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by Peter Knegt
February 9, 2009 8:34 AM
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Eagerly Expressing The Obvious: Berlin Critic's Notebook

A scene from Michael Glawogger's "Das Vaterspiel" (Kill Daddy Good Night). Image courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival.

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.

TAGS: Reviews
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19 Comments

  • EmersonLakeObama | November 24, 2011 10:34 PMReply

    I thought it was a good film but could have been better. Of course it could have been worse. But that would not be too much of a problem because there are plenty of both good and bad films. The best ones though are the ones that are good. I like those the best. But sometimes I like others too. But not all the time. Sometimes I like the ones that are not so good more than the good ones. This film fits somewhere inbetween so I think that I like it more than I don't. I agree with what Shane Danielsen says even though he is not so clever as Rick Wakeman.

  • Nicole | February 15, 2011 7:25 AMReply

    Comparing film to eggs? Why is anyone even listening to what he has to say then?

  • Houston | April 10, 2009 1:46 AMReply

    Amazing work Shane. What do these critics know? They watched the film and even thought about it before writing.

    “Beeswax secures Bujalski as one of the finest, most deftly talented filmmakers currently working in America.” – LA TIMES, Mark Olsen

    “…a further refinement of one of the sharpest and most distinctive voices in American movies today.” – Int. Herald Tribune, Dennis Lim

    “…Bujalski's best film to date… feels both spontaneous and carefully guided.” – PASTE, Robert Davies

    “Beautiful…ambitious leap ahead of Bujalski’s previous filmography.” – SPOUT.COM, Karina Longworth

    “…Bujalski's most ambitious and richest effort, adding new layers of relevance to his trademark milieu of conversational awkwardness among young adults living day to day by depositing them within the creeping walls of grown-up responsibility.” – THE AUTEURS, Kevin Lee.

    "...displays no care or forethought in its conception". Indiewire, Shane Danielsen

    You could not have written anything more erroneous. Andrew is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met.

    Anyway, I hope you watch the film when we open and revisit your perspective. I think you will regret this review and more importantly hope you reconsider writing such a negative review so early in a film's life without even watching the film.

  • martin k | February 24, 2009 10:51 AMReply

    How much more should he watch to get his impression correct?

    How long is the film itself?

    Sometimes you can tell your opinion of a film in 10 minutes, much less 50.

    He gave ample examples of his perceptions of the failings of the film.

    I would be hard pressed to watch another Bujalski film unless it's playing at my local film festival as I've been unimpressed twice from renting his previous films. So this review doesn't surprise me at all. And so what he commented on Bujalski's enviable position...earlier in the column he discussed the FUBU nature of all the films. To me the comment fits with that same theme.

    Why should any filmmaker be immune to harsh criticism...I mean, this is the BERLIN Film Festival, no? Please, relatively speaking, Bujalski's no longer the little guy.

    -Martin

    Danielson, feel free to skewer my film any time, many other less astute critics have..."Behind the Nine" available at Netflix :)

  • shane danielsen | February 14, 2009 3:02 AMReply

    You know, Tully, you're absolutely right. Well spotted.

  • tully | February 14, 2009 2:10 AMReply

    It's, er, Jean Rouch, actually.

  • Susan 14 | February 13, 2009 10:21 AMReply

    funny blah blah

  • jay van hoy | February 13, 2009 9:46 AMReply

    Wow! You best be trollin' us, Shane, with this review of Andrew's movie. (seriously, are you?) You're entitled to it of course--and say what you will about this forum for film reviews guys, I know first-hand that IndieWIRE is important for the life of a film, for the filmmakers involved and its success. As has Shane been with Edinburgh. There's only one thing that I appreciate about your review though, Shane, you are honest enough to tell us that you left after 50 minutes. For that reason, though, it should have never shown up here. Run it on your blog, not here. Not only does this reflect poorly on you as a critic, but also IndieWIRE's editorial policy. Is this a mistake? Or should we expect more of this from IndieWIRE in the future?

  • matthewmross | February 13, 2009 9:43 AMReply

    “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.” That statement should be applied to this pathetic excuse of a review, not to the film itself. You have the nerve to belittle a filmmaker’s “privilege” to make a low-budget film when you NEVER EVEN FINISHED WATCHING IT? What about your privilege of writing for indieWIRE and not some DIY blog? Are you f*%cking kidding dude? The only "little bitch" I can point out after reading this review is you. Also: “...he seemed content to become the Jean Roach of the Pitchfork Media set.” What kind of backhanded compliment is that? Would you rather he aspire to become the “Michael Bay of the TMZ set”? Review a film on your opinion of its merits or lack thereof, that’s all. And that means watching it, asshole. I love the indieWIRE crew, but they need to fire your ass. And someone else needs to bust it up. I have a feeling there won't be a shortage of volunteers. -Matt Ross

  • jtriley3 | February 13, 2009 1:03 AMReply

    Forum of influence? Are you mad? Do you honestly believe a buyer of films worries about a review in indieWire or any other on/off-line publication when deciding whether or not to make an offer for a particular title? If they're worth their salt they've seen the film before any of this is published. And if the film's any good, they've already made an offer. The level of market-shifting mind control with which you seem to credit this outlet and, by extension, him is a dubious assumption at best.

  • mistertopps | February 12, 2009 9:15 AMReply

    To write a scathing review of a film they didn't sit through, it's just an abuse of this critic's power.

    Roger Ebert came under fire for this earlier this year, and he duly apologized (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/10/dont_read_me_first.html). However, in this case, I think it's far more offensive.

    Especially for an indie film that is seeking distribution, and in a forum of such influence, to be one of the first words out there to publicly talk about it without having sat through the whole thing... this is morally unethical to me. Despite whether the critic thinks the film is not going to get any better: he still does not know that for sure, his opinion can not be fully formed, and now far less people are going to see the film because of it.

    At least he could have shown the filmmaker some respect, and watch the whole thing. Or if he just couldn't - he should have reserved his comments for when it's not going to have such a huge impact on the life of the film's and filmmakers. I will also add, that if this was a glowingly positive review I think it would also be untruthful.

    It's already a shame that thoughtful film criticism is dying out, but for such unethical journalism to be promoted on a site who truly has such influence is very sad to me. I would like to challenge the editors of indiewire to not publish reviews of films that their critics have not completely seen. I think that's going to benefit your filmmakers, but also us, your readers.

  • aroncamp | February 11, 2009 6:41 AMReply

    Dead Balls era, more accurately. But plenty of beards, strangely.

  • shane danielsen | February 11, 2009 3:56 AMReply

    It's, er, Danielsen, actually.

  • jacksonrjonathan | February 11, 2009 1:40 AMReply

    Danielson:

    I did not miss your point. I tried to skirt discussing the specifics of the ending to not tell my blog readers (if there are any) the ending of the film.

    "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."

    How can you say this? The film did in fact critique the workings of EU justice, which was the main thrust of its point and questioned decisions throughout the film from all points of view. Just because it allowed Hannah to follow her ethical obligation and allow Marin to follow her moral obligation and give us a reasonably positive, tied-up ending, i.e. not ending with a bloodbath, does not take away from the previous 2 hours of observations and does not make the film an endorsement of our liberal sympathies.

    I found the film riveting from start to finish, primarily because of Schmid's direction, and was surprised at how it dared to tackle this subject matter.

    Have you seen "Distant Lights" or his latest documentary "Wonderful World of Laundry"?

    I just wholly disagree with lumping "Storm" with other competition titles like "London River" and "Mammoth" which both disgusted me with their stereotypes, lack of ideas or inquisitiveness.

  • shane danielsen | February 11, 2009 12:11 AMReply

    Jackson, you miss my point. Of course 'Storm' was ostensibly about the mechamisms of EU justice, and the ethical and judicial compromises involved therein; I'm not denying that. But I maintain that the film's failure is due to the fact that it plays this out in hackneyed, unconvincing terms. And why? Because it's more interested in appearing to do what is "right" on a surface level (if not, why allow Marinca's character her big, accusatory speech -- and then show us, via that audio news broadcast, that it's had an effect post-trial?), and in so doing, to reassure us that we're right to be good liberals, since Truth and Justice will ultimately prevail.

    Would that that were the case. Sadly, there's no shortage of dead Bosnians (and Croats -- and Serbs, for that matter) to attest otherwise.

    I agree completely, though, that Schmid's 'Requiem' was underrated: I found it as harrowing, and as memorable, as this one was not. He's a good filmmaker; I just don't think this is one of his better films.

  • jacksonrjonathan | February 10, 2009 11:41 AMReply

    http://www.onmilwaukee.com/movies/articles/berlinale2.html

    .... excerpt from the above link ...

    However, Danielsen makes a glaring misstep when he attacks "Storm" by Hans-Christian Schmid:

    "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."

    To state that the film is "nor a critique of the workings of EU justice" is akin to admitting not having seen the film. The entirety of the film showcases just that.

    In "Storm" we follow a prosecutor trying a war time commander of the Yugoslavian National Army at The International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague. The story revolves around Hannah's attempt to secure eyewitness testimony implicating the commander. Throughout the tense proceedings, back room power plays and manipulations of justice occur at every turn.

    Hardly a "balm," the film looks hard and judgmentally at the roles of key players in a criminal tribunal, while showing that justice is not simply a matter of right or wrong and that political expediency is possibly the best solution. The fact that the main character made the choice she did is not an endorsement of her action by the director.

    To codify this film as self-congratulatory and condescending is lazy. Schmid, like in "Distant Lights" and "Requiem" before this, has an uncanny ability to put you inside the skin and mind of characters. By combining his bracing artistic vision with an urgent and controversial subject matter, I believe Schmid deserves a place among the best directors in contemporary international cinema.

    There seems to be a bit of critical group think around here right now and it is unfairly maligning one of the Berlinale's best films. This is very dangerous as it increases the chances that, like with criminally underappreciated "Requiem," few will have a chance to see "Storm" and decide for themselves

  • shane danielsen | February 10, 2009 10:53 AMReply

    Wiley, you're not exempt from critical assessment just because you're not Brett Ratner or Michael Haneke; the same scrutiny is applied to all. To do otherwise is both unfair, and faintly condescending.

    And as for not watching "Beeswax" in its entirety, I'm reminded of the wise words of George Bernard Shaw, who observed that one doesn't have to eat a whole egg, to know that it's rotten.

  • aroncamp | February 10, 2009 7:52 AMReply

    Oh, I think we've had enough void-filling Mumblecore drivel in the dead ball era, Wiley. Shane, thanks to you, IW didn't suck today. Bravo!

  • wileywiggins | February 10, 2009 4:45 AMReply

    I don't think you've earned the right to spew biliously about a movie you didn't even watch in its entirety. Your comment about other filmmakers killing for Bujalski's 'position' is also telling. The movie should be allowed to exist on its own without any of the pressure of whether he is squandering his 'critical support' or not. The meat of the film is in the (very real) relationship between the sisters, and between Tilly and Karpovsky's character, and if you didn't find anything there or were too impatient to look for it (or the actors evidently weren't 'pretty' enough for you to care), then you didn't like it. Fine. I think you should reserve your spleen venting for movies a little farther up the food chain, no matter how 'established' you think Bujalski is.