Next week, the Berlinale begins. Expect more posts here as I binge on films.
Hard to believe that January is already over: I still hear the fireworks from New Year’s ringing in my ears…
This month has been marked by me getting my priorities in order in terms of my dissertation writing and other projects (which include 3 articles, 3 film encyclopedia entries, and 3 scholarly book reviews). I have been writing more regularly and thus more absorbed in an interior world of symbols and discourses. The month was paradoxically also one full of considerable diversions, including museum visits, film screenings and even a trip to Venice. So I have at least something to talk about.
This is, of course, not to mention my encounter with German snow maintenance… or lack thereof. Having grown up in Iowa and lived in Massachusetts for four years, I know what winter looks and feels like. Blizzards, sub-zero temperatures with brutal wind-chills, icy roads – I’ve seen it all. Or thought I did, until I confronted how little effort Berliners commit to clearing sidewalks and roads after a good snowfall. Snow is allowed to accumulate everywhere, and is packed down with foot traffic. This snow turns to ice, or slush when warm, and has already caused countless broken ribs and other calamities to the Berlin residents over the past several months. The solution? About a week after the snow, a few Berlin service guys sprinkle a dusting of gravel on the sidewalks, or maybe sand if they can afford it. Where’s the salt? The sand? The obsessively ice-hacked and shoveled sidewalks? The Americans regulate this sort of thing through 24 mandatory snow-clearing ordinances. The Germans regulate it by patching up the injuries in the hospital.
From January 10 – 17, our friend Melissa was in town, which gave us the excuse to distract ourselves. We saw a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Komische Oper, which interpreted the naive and gruesome (in equal parts) piece through cross-dressing, a canted stage and the creative use of monkey outfits. I also found myself in the Filmmuseum at the Deutsche Kinemathek again, this time in the exhibit on Romy Schneider (lacking proper context for those who don’t know who she is, of course). Our Thursday morning was spent on the English-language Berliner Unterwelten tour of the old bomb shelter right below Gesundbrunnen. The tour was one of the best I’ve been on – the guide was well-informed, energetic and somewhat sarcastic, all sympathetic traits to me. Friday was spent all day at the Museumsinsel, where I soaked in the hundreds of artistic treasures of the Pergamon, the Bode-Museum (my personal favorite), the Alte Nationale Galerie, and the Altes Museum. That night, we found our way to Prenzlauer Berg to play Settlers of Catan with Kira and Hilary (a thoroughly German activity!). Actually, I realized that the original version of the game is meant only for 4 players, which meant I did what I love most: ran the event. Since I apparently miss teaching and game-mastering, merely the act of serving as “banker” and moderator for a simple board game gives me cause for elation.
On Saturday, January 16, 2010, Melissa, Kat and I intrepidly boarded the S-Bahn at Berlin Yorckstrasse, getting off at the Nikolassee stop near the edge of town. There, in the middle of nowhere, was the hostel where mittelpunkt 2010, a European LARP convention, was held. The first session we visited was a physical LARP workout on how to “convincingly act out the use of magical powers” held by the charming Helge Bruhn. We threw imaginary fireballs and battled each other’s invisible force fields. The second session that Kat and I visited was held by Emily’s friend Martina on how to keep things interesting in a fixed-group LARP setting, like with a spaceship crew. That was the most “international” of panels, as there were people from France, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the U.S. all having an earnest discussion whilst swapping war stories. The third session was my playtest of the system Campbellia called “Screenwriter’s Panic” in which the players had exactly four hours to come up with a finished Hollywood treatment of a cliché-driven “hero’s journey” blockbuster film. We wound up creating a surreal love story that centered on television, drugs and the eating of an imaginary giant frog…
The following weekend saw me attending the second half of our Genre Analysis class. We presented different Reality TV formats and discerned whether or not they constituted their own genres, sub-genres, etc. I got “Living History” – a sub-genre of “Reality Show” – and presented on Schwarzwaldhaus 1902 and Abenteuer 1900 – Leben im Gutshaus, both series about ordinary people traveling back in time through strict rules and regulation and a little bit of “TV magic.” The presentations were actually quite fascinating, as we got to measure casting shows against swap format shows, etc. to demonstrate what they did and didn’t ask of the viewer.
Kat and I decided to visit Venice before it’s swallowed by the Mediterranean, so we spent last Wed. through Sat. there. I’ve never visited so many churches or seen so many canals in my life. Stunning architecture and winding passages around every corner. Otherwise, the experience was fairly expensive, and I couldn’t have lasted another day there. Actually, it was great to get out of Berlin and see what another major European tourist capitol looked like before diving back into my studies.
Frampton, Daniel. Filmosophy. NY: Wallflower Press, 2006.
“Filmosophy is a study of film as thinking,” Frampton claims within the first few pages, and indeed that’s the case. Just as real witnesses of 9/11 claimed watching the WTC fall was “like a movie,” so have our entire thought frameworks been entirely merged with those of films and filmmaking. Role-playing games are designed to simulate filmic imaginaries. Video games are designed with virtual camera angles. The safest (and most dangerous) topics at the dinner table are opinions expressed about films. Frampton connects all aspects of film philosophy – film theory, psychology, social expectation – into a very readable projection of our thoughts as films. Or films as thoughts.
Sherlock Holmes (dir. Guy Ritchie, 2010)
Who would have thought Sherlock Holmes could be successfully portrayed as a kleptomaniac boxer?
All That Jazz (dir. Bob Fosse, 1979)
In Bob Fosse’s “autobiopic,” a philandering New York choreographer is suddenly confronted with his immanent death. A paltry few years after this film, Fosse’s bleak vision of himself came true. Striking visuals, including some of the best weird Fosse dances ever choreographed. His final shots are always memorable, and this one’s no exception: Roy Scheider being zipped up in a body bag.
Croupier (dir. Mike Hodges, 1998)
Sometimes, films come along that give you a real insight into the mindscape of people within certain professions (Hawks’ Red River just stampeded to mind). I don’t know if Croupier is one of them, but it certainly gave me the feeling of the total disdain that dealers have toward the “punters” in a casino. A young Clive Owen gives his role the perfect mix of sardonic misery and comfortable sophistication.
Stella Dallas (dir. King Vidor, 1938)
Suspenseful emotional manipulation on a scale rarely seen today outside of Titanic. This is the ultimate “too late” melodrama, in which no one really is to blame but nothing really seems to work out.
Michael (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1924)
An older painter and his young adopted son rise to fame and glory, but the latter squanders the riches of the former, betraying the painter’s “true love” for the boy. Crisp, austere and dramaturgically intriguing to the very end.
Infernal Affairs (dir. Andrew Lau, 2001)
An undercover cop faces down a planted mobster spy in Hong Kong’s crime world. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this film up until now. Tony Leung and Andy Lau complement each other very well, and the pacing is downright superb. Go see it, and avoid Scorcese’s remake.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam, 2010)
With this film, I forgive Gilliam his involvement in Brothers Grimm (2006). Then again, Gilliam also forgave himself. This film explores the encounter of old narrative media with the modern world, pitting sensual symbolism directly against instrumental modern capital… embodied in Tom Waits’ convincing portrayal of the Devil. Oh yeah: Heath Ledger died in real life, so Colin Farrell dies for him in the film. Weird.
Broken Blossoms (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1919)
A tragic tale of a Yellow Man (no, I’m not kidding) from China who makes his way in the U.K., only to find a young street girl abused by her boxer guardian… There’s something Shakespearean about the level of death at the end of the film, but I think it was largely to gloss over the “edginess” of a plot surrounding a love affair between a “person of color” and a “white woman” ca. 1919. As usual with Griffith, a bang-up editing job.
Intolerance (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1916)
A marvelously experimental feature film overview of human tragedy across Babylon, Biblical Jerusalem, 16th Century France and 20th Century Los Angeles. Though the latter part seemed only there to appease the cinema-goers expecting something akin to a “regular” silent narrative, the former three prove breathtaking in their scope and production design. Would I want to have been at the editing table for this one though, I wonder?
Van Helsing (dir. Stephen Sommers, 2004)
Complete pulpy garbage mined from Universal Studios’ tried-and-true archive of copyrighted monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man… you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t: Hugh Jackman in his big coat, his silly automatic crossbow blazing at the evil flying Eastern Europeans. It is a rather basic demonstration of what most of the Hollywood Majors are doing with their prior film properties these days: update, make redundant and franchise! See Clash of the Titans, Tron, and The Karate Kid…
Archive of Gazes (dir. Rüdiger Neumann, 1984)
Hanover, 1984. A cameraman sets up his camera in assorted locations and simply observes action unfold for a second or two, then cuts to the next observation. Repeat. Cars pass. Boats trundle along. People go about their business. Birds chirp. This is the filmic equivalent of a palette cleanser, allowing one to see the world anew through a kind of apolitical gaze. The film screening was accompanied by a panel discussion with Heinz Emigholz and other prominent disciples of director Neumann who, indeed, held an anti-ideological position the entire time he was in the faculty at the Akademie der Künste Hamburg.
The Golden City (dir. Veit Harlan, 1942)
Gold-standard Nazi melodrama, saturated in AgfaColor (made by the folks at IG Farben who brought the world the Zyklon-B gas used in the Shoah) and mired in a maddening mythos of “Heimat” for Aryans. A naive young farm girl is seduced to the “golden city” of Prague, only to become pregnant out of wedlock. Rejected by her stubborn patriarchal father upon her return, she commits suicide in the same moor which drowned her mother. Eastern Europeans have never looked so placatively sinister. Kristina Söderbaum embodies all the psychotic expectations placed on women under Nazi Germany, as well as the tension between a state that ultimately hated simple farmers and the very simple farmers who voted the Nazi party into power in the first place.
Tschetan the Indian Boy (dir. Hark Bohm, 1972)
A rarely seen children’s film from the Filmverlag der Autoren, one of the cornerstones of the New German Cinema. A mix of German frontier nostalgia and liberal humanist fantasies, the film tells a tale set in the American West ca. 1880 of a Lakota boy “saved” from death by a wandering shepherd who gradually sees the boy as his cultural equal. One could see this as the West German precursor to East German “Native American encounter” films such as Blauvogel (1979) or Atkins (1985) without the political teeth of either. After all, the shepherd ends up leaving his flock (and his means of income) behind, joining three Lakota in a voyage off to Lakota. In debunking frontier myths, Tschetan has to create a new frontier, so that all hope isn’t lost.
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