her for good luck.  That’s going into my dissertation somewhere…

On Monday morning, I took a trip down to Potsdam-Babelsberg just to see what it was like.  The film school itself blew me away:  a giant four building structure encased in a cocoon of glass and bound together with assorted stairwells and catwalks.  Of course, I was looking for a bureaucrat in that labyrinth, so I suddenly felt like I was in Brazil or something (don’t you know we imagine in movies now?).  I would go up a stairwell and only reach half the offices on a floor, because the others were on the other side of the catwalk.  In addition, you can check out films from the library and watch them in these weird little space-age pods that slide around in the lobby…

The only downside to the earlier part of this week?  No Fulbright money yet to speak of, no good opportunity to get a Visa until after I register for classes (which I need a Visa to do ironically…), and with no money, little travel in and around the city.  This should all change within a week or so, one hopes.

Fantasy

Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, dir. Gottfried Kolditz)

I watched this East German stylistic riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey late at night in the States, and I don’t remember finishing it then.  Since it forms a core part of my dissertation research, I sat through it again and probably will do so once more in the future.  Though I am a fan of Gottfried Kolditz and have seen most of his oeuvre, this film is one of his least successful productions by far.  The plotline is this:  the Ikarus spaceship is hit by an asteroid cluster and his badly damaged, such that the Laika has to mount a rescue mission to save the ship’s crew.  I remember East German critics bashing this picture on account of it being a “space adventure without excitement,” and now I fully agree with them.  The editing of the film is outright terrible, such that one has little orientation between assorted effects shots and where characters are positioned.  And speaking of effects shots – these largely consist of the camera spinning like in 2001 and leaving it to our imagination that we’re in OUTER SPACE.  For my dissertation though, the multicultural starship crew is a prime example of what I’m talking about in terms of the establishment of race hierarchies amidst an “equal” set of crew members.  It is also interesting that the African-American expatriate Aubrey Pankey turns up as he did in Osceola: The Right Hand of Vengeance, again in a strange bit part.

Whisky mit Wodka (2009, dir. Andreas Dresen)

A thoroughly delightful film that also thoroughly references film history as well as the exigencies of filmmaking.  Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s script is elegant in its simplicity:  an alcoholic, aging film star Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen) proves unreliable in the eyes of the producer, so another actor Arno Runge (Markus Hering) is brought in on the set to shoot all of Kullberg’s scenes right after him in case the celebrity flakes out.  Using a similar formula to Grill Point (Halbe Treppe, 2002) or Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon, 2005), Dresen latches onto the complicated interpersonal relationships between not two but five main characters (the two actors, two actresses and the director) and explores those relationships to their logical conclusion.  It does not matter what film material is used in the final cut – a question posed by the film and never answered – nor should the audience care.  There are also some special moments for us East German film scholars in there, as Dresen cites Solo Sunny in a piano riff played by none other than the DEFA composer Günther Fischer, and there are several moments where Runge is asked about being from the East – even though he’s one of the few main actors NOT originally from the East.  I felt fortunate to be one of four people in the theater to take it in, since the film isn’t that popular at Potsdamer Platz, apparently.

Read or Die OVAs (2001, dir. Kouji Masunari)

A recklessly paced set of three anime episodes if I ever saw one.  Read or Die is part James Bond-style thriller, part superhero film, and part sci-fi: A secret organization associated with the British Library is charged with retrieving a lost Beethoven score before it is used to destroy the world.  Fast-paced and drawing a great debt from the grandiose silly action foregrounded in my favorite anime of all, Giant Robo, the Read or Die OVAs are very cleverly staged and executed, with paper-manipulating hero The Paper performing dozens of neat superhero feats on her quest to save the world.  My major criticism is, as I said earlier, in the pacing.  The first two episodes establish a kind of pattern for what one thinks is a longer series, and then the plot is ramped into overdrive to resolve in the third episode.  I’m thinking it was budget-related…