Feb 9, '06
Funny thing about Rotterdam: one eats healthier, more satisfying meals in the lounges of movie theatres than in actual restaurants. Fancy a squash and pumpkin soup with a seven-grain roll on the side? Or how about a beat, apple, and radish medley with a slice of fluffy ciabatta bread? Not into salads? Well, smoked salmon, dill, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches on a baguette are customary in any of the movie theatre "stands"; or if you don't like salmon, there's brie with all of the aforementioned ingredients. To drink? The house tap beer goes down oh-so-easily (this year it seemed to be mainly Heineken, though Grolsch and Bavaria are also big brands); if you don't drink, Schweppes' Bitter Lemon is a nice alternative to coffee for a mid-afternoon buzz. Be watchful of your spending, though: if you're coming from the Americas, the Euro can totally kick your ass.
Anyway… Now to talk about ass-kicking cinema. For brevity's sake, I'll only discuss major highlights and major disappointments. In the latter category, a consensus seemed to form around Jan Svankmajer's Lunacy less than twenty-four hours after the international premiere screening. Svankmajer arguably reached the height of his tactile, surrealist cinema in the late '80s, with the beautifully extroverted Mu né hry/Virile Games , in which members of opposing soccer teams are brutally killed off one by one in various tortuous and impossible ways. Conspirators of Pleasure  showed the Czech animator was finally adjusted to the feature length form. In comparison with the earlier film--and the subsequent Little Otik --Lunacy is overdrawn in its wordiness, its laborious structure, and its somewhat haphazard inclusion of the usual Svankmajerian elements (severed cow tongues and other assorted meats follow the characters throughout the film). As the director himself announces to us at the beginning, Lunacy is an indictment of how society treats the mentally ill, and furthermore, of how the world is at a culminating point of craziness. This note of quasi-seriousness, and the intended hilarity of the filmmaker appearing before us to present such a prosaic metaphor, only furthers the notion that Svankmajer's cinema, in its stab to be "relevant", is sadly behind the times.
Philippe Faucon's La Trahison/The Betrayal, on the other hand, is just at the curve in its treatment of the Algerian War of Independence. Unlike Michael Haneke's Caché and Alain Tasma's Nuit noir, 17 octobre 1961--two major films from the last year which also touched on this subject--The Betrayal has only received plaudits in France (the Cahiers raved) and received select festival screenings. It's easy to see why: it's the closest thing to Bitter Victory  this side of austere low-budget war movies with disappointingly few action sequences (and like the Ray film, it's shot in gorgeous 'Scope). It takes place towards the end of the war, though more than a year before the Paris protests depicted in Tasma's film. The situation that we see, and which Faucon is careful not to reveal too much of, is of a French unit becoming suspicious of fellow harkis (Algerians who sided with French troupes), eventually imprisoning their foreign comrades in an emotional, abrupt finale. The Betrayal is rhythmically different than any film I saw at the festival, moving forward with such conviction that we can't help but keep our eyes peeled even at the moments when we know nothing at all and nothing appears to be happening. Not for everyone, though thinking of the film in retrospect, it's as psychologically rich in what it shows and doesn't show us as Caché, though certainly not with as many immediate thrills as the Haneke.
Three Japanese films that I saw at the festival are still growing, as I think more about them: The First Emperor [1973-93], Heart, Beating in the Dark , and It's Only Talk . Coincidentally, all feature depressive characters who float in time in search of meaning and structure. The First Emperor, by experimental legend Hara Masato, existed for years at a length of nearly seven hours. The two-screen version shown at the festival, re-edited in 1993 from 16mm footage (blown up from Super 8), is only 108 minutes, though as a condensation it hardly suffers in getting across the idea that Hara's project is about artistic frustration and is designed as an endless meditation on cinema itself. A roadtrip through northern Japan effused with LSD-inspired musings, The First Emperor seeks to trivialize the meaning of its grainy, soundless images; progressively, time and place become unfilmable, as the director encounters dialectical significance in the ancient myths of Japan and the absence of any images that would be illustrative of those myths. The film was shown as part of a program called "White Lights", which is described as dealing with the "sultry relationship between drugs and film". Though not mutually tied to the drug film theme--as curator Gertjan Zuilhof readily notes in the program description of "White Lights", the topic at least "make[s] sure there are plenty of new and wondrous things to discover"--The First Emperor rests somewhere between where Andy Warhol left off in his talking pictures and where structural filmmaking began: it goes from the emotionally mundane and becomes a celebration of mundane intellectuality. Given the circularity of Hara's conclusions about cinema and the reality around him, we're tempted to just stop thinking and enjoy the flux of colors and light and the sublime, Brian Eno-like music the director has put on the soundtrack. By allowing us to alternate our passive and active roles as spectators, we're left with an unforgettable impression of a specific time in history, as if having wandered through it ourselves.
Hiroki Ryuichi's subtly affecting It's Only Talk is the director's 40th film, amazingly, since he brings to it a youthful directness in portraying a manic depressive woman named Yuko. At first I found this character grating, but as the filmmaker takes us into the dark tunnel of depression, revealing every step of Yuko's recovery process, the audience feels an enormous pleasure in reaching the other side along with her. In the end, the resolution isn't so simple, though a radical shift in the way we look at Yuko's relationship to those around her gives new meaning to the preceding events. I'll resist from commenting on Heart, Beating in the Dark too much, since I saw it in a bad copy in the festival video office, but I'll quickly note that it has been updated with a new version that I'm told incorporates much of the footage from the older one. Also, Tony Rayns has called it "the finest achievement in recent Japanese cinema". Look out for it on the festival circuit. The original, shot on synch-sound Super 8, is messy in the range of the characters' emotions, though the film itself is an impressively written off kilter love story.
Boy, I didn't think I'd be running this long. I still haven't mentioned the Stephen Dwoskin program, Noel Vera's mighty selection of films from the Philippines, or any of the very worthy Tiger entries. But I think I'll stop here, and at the appropriate time I'll ask Zach to redirect his readers to the rest of my coverage, which will be appearing either at Senses of Cinema or some other place.
A big thanks to Zach for agreeing to host these, and to my brothers and sisters in Rotterdam, who in our long conversations helped me to sort through the various thoughts that were posted here: Alicia, Belinda, Christoph, Cristine, Dana, Elena (who helped me to experience an entirely different kind of festival), Hans-Christian, Mark, Neil, Nika, Olaf, and Scott--see you all at the next one!