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Venice 2012: Grand Theft Auteur? Sorting the Kubrick From the Chaos at the 2012 Venice Film Festival

Venice 2012: Grand Theft Auteur? Sorting the Kubrick From the Chaos at the 2012 Venice Film Festival

Less than 24 hours after the chaotic event, hundreds of paragraphs have already been written about how Michael Mann and his jury chose to bestow their awards at last night’s ceremony. And they can be summed up in three little words: PTA WUZ ROBBED!

Indeed, as I make my way from my Lido apartment to the airport this afternoon I half expect to see them daubed and scratched on various surfaces – graffiti is an Italian word – though it would take only a few strokes for this to become the amusingly nonsensical PIETA WUZ ROBBED (hell, there might be some hardcore Kimophiles here who reckon one prize just wasn’t enough.)

Of course, according to the conspiracy theories that quickly spread from the Venice to Toronto and worldwide, Kim Ki-Duk’s competently handled if overwrought Korean drama/thriller “Pietà” (another Italian word!) was the beneficiary of ‘Grand Theft Auteur’ perpetrated on poor PTA. Secondary sources suggest that Mann’s jury wanted to give Anderson’s “The Master” the Golden Lion (the festival’s top prize) and the Silver Lion for Best Director (the festival’s runner-up prize), and the Volpi Cup for Best Actor — to co-leads Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman — but the competition’s rules stymied them from doing so.

Mann’s public statements since the ceremony have been diplomatically unrevealing, and the old political maxim that those who know aren’t saying and those who say aren’t knowing is probably the best one to follow for now. But it will take a fair few gusty lagoon winds to dispel the ‘funny’ smell that’s currently in the air, the controversies given a mildly farcical twist by shambolic on-stage moments that included the Silver Lion landing on the floor with a thunk.

But in terms of the bigger picture, the real historical significance of the 69th Venice Film Festival had already been established. The critical receptions accorded to Anderson’s “The Master” here and to fellow competition title “To The Wonder” (ranging from polite bemusement to scorn) indicate that the ‘new Kubrick’ mantle has now decisively left Terrence Malick’s shoulders.

Since the days of DW Griffith, American cinema has always needed a magus figure — preferably homegrown. And with Kubrick passing away in March 1999, Malick’s having so belatedly returned to the fray with “The Thin Red Line” (a movie explicitly referenced in the opening scenes of “The Master”) less than four months before could scarcely have been better timed.

The ‘Kubrick mantle’ (perhaps this could become a Stateside equivalent of German-language acting’s Iffland-Ring, current bearer Bruno Ganz) isn’t so much to do with actual merit as with reputation and aura. Critics have no problem listing and bemoaning the faults of “To The Wonder” – a flawed but often transcendent work – but when they encounter “The Master” many seem to think that whatever deficiencies they perceive are a reflection of their own inability to grasp Anderson’s protean genius.

“I’ve made six movies, and I feel like I’m only just finally figuring out how this business fucking works,” Anderson said – and how startling to remember that “To The Wonder” and “The Master” are the sixth films by each man (the legendary Jack Fisk, who isn’t exactly prolific these days, was production designer on both films.)

Whereas his early work was “guided” by Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme, the shadow of Kubrick seems now to be the decisive creative influence on the 41-year-old Los Angeleno. The pair actually met in London in 1998 when the 28-year-old Anderson was in town promoting “Boogie Nights” and Kubrick was enmeshed in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Anderson was “smuggled” past security by his “Magnolia” colleague Tom Cruise, and in an interview with Elvis Mitchell, available on YouTube, he speaks in awestruck tones about his encounter with “the king!”

The early tests for “The Master” were made using the actual 65mm camera Kubrick used on “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Anderson may well have shot the whole movie with this device), and the film’s first public screening was a ‘sneak’ at the American Cinematheque immediately after “The Shining.” These choices are clearly not accidental, made by a director whose films almost always revolve around surrogate father-son relationships and who seems to require a paternal ‘mentor’ figure as part of his own creative processes.

The fact that “The Master”‘s chief protagonist Freddie Quell shares certain key biographical details with Anderson’s dad Ernie (both are from Lynn, Massachusetts and served in the US Navy during World War II) is, meanwhile, an area I’ll leave for others to explore.

Because, damn it! I’ve ended up banging on about “The Master” again when (a) I’m not a fan of the picture – for me Anderson peaked vertiginously with “Punch-Drunk Love” and things have gone steadily downhill since then (b) it’s generating more real and virtual ink than a lagoonful of Venetian cuttlefish and (c) this is supposed to be a wrap piece about Venice 2012.

Easy to get distracted: the Competition movies that I saw (of the 18, I missed “The Fifth Season,” “Outrage Beyond” and “Superstar” and walked out of “It Was the Son”) were a middling bunch, and if I’d been on Mann’s jury I would have probably sought a box on the ballot marked “none of the above.”

One of the movies discussed in my midpoint dispatch, Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void” (which took Best Actress for 19-year-old Hadas Yaron, bookies’ favourite in a notably competitive field) was for me the best of the bunch, though not far ahead of “To the Wonder,” “Pieta” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” – how that for a “sacred and profane” triple-bill?

And promising writer-director that she is, I’d balk at adding Burshtein’s name to a roll of honour that includes Clouzot, Kurosawa, Dreyer, S.Ray, Rossellini, Resnais, Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Godard, Hou, Altman and only four years ago was won by a stone-cold masterpiece in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” But juries, whatever controversies and intrigues they may inadvertently or advertently stoke, almost never withhold the “big one”, although it might be healthier for cinema in the long-term if this was to become seen as less of a doomsday option.

Even outside the competition I saw only two movies I’d consider Lion-worthy, both of them in the Orizzonti section: Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking” (Kapringen) – covered in my first dispatch, and Alexey Balabanov’s “Me Too” (Ja Tozhe Hochu). This darkly hilarious update of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, displaying a refreshing irreverence towards the dauntingly austere maestro of 20th century poetic cinema, is in fact much closer in spirit to the hard-drinking, hard-boiled tone of the Strugatsky brothers’ source novel “Roadside Picnic.” Exploring what might be termed ‘meathead metaphysics’, Balabanov – operating in the deadpan-satirical vein that elevated both “Cargo 200” (2007) and “A Stoker” (2010) – follows a pair of Russian gangland thugs as go in search of the ‘Bell-tower of Happiness,’ a ruined church in a mysterious ‘zone’ that may offer a supernatural escape from earthly woes.

“Me Too” is the latest in a remarkable run of Russian films made by directors in their mid-40s and above – see also Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena,” Svetlana Proskurina’s “Truce” and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Innocent Saturday” – and who therefore started their careers in Soviet times. Again, I’ll leave it to others to speculate about the unique social, cultural, cinematographic, geographic and economic factors in 21st century Russia which are producing such works of radical, mature, visionary distinction. But it’s clear from “Me Too” that Balabanov has a wealth of life experience and knowledge of the human character which so few directors can boast these days.

And while it’s unfair to term an ambitiously expansive and personal project as “The Master” as “white-elephant art,” to use Manny Farber’s phrase, he would perhaps see something “termitic” in Balabanov’s rigorously focused, relentlessly tactile universe: a darkly grubby crumbling Russia which contains one unlikely and astonishing means of transcendent escape. While it most emphatically isn’t to all tastes, “Me Too” joins “Elena” and “Innocent Saturday” as the only new masterpieces I’ve seen since “The Wrestler”‘s year, 2009.

The Orizzonti jury preferred the claims of Wang Bing’s 2 1/2 hour “Three Sisters” (San zimei), painstakingly documenting the life of a family in a remote and dirt-poor area of China – a rock-solid, admirable, necessary dispatch with stygian farmhouse scenes that look like they were shot in the 19th century rather than the 21st. Wang’s exalted status would have ensured plentiful exposure for “Three Sisters” even without the Orizzonti prize, and “A Hijacking”‘s generally warm reception will likely yield the wide exposure it deserves. For the deeply divisive “Me Too,” however, the road ahead looks much rockier – do so seek it out if, and when, you’re given the chance.

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