BERLIN 2001: Hannibal's Fears, Zentropa's Anti-American Imperialism, and Strong Docs
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 02.14.01) -- At what other film festival can you walk away with a free knapsack from Mercedes Benz and a CD-Rom disc entitled Films From Latvia. Yes, everything you ever wanted to know about Latvian films is here for your perusal, including info on the animated short "Home Hole Horrors." Plot: a raccoon while doing his morning exercises in his tree cavity is disturbed by a woodpecker attacking a worm.
It's hard to top that, but the Berlinale did so with gusto. In fact, one of the hottest tickets and the most heated press conferences belonged to a film called "Don's Plum." This sensationally acted tale chronicles a group of young, disaffected 20-year-olds at a diner one evening and how they rage against themselves and each other. It might just be the best American movie you won't view this year or any other. Two of its stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, have squelched its US release. It's finally gotten a life overseas thanks to its pick up by Lars von Trier's Zentropa Films.
Director RD Robb noted, "We're here to celebrate the film itself and I'd really like to talk about the film," but the press wouldn't let him. "We have amicably agreed on the settlement and all parties are happy to put this misunderstanding behind," noted his partner, Dale Wheatley.
Finally, with the reporters being relentless on the matter, producer and Zentropa spokesperson Peter Aalbaek Jensen jumped in: "We from Europe had to save an American film from the worst kind of American imperialism: the studio system . . . the star system that was going to kill these two young guys. These nationalists used every fucking power play to squeeze these young guys that just made a film together with their friends. So that's a disgrace really, for the business in America that treats young artists like that. ICM tried to kill them. Because I'm a radical left wing communist, these guys repelled me so we had a rebellion against the American monster business."
"I would correct that though," Mr. Robb jumped in. ICM had no involvement."
At the "Hannibal" get-together (screening out of competition), Sir Anthony Hopkins held forth against accusations that the film was just a gore fest: "I don't think people who see this film or go to see 'Psycho' or go on a roller coaster need to check into a psychiatrist. It's part of human nature to give ourselves a bit of fear. When Janet Leigh is being stabbed by Tony Perkins in the shower, it's horrifying, but it excites us, because it is part of our mechanism. It's the duality in our psyche. The dark and the light. The light and the dark.
"Everyone's got the right to be critical, but this is my defense of Ridley Scott and this movie. I think it's a brilliant movie for Ridley risking and going out on a limb. Nobody wants to play it safe. Why play safe? That's more terrifying than anything, being safe. Being safe and being politically correct is the most evil cancer of all," Sir Hopkins concluded.
Mike Nichols might disagree. His adaptation of the play "Wit," starring Emma Thompson as a woman dying of ovarian cancer, is in competition here. The film will be shown on HBO in the States, but released as a feature elsewhere. The noted helmer of such classics as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Carnal Knowledge" discussed film business difficulties while wife Diane Sawyer looked blissfully on from the audience.
"I think the people who run the studios are open to good ideas if they are strong ideas," said Nichols. "I think the problem comes from somewhere else, which is that over the years, the emphasis has become heavier and heavier on what did the picture gross? Pictures aren't nominated for Academy Awards unless they gross a certain amount, because they are just not important enough. What's happened, without any executive being at fault, is that how much a picture makes has become the only criterion. And because of that, there's a kind of unspoken pressure on everyone making studio pictures."
"One of the joys of our experience on this movie," Nichols continued, "is that we didn't have to worry about the opening weekend. The opening weekend is a great weight on you when you're making a picture for 65, 75, 80 million dollars. No matter what anybody says and how much freedom they give, 12 o'clock on Sunday of your first weekend, they look at their computer and they call you and tell you pretty much the rest of your life."
"Not just about the movie," Nichols confessed, "but what will happen to you. What you can hope for. What you have to give up. It's too important. It's like capitalism itself. It's out of everybody's control."
As for the Berlinale films themselves, among the most praised so far is Lone Scherfig's "Italian for Beginners." The Danish helmer describes her complex love story as the "first second generation Dogma film." Maybe that's why it was acquired by Miramax.
Surprisingly, the film that smaller distributors are fighting for is photographer Bruce Weber's personal documentary of sorts, "Chop Suey." With a handheld camera constantly on the move, we meet the models and personalities that are so important to Mr. Weber. Some episodes are fascinating like those devoted to singer Frances Faye and her lover. Diana Vreeland (Miss Vogue) also holds court splendidly in her very red apartment and supplies some witticisms. But the beautiful models, both male and female, which are here in great numbers, are never allowed to be viewed at rest. The camera's always swinging this way and that. Additionally, hundreds of photographs are scanned by a restless camera. "Chop Suey" strives to be avant-garde and trendy. For many, it will be.
Two Sundance documentaries are also gaining a following in Berlin, Kate Smith's "Southern Comfort" and Sandi Dubowski's "Trembling before G-d." If "Southern Comfort" were a Jerry Springer episode, it would be billed as Southern White Trailer Trash With Sex Reassignments. But this lovely documentary never exploits as it pursues three couples that try to blanket their lives with an air of normalcy, no matter how hard the outside world would deem them otherwise. Dubowski's "Trembling before G-d" is profoundly touching, a look at the plight of gay Orthodox Jews who are trying to integrate their sexuality with their religious beliefs. While the style is not innovative, the subject matter is groundbreaking.
Also noteworthy are Otto Alexander Jahrreiss' "Zoom" about a young introvert who falls in love with a prostitute whose clients he's secretly blackmailing, Yongyooth Thongkonthum's hilarious "Sa Tree Lex" ("The Iron Ladies"), the true story of Thailand's champion volleyball team that was composed of flaming drag queens; and Lea Pool's recent Sundance premiere, the hyper "Lost and Delirious," starring Piper Perabo as a teenager in an all-girl's school who goes crazy when her roommate decides to stop being her lesbian lover. As if someone could reject Piper. But that's cinema here in Berlin.