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.

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.