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Eagerly Expressing The Obvious: Berlin Critic's Notebook

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire February 9, 2009 at 8:34AM

Five days into the 2009 Berlinale, and amid grumblings of discontent from critics ("Twenty films so far," said one colleague, "and I haven't seen one thing I'd champion") and a pronounced lack of enthusiasm among buyers, one sensed a new tone to proceedings: if the program couldn't entertain us, then by god it was going to IMPROVE us. Indeed, if Berlin 09 will be remembered for anything, it will be for its eagerness to tell us, with every ounce of anguished sincerity it could muster, the bleeding obvious.
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Five days into the 2009 Berlinale, and amid grumblings of discontent from critics ("Twenty films so far," said one colleague, "and I haven't seen one thing I'd champion") and a pronounced lack of enthusiasm among buyers, one sensed a new tone to proceedings: if the program couldn't entertain us, then by god it was going to IMPROVE us. Indeed, if Berlin 09 will be remembered for anything, it will be for its eagerness to tell us, with every ounce of anguished sincerity it could muster, the bleeding obvious.

Take "Rage", the latest from British writer-director Sally Potter, in which she pronounces her judgment upon the fashion industry. It's bad, apparently. Bad for women (forced to be too thin) and bad for society (encouraged to be superficial and modish). This conclusion, blindingly apparent to anyone who's ever browsed an issue of Vogue or Surface -- or, I don't know, visited a shop -- appears to have struck Potter with the force of holy revelation. Something must be done! she thought (sitting in what, I do not doubt, would be an exquisitely decorated home, with a wardrobe full of lovely clothes). The truth must be told!

That she chose to respond without much apparent sense of how the fashion industry actually functions, and via a stylistic device that would exclude all but the most dedicated arthouse audiences (the film is a series of direct-to-camera interviews with stars like Jude Law and Judi Dench -- all in character -- shot against super-saturated backgrounds), attests either to the urgency of her mission (no time to waste on research!), or her unshakeable conviction that She Knows Best. Charity obliges me to believe the former; experience, however, suggests the latter.

No less sanctimonious was "Mammoth", Lucas Moodyson's attempt to re-connect with commercial audiences following a couple of wayward semi-experimental (or just plain unpleasant) features. A slick, globe-hopping slice of contemporary First World guilt, in the tradition of "Babel" (right down to its interlocked, tripartite structure), and like that film, it was positively besotted with its own worthiness. To my surprise, it was roundly booed at the press screening.

Rape is bad, too -- as we learned from "Storm", a German drama from Hans-Christian Schmid, whose exorcism drama "Requiem" was a powerful entry in the 2006 competition. This one, mostly in English, starred Kerry Fox as a prosecuting attorney for the EU War Crimes Tribunal, trying to convict a Serbian war criminal who, we discover, was not so busy ethnic-cleansing his region as to forget to establish rape camps in one of its larger hotels.

Notwithstanding its more obvious flaws (stiff, expository dialogue, a weird lack of tension), the whole thing soon degenerates into rank implausibility, building to a climax in which the case's star witness (the fine Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, from Cannes winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), initially -- and understandably -- reluctant to testify, has her moment in court. It ends with her thanking Fox's character for helping her to "do the right thing".

Yet far from this touching valentine to "Truth At All Costs," a more honest denouement would have seen her a few days later, returning home to Berlin to receive, on her doorstep, a bullet to the head from some anonymous assassin -- that being her sure and certain fate.

Ah, but that ending, while far more credible, might have disturbed our cozy sense of moral uplift. Not to mention undermining the film's true purpose, which was neither to illuminate either the atrocities committed in Bosnia, nor critique the workings of EU justice, but to provide an unquestioning endorsement of our own liberal sympathies, a balm to right-thinking viewers everywhere.

In this respect, it was all too typical. There is, overall, an unbelievable arrogance on display in this competition: a sense of filmmakers feeling entitled, by their self-appointed status as intellectuals, to offer up their pronouncements on the Great Issues of the day. Which would be forgivable -- even commendable -- were their conclusions not so banal. Unfortunately, you don't exactly sense great minds at work here; nor are their insights exactly profound. Rape is bad? Wow, really? Globalization will have terrible consequences for poorer countries? You don't say. At once self-congratulatory and condescending, this is FUBU cinema: for us, by us. A choir, singing smugly and solely to itself.

Where are the nuanced examinations of the problems that beset us? Where are the dramas equipped to deal with the ambiguities and contradictions of human nature? The films that challenge our assumptions, rather than simply confirm them? Most of us, after all, are liberal in our politics, humanist in outlook, conscious of (if not always diligent about) our responsibilities as citizens. Yet time and again, issues are presented in the simplest, most black-and-white terms: war, bad; organic produce, good. As if the viewer could not be trusted to properly weigh the issues at stake. One longs for the careful, unsparing intelligence of a Raymond Depardon, or a Marcel Ophuls; instead, we live in the age of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

It was, therefore, with some relief that I sat through Michael Glawogger's latest film, "Das Vaterspiel" (unfortunately re-titled- in English "Kill Daddy Good Night"). His 2005 documentary "Workingman's Death" was one of this decade's smartest examinations of contemporary labor issues, and his last feature, "Slumming", managed to be both provocative and dramatically satisfying.

This one, about a Viennese computer programmer who devises a game whose object is to kill one's own (individually personalized) father, again and again -- only to find himself in New York, saddled with the care of an aging former Nazi -- could be termed a noble failure, developing its themes of national and cultural patrimony, but succumbing to confusion and finally flat-lining. Yet although the film doesn't ultimately work, its cussed strangeness, combined with its maker's obvious ambition, at least held my interest, and even made me think, the only film in the programme to do so thus far.

Finally, there are those filmmakers who say nothing at all. Exhibit A: Andrew Bujalski. I don't mean to belittle him: I liked each of his previous features, "Funny Ha Ha" and "Mutual Appreciation" a great deal. Small and eccentric, they played like anthropological studies of a particular sub-culture; he seemed content to become the Jean Roach of the Pitchfork Media set. But each was also lit by moments of sudden, disarming beauty or mystery, flashes of poetic resonance amid the unvarnished mundanity of ordinary life.

"Beeswax" offers no such compensations. It starts unpromisingly, to say the least, with some kind of ownership dispute in what appears to be the world's shittiest second-hand clothing store. Does Amanda still own the store? Is she going to sue Jeannie? Puzzled, the viewer could only wonder what other gripping developments were to come. Perhaps the second act would focus on the intricacies of payroll tax?

But there was no second act, because there was no structure -- no point at all, in fact, beyond watching a bunch of almost defiantly unattractive people deliver stumbling, banal dialogue . . . in badly shot 16mm. And freed from the distractions of style or substance, the audience was free to consider how numbingly boring, how horribly self-obsessed, these characters are. (A favourite song, one character mumbles, "makes me cry like a little bitch." Well, look at yourself, man! You ARE a little bitch. You're a whiny, middle-class, white twentysomething in an indie band t-shirt, with all the emotional maturity of a 14-year-old. Grow the fuck up.) I left after 50 minutes, fearful that, were I to stay, I would join the jihadists.

Still, one final point should be made. The relative economy of his technique means that Mr Bujalski finds himself in an extremely enviable position. He has what appears to be complete creative control (including final cut), enjoys healthy critical support, and has access to major festivals -- a situation approximately 30,000 filmmakers around the world would kill for. To then abuse this privilege so thoroughly, and present a film like this one -- which says nothing of even the slightest interest, displays no care or forethought in its conception, and positively revels in its slipshod amateurishness -- displays either a breathtaking arrogance, or a solipsism even greater than that of his characters. Either way, he should be ashamed.

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