RealityStrange Clock

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The days seem like hours now, so short they are in my perception.  I fly to Chicago on July 14th, where I will be picked up and delivered back to Iowa, where I’ll be until early August.

Yes, that means no more Guy in the Black Hat Meets Berlin in less than a week.  Egal – I’ll switch the name to Guy in the Black Hat Meets [Wherever My Permanent Residence Happens to Be at the Time].  I figure anywhere I go will provide me with interesting encounters to post on the Internet.  Long live Guy in the Black Hat Meets Northampton!

Berlin has been more than kind to me:  I have never felt as cosmopolitan before in my life.  I met filmmakers, drank in nice places/dives, attended a few concerts, saw a lot of movies, rummaged through archives, churned out articles and essays, visited Prague, Aarhus, Venice, Bremen and Göttingen, spent some time in an artificial tropical rainforest at Brand (Niederlausitz), saw the Frida Kahlo exhibit, experienced the elation of the Germans as Lena Meyer-Landrut won the Eurovision 2010 contest in Oslo, hung out with people from around the world, and managed to get plenty of much-needed sleep in the midst of it all.  All in all, I should not be complaining.  Still, a small update is necessary:

Just as my article and blog post on Uwe Boll came out, I discovered he was coming to the HFF on June 24th.  So I decided to audio-record the entire speech, which is an enjoyable 2.5 hours if you understand any German.  In fact, it was one of those instances in which understanding the German language quite literally gave me a better level of access to information about how the world works, which is why I am continuously baffled by why universities think cutting back on German is a great idea. Understanding German connects you with a whole next level of cultural production that, well, needs to be situated within its context.

Kat left for Iowa on the 29th, and I don’t think I’ve actually had a phone conversation with her since then, on account of her not having a cell phone but being on the road up in the Twin Cities and the time difference and all.  This makes me sad. 😦

All the more sad beyond having to leave Berlin and doing so alone is the fact that I missed the very wedding I didn’t want to:  that of Preeti Gupta and Seth Bacon.  These are two exceptional individuals with whom I’ve spent many a fine day, and whose wedding I knew was going to be awesome.  And then it was scheduled to take place within my last two weeks here, also on the very weekend I had a conference in Bremen.  So to all my Grinnellian alumni friends that were there (Taylor, Megan, Eve, David, John, Katie, Aaron, Ann, Sean… oh, the list is too long):  I missed dancing, gaming and reveling with Preeti and Seth.  And to Preeti and Seth:  the present’s on its way, but my well-wishes now will have to do.

So: the Bremen conference.  It was my first official conference paper delivered in German to a German audience on German soil, and I think it went fairly well.  The topic was “Turns und Trends in der Literaturwissenschaft,” and was designed to gather young scholars into debate about the field of Germanistik via papers delivered. I dealt with material pertaining to a racist “geopolitical fiction” science-fiction novel – Pereat Austria! – from 1907 written by a right-wing self-help author Marie Carola Freiin von Eynatten.  My paper was described as the “postcolonial turn” of the conference.  In any case, it will be published (with revisions) in German in October.  I’m psyched.  But I was even more psyched to by chance visit with Sarah, a former UMass professor, and her coterie of German exchange students to Dickinson College.  It was like being back with Grinnellians for the evening – interesting liberal-arts college types – and I felt suddenly at home amidst an otherwise somewhat alienating conference experience.

Naturally, we stopped our final discussion on Saturday as Germany trashed Argentina in a World Cup quarter final showdown.  Though it didn’t pan out for Germany in the semi-finals against Spain, the victory celebrations for the quarter final were extremely intense in Bremen, with cops and smoke bombs and yelling people and vuvuzelas and (enough booleans) such.  I remember exiting the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin and asking myself: “Is this a warzone?”  Men were hauling up random people off the street and stuffing them into a van to drink.  A couple in Tiergarten seemed to be celebrating with a deliberately heavy amount of heavy petting.  Bottles flew, music blasted, Germans yelped for joy.  Well, at least they made it to the semi-finals.

For reasons I’ll not state here, I was back early from Bremen and found myself in Berlin for the Fourth of July, which was celebrated at Tempelhof Park by the Young Democrats Abroad.  Hilary Bown ’02 and Justin Torrence ’03 were present and made me feel at home there.  We had a cherry pit spitting contest, and some guy named Jerry impressed me with his deep knowledge of Cold War history as an American ex-pat who lived in Kreuzberg.  Then Kira and I commiserated and had ice cream.

Monday night was a BBQ in Prenzlauer Berg in one of the older houses along Husemannstr.  After exactly one beer, I was repeatedly told by the Germans that I was “zu laut,” leading me to believe that I project my voice much better in the foreign language…

And now Peggy, my landlady, has come and inspected the apartment.  I am most definitely leaving, and the sparseness of my surroundings bears testimony to that fact.

But what’s life without melancholy, bittersweet endings, or the sending off of old friends to new places?

Fantasy

Die Liebe und die Königin (1976)

Based on Viktor Hugo’s novel Maria Tudor, this film stars Gojko Mitic as the dashing Fabiano Fabiani, an Italian nobleman who murders a Jewish loan-shark plotting to overthrow the throne, starting a whole chain of events.  The first time I’ve ever seen Mitic play a villainous role, though it looks like he’s still only got about two possible expressions.  It supports my argument for my GSA paper in the fall anyway…

Die schöne Lurette (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, 1960)

An adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s operette by the same name.  Best watched on fast-forward, I think – then you see fast-moving soldiers and peasants weaving in and around each other, occasionally donning masks and kissing.  Much better than its awkward Powell/Pressburger aspirations.

Echo Bazaar

I took the (loneliness-fueled) plunge and joined a choose-your-own-adventure Twitter app called Echo Bazaar.  The premise:  you are a quasi-damned, quasi-deceased soul in Fallen London, an underground version of the same that happens to share a border with Hell.  Quite addictive and quite well-written (because it’s British), my character has already done any number of dubious tasks, such as fed a hapless drunk to a demon and composed an ode about a fungal creature.  Fun times.

Shifting Forest Storyworks

A LARP community in California, Shifting Forest Storyworks, has been so generous as to offer many of their written parlor LARP scenarios for free.  I took a gander at several, including the Mirror Room, and was pleasantly surprised with how tightly structured and playable they all seemed.  It made me excited to run several upon my return.  Any players willing to have a go?

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.

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.

The Bedeviled Medium

September 29, 2009

Reality

Saturday brought a stormy conclusion to the Kamera als Waffe conference, which might have been expected given the topic of Nazi propaganda cinema within a larger historical context.  But first the uncontroversial papers:  Kay Hoffmann (University of Stuttgart) presented Roel Vande Winkel’s paper on the Nazi newsreels made to export, and how foreign audiences wouldn’t just accept the German newsreel dubbed into their language (ironically like the Germans’ present means of consuming the world’s TV/film culture), but required new perspectives on propaganda events.  Rainer Rutz presented on the fascinating magazine “Signal” that the Nazis produced for European sales, combining images of well-groomed soldiers taking some hot-bodied time off and blonde beauties bathing on captured French beaches.  Martina Werth-Mühl from the Bundesarchiv told us not to use YouTube to watch these newsreels, but received resounding applause when she suggested a reduction of price per newsreel at the Bundesarchiv might be to everyone’s benefit.  Judith Keilbach argued that the use of propaganda footage in television documentaries generally reproduce the same effects of their original intended purpose:  to demonstrate Nazi dynamism and power in elaborately staged war spectacles.

Then the moment of controversy struck when Michael Kloft, the main historical film producer for the ZDF (Das Goebbels Experiment and 29 others), took the podium and said, effectively, that he uses Nazi newsreel footage because it was the footage taken at the time, and it educates the children visually about a time period that is fast losing all of its eyewitnesses.  His talk produced visible tension in a room where the medium of television had clearly already been consigned to the 11th circle of Hell.  Thus once Kloft was done with his speech, several very eloquent arguments about the “Gleichwertigkeit” toward Nazi footage since the introduction of television in the 50s were posed against Kloft’s flippant remarks.  You could tell that among these history professors, a kind of ferocious anger concerning all of the facts they had to make their students unlearn every year thanks to television was promptly unleashed.  We ended up staying past the end of the conference to conclude the very intensive discussion with the question of whether television can be allowed to become an “open” medium like film, where the eyes and ears are permitted to wander in a space and evaluate the “rough edges” of history on their own terms.

On Sunday morning, I had breakfast at the famous Café Bilderbuch – my third visit since I’ve arrived – on Akazienstrasse.  The café has a reputation thanks to its Viennese style décor, classy music selection, newsletter-styled menus and, of course, excellent coffee and meals named after storybook characters.  There I sat and wrote most of what is to be the next chapter in the Peppersmoke Players series.  It gives me something to do with my hands, after all.

After the usual laundry and dishes labor befitting Sunday, I found some time to attend Kino Arsenal yet again for a series of underground 8mm films made in eastern bloc countries.  Claus Löser – journalist, film historian and curator of the exhibit – was present to introduce the films, as was one of the filmmakers Ramona Köppel-Welsh.  The crowd itself was interesting:  a mostly silent bunch of maybe half-a-dozen Poles, two Russians, two Germans and myself.  I think the language barrier was significant enough that only the Germans and I had a conversation after the film.  The nice thing about the Kino Arsenal, of course, is that they give you free wine and pretzels afterwards, so Claus, Ramona, the Germans and I stood around for a time and chit-chatted about the GDR and the United States.  Ramona, it turns out, was invited to Los Angeles in 1993… during the L.A. riots.  That gave her a lasting impression of the States I maybe wouldn’t envy but, hey!, it was probably a more accurate picture of our divisions than most visitors get.

I’ll finish the “Reality” section of this blog with a brief summary of Monday, when I visited a personal Mecca:  the Filmmuseum Potsdam.  Located in a beautiful building with horse statues leaping from the walls near the train station, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is a repository for, well, all things DEFA (with a spot of UFA and Pro-Babelsberg here and there).  Seriously, though:  every major film and a good chunk of the minor ones had some sort of artifact or remnant on display in the museum, from the concentration camp outfit used in Jacob the Liar to the bow Gojko Mitic fought the white Americans with in Falcon’s Trail.  Even the counterfeiting kit from the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters was there in all its faux-1940s glory.  At the end of the tour, I went to sign the guest book and noticed a lot of people complaining about the overflowing presence of DEFA materials over UFA and other materials.  “Bah!” I said, and wrote a proper defense of the East German studios right there in the guest book.

Blog entries to come:

• A poem on my surreal and awful experience at the Ausländerbehörde

• Several short reviews of academic books I’m reading for my dissertation

• Peppersmoke Players Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die

Fantasy

Naked Lunch (dir. David Cronenberg, USA 1991)

Boy, what a trip!  Similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1993) as a kind of tribute to a whole surrealist author’s body of work, Naked Lunch is a film about the destabilization of the armored male subject through the psychic/psychotic transformative experience of writing.  This time around I noticed several things:  the rampant homoeroticism (complete with talking anuses), the Orientalism (kind of done Madman style:  a stereotyped “chinaman” and Moroccan “exoticism” are both foregrounded at different points), the utter fakeness of the sets, Peter Weller’s droll mumbling as Bill Lee (see Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s Spider for the same), and the dissonant soundtrack created by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman.  Now I kind of see the Naked Lunch story as kind of a cross between Camus’ L’etranger and Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle:  the former due to the narrator’s utter lack of Self becoming grounds for a murderous act, and the latter because there’s a sort of extraordinary sexual journey that Bill Lee goes through without actually having sex with anybody (e.g., Fridolin and his night wanderings).

Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962)

Twelve scenes that show Godard’s contempt for conventional Hollywood narrative that’ll leave you breathless.  The movie was rather dull this time around, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked extensively with One Plus One, Tout va bien and Alphaville, which I find to be much better executed films (and don’t all revolve around Anne Karina’s visage).

The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, UK 1949)

Speaking of well-executed films, Carol Reed’s nihilistic classic put its hooks back into me after I watched The True Glory for the first time on Friday.  An incessant zither soundtrack backs this film noir story set in the dark streets of Vienna, where sharp lines such as “death is at the bottom of all things” are delivered so non-chalantly that they make this sort of filmmaking look easy.  My theory is that Reed, along with Billy Wilder, did his time during the war with the allied propaganda, thereby earning the right to be totally sarcastic about the peace afterward.  Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and, more to the point, Sunset  Boulevard (1950) both peel back the post-war consumer society to reveal a disturbed undertone of fractured identities and incoherent culture.

Ein-Blick (dir. Gerd Conradt, FRG 1986)

Conradt set up a camera to take 1 frame per second for 12 hours, and then recorded East Berlin from West Berlin.  Every time anyone looks at the camera, he freezes frame for just a moment.  The film gives you a good overall impression as to what a day in the life of a security camera might be like, except with more exciting motion and lighting.

Z mojego okna (dir. Józef Robakovski, Poland 1978-2000)

Another stationary camera set-up, this film is translated to roughly “Outside My Window.”  Indeed, Robakovski basically took footage from outside his window for 22 years, recording people running errands, assorted state parades and ultimately a five-star hotel being built that cut off his magnificent window view.  What struck me about this film was that, unlike Conradt’s, it wasn’t anonymous surveillance.  The filmmaker expresses in a voice-over the story of every person whom he spies on, revealing an urban environment that’s actually more like a community than most U.S. cities.

Trabantomania (dir. János Vetö, Hungary 1982)

A music video for a Hungarian band Trabant, Trabantomania is not so much about the East German car – the Trabant – as it is about showing us silly footage of dolphins and seals, and of the band sitting around in a messy apartment.  You still get a definite impression of the interdisciplinarity and intertextuality that underlie such experimental films.

Zestokaja bolezu musicia (dir. Igor and Gleb Aleyinkov, USSR 1987)

This abrasive picture is about this guy who gets on a subway car, two security officials proceed to sodomize him, then leave.  I liked the high-contrast film filters used.  It looked a little bit like Aronovsky’s π (1998).

Lesorub (dir. Yevgeny Yufit, USSR 1985)

This amusing film is about bodies against snow, mostly wrestling with each other, but sometimes doing perverse things with a dummy.  This one’s probably my favorite of the short films.

Sanctus, Sanctus (dir. Thomas Werner, GDR 1988)

In 1988, Thomas Werner and a lot of the East German 8mm scene walked in a May 1st parade, passing Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz and all the party cronies at the time.  The soundtrack is a beautiful church hymn that at once mocks and commemorates the GDR within a single musical line.

Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (dir. Ramona Koeppel-Welsh, GDR 1989)

An anxious picture if I’ve ever seen one, Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (ich gehe weg und du bleibst da! – Struwwelpeter) has been released on our Counter-Images DVD at the DEFA Film Library, but it was much better on the big screen.  Disturbing images of little children weren’t what almost got Koeppel-Welsh thrown in jail over this picture, but rather a little footage of the Berlin Wall shot from a hospital window.  The realm of the politically/culturally forbidden past 1961 usually centered around the thematization of the Wall, and this film proved to be no exception.