Rotterdam Report: Breillat's "Anatomy" Lesson and Rediscovering Cassavetes' "Shadows"
by Stephen Garrett
Chilly air? Overcast skies? Rain-soaked streets? What better way to avoid gloomy weather than indoors at the multiplex. No other major festival is as conducive to moviegoing as the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where winter doldrums are cast away under a rainbow of cinephile's delights.
A taster's choice of the year's festival circuit, Rotterdam handily offers festgoers a chance to catch up on smaller films that have been making the rounds, while also boasting its own share of world and international premieres. Most anticipated of the year's selections was Catherine Breillat's latest, "Anatomy of Hell," her own film version of her recent book "Pornocracy," in which a suicidal woman hires a gay gigolo to confront his repulsion towards the female body. At turns turgid and engrossing, the picture combines wooden acting, contrived plot machinations, and overwrought theoretical dialogue with powerfully graphic images and compelling ideas about man's endless fascination with the feminine mystique. Breillat also sets some sort of new record for the amount of menstrual fluids spilt onscreen, whether drunk from a glass, overflowing onto the bedsheets or simply used as lubricant for masturbation. Euro porn king Rocco Siffredi stars in the hardcore drama, which surely qualifies as the XXX-rated actor's least erotic film ever.
Certainly less inspired was the world premiere of Takashi Miike's "Zebraman," a disappointingly straightforward action flick about an ordinary man so put-upon by life that he dreams of becoming a caped crusader and fighting crime on the streets of Japan. More a kid's film than a subversive look at comic-book fantasies, "Zebraman" plays like a remake of the harmless John Ritter vehicle "Hero At Large" -- if you can believe anyone would have wanted to revisit that forgettably banal flick.
A notable aside in "Zebraman" is one cop's comment that the titular character is so powerful -- "you can tell Bush we don't need any nukes!" Criticism of American politics might has been filtering through Rotterdam in ways both subtle and overt. Kenji Fukasaku's 2000 high school fight club blockbuster "Battle Royale" has spawned a sequel, "Battle Royale II: Requiem," co-directed by Fukasaku pere and fils (the elder died before the film's completion), which, for an escapist movie, is surprisingly rife with post-September 11 imagery and rhetoric. The very first shot of the film is of high-rise urban destruction, followed soon after with a recitation of countries that have suffered American bombing over the past 60 years -- explained not as U.S. retaliation against terrorist nations, but simply as a show of American unilateral superiority. The teens in the original movie are forced to fight each other to the death; in the sequel, they take up arms against the adults (who they associate with U.S. policy) and define themselves with Al Qaeda-style rhetoric -- by the end, the protagonists are even hiding out in Afghanistan.
The Unamerican Film Festival has a sidebar presence in Rotterdam, and the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman even came to give a talk on media representations of George Bush -- from the buffoon in Comedy Central's short-lived meta-sitcom "That's My Bush!" to the fearless Commander-in-Chief of Showtime's shameless propagandistic September 11th docudrama "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis." "Is there anyone from the CIA here?" Hoberman half-joked to a packed room before explaining how Bush is a sort of Reagan in reverse -- not an entertainer using his theatrical training to transform politics, but a politician who has learned to re-tool his image in ways that fit an entertainment medium (a la the "Top Gun" aircraft carrier photo op that came after the fall of Baghdad).
Another Rotterdam highlight during the festival's first weekend was the unveiling of the first version of John Cassavetes' "Shadows" -- a movie that the actor/director re-shot extensively and which is widely cited, in its most famous and familiar form, as the progenitor of the modern American independent film movement. Film professor and longtime Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney presented the movie, which screened only five times and then was lost for 45 years. Before his death in 1989, Cassavetes told Carney that he had long given up on ever finding the movie.
Turns out the film was left somewhere in the New York subway system, and after a year of languishing there in the lost and found was sold for pocket change around 1960 to a man who hoped he was actually buying a porn film. After realizing the truth, the disappointed film buff put the movie in his attic and promptly forgot about it. Only after his death did his grandchildren think to even look at the movie. "Needles in haystacks? That's easy compared to this!" said Carney about the remarkable discovery that was made only two months ago. And what a revelation: painstakingly transferred to digibeta to protect against the fragility of the film, this "Shadows" is remarkably well-preserved and offers a riveting look into the director's creative process.
When asked why Carney brought the film to Rotterdam instead of America's own premier independent film event, Sundance, he explained that Sundance had turned him down. "Their programmers said the festival had OD-ed on Cassavetes recently," he said. "And besides, they felt their audiences wouldn't be interested. I see Rotterdam as a blessing in disguise -- I think more people here appreciated the movie." All the more reason to hail this Dutch festival as a true bastion for hard-core film lovers.