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Berlinale Critics Notebook: Searching For Meaning In a "Two Star" Festival

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire February 17, 2010 at 3:12AM

Five days into the 60th Berlinale, and the mood might have most charitably been described as neutral. There were some good films, though not a lot. But then, there weren't many outright stinkers, either. The market hummed along without seeming to achieve much, either in terms of major sales or -- to use that all-purpose industry index -- 'buzz'. People seemed weary rather than depressed, lacking the one fine film, the hot tip or ticket, that might renew their enthusiasm. It was, as one friend commented, a two-star festival, no more.
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Five days into the 60th Berlinale, and the mood might have most charitably been described as neutral. There were some good films, though not a lot. But then, there weren't many outright stinkers, either. The market hummed along without seeming to achieve much, either in terms of major sales or -- to use that all-purpose industry index -- 'buzz'. People seemed weary rather than depressed, lacking the one fine film, the hot tip or ticket, that might renew their enthusiasm. It was, as one friend commented, a two-star festival, no more.

In the absence of really outstanding work, our minds turned instead to thoughts of context. We tried in vain to identify a leitmotif, some common thread to what we were seeing. Most festival selections are prone to recurring themes, either grand (incest, terminal illnesses, illegitimacy) or trivial (cars that won't start). This one seemed fascinated by men emerging from prison to restart their lives.

On the one hand there was Benjamin Heisenberg's "The Robber", from Austria. One of the stronger competition entries, it offered a study of pathological compulsion, via an ex-con whose obsessive training as a runner serves him equally well in winning marathons and holding-up banks, twin pastimes he manages to juggle with surprising success. The film had a nicely remorseless trajectory, some impressively kinetic set-pieces, and in the lean, impassive figure of Andreas Lust, a central performance of genuine power.

On the other was Hans Petter Moland's "A Somewhat Gentle Man", with Stellan Skarsgard as a doughty former gangster trying to re-adjust to life on the outside. A somewhat too-gentle comedy, it seemed beguiled by its own winsomeness -- which struck me as rather more calculated than it took care to appear -- and finally dragged on way too long.

But not as long as the Romanian competition entry, "If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle", whose young protagonist -- also institutionalized -- only briefly made it beyond the prison gates. As a film, it seemed similarly trapped, finally resembling one of those dreams where you're running down a corridor or tunnel whose end keeps retreating, further and further out of reach; the closer we got to the inevitable (and utterly unsurprising) climax, the more the writer-director seemed to want to postpone its arrival -- 94 minutes rarely seemed so long. And together with Constantin Popescu's banal, interminable "Portrait of the Fighter As a Young Man", screening in Forum, it hinted at the unwelcome possibility that Romanian cinema, heady with its own success, might now be entering its rococo phase.

(The latter was also one of those movies where you wanted to grab the director by the collar and shout at him: For the love of god, son, would you hold the camera still. This wobbly handheld thing, where even a static long shot is beset by odd little twitches and spasms? It's an affection. It doesn't convey immediacy, or 'gritty verisimilitude', as you seem to believe. It's simply distracting, faddish, redundant, and boring. Either study some Haskell Wexler or Raoul Coutard, guys who knew how to use a handheld camera to tell a story, or buy a fucking tripod.)

Ahem.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the Forum -- this year celebrating an anniversary of its own: four decades since its inception, after the furor over Michael Verhoeven's anti-Vietnam film "o.k." effectively shut the Berlinale down in 1969.

Conceived amid student activism and political assassinations, the Viet Cong and Radical Chic, it was intended as a repository for cutting-edge cinema: more politically forthright, stylistically avant-garde and generally uncompromising than the main programme would allow; and for years it maintained a distinctly adversarial relationship with the festival proper -- a by-product, by all accounts, of the deep wells of enmity that existed between then-Berlinale chief Moritz De Hadeln, and Ulrich Gregor, the shy, scholarly academic who, together with his wife and co-programmer Erika, infused the fledgling section with his own, apologetically rarefied aesthetic. ("I look for the difficult and unusual," he once said, encapsulating an entire programming philosophy -- indeed, pretty much a whole worldview -- in just seven words.)

Christophe Terhecte took over in 2001, yet such was the Gregors' close identification with the section, he's still regarded by many as "the new boy". As such, he's copped some flack from longtime Forum-goers; personally, I think he deserves credit for tightening the section's line-up. At 35 features (down from over 50 in 2000), it's a good deal less baggy than it was. Other aspects, though, are less satisfying. There's something schizophrenic about Terhecte's programming -- and not in a good way.

Typically the Forum was a slog. Indeed, it was more or less designed that way, as the aforementioned quote would indicate. The filmmakers had suffered for their art -- and now it was our turn. But Terhecte, perhaps mindful of the need to increase its audience, has begun to scatter among the chaff a handful of lighter, more commercially-inclined movies, gestures of appeasement that would have been unthinkable under the Ancien Regime.

Thus we find amid, this year's selection, Arvin Chen's cheery "Au Revoir Taipei" -- a slight, charming romance, reminiscent at times of one of Johnnie To's meticulously choreographed caper-flicks, which ended with a delicate dance number to the Lindy Hop; and Hou Chi-Jan's "One Day", the kind of sugary confection (about two young lovers who might be dreaming each other) that might inspire a tremulous sigh from a teenage girl in Harajuku or Hongdae, but elicits other, deeper exhalations -- of frustration, rather than bliss -- from fortysomething critics, aware that this is, beneath its sugary surface, essentially a minor short film padded out, none too adroitly, to feature length.

A scene from Arvin Chen's "Au Revoir Taipei."

Now, a section that blurs the lines dividing arthouse and mainstream moviemaking, that shuffles high-minded fare with genre flicks, is one I'd cherish and defend. But first and foremost they have to be good movies. And too many of the Forum's selections are not.

Thus, in a year of middling Korean cinema, it ignored the few highlights -- notably, Park Chan-ok's "Paju" -- and gave us instead Ryu Hyung-ki's well-nigh unendurable "Our Fantastic 21st Century". The story of a Seoul girl saving for a cosmetic-surgery procedure (which is to say, the classic Korean coming-of-age tale), and the loan shark who befriends and then exploits her, it was rote Asian miserabilism; amateurish, self-conscious, poorly executed. Likewise So Sang-min's "I'm In Trouble!", which played like a parody of a Hong San-soo movie. (And if Hong's recent work has proved anything, it's that he's perfectly capable of parodying himself.)

I quite admired, a few years ago, Angela Schanelec's 2001 drama "Mein langsames Leben", with its gratifyingly messy depiction of domestic relationships. But since then, it's been very much a case of diminishing returns, as the filmmaker has succumbed to what appears to be some kind of subconscious desire to punish her audience. "Orly", her sixth feature, is set at the airport of the title, and manages at least to be faithful to its location, being every bit as tedious as a long layover.

One of contemporary cinema's great passive-aggressives, Schanelec is a devotee of Godard -- she even chose his "Sauve qui peut (la vie)" to screen as her contribution to the Forum's 40th anniversary retrospective -- and for this "French" film, fills the screens with allusions to the master's work, from the surnames-only credit sequence (sans musique, naturellement), to characters reciting at length from whatever book is closest to hand. There's even someone flicking through photos on a digital camera, in what I thought might be a nod to the postcard sequence from "Les Carabiniers".

But she's JLG-lite, minus the poetry, the intelligence or the urgency. Thus, we witness encounters between various people about to jet off to their destinations -- notably, Natacha Reginer and Bruno Todeschini, perhaps the most determinedly uncharismatic actor in continental Europe -- and while Schanelec deserves respect for letting these vignettes play out in real time, in the actual physical space of the airport, the long, uninterrupted takes serve to highlight, rather than occlude the banality of the exchanges.

As such, it confirms something that I'd begun to suspect from her recent films: that beneath their rigorous and unvarying aesthetic, their maker has nothing whatsoever to say about culture, history, society, politics, science, love, or life. There's barely an original thought advanced in the entire film -- despite a last-ditch stab at religio-philosophical profundity, courtesy of a borrowed text (recited in voiceover) and an airport evacuation, with its tangy overtones of terrorism.

If, however, you enjoy watching people make and receive cell-phone calls, then boy-oh-boy, is this the movie for you!

Rather better was Matt Porterfield's "Putty Hill" - though, again, by way of disclosure, I feel bound to report that the film is produced by Jordan Mintzer, a Paris-based colleague at Variety, whom I befriended at Cannes last May. Such is his natural modesty, I knew nothing of Jordan's sideline as a producer until I read Richard Brody's extravagant praise for the 2006 American indie "Hamilton" on his New Yorker blog, and, intrigued, looked up the film's website -- whereupon I found his name listed among its credits.

Brody declared "Hamilton" "one of the finest American independent films ever made", no small claim. My praise is rather more measured, but there's no denying that Porterfield's sophomore effort is remarkable, not least for the results it achieves from extremely modest means. Budgeted at just $25,000, it plays, at times, a little like Duane Hopkins' "Better Things" -- though without that filmmaker's tediously self-conscious aspirations to High Art.

It has its longueurs, without question, and the sound mix is at times rather less than pristine -- at least at the preview screening caught. But there are moments here of startling compositional grace, flashes of awkward honesty and discomfiting intimacy -- and one killer sequence, at a memorial service for a recently deceased youth, which quickly turns into an extended karaoke session, courtesy of Bob's "Rebel Rouser's DJ Hire". Keep them in mind for your next wedding, bar mitzvah or white-trash funeral.

I was hooked, too, by a small film from Argentina, "The Counting of the Damages". In it, a young man arrives at a factory to implement a "efficiency assessment" for its new owners, and soon winds up sleeping with the older woman who runs the place -- despite the fact that, on his way there, and unbeknownst to her, he caused a road accident that killed her husband. As if this were not problematic enough, he might also be her long-missing son...

Divided into ten short chapters, and almost but not quite overloaded with Classical references (no prizes for guessing which), it looked quietly breathtaking, its intimate close-ups and blurred vistas of smokestacks and pylons reminiscent of Philippe Grandrieux, and seemed to indicate the presence of a genuine, if still nascent talent in writer-director Ines de Oliveira Cezar.

There's no denying that the Forum has discovered and nurtured genuine talent -- the aforementioned retrospective tribute, with titles like Chantal Akerman's "L'Est" and Oshima's "The Ceremony", is proof of that. (Though I'm somewhat confused, since I distinctly remember seeing Claire Denis' masterpiece "Beau Travail" -- also screening here as a Forum greatest-hit -- actually world-premiered at Venice, not Berlin, back in September 1999.) Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that the section should be discarded. The times have changed (that 'context' thing again); its original mission is over. Forty years is a good, round number: let's end it here. And create, instead, something new -- faithful to the outsider spirit of the former section, but unburdened by its name and history, devoid of the political urgency which spawned it and which, these days, it does practically nothing to acknowledge. Indeed, Laura Poitras's documentary "The Oath" -- which I discussed at length in my first post -- was as close as this year's Forum came to actual political engagement; too much of the rest evinced the worst traits of the arthouse, being solipsistic, self-reflexive and smugly self-satisfied, as removed from the real world as an editorial meeting at Cahiers. It's too little, and too late.

This article is related to: Reviews, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle