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!

RealityGojko Mitic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy

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

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

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

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

The Scout (dir. Konrad Petzold, 1983)

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

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

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

Reality

Writers have blogs, but dissertation writers probably shouldn’t.  I realize this after I woke up this morning and realized there’d been a week since the end of the Berlinale and I hadn’t so much as hinted at my experiences there.  Too much other writing going on.

Since I probably have too much to describe anyhow, I will use the woefully insufficient writing device of bullet points to summarize.

During Days 3-10 of the Berlinale 2010, I…

* …attended three retrospective panels with film artists in attendance.
* …discovered an excellent bistro: Marcann’s.
* …helped the HFF and sehsüchte host the Filmhochschule Party at HBC.
* …began planning a DEFA conference.
* …found myself watching more Japanese films than German or American.
* …saw Katrin Saß, Sylvain Chomet and Hanna Schygulla in the flesh.
* …met Gojko Mitic, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günter Reisch, F.B. Habel, Stefan Haupt, Anton Kaes, Rainer Rother, Ralf Schenk, Günter Agde, Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus, Wolfgang Klaue, Karl Griep and Bernd Plattner.  I leave this to be examined by DEFA scholars.
* …regularly got up at 6 a.m. to get my accreditation tickets at Potsdamer Platz.
* …was threatened with physical violence by an angry old woman who thought I had unfairly cut in front of her in the ticket line.
* …wrote eight pages of solid film theory for my dissertation (dork moment).

What films did I watch and what did I think of them?  Scroll down to Fantasy.

Here’s some photographic evidence of my meeting DEFA director Günter Reisch:

Günter Reisch and Evan Torner

Günter Reisch and me at the Progress Reception

Fantasy

The Illusionist (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

Utterly brilliant. Read my thoughts here.

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillét, 1968)

A history of Bach that preserves its own historicity.  I must have seen this one about six or seven times.  Yet I still have trouble ordering all the images in my head, but they look fantastic in 35mm.

The Law of Desire (dir. Pedro Almodòvar, 1987)

A tightly controlled meditation on the sensual possibilities of film and film-writing through melodrama.  Anticipates Almodòvar’s entire career.

Red Sorghum (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1988)

A Chinese nationalist epic that starts off on the right foot and somehow ends on the far right foot…

Summer Wars (dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2009)

This is the must-see anime of the year: a look at cyberwarfare through the story of a shogun family in modern times.  Reminds one of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), with perhaps a far less open ending.

Kyoto Story (dir. Yoji Yamada, 2010)

A declaration of love to Kyoto Uzumasa, site of the former film studios.  A fictional love triangle is masterfully interwoven into the daily lives of real shopkeepers on a real street.

Reality

The Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale) is now underway, and I’m here to offer a brief report.

DAY ONE – Feb. 11, 2010

After meeting by chance a friend (Hilary Bown) on the way through Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, I shuffled by the sleeping ticket-hopefuls on the Ground Floor (where the festival tickets are to be had if you’re not accredited) to the accredited individuals line.  This was about 8:30 a.m., which is important because the most optimal time to get in line to pick up the tickets is about 7:00.  Fortunately, I only wished for a single Retrospective ticket (see short film review below) and got it fairly easily after about 20 min. in line.  Then I boarded the train to Potsdam-Babelsberg, so as to work on my theory chapter for the dissertation.

Upon my arrival at the HFF, I noticed a few things were funny.  One was that a ridiculously large crew of technicians had assembled tents and camera equipment next to the HFF entrance.  The second was the giant atomic logo proclaiming the “Universität für Natur und Technik” hanging above the entrance.  The third was the elaborate security desk set built inside, accompanied with a sudden increase in the number of “students” in the school in the form of extras.  Having a lot of work on my plate, I ignored all of these things until I saw the name of the film on the back of the director and producer’s chairs: Unknown White Male.  “Isn’t that the film they’re shooting with Liam Neeson?” I said to myself, remembering some U-Bahn “news” on a monitor.  Then the film crew called the first take, and I saw none other than Liam Neeson round the corner.  The whole HFF library stopped and gawked as they did several takes of him walking around the corner, surrounded by fake students.  Then they moved to do interior shots, wherein Neeson is storming down the stairs of the HFF.  We in the cafeteria had to “keep our voices down” during the shoot…

No actual Berlinale events were attended, but I imagined that they involved other celebrities as well.  I’d already had my celebrity for the day, however.

DAY TWO – Feb. 12, 2010

Again, I stood with the accredited people, though this time at 7:00 a.m.  There were a group of accredited HFF students there this time, so it was a more social experience than the previous occasion.  The ticket for Lights of Asakusa was secured, and I returned home to eat a big breakfast with Kat before heading to Cinemaxx for our first film: Tales of Hoffmann (1951).  Just before I left, I was notified through acquaintances that a Ph.D. student at Cornell University writing on Weimar cinema would be present at the screening – and so he was.  We all burrowed our way past the filmmakers giving interviews and the jostling bodies of old filmmakers and movie-goers alike to get to our screening (short film review below).  We then went out for coffee at our dear local Café Kleisther, and then spent the rest of the evening with pizza, conversation and bad movies.

So a cosmopolitan sort I am not, but I am seeing the festival!

Fantasy

BERLINALE (Retrospective) – Tales of Hoffmann (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951-52)

Seen in CineMaxx on Potsdamer Platz.  Jacques Offenbach’s opera delighted audiences at the first Berlinale, and I daresay people were pretty into it this time around.  The combination of theater, literature, opera and film in an awkward, schizophrenic mix adheres to Powell and Pressburger’s trademark style seen in The Thief of Baghdad or The Red Shoes.  Nevertheless, there are so many Technicolor feasts for the eyes that this piece still stands out as somehow more opulent.
(Not everyone was as entertained as I.  The guy next to Kat was quite literally snoring.)

Alraune (dir. Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1952)

A fairy tale about the evils of artificial insemination: a mad scientist creates a woman from the semen of a hanged criminal and the womb of a prostitute.  Angst and melodrama ensue as his resultant “daughter” Alraune (played by Hildegard Knef) proves irresistably attractive and fatal to all the men around her.  Karlheinz Böhm plays Alraune’s repressed cousin and Erich von Stroheim the mad scientist.  Edgy stuff for 1951?

Buffalo and the Indians (dir. Robert Altman, 1976)

A brilliant and definitively overlooked backstage drama posing as a western.  All of Buffalo Bill’s arrogance vis-à-vis his own mythologization comes back to haunt him in the form of one man:  his act Sitting Bull.  Of all the Altman films I’ve seen, this one is probably the one with the clearest “take-away message” while still maintaining open narrative (“What did Sitting Bull want to ask Grover Cleveland?”)

Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)

The first time I saw it in a room full of people.  I didn’t laugh once.

The Number 23 (dir. Joel Schumacher, 2007)

A highly flawed thriller that nevertheless contains something I like:  a family that sticks together in spite of the paranoid delusions of one of its members.  What didn’t work were any of the flashback sequences in which Jim Carrey’s character Walter “imagines” himself into the book The Number 23.

Chaplin (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1991)

A combination of overt textual seriousness and terrible editing (including the overuse of, above all, the barn-door wipe) makes this possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.  This was part of a spat of 1990s sentimental films (I’m thinking Forever Young) that couldn’t muster proper affective potential for the subject matter.  Do not touch.

Yes, I Am Busy

December 6, 2009

Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy

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

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

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

Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, China 2009)

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

Zounds! A Blog Entry!

November 8, 2009

Reality

Rather than ruminate on how long it’s been since I last posted on this forum (17 days – I’ve been spending my “writing block” on translation projects, my dissertation and a filmography for a book), I will elaborate on a few of the major events that have marked the last two weeks.

Our film AOP, a mockumentary about a secret West German fetish, debuted at the HFF “Konrad Wolf” as part of the end of orientation festivities on Friday October 23rd.  It went over lukewarm compared with the other “Knaller” made by the other nine groups (at least 3 of which took place in a bathroom), but director Maurice M. Mohn swore to me that the film “wasn’t unsuccessful” at the party afterwards.  Speaking of THAT party:  it was held after 11:00 p.m. at a sketchy, illegal club in Kreuzkölln with no fire exits, no windows, a sketchy fridge full of bottled beer and nothing but techno beats (the latter being a plus against the other factors).  I sort of plowed my way through the packed bathroom line to reach the exit around 2:30 after quaffing a few cheap beers and yelling my way through several conversations in the smoky darkness.  An experience, to be sure.

I went to a wonderful Fulbright brunch on Sunday October 25th held by the generous Luisa Greenfield and Ming Tsao in Kreuzberg, where I met Jacob Comenetz, a former Fulbrighter now working at the Bundespresseagentur (more on him to come) and got a pile of great book recommendations from Ming about writing about the electronic music aesthetic (you want that list? Send a comment my way!).  Later that day, I picked up Kat at the Berlin Tegel airport, who successfully got her very heavy baggage out of the terminal without a cart (or my help, since that’s how European airports work) and we ate out at Tuk-Tuk, the Indonesian restaurant down the street from us.

Having Kat around has been great for many reasons.  Here are a few:

* Cessation of married-man-long-distance loneliness;

* More satisfying sleep;

* The apartment is now warmer;

* Increased intake of generally nutritious food that tastes good;

* New impulse to plan social events and outings, and I can show her all the old stuff I’ve gotten to know;

* Celebrating birthdays and holidays is much more meaningful again!

In the first week (Oct. 26 – Nov. 1st), I purposefully overscheduled us with many social events, including coffee with Kira and Beverly and dinner with the same, carving pumpkins with Katie Weeks and Hilary Bown, Luisa’s film screening on Friday night, and a Fulbright alumni Halloween party at Joe’s Bar in Prenzlauer Berg on Saturday night with Jacob.  I did so to make Kat feel at home and connected here, which also conversely made me feel more at home and connected here as well.  Speaking of Luisa’s screening, we had a great turn-out for the two shorter, more experimental films (Light and Bridegroom… see below) but, since we started over an hour late, over half the audience missed the wonderful mess that was John Ford’s Seven Women (1966).  We hope that everybody returns for our continuing Ford/Straub pairings, as well as other assorted film gems we manage to procure.  As for the Halloween party, Kat and I went as a vampire-zombie duo who hated each other through our expressions on our T-shirts:  “Vampires Bite” and “Zombies Need Brains.”  Ha ha.

This last week has presented us with opportunities to walk around and shop (such as in Kreuzberg’s famous Bergmannstrasse), watch movies together (many reviewed below) and get our visas (by waking up at 3 a.m. and surmounting the evil LABO).  All in all a good time, and I anticipate more to come.

Professionally speaking, I’ve had some ups and downs the last two weeks.  Ups:  I spent four hours with Herr Dieter Kosslick, director of the Berlinale, and two hours with Dr. Gottfried Langenstein, director of ARTE; I’ve found hundreds of newspaper articles with revealing insights on the reception of the Indianerfilme in East Germany; I’ve met up with Reinhild Steingröver of the University of Rochester and established contact with several other scholars working on parallel topics to my dissertation.  Downs: I lost my first month’s worth of book/film notes due to a faulty data back-up attempt, so I’ve got another 10 hours of work to do in reconstructing it.  This is the way it goes.

And one final note:  if you’re ever on Akazienstrasse in Schöneberg, DO NOT eat at the South Indian restaurant called Chennai Dosai, not only because their food is not particularly good, but because they played the opening track from the Hrithik Roshan sci-fi Bollywood film Koi Mil Gya (2003) on a loop THE ENTIRE TIME WE SAT THERE.  It was a unique form of tourist torture, though I’m sure they weren’t expecting a customer who knew the film.

Fantasy

Posse (dir. Mario van Peebles, USA 1993)

Woody Strode, Big Daddy Kane, and many other prominent African-Americans star in this somewhat violent, misogynist and cliché Western.  Its primary contradiction lies in its seeming original mission – to re-insert African-Americans into a Western film tradition absolutely dominated by actors coded as “white” –  and its aesthetic outcome – a cheap Leone treasure/revenge plot with a lot of melodramatic cheese and macho strutting from Van Peebles.  The fact that I couldn’t really read the blocky explanatory text at the end didn’t really detract from the palpably saccharine coating that Van Peebles put on this piece of macho-masculine self-glorification.

The Treasure of Silver Lake (dir. Harald Reinl, FRG/France/Yugoslavia 1963)

The film that started the whole Euro-Western trend, and a completely necessary entry in the cinema books next to adventure films such as Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood (1935)or Lucas’ and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  The superhuman duo of Winnetou (Pierre Brice) and Old Shatterhand (Lex Barker) stumble upon an injustice committed (the murder of Götz George’s German immigrant father) and a treasure to discover.  Let’s just say that, on a superficial level, the film absolutely delivers:  colorful landscapes, bold action sequences, and plot twists that still convince the 8 year-old inside of you.  You only think about the crazy exoticism of the whole charade afterwards…

The Sons of Great Bear (dir. Josef Mach, GDR 1966)

The East German response to Reinl and Wendlandt’s Winnetou films, The Sons of Great Bear is the most “historically accurate” of all the DEFA Indianerfilme and also one of the most visually compelling.  That being said, Mach had little idea how to direct an action sequence, so the ending fight scene is confusing and frustrating to say the least, not to mention more-or-less tacked on to Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich’s original source material.  The press reviews made sure to note how much actor Gojko Mitic’s physique looked like the “real-life” Shoshone, though their basis on which to judge that comes from other Westerns’ portrayal of Native Americans.  Hmmm….

Little Big Man (dir. Arthur Penn, USA 1970)

Thomas Berger’s picaresque about the only white survivor of Little Bighorn, a man brought up by the Cheyenne (a.k.a. the human beings) named Jack, is expertly executed by Penn, if awkwardly assembled as a whole.  General Custer’s portrayal in the film is nothing short of brilliant – an arrogant prick more than a proper villain – and the Cheyenne are given a lot of positive screen-time.  Of course, Dustin Hoffman’s Jack dominates the majority of the film, with mixed results.

Battleship Potemkin (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, Russia 1925)

Restored 35mm print containing all the original scenes?  Check.
Live accompaniment by an adept pianist?  Check.
Kat’s first time seeing a leftist modernist classic?  Check.
I really can’t say anything more, other than that the Kino Arsenal has a special place in my heart.

Trick ‘r Treat (dir. Michael Dougherty, USA 2008)

A kind of Four Rooms treatment of Halloween, Trick ‘r Treat is a very smooth movie with regard to horror clichés, playing on one’s expectations, and the usual twists and turns one expects of even the slasher genre nowadays.  One should watch this with one’s tongue firmly in cheek, even through all the horrifying bits.  I say no more.

The Omen (dir. Richard Donner, UK/USA 1976)

Um… Gregory Peck’s character is kind of dumb?  This is at least what the film suggests, after one is led through a constant barrage of corroborating evidence that demonstrates his son is the antichrist, and he still doesn’t seem to get it.  Oh well:  there are many other films with evil children that work with the formula that The Omen put forth, so I suppose it’s influential.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (dir. Stephen Norrington, USA 2003)

This was the second time I’ve seen the film, and the second time I’ve seen it in Berlin (the last time was with Mary Brandel in 2003 – and I hated it then too.)  Alan Moore’s excellent graphic novel was to be transformed into a grand piece of pulp, and instead turned into a nightmarish gobbledy-gook of lame special FX (including the atrocious Venice sequence), too many characters running around (including “Tom Sawyer,” their worst revision), and sequel-baiting (the *ahem* “ending”).  Stuart Townsend is about the only redeeming feature of this feature, and that’s because he’s so damn charming in any case.

V for Vendetta (dir. James McTeigue, UK/Germany 2006)

Another slightly second-rate “good” film from the Wachowski Brothers, V for Vendetta continuously bills itself as a smart action thriller which raises bits of moral ambiguity for the postmodern cinema-goer, but is ultimately far too utopian about the power of the masses to stomach.  Alan Moore wasn’t nearly as idealistic as this, and far more critical of the respective places within society that Evie, V and the masses inhabit.  You can tell through the exquisite detail of the sets that the Babelsberg people worked on this one, though.

Genau Gleich (dir. Burkhart Wunderlich, Germany 2009)

A film that I’m currently subtitling for Burkhart about an incestuous relationship between German-Polish twins and an old woman on a bench waiting for Elvis.  An absolutely brilliant concluding shot is likely to give this one high marks at the Berlinale if, indeed, we manage to get the film into competition.

Light (dir. Marie Menken, USA 1964)

Dizzying Christmas lights, spinning motion, elliptical editing.  The lost American avant-garde.  Shall we see it again?

The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Daniele Huillet, FRG 1968)

I must’ve seen this film something like eight or nine times since I’ve come to UMass.  Nevertheless, the mixture of prostitutes against an industrial backdrop, Ferdinand Bruckner’s “The Pains of Youth” by Fassbinder’s antitheater group, and the intense chase/marriage sequence at the end never fail to incite thoughts of alternatives to mainstream cinema and new spatial configurations of narrative.

Seven Women (dir. John Ford, USA 1966)

Ford’s last film is an outright laugh riot starring Anne Bancroft as a self-confident doctor who winds up in a doomed community of American missionaries in Mongolia.  Oh wait – this wasn’t supposed to be funny?  Then perhaps there’s too much Sirkian irony in this overstuffed, full-color studio epic, which is probably why the film was buried after its creation:  Ford’s film is trapped between gender and a hard place.   Oh yeah, and there’s actually eight women, but one of them happens to be Chinese…

Coraline (dir. Henry Selick, USA 2009)

Coraline is a well-executed animated feature in glorious 3D that was screened at the HFF as part of our overall 3D research project.  Many of the fantastic landscapes, both interiors and exteriors, are enhanced by the 3D effects, but these effects don’t overwhelm the adaptation from the original text.  What does overwhelm the adaptation is the inclusion of a male character who has to save Coraline’s butt in the end, classifying it as yet another film with a strong female character who needs a man to both tame and save her.  Why can’t Hollywood ever be done with its male heroes?

G-Force (dir. Hoyt Yeatman, USA 2009)

Most 3D films rely on re-vamped spatial relations that make tighter spaces seem even tighter and wide open spaces seem glorious.  So what better means of exploring tight spaces and big vistas than making a supremely small cast, through whose eyes we must view the world?  Such is the visual premise of G-Force, which has guinea pig commandos saving the world from a silly plot in a classic Jerry Bruckheimer fashion.  Nevertheless, the effects are convincing and most of the side-plots are not particularly annoying.  I would say:  Mr. Yeatman’s background in visual FX for advertising and trailers paid off in a big way for the film, though its effects scenes are so pronounced as to make all of the dialog sequences seem drawn-out and dull.  Definitely a movie that attempts to satiate a hyper-active age group.  Critics who don’t fully “get” 3D films and who are thoroughly in Pixar’s camp are liable to hate it,  but I can root for it from the sidelines.

Painting White in Many Ways

October 22, 2009

Reality

(Kat is coming Sunday afternoon! The excitement had to be noted.)

Saturday proved an intensely social time for the solitary little me.  My first engagement was helping my friend Jan F. (from my Grinnell years) paint his old apartment in Friedrichshain.  Most people might’ve said “Spend an afternoon in Berlin painting?  No way!”  I see it differently:  activities that make me feel like a real person within a larger community are always welcome to me, and what better activity than applying white paint to not-so-white-anymore walls accomplishes this?  Our chief concern was actually the fact that I hadn’t brought any “old clothes” to Germany (would you – seriously – bring along your painting clothes as part of your luggage?), so we rigged together an outfit out of a garbage bag for the day, which worked rather well in the end.

After whitifying ~1.5 rooms in Jan’s apartment, my arm grew tired and I departed for the Yellow Sunshine Diner, an excellent and affordable Berlin eating experience for the vegetarian and vegan-inclined among us, to meet Beverly and Kira.  Our food was delicious – I had the Lappland Burger – and then we migrated to Café Bilderbuch in Schöneberg for drinks and dessert.  A fine day overall!

Monday marked our second day of shooting for the HFF Konrad Wolf film. Again we experienced no problems (our final cut of the film is already turned in, in fact), and were even able to eat/imbibe some of the props…  I will conduct a thorough analysis of our own film after its initial release on Friday, given that its premature summary jeopardizes its humor value.

Scholarly

(In between reality and fantasy, there’s interpretation.  Here are a couple of academic books I’ve read in full and can discuss in brief):

Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race

This was a highly engrossing book, complicated in its argumentation but simple enough in premise:  the world’s problem isn’t racism, but race as a construct, and it is specifically a product of whiteness, a Lacanian master signifier that organizes the paradoxical forces of identity (heritage: where you come from) and visibility (what do you look like, and what’s non-white about it).  Using the Lacanian logic of gender difference to explore the interaction of whiteness as master signifier with non-whiteness as a closed-system of pre-determined (and stereotyped) meanings, Seshadri manages to philosophically clarify what the heck do we mean by race and how we signify it.  Then she heads into her discipline – English literature – for a plethora of philosophical examples to illustrate her points.  A great work of scholarship, if a bit biased toward issues primarily concerning English departments nowadays.

Mark Cronlund Anderson, Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film

Anderson’s book is what I would consider a historian’s academically fueled rant against the right-wing politics of frontier westerns and their pernicious legacy across other genres.  Replete with swear words and hard-line diatribes, his argument basically contends that Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History has provided an academic justification for the American imperialism of the 20th and 21st Centuries, best sugar-coated through the cinema presence of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and others.  Some of his film selections proved rather interesting:  he prompted me to watch Howard Hawks’ classic Red River (1948) in full and consider Mario van Peebles’ Posse (1993) an extension of the frontier myth through the semblance of re-writing the race rules of the western genre – all useful for the dissertation.  I just wouldn’t recommend the work for those who want an academically disciplined, post-colonial genre discourse analysis across a broad range of national cinemas.

Fantasy

The Power of Nightmares (dir. Adam Curtis, UK 2004)

I remember watching Century of the Self a year ago and thinking it was a fairly decent intellectual history of public relations and the Freudian basis of modern advertising (not to mention commercial narrative, in general).  The Power of Nightmares is kind of like that documentary mixed together with Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), the recap of what Vietnam was really about.  Three hours of comparing neo-conservatives (as if they were different from neo-liberals, but I digress) to the radical Islamists in the Middle East actually proves quite interesting, since Curtis managed to snag crucial interviews from both sides, delivering a very even-handed and sober account of the web of fear and lies concocted by either party to support their political agendas.  Maybe in ten years we’ll get a documentary about all the domestic damage the neo-cons have wrought too.

The Piano (dir. Jane Campion, UK/New Zealand 1993)

A heavy work of post-colonial, Freudian melodrama, complete with primal scenes, sado-masochism, and conflicts over the power over sexuality and the means of self-expression.  I thought Anna Paquin’s character really held this film together, though all the actors – including Harvey Keitel in his standard “I’m naked!” scene – contributed to the high quality of this film.  And Michael Nyman’s soundtrack is still one of the best modern piano scores out there.  ‘Twas overall better than Forrest Gump (1994), but was probably too haunting (and too “directed by a woman”) to win the Oscar that year.

Lovers on the Road (dir. Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, China 2008)

There’s an Asian Women’s Film Festival happening at the Kino Arsenal, so I figured I should go take a look at the offerings.  It turned out the filmmaker was present for the screening, which was a short feature about a relationship on the rocks after the couple moves from Hong Kong to Beijing for the boyfriend’s graphic design career.  Our female protagonist leads us through the ambivalence of passionless life transitions, which ultimately leads her to have an affair with an itinerant Japanese barista and then decide perhaps to do something else with her life (we don’t know for sure).  One particularly great portion of the film involves audio interviews conducted with various (one presumes) real people who have recently come to Beijing for assorted purposes.  This documentary realism provides a welcome diversion to an otherwise introverted and claustrophobic (one might say “angsty”) portrayal of relations between two fictional characters.  Ah, alienation.

Apaches (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR/Romania/Poland 1973)

This was/is, bar none, the most popular GDR Indianerfilm, and there are many good reasons for this.  Reason #1:  Gojko Mitic actually co-wrote this one, which means there are lots of scenes of him doing neat things and kicking ass.  Reason #2: All the moralizing of the earlier Indianerfilme was stripped away for a basic good vs. evil scenario:  evil capitalists mass-murder the Apaches because they could, and then the Apaches exact bloody revenge.  Sergio Leone would’ve been proud.  Reason #3: The cool thing Gojko does is firing a flaming arrow at a covered wagon, which then explodes.  If I were 10 years-old and watching this thing (sort of like the logic that drove the recent G.I. Joe movie, in fact), I would’ve been mesmerized.

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.

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!

Whoa

October 5, 2009

Reality

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…

Fantasy

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.