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Banality In Venice: Clooney Worship, Tired Auteurs and Herzog's "Unlucky Dip"

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire September 9, 2009 at 3:37AM

"What can I, but enumerate old themes?" -- W.B. Yeats
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"What can I, but enumerate old themes?" -- W.B. Yeats

A man took his clothes off in a press conference yesterday. He was not an attractive man. Nor did he even do an especially good job of undressing, since he seemed, as the moment arrived, to be on the verge of hyperventilating with panic, perhaps even passing out. But he felt obliged to deliver the message that burned behind his pale and unlovely man-breasts - and to do so, furthermore, as publicly as possible.

"I love you!" he shouted, in heavily accented English. "Take me! Choose me! May I kiss you, just once?" By now, he was down to white boxer shorts and a black tie that, as George Clooney, the target of this spectacle, observed dryly, was "just long enough".

This ritual of Clooney-worship, by now tediously familiar (a female Italian TV presenter had already professed her own amore earlier in the press conference), was borne by the star with pained good grace, though you could see, at the edges of that million-dollar smile, a slight tension that might have been exasperation. But it also begged a couple of questions, the most urgent being: why are the journalists at film festivals so goddamned STUPID? Their questions tend to the dimmer side of sub-normal -- barely one step up from "If you could be any kind of tree, what tree would you be?" -- and their behaviour is either boorish, or breathtakingly ignorant, or both. Sure enough, at the end of the session, in another monotonous ritual, they rushed the stage to beg for autographs, presumably in the belief that they hadn't yet demeaned themselves or their profession enough.

Of the film, meanwhile, barely a word was said, as both sides of the equation, Talent and Press, each seemed to recognise the choreographed futility of the occasion. As it happened, Grant Heslov's "The Men Who Stare At Goats" -- adapted from the bestseller by British journalist Jon Ronson -- was rather good: funny, sharp, and conspicuously well-performed by its cast (not only Clooney, in his best comic turn in years, but also Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and a waspish Kevin Spacey). Like Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!", which had screened the day before, it seemed to argue for quieter virtues than either Hollywood or the Lido would ordinarily allow: favouring irony over broad slapstick, thoughtfulness rather than spectacle, and showcasing a deliberate modesty of resources, unusually well-deployed.

Yet Soderbergh and Clooney are exceptions, the strident unpredictability of their careers recalling something of the journeyman ethic of classic Hollywood. If the concentrated viewing of festivals teach us anything, it's that most contemporary filmmakers have neuroses, obssessions, idee fixe; you see them recurring time and again, in work after work. It's the very definition of auteurism.

But you can also go too many times to the well, as a number of works here showed all too eloquently.

Take George Romero, a clever, capable filmmaker who, as a result of an early, genre-defining success with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead", has since found himself obliged to churn out one zombie movie after another. Doubtless there are other films Romero would love to make, other kinds of story he would dearly wish to tell; his handful of non-Dead flicks -- "Season of the Witch", "Martin", "Bruiser" -- are at least as interesting as his better-known work. But much like the survivors whose fate he documents, he's marooned among the walking dead, albeit in Hollywood rather than Pittsburgh, apparently unable to get any other kind of film financed.

A scene from George A. Romero's "Survival of the Dead." Image courtesy of the Venice Film Festival.

For the most part, he's made the best of his predicament. 2005's "Land of the Dead" was a hoot, and "Diary of the Dead" (2007) breathed new life into the franchise (if you'll pardon the expression), cleverly evoking the aesthetic and narrative strategies of contemporary reality-TV. Which only makes the latest installment -- "Survival of the Dead" -- all the more disappointing. Uninspired in conception, perfunctory in execution, it also lacks any of the director's usually acute social and political satire. There are no points being made, here, and no energy on either side of the camera: the humans look and act as lifeless as the zombies, and Romero, for the first time, seems bored by the limits of his own creation.

Likewise, Shinya Tsukamoto, whose debut feature, "Tetsuo The Iron Man", arrived in 1989 like a blast of dirty air, gusting up out of the Tokyo subway. A ground-level technological nightmare, its messy collision of flesh and machinery was at the time labelled "cyberpunk" by most critics, but was actually something stranger and more perverse: a drama about sexual anxiety (and specifically, heterosexual male terror of homosexual rape), and the gradual awakening to one's true nature. Though not usually mentioned in the same breath as "Swoon" or "Poison", it's nevertheless one of the key gay films of that period -- as well as an heir to the social and political provocations of 60s underground Japanese flicks like "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" and "Godspeed! You Black Emperor". A sequel, made three years later, confirmed, rather than diluted, its power.

Since then, Tsukamoto has made other, outwardly more conventional films -- though 1999's "Gemini" played equally effectively with the notion of a hidden half, the secret volteface of one's accepted self. But now, as if low on inspiration, he returns with another Tetsuo movie -- this time titled "Tetsuo The Bullet Man" -- and draws from the same old bag of tricks: that hyper-kinetic visual style, the camera jerking around like a spastic child on a rollercoaster; the same abrasive industrial soundtrack. But he's stymied by some lousy English-language acting, an obvious lack of budget, and above all, the unavoidable sense that we've seen it all before, fresher and therefore better. In adding nothing especially new to the mix, Tsukamoto simply reiterates a meagre handful of images and obsessions. Why, now, should we care?

-This story continues on page 2-

Finally, there's Jacques Rivette, whose latest film (and last, if reports of his ill-health are to be believed) "36 Vues du Pic Saint Loup" (unfortunately retitled "Around a Small Mountain" for Anglophone audiences), showcased many of his usual preoccupations -- in particular, the friction between theatre (or a small circus, in this case) and reality ... though on this occasion, the rewards were unusually scant. Jane Birkin plays a woman who returns to her sister's threadbare troupe after an absence of fifteen years, still scarred by some unspecified catastrophe.

Unabashedly contrived, positively revelling in its artifice, this mostly stands or falls on Birkin's performance, and it's simply not strong enough to hold this loose collection of scenes together. Despite the typical elegance of the director's mise-en-scene, there's a weirdly disconnected feel to proceedings this time around -- a far cry from the passionate conviction of his previous film, the magisterial Balzac adaptation "The Duchess of Langeais" (which also boasted a superior French title: "Ne touchez pas la hache"). But there's also a lack of emotional connection for the viewer. As Yeats said, later in the poem I quote above, "Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of." And this is true, sadly, of Rivette here; the characters, such as they are, seem merely an afterthought. It's a trifling work, by his standards: a minor-key coda to a mostly extraordinary career.

A scene from Werner Herzog's "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" Image courtesy of the Venice Film Festival.

As he has in previous years, festival director Marco Mueller unveiled a surprise movie in competition, though this year's choice -- Werner Herzog's "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" -- turned out to be more of an Unlucky Dip. Executive produced by David Lynch, the film was an embarrassment - though clearly not of riches, since it appeared to have been made for $11.95 over the course of a spare weekend. For those who cared, there were knowing nods to both Lynch and Herzog's oeuvres (cups of coffee, suburban homicides, dwarfs), but even the decent cast assembled here (Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon) couldn't marshall enough enthusiasm to pull this turkey out of the oven, and it was almost impossible to shake the feeling that, were it not for its estimable provenance, this would have about as much business being here in Venice as "All About Steve".

Still, it was mildly interesting as the second helping of Herzog this festival (a third, a short entitled "La Boheme", went unseen by this writer). He's already premiered his ... well, what should we call his take on "Bad Lieutenant", anyway? A remake? A "revisit"? A JJ Abrams-style "re-imagining"?

Rather more interestingly, though, given the very public bad blood that's dogged project since it was announced, was the sight of Herzog quietly fanning the flames of conflict with original "Bad Lieutenant" director Abel Ferrera - who's also in Venice with his new feature "Napoli, Napoli, Napoli". The German was doing his share of Jimmy Hart-style trash-talking ("I heff heard zere iz another film by zis title," he told one interviewer, "but I heff not seen it. Nor heff I heard off its director."), and film geeks, as well as the merely bored and malicious -- which is to say, the rest of us -- began entertaining notions of an Arthouse Smackdown, presumably shown pay-per-view on theauteurs.com.

In the end, the result was faintly disappointing, being neither as terrible nor as crazy as we might have wished. Indeed, with his chronic back pain, heavy sarcasm and penchant for attractive younger women, Cage seemed less Bad Lieutenant than House M.D. -- while the script, by TV crime writer William Finkelstein, cheerfully discarded all the Catholic themes and motifs that helped make the original so memorably deranged.

Still, flashes of the hoped-for juju surfaced from time to time -- most notably, in a scene in which Cage's cop breaks into a nursing home, removes an old white lady's respirator-tube, and points a .45 at her elderly black friend's head, demanding to know where the latter's grandson, a witness to a recent murder, might be found. "You fucking cunts!" he screams. "Wasting your kids' inheritances like this ... You're what's wrong with this country!" Say what you like about his methods, it's still a more sophisticated contribution to America's health-care debate than anything Glenn Beck has advanced over at Fox.

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done







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