At the end of May, Kat and I took a trip to Hong Kong.

Film Education:

This trip was part of a DEFA-Stiftung-funded project on German film schools co-authored Barton and myself: Divided Dirigisme: Nationalism, Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. This article will appear in Mette Hjort’s 2-volume anthology The Education of the Filmmaker: Views from Around the World (Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming 2013).  The article is more or less about how German film education reflects Prussian traditions of centralized education control and an elusive Bildung ideal not necessarily reflected in the amount of work the subsidy-driven German film system can actually provide its up-and-coming filmmakers. We see it as a set of observations from outsiders, and a gentle-but-firm critique.

Mette was gracious to invite us to the inaugural conference of Cinema Studies at Lingnan University, three days of papers about film education from all parts of the globe held in this official-looking conference room:

Besides Mette and Barton, we had many other rock-stars of global cinema research in attendance: Duncan Petrie, Hamid Naficy, George Yúdice, Law Kar, Toby Miller, and Alia Arasoughly, to name a few.  Given how far many of us were from our host institutions, the conference often felt like more of a retreat, and this reinforced the collegiality in the room throughout the 3 days.

Because I tweeted the whole conference under the hashtag #cinemalingnan, I actually took some pretty decent notes of what was said. Here’s my drastically paraphrased write-up about the current state in world cinema education. I apologize in advance for any opaqueness or esotericisms:

Yoshi Tezuka – Dynamics of the Cultures of Discontent: How is Globalization Transforming the Training of Filmmakers in Japan?

Unlike in other major filmmaking countries, Japan did not have an elaborate public subsidy system that established film schools in the country. Instead, jishu eiga (amateur films) and pinku eiga (pornographic “pink” films) served as the training grounds for the next generation of filmmakers. Japanese independent cinema has since proven the established 2nd wing of commercial cinema (much like Hollywood) and this career trajectory of cult –> “indie” –> mainstream (like with Takeshi Miike) is now more or less expected.

Moinak BiswasLearning in Reverse: Teaching in the Age of Image Writing

One of the world experts on Satyajit Ray, Biswas tackled the larger topic of the digital shift in film education and how it can still be used as a means of critical praxis: this time through open source, local-knowledge informed image archives. Biswas highlighted the role of a filmmaker as a metadata producer, and also as a documentarist of localities such as Calcutta. He worked on projects recording ephemera such as graffiti and a closed factory across the street from his film school.

Stephen Chan – Film Education in Hong Kong: New Challenges and Opportunities

Chan looked at several institutions that helped promote filmmaking in Hong Kong, namely the broadcaster TVB, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (which apparently runs much of Hong Kong through charity efforts), and the wave of Hong Kong filmmakers educated in Europe or the United States who then returned to make films there starting in the late 1970s. The paper focused on how TVB used to play a much larger role in educating the newcomers, and now it relies on fairly piecemeal efforts to maintain an indigenous film industry,despite Hong Kong having a major investment in the history of cinema (more on this later).

Yomi BraesterThe People’s Republic of China — Professionalization and its Discontents

Braester looked at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), which has been established as a school for overachieving Chinese filmmakers seeking entry into the mainstream Chinese media complex and/or advertising. They get all the latest equipment, and the BFA teachers even offer a kind of liberal arts education to have their students be more aesthetically and historically informed in their filmmaking (if not necessarily more critical). On the other hand, the titular “discontents” are the faculty and students at the Lin Xin Tin (sp?) film school, an opposition institution founded by an art critic out to cultivate a Herzogian “emotional sensibility” toward film and want students to actually stop taking classes and engage in filmmaking.

Gerda DullaartFrom Cinema in the Third World to Cinema in the First: Audiences and Markets

The South African entry, Dullaart focused on her own film school AFDA in Cape Town as a film school that emphasizes target demographics and markets over aforementioned artistic “sensibilities.” This has actually produced many excellent student films, ones that are well-informed about genre tropes and subverting expectations. By producing successfully for a local audience, AFDA in theory now has a wider global reach that would be imagined.

Osakue Stevenson OmoeraBridging the Gap: Answering the Questions of Crime, Youth Unemployment and Poverty through Film Training in Benin

Omoera comes from Nigeria, where there are hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous languages and a prominent culture of crime dominates its youth. Omoera sees film education as a solution to both: the Benin language can be preserved through a native media culture staffed by young men who would be making films rather than mugging others. Omoera’s forthcoming article on the economics of the Benin video film in Nollywood will appear in the forthcoming Quarterly Review of Film and Television.

Hamid NaficyBranch-Campus Initiatives: The Advantages and Liabilities of Knowledge Transfer

Naficy talked about a major topic in U.S. higher education, namely: elite U.S. branch campuses in the Middle East. He taught for Northwestern in Qatar, and noted that his students were primarily women who were given opportunities in their home country that they could not otherwise seek out abroad, as the men could. He weighed both the neo-colonialist projects of NYU, Columbia and Northwestern while also praising their impact on the populaces receiving their services

Alia Arasoughly“Confessions” at the “Crossroads” of “Summer in Palestine”

As the head of the Palestinian women filmmaker group Shashat, Arasoughly presented a courageous picture of women who overcame all odds and began producing and exhibiting their films in places like Gaza and the Golan Heights. She has a situation in which the filmmakers do not want to explore film history, but wish to make it, and do so by filming scenes of their “everyday” and showing them in traveling cinema exhibitions to Palestinians. In this way, she sees a slow path to empowerment and autonomy of an entire media complex of marginalized voices.

Mette HjortOne (Wo)man Documenatarians, Networks, and Gift Culture: The National Film School of Denmark’s Contributions to Film Training in the Middle East and North Africa

Hjort discussed the “Middle East Project,” a 4-week exchange program between Denmark and various countries in the Middle East starting in 2006. The program has produced many different filmmaking friendships, as well as the origins of a thriving cinematic dialog through global networks. Films such as Painting Our Secret and One Woman Army are testimony to the fact that good cinema will and does emerge from such cosmopolitan encounters.

George YúdiceAudiovisual Culture in Latin America’s Peripheries

Yúdice honed in on Brazilian favela filmmaking, and the fact that music videos, remixes and other popular forms of expression actually form the current backbone of the critical Latin American film aesthetic. In dialog with Robert Stam’s research on this point, Yúdice talked about programs such as Urban Connections and the Afro-Reggae movement that (like with the Nigerians in Omoera’s paper) emphasize filmmaking as an alternate mode of economic and cultural production outside of criminal channels.

Christopher MeirBuilding Film Cultures in the Anglophone Caribbean: Film Education at the University of the West Indies

Meir’s talk revealed a sparse film landscape in the Caribbean, a collection of islands that does not like to consider itself a collective in any case. The paper primarily focused on challenges of maintaining even a nominal film program in such an environment, but noted efforts to have students learn some film history and make streamlined feature films sometimes work.

Armida de la GarzaChildren and Practice-Based Film Education: La Matatena and Comunicación Comunitaria in Mexico

The talk focused heavily on La Matatena, a Mexican children’s film festival that teaches the cinematic imagination and filmmaking praxis to young children. Another effort in L.A., Comunicación Comunitaria, concentrates on similar goals to the South African AFDA: audience development and the construction of certain subjects/people in the media. “The room was teeming with stories,” she said, reminding me of other projects to teach children role-playing, larp or other interactive fiction.

Nicholas BalaisisThe Alchemy of Place: Local Immersion at the International Film and TV School in Cuba

Cuba always proves an interesting case study on any topic, and Balaisis delivered the goods on the legacy of filmmakers such as Alea or Guzmán. In effect, there is a “residual socialist ethos” to be found at film education sites like EICTV, but the shift towards a kind of bland global brand at the film school (and all across Cuba) can certainly be felt.

Toby MillerGood-bye to Film Schools: Please Close the Door on Your Way Out

Miller’s talk brought up some sobering facts about going to film school in the USA. There are 600 film schools available, but even the graduates from the top programs – USC, UCLA, NYU – are finding themselves working in an industry rapidly downsizing (either Hollywood or pornography) or a new media industry (i.e. YouTube/Google) that just doesn’t pay sufficient wages for the graduates to pay back their student loans. So somehow there’s a major gap between the universalist “storytelling” narrative on these top schools’ websites and the realities of those who pass through their halls.

Scott MacKenzieFilm Process and Processing: Film Practice and Education in Canada

MacKenzie introduced us to Phil’s Film Farm, a week-long retreat in Canada that has filmmakers writing, shooting, developing and screening 16mm material for fellow filmmakers. The profile of this institution has increased over the years, with a lot of women filmmakers showing up from all over the globe and even Kino Arsenal in Berlin curating some of the final film selections. The mistakes and contingencies that are part and parcel of developing 16mm footage in a bucket are seen as part of the finished artistic product from this retreat.

Anna Westerstahl StenportFilm Education in Sweden, with the Gothenburg Region Film Industry as a Case Study

Stenport interviewed a host of Swedish film professionals and students and discovered the Swedish film industry to be a fragmented establishment which is now moving over to a freelance employment system that actually (in the case of Trollhättan Trade College, at least) presupposes any film school student to be going into the working world as a freelancer. However, western Sweden in particular seems to be primed for a potential film boom in the coming years, thanks to fruitful networks, entrepreneurship, and a growing cinephilia among young people.

Charlie CauchiA Significant Cultural Industry”: New Developments in Local Audiovisual Education on the Island of Malta

Malta’s chapter in the film business is still very short indeed. A native of the Mediterranean Island, Cauchi discussed ambitions of Maltese filmmakers like Elio Lombardi and about newer films like Alan Cassar’s spoof Maltageddon (2009). Usually Malta is a service-provider nation, as in the case of The Game of Thrones. But now Malta is subsidizing its own film industry to produce arty shorts like Simshar (2012).

Renata ŠukaitytėInformal Film Education in Lithuania: A Vital Precondition for New Film Policies, Film Talents and Critical Film Audiences

Šukaitytė also dealt with a very small nation’s cinema and film training culture: Lithuania. Citing influences of filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Sarunas Bartas, she reconstructed the experience of various Lithuanian filmmakers negotiate their native Lithuanian-ness and efforts to bring a mobile film culture into a nation very protective of their national language but unable to finance even independent feature films.

Marijke de ValckFilm Training and Film Festivals

De Valck’s paper handled a topic with which I’m familiar: film festivals in Europe. Dieter Kosslick and other familiar figures turned up as De Valck discussed the role the Berlinale Talent Campus, the Cinefoundation in Paris, the TorinoFilmLab in Turin and the Odessa Summer Film School (among others) serve to promote young filmmakers at site-specific festival training workshops. These workshops primarily help initiate the filmmakers involved into the global film scene and promote intra-European film collaborations.

Duncan PetrieThe Struggle for a Scottish National Film School

Petrie looked at the recent history of the Scottish Film School establishment and found all sorts of schisms, political partnerships, and efforts between TV stations, independent filmmakers and Scottish art schools to get something going. He attributes the initial failure of establishing any Scottish film school to uninspired leadership in Edinburgh and a lack of common purpose or cohesion among Scottish filmmakers.

Barton Byg, Evan TornerDivided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies

Here, we talked about the history and formation of German film schools from the Weimar and Nazi eras to the present, and how that history reflects continuing processes of centralization and paradoxically lofty efforts to try to systematically cultivate the exceptional filmmaker. My portion of the paper compared two films – The Edge of Heaven (2007) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) – as two different paradigms for German film careers: one theauteurmodel that relies on subsidy, the other the German studio craftsperson model that also relies on subsidy.

Tom O’Regan, Ben GoldsmithBeyond the Modular Film School: Australian Film and TV Schools and their transition to digital media environments

O’Regan and Goldsmith did an admirable job of listening to everyone else’s presentation and then tried to wrap things up with a productive “spectrum” of film school issues, which I re-print here in their entirety:

* General – Specific
* Traditional – Modern
* Industry – Art (mainstream/alternative, product/process)
* Practice – Theory
* Craft – Creativity
* Individual – Collective – Network
* Education – Training/Retraining
* Inside – Outside (a system)

In the Australian context, film education is primarily accountable to government audits, but not necessarily to the students themselves. They advocate for a way of evaluating film education in terms of the kind of work students are able to secure afterward.

Round Table Discussion – Meaghan Morris (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong), Shu Kei (Dean of the School of Film and Television, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong), Law Kar (Project Researcher, Hong Kong Film Archive, Hong Kong), Tammy Cheung (Documentary Director, Hong Kong), Xavier Tam, (Vice-Chairperson (Hearing), The Second Hong Kong International Deaf Film Festival Organizing Committee)

This impressive array of Hong Kong film experts essentially found that the Hong Kong locals are losing touch with their own venerable cinema history, and film history in general. They actually found that partially a decline in the teaching of literature itself was to blame, because so much of Hong Kong cinema is (unexpectedly) accessed through a kind of literary framework.  Some complained at length about how everyone paid attention to Wong Kar-Wai (who has a new film coming out The Grandmasters), John Woo and Johnnie To that they’ve ignored the “classics” of the 1940s and 50s. I’ve now got a to-watch list!

Also RIP Paul Willemen.
———–

Although I’m still working out the meta-picture from all this, I think the papers connote a larger picture of a world coming to grips with a post-cinema world in which governments and major forces still attempt to exercise control over their media, but otherwise localities and their audiences are also pitching in with their own take on the notions of “nation” and “film.”

Anyway, now on to what you were waiting for, namely…

Wondrous Food:

…like this delicious peanut-coconut curry at a restaurant near Central Hong Kong and the Symphony of Lights.

…or this divine vegetarian dim sum at the Lock Cha Teahouse.

…or even the crazy food that one can get for super cheap at the (very 1950s) Mido Cafe in Mongkok. We tried the “tea mixed with coffee” and some egg sandwiches. Oh, and some bitter melon in black bean sauce (not listed here).

—————

I certainly have more material to mine from this trip, but I’ve got a lot of preparations this week underway for several weeks to be spent in Ithaca, NY, so I’ll leave you hanging in mild suspense for now.

The Herzog Swoon

April 24, 2012

Today, Werner Herzog spoke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, later at Amherst College.

Here he is, explaining how he gingerly treated the Treadwell material used for shooting Grizzly Man.

Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with enraptured students and faculty, trying in vain to capture their vertiginous experience of seeing him in words/images. After all, he’s at the very least that German director about whom someone made so many viral videos. Celebrity cults have the tendency of rubbing me the wrong way though, so consider this blog post a measured response to the enthusiasm.

I attended because I am a German film specialist, and was pleasantly surprised that the talk at UMass was much better than the conversation he had at Amherst College back in 2006, when the privileged male students there thought they could “beat” him in rhetoric about fiction/reality in his films. (BTW: They lost.)

Topics of discussion included, but were not limited to:

• How fairly he deals with his subjects, particularly those who are borderline personalities (Treadwell, Kinski)
Into the Abyss as an American Gothic
• His romantic sensibility about the emergence of filmic moments
• His ruthless pragmatism regarding a tight editing schedule (“within 2 weeks” is his motto) and a low shooting ratio
• Virgil’s Georgics and the importance of thick description
• His own personal, evil style of acting
• How most people don’t survive in the film industry unless they can find a fast-paced rhythm to events/timelines/finances as he has
• How he doesn’t like art, nor the term “artist,” but rather surrounds himself with maps
• How students should “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read” (Incidentally, he sounded like a liberal arts college professor at this point.)
• How aerobics, yoga, art installations, and an excess of pain relief are all abominations with which society should reckon

In essence, Herzog shares the quality with Slavoj Zizek that he is one of the rare crowd-pleasers who can cater to students’ desire for “profound messages” and professors’ desire for academically grounded wit with equal aplomb. At the same time, however, one also notices that – beyond the hype for the man and his films – he has made his career as a filmmaker by keeping both his feet firmly planted on the ground (except in White Diamond, of course). Over and over again, he reiterated crude existential truisms: shoot your next damn film, don’t agonize over anything, meet your deadlines, if your footage is good – it’ll fit together, and so forth. This is advice that even his ideological arch-enemy Mike Figgis could not deny, and constituted almost the same thing that DEFA director Jürgen Böttcher communicated to us in the fall.

That is to say: don’t look to Werner Herzog for a message or even an inspiration. Look to your own subjective experiences and your pathos-filled reading of the world. Look to the subjectivity found in his films, and take a stand for or against or alongside it. This is a man whose oeuvre you must watch anyway, and his apparently enchanting presence should encourage you to look at more of his films. But Herzog knows no more secrets behind his films than you do. The viewer really is the missing link in his world.

Wild Blue Yonder is mostly long-winded crap with a few brilliant moments in a space capsule.
Woyzeck was made in such a short amount of time (8 days) that its spontaneity captures the fragmentary nature of Büchner’s play.
Stroszek remains his best work and will never be trumped by any of his other documentary-informed features.
Heart of Glass has inspired me in terms of larp and game design.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams hinges on his voiceover and our meta-level interpretations thereof.
Cobra Verde begins as a narrative about plantations and slavery, and ends as a musical.
Nosferatu shows us how small vampires can be in our big world.
Grizzly Man has something to do about Humans and Nature. I think it’s about Humans and Cameras.

…and so forth.
Watch his material.
Have an opinion.
If your opinion’s strong enough, make a piece of art in response that expresses it.
Or at least express it over coffee with friends.

Today’s event was called A Conversation with Werner Herzog. In my mind, Herzog exists only in conversation.

For more information about the director as well as interpretive aids, I suggest Brad Prager’s book or recent edited companion. If you read German, try Chris Wahl’s Lektionen in Herzog.

Watch the movies, but also read, read, read, read, read, read…

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!

Reality

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.

Fantasy

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!

Reality

Imagine me in an auditorium listening to assorted bureaucrats tell us about our further studies at the HFF Konrad Wolf at Potsdam-Babelsberg, and then listening to professors introduce their specialties as well as high-quality past student films.  Well, that was pretty much my week from 9:00 – 5:00 with little in-between.  I feel bombarded with HFF film material, but I’ve also gathered many bits of interesting data about the school in the process.  There are 550 matriculated students total at the HFF, and our entering class constitutes 100 of those.  Of those who graduate, 80% will eventually work in television, and those 20% who work in film will likely never find full employment.  The revered, top programs at the HFF seem to be the Production Design people (who have a 100% employment rate after their studies and are largely responsible for those fantastic Babelsberg sets over the decades) and the Animation people, who produce amazing work in cell and computer animation.  In general, we have the latest technology in the media field and a vast institutional support system designed to train filmmakers to then go on the festival circuit with their films.  This school knows what it does, and takes a very materialist, German craftsman-like approach to do that thing very well.  We’ll see how we fare in media studies.

This week has been marked by a constant flow of a social life that had only existed in fits and starts earlier.  On Wednesday night, all the media studies folks from the year ahead of us invited us out for a round of drinks at the Griebnitzsee Bahnhof, where I got to meet the committee that’s organizing the SehSüchte Student Film Festival in April.  I’m very excited to be a part of that process in particular – I will be the editor of the English text publicity, such that I can keep the strange sounding sentences and the spelling of “Stop” with two “p”s to a minimum.  On Thursday night, I met up with Florian Leitner, an author and media studies scholar whom I met a year ago at the Film and History conference.  He took me to a very nice cocktail bar in Kreuzberg, and then to a Turkish diner where I had the best lentil soup I’ve ever tasted – an excellent evening!  Friday night saw us media studies people (we maneuver as a pack) heading out as a group of 11 to Simon-Dach-Strasse in Friedrichshain.  Let this be a lesson to all who read this:  never go out as a group of 11 to a busy party street on a cold night and expect to find a table indoors. An hour after we’d met up, we finally crammed ourselves around a back table in the smokiest bar I’d ever been in and then chatted about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize and why Germans don’t marry (Political Science Answer:  the society more or less actively discourages it).  Two of the media studies people even got into one of those bar-none debates about religion, which was cute – it reminded me of college.  Then on Saturday I met with Beverley Weber – who’s soaking up the Berlin experience for a month while working on her book – and toured Kreuzberg’s Bergmannstr. and Oranienstr. to good effect.  I also visited Kira Thurman’s place in Prenzlauer Berg, which means I saw what amounted to a rainy block of that section of town.  I think I’ll return when the weather permits me to.

More short Berlin experiences and observations:

* I’ve now been offered drugs on the street twice:  once at the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station in Kreuzberg and once near the U-Bahn station at Eisenacherstr. in Schöneberg.  Both had next to zero subtlety about the offer, which made me also surmise that they were police anyway.

* Fireworks were set off yesterday night over what looked like Südkreuz – a few giant explosions illuminating the sky over the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn station as I stepped off the train.  Two high-school girls waited patiently until making sure they were over before exiting the platform.  God only knows what the event was.

* Some extremely intoxicated dude was singing the Atzen label’s hit song “Das geht ab” and started petting the heads of nearby bystanders.  I dodged it, but saw a fight nearly break out between someone whose head wasn’t open for petting.

(Note: I plan on having the next Peppersmoke Players chapter up tomorrow.  It’s looking to be at least 50% longer than the previous two, as I had trouble ending the scene.  So it goes!)

Fantasy

Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany 2009)

As a German film historian, I felt like I needed to see this because A) it was shot at Babelsberg studios, B) it takes a controversial, B-movie-style tactic of Nazi representation for an A-list feature, C) it contains a great deal of spoken German as well as some of Germany’s big-name stars playing, uh, Nazis, D) there is apparently a surfeit of homage to German film history, which means that this will quickly amount to the “mainstream” perspective on my subject area in due course, E) I wind up seeing all Tarantino’s work eventually and F) so many people have recommended I see it.  As a keeper of the bizarre (and a bizarre keeper at that!), however, I always feel a little dirty after I see a Tarantino movie.  It’s as if he’s shining a blindly venerating light on the zones where we film historians scuttle around in the dark, basically demonstrating that he’s had a first-class film education through his lifetime and, well, doesn’t really know what to do with it now.  This is not to say I didn’t like the film; there were many moments of extended suspense and laudable sound/music design, etc.  But Tarantino is also a man with a distinctly amoral aesthetic and message to propagate, effectively mirroring the withering ambivalence that we media consumers exhibit these days toward all things.  This is a thermometer that tells us how and why we cheer for barbarism, but not a guidepost to point us to a culture that may not need to do so.

The movie itself is a work of immediate textual irony in that it stands against both its title and its paratexts (trailers, posters, etc.):  the Inglourious Basterds barely turn up in the film, and though it is a violent film, it is not what I would call “action-packed.”  Rather it is a relentless talkie – much like Deathproof (2007) – with endless dialogue scenes either ending in horrific violence or foreshadowing horrific violence to come.  It is a film effectively about language above all else, both in terms of language as a marker of social distinction (think of the scenes involving Landa as well as the deathtrap tavern) as well as a thin mask for some horrible emerging truth, which may be Tarantino’s remotely insightful statement on the Holocaust here.  More importantly for him, it’s also very much about the language of cinema, but as film geeks talk about it more than as auteurs like Godard, Lang, Ford, Hawks or anybody else would address it as such.  Tarantino’s strategy is to talk a scene to death and throw in some film references throughout to make it appear as though he’s given it a lot of thought.  I wouldn’t know:  rather than visually referencing the films of Riefenstahl or Pabst like, say, a memorable shot from one of his favorite films of theirs, two characters just talk about them.  Whereas some recent fringe feature films (Son of Rambow, The Fall, Hamlet 2) have opened up new critical vistas in my imagination and offered interpretative frameworks for said vistas, Inglourious Basterds seems to produce more banal answers than ask interesting questions … even though it is excessive and overwrought in precisely the way that his target audience knows and loves.  I wouldn’t mind elaborating my points given further discussion.

The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany 2009)

One of the perks of being at the HFF is getting movies funneled into us for free.  Michael Haneke’s latest film The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, is the second major treat (after seeing I Was 19 on 35mm) that I got the first week.  The premise:  A small town in Austria in 1913 is suddenly plagued by a series of mysterious accidents and deaths that expose the abusive, repressed underbelly of 19th Century continental European society.  Haneke draws directly on the spare visual tradition of black-and-white German-language novel-to-film adaptations, including Schlöndorff’s The Young Törless (1966),  Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) and Haneke’s own The Rebellion (1993) to reveal an emotionally damaged, soulless community that offers few easy solutions to its problems.  An absolute masterpiece of framing, lighting, production design and direction of young actors.  People rave about this film for all kinds of reasons, but I stand firmly on the fact that it’s a 2.5 hour movie that you wouldn’t mind going on for another hour or two.

Fearless (dir. Ronny Yu, China 2006)

I had heard that this film is to date the top-selling non-English foreign film to circulate in the United States to date.  Jet Li returns as Huo Yuanjia (whom he played in Fist of Legend), the founder of his beloved wushu martial art form, and plays out a version of his biography heavily interpreted through the lens of Jet Li’s own silly kung fu oeuvre.  Though an intense battle in a darkened restaurant makes for an exciting action centerpiece, the film is on the whole quite sentimental and more than a little nationalistic (I’m thinking in a similar way to that which made the Bollywood musical Pardes unwatchable).  All that is good about the style and content here is effectively borrowed from Fist of Legend and Fong Si Yuk, but the film possesses neither the edgy choreography of the former or the tongue-in-cheek quality of the latter.  Thank goodness Jet Li’s made a few other movies since this one, so it would not be his last.

My Name is Nobody (dir. Tonino Valerii/Sergio Leone, Italian/French/West Germany 1973)

Possibly the most referential western of all time, My Name is Nobody came out during the last rays of sunset on the genre – Pauline Kael declared it “dead” a year later in ’74.   Leone and Valerii effectively shot a buddy comedy grafted onto a mournful iteration of a Leone and/or Peckinpah western.  The utterly weird combination of Terence Hill and Henry Fonda as our chief protagonists never really settles into any kind of groove, and there’s a shoot-out in a hall of mirrors that’s much more The Lady of Shanghai than “western” material.  I would still give it a B+ for effort though:  there are at least three jokes on the Nobody riff, including “Jack Beauregard – Nobody’s gun was faster.”  Ha!

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…

City Breathing Children

September 18, 2009

Reality

“Sei bewegt / Sei belebt / Sei Berlin,” (roughly: “Be deeply moved, be active/bustling, be Berlin.”) were the words on a flag waving outside of the Rathaus Schöneberg as I waited for 2.5 hours in the stale, bureaucratic Bürgeramt.  Smug propaganda for a city that knows it has a lot of artists and movers-and-shakers all clustered together across a mess of parks, cafés and plazas.  Then again, I am continuously surprised at the cross-section of an active society that this city offers me.  In the United States, for example, people tend not to see children except in specific contexts:  accompanied by an adult while said adult is shopping, hanging out at the mall, and near a school.  Children are sheltered from random strangers and/or spirited around to various events in cars.  In Berlin, you can absolutely tell when school is or isn’t in session.  When it’s in-session, all the old people rush out to get their errands done, so one finds them everywhere on public transit and on the streets.  When it’s out, however, the children take over and everywhere (because there are schools every couple of blocks) there are groups of kids hanging out, playing soccer, goofing off and listening to music.  The schools are like lungs, the schools like breath – in and out, in and out comes the vibrant future of the City of Sand.

Today, a colleague of mine Anne and I met up by the Brandenburg Gate to attend a photo exhibit at the Akademie der Künste.  The exhibit was called “Übergangsgesellschaft: Porträts und Szenen 1980 bis 1990” and provided what was (to me) a nuanced panorama of people and their experiences in primarily East Berlin during the slow death of the East German State.  I found a giant three-picture series by Matthias Leupold entitled “Kino I-III” most captivating, in which a man is standing up in a movie theater otherwise filled with people wearing 3-D glasses and mesmerized by the glowing silver screen.  In a kind of mockery of the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” visual cliché, he is clamping his hands over his eyes in the first photo, silently screaming in the second and holding a gun to his own head in the third.  Other parts of the exhibit included arrays of faces on the wall, contrasting photographs of faces with the interior spaces of their former workplaces, comparative photos taken of mothers and sons in the nude near 1989 and again in 2005, and a 1989 photo-collage narrated with stories of post-war struggle by Gudrun Schulze-Eldowy.  There was also a room devoted to Thomas Heise’s work, a friend of the DEFA Film Library, but it was so cacophonous that few of the films could be appreciated on their own terms.  What was also stunning was the film series happening simultaneously at the Akademie, which included Andreas Dresen’s Jenseits von Klein-Wanzleben (which I subtitled as part of the Silent Country DVD), Helke Misselwitz’s Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann? (which was part of our 2005 MoMA Retrospective) and Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer, which we’d been selling for a while.  6 years after my last residence in Germany, all these artists whom I’d never heard of then and whom I got in touch with in the interim period were now in center-stage.  20 years after the fall of the wall, the East Germans finally get a significant voice.  Must it always take 20 years?

In other news, I decided as a film student to splurge on a DVD player for our apartment, because I’ve got a pile of movies to go through and my laptop DVD players both don’t really work.  On my way home with the DVD player, a dude was just lying on the floor of the S-Bahn, mumbling something about needing money for an apartment.  Stellar urban citizen that I am, I immediately did the ethical thing and pretended not to see him, shuffling to my seat and minding my own business.  This actually turned out to be less malicious than the giggling high-school students at my end of the car, who took copious cell-phone pictures of the man, and the old German couple across the aisle, who seemed to think he was mentally retarded.  The situation became more interesting as a vile-smelling man with a cane arrived at our section of the train with a speech about living on the streets and needing some money, etc.  The man on the floor, who had been totally despondent, suddenly sat up and essentially told the man with the cane to piss off:  “Da gibt’s schon andere Wagen im Zug!”  This, of course, reminded me of Peachum the Beggar King’s speech in The Threepenny Opera about the various flavors of fake misery.  Ultimately, what I saw was a mild territory dispute.

Fantasy

Uncle Yanco (Agns Varda, 1967)

A short essay film on 35mm about Varda’s strange Greek-American uncle who speaks perfect French and lives as a painter on a houseboat outside of San Francisco with a bunch of hippies.  A terrific meditation on identity and where film as a medium is able to portray its asymptotic qualities.  The jarring cuts characteristic of the French New Wave show Yanco and people wearing buttons saying “Long Live Varda!” merge documentary with a kind of existentialist propaganda:  that individuals script their lives, but derive an essential power from this script, just as an independent filmmaker has raw control over his/her film.

Black Panthers (Agnés Varda, 1968)

This is a film we kept meaning to see in Barton’s “1968 and Film” course in Fall 2008, but I’m not sure we actually got around to seeing.  Again, it was fabulous to see it in 35mm and particularly illustrative of the film trends in 1968:  use of documentary material coupled with shock edits and decoupled sound and narrative.  Nevertheless, Varda plays it pretty straight with this documentary (unlike that of Uncle Yanco above), which politically situates her in the camp of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and the rest.  I’m sure she wouldn’t have disagreed then and now.

The Question of God (Catherine Tatge, 2004)

A 4-hour PBS documentary concerning the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis – representing atheism and deism respectively – of which I watched the first hour.  Basically, Walden Media had this as a Lewis side project while they worked their way through the dull cinema of The Lion, the Witch  and the Wardrobe (2005) – or perhaps they felt a twinge of guilt about creating the same – and used it to address the serious issues of spirituality at the core of Lewis’ work.  There are historical re-enactments of Lewis and Freud’s lives, actors reading their texts around, and a reality-television style group discussion hosted by eminent Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi  filled with a bunch of white American academics and a token black filmmaker Louis Massiah, who helped create the infinitely better PBS documentary series on African Americans Eyes on the Prize, about basic (i.e. tired) questions of theology.  There are so many cues in the soundtrack and editing that heavy-handedly state “Hey, we’re having a deep conversation about meaning here!” that I grew steadily disillusioned with the ability of Tatge’s project to convince me of anything.  It comes up often enough that our spiritual lives are totally relational (I’d go so far as to say socially constructed), in that we project God through figures we know such as mother/father, as Freud projects his atheistic philosophy through the same.  I’d say that this film is totally relational as well, demonstrating the limits of white people’s understanding of religion, science and the critique thereof when they talk among themselves.