Filmfest Munich 2011
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
Photo from the Munich Film Festival website.
International film festivals reveal and celebrate cultural commonalities among and differences between nations, films and filmmakers, drawing those of us who can’t feed our inner cinephile at the multiplex like gnats to the beam of a vintage Bell & Howell. To lure us even more, film fests establish “themes” to frame their program offerings, hoping to strike a chord that will resonate deeply within us, or if not, simply arouse our curiosity.
This year’s Munich International Film Festival, or Filmfest Munich did both, in a way that could have cost it dearly, but instead paid off handsomely. With 70,000 ticket buyers attending multiple screenings of 237 films from 52 countries, 200 of them German premieres, Germany’s second-largest film festival (after the Berlinale) recorded the second-largest attendance in its 29-year history. (A fitting farewell for fest director Andreas Ströhl, who after eight years at the helm will be moving back to the Goethe-Institut, whose cultural program office in Prague he headed a decade ago.)
This year, in addition to welcoming stars such as John Malkovich — who along with Georgian director Otar Iosseliani received the fest’s CineMerit Award — American indie icons Tom DiCillo and Roger Corman, Swedish director Roy Andersson, British actress Charlotte Rampling and German megastar Maximilian Schell, who was honored with Filmfest’s Bernhard Wicki Prize, Filmfest Munich chose as its theme something we read about all too often, no matter what part of the globe we live in. A subject that Ströhl and his team could well have expected would, rather than break records, keep the crowds away: the victimization of children.
“The sections of the Filmfest are not thematic,” writes Ströhl in the catalog’s foreword. “And yet every year themes become apparent without any conscious effort on our part. From our opening night film to the closing film, one of these themes spans the festival: all around the world children are neglected, mistreated, abused. Those children are looking for a place, a future — and prove to be indestructible.”
Both nominated for the this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes and both winners of another notable prize there, the opening night film, The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne; Belgium, France, Italy) and closing night film, Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki; Finland, France, Germany) both deal with boys on the run who reach out to a sympathetic adult. But the boys, their situations and their reactions to them — and the films themselves — could not be more different.
Press Conference, left to right: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, child star Thomas Doret, Luc Dardenne and translator. Thanks to the Munich Film Festival for the photo.
The Kid with a Bike is 11-year-old Cyril, a tow-headed, tough-minded short-timer in a state institution where his father, an ex-con, placed him, promising to return when he was settled in with his new job and had found a place to live. Latching on to the social worker who has heard him obsessing about his bike and has managed to track it down — he can’t believe his dad moved without telling him, especially since he was keeping his beloved bike for him — he grabs hold of the handle of her moving car and insists that he wants to live with her. She reluctantly agrees, sensing that beneath that hard exterior is a child who needs someone to care about him. The film is a jagged puzzle of conflicting emotions and correspondingly contrasting camera angles, teetering between moments of fairy-tale sweetness and real-world urgency or malignancy that keep their relationship on tenterhooks.
Sweetness and faith in humankind are not things one would necessarily expect from the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, which IMDb describes as “... eccentric parodies of various genres (road movies, film noir, rock musicals), populated by lugubrious hard-drinking Finns and set to eclectic soundtracks, typically based around ’50s rock ’n’ roll.” True, this year’s Filmfest did not lack for rock’n’roll — one of the most highly anticipated parties featured the Swedish-Finnish band from the film We Call It Skweee (“Skweee music combines simple sync loops und bass lines with funk, R&B or soul-like rhythms, creating a bare, funky sound”). And the closing night party featured Ströhl strumming away on electric guitar in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” backed up by a Swedish band.
As for Le Havre, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and won the Arri Award for best foreign film here in Munich, it does feature a sometimes lugubrious (if moderately drinking) ... Frenchman, played by a Finn. There is, however, no sign of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. In fact, the music is typically, even stereotypically, French; so much so that one would not have been surprised to see Maurice Chevalier drop by to have his shoes polished by the protagonist.
For what the film does evoke, in subtle but telling ways, is ’50s, and even ’40s films — specifically, French films. (The protagonist, a sixtyish Bohemian author who has long since traded in the pen for the shoeshine brush in the seaport city of Le Havre, is named Marcel — Carné, anyone? — and is caring for his ailing wife Arletty, one of Carné’s favorite leading ladies. Other filmic French forbears whose influence can be felt are Melville, Bresson, Becker, Tati, and Clair.) Like The Kid with a Bike it, too, is a kind of fairy tale, one also based on harsh reality but unlike the Dardennes’ film, one that encourages the viewer to believe, at least for a time, in the human capacity for simple selflessness and the possibility that it is not always doomed to failure.
Into Marcel’s life comes an African refugee boy who has escaped from a temporary holding pen — an enormous box in which he and hundreds of his fellow countrymen and women, hoping to reach Great Britain, have been sealed for weeks and dumped in Le Havre because of a computer glitch. Feeling a tug of sympathy for the boy, whose head appears in the water as Marcel is eating his lunch, Marcel finds himself faced with a decision when the shriek of a police whistle heralds the arrival of a black-mustachioed, black-trenchcoated, forbidding-looking police officer who looks like a refugee himself — from the Keystone Cops. Combining the deliciously noir with the humorous, it recalls the opening scene, when one of Marcel’s clients is gunned down seconds after he shines the guy’s shoes, and his sole dry, heavy-lidded comment, offered in a manner très français, is that he’s glad he got paid first.
Marcel, who until now had pretty much retired from active participation in the doings of the world, content to occupy a small corner of it with his wife and childhood sweetheart, finds himself drawn into the boy’s desperate situation, determined to help raise money to smuggle him to London, where his mother found refuge before him. “The European cinema has not much addressed the continuously worsening financial, political, and above all, moral crisis that has led to the ever-unsolved question of refugees; refugees trying to find their way into the EU from abroad, and their irregular, often substandard treatment,” writes Kaurismäki. “I have no answer to this problem, but I still wanted to deal with the matter in this unrealistic film.”
Accepting his Arri Prize, the director was jovial and lighthearted. The next day in a Blackbox interview, André Wilms (Marcel) was asked if he knew or could speculate as to why Kaurismäki, who was shooting and could not be present, had made what was for him an uncharacteristically optimistic film. While Wilms didn’t want to speak for Kaurismäki, he noted that the director had remarked at one point that he was “so desperate, I can’t make sad films anymore.”
CineMerit Award winner Otar Iosseliani, thirteen years Kaurismäki’s senior, who for two decades was subject to the dictates and whims of Soviet censors, either has a different take on the world’s injustices, or has been there and back. “It’s been said, that the pessimist,” he told the Abendzeitung newspaper, “is a well-informed optimist.” In his latest film, Chantrapas (France-Georgia 2010), or “good-for-nothing,” Iosseliani, who has won 16 international awards but remains relatively unknown in the States, depicts the trials of a young Georgian filmmaker who leaves the artistic oppression of his native land for the long-dreamed-of creative freedom of the West. But dreams and real life, much like the Dardennes’ fairy tales and reality, seldom find common ground.
Chantrapas, like The Kid on a Bike a patchwork of scenes and ellipses — “In that respect,” says Iosseliani, “I’m not much of a filmmaker. Rather, I put together a puzzle” — portrays in fictional form the fate of colleagues and contemporaries who, once in the West, found their idealism scorched by (in the words of Variety critic Robert Koehler) “rapacious producers who are worse than the Communist bureaucrats.” A perhaps too-well-informed optimist, Iosseliani describes his film as “a parable on the need to remain true to oneself despite the obstacles that surround us. Which,” he adds, “a priori, condemns one to a fiasco... That is what I wanted to share with the viewer: the joy of being a stone, resisting everything.”
While at first glance (from the seat behind him at the CineMerit Awards) Iosseliani does indeed appear immutably stolid and rock-like, he is in fact far from “being a stone,” receiving the award with warmth and humor and speaking with passion in an hour-long Blackbox interview the following morning. Realizing that what they had on their hands was a locomotive that knew precisely where he was going, his interviewers soon let him have the floor as Iosseliani spoke almost without pause about his work and what drives him.
Left to right: Filmfest boss Andreas Ströhl, host Klaus Eder, Otar Iosseliani and translator. Thanks to the Munich Film Festival for the photo.
Georgian to the depths of his being — “All my films are Georgian films,” no matter where he shoots them — he also gives Russian cultural influence its due, citing “great thinkers” such as Lermontov and Pushkin: despite the gulags and years of conflict, under Russian rule, he insisted, “People could work with their heads.” And while “a whole generation was lost” to the Second World War, “what’s essential survives the bad times. The Georgian culture is centuries old, [and] culture is the guidepost of human civilization.”
His ability to “put together a puzzle,” to feel comfortable with contradictions and “to remain true to [him]self despite the obstacles” may have its roots in his earliest years, when despite being the son of an old Georgian family, “learned and cultivated,” he was sent to live with farmers “to get a good education.” Which from an American perspective may seem strange, but as he explained, Georgian was forbidden in the schools, and his parents may have wanted to ensure that he learned “what [was] essential” from theirs. Still, the great European thinkers and poets were translated into Russian, thereby ensuring that he got a thorough education from both sides of the linguistic and cultural divide — with the result, he told us half joking, that “it was important to be lazy to have time to think.”
Offering an impromptu history lesson on Russian-Georgian conflicts, Iosseliani cautioned us not to confuse “intelligence” with “intelligentsia,” the latter being “dreamers” — Rachmaninov, Tolstoy, Stravinsky and Nabokov among them — concerned with “the education of the soul,” who thought that tyranny would rot from within and inexorably fall victim to its own internal moral corruption. Stalin, “a crook” but no dummy, “wanted to eliminate everyone who thought.” Realizing he couldn’t kill them all off (although not for lack of trying, one was tempted to say), he shipped them off to France, where a large colony of Russian thinkers and artists would develop.
Georgian filmmakers, meanwhile, promoted the Stalinist line. Iosseliani doesn’t blame them: “They’re human beings, and people are weak.” And they, too, suffered, if not physically, then professionally. Eisenstein seems to have tried to have it both ways. “Stalin knew that Ivan the Terrible was both a hymn of praise and a criticism of Stalinism,” and allowed it to go forward, but dropped the boom on Part 2, which was not shown until a decade after Stalin and Eisenstein were both dead.
Iosseliani, too, seems to have had it both ways, at least for a time. For a while, his films were used by the Moscow film committee as examples of what NOT to put in a film. That doesn’t mean, he added, that the censors were all committed communists or artistic philistines. One of them, a woman, would tell filmmakers how to get around the prohibitions and evade censorship, so that they quickly became pros at getting films under the radar that did not quite toe the Soviet line. For Iosseliani, that meant making not anti-Soviet films, but rather, “a-Soviet” films. “It’s hard enough being a director,” he observed wryly, “but being a Russian director is a specialized calling.”
It became increasingly difficult, though, for Iosseliani, no doubt feeling braver with every success, to keep his creativity and acrimony under wraps. With his fourth film to be rejected — Pastorale, in 1979 — the committee told him he was finished, even as Brezhnev’s détente with the West and concomitant reduction of pressure on artists was causing many of his colleagues to lose their source of inspiration. Then, too, with the state’s power over film also went its financial support, and many of them went belly-up. So Iosseliani packed his bags and went to France, home of the Nouvelle Vague, a place where great filmmaking was surely cherished, and he would find a home.
Or ... not. As Iosseliani would observe a quarter-century later, the pessimist is a well-informed optimist. France was no longer the land of Malraux and Bazin, but had joined other Western countries to become in large part a home for B-movies and blockbusters. (Something a disgruntled and disillusioned young Swiss filmmaker would observe at a Filmmakers Live discussion later in the festival.) Accordingly, his first film there, “Favorites of the Moon” (Les favoris de la lune, France-Italy-Soviet Union 1985), which would go on to win the Special Jury Prize in Venice, nevertheless bombed at the box office. So he made a “Eurasian film” in Africa, “And There Was Light” (Et la lumière fut, 1989) which repeated the win. Clearly, he was doing something right.
A question from the audience: Which filmmakers have influenced you? The response was swift. “None. That’s the worst thing in the world. Many filmmakers copy others,” but until they find their own voice, it doesn’t amount to much. “The word ‘quality’,” he added, “has been totally discredited. Filmmakers today are single-focused: they want to make money, or to use film as a vehicle for ‘self-expression’.” His own expression said it all. On the other hand, he had no trouble naming filmmakers he likes and admires: Murnau, Lang, Fassbinder, Clair, Welles, Ray, De Sica, Fellini ... the list went on.
In the end, Iosseliani has again had it both ways, and in the best possible way: he has found his own voice, one that is at once unmistakable and multifarious. “Watching him,” remarked Filmfest interviewer Klaus Eder as the interview came to an end, “you come out a better person than when you went in.”
The same could be said for Iosseliani’s films which, while far from being didactic, subtly and often humorously poke fun at our vanities and frailties — “He is the last of the masters of surreal-humoristic cinema,” Ströhl told Variety — showing us the humanity, the likeness to us, of those we ignore or think we “know,” and holding up a sometimes dismaying, but always sympathetic mirror reflecting how others may be seeing us. Among the gems your correspondent (to whom Iosseliani’s work was heretofore unknown) “discovered” during the festival were memorable examples of each.
A composer and pianist whose studies focused on music and mathematics, Iosseliani’s films invariably feature music or musicians and are abstract in structure. In Pastorale (Pastorali, Georgia 1976), which won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival six years after it was made (Soviet authorities having held it back on the grounds that it was “insufficiently edifying or uplifting”), a string quartet from the city has come to rehearse — and, as with all retreats, to relax, far from the pressures of their daily lives — in the rustic, idyllic simplicity of a small village in the Georgian mountains. As they set up shop on a street corner and begin to play, the camera pans as if taking a tour d’horizon, finding astonished — and astonishing — expressions on the faces of children as they stop their own play and watch with intense curiosity. An ample-bosomed, kerchiefed-and-aproned babushka down on the farm stops and listens briefly, her open mouth and hooded eyes telling us that she has been at once thrust into a new, unimagined world and thrown back into one long forgotten.
Cut to a sharp-looking (and sharp-tongued) young woman in a modern apartment, whom we see through a window as she emphasizes to an unseen someone the importance of a woman’s “self-respect.” The sound of a solo cello draws us to what at first glance is a more peaceful scene: the cellist from the string quartet playing a soothing selection on the front porch — who soon finds himself competing with the cacophony of a crop-dusting machine flying overhead. While this is funny to us and must be frustrating for the cellist (although he continues playing, not only devoted to his craft but no doubt inured to the accompaniment of crying babies and candy wrappers; what’s a few chopper blades?), Iosseliani swiftly shifts perspective and takes us back to the farm.
A diminutive, wizened old man reaping hay, a tiny dark figure against the immensity of endless acres of pale wheat and miles of cloudless sky, is accosted by a highly officious official on horseback who insists that the old man hand him his scythe: some senseless bit of bureaucracy — probably a holdover from the last century which was rescinded before either of them was born — forbids either what he’s doing or the way he’s doing it. They get into a heated argument, neither mind is changed, and the officer rides off with a threatening gesture. “Moron,” mutters the old man as he resumes his reaping. With that word and gesture Iosseliani shifts OUR perspective, so that we see not an old man from a strange culture in an old black-and-white movie, but someone very much like us (not to mention our kids).
A family is having a window installed, causing their next-door neighbor to loudly accuse them of installing a new way to spy on her. As the argument escalates, neighbors and passers-by begin to join in and take sides, ending in a neighborhood brawl — most of whose participants have no idea how it started or what it’s about — that turns the painstakingly constructed wall and window into a pile of rubble, and has to be broken up by the gendarmes. Meanwhile at the local fishing hole two guys, one in business shirt and shorts, the other in undershirt and slacks (seed for the viewer’s own back story) are clearly weary of spending days waiting for a bite and going home with empty buckets. So they’ve come up with a foolproof shortcut: toss explosives into the lake, and ...
What strikes the viewer after a while is how Iosseliani continually sets the traditional against the modern, the accepted against the avant-garde, the expected against the out of left field — not just cinematically but diegetically: the bright, well-to-do young couple live right next door to the elderly farmer — in such a way that the unsuspecting viewer, lulled into thinking his preconceptions will be confirmed, instead finds them persuasively challenged or himself making connections that would have seemed inconceivable before.
By the time of Favorites of the Moon, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, much had changed in Iosseliani’s life, and he was both enjoying it (the film is in Eastman color; Pastorale was in black-and-white) and (being Iosseliani) poking broad as well as subtle fun at it. Once more an apparent potpourri of scenes, some related, some not — or are they all? — it begins with a piece of floral porcelain dishware into which we observe a servant carefully ladle a serving of soup, then place the dish on an elegantly appointed table. As we admire the framing, we cannot help but mentally glance over our shoulder, not sure what to expect but knowing this cannot last. We do not have long to wait.
From out of the corner of the frame a dog who had been quietly observing the servant suddenly pounces onto the table, scattering everything wildly and shattering the precious porcelain. Cut to the factory, where the camera painstakingly records, step by step, the production of the plate by 18th-century craftsmen. As its implications begin to sink in, we’re in 20th-century Paris, where several people at a taxi stand fight over the next one as if it’s the last, and a dandified preteen boy steps into a waiting limousine as his chauffeur reaches back to light his (yes, the kid’s) cigar. A quick flash back to the dish: we see by its stamp that it was made in the royal Sèvres porcelain factory. Our earlier laughter at the dog’s antics turns to sadness and regret as we reflect on the senselessness of the loss and, too, in a larger sense, its inevitability.
As in Pastorale, lovely excerpts of classical music are heard throughout the film. Here, though, while we occasionally see the musicians they never become part of the story, their dress and the texture and framing of the shot suggesting that they are part of the crew whom Iosseliani has captured in the act of recording the soundtrack. And as in Pastorale, we have an explosives-happy group who decide to blow something up (this time a statue). “DO NOT push the red button,” says one to the fellow holding the canister. Of course, he pushes it — leaving only curls of smoke and a small pile of ash behind. “Well, we had to test it,” shrugs the second man, while the first gingerly crawls away to a quiet place.
Meanwhile, back at the dinner party, the guests’ grade-school children have either gravitated to or been parked in front of the TV set, where they sit entranced by glitter-clad, rabid-raccoon-eyed, tattooed rockers ranting about the joys and pains of sex (amplified by the usual appropriately inappropriate gestures). Outside on the street the next morning, the trash man sees the broken china and takes it the local whorehouse, where the ladies say they’ll try to glue it together.
In There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (Iko shashvi mgalobeli, Soviet Union, 1970), our hero spends most of the film trying to “glue it together” — that is, his life. As the film opens, a vibrant harpsichord accompanies the titles, then a superb shot of water gushing in torrents down a mountain, the camera and the music tracking its glorious cascades before rushing us along and through the woods, every leaf and branch clearly defined, the “colors” more ravishing because we are imagining. If proof were needed to advance the cause of black-and-white, it is here.
Like the water, Guia, an aspiring young composer, is rushing. Iosseliani’s camera (or more precisely, that of his cinematographer, Abessalom Maisuradze) follows him as he dashes into a building, apologizes to his aunt, throws on a jacket, bounds up the stairs. Cut to an orchestra. He rushes in, grabs the drumsticks, comes in right on time, smiles broadly in relief, and the symphony comes to an end. (The conductor is not so pleased, however, and later will berate him for missing rehearsals, and fire him on the spot.) He flirts with a beautiful ballerina and makes a date with her, only to turn around and go off with a group of friends, two of whom he takes to his home. Apologizing for not having food, he leaves to get bread and wine; when he gets back, they tell him they have to go.
Suddenly, the handsome young man once so in control now looks perplexed and lost. Again, the camera tracking and lighting are masterly. We see each and every detail of the house’s decor, the sunlight through the drapes, night turning to morning. As he begins work, inspiration fails. He goes over to the cot, lies down, and covers his head with a pillow. Two guests arrive, sent by a friend to cheer him up. He leaves, promising to return. Instead, he hops on a bus — again, the cinematography is superb: The viewer feels the close quarters of the bus, Guia’s head looming grotesquely large in the foreground as he squeezes between two passengers. (We do not, however, see his eyes or much of his face. “Never a close-up,” Iosseliani told an interviewer. “It destroys the character and brings forth the personality of the actor. The close-up, shot and reverse shot, it’s shameful. In that case all you need to do is to close your eyes and listen to the dialogues.”)
Unlike the camera that follows them, which is extraordinarily fluid, Guia’s movements are quick, choppy and helter-skelter as he runs from one place to another, always just a beat behind whatever he was going after. With the exception, that is, of his symphony work: midway through his errand run, he again dashes through the city, bounds up the stairs of the concert hall, grabs the drumsticks — and once more comes in on time for the finale. Tragically for Guia (and shockingly for the viewer, who has enjoyed chuckling at or commiserating with the handsome, well-intentioned but hopeless young gadabout), all of his rushing will come to naught. The film ends on a metaphysical note, with an unidentified man seated in a café looking at the workings of a clock.
Like Guia, the clock ticked inexorably against another man who studied and loved music, and who like Iosseliani lived in France. But there the similarities end. For French jazz pianist phenom Michel Petrucciani (Michel Petrucciani, Michael Radford; France, Germany, Great Britain 2011), born into a musical family in 1962 and who by the age of three could sing most of Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis and Django Reinhardt, life was a struggle from the start. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease,” Petrucciani could barely draw breath without a bone breaking (which is no exaggeration: “After his birth,” writes his son, “every bone in his body was broken”). Unlike the lithe and handsome Guia, Petrucciani was short in stature with an irregular physiognomy and jerky, unpredictable movements, never grew taller than three feet (another consequence of the illness) and spent his entire life in agonizing pain.
And yet ... Michel Petrucciani, who died from a pulmonary infection at the age of 36 — he had been told early on that he would not live to see 40 — was one of the most active, indefatigable performers and irresistible (if at times insufferable; but then, who could blame him?) human beings to inhabit the planet. His love affairs were legion, and he married at least twice (your reporter lost count after a while, captivated by his dynamism); the film includes interviews with his wives and lovers, all of whom speak highly of him. One or two still seem to be in love with him. His indefatigabiity was infectious, and he had no time for whiners. “What are you complaining about?” he would say to anyone who dared. “Look at me! I’m doing great. I’m having a ball!” And he was.
It all began, we learn, at the age of four when, inspired by a televised Duke Ellington concert, he demanded a piano. Given his age and size — which would have made any parent react as his did, disability or not — his folks bought him a toy piano. This did not sit well with Michel, who promptly took a hammer and smashed it to bits: “It was not the sound I had heard on TV.” By the time he was seven he was concertizing, astonishing audiences with his preternatural proficiency. But it was at 13, when he approached famed swing trumpeter Clark Terry at a jazz festival and offered his services — Terry needed a pianist, and someone who knew Petrucciani’s talents told him to see Terry — when he had his first real breakthrough. Doubtful at first and figuring someone was playing a joke on him, Terry was blown away. “When he was 13 he sounded like a bone-weary black man, stranded in a piano bar somewhere in Mexico,” recalled Terry.
Bone-weary he was, all too literally. But he never let it hold him back. Unable to reach the pedals of a piano, he had one specially outfitted for him. Unable to walk, finding a wheelchair too limiting and not taking his first steps on crutches till he was 25, he had to be carried everywhere (preferably by attractive women). Breaking bones with every practice session and concert made him even more determined to play it through to the end. Overjoyed to learn that he would be a father, he was at once devastated and philosophical upon being told that his son had inherited his disability: “Refusing to accept it would be like refusing to accept myself, denying who I am. Why would I do that?”
Using photographs, video footage and candid interviews with friends, family, associates, admirers and Petrucciani himself, director/screenwriter Michael Radford’s prodigiously researched portrait takes the viewer through Petrucciani’s brief but well-lived life. (As The Hollywood Reporter observed, “His 36 years is more like 72 for anyone else.”) An apparent adherent of the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends-but-make-a-bright-light school, Petrucciani tried everything at least once, indulging with cavalier insouciance in all the things — drink and drugs of every kind, the richest food, sex whenever, wherever and however — our doctors and loved ones (and our own common sense) warn us against, all while maintaining an impossibly demanding schedule of some 200 concerts a year. Watching him perform, the viewer is sure his eyes are playing tricks on him: Nobody, nobody, could play that rapidly, and that accurately. No human fingers could hammer the keys with such percussive force. But they did.
His fame grew, and with him, crossed the ocean. Moving to the U.S. in 1982, he soon was making music with the greats, bringing Sixties tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd out of premature retirement in California and touring with him to rave reviews in the U.S. and Europe. A year later, the Los Angeles Times named him “Jazz Man of the Year” and the Italian government “Best European Jazz Musician.” More encomiums would follow, as would collaborations with legends of the jazz world. Until his death, as Radford’s sometimes breathless documentary shows us, Michel Petrucciani did not waste a moment. “My philosophy,” he once said, “is to have a really good time, and to never let anything stop me from doing it.”
In a press interview, Radford contemplated the man to whose life he had devoted four years of his own, researching and filming. “Petrucciani was born with a severe disability. But he also developed two wonderful talents along the way: for music, and for life.” Recalling his own times with Petrucciani, in a memorial tribute, German actor, director and author Roger Willemsen writes: “As we were walking down the street in New York, a group of kids stopped their basketball game to say hi to Michel. As we stepped into the Village Vanguard [jazz club], the musicians put down their instruments and said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, a great man is among us.’ ... When he died, the grief went round the world. And the piano, too, had lost a friend.”
Not to worry: So long as Konstantin Wecker is keeping the keys awake (Wecker is German for “alarm clock”), the piano won’t lack for a friend whose fingers like to keep it on its toes. Wader / Wecker Vater Land (Rudi Gaul, Germany 2011), which won the Bayern 3 (Bayerischer Rundfunk television, which also sponsored a day of discussions examining film music; more on that later) Audience Prize, is an engaging documentary about two members of the protest generation who didn’t hit it off at all in the '60s but found that life has a way of making what seemed non-negotiable then worth sharing a beer over now.
Wader, a leading figure of the protest movement whose songs combined political potency and poetic lyricism, was arrested in 1972 after Red Brigades terrorist Gudrun Ensslin was found living in his home where, unbeknownst to him, she had rented a room. He claimed innocence, but was arrested; after a year-long legal battle, the charges were dropped. Nonetheless, he was essentially blacklisted and unable to get performance gigs. (His membership in the German communist party didn’t help matters.)
Unlike many, if not most heroes of the protest generation, Wader still holds fast to the ideals of his youth (although he admits to having had to fight the “inner racist” that was bred in him: “very German,” observed a local paper). Twenty-five years later he returned to the area, where he now lives with his family in a windmill that has become a meeting-place for friends, music students and political songwriters.
Wecker has also remained true to his roots, his being in Munich, in whose cabarets he first made his name as a songwriter. His breakthrough LP, “Genug ist nicht Genug” (Enough is not Enough) came in 1977, and with it,“Willy,” a song that has earned the term “legendary”: more than three decades later, you can download it to your cellphone. But Wecker was bedeviled by drugs, which landed him in prison and then in the papers, and today thanks his family and his music for giving him the strength to fight his addiction. Like his partner, Wecker has continued to find meaning and purpose not just in music, but in political activism, still fighting at 64 for “a better world, a world of peace and love.” As he says, “It’s not about winning. It’s about doing.”
When it comes to their music, the two of them are now doing it together — and winning new fans wherever they perform. What surely captured Filmfest Munich viewers and propelled Wader / Wecker Vater Land to the top of Bayern 3's audience favorites is the impassioned, infectiously kinetic enthusiasm the two display onstage, captured propulsively in Gaul’s film, and the fact that the sixtyish, white-haired and -whiskered, simpatico rock-star duo seem to have lost nary a scintilla of their energy, proficiency and power. Indeed, watching clips of their multi-generational audiences clap, sway, bounce and sing along is enough to make the viewer want to join them.
Director Rudi Gaul, who at 29 is almost young enough to be their grandson, thanked the packed theater for its support, still a bit shell-shocked at his own win. “There are so many films here, and so many great films,” he said, “it’s amazing that a documentary won.” Perhaps. On the other hand, it was a compelling film about two provocative, engaging activist-entertainers whose roots are in the community, and whose appeal reaches across generations.
For U.S. auds, though — especially those with a soft spot for campy horror flicks made on half a shoestring, or for spotting famous stars in their eye-rollingly “OMG, that’s not ...“ first films — when it comes to compelling documentaries about unconventional creative artists in their senior years who have been crossing generations almost since, filmically speaking, Moses crossed the Red Sea, Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (USA, 2011) brings it home.
Octogenarian American producer, director, distributor and even occasional actor Roger Corman, sometimes called the godfather of independent Hollywood film (and sometimes, more irreverently, “King of the B’s” — a title Corman firmly took issue with at a lively podium discussion) was a special guest at Filmfest. With a mind-boggling 450 films (by his own count) to his credit and dozens of film talent on both sides of the camera who owe their start to his prescience and drive, Corman has more than earned the industry’s Honorary Oscar (often called the lifetime achievement award) he received in 2009 for “his unparalleled ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers by providing an environment that no film school could match.”
If proof were needed, Stapleton’s film provides it in spades. Paul W.S. Anderson (in abc order here) ... Peter Bogdanovich ... James Cameron ... David Carradine ... Francis Ford Coppola ... Joe Dante ... Jonathan Demme ... Robert De Niro ... Bruce Dern ... Peter Fonda ... Pam Greer ... Dennis Hopper ... Ron Howard ... Irvin Kershner ... Dick Miller ... Jack Nicholson ... Eli Roth ... Martin Scorsese ... Quentin Tarantino ... William Shatner (I know I’ve probably missed a few) — all testify, often movingly and sometimes hilariously, about their gratitude to Corman and the indelible impact he had on their careers.
But wait — B movies? Coppola? De Niro? Nicholson? Scorsese? Oh, yes. Scorsese even calls Corman’s films art: “They’re just art in some other way.” After making his film debut in The Cry Baby Killer (1958), which Corman executive produced, “Roger’s the only one who’d hire me for 10 years,” recalls Nicholson, moved to tears. Howard adored Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films — he made a total of nine, seven of which starred the inimitable (but often imitated) Vincent Price — and “wouldn’t miss one,” The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) being his favorite. Peter Fonda’s iconic Easy Rider (1969) would not have been possible without his experience in Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), Fonda declares.
Corman, mild-mannered and soft-spoken in appearance, lets us know right up front the secret of his success: “The first kill should be shocking, the kills throughout the film can be somewhat less shocking, leading up to the last one. Which should be,” he concludes happily, “a feast of blood and gore.” Perhaps to make sure we don’t think for even a minute that this gentle soul is pulling our leg, Stapleton follows this with a shot of him directing the splattering of gallons of “blood” on screaming, nubile, bikini-clad poster girls as they are attacked by sharks and other wild-eyed, saw-toothed, bloodthirsty creatures of the deep.
Yes, appearances can be deceiving. And it is not only cinematically that Corman has defied expectations: The rebelliousness in his films that has always made them appealing to teens was evident in his personal life as well. “I probably broke a record for earning demerits in the Navy,” he told us at an evening podium discussion with a hint of a smile. “If they set up a rule, it was up to me to break that rule.”
But Corman’s rule-breaking and defiance of expectations did not end at the water’s edge. One of his most important films — utterly serious, and seriously lacking in his trademark “feast of blood and gore” — was The Intruder (1961), starring William Shatner in one of his first films, as a handsome, cunningly charming young white supremacist who comes to a sleepy southern town to stir up trouble. The film was greeted with threats and violence upon its release. To add insult to injury, unlike virtually all his other films, not only did it not turn a profit; because its subject matter made it too hot to handle, Corman and his brother had to mortgage their homes to finance it. (Which gives a painful edge to what your reporter later learned became a “running gag in Hollywood”: that Corman “could negotiate the production of a film on a pay phone, shoot the film in the booth, and finance it with the money in the change slot.”)
Unlike his own films, Corman’s cinematic tastes are high-end; he loves Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni, and even persuaded Bergman to allow him to distribute Cries and Whispers (1972) to drive-ins. It was a great success — as unlikely as that may seem, and in a way perversely gratifying, given the venue — and is said to have made the film one of Bergman’s biggest hits.
At the podium discussion in the foyer of the Gasteig cultural center, furnished informally and congenially with folding chairs, ottomans and comfortable small sofas, Corman told us a bit about his background and what led him to become a film director. Much like his signature oeuvre, his decision was not a consequence of long deliberation or analysis, the result of sudden inspiration or a deep love of film (although that seized him soon enough). In fact, he started out majoring in engineering at Stanford University, where “I found out that film critics at the [Stanford] Daily got free passes to all the films in Palo Alto, where the university was located.” Which sounded like a good deal. “So I wrote a sample review, and they took me on as a film critic.” With each film he saw, as he began analyzing them, “I became more and more interested in filmmaking and less and less interested in engineering,” in retrospect not surprising for a southern Californian, many of whose friends and classmates had families in the film industry.
It sounded even better after Corman, “the failure of the Stanford engineering class,” degree in hand but unable to get work, found a job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox a year after graduation. Working his way up to the sorting office “where they read scripts,” he left after a couple of years upon learning that suggestions he had made on a script not only had been accepted by the studio, but had earned a bonus — not for him, but for a senior editor. Film would take a brief backseat after Corman discovered that since he had served in the Navy, the government “would pay all my expenses to go to Europe” under the GI Bill.
But now, let’s move up a few years. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) has become a cult movie in Germany, remarked the Filmfest programmer. Can you tell us something about how it came about? As with many memorable events in Corman’s career, it was a combination of a sharp eye and sheer chance. Having lunch one day with the studio manager at Fox, Corman mentioned that he’d noticed a film set that was about to be torn down and promptly offered to write a script if they let the set stay up for a couple of weeks. “I actually shot it in two days and one night.” And Little Shop was born. “It was a comedy-horror film,” Corman explained. “I always liked the idea of combining humor and horror,” this one being “more humor and less horror” than his other films would become famous for.
Speaking of horror: What about your Poe films? What attracted you to his writings? As most students, Corman had read Poe in school, and was immediately drawn to the way his stories played on Freud and the unconscious mind, he told us. Intending to do just one film — House of Usher (1960) — he found himself continuing in response to audience demand.
Does it bother you to be known as king of the B-pictures? “It doesn’t bother me,” said Corman, “but the statement is not true. I was on national television, on a talk show one time, and the host asked me, ‘Well, what do you think of being called King of the B’s?’ And I said, ‘I never made a B-picture in my life.’ I have nothing against being called someone who made B-pictures,” he continued, “but technically, I’ve never made one. B-pictures were made in the 1930s because of the Depression,” and were intended to help cinemas by offering two pictures for the price of one.
“At the start of each year, they would have two schedules: their ‘A schedule,’ whose pictures would be at the top half of their double-bill, and B-pictures,” or lower-budget films, which would serve as the second half. That whole process was done away with with the coming of World War II, he continued, so technically, there hasn’t been a B-picture since the 1930s. “However, nobody knows that,” he concluded wryly, “and I think nobody cares. So today, they just call low-budget films ‘B-pictures.’ So it’s OK.”
What was your cheapest picture, and what was your most expensive? “My cheapest picture has to be my first one, Monster From the Ocean Floor , which I made for $6,000 in cash. My most expensive was probably The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre , which cost about $2 million. It was actually the cheapest picture Fox made that year,” he added, to laughter, “but it was the most expensive film I ever made.”
Why do you think your films were so successful? Corman hypothesized that his youth may have had something to do with it: after all, the big Hollywood producers, directors and writers were graying, “and I think they didn’t realize that by that time, most of the motion picture audience was young. Being young, and being aware of what was going on, I was able to anticipate ideas and tastes of young people. I was always very much interested in the music in my films,” he added, “rock music particularly, and I always made a point of finding the music I wanted. I knew the Beatles, in fact, in London, before they came to the United States. Now, however,” he admitted, “I don’t know what young people want, and I will turn the responsibility over to the young people in my office, and say, ‘You tell me what music I should put in.’ ”
What would you say is your favorite genre? A true cinephile, “I don’t have a real favorite genre. I just love the process, I just love the concept of making motion pictures, and I like to work in as many different genres as possible.” What about changes in the industry? What would you say are the most significant? “There are changes in two areas: production and distribution. The main change in production is the introduction of lighter, more portable equipment so that you’re able to shoot on location better than before.” It’s a lot easier than in the days when Corman began, shooting with the then-standard Mitchell camera, “a very big, very bulky camera built for studio work, and very difficult to work with on location.”
The mention of the Mitchell took him back to his first visit to Munich in 1962 when, making The Young Racers (1963) shot on tracks around the world, “I had a few days off before shooting, flew to Munich and bought an Aeroflex camera, and headed down to Monaco. The Aeroflex camera at that time was very well known in Europe, but not so well known in the United States.” Realizing the Mitchell would be too heavy to lug around from racetrack to racetrack, country to country, “I experimented with this German camera that I had never used before in my life, and I liked it very much. I used that camera for many years and did a number of films with it.”
Today’s digital cameras offer even more lightness and portability, “and that’s the good news. In terms of distribution for independents,” he noted, “it’s not so good. When I first started, every film I made had a full theatrical release. Today far fewer [independent and low-budget] films get [one]. It’s simple economics.” With the studios’ film budgets going through the roof at “$100 million and $200 million and more,” added to which is the $20 million to $40 million marketing cost for each film, “the independents are pretty much frozen out of theatrical distribution. We simply can’t compete, economically.” While there are of course exceptions, “these are the darkest times I’ve seen for independent filmmakers.”
But all is not lost. “There is one hope I’ve seen on the horizon,” he said. “The Internet — and I’ve been saying it for years — the Internet will be our savior, and it always seems to be a couple of years in the future. You see a significant amount of money coming from distribution of films over the Internet. So I think the future will be — I hope it may be — the Internet.”
Asked to reflect on his work with Jack Nicholson, Corman drew attention to the megastar’s talents in other areas of the industry. “Jack is an immensely talented person. He of course has had a great career as an actor,” and is working on a couple of projects with Corman, “but he’s also a talented writer; he wrote several scripts for me, including The Trip; he could have had a great career as a writer as well. He’s a good director, too”; one of his films, Drive, He Said (1971) was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Corman’s history with Nicholson goes back a long way, to when they were both in the same acting class. “I never went to film school; I learned everything on the job,” Corman told us. “So I went to acting class, not to become an actor, but just to learn to work with actors. And Jack was in that class. And he was, to me, the most talented actor in the class.” Francis Coppola was another member, and they too became friends. “I gave him my camera, his first camera, and he used it to shoot his first film.”
Of your own films, which is or are your favorites(s)? “My own favorite changes from day,” but among them would be The Intruder, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). “The Intruder was a picture I’d made in 1960 with a new young actor who’d just come down from New York to Los Angeles, Bill Shatner,” he began, going on to sketch the racial situation in the South in the 1950s, the plot of the film, its enthusiastic critical reception, and its utter failure at the box office. “We had to be protected by police chiefs and sheriffs, we got death threats. The film got wonderful reviews, it went to film festivals. But it was the first film [of mine] that ever lost money. So I changed my style after that, but I still like that film very much.”
What gave you the idea to make a film about Baron von Richthofen (Von Richthofen and Brown, 1971)? It stemmed, Corman replied, from his fascination with — no, not the exploits of the legendary Red Baron, but Richthofen’s Fokker Triplane, which Corman had built a model of as a boy. What really intrigued him was how Richthofen, “the son of a Prussian aristocratic military family — for generations, his family had been German army officers — and he’d been more or less bred to be an Army officer, and aviation was just coming in. So he switched from the cavalry to the Air Force, and became the greatest ace; shot down over 100 planes.
“The man who shot him down was a garage mechanic from Toronto, Canada named Roy Brown. And it was very interesting that the greatest ace, who was bred to be a warrior, was shot down by a mechanic, an ordinary guy. And that became the theme of the film. It was an allegorical theme: that World War I was the end of chivalry; it marked the beginning of mass slaughter, just as the aristocrat was shot down by the garage mechanic.”
What do you think of the move toward mega screens? “If you get a film like Avatar, by my friend James Cameron — if you see it in 3D, it’s amazing to see it on a big screen, and it loses quite a bit being seen on smaller screens. Films like Avatar really should be shown on the big screen. Other films, smaller films, independent films, while they could go well on a big screen, the economics” are against it. Besides, the Internet, with video-on-demand and other personal ways of seeing films, is ideal for the smaller ones. “We’re starting to see just in the last year or so significant income coming from the Internet. And I think that’s going to grow dramatically.”
And now, Corman’s World: How did Alex Stapleton convince you to do it? “Alex Stapleton is a young woman documentarian whom I met a few years ago when I was at a film convention in New York — she’s based in New York — and she approached me and talked about doing a documentary. [German director] Christian Blackwood had already done one on me about 20 years ago — a very good documentary [Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel 1978], I liked it very much — and I talked to Alex and liked her, I liked her ideas. So I said, go ahead and make the film.” He expressed satisfaction with the result.
How do you cast your actors? A strong believer in method acting, in his auditions, “I first would have the actor read a scene from the picture, and then I’d have him improvise scenes I’d make up. I think improvisation allows an actor to show different facets of his ability. Now as a producer, I’m encouraging the directors I work with to do the same thing — to have the actors read the text as written, but to always leave a little room for improvisation and inspiration on the set.
“I work very closely with the director before shooting, so that when it comes to shooting, I know that he and I have the same ideas, the same concept, the same feelings, the same interpretation. When there are disputes between the producer and the director, or between the director and an actor, it’s always over the basic interpretation, the concept. It’s not over detail. So I won’t start a film until I’m certain that the director and I are thinking along the same lines. During the shooting, however, I step away, and I leave the actual interpretation on the set to the director, confident that he and I are on the same path, as it were.”
When it came time for The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), as Corman considered casting the role of Al Capone, a rather large man, Orson Welles came to mind. The studio, however, was against it: “Roger, you’re young. Welles takes over and will not listen to the director and [would try] to direct it himself even though he’s an actor” in this particular film. “Don’t bring that problem upon yourself. What you want to do is switch Jason Robards from Bugs Moran,” the role for which Corman had thought of him, “to Al Capone, and get Ralph Meeker to play Bugs.” Which is what he did. Did you ever meet Welles and tell him about the role he almost had? “Yes I did, with Peter Bogdanovich. And he said, ‘I would’ve been great as Al Capone!’ And I believe he would have been.”
Any films you haven’t been able to make, but still would like to? Yes — “but they’re bigger-budget films. I’ve always been interested in the story of Robert E. Lee. Most military historians consider him to be the best general on both the North and the South side,” but “he fought on the losing side.” Along the same lines, “I always liked the story of Crazy Horse, the Indian chief,” who “had a tragic ending. I have scripts that have been sitting with me for a couple of years, on both Robert E. Lee and Crazy Horse...” and a couple more, his voice trailing off as he recalled them.
We can be sure that Roger Corman will keep producing, directing and distributing films as long as there are scripts sitting his office, interesting people yet to be filmed, and stories filled with “blood and gore,” literal and figurative, yet to be told. And we will keep watching them, as long as this eternally youthful 85-year-old filmmaker keeps keeping up with, and even predicting the future of film, filmmaking and film production; championing and loving those “smaller films, independent films”; and finding, be it his first film or his four hundred fifty-first, the joy of a boy building his first model ship, in “the process, the concept of making motion pictures.”
Talking about directors of smaller, independent films, a few names immediately come to mind. One of them is certainly Tom DiCillo, the subject of one of this year’s two retrospectives (the other being Swedish director Roy Andersson, discussed later in this article). Which on the face of it may appear a bit premature, given that the maverick filmmaker has just seven films under his belt — somewhat fewer (OK... 443 fewer) than Roger Corman. On the other hand, as Filmfest Munich had already screened most of his films in previous years, retrospective was arguably the way to go.
Clearly DiCillo’s a Filmfest favorite. In fact, in Filmfest’s American Independents series only one-time wunderkind Richard Linklater (like Corman self-taught), seven years his junior but with three times the number of films, has been invited more often. Like Corman, too, DiCillo is slightly — if more colorfully — guilt-tripped about having unfinished projects. “There is nothing more depressing to a director than having a script lying in a drawer,” he told a Filmfest interviewer. “It looks up at you year after year and the sense of abandonment and isolation in its eyes becomes increasingly unbearable.” Also like Corman, DiCillo sees the future of film in the Internet, although he is less sanguine about its implications. (The entire interview can be read here. Portions may not be appropriate for children and small animals, but should not be missed by anyone else.)
At the Blackbox, DiCillo had just landed in Munich and was trying to stave off the after-effects. “The jet lag, it doesn’t know what to do. It’s about to jump on me, but because I’m fighting so hard, it’s getting scared.” Not surprising: DiCillo, in person pleasant, personable and quick with a self-deprecating joke, is also capable of landing a clean uppercut before his opponent even knows what hit him. His first film, Johnny Suede (France-USA-Switzerland 1991), which the moderator seemed to skip, proposing to go chronologically but then proceeding to ask about Living in Oblivion ((USA 1995) — “Many people actually think it was my first film,” DiCillo allowed. “Most people don’t know anything about Johnny Suede” — received a review from an illustrious critic to which DiCillo responded with a cool incisiveness. “Vincent Canby, writing in the NY Times said, ‘There is something going on in this film; maybe someone can tell me what it is.’”
“I almost wondered for a moment if that wasn’t his job.”
But back to the Blackbox, which offered a more mellow DiCillo. Asked about his last name, the director informed us that in Italian, it comes from the phrase “del cielo,” or “of the sky,” which “kind of translates to somebody who is an airhead.” (Not.) Seriously, though, “My father is from a very poor Italian family, and my mother was from a slightly upper-middle-class, Protestant [New England] family. My mother’s mother was afraid my father’s family was going to bring a knife to the wedding.”
What is it like, seeing Johnny Suede here? DiCillo was thoughtful. “What’s interesting about being here, and seeing the films in a group like this, is that it forces me to go back in my brain to remember what it was that excited me and interested me enough to commit four years, five years to each one of these movies. It was quite startling — very emotional actually — to see the audience laughing. And then to fall into that group of people again: the actors, and what that whole experience was.
“Your question is a very good question. And I think if most filmmakers were honest, they would tell you the same thing. Which is that, there is a love-hate relationship with this medium. And especially if you’re working on budgets that are very, very small. And everything is dependent on getting it the first or second time. Because if you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere. And that, to me, is the greatest crime of Hollywood. Hollywood has all of this money, and that’s what the money buys for them. It buys them security. So if they lose an actor, they shut down for a few weeks, they hire somebody else. A low-budget movie does not have that luxury. And yet, your aims are just as high. You’re attempting to create something real. You’re not making a Hollywood piece of crap” (to which he quickly interjected, “Oh — sorry”).
“So that’s where the agony of the filmmaking process comes in, and the people who [inhabit its asylum]. Because I do believe that filmmaking attracts the most neurotic and crazy people on the planet. It does. I don’t know how many people know that the first cinematographer that I hired on my very first feature film, Johnny Suede — I hired him after months of looking for a cameraman — I had to fire him two weeks into shooting because I was getting footage that was out of focus, shots that were poorly framed., I asked him what was going on, and he gave me a weird answer, and I asked him again, and he still didn’t tell me.
“It was the very end of filming and I had to call him. And I asked him, ‘What were you doing? I felt something very strange, what were you doing?’ And — this is a true story — he broke down in tears, crying, and he says: “While you were making your film, I was intentionally sabotaging you.” The Back Box burst into astonished laughter. (Which on paper probably sounds heartless, but his delivery made it impossible not to laugh.) “Well, that was my first film. And to be honest, I still don’t know whether I have still completely recovered from it.
“So I tried to make another movie after Johnny Suede. And suddenly this crazy idea hit me: Instead of fighting this insanity and intensity of this film, to make a film about it and see if that helps me. And this crazy little idea, it started out as a half-hour movie and turned into a feature film.” And a successful one, too: Living in Oblivion (1995), which won several international awards and offered the movie-going public a peek behind the scenes of a movie set, taking Truffaut’s Oscar-winning Day for Night (France-Italy, 1973) deep into indie territory. In DC, The Washington Post assigned not one, but two of its top film critics to review it and printed their reviews (both raves) the same day. Desson Howe called it a “deliciously wicked, behind-the-scenes satire” with a “surrealistic, guilty-fun quality. It feels almost too good to be true,” while Hal Hinson called it “savagely funny,” a caveat for those who dream of being movie-makers that “the whole business is a nightmare.”
While shooting the movie wasn’t a nightmare for DiCillo, some of the critical reaction was, well, less than informed. DiCillo still puzzles over the guy who greeted the film when it screened in Berlin by criticizing the clueless director character, Nick Reve (played by Steve Buscemi), for being unlike any “real” director: “How can you show him this way? Look at him, he’s a nervous wreck, he’s sweating, he’s not very much of a director” — in short, he wasn’t in control. “I thought: ‘Shut the fuck up ... That’s what being a director’s like.” (Almost as if to prove the point, DiCillo found out years later that Buscemi had been mimicking him behind his back. “Which I found insulting but also very humorous.”) Recalling a few other setbacks and the inevitability of technical snafus during the filmmaking process — “because that’s what it is: a technical business” — DiCillo concluded: “It’s a miracle that any movie ever gets made.”
But he was philosophical. “That part of the process is, if something hits you and you fall, that actual hitting is inspiring to you so that it moves you to keep the idea of the film still going. Because if somebody knocks you over, you’re paralyzed. You’re paralyzed. So you have to get up. And hopefully, in that ‘getting up,’ an idea hits you. And hopefully that getting up shows up on film in some way.” And a director’s job is multifaceted. “I used to think that I was a pretty good director. I still think I am. But I come home every day exhausted. Because every single actor and every single member of the crew requires a different set of psychological actions, so that actors might need you to be their father. Or some actors might need you to be their mother, you know? And some people literally need to be slapped. Other people ... This is exhausting.
“I used to think that this was something that only I had to deal with. Famous directors never had to deal with this stuff. [But then] I saw this documentary about Sheltering Sky with [Bernardo] Bertolucci” [the doc is Desert Roses: The Making of The Sheltering Sky] “and Bertolucci was with Debra Winger explaining where the camera’s going to be, this long dolly shot being set up, and Debra Winger is telling him: ‘I don’t want to do that, Bernardo.’ And for the next 20 minutes he’s convincing her why she should [do it]. Making a film can be a disaster.”
“I think the healthiest thing is to treat every single person as equal. Men, women, children — equal. And it is really bizarre that we have put so much focus and money and time into developing this hierarchy of value. And we all buy into it. And it’s startling. Because it has generated this belief that what is inside you is not important. What is important is what everybody else around you tells you about yourself. So you never have to go to a psychiatrist. You never even have to take a glance inside and say, ‘Do I really agree with that?’ It’s a bizarre infection that has infected the world.”
Is that why you never went to Hollywood? “I have tried to go to Hollywood. I was over there. I checked my phone messages: I got three messages. One was from Spielberg’s company, one was from Scorsese’s company, one was from Coppola’s company.” And what happened? He called the directors’ offices back. “ ‘I’m sorry. Nobody here made that call. If you’d like to apply for a job as an intern, leave your name and number, and someone will get back to you.’ ” (DiCillo is nothing if not appreciative of Hollywood’s Kafka-esque qualities. “Kafka was a comedian. I think Kafka and Harpo Marx would have gotten along really great.”)
“That is my experience with Hollywood. Honestly, that whole system of making films is so antithetical to anything creative, it’s like making films by committee. A few great films have come out of Hollywood, there’s no question about it. I think that The Wizard of Oz was an amazing film. But the idea of decisions being made by committee is something I cannot do.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘I really really respect you, the way you have not sold out.’ I just happen to have a really stubborn belief that audiences are not stupid.. And that audiences really like being given themes in films that excite them and truly emotionally engage them. True emotion is incredibly rare and powerful. And Hollywood plays on that, and dishes it out with shovels, and it’s never real. I mean, look at the movies where people have managed to do that. It’s extremely powerful.”
What is creativity for you? How do you define it? “There has to be an enormous patience and strength of will. Because you have to be inspired to sit down and work on a film for three, four, five years, and to hope that that inspiration is as meaningful to you as when you first started.
“But creativity, I believe that it has to be connected with some sort of joy or pleasure. If there is no pleasure in it, it’s painful to everybody. I mean it. Look at Anthony Hopkins, he portrays Hannibal Lecter. There’s such a delicious enjoyment in his performance. I think that you can find pleasure, you can find enjoyment in just about any moment, even a horrific one. And that, to me, is the key to creativity.”
What about When You’re Strange (2009), DiCillo’s Grammy-winning music video about The Doors. What can you tell us about the group’s legendary lead singer/lyricist? DiCillo’s words became uncharacteristically guarded. “I’ve got to be very careful about what I say about Jim Morrison, because I never met him. And it’s very, very easy to make comments about what motivated him or what happened to him. All I can tell you is, having seen all of this footage on him, and read as much as I could about him and talked to some people that knew him, is that he was a human being. And that’s what I tried to show in my film. A real human being.
“He was not a drunk, he was not a druggie. He was a very troubled and complicated man. And, wow! Look what he stumbled into. The other thing about Jim Morrison that is absolutely true is that he was a very, very smart guy. I think he created an idea of himself, and he created a persona that had never been seen before. And he was smart enough to give it all of the elements, all of the details that it needed. That’s who he was. But yet, he was also wild and crazy as an animal.
“Every single element of his persona, he created. I think he did not expect it to be as powerful as it was, that he’d then have to struggle with how to get away from it. And that’s my theory on what probably contributed to a lot of the struggle that he went through.”
With “all that’s been written about the Doors,” DiCillo’s primary concern was “coming up with something that was truthful. I mean, you could make a whole movie just about Jim Morrison, three movies about Jim Morrison.” There is one thing, though, that he knew from the start: “That the very last line was going to be, ‘And as of this date, none of their songs has been used in a car commercial.’ It’s true, it’s true. And the person who fought the hardest for that was Jim Morrison.” DiCillo also respected Morrison and The Doors because “they really made the music that they wanted to make. Their first album had at least four cuts on it that were five minutes long,” something that would be unheard of today, where it would have to fit on iTunes.
His concept for the film was “to only use the original footage, and not to have interviews with anybody,” including The Doors. The first step “was trying to find a glue that would hold the film together. Not all of it is chronological, so I needed words to structure my own ideas. And then to help the audience follow the way we were going. So the film actually became quite dependent on words, and I went to a great deal of trouble to take as many out as possible.”
It wasn’t words that turned out to be the problem, but rather, who spoke them. When the film was released, “There was, shall we say, a strong negative reaction from the press, against me. Because it’s my voice: I did the narration. And the critics were just vicious. Utterly. And I didn’t speak for a year!
“The producer realized — something I’d been telling him — that the voice for this film needed to be someone of The Doors’ generation. It would need to be a pompous kind of voice-over actor. It needed to be the voice of someone whose soul you could feel. Who believed the words that he was actually saying. When’s the last time you saw a documentary where the narrator is actually imparting the emotion behind the words? That’s why my first choice was Johnny Depp. The producer made a phone call [to Depp] after Sundance, he said yes immediately, and that’s how it happened.”
As to the critical reaction, DiCillo emphasized the importance of humor. “I think humor is actually more creative than anger. Humor requires you to be in a state of acceptance. You have to accept something in order to be funny about it. In my films, I find it a particular delight to lead the audiences in a certain direction, and then drop them in a way that surprises them, that gives them a sense of pleasure, that’s unexpected. Humor also requires the audience to be with you. You can’t be passive.”
A question from this audience. What is the most bizarre behavior you’ve had to deal with? “Oh, man, you don’t wanna go there. Well, this is tricky because these people are still alive. My lawyer has advised me ... I don’t think you’re talking about psychotic behavior, are you?” No. “Oh. That’s too bad.” Each of these observations was greeted by laughter or chuckles from the audience.
How did you decide on Brad Pitt for the role of Johnny Suede? “He came to an audition. It was so amazing! You know, originally I performed the part on a very tiny stage. I developed the character as a model, as part of an acting class I was taking. It was difficult to find an actor in New York who understood what I was looking for.” What he was not looking for was a clone of Arthur Fonzarelli — loved by millions of “Happy Days” devotees as “the Fonz,” played by Henry Winkler. But every actor who auditioned for the role did the Fonz.
Not Pitt. “He was the most open and honest and gracious — what you’ve seen on the screen. And he was the only actor who made you feel that Johnny was so vulnerable and so open — so frightened. And he was the only one who showed that. And he did it on his own! I have enormous respect for him.”
What about criticism? Who, if anyone, can you take criticism from? “I think there’s a way to do criticism that most people don’t know. Even if you read the script, and it’s godawful, try to find one thing in it that you like. Why is it that as a culture, we only want to focus on the things we don’t like?” Saying that he’s “desperate for feedback,” and that “I consider myself very open to criticism,” DiCillo cautioned that it was also important to consider the source, his voice suddenly rising in anger against the infamous “test screenings” before anonymous people. “I mean, who are these people? Who gives a [expletive] what they think?” The silent assent of hundreds of directors, past and present, filled the room.
“Did anyone here see Tree of Life?”, which had won the Palme d’Or the previous month. “Some people will say, ‘I hated that, I hated it, I hated it!!’ Other people will say, ‘It’s the best film I ever saw. It changed my life forever.’ Well, who’s right and who’s wrong? That’s my feeling.”
How about TV movies? “I have to tell you that the best TV, is still TV. We have adopted the sensibilities of television in film. A film should be a film. And it requires a completely different sensibility. I’ve directed television, and I don’t like it. Fifty people tell you what color the guy’s socks have to be. And sometimes it’s not even in the shot! I grew up on Truffaut and Godard and Kurosawa and Bergman and Fellini and Welles. And I still feel that those kinds of movies are even more valid today. Those are the kinds of films that turn me on.
“Fellini had it right. He emphasized willingness. If everybody is willing, you can solve any problem. The opposite of that is an actor who either doesn’t want to be there, or is in a power struggle with you for some reason that goes back to who knows what. And no matter what you say to them, they will never give you what you know in your soul is required. And as a director that is agonizing, especially when you’re in the middle of a shooting, and you’re committed to this actor.
“That is why I try to work with actors who want to be there. That sense of willingness usually doesn’t come from stars, it comes from actors who are hungry. They want to be there with you. That’s when I do my best work.” And not just actors. “If the crew is inspired to contribute, nothing can stop you.”
Nothing has stopped Tom DiCillo, and it looks like nothing will. He’s also a musician with The Black & Blue Orkestre http://www.tomdicillo.com/blog/sounds/the-black-blue-orkestre/, and takes a strong interest in the scoring of his films. So Filmfest offered fans a chance to come “chillin’ with DiCillo” after the screening of his 1997 showbiz-blaster The Real Blond. The director proved to be a natural, playing deejay in the Gasteig’s Filmfest lounge as the crowd clapped, cheered, and partied into the night.
“Well, I hope there was nothing that was said in here that could be in any way taken to be serious,” he told us as the discussion concluded. Chillin’ with DiCillo. Cool.
It is, of course, possible to be too cool. Cool as in: uninterested. Unresponsive. Even ... unable. That’s the uncomfortable truth an attractive yuppie couple faces in actress Katie Aselton’s directorial debut film, The Freebie (USA 2010). A member of the Mumblecore movement, Aselton may be best known to DC audiences for her role as Emily in The Puffy Chair (2005), written and directed by the brother team of Mark Duplass (her husband) and Jay Duplass.
While this film is, we were told, somewhat less dependent on improvisation than most Mumblecore movies — Aselton provided the cast with a six-page outline, then let them run with it — it has the same stumbling, bumbling, blurting, oh-jeez-why-did I-say-that dialogue we’ve come to know them for. The premise itself is more sophisticated, and seems to stem from someone’s real-life fantasy — or hard-earned wisdom. The Freebie is just that: a one-night stand with an attractive stranger that a young married couple, in every other way ideally happy (their relaxed intimacy is Mumblecore at its best), at first tentatively, and then determinedly decide to allow each other, in hopes of kick-starting their flagging sex life and reigniting the sizzle that seems to have fizzled.
It is, shall we say, not a good idea. What it is is a searingly honest — and scathingly funny — 21st-century Seven Year Itch with consequences, a look at the way the most “enlightened” of us can be capable of deceiving ourselves and those we love, facilitated (and here’s the real kicker) by a history of honesty and transparency. What it becomes is a painfully honest illustration of the truism that, as nicely encapsulated by The Village Voice, “those flying too close to the sun [get] singed.” And that trust — even between two people who are so secure in their love that they dare to put it to the ultimate test — is a frighteningly fragile commodity.
It can also be a dangerous one when it involves two people who never should have been together in the first place, and the well-placed trust a young girl’s parents have in their daughter is no match for the wiles of a middle-aged pedophile trolling for teens on the Web. In David Schwimmer’s Trust (USA 2010), which Roger Ebert called “one of the year’s best films” and whose young star, 14-year-old Liana Liberato, won Best Actress at the Chicago International Film Festival for her role, the consequences threaten to destroy a strong, loving family just as surely as, and far more devastatingly than, The Freebie’s foolhardy game-playing.
Trust also features Catherine Keener, whose first major film, in one of those curious coincidences, was Johnny Suede. (She would go on to work with DiCillo in Living in Oblivion, Box of Moon Light and The Real Blonde.) And in another, Keener earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 2000), about whom more — much more — later.
But back to kids — and to the key theme of this year’s Filmfest Munich. In Maïwenn Le Besco’s Palme d’Or-nominated, Jury Prize-winning Polisse (France 2011), in which she also stars, the focus is child abuse from the perspective of those who are front and center: its traumatized young victims, their accused abusers, and the cops in the child abuse protection unit who deal with its repercussions.
Maïwenn (she often drops the surname) has her own experience with what, depending on the severity, could be deemed a form of child abuse, and which the French actress, director and writer, in a brief introduction before the film, said had to an extent drawn her to the subject. Her mother, an actress and journalist, was ambitious for her daughter; by the time Maïwenn was five, she had made her first film. And she grew up quickly: according to the catalog, Maïwenn met director-writer Luc Besson at 12, began a relationship with him at 16, and bore their child a year later.
Polisse — the strange spelling, inspired by Maïwenn’s own little boy’s misspelling of the word, can also work subliminally, evoking a child scribbling it in a desperate plea for help — is an absorbing, viscerally compelling look at the lives of the Child Protection Unit’s 11 officers in a 24-hour period. Quick- moving and episodic, the film alternates between deeply moving and humorous, even hilarious; the Hollywood Reporter likened it to “a whole season of The Wire packed into a single two-plus-hour film.” A similar sentiment is in your reporter’s notes, of which she regrettably took too few, realizing that shifting attention meant missing arresting images or laser-like verbal exchanges.
The film walks an uneasy tightrope between TV series and docudrama, making some reviewers ambivalent about it as pure cinema. None, however, denied its raw emotional power and the urgency behind the meticulously researched stories it portrays, at turns heartbreaking, infuriating, and stomach-churning, and the toll the job takes on the officers and their home lives, exacerbated by power-hungry or callously indifferent superiors. It’s also leavened by lighter moments, some offering both the audience and the characters a chance for a deep breath, others that seem funny at first — until the implications set in.
The implications don’t set in for three generations in Romain Goupil’s Hands Up (Les Mains en l’air, France 2010) [shown in DC last month], which, in an intriguing political twist that seems to have gone unmentioned (if maybe not unnoticed), implicitly but forcefully criticizes French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s infamous immigration policy while featuring his wife’s sister, the multiple-award-winning actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, in a key role. Like Maïwenn’s film, Goupil’s was also inspired by his son, who was puzzled by the sudden disappearance of a Pakistani classmate whose family, the director would learn, had been deported as illegal immigrants.
Seen engagingly from the kids’ eye-view, Hands Up has an overarching adult perspective set 60 years in the future that reveals itself only at the end, and brings an unsettling, when-will-we-learn closure used by directors in films set in World War II or times of other injustices perpetrated by governments which in hindsight, might have been preventable. But Hands Up is set in the present day, when a group of elementary-school kids who find out that their Chechen friend and her family have been targeted for deportation decide to hide her in one of their homes.
The issues are argued by the adults in the film and Goupil allows each to have his say without judgment, depicted or implied, while never leaving the slightest doubt where he himself stands. Bruni Tedeschi is particularly effective, and won an Italian film journalists award for her role as the mother of the boy who has a crush on the Chechen girl, Milana, and agrees to hide her. (She could probably win election with her impassioned, impeccably reasoned appeals to both her anti-immigrant brother, who viciously accuses her of using the girl out of pure self-interest — “to feel noble” — and intensely nationalistic or fence-sitting neighbors.)
But the kids, abetted by a few trusted pals, have their own plan and the film briefly becomes an adventure story (“Don’t bring any cells. The cops have a tracer system,” Milana cannily instructs) while never losing its focus: at one point, the handheld camera cuts from the kids to a street corner as screaming sirens alert the neighborhood to a young immigrant mother who has jumped to her death, having been told she would be deported.
While nominally fictional, Hands Up is in every meaningful way real. Last year (the year the film was released), The Guardian newspaper soberly recalled the Sarkozy edicts of five years before: “... The ensuing police round-ups outside schools, metro stations and businesses sparked a mass protest movement with some French people hiding the children of illegal immigrants in their homes. The left warned the round-ups harked back to France's shameful past when a collaborationist government helped deport more than 75,000 French citizens and Jewish refugees to the Nazi concentration camps.”
But Goupil has hope for this generation who, unlike previous ones and like his son, ask questions. And Goupil goes one step further: in his admittedly idealized fiction, they take action. When the children are reported missing, the media investigate, the story comes out and, this being the age of instant communication, the media-savvy rescuer-runaways make the most of it. Soon kids all over Paris begin copying them, hiding their illegal immigrant classmates. Reality ultimately trumps fiction, though, and the film is framed by Milana’s somber recollection, ending in an urgent plea, threescore years in the future.
“There’s a sense that the people responsible for the present situation, like the cowards who refused to help Sarajevo and those who averted their eyes from Rwanda and Chechnya, can already prepare the speeches of repentance they'll utter in 50 years' time,” said Goupil. “The elderly Milana recalls a situation that is beyond belief in 2067 — what children were subjected to in France in the first decade of the 21st century — and the question is: How long will it take to realize that what is happening today is quite simply intolerable?"
Relatively speaking, it didn’t take long, although certainly far too long for his victims, for the nation to realize that what Joseph R. McCarthy was doing was intolerable. Ironically, he too was a skilled manipulator of the media, but at opposite ends of the political and moral spectrum. In Lutz Hochmeister’s absorbing docudrama The Real American – Joe McCarthy (Germany 2011), even those who thought they knew all they needed or wanted to know about McCarthyism — the theater was packed, which one would not necessarily have expected of a European audience, given the subject matter — found much to hold their interest, at once expanding their knowledge and challenging their convictions.
Combining newly discovered archival footage and photos uncovered during five years of international research and skillful dramatic recreations, the film is filled with éminences grises who prove eminently quotable. Among them are Henry Kissinger, Ben Bradlee, Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Haynes Johnson; reporter, author and former dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley Ben Bagdikian; and ex-KGB general Oleg Kalugin.
While today we often don’t accord McCarthy much weight and believe his impact, however destructive, affected only those we’ve heard about, Johnson (author of “The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism,” 2006) informs us that during the Korean War, McCarthy was “the most powerful person in American life.” And, as with politicians today who sling mud without batting an eye and with the utmost sincerity, seemingly freed from the bothersome constraints of doubt or reflection, his assured demeanor helped sell people his bill of goods. Asked by a reporter in a televised interview how he himself would define McCarthyism, the senator smoothly replies that McCarthyism is “calling a man a Communist who is later proved to be one.”
We hear from a member of his staff, still devoted (and still unconvinced) after 60 years, who declares that “if he was as bad as they say he was, I never would’ve worked for the guy.” One of his victims questions whether McCarthy was as rabid as he sounded. “I don’t think he had any anti-Communist views at all. I think he was simply an opportunist.” And then there are those who think McCarthy “saved America, and then Ronald Reagan came in and saved the world.” In an ironic twist, as we learn from former KGB official Kalugin, rather than helping defeat Communism, McCarthy was a great tool for the Russians, adding fuel to their accusations that America was “reactionary,” bellicose and threatening.
In person, McCarthy himself had “a certain amount of human warmth. He was not a total monster,” one of his victims concedes, and recalls McCarthy telling him affably at one point, “Hey, this is just part of the script. Nothing personal, fella.” Indeed, he probably couldn’t have pulled it off at all without the help of his chief counsel Roy Cohn, whom Kissinger calls “super smart and super out for himself,” and the brains behind McCarthy.
Or not. Bradlee is still amazed at how popular McCarthy was. “It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, he was a little jerk.” But Bagdikian sees a modus operandi behind his success. McCarthy “learned the value of the Big Lie.” If you accuse “the corner grocer” of being a Communist, nobody cares. But if you accuse famous people ... headlines will follow.
And McCarthy, the film posits convincingly, needed headlines. After two years in the Senate, “he wasn’t going anywhere”: still pretty invisible, he was in danger of losing his seat in the next election. We watch as McCarthy, via his cinematic double, John Sessions, places a three-way call to political and investigative (some would say muck-raking) journalist Jack Anderson and Republican Senator Robert Taft, then hear the real Anderson tell an interviewer, “He [McCarthy] would tell me almost anything I wanted to know.”
But what about the arguably more “serious,” less scoop-obsessed news organs? Where were they? “We were just reacting to what he said,” says a TIME Magazine editor. “There was not a lot of time to investigate.” Another journalist is less willing to give the media a pass, calling McCarthy “a master of manipulating the press” who “were willing to be used.”
Even President Eisenhower was at first reluctant to rein in his pugnacious fellow Republican, later saying that he feared a public confrontation would backfire by making McCarthy more visible. It was only when McCarthy bit off more than he could chew — charging the Army with harboring Communists, after it refused to accede to his demand to keep one of his former aides who had been drafted, posted Stateside, and leading newspapers published scathing editorials questioning the president’s failure to speak out — that McCarthy’s unchallenged ascendancy began to reverse course.
Suddenly the medium he had bent to his will began to turn against him. First came the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings, which saw — and in which we see — McCarthy publicly chastised by Army counsel Joseph Welch’s haunting “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” And then, in a sign that the news media, or at least the youthful medium of television, had once more found its spine, came the coup de grâce in the person of legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow, whose “See It Now” programs essentially hanged McCarthy with his own rope and helped break his hold on the nation. Censured by the Senate, he died just a few years later of hepatitis exacerbated by alcoholism.
Like Hands Up, The Real Joe McCarthy is striking in its immediacy, and chilling in its implications. With an eye to the future, Hochmeister tells us, Beat poet Alan Ginsberg performed an exorcism over his grave.
These days we hear far too much about graves; not those of hard-drinking, publicity-seeking politicians, but those of young men and women whose minds or lives, or just sense of well-being and belonging, have been lost, sometimes irretrievably, to the merciless maw of war. This year’s Filmfest Munich offered several films on the theme. As it turned out, the two your reporter was able to see both dealt with an aspect that until recently was seldom discussed, or even acknowledged, in the countless Iraq/Afghanistan war movies that have been made in the last decade: its impact on women soldiers.
In Our Name (United Kingdom 2010), which had a single DC screening, in mid-July at the West End Cinema, is the first feature film of Scottish director Brian Welsh. “Dedicated to the thousands of men and women who have been incarcerated in British prisons after attempting to return to civilian life,” In Our Name has been called “gripping,” “crackl[ing] with tension,” “raw, authentic,” “powerful, provocative, well-acted, and dripping with integrity,” and was big at the box office in Britain. (Astonishingly, it cost only between $150,000 and $200,000 to make, Welsh would tell us, adding that he didn’t think he’d ever be able to make a film that cheaply again.) The film features an award-winning performance (British Independent Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer) by Joanne Froggatt who plays Suzy, a young woman from a depressed area of Northern England who enlisted in the army essentially for economic reasons and returns home to her husband and two daughters, a shell of herself.
The dedication, which comes at the film’s end, brings home the fact that the “incarceration” is but a physical extension of the mental prison she and those in similar circumstances have been living in. We see her try to resume her life as wife and mother while fighting off persistent nightmares of horrific things she saw or did, fighting against a bureaucracy whose unresponsiveness hems her in as surely as any prison, and finding the ignorance and insensitivity of those closest to her, or charged with helping her heal, not only unhelpful but almost like salt rubbed into a wound.
Her well-meaning but oblivious schoolteacher sister, in the spirit of “show and tell,” asks her to come in to talk to the children about her war experience. What she remembers is an incident involving a shy little girl about their age whose battered body she found days after having given the child candy, her intentionally transparent torture and murder both retribution for consorting with “the enemy” and a lesson to those who might have similar ideas. Her vet husband has no patience with her need for space and wants to pick up where they left off; having repressed his own emotions, he tells her to suck it up and get with the program. But she can’t — and neither can he.
In Return (Liza Johnson, USA 2011), the only U.S. film selected for Directors’ Fortnight this year at Cannes, the stakes are equally high for reservist Kelli (Linda Cardellini, perhaps best known as Lindsay Weir in “Freaks and Geeks” and nurse Samantha Taggart in “ER”), returning home to a loving husband who, while sympathetic — watching him silently, lovingly stroke her hair for about 30 seconds of screen time, we get a sense of the closeness they once shared — like Suzi’s husband, would also like to more or less resume their lives. Unlike In Our Name, here the psychological trauma that underlies Kelli’s inability to do that is never identified.
Instead, Johnson (and the responsive, almost humanly conscious camera of Anne Etheridge) uses Kelli’s actions and reactions, to the outside eye heightened or dulled with seeming randomness and inappropriateness, to subtly suggest what she may have gone through; “A lot of people had it worse than I did,” is all she will say. But returning home — as William Wyler and Sherwood Anderson’s unforgettable The Best Years of Our Lives showed us more than half a century ago — does not bring the comfort she may have hoped for.
To the contrary, the world around her seems hostile and unfeeling: at best, unable to even begin to comprehend where she’s been; at worst, actively or passively blocking at every turn her reintegration into the only place she ever called home, but which now feels unnatural and foreign. The factory where she worked is downsizing, so her job no longer exists; trying to collect her military pay is like trying to squeeze water out of a stone; her military counselor admonishes her that she must “let go” of the past in order to live fully in the present and look confidently to the future. The reaction to this palaver by the Vietnam vet sitting next to her is priceless (and unprintable).
Turning to alcohol after learning her husband has turned for comfort to an attractive mutual friend, she’s arrested on a DUI and has her license suspended, and (in an only-in-the-movies moment) finds both a ride in the car of, and release in the arms of the Viet vet. The respite will be all too brief: her husband’s concern for her instability has led him to sue for full custody of the girls. Dyeing her and their hair and making it seem like a game, she will be unable to bring herself to carry out her plan as, loading them in the car for a “ride,” she hears the older girl talking animatedly about the school project she’s working on.
It won’t matter anyway: She’s being sent back to the front.
Going home and feeling out of place because a person’s experiences have changed him is something most people deal with at one time or another, although few are faced with the existential desolation of returning home and feeling like a stranger. But having those experiences make home itself not only stranger but more dangerous because the changes to you are visible, and are perceived as either threats or opportunities for quick profit by your own homies, is something most of us can only imagine.
It is something Danish director Vibeke Muasya imagined — and knew firsthand — when she wrote Lost in Africa (Kidnappet, Denmark 2010), which screened as part of this year’s “Kinderfilmfest” (children’s filmfest). The story of a Kenyan boy adopted as a toddler by a Danish aid worker, Lost in Africa takes “you can’t go home again” to a level at once frightening and enlightening when Susanne attends a conference there and decides to take Simon along, seeing it as a chance to reacquaint him with his home country. That it does, and in ways Susanne never could have imagined.
Nominated for four Danish film awards, Lost in Africa is that uncommon film with not a wasted moment. Tightly constructed, scrupulously cut and astutely shot (award-winning cameraman Alexander Gruszynski may be best known to American auds for his work with Tyler Perry), except for the occasional episode of unlikely serendipity — par for the course in the U.S., but still relatively rare in European fare aimed for adults, and this is nominally a children’s film — it’s also a film with an important, but easily digestible message.
Lodged at an elegant Kenyan hotel, Simon, shy and unsure at his Danish school, quickly responds to his environment. Within minutes he’s assumed the assured demeanor of a world traveler, commanding drinks from the poolside wait staff and feeling like a small maharajah.
“When I wrote the first draft for Lost in Africa back in 2006,” says Muasya, “my intention was to make an action-packed, entertaining children’s film, which would also provide insight into and emotional involvement in the ‘trash’ of the world – the orphaned children in the slums of Africa. The children were found in the slums and for the most part, they tell us their own stories. The film took shape on location in the slums – with the advantages and challenges that they entail.”
Slums? What slums? The slums just down the sloping hills from the hotel, where the ball Simon’s been playing with disappears and where, challenged by a group of raggedy boys who hold it up as a trophy, he takes off to retrieve it. Before long, the ball is not the only thing he’s missing: cell phone, athletic shoes, clothes, all are violently ripped from him, booty to be sold or bargained with — or to be stolen anew by their leader, who realizes what he has in Simon and holds him for ransom. But he will not be alone.
There are some “adult” moments — the cops are as corrupt and as violent as the gang members, with whom some of them are in cahoots; calling the embassy for help, a desperate Susanna hears: “Our hours are 9 to 5. Press 1 if this is an emergency. You are now number 11 in the queue” — but it all ends well. In the interim, the lives of children a world away, their capacity for both survival and selflessness, and their enduring ability to hope and dream and love despite the scars they bear and the new wounds they repeatedly sustain, become less and less strange.
“Lost in Africa has three rings to its thematic core: the small core family, the extended compound family and the great global family. If we dare to engage in all three rings, we become more complete as human beings,” says Muasya. “That is Simon’s journey.”
Journey is at the heart of All That Remains (Pierre Adrian Irlé and Valentin Rotelli, Switzerland 2010), it too a story of strangers, serendipity, and engagement, but one that would never be mistaken for a children’s movie. Two parallel but seemingly separate paths taken by two coincidental couples on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean form the film’s thematic core. At the end the stories will converge, the consummation of an evolution of image and narrative, in a hushed but stunning close.
The film unfolds in alternating segments between the young Ellen and the middle-aged Nakata in Japan, and the taciturn Ben and the voluble Sara on the West Coast. Each is seeking some kind of resolution, each in his or her own way; the two who wish to be left alone to find it will find their wish complicated by the hitchhikers they reluctantly take on. “With their contemplative film,” writes Tamee Tamoor for Cinequest, “Pierre Adrian Irlé and Valentin Rotelli’s highly original storytelling techniques offer a perspective on a world that is both larger and smaller than we can imagine — while showing us what it truly takes to reach out to one another.”
The budget for this remarkable film was certainly smaller than we can imagine — somewhere around $200,000 — causing the host at the podium discussion to observe that “you could say, there’s no excuse anymore. If you want to make a film, if you feel a passion, just go out and do it.” Well, yes ... at least in Switzerland. Across the Alps, however, the situation is more problematic. At a similar discussion the day before, Jean-Marc Barr, co-director (with Pascal Arnold) of American Translation (France 2011), deplored the decline of auteur cinema in its birthplace, where “95% of French films” are state funded and aimed at a larger audience with “Hollywood” tastes.
“The market has been juvenilized,” added Arnold. “The most important thing is money, to keep the industry going” — with a concomitant loss of creativity. The auteur films go to festivals, where most go straight to DVD. The people who give you the money want to control the content, added Barr, citing one film for which he wrote 17 versions of the scenario over three years. “Like the old days of the Hollywood studio system,” observed the moderator, who also saw a link between the Marshall Plan — “Truman said, ‘First we’ll send our films, and the rest of our products will follow’ ” — and the Hollywoodization of European film. But Arnold, like Roger Corman, sees hope in the Internet, where independent filmmakers can post their work and open people’s eyes to the possibilities of film.
That’s not to say there haven’t been benefits to European cinema from American films, which famously inspired directors from Hitchcock to Truffaut and whose influence continues to inspire new ones. Among them is Lionel Baier, whose Toulouse the moderator called “a road movie made in Switzerland.” A fan of both road movies and Truffaut, Baier told us that growing up, he didn’t want to go to America, but “I wanted to live in American movies.”
Sadly, American movies ain’t what they used to be, and no one says it with more astute awareness and heartfelt regret — and sly humor — than Frédéric Sojcher in his mockumentary Hitler in Hollywood (HH, Hitler à Hollywood, Belgium-France-Italy 2010), last year’s winner (by unanimous verdict) of the FIPRESCI Prize at Karlovy Vary.
The film posits Portuguese actress/director Maria de Medeiros, who made her mark in American cinema as Fabienne in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), as deciding to direct a documentary on the life and career of legendary Parisian actress Micheline Presle. In the course of her research, which becomes increasingly precarious as, Mr. Arkadin-style — the film is filled with allusions to cinema of the past and cameos by or interviews with film personalities from Nathalie Baye and Gilles Jacob to Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff — the materials she unearths disappear or are destroyed, and those who agree to talk to her are bumped off or die under mysterious circumstances.
Part caper, part satire and part documentary, and at the end, part angry, part mournful cautionary tale, Hitler in Hollywood — the supposed code name for a secret Hollywood cell dating back to the forties representing Hollywood's interests that would either buy or eliminate anyone opposing them — is a call to arms for cinephiles everywhere, but especially in France, and by extension, Europe. In an interview at Karlovy Vary, de Medeiros downplayed the incendiary aspects (in both senses: there’s an explosion in it worthy of John Woo) of the film. “It’s a matter of giving it space, of making it a priority to be able to distribute our own cinema.”
If anyone could be said to have made it a priority to distribute French cinema, it is Stéphane Tchalgadjieff, both a hero and a dying breed in the corporate world of film distribution. In A Strange Crew (Un étrange équipage, France 2010), Boris Nicot introduces us to this passionate cinephile, whose indefatigable support of New Wave filmmakers helped make the works of Robert Bresson, Marguérite Duras, Jacques Rivette and others available to the wider world. “It’s a shame that people like him are being replaced by managers,” remarks one admirer. “People who don’t care about the artistic quality of the film.”
We met this leonine legend at the podium the next day, his shock of white hair and strong features foregrounding the uncompromising discussion that would follow. Asked what it took to risk millions on a film, Tchalgadjieff dismissed the presumption. “Risk? What kind of risk? To risk the money you made on the last film?” he demanded. “The real risk is taken by the directors. They don’t have anywhere to hide. That’s the real courage, the real risk-taking.
“And look how many people live off these directors,” he continued, enumerating agents, cinema owners and managers, publicity people, and more. The “passeurs” (middlemen) have the biggest burden; they are the link between the artists and the public. Still — “I’ve been bankrupt twice. So what? It’s not such a traumatic experience.” How can that be? “If you go bankrupt on a good film,” Tchalgadjieff assured us, “nobody holds it against you.”
What about the person in the film who said you owe your success to your charm? Tchalgadjieff demurred. “Not at all. It’s the product. If I didn’t have that, all the charm in the world wouldn’t do any good.”
Charm. Did someone say charm? And did someone say French ... but British? Charlotte Rampling, called “one the sexiest film stars in history” and completely bilingual, was one of Filmfest’s guests of honor, and was on hand for both the German premiere of The Look – Charlotte Rampling (Angelina Maccarone, Germany 2011) and a Blackbox discussion. The recipient of lifetime or career achievement awards from both the Stockholm and Cinemanila film festivals, Rampling “is one of the great actresses of her generation,” said Filmfest director Andreas Ströhl, “and has enriched the cinema for decades.”
At the Blackbox, a gracious and relaxed Rampling — known in Paris as “La Légende,”still stunning at 65, but not at all the “detached, unreachable” diva her carefully cultivated persona, in contrast to her fearless film portrayals, might suggest — recalled the permutations of her career. Beginning as a model, she knew she wanted to do films, got her first (uncredited) role at 17 was soon working internationally. By the end of the ’90s, she felt it was time to start thinking about theater, and quickly realized its unique challenges required a special kind of training, which she had had years before, but had to recapture. “On the stage it’s unrelenting, you’re there all the time; there’s nothing you can do. You can’t [say] ‘Cut!’ and come back again,” she observed. “So this was a very profound and necessary training.”
Although she has made films in French, Italian, German and English, Rampling would rather not see actors do films in languages in which they are not completely fluent — her Italian films were dubbed, she noted — because “in film acting, you have to be completely what you are for the moment you’re doing it in the film acting role,” and “that split second that you’re thinking about what [you] might be saying or should be saying about the line, you’re not plunging into the depths of your performance in the way that you should be plunging,” the audience loses the connection.
That’s something audiences who see Angelina Maccarone’s The Look – Charlotte Rampling won’t have to worry about. (“After a documentary like yours,” said the moderator with frank admiration, “what questions are left?”) The film explores and follows Rampling through conversations with the actress herself; writer Paul Auster; author, film and fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh; and photographer Juergen Teller, whose revealing, some might say pornographic photos of the two of them exemplify Rampling’s declaration that “If you want to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”
“What I wanted to do in this film was to express what I felt, when I was feeling it, without actually having to [think about it]. Because that’s the way life happens. Life happens with no premeditation.” Of course you do learn from experience; preparation is essential. “My dad was an Olympic runner, so I know” what that’s all about.
Despite having homes in both England and France, Rampling insisted that she is “English — I’m not Scottish, I’m not British, I’m English, a pure-breed, pure-blooded English girl,” but one who always wanted to explore different countries and cultures, adding: “We are what we are, and what we are born into, and what we are raised into. We can adopt other things, and take part in other experiences — thank God! — but we are intimately who we are. So I am an English actress.”
You did two episodes of the popular television series, “The Avengers” (1967) with Donald Sutherland. And you did one segment of an anthology which was popular at the time, “Asylum” (1972). What do you remember about them? “Not much,” she admitted. “What matters to me is if it gave someone a frisson or a feeling or if they enjoyed it, or even ‘What was that?’ It’s something. We want to have people share in something that we do.” Did you have the feeling that “The Avengers” would achieve cult status years later? Absolutely. “It was certainly a cult series when it was happening.”
What about some of the directors you’ve worked with? Woody Allen is “very scripted,” but “lets you sort of canter around in the field,” then brings you back where he wants you. “But that’s the director’s prerogative.” Which is fine. “Actors like to be directed, to work within a framework. What we like to have is someone who gives you a direction, and in that direction,” gives the actor room. “It’s a psychological game, too. Which is fascinating.” Visconti, whose The Damned (1969) put Rampling on the cinema map, “allowed me to see what real filmmaking was. He opened up a new world for me and allowed me to participate in his world” and to “really open up as a performer because of his complete trust in me.” Like all transformative experiences, the impact transcended the immediate application. “I encountered beauty for the first time in my life in Italy,” said Rampling. “Visconti was my master.”
A director Rampling remembers with melancholy is Axel Corti, co-director of the award-winning Austrian TV mini-series Radetzsky March (1995), who died during filming. “He was almost devouring himself with his passion,” she told us, and knew that he would probably not survive to see it completed.
Now for the audience questions. How do you get the courage to choose the films you do, some of which have had the tendency to, as the French might say, épater le bourgeois? For Rampling, there doesn’t seem to be a choice. “If you don’t have courage, you can’t be alive.” Do you believe in karma? “I do. I feel I’m inhabited by quite a few people.” Which language do you speak at home? The choice is a practical one, depending on subject, circumstance, and the feelings of the people involved.
Are there any directors you don’t like, or who gave you trouble? Ever the lady, Rampling refused “to give a little bite, because it diminishes them.”
It had been a fascinating but intense interview, and as it came to a close, a man got up from the front row and approached the stage. This being Munich, everyone watched with a mix of curiosity and mild annoyance rather than fear or apprehension as he neared the podium, reached for one of the unopened bottles of water, opened it — and handed it to Rampling. Surprised but not missing a beat, she smiled and thanked him, whereupon everyone laughed and applauded, joined by a gesture of gallantry to a “pure-breed, pure-blooded English” lady. Who still enjoys, in the service of her art, feeling “completely exposed.” A fitting duality for a lady who is equally at home in France, whose Dr. Pangloss might learn from her ability to have the best of all possible worlds — and to have people share in them with her.
Jean-Luc Godard is also at home in France, and like any director, wants to share his films with people. That’s not usually a problem for the vigorously iconoclastic filmmaker, whose fans may be discriminatingly few but whose reputation and storied history are irresistible for film buffs. A hard man to pin down — Roger Ebert, in his review of Film Socialism (Film Socialisme, France-Switzerland 2010) noted that he “would have looked forward to attending Godard’s press conference, but of course he didn’t attend it” — Godard is as elusive as his work, so he was not at Filmfest Munich. But his film was.
A symphony in three movements
THINGS SUCH AS:
A Mediterranean cruise. Numerous conversations, in numerous languages, between the passengers, almost all of whom are on holiday...
At night, a sister and her younger brother have summoned their parents to appear before the court of their childhood. The children demand serious explanations of the themes of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Visits to six sites of true or false myths: Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona.
So reads the film’s “short synopsis,” which both helps and doesn’t begin to. Both I and the woman in front of me in line (there was no press screening) were surprised this one wasn’t sold out ahead of time, especially since it screened with German rather than English subtitles, suggesting that it was aimed at the general public. But then Godard, who in his 56 years of filmmaking has racked up nearly a hundred titles, doesn’t aim at the general public. (They’re just, one is tempted to say, accidental casualties.) Discerning critics have given it due attention, however, and the film won last year’s L.A. Film Critics Association Independent/Experimental Film and Video Award.
In her introduction, the presenter reminded us of Godard’s oft-quoted statement that “There’s always a beginning, a middle and an end. Just not always in that order,” and added another from her personal experience. “Although I’m older than most of you,” the 80-year-old filmmaker told an audience, “I’m also younger than all of you.”
As if to prove it from the get-go, like a teen on speed Socialism’s hundreds of densely packed credits zipped by so fast it was impossible to digest more than a few. We could only hope that this wasn’t a harbinger for the film.
It was, and it wasn’t. Film Socialism (the significance of the title remains a mystery) is filled with countless quick takes — snapshots — of 1 or 2 seconds, and shifts with lightning speed from gorgeous, high-def shots of a lusciously blue sea with white-tipped waves that wildly, irresistibly sweep the viewer in, to scenes in scratchy, damaged video that have no reason to be: they were obviously made now. Similarly, the sound breaks off occasionally from one shot to the next. The word “why” (“pourquoi”) inserts itself on title cards in a variety of colors, fonts and sizes throughout the film, voicing the unspoken sentiment of at least one viewer.
A dark-haired, self-possessed pre-teen girl in a stylish bedroom watches a YouTube video of two cats quite convincingly talking to each other, and tries to imitate them. A blindfolded young woman at a late-night party walks out the back sliding glass doors, straight into an outdoor pool and lies there face-down, unmoving.
A careworn elderly Jewish man tells a woman, “I won’t be content till I see the words ‘Russia’ and ‘happiness’ together,” while a dapper, silver-haired mustachioed man who is probably not much younger than the first leans against the ship’s railing like a 21st-century William Powell and remarks to a passing woman in a long white dress that Kipling called Islam “the West of the Orient.” The juxtaposition recalls Godard’s largely more linear Notre Musique from 2004. Much later, the names “Palestine” and “Odessa” will take center stage, with a rapid series of archival photos.
A woman is reading a book in an unlikely spot: between two fuel tanks at a gas station. Even more unlikely, behind her stands a gorgeous white creature — a llama? an emu? — on a long red leash and wearing a muzzle.. He later will come out and stand, majestically, in front of the tanks. A black mule, his location indefinite but somewhere in the desert, will compete for our attention later on. (As Godard said in a press interview when asked to explain the repeated insertion of the word “why,” “Freud did not study the birth of the word after birth when the infant still speaks without words. Animals alone will be the custodians.” Okay. Glad we got that straight.)
A blond boy of about eight approaches his mother, who’s doing dishes. He slowly embraces her legs, going up to her waist; when she ignores him he pulls away and begins reciting lines of verse, to which she responds with the next strophe. He leaves, enters the living room, clicks on the stereo; turns, begins to climb the stairs, stops; and sits stock-still, his attentive, analytical, animated eyes reflecting an unnaturally wordly appreciation of the rich symphonic strains coming from the next room. (Between the eyes, the poetry, the attachment to a selectively attentive mother, and the early love and keen understanding of music, a Wellesian has to wonder whether this might not be an inside reference to a filmmaker whose work Godard is known to respect.) Lest we get too fascinated by this extraordinary child, he picks up the glass he’s brought with him — we see that it’s filled with milk — and blows bubbles through the straw.
“Ideas separate us,” proclaims Film Socialism’s pressbook on the front page, “dreams bring us together.” On the next page is the familiar “FBI Warning” about commercial use without licensing, framed by the objection, in pale, small-font, lower-case letters: “when the law is wrong / justice comes before the law.”
While Munich’s audiences may have found it less than enthralling — the cinema was about one-fourth full, and a handful of confused, despairing or just plain disappointed filmgoers filed out throughout the screening — the Abendzeitung called it a must-see, “even if Jean-Luc Godard is laughing up his sleeve over the polarization” it’s been causing. “On a cruise through Europe all the way to Egypt he touches upon cultural and spiritual history, uses associations, numbers and symbols and pursues the principle of randomness even in the montage. He seems to want to ask the most from the helpless viewer. In the last frame are the words, ‘No comment.’ ” The pressbook ends with a similar sentiment: Access Denied.
It being a public screening, your reporter saw it in the original French (sprinkled with Spanish, Italian, English, Hebrew and Arabic, if memory serves) with German subtitles, and so had to wonder if the disconnects were largely a function of language. So it was a relief (and a kick) to read the post of surrender from an IMDb blogger who bought the DVD. “I turned the subtitles off about twenty minutes in,” he wrote. “They don't help.”
Roger Ebert was rather less kind. “This film is an affront,” the usually composed Ebert raged in a June review. “It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.”
Is there another film in the works? “Nothing more than a title,” Godard told an interviewer. What is it? “Farewell to Language.”
While Godard’s love and appreciation for music have been amply demonstrated, most recently in this film and Notre Musique, it hardly seems a reason to give up on words (that “No comment” notwithstanding). Still, music is arguably a crucial, even indispensable ingredient for any truly effective film; something that participants in Bavarian Radio’s day-long “filmtonart” learned first-hand from, among others, the composer for Godard’s 1964 salute to Hollywood B-movies, Band of Outsiders — Michel Legrand.
The 79-year-old Legrand, whose half-century career has encompassed everything from The Thomas Crown Affair’s “The Windmills of Your Mind” to six years of “The Simpsons,” was also responsible for the music in Catherine Deneuve’s breakthrough film, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, whose success was due in part to Legrand’s “incendiary idea”: “I said to Jacques Demy: ‘Let’s make a musical!’ And I convinced him.”
It didn’t take any convincing at all to fill the Circus Krone with a crowd come to see Legrand honored with Bavarian Radio’s Look & Listen Award for lifetime achievement at an elegant evening gala, “Cinema in Concert,” where he charmed the crowd with a rendition of the much-loved “Windmills.” The next day, he was up bright and early to both charm and inform film buffs, music lovers and assorted admirers at filmtonart’s opening session where, relaxed and in jeans, he chatted informally with an interviewer at its headquarters. Have you worked with Godard since Band of Outsiders? Legrand smiled. Godard has approached him, he said. “ ‘I have a script for you.’ he tells me. Then he adds: ‘In my mind, I have 11 variations for you.’ ”
If anyone’s mind is absolutely bursting with variations it’s Swedish director Roy Andersson, aptly (if oxymoronically) dubbed the “virtuoso of entertaining desperation” by the festival catalog. Although over the course of 40 years he has made but four feature films, his work has been likened both to Demy’s and to American B-pictures, making him a nice link between two otherwise unrelated subjects, Legrand and Corman (and a way of opening new cognitive pathways to all of them for the suggestible or curious reader).
For all their sparsity, Andersson’s four films have picked up an amazing 18 international awards (including a Bodil award, the major Danish film awards given by Denmark's National Association of Film Critics, for Best Non-American Film; talk about Hollywood’s influence) and 4 nominations, an enviable record for any director and earning Andersson a retrospective at this year’s Filmfest. For those who are less acquainted with the arcana of international film awards, however, it may be his hilarious 300+ commercials for which he is best known in Sweden, if not always by name, at least to the general public. Still, no less than Ingmar Bergman publicly praised them (making one wonder if he knew that Andersson has been called “the slapstick Ingmar Bergman”).
Roy Andersson. Thanks to the Munich Film Festival for the photo.
Andersson was the chief luminary leading Filmfest’s Swedish film celebration, which also included what were advertised as “uncompromising” films — if the rest were anything like the one your reporter saw, the sardonically named Play by Ruben Östlund which could easily have been set in any DC-area shopping mall, the description fits — by Östlund, Lisa Aschan, Michael Wenzer, Göran Hugo Olsson, Andreas Öhman, Emil Larsson and Martin Jern, Axel Danielson, Daniél Espinosa, and Iacopo Patierno and David Giese. The latter’s We Call It Skweee, a celebration of a type of (ear-poppingly perfectly named) electronic music popular in Barcelona, concluded with a “Sqweee party” following the screening.
But back to Andersson, who amiably sat for an interview in the Blackbox by one of Filmfest’s other featured Swedish directors, who asserted right off the bat that Andersson’s commercials, which he began making in 1976, are “in the blood of everyone who went to the movies in those days, where if you missed them, you felt like you missed half the movie experience.” Some of them were for an insurance company, whose slogan was: “All accidents can’t be prevented. But we prevent many,” and demonstrate Andersson’s facility with slapstick. (There’s something inexplicably funny about a woman standing at the front door, hands on hips and expressionless, watching a car slide slow-w-w-w-wly into the water after being assured by her impatient hubby that he had everything under control. Especially when Andersson directs it.) As the laughter died down, he explained his reasoning. “All accidents are the result of gravitation, so I had to reconstruct how gravitation plays a role in accidents.”
While based in reality, Andersson’s films and commercials “put people in tense relations with their surroundings,” notes the catalog. “So the inner world becomes a Kafka-esque exterior view.” In You, the Living (Du levande, 2007) which won 11 international awards, Andersson’s gift for crafting surreal vignettes punctuated with earthy punch lines in every form and genre makes for a seesaw viewing experience, especially when there are 50 of them in 93 minutes. There’s the mustachioed psychiatrist who aggressively addresses the camera, telling us that he’s sick of listening to egotistical jerks who want to be happy. He’s giving up, he says. “Now I just prescribe pills.” And there’s the large, heavily made-up lady on the park bench loudly complaining to the equally large man beside her that nobody likes or understands her. “I like you,” he insists, adding plaintively: “And my dog likes you.” And the middle-aged couple in the apartment, the guy having just broken the ceiling light with one mis-swing of the broom, the wife insistently accusing him of not talking to her as he tries to silently sweep up the mess and replace the bulb, their voices droning on without the hint of a vocal inflection, neither listening to the other but “responding” with what each wants to say.
Explaining how his work differs from the reality-television style of filmmaking, Andersson told us he became “fed up” with realism and naturalism as the genocides of Bosnia and Rwanda were giving realism a bad name, casting doubt on humanity’s ability to act against inhuman aggressors whose crimes were broadcast day after day with no consequence regardless of how “real” their portrayal on the nightly news. “Greatly inspired” by Weimar Germany’s post-Expressionist “Neue Sachlichkeit” (most commonly translated as New Objectivity) movement, he began to think that direct engagement was the way to go.
Two filmic results were the 14-minute World of Glory (Härlig är jorden 1991), which depicts a man’s indifference, or failure or inability to act as he watches Nazi troops herding men, women and children into a truck and gassing them before his eyes; and the 24-minute Something Has Happened (Någonting har hänt 1993), initially commissioned by the Swedish health ministry as an HIV/AIDS information film. When they realized where he was going with it, the funds were suddenly no longer available.
These two films — and what drove him to create them — have affected the director as deeply as they have their viewers, if not more so. “It has followed me all my life, the horror of what happened in the Second World War. And I felt guilt as a human being, even though I wasn’t there, guilty to be a member of the human race,” he told us, its impact perceptible even now. Something Has Happened, which despite its brevity was potent enough to win first prize at a major Danish film festival, enabled him to go for the jugular on an already sensitive and divisive issue: the origins of AIDS, and the treatment and suffering, not just physical but mental and emotional, of AIDS patients.
Andersson being Andersson, when it came time to do an HIV/AIDS commercial, education and dry humor were evident in about equal measure. It’s just a few seconds long: a class of dubious pre-teen girls, each with an orange-colored, 8-inch, banana-shaped projectile standing on her desk on a black platform and curving toward her, a prim, middle-aged teacher in classic bun and glasses somewhat hesitantly addressing the class. “Now girls, there is nothing strange about what we are about to do,” reads the tag.
Andersson’s next projects promise to continue reflecting the dual nature of his oeuvre and sensibilities: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, due out in 2013; and Three Meetings With Death.
Duality is certainly no stranger to Filmfest Munich 2011’s most eagerly anticipated guest. “It’s official: The Germans love John Malkovich,” proclaimed The Washington Post in late May, advising readers that Malkovich would be receiving Filmfest’s CineMerit Award for lifetime achievement the following month.
While the assertion sounds like hyperbole, your reporter is here to confirm its veracity, at least when it comes to Müncheners. In fact, going by the length of the line for the Blackbox interview with Malkovich more than an hour before it began — a line which your reporter, mildly astonished when a similar interview with the fest’s other distinguished CineMerit Award winner, Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, was only moderately attended, now found to her dismay was already winding down two hallways and past the Vortragssaal der Bibliothek theater — in Munich, Malkovich is a rock star.
As perhaps might have been expected, in the course of the hour-long interview the multifaceted and unpredictable actor-producer-director-fashion designer (with his own “technobohemian” Website) defied expectations, even from the start: In a sharp sartorial departure from both his rock-star reception and his screen personas, he came conservatively attired in gray suit jacket and dark gold tie — and if the eyes didn’t lie, jeans could be spotted beneath the podium.
John Malkovich and Festival Boss Andreas Ströhl. Thanks to the Munich Film Festival for the photo.
In the ensuing conversation and Q&A, a friendly, relaxed, and delightfully wisecracking Malkovich spoke about what he characterized as his modest beginnings (“we lived in a not-so-fantastic neighborhood”) and his wide-ranging career (he recently starred as Casanova in a Viennese production of a play featuring music by Mozart — and had to sing opera). Other subjects included his roots in and continuing devotion to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company (“the only theater company that’s ever won the Presidential Medal of the Arts"), rattling off the names of colleagues who have remained friends and have achieved acclaim on stage and screen; his personal beliefs (“I’m an atheist, and even if I weren’t, I don’t think that I’ll make it up there”), and much, much more.
Ströhl commended us for having turned out in unprecedented numbers, “coming into a dark room” on such a beautiful day (“I don’t think we’ve ever had such a large turnout,” noted the interviewer, scanning the upstairs-and-down, packed-to-the-walls crowd), “a tribute to” Malkovich, whom Ströhl said with a smile he was “proud to have talked into coming here,” calling it “a dream come true.”
The first question went to the heart of the matter. You’ve made European art films as well as Hollywood action thrillers. How do you see yourself as an actor? Malkovich responded in kind. “Acting is really quite simple. Whether the budget is $400 million or $40, you show up, you pretend to be someone you’re not, somewhere you’re not, doing something you’re not.” Whereas in Europe, movie actors also feel comfortable doing stage, television and TV movies, he added, for an American actor, “if you want to do four Portuguese art films, then you’re gonna have to do a film or two that the public wants to see. And I like doing that,” he added, “and always have. I’m not offered it very much. But they’re quite fun to do.”
When did the acting bug bite? “I had no interest in [acting] as a child because I was really only interested in sports,” he told us, noting later that “I was and remain a reader.” Movies weren’t really a part of his life growing up, and now, he doesn’t get to watch them because he’s so busy (although, he noted, being jury president — which he was in Marrakech last year — gives you the chance to see movies you would otherwise miss). But he had a girlfriend in college who was an actress, “and I used to go pick her up at night after rehearsal, and eventually I’d go in and watch, and just really liked what I saw.”
Malkovich was one of the earliest members of Steppenwolf, joining right out of college in 1976, where he had met the future founders. “We had some kind-of-lean years, but everyone was very young, we were happy and doing what we loved to do.” Going against what some might call common sense, but having what turned out to be a more important sixth sense, they decided to bring “True West,” which “had had a disastrous run at the Public Theatre [in New York] a year or two before,” back to New York, where it scored “a big success,” paving the way for other Steppenwolf productions.
His entry into the film world came as a result of his success with “True West,” when Robert Duvall and Susan Sarandon “drug all kinds of directors to the play, everyone from Antonioni to Mike Nichols to Scorsese” and “kept bringing people to see the play.” His first film was a TV movie with Karl Malden that was being produced by “an American football player actually, who was extremely bright and quite a good actor, Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions, who had come to see a play I was directing, and he said, ‘Do you want to make some money?’ I said, ‘Yeh, sure’ ”— only to find that he would not get a chance to see the script first. Once on board, in the makeup trailer, urged in a whisper to go up to the fellow actor being made up and say hello, he introduced himself, then asked (recreating the moment with a wrinkled brow, profoundly curious): “Has anybody ever told you you look like Karl Malden?” Malkovich laughed. “Of course, people come up to me and ask, ‘Did anyone ever tell you you look like John Malkovich?’ ”
About that theatrical amalgam of play, opera and musical in Vienna (which was done in English): Someone asked him why he thought the audiences laughed so much, as “ ‘it’s a pretty dark play.’ I told him, ‘Well, this is Europe ... I think they’re kind of used to that.’ ” No doubt recognizing a deeper truth, the Blackbox audience roared. (He was thrilled, he told us, when at the Hamburg production, they let him use their laundry facilities, which “were superb. Another triumph of German engineering,” eliciting another appreciative round of knowing laughter.)
When did you first start singing opera? “The night of the opera,” Malkovich deadpanned, adding that both he and Florian Boesch “had a terrible virus” opening night: “I could barely talk, let alone sing.” And while it was daunting to debut with world-class opera singers, “I’ve always had the ability to laugh at myself. And it’s come in handy,” he added.
As to choosing which films to do, as an actor, “I can’t really choose. I can choose from amongst that I have been chosen for. Tom Hanks can choose.” Knowing laughter swept the room. “Will Smith, Tom Cruise ... uh ... me, not.” His expert timing, dry tone and hangdog facial expression were too much for the audience, which again responded with an explosion of laughter and applause. Becoming serious, he told us that what he looks for in a script is “Could this story work? Could somebody look at this and be curious enough to want to know how it ends?”
And yet: no matter how much we may love and believe we understand a film, he cautioned us, the actual experience of making the film may be quite different in tone from the film itself. “When you make a film with Woody Allen, you can be sure of one thing: Nobody is going to say anything funny on the set. Whereas [other] people you work with, like a Bertolucci or a Schlöndorff, or a Wolfgang Petersen, you laugh all day long.” Having “a terrible weak spot” for people who refer to themselves in the third person, “I just love it when Wolfgang says” (and here Malkovich affected an exaggerated Teutonic accent): ‘It iss now three o’clock, and Wolfgang is going to haff his cheess and sausachess.’ ‘Did he really say Wolfgang?’ Markovich recalled remarking at the time. ‘Then we’re really going to get along,’ He’s a terrific director,” he concluded, “and a delight to be around.”
Malkovich spoke warmly of Chilean director Raúl Ruiz (whose death just two months later no one could have predicted) who once asked him to be in a film, then told him: “Oh yeah, I forgot: It will be in French.” Malkovich was nonplused, being that rare American actor who is both willing and able to film in other languages. “That’s how you learn in this life. You have to take chances. You have to be willing to really fail so miserably that you and your friends are laughing about it 20 years later.
“I’ve had a film like Conair (1997) that was so hilarious I can’t even describe what that experience was. I mean, every night forty guys that were this much taller than me” — he raised his hand above his head — “ask you things like, ‘Hey, are you coming to the bar with us tonight?’ And you think: OK, I don’t have a weapon. Have never been in prison. Have never even really been arrested. So you go, ‘OK, guys, what’s the name of the bar?’ ‘The American Bush.’ ” His facial expression told it all. “And you say, well, maybe not tonight. I have to study my lines.”
How do you see yourself? “I’m always content to wait to see how others misperceive me, rather than my own misperceptions. I always find theirs more fun.” How are you as a director? Are you hands-on, or more laissez-faire? Malkovich at first tried to describe his approach in practical terms, then turned to metaphor. When directing his actors, “I try just to watch what they’re doing, and respond to it take by take. If I think their ideas are very good [but the delivery comes off as too exaggerated], I say, ‘I like where you’re going, but don’t do it, just think it.’ ” Seeing it as a playing field with a goal, he will tell an actor that “This is the field with two paths that diverge. You took this path. Go back to where you took that path, and take the other one. And let’s see what happens.”
“Theater is organic, it’s ephemeral, it’s life-like. Theater acting, I compare it to surfing. At 7:30 p.m. in Vienna the night after tomorrow, I will take my little board and paddle out and wait to catch the wave. And in a good piece, there’s always a wave — the wave between the public and the material. You will definitely create a wave. And your job is to ride that wave. That’s your job. You are NOT the wave. And that can be a difficult thing to communicate to people as used to watching themselves as actors are. You just have to catch the wave and ride it.”
How do you take it when a director tries to tell you how to do something? Not well, it seems, although one got the impression that Malkovich would try to comply. “I’ve never been guilty of asking a director how to do something.” With perhaps one exception: Doing Les âmes fortes (2001) with Ruiz, his first film in French. “Everybody was speaking really quickly and I just couldn’t follow,” and he needed clarification on his actions in one scene, and went over to Ruiz for help. “And he talked to me for 25 minutes on why plane trees lose their bark in June ... Ten minutes in, I thought, ‘God, I love him. This is like a dream come true.’ ” The next three films he did with Ruiz, “I forced myself to come with a list of questions. None of which really interested me. But the answers did.”
Asked about his many achievements, Malkovich demurred. “I guess don’t really think of it as achieving. Because in all honesty, I mean, there are many people who could achieve great things, but never get the opportunity, never get the support that is required to even be in a position to try to excel at something. So, I don’t think I’ve achieved anything. I have experienced things, and I have expressed things.
“But achievement ...” he voice grew slower, more deliberate. “That comes when you discover penicillin and stuff, or invent quantum physics, or if you’re a Mozart or a Schiller or a Faulkner ... I don’t know,” he said suddenly. “Something will come up.”
Asked to comment on his work with other directors, Malkovich called Raúl Ruiz and Volker Schlöndorff “the two most cultivated, educated people I know,” then confessed that Klimt (2006) had not lived up to his expectations (“I thought I would like it more when I saw it”) and said he might like to re-score it with “a more cool score, a 20th-century score.” He spoke hesitatingly, as if afraid to offend even from afar the man for whom he has such enormous regard. “And maybe if I saw it now, I would see it differently,” he added, recalling the joy everyone on the set took in making it. And, too, with those “very, very long, flowing long takes, which are very hard to get in and out of.”
Suddenly, things looked different. “When you’re an actor, you’re a figure in someone else’s dream. The end result is really not your business unless they make it your business. Raúl’s made as many films as I have. What difference does it make what I say? And I mean that in all sincerity. If Raúl’s happy with it, so am I.” Regarding Ruiz’s latest film, Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) which will be shown at the AFI this month and which screened in this year’s International Program, Malkovich called it “the best of ‘Desperate Housewives’ made by a genius.” Giving us an impromptu lesson in cinema history, Malkovich took us back to a time and place that few but those who are haunted by its memories still think about. “He was actually [Chilean dictator Salvador] Allende’s cultural czar, and his job was to censor films, and the only films he ever censored were his own, because he used it to re-edit his films. Raúl is cultivated, to an almost frightening extent.”
Malkovich recalled being asked by a recent visitor to San Francisco about the lack of bookstores and the impact of immigrants on American film. “The thing that’s often misunderstood about America is that it’s so big. And it was founded by people who were desperate to get away from all the wars and the religious wars and the feudalistic system, and the struggle in Europe and elsewhere. So [American film] always harks back to the Old World. [In the years ahead], it will be more and more widely influenced by Hispanic culture. I don’t think that the lack of bookstores is so much related to that,” but rather, to factors such as the advent of the Internet and the dominance of electronic media. “That time is gone,” he said, with a hint of sadness.
But back to acting and directors. In the case of Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, 2008), “I was told to prepare a sort of English schoolboy accent, and then on the first day of shooting, a South African accent,” and soon found that “we [he and Jacobs] were two people who don’t belong working together.” Still, if there were problems, “I’m sure it’s my fault as much as anybody else’s.” Told by Ströhl that the result was nonetheless superb, Malkovich observed that “The results are unrelated to the experience, I think. The films that you so loved doing and had the most fantastic experience ... are more or less unwatchable. This is life. The experience doesn’t necessarily influence the result.”
With the Coen brothers, on the other hand (Burn After Reading, 2008), everything flowed smoothly. “They were pretty clear about what they wanted before it. I love working with them, they’re super smart, and they write well and direct well and they’re terrific.” Plus, “I like them.”
Can you remember the day the phone rang, and someone said, “Hi, I’m Charlie Kaufman [writer of Being John Malkovich, 1999] and I’d like to use your brain as the location for my next film?” Ah, yes. It all began when he was about to head back to Europe and asked his producing partner if he had anything to read that he could take with him on the long flight. I do, he said. But it’s kind of ... weird. “ ‘Oh. great — can’t wait.’ And I really didn’t think much about it.” After reading it — no, he didn’t burn it. And the rest, as they say, is history. (Getting a ticket to either of the screenings was next to impossible unless one was in line when the box office opened.)
A question from out of left field: What would you say to Bernard Madoff if he came up to you and said, “I’m so sorry for what happened”? But Malkovich, after a pause, responded as graciously and thoughtfully as he had to the others, his voice soft and low. “Oh, I don’t know: His son committed suicide, his other son is ... his wife is in penury, he is in prison... I don’t think I’d have much to say to him, but ‘It’s over.’
“Most of the people you pass in a day never have that kind of money and they never will, and they work very hard also. I mean, without saying ‘easy come, easy go,’ it’s easy come, easy go. Really. You have to get on with your life.”
A unexpectedly somber conclusion to a stimulating, sometimes even hilariously funny hour. But in a way fitting, in that it allowed us to see unknown and unsuspected aspects of “being John Malkovich.” The Abendzeitung, as it turned out, had it right the day before. Calling him “the man who is always portraying unusual people: eccentrics, seducers, naïfs, psychopaths,” in an article accompanied by a half-page photograph of the man-of-a-thousand-masks Being John Malkovich poster, it concluded pretty much the way we did that afternoon. “Maybe he’ll reveal a few of his secrets. Or add new ones. Or maybe he’s just a nice, friendly, normal guy. Could be. With Malkovich, anything’s possible.”
As it is with Filmfest Munich. This year, in addition to not just meeting, but getting to know at arm’s length Tom DiCillo, Roger Corman, Otar Iosseliani, Roy Andersson, Charlotte Rampling, and dozens of other international filmmakers and their films, we learned that after eight years at the helm, fest director Andreas Ströhl would be leaving Filmfest. In his published farewell to friends, fans and fellows, he quotes from Thoreau’s “Walden”:
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to
me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time
for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a
particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.
Henry David Thoreau: Walden; or, Life in the Woods
Your reporter, too, has “made a beaten track” for herself: Each year, from late spring into early summer, it leads to Munich, and the Munich International Film Festival. Hope to see you there next year!