Pre-Production

October 17, 2009

Reality

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.

Fantasy

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.

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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…