May 27, 2015
[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]
In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.
In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”
Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.
It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.
I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.
Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.
Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)
Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.
How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?
Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.
So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.
21st Century baroque?
April 25, 2010
Much of the last week has revolved around the largest international student film festival in Europe, sehsüchte 2010, held in Potsdam-Babelsberg for five days in April. I did the English translation for the festival, so I was very much involved with its organization from the very beginning. But eventually I moved from being hunched over German text on my computer to hauling hay bales for the Once Upon a Time in the West set for the opening party.
The festival itself was wonderful – being able to mingle/party with international filmmakers in view of their recent work is a recipe for my happiness. The organizers, my fellow HFF students, did their absolute best to deliver an excellent experience, only to encounter what many filmmakers run into as well: technical difficulties. I don’t think sehsüchte could’ve had a more sympathetic crowd. And in light of last night’s mad live electronica band mayhem, that crowd became very sympathetic indeed…
The Fantasy section details some of the notable films I viewed and my thoughts about them.
Assume all dates of release to be either 2009 or 2010. As a measure of self-indulgence, I am including my English summaries of the films.
The Last Day of Bulkin I.S. (Posledniy Den` Bulkina I.S, Russia)
“When Ivan Sergueevich Bulkin innocently opens the door one day, a strange official stands before him and tells Mr. Bulkin he must die today. He tries all kinds of tricks to escape his fate. Yet for every movement he makes, the unbidden guest can nevertheless read the corresponding passage in the screenplay of Bulkin’s life in advance.”
An humorous bit of contemporary fantasy with a twist. The opening shot with the ceiling fan reminded me much of the opening of Murder My Sweet (1944), which seems only appropriate given the material.
Columbus – Love Machine (Germany)
I fell head over heels for this music video (actually most of the music videos were breathtaking on the big screen — this should be a regular occurrence) – space islands, power armor and a keyboard duel, all in HD.
Hinterland – Voixmusik (Austria)
A highly parodic Austrian rap video that nicely depicts where the line of whiteness lies.
Prayers for Peace (USA)
“Prayers for Peace is a stop-motion animation about the personal memories of the director Dustin Grella on his brother Devin, who died in the Iraq War. With pastel colors painted on a chalkboard, a unique visual style comes into being that gives expression to the fragility of life and the senselessness of war.”
The personal narrative of this film makes it stand out. The soundscape reminds me quite a bit of I Met the Walrus, which only leads me to encourage more use of found audio as a basis for animation.
Superhero (South Africa)
“A superhero wakes up in the desert and can’t remember what happened to him. A small boy helps the crippled superhero because he firmly believes in him and his powers. When his memory slowly returns, he has to face the fact that he’s anything but a hero.”
Beautifully shot in a mine waste dump, this film reinforces why comics are going to save the world through their fictionalization of reality.
Silver Girls (Frauenzimmer, Germany)
“They work in the oldest profession in the world and are themselves made of “old iron.” Three Berlin women give a glimpse into the business with their bodies. Their everyday lives are surprisingly bourgeois. A documentary about happiness and self-respect – and about the search for an orgasm.”
An extraordinary documentary with an intimacy rarely found in today’s sarcastic culture vis-à-vis sex and old age. 74 minutes which you won’t forget. Deservedly won Best Long Documentary at the festival as well.
Exactly the Same (Genau Gleich, Germany)
“Andrés’ new girlfriend Anna threatens the inner relationship between him and his twin sister Alina. Alina cannot accept her brother’s newfound happiness, since she wants to share him with nobody. Alina has to painfully learn that loving also means letting go.”
One of the best explorations of incestuous inclinations I’ve seen on the silver screen. I subtitled the film, and hope it runs at more festivals!
December 6, 2009
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!
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.
October 17, 2009
This week marked the beginning of our film projects at the HFF Konrad Wolf. The assignment: The approximately 100 incoming students are arbitrarily divided into 10 groups of 10 to shoot a 3-minute feature with only a DV camera + accessories at their disposal. In addition, the students must work in an area that’s different from their Studiengang – cinematography students can’t do camera, acting student can’t act, etc. We were all collectively given the topic for this year’s project of “Was bisher geschah” (“What happened before now”), which understandably gave us a lot of leeway to come up with ideas. Most of the time, creative projects assembled arbitrarily seem to lead to artistic tension and inefficient action. Ours has been quite the opposite: we decided on a great idea within an hour of brainstorming (which I will disclose once the film is completed), everyone kind of naturally settled into their assorted changed-up roles, and production details were quickly arranged. Even the first day of shooting went precisely according to plan and gave us some great starting footage. I’d like to personally thank Alex, Anna, Laura, Maurice, Nick, Burkhart, Cate, Claudio and Veit for such a smooth and entertaining student film experience. If only all productive endeavors ran like this!
Tuesday was something of a “play-date” – we were let loose inside the Studio Babelsberg Filmpark and given tours of the Babelsberg facilities. This was a mixed experience for me. I’ve been working with the legacy of the Babelsberg Studios starting from their genesis under Guido Seeber in 1912 to their Weimar artistic glory to their UFA Nazi heritage to the “totalizing workshop” of the DEFA in East Germany to their purchase by Vivendi and conversion into an international filmmaking prestige location. So on the one hand, I was visiting very sacred ground for me: the origin point of what we consider to be major-league German studio cinema. This is where Murnau developed those fantastic tracking shots in The Last Laugh (1924), Heinz Rühmann flitted about in Feuerzangenbowle (1944), Alfred Hirschmeier developed sets for Silent Star (1960), Herwig Kipping tore apart what remained of the GDR in Land Beyond the Rainbow (1991), and Roman Polanski depicted Nazi-occupied Warsaw in The Pianist (2002). On the other hand, this was all very banal: here’s the building where they keep the props, there’s the television studios, here’s the fake street for some scenes from Sonnenallee (1999), there’s some retired junk from our stunt show, here’s a few Universal Studios-esque rides, there’s some paraphernalia from assorted terrible German co-productions, here’s the wall where they shot part of the Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), there’s a set of tourists who actually paid the 18 euros to see this stuff. In many ways, the Museum für Film und Fernsehen was far more enticing. Then again, my lack of enchantment might have stemmed from the itinerant hail landing on our heads as we meandered around outside.
On Wednesday night, I had a very nice evening with Sylvia Fischer, a prospective Ph.D. student who must have visited at least half-a-dozen U.S. schools in an effort to literally change her present way of life for the (intellectually) better. We ate at a restaurant in Friedrichshain, a place with which I’m becoming more familiar by the day, and swapped tips about Berlin and U.S. graduate school respectively. I’m always happy to meet up with assorted people in Berlin, and the city fortunately makes it quite easy to do so.
Some more observations:
• The consensus among both German nationals and foreign students is that the StaBi (the Berlin city library) kind of sucks and could be greatly improved in a myriad different ways. Someone oughta form a committee…
• In terms of causing human discomfort, the moist cold of Berlin kicks the butt of the semi-dry cold in Massachusetts hands down, but Iowa in October is still worse than either.
• German waiters are very quick mathematicians (due to their regular dealings with split checks), and probably use much more of their brains than American waiters, whose job is nevertheless much more aggressively about both pleasing the customer and forcing them to leave the establishment.
• Dogs are people here.
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (dir. Eric Brevig, USA 2008)
Thanks to the formidable resources the HFF Konrad Wolf has placed at our disposal so that we might produce and consume films, I saw this Brendan Fraser adventure flick for free and in glorious 3D. Now our blogs are not yet 3D-image capable, but in this case I wish they were, because this film can only be described in 3D terms. In effect, Eric Brevig (of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) created an almost encyclopedic homage to every major 3D trick in the book, from the “yo-yo in your face” to the “flying water droplets” to the “roller coaster” to the “suspend a floating object against a dramatic backdrop.” Rather than evolving a “new” 3D vocabulary, Brevig seems content to offer a carnivalesque array of 3D attractions nestled in a skeletal, cliché-driven plot designed to get us from one effects sequence to another. In this respect, the movie thoroughly succeeds from an effects angle, and Fraser proves himself as the sympathetic human to whom special-FX-related events always seem to happen.
I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence, USA 2007)
This post-apocalyptic film was quite spectacularly bad, but instructively so. The Last Man on Earth (1964) brought us Vincent Price as the doomed hero who would discover he is the villain. The Omega Man (1971) brought us Charlton Heston in a similar idiom, except less adept at the task of acting. But I Am Legend (2007) spins an elaborate escapist post-apocalyptic fantasy in which Will Smith becomes a Christ figure and unequivocally saves humanity with his selfless actions – more analogous to Byron Haskin’s 1953 Christian re-interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds than to either of I Am Legend‘s two predecessor adaptations of the Richard Matheson text. All of the movie’s foregrounding of a decimated Manhattan isle aside, the chief focus is just how virtuous albeit lonely Will Smith is with his dog. I don’t know what to make of it, other than as Hollywood dumping a pile of syrup on an otherwise perfectly serviceable parable about human decadence and then expecting an introspective piano score, edgy mise-èn-scene, and post-Bourne hand-held camera action sequences to convince us this is a serious work espousing something constructive. It isn’t.
Destricted (dir. various, UK 2006)
I watched some of this with Steve Wilson before I left, but the HFF just so happened to have a copy on their shelf so I got to watch the rest. Advertised as “the most controversial and sexually explicit film ever to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC,” Destricted is a collection of seven short films from acclaimed art-film directors directly exploring pornography and sex in our times. Larry Clark (Kids, Ken Park) provides us with interviews of young men about how they grew up with pornography, and then proceeds to cast a young man paired with a porn-star for some on-camera action. Clark’s film highlights the indexical as well as the audience-performance aspects of pornography. Gaspar Noé’s film (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) is a strobe-heavy exploration of a man sexually assaulting a blow-up doll in his room. Sam Taylor-Wood’s film “Death Valley” is an actor candidly masturbating against the backdrop of, well, Death Valley. Matthew Barney strapped himself naked inside some massive machine and shaped some pottery with his member. Richard Prince distances the audience from a cliché porn flick with Boards of Canada-style ambient music and the fuzzy color distortion that one gets when one crosses film and digital video. Marco Brambilla has a brilliant 2-minute clip of thousands of images from romance and pornography cut together to overload one’s senses with the conventions of the porn industry. Marina Abramovic uses a combination of live action and animation to portray assorted Balkan superstitions involving the genitalia. All in all a worthwhile view, but only if you’ve got the stomach for both the ugly bits and the strobe effects.
Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, USA 1948)
Whoever thinks Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) is the first gay cowboy movie has obviously never set eyes on this classic. In the era when movies seemed to possess a cinematic subconsciousness and deep social subtext (Gilda, Fury, Casablanca, Some Like It Hot all spring to mind), Red River explores the macho manly activities of cattle-herding and trail-blazing from Texas to Missouri, as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift meanwhile develop one of the most bizarre, sexually repressed man-on-man relationships ever to hit the silver screen. I watched it for the clear justifications for American imperialism, but it turned out to be far more entertaining in its subtext than its principle plot.
October 5, 2009
I have titled this blog entry based not only on Keanu Reeves’ favorite expression, but also on my sudden feeling of being stunned in the middle of the action.
A re-cap of my weekend: I celebrated my 27th birthday on Friday, first by going over to Luisa and Ming’s place in Kreuzberg for a nice lunch where we discussed a future mini-film festival that we’ll hold in their apartment. It was extremely wonderful to be engaged in an intense discussion about film, politics and what have you with several earnest professionals who know what they’re talking about. I then made myself a cake and then went to Hilary Bown’s apartment with Kira to play classic Monopoly. Now I categorically hate Monopoly – we might as well record 30 of our dice rolls on a chart and see who wins – but coupling it with late-night drinking made it alright. On Saturday and Sunday, I got out to La Foccaceria in Mitte – a great, cheap pizza place – and to the Brandenburg Gate to watch the “Riesen” (“Giants”) get dressed by about 20 puppeteers for their march through Berlin. (Since there were way too many people there for the puppets, I left after they crossed through the Brandenburg Gate… which was itself a spectacle, since I didn’t know if the guy in the diving suit would make it).
Now for the “whoa” part: our orientation program at the HFF Potsdam today. Ever since I arrived in Berlin, I’ve been given a handful of unstructured weeks in which to A) get settled in my apartment, B) waste time at the LABO trying to get a visa, C) write some fiction and D) structure my dissertation research. As of today, that unstructured time is officially gone. For the next three weeks, I belong to the HFF, which means I’m now “sneaking in” my research at night. Our orientation program began with a stunning “country boy” rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” performed by one of the students, followed by a pep talk from Stefan Arndt (Run Lola Run, Goodbye Lenin!) in which he basically said “I never went to film school – I just made films. Use this film school opportunity to watch and make films!” Then we were all introduced in our different fields – film direction, production, film and media studies (my area), cinematography, acting, music composition, etc. – and handed these nifty tote bags. After we met with our respective faculties, we then returned to the auditorium to be divided up into 10 groups – irrespective of our respective fields – that in 3 weeks time will each complete a “introductory film.” I’m only slightly nervous about the fact that our group primarily contains people from film direction, production, screenwriting and film studies, and nobody from cinematography, editing, sound, or film music. This may influence what film we wind up producing. We were given a tour today of the facilities and of all the state-of-the-art film technology that the HFF now has to offer, so only tomorrow do we have to think about the film we’re going to make. But still: it was quite funny to suddenly show up and be asked to make a film in three weeks with a group of complete strangers.
Nevertheless – and I think this is the larger point – these people soon grew (over the course of one day!) to be more than just strangers. I think there’s just under 100 people in our entering class in total, which means our departments aren’t that big and everybody is very collegial with one another. Add to that the fact that I’m like an exotic animal, being an American who speaks very good German and has a hyper-acute knowledge of East/West German film history, and Bam! I found myself in conversations with people the entire day. I shared some music with one student, bantered with the media studies professors about recent films, and gave a group of my peers a crash course on the historical significance of Konrad Wolf’s I Was 19. That is to say, I am suddenly academically at home as well. BUT being academically at home is exhausting to say the least, so I’d better hit the sack for the next day of intensive introduction to the top film school in Germany…
Never Drive A Car While You’re Dead (dir. Gregor Dashuber, Germany 2009)
Possibly the greatest animated short I’ve seen in a long time, Never Drive a Car While You’re Dead should be up for an Academy Award – except those only exist to praise Pixar these days. The premise? A guy in a crappy apartment – vaguely resembling Cahit’s from Gegen die Wand (2004) – tries to commit suicide, but feels compelled instead to play his piano. This piano quite literally drives him into the nightmarish hellhole neighborhood he lives in, which has been shaped by neo-liberal capitalism and Baudrillard’s “apocalypse of the Real,” resplendent with violent penguins, Siamese twin prostitutes, and assorted suffering people. A group of like-minded people follow him to his own grave, at which point he wakes up, tries to commit suicide and (I’m giving away the twist) poetically fails. This film had an understated, well-executed soundtrack, an animation style drawing from both classic Thames cartoons (e.g. Count Duckula) as well as MTV, and a fiercely sarcastic message that it manages to maintain throughout the piece. I think it’s amazing that they showed us such a bleak product as an introduction to the HFF, but it’s bold, aggressive and has a clear message. Bravo!
The Falcon’s Trail (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR 1968)
Well, it turns out I watched White Wolves too early, as it’s the sequel to this film. White men find gold in the Black Hills, and so the evil capitalists maneuver to try and take the land away from the Dakotas. Kolditz’s first foray into Indianerfilm territory only sort of succeeds: he doesn’t include as many stunts with Gojko Mitic as Konrad Petzold but, man, does he go out of his way to depict an outright massacre of the Dakotas by the white men! This is a recurring trope throughout the DEFA Indianerfilme that we always find ourselves somehow vicariously experiencing some massacre of one tribe or another. This reminds me of Quinn Slobodian’s article on “corpse polemics” and the fascination among the West German tabloids for the grotesquely murdered and mutilated African bodies.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Mount and ride a bareback horse.
The other major detail is also the crazy war dances performed which harken back to Kolditz’s musical training and serve as a precursor to the crazy alien dances in In the Dust of the Stars (1976).
Fatal Error (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1970)
Okay, instead of gold, this time the white men find oil on the Shoshone’s land and conspire to take it away. The Shoshone are bribed with, of all things, alcohol to make them weak (the same trope is used in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Bouncer Vol. 6 The Black Widow) so they can simply be cheated and murdered.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Actually, this is more Armin Mueller-Stahl’s movie (good thing his cowboy grew up with the Shoshone), but Gojko does take on drunk Shoshones armed with flaming torches who want to set fire to the oil tower on their property.
I Was 19 (dir. Konrad Wolf, GDR 1968)
Of all things, the HFF Konrad Wolf spends the first day – ta da! – showing us a film by Konrad Wolf. This was good, because I’ve seen the film plenty of times earlier and was able to see it through new eyes on a 35mm print of middling quality. I was most impressed this time with the way in which Konrad Wolf’s autobiography and his unified film vision sometimes come into conflict. He toys with details that he remembers from his past, but such details intrude on otherwise more seamless cuts and more transparent characters. Still, there are few better films to use to discuss the Russian invasion of Germany ca. late April 1945.
September 29, 2009
Saturday brought a stormy conclusion to the Kamera als Waffe conference, which might have been expected given the topic of Nazi propaganda cinema within a larger historical context. But first the uncontroversial papers: Kay Hoffmann (University of Stuttgart) presented Roel Vande Winkel’s paper on the Nazi newsreels made to export, and how foreign audiences wouldn’t just accept the German newsreel dubbed into their language (ironically like the Germans’ present means of consuming the world’s TV/film culture), but required new perspectives on propaganda events. Rainer Rutz presented on the fascinating magazine “Signal” that the Nazis produced for European sales, combining images of well-groomed soldiers taking some hot-bodied time off and blonde beauties bathing on captured French beaches. Martina Werth-Mühl from the Bundesarchiv told us not to use YouTube to watch these newsreels, but received resounding applause when she suggested a reduction of price per newsreel at the Bundesarchiv might be to everyone’s benefit. Judith Keilbach argued that the use of propaganda footage in television documentaries generally reproduce the same effects of their original intended purpose: to demonstrate Nazi dynamism and power in elaborately staged war spectacles.
Then the moment of controversy struck when Michael Kloft, the main historical film producer for the ZDF (Das Goebbels Experiment and 29 others), took the podium and said, effectively, that he uses Nazi newsreel footage because it was the footage taken at the time, and it educates the children visually about a time period that is fast losing all of its eyewitnesses. His talk produced visible tension in a room where the medium of television had clearly already been consigned to the 11th circle of Hell. Thus once Kloft was done with his speech, several very eloquent arguments about the “Gleichwertigkeit” toward Nazi footage since the introduction of television in the 50s were posed against Kloft’s flippant remarks. You could tell that among these history professors, a kind of ferocious anger concerning all of the facts they had to make their students unlearn every year thanks to television was promptly unleashed. We ended up staying past the end of the conference to conclude the very intensive discussion with the question of whether television can be allowed to become an “open” medium like film, where the eyes and ears are permitted to wander in a space and evaluate the “rough edges” of history on their own terms.
On Sunday morning, I had breakfast at the famous Café Bilderbuch – my third visit since I’ve arrived – on Akazienstrasse. The café has a reputation thanks to its Viennese style décor, classy music selection, newsletter-styled menus and, of course, excellent coffee and meals named after storybook characters. There I sat and wrote most of what is to be the next chapter in the Peppersmoke Players series. It gives me something to do with my hands, after all.
After the usual laundry and dishes labor befitting Sunday, I found some time to attend Kino Arsenal yet again for a series of underground 8mm films made in eastern bloc countries. Claus Löser – journalist, film historian and curator of the exhibit – was present to introduce the films, as was one of the filmmakers Ramona Köppel-Welsh. The crowd itself was interesting: a mostly silent bunch of maybe half-a-dozen Poles, two Russians, two Germans and myself. I think the language barrier was significant enough that only the Germans and I had a conversation after the film. The nice thing about the Kino Arsenal, of course, is that they give you free wine and pretzels afterwards, so Claus, Ramona, the Germans and I stood around for a time and chit-chatted about the GDR and the United States. Ramona, it turns out, was invited to Los Angeles in 1993… during the L.A. riots. That gave her a lasting impression of the States I maybe wouldn’t envy but, hey!, it was probably a more accurate picture of our divisions than most visitors get.
I’ll finish the “Reality” section of this blog with a brief summary of Monday, when I visited a personal Mecca: the Filmmuseum Potsdam. Located in a beautiful building with horse statues leaping from the walls near the train station, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is a repository for, well, all things DEFA (with a spot of UFA and Pro-Babelsberg here and there). Seriously, though: every major film and a good chunk of the minor ones had some sort of artifact or remnant on display in the museum, from the concentration camp outfit used in Jacob the Liar to the bow Gojko Mitic fought the white Americans with in Falcon’s Trail. Even the counterfeiting kit from the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters was there in all its faux-1940s glory. At the end of the tour, I went to sign the guest book and noticed a lot of people complaining about the overflowing presence of DEFA materials over UFA and other materials. “Bah!” I said, and wrote a proper defense of the East German studios right there in the guest book.
Blog entries to come:
• A poem on my surreal and awful experience at the Ausländerbehörde
• Several short reviews of academic books I’m reading for my dissertation
• Peppersmoke Players Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die
Naked Lunch (dir. David Cronenberg, USA 1991)
Boy, what a trip! Similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1993) as a kind of tribute to a whole surrealist author’s body of work, Naked Lunch is a film about the destabilization of the armored male subject through the psychic/psychotic transformative experience of writing. This time around I noticed several things: the rampant homoeroticism (complete with talking anuses), the Orientalism (kind of done Madman style: a stereotyped “chinaman” and Moroccan “exoticism” are both foregrounded at different points), the utter fakeness of the sets, Peter Weller’s droll mumbling as Bill Lee (see Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s Spider for the same), and the dissonant soundtrack created by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman. Now I kind of see the Naked Lunch story as kind of a cross between Camus’ L’etranger and Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle: the former due to the narrator’s utter lack of Self becoming grounds for a murderous act, and the latter because there’s a sort of extraordinary sexual journey that Bill Lee goes through without actually having sex with anybody (e.g., Fridolin and his night wanderings).
Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962)
Twelve scenes that show Godard’s contempt for conventional Hollywood narrative that’ll leave you breathless. The movie was rather dull this time around, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked extensively with One Plus One, Tout va bien and Alphaville, which I find to be much better executed films (and don’t all revolve around Anne Karina’s visage).
The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, UK 1949)
Speaking of well-executed films, Carol Reed’s nihilistic classic put its hooks back into me after I watched The True Glory for the first time on Friday. An incessant zither soundtrack backs this film noir story set in the dark streets of Vienna, where sharp lines such as “death is at the bottom of all things” are delivered so non-chalantly that they make this sort of filmmaking look easy. My theory is that Reed, along with Billy Wilder, did his time during the war with the allied propaganda, thereby earning the right to be totally sarcastic about the peace afterward. Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and, more to the point, Sunset Boulevard (1950) both peel back the post-war consumer society to reveal a disturbed undertone of fractured identities and incoherent culture.
Ein-Blick (dir. Gerd Conradt, FRG 1986)
Conradt set up a camera to take 1 frame per second for 12 hours, and then recorded East Berlin from West Berlin. Every time anyone looks at the camera, he freezes frame for just a moment. The film gives you a good overall impression as to what a day in the life of a security camera might be like, except with more exciting motion and lighting.
Z mojego okna (dir. Józef Robakovski, Poland 1978-2000)
Another stationary camera set-up, this film is translated to roughly “Outside My Window.” Indeed, Robakovski basically took footage from outside his window for 22 years, recording people running errands, assorted state parades and ultimately a five-star hotel being built that cut off his magnificent window view. What struck me about this film was that, unlike Conradt’s, it wasn’t anonymous surveillance. The filmmaker expresses in a voice-over the story of every person whom he spies on, revealing an urban environment that’s actually more like a community than most U.S. cities.
Trabantomania (dir. János Vetö, Hungary 1982)
A music video for a Hungarian band Trabant, Trabantomania is not so much about the East German car – the Trabant – as it is about showing us silly footage of dolphins and seals, and of the band sitting around in a messy apartment. You still get a definite impression of the interdisciplinarity and intertextuality that underlie such experimental films.
Zestokaja bolezu musicia (dir. Igor and Gleb Aleyinkov, USSR 1987)
This abrasive picture is about this guy who gets on a subway car, two security officials proceed to sodomize him, then leave. I liked the high-contrast film filters used. It looked a little bit like Aronovsky’s π (1998).
Lesorub (dir. Yevgeny Yufit, USSR 1985)
This amusing film is about bodies against snow, mostly wrestling with each other, but sometimes doing perverse things with a dummy. This one’s probably my favorite of the short films.
Sanctus, Sanctus (dir. Thomas Werner, GDR 1988)
In 1988, Thomas Werner and a lot of the East German 8mm scene walked in a May 1st parade, passing Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz and all the party cronies at the time. The soundtrack is a beautiful church hymn that at once mocks and commemorates the GDR within a single musical line.
Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (dir. Ramona Koeppel-Welsh, GDR 1989)
An anxious picture if I’ve ever seen one, Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (ich gehe weg und du bleibst da! – Struwwelpeter) has been released on our Counter-Images DVD at the DEFA Film Library, but it was much better on the big screen. Disturbing images of little children weren’t what almost got Koeppel-Welsh thrown in jail over this picture, but rather a little footage of the Berlin Wall shot from a hospital window. The realm of the politically/culturally forbidden past 1961 usually centered around the thematization of the Wall, and this film proved to be no exception.