Feeling Minnesota - a report from the Minneapolis International Film Festival

I came across my friend Antonius' great review of the Minneapolis Film Festival and was pretty disturbed to hear what he had to say about the collective response to the films, as well as the general state of the festival. On the bright side, it sounded like he saw quite a few great movies (I can vouch for Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Paprika, Reprise and to a lesser extent Summer Palace): I don’t know if they do this at most film festivals, but each year at our local international film festival, they push (and I do mean push) people to fill out ballots for each film in attendance. A major part of this balloting process includes rating the various films, at the end of which a list is compiled in ranked order of the audience’s favorite to least favorite films at the festival (the end results actually do have an impact on future screenings).

For several reasons, I generally don’t participate in this, so I can’t really complain, but each year I become more and more disillusioned by the results of the rankings. This year was no exception. Almost all of my “favorites” from this festival (including 4 of my top 5) ranked in the bottom third, which tells me that the gap between my own preferences and those of even an audience that is attracted to an international film festival are markedly different. What makes it especially annoying is that the art films were ranked the lowest, while totally commercial films that happen to be from foreign countries got a lot of high rankings. In point of fact, the only two films from the Cannes film festival got – by a wide margin – the two lowest rankings of any film in the festival. Which is frankly embarrassing.

Here is a list of everything I saw, with the audience rankings beside them. I should note that this year’s festival was significantly smaller than previous years, due to unfortunate management decisions and the organization’s large debt. There were ~80 films in all (usually it’s twice that), of which 78 were ranked.

LOVED:

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema #57/78 Forever #10/78

LIKED A LOT:

Reprise #64/78 Falkenberg Farewell #73/78 Summer Palace #77/78 Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution #26/78

LIKED:

The Bothersome Man #42/78 Climates #78/78 The Memory Thief #5/78 Seagull Diner #10/78 VHS – Kahloucha #65/78 Stealth #39/78 Paprika #3/78 Me and My Sister #8/78 Once #13/78 The Valet #15/78 Holiday Makers #9/78

INDIFFERENT/MIXED:

The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters #28/78 Warchild #18/78 The Journey # 51/78 Something Like Happiness #38/78 Firefly #45/78 On a Tightrope #2/78 Boss of It All #52/78 The Magician N/A

DIDN’T CARE FOR:

Loach is a Fish Too #46/78

Reviews on each film start below

From China

Summer Palace (2006) –Lou Ye In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0794374/ This story of a tumultuous love affair set against a backdrop of political events – the pivotal one being the Tiananmen Square massacre – has drawn a lot of comparisons to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, both for its interweaving of the personal and the political and for its sexual explicitness, but it struck me more as what you might get if you were to cross Wong Kar-Wai (a love story carried forward by the constant use of contemporary (1980s) pop songs) with Antonioni (a love story that disintegrates and the narrative’s aftermath verges down two different roads as the characters grow further apart). The main difference being the look of the film, neither romantic nor formalist, but carried out in a much grittier, muddier, and explicit vein. Summer Palace works largely because of the lead performance by actress Lei Hao, who manages to express the gamut of confused emotional experiences her hapless heroine lives through with a rawness that befits her character’s unpredictability. Physically and emotionally, she throws herself completely into this role, to the point that it doesn’t really seem like acting but rather living this chaotic love story inside out. It’s a long, messy film, but the length and messiness somehow gives it a greater authenticity; the constant diversions to the narrative that go nowhere, the way that characters move in and out of the film, feel very true to these characters’ lives. My mind wandered a lot during the film, but it stays with you; the end being greater than the sum of its parts.

Loach is a Fish Too (2005) –Yang Yazhou In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0821478/ Forgettable drama about a long struggling woman (think Imamura) with a lot of chaotic mise-en-scene. This never went anywhere for me.

From China / Norway / Canada

On a Tightrope (2007) –Petr Lom In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0925260/ On a Tightrope is a decent if unremarkable documentary about a handful of Uyghur children (the Uyghur are a minority Islamic culture in China with their own language) who are trained as tightrope walkers. Trained at first by a professional and later by a proverbial old wise man who mixes tightrope wisdom with life wisdom, the children are introduced one by one as the film spends time getting to know their individual stories and idiosyncrasies. The tightrope itself is of course a metaphor, both for the Uyghur’s strivings to retain their own culture in a country that prohibits (and has clearly brainwashed) these children from practicing any kind of religion until adulthood as well as for the children’s own struggles to succeed in life. I have no criticisms for it, but I’m dumbfounded as to how this run-of-the-mill doc could get ranked #2 out of all the films at our festival.

From China / France

The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters (2006) –Dai Sijie In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0425985/ There’s not an image in this whole film that isn’t dripping with lush beauty, be it the beauty of an exotic botanical garden, the gorgeous scenery surrounding it, or the two beautiful Chinese girls who take turns bathing and massaging one another in the raw within it. For a certain kind of viewer, that probably sounds like a surefire recipe for success (for others it may sound like softcore porn, which it may or may not be), but I’m afraid that The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters is really nothing but a collection of pretty pictures. The original story seems to be a critique of Chinese politics, showing the girls’ forbidden lesbian relationship to be beautiful and passionate to the audience while the authorities see it as wholly unnatural and wrong, leading to a would-be heart-wrenching finish worthy of Lars von Trier (though of course we’re spared any grisly details, being as this is a pretty-as-a-picture movie). Unfortunately, Dai Sijie’s insistence on beautifying every image is at the expense of character development, and consequently his film never achieves any real emotional power although it certainly thinks it does. Nevertheless, though it’s not a good movie, it sure is pleasing to look at (provided one finds aesthetic enjoyment in green plants, waterfalls, or Asian women).

From Czech Republic

Something Like Happiness (2005) –Bohdan Slama In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0406098/ Slama’s previous feature, Wild Bees, was a slight but amusing throwback to the Czech New Wave. Something Like Happiness is a horse of a different color; an emotionally congested drama revolving around a handful of working class characters who together create a sort of non-traditional family, one that is held up by two young characters whose selfless compassion is so strong that they are unable to move on with their own lives. It’s a dreary, weepy look at people who struggle to find happiness, which was if anything too emotionally draining.

Holiday Makers (2006) –Jiri Vejdelek In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0795488/ An example of mainstream, commercial Czech cinema, Holiday Makers is a comedy involving a dozen or so characters on holiday who take a chartered bus to a beach resort, most of whom are trying to get laid though the emphasis is on their idiosyncratic foibles. There’s a middle-aged man trying to keep his wife from finding out he lost his job, his lesser attractive grown daughter who desires a local attractive celebrity who is in turn trying to lay the prudish Pamela Anderson look-a-like tour guide, a homophobic nuclear family with a young boy who thinks he is gay because he cannot urinate in a restroom if other men are present, a gay couple who fittingly enough seem to be the happiest couple on the bus, two teenage girls who develop a sexual rivalry in trying to one-up one another in their conquests, a snorkeler who follows female swimmers and masturbates in the water, and an elderly woman trying to find the spot where she initially met her late husband. Something for everyone, I guess, and it plays out like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with everyone eventually finding the ‘right’ person or solution to their own problems. I’m sure that if I had seen more of these kinds of films I would find this tiresome, but I never cease to be amazed by how open Europeans are in dealing with sexuality onscreen by comparison to Americans. There are numerous scenes in this film that would never make it into a commercial American movie, even by today’s standards, and yet they’re really not treated as anything taboo here. Different worlds…

From Denmark

Boss of It All (2006) –Lars von Trier In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0469754/ LvT’s latest is a quasi-dogme style office farce revolving around a Danish CEO who has avoided confrontations with his employees over the years by pretending to be just another employee and always blaming unpopular corporate decisions on a supposed ‘boss of it all.’ But when the time comes to secretly sell the company to a no-nonsense Icelandic businessman who insists on meeting with the real boss, the CEO decides to hire a pretentious actor to play the phantom ‘boss of it all’ – a decision that quickly spirals out of his own control. As a comedy, this is not particularly funny, but it’s all a thinly veiled allegory for the creative process as it exists for Lars von Trier, with the immoral CEO standing in for the director (read: von Trier) who manipulates both his actors (the actor he hires) and his audience (his real employees) for his own benefits. Being a farce, it naturally keeps building and building until it cannot keep its secret any longer, and the climax is essentially treated like an act of guilty confession that can only be alleviated by forgiveness, all of which probably emanates from von Trier’s own sense of Catholicism. So while this isn’t a very good movie, it’s nevertheless an interesting and very revealing one about its author.

From France

Forever (2006) –Heddy Honigmann In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0906743/ Ostensibly a documentary about Paris’ Pere-Lachaise cemetery, where the likes of Marcel Proust, Fredric Chopin, and Jim Morrison are buried, Forever would better be described as a love letter to art, or more specifically, an exploration into the transformative effects brought about by an appreciation of it. With camera in hand, Honigmann strolls through the Pere-Lachaise, encountering and often spontaneously interviewing a diverse array of people who are visiting or paying their respects to the graves of various artists, many of which are remarkably perceptive, articulate, and moving, and the accumulation of these sincere appreciations turns this into one of the most sublime documentaries I’ve ever seen.

A Japanese girl was so moved by hearing the music of Chopin as a child that she decided to move to Paris to study piano; a mortician conveys his appreciation for Modigliani by likening his own work with corpses to the painter’s desire to capture the essence of a person in his distorted portraits; a graphic novelist details his lifelong obsession with Proust and in the midst of it provides an infectious and well-informed appreciation of his accomplishments. In one of my favorite vignettes (that veers a bit beyond the cemetery itself), two blind men “watch” a movie they have just rented – Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques – and take turns offering comments upon the screenplay, use of music, and Simone Signoret’s amazing performance. Honigmann’s unassuming camera peers at their faces, and we can sense that the film they’re watching is a composite of what they’re hearing and what they’re imagining. And I think it’s here where the film gets at the true heart of its subject, because for these men, the film is really taking place inside of them. It’s no longer Les Diaboliques that they’re watching, but their own version of it. And aren’t the best films always the ones that we carry inside of us, the ones that can never fully be realized? Likewise, for each of these people, their appreciation is an internal projection brought about by the stimulus we call art. It’s an experience that is infinitely renewable, capable of being reborn within us, immortal. Despite the artist’s death, despite the decay surrounding their graves, their art perseveres through us. So long as we remember it, like the old ladies tending the graves on a daily basis, it will continue to live on. Forever.

The Valet (2006) –Francis Veber In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0449851/ Routine French comedy about an average man with an average job (car valet) and an average life who through an improbable chain of events gets paid to, um, live with a supermodel – in essence serving as a ‘valet’ for a much richer man’s mistress. Bright, bold colors abound, giving it a certain air of unreality as is common with this kind of material. It doesn’t have anything new to say about the theme of financial success versus true happiness, and the formulaic elements are pretty transparent, but I liked the central metaphor and if nothing else it’s pretty entertaining.

Me and My Sister (2004) –Alexandra Leclere In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0410639/ The ageless Isabelle Huppert is in top form as a desperately unhappy Parisian whose annoying, impulsive, wide-eyed and genuinely happy sister from the country (Catherine Frot) comes to visit for a few days in this comedy-drama about sibling rivalry. At first, Huppert is our identification character and we share in her annoyance at her sister’s lack of self-consciousness and almost impossibly cheerful attitude, but gradually the roles shift and we come to see Huppert’s annoyance as her own self-hatred projected upon her sister who for all her zaniness is able to do the things in life that Huppert wishes to but cannot. There’s a lovely sequence midway through the film when the sisters wake up in the middle of the night and spontaneously begin to watch The Young Girls of Rochefort on television, singing along with real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac in a girlish way that one has to imagine they used to do together all the time in their childhood, but it’s only a brief reprieve from Huppert’s unhappy reality (there’s another subtle connection in that Huppert’s character, the elder sister, would seem as fated to a tragic life as was Dorleac in reality). It probably doesn’t need repeating, but while both actresses are excellent, Huppert really nails this role with her body language and general demeanor. It’s no wonder she’s probably the most revered working French actress. Unfortunately, the film becomes a bit overwrought toward the end, but the rest of it’s good enough to forgive that.

From Germany / Slovenia

Warchild (2006) –Christian Wagner In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0490021/ Even after a war is over, its aftermath brings forth new tragedies. Warchild is a drama about one Bosnian woman’s journey to Germany when she discovers her long lost daughter may have survived the war and been adopted by a German family. In her relentless struggle to take her daughter back home, she is met with a harsh reality: that her 12-year old daughter, whom she hasn’t seen since she was one-year old, now has a different name, a family of her own, and no recollection of her. Although the film follows the Bosnian birth mother’s journey, it’s sympathetic to the family who has adopted and raised the daughter as their own, and their refusal to hand her over is completely understandable. The only perspective that the film really doesn’t explore is, oddly enough, that of the daughter herself, even though she is the crux of the drama. It’s a depressing film as there can be no win-win outcome; the war has given birth to a tragedy that is irresolvable, even long after it’s over.

From India

The Journey (2006) –Goutam Ghose In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0470611/ Self-reflexive Hindi drama about a disillusioned writer who relates the somewhat autobiographical story behind his book to a young filmmaker on a train, and proceeds to resume his own story afterwards in what becomes an ambiguous merging of fantasy and reality. The writer is reminiscent of Guru Dutt in Pyaasa in terms of his humanistic pleas in an increasingly amoral society, but it lacks the heartache that accompanies Dutt’s work and the end result is rather mediocre.

From Ireland

Once (2006) –John Carney In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0907657/ Once is a romance in the vein of the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films, only instead of the connection between the two parties occurring through dialogue, it’s created through shared music. He is an Irish man who pours his heart out as a lonely street musician. She is a Czech woman who happens to pass him by and dares to stop and listen. A connection is sparked. Each has been hurt by a previous relationship and together they find solace in making music, but despite their mutual attraction, their relationship never transgresses and instead each finds the inspiration in one another to try and repair the broken bonds of their own pasts (and consequently those who found Linklater’s films problematic will probably like this a lot more). The film isn’t quite as effective as Before Sunset as it isn’t told in real time, but the individual scenes, especially those in which they pour their hearts out in their music, are often quite powerful and feel very genuine thanks to the handheld camerawork (and especially Glen Hansard’s performance as the unnamed ‘guy’). Anyone who has ever tried to wash away their hurt through songwriting will find this very touching.

From Japan

Paprika (2006) –Satoshi Kon In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0851578/ “This is your brain on anime,” reads the tagline. A better encapsulation I cannot imagine. Hallucinatory, frenzied, outrageous, this plays out like a surreal, apocalyptic nightmare in which dreams manifest themselves only to be invaded by other dreams, resulting in a nonstop splurge of pure chaos. Echoes of Strindberg’s A Dream Play: Anything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Characters split, multiply, dissolve and re-converge. And it all happens at breakneck speed, so much so that’s it near impossible to keep straight who is dreaming and who is awake, or if what we’re watching is a dream or a dream manifested into reality – or if it’s all just a movie inside of a movie, paralleling the impossible demands of so many competing minds in creating a finished film, to the point that the filmmaker/dreamer just cracked. Part mystery, part musical, part adventure, part erotica, mostly fantasy, and thoroughly hilarious. The audience went absolutely NUTS for this. I’m still wondering what the hell I just saw.

The Seagull Diner (2006) –Naoko Ogigami In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0483022/ A Kerpanesque film if I ever saw one, Seagull Diner can take its place just slightly beneath Babette’s Feast and Tampopo as one of the most endearing of food movies. Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi, who is wonderful) is an independent, whimsical, funny, a bit reserved, and lovable young Japanese woman who has decided to open up a Japanese diner in Finland featuring traditional Japanese “soul” food in a very modern looking venue. At first, she has no customers at all and her only contact with people (despite speaking fluent Finnish) are with sour looking Finns staring disapprovingly at her from outside the diner window. How she is able to open up, let alone keep this very nice looking diner open, is a total mystery, but then we never really get inside her mind or learn what brought her to Finland in the first place, either (she evasively jokes that it was to meet hot men). Gradually, one by one, the stoic residents break down and trickle into her diner and are invariably impressed with her cooking, becoming regulars, each defining their space with their regular tables, and in this way the film begins to create a visual sense of familiarity over time. In addition to her patrons, Sachie befriends two other Japanese women who for various reasons find themselves in Finland and eventually come to work for her, and their sense of camaraderie, despite being very different and distinctive characters, gives the film a great deal of charm. What’s interesting is that despite being a Japanese production, the film has really absorbed the slow, deadpan Finnish sensibility, and so the movie itself seems as much an experiment as Sachie’s diner in terms of merging the norms of two different cultures. It’s a lot of fun, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to come away from it craving Japanese rice balls.

From Norway

The Bothersome Man (2006) –Jens Lien In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0808185/ There’s a theory that a film can be summarized by its opening scene. The Bothersome Man is a good example of this. It opens with a deadpan, immobile close-up of two people passionately kissing, their mouths practically eating one another up – yet every other part of their body is lifeless. Their arms are at their sides, their eyes are looking off into the distance – not looking at anything, nor thinking of anything, just staring off into space. The shot holds, and holds, and holds; the couple never stops to breath or changes their rhythm. It’s as if two robots were going through the motions of passionately kissing without there being even a trace of any real passion in the act.

The Bothersome Man is set in a nightmarish dystopia where everyone is pleasant on the surface but utterly lacking in any genuine emotion. Our hero, a completely average, somewhat stoic man whose plight is epitomized in a shot where he is framed in silhouette walking through a dark tunnel toward an unreachable light, finds himself starting a new life in a new city at a new job where he types figures all day into a computer and works with a dozen people who talk only about interior design. He moves in with one of them, a woman who sits at home watching films about interior design, who accommodates his every need but is completely dead emotionally, leading him to look elsewhere, but every woman he finds is the same: pleasant, accommodating, and completely passionless. Trying to feel a bit more alive, he turns to self-injury, only to discover he has regenerative powers and is incapable of dying. In a world without emotion, without music, without crying babies or anything that is not pleasant and formal on the surface, he embarks upon a quest to find a trace of the humanity this world has lost.

The film is thoroughly filled with dull grays and blues that accentuate the lifelessness of this environment. While the allegory may seem a bit heavy-handed, the pace at which it moves from one bizarre scene to another keeps it engaging, and I loved the surreal metaphor at the journey’s end.

Reprise (2006) –Joachim Trier In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0827517/ “All I ever do is recycle Sten Egil Dahl,” muses one young writer to another in this ambitious, playful debut feature about two friends and aspiring writers who struggle to make something of themselves. That anxiety over not being able to move beyond one’s influences, of constantly recycling the past, seems emblematic of Reprise, which plays out like a free-flowing homage to (or, as it were, reprise of) the French New Wave, in both style and themes. Freeze frames, jump cuts, flashing text, past scenes that are spliced into future ones, jarring uses of music (it even appropriates Delerue’s score from Contempt in a fun way), etc., – there’s a real sense of cinematic playfulness here that is, at the same time, undercut by the seriousness of the story and these young men’s aspirations.

Reprise is a young man’s film through and through. Even its rambling structure seems to mirror the often chaotic and confused if hopeful and invigorating state of being young and full of life and wanting to do something great, and how that gets intertwined with friendships and relationships that can be even more turbulent as much as they are inspiring (something that is interestingly offset by the inevitably solitary pursuit of writing). Just as the film seems to repackage the whole French New Wave, it really seems to capture all the messiness and craziness and exhilaration of this age and the life experiences that go with it, and at the same time it’s imbued with this burgeoning and at times overwhelming nostalgia for it, as if one could see it all fading away. Being the same age as these characters, I can identify with all this, but I suspect that if I were to watch this ten or twenty years from now, I would find it inconsolably depressing (much, as I suspect, the characters would themselves).

From Sweden

Falkenberg Farewell (2006) –Jesper Ganslandt In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0855805/ Nostalgic and poignant without ever becoming sentimental, Falkenberg Farewell is a film that seems so light on the surface that it catches you off guard, not expecting its accumulation of small vignettes and poetic images to amass such an emotional wallop. Set in a small Swedish town, it leisurely follows a handful of 20-something boys during their final summer together and is highly reminiscent of Fellini’s I Vitelloni, but done in a more elegiac mode that reminded me of Elvira Madigan with its serene, impressionistic images. It’s composed of many small vignettes that serve to create a nostalgic and often tender ambience, suggesting the deep bonds that these friends share, interweaving the various characters in and out of the film without ever following one in particular. Generally shot in long takes with handheld cameras that follow its characters from behind, it’s punctuated by the reminiscences and musings of one man’s journal, read through voiceover narration to montages of images that together create a kind of poetry. The constant tracking shots seem to evocate how these characters talk about getting on with their lives, moving away and such, while you get the impression that they will never leave Falkenberg. Except for one, for whom the notion of moving away and starting a new life becomes linked metaphorically with mortality, and it’s through his ruminations that the film really achieves this striking poignancy, insofar as we are made to feel how ephemeral our lives and time together really is. For a film that I was initially reluctant to even see, this turned out to be one of the best Swedish films I’ve seen in years.

From Switzerland

Stealth (2006) –Lionel Baier In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0907843/ Autobiographical story of a young gay Swiss man (Baier) who takes an impromptu road trip with his sister to Warsaw after becoming aware of his Polish ancestry and subsequently obsessed with all things Polish. It’s a nice, sweet film about self-identity and accepting yourself for what you are, whether that means being gay (this is one of the only films I’ve seen in which the protagonist’s homosexuality is completely accepted by everyone and viewed more as a trait than as an issue) or being of Slavic descent in a culture dominated by Western European ancestry.

From Tunisia

VHS – Kahloucha (2006) –Nejib Belkadhi In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0925307/ Sousse, Tunisia, may be a popular tourist destination, but its film culture is still a bit primitive. Nevertheless, it’s home to one of the world’s most ambitious filmmakers: Moncef Kahloucha, a high-strung, serious, and strangely hilarious man in his 40s who makes zero-budget films on VHS tapes inspired by popular American and European movies. Objectively, they seem to be of Ed Wood quality, only here the satirizing of genres (which is at the same time done out of a deep love for them) seems intentional. This behind-the-scenes documentary shows Kahloucha in the midst of shooting his latest feature, Tarzan of the Arabs, in which Kahloucha himself dons a loin cloth, beard, and yodels his way through the Tunisian desert where he wrestles with a stuffed goat in front of real passing trains full of (one has to imagine to be) befuddled travelers. Somehow this gets worked into city scenes involving a beautiful girl (cast because Kahloucha loves Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo who always have beautiful girls at their side) and a handful of gangsters – all of whom are played by locals, many of whom have spent the greater parts of their lives in jail.

To say that Kahloucha puts his blood, sweat, and tears into this production is no cliché: In one foot chase scene, for instance, Kahloucha tells a bit player to act hurt and then informs him that he’ll put some blood on him in the next shot. Kahloucha then proceeds to take a razor blade and slash a deep laceration into his own arm, out of which he starts oozing the blood all over the actor (later we see a pile of bloodied cloths that were used to stop the bleeding). It’s the kind of antics one would expect of Werner Herzog, who despite being in a completely different class, is every bit his spiritual equal.

The film branches out from being just a making-of documentary to depicting the harsh living conditions of Sousse’s populace. Virtually everyone in the film has served time in jail or has relatives in jail; some women are lauded for illegally immigrating to Italy to find work rather than stay in Tunisia and turn to prostitution; and there’s a lingering sense of inequality when Kahloucha finally finishes his film and drives around town announcing the premiere screening in a small café which as it turns out only men are allowed to attend. At one point, a well-placed montage of European vacationers saying “I love Sousse” in their various tongues nails home how third world countries like this are exploited for the leisurely rich, a point that Kahloucha’s own brand of imitative western filmmaking also underscores.

The reception of Tarzan of the Arabs is treated with lots of hearty laughs – the kind that almost turn into tears. Beneath its humorous veneer, alongside its fascination with this most earnest of filmmakers, this documentary is crying a bit inside, too.

From Turkey

Climates (2006) –Nuri Bilge Ceylan In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0498097/ Not that there was any doubt, but Climates proves Ceylan’s indebtedness to Antonioni. Beginning with the dissolution of a relationship (played by Ceylan, who has a surprisingly good screen presence, and his real life wife) amidst barren summer landscapes, it follows Ceylan across several seasons as he tries to repair this gap in his life, only to find an even greater sense of alienation with each changing climate. Much like with Antonioni, the haunting landscapes express that alienation, and there’s a lingering beauty in them that I found compelling. Ceylan himself is a flawed hero, a shameless liar, and in many respects unlikable, but there’s an honesty in depicting his character warts and all that seems reminiscent of Bergman, only he does this with far less dialogue and those characteristic long takes that stare in at his characters. This was the lowest ranked film of the entire festival, but I found it to be meditative and rewarding.

The Magician (2006) –Cem Yilmaz In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0827503/ This was a disappointment, considering the great things I’ve heard about Cem Yilmaz comedies. As the title would suggest, the main theme here is illusion versus reality, with Yilmaz playing a magician with a penchant for making terrible blunders on stage (the film opens with a magic show where he and his companion are sawing the lady in half, and the next thing we know she’s being rushed to the emergency room). Most of the film is a road movie where Yilmaz heads a traveling magic show, but unexpected events keep turning profitable enterprises into disasters. Though it has a few tricks up its sleeve, unfortunately this just isn’t very funny.

From UK / Austria / Netherlands

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) –Sophie Fiennes In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0828154/ I suppose my love for this documentary was inevitable. An analysis of about two dozen of my very favorite films, with a focus on Lynch, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Chaplin, Kieslowski, and Haneke, famed philosopher/psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek interweaves Lacanian readings of their work with his trademark witty and amusing style into larger commentaries that ultimately tackle the roles that cinema plays in our lives. Thankfully, Zizek doesn’t get bogged down in technical jargon (a basic understanding of superego, ego, and id should get you through this just fine), instead making his ideas accessible to the layman, disturbing though they may be.

I’ve read some harsh criticisms of this film (that are really criticisms of Zizek) that suggest Zizek’s observations have nothing to do with the films themselves and everything to do with his own personal theories. To be sure, at times I think he may be reaching, but in doing so he opens up these films to some fascinating interpretations, most of which I found myself in agreement with.

For me, the most important idea he presents is the necessity of fantasmatic support – the idea that we require fantasy in order to sustain our desire. Although he mainly uses Hitchcock’s Vertigo, probably the ultimate film about male heterosexuality, to explore this concept, it was actually his reading of the end of City Lights that seems to best encapsulate this notion (spoiler for City Lights), with the blind girl’s love for this fantasy ideal in her mind that, once she is able to see, is destroyed upon the realization that Chaplin’s tramp does not match her fantasy. Do we actually love other people, or do we only love the ideas of them we hold in our minds? Our realities are supported by our fantasies, Zizek seems to suggest. One can easily abstract this a level further and suggest that the role that cinema plays in our lives is much the same; that is, the cinema itself is our fantasmatic support, never giving us what we desire but telling us what we desire. In this way, Zizek says, cinema is the ultimate pervert art.

Whether one agrees with Zizek or sees his theories as bogus, this never ceases to be compelling (though it helps if you’re familiar with the films he discusses). I found this to be one of the most rewarding documentaries I’ve ever seen, so much so that I caught two screenings of it. I’m still digesting it all, and look forward to seeing it again on DVD.

From USA

Firefly (2005) –Peter Marcy In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0956294/ A local film that has played around the world and only now gotten its Minneapolis premiere (with most of the cast and crew in the audience), this is an unexceptional but decent low-low-budget picture that plays out like Short Cuts if it were turned into a science-fiction thriller set in Minneapolis. It involves a handful of lives that are affected by some mysterious event that occurred on Halloween night, and cuts back and forth between characters as it puts the pieces together. Its influences are readily apparent (e.g., one plotline is straight out of Memento), and it really does plod along in a few places, but it has a certain low-budget charm that made it far more engaging than it ought to have been, and I loved the gall of the ending credits that scrolled down over a piece of handwritten notepaper to note that “All of the music was original except for [a famous song by a famous singer I cannot remember] which was used without permission.”

The Memory Thief (2006) –Gil Kofman In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0437250/ Gil Kofman’s audacious debut feature is both about the memory of the Holocaust and a study in madness. Lukas (Mark Webber) lives alone in a cramped apartment and works as a toll booth operator. When he comes across a copy of Mein Kampf, a random passerby who turns out to be a Holocaust survivor reproaches him and then gives him a tape in which he has recorded his testimony of his time in the camps. Intrigued by the tape, Lukas, begins to work for a Jewish center that records the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, becoming increasingly obsessed with the details of their memories – numbers, names, dates. At some point we begin to wonder about Lukas, who is not even Jewish. Unable to remember his own past, he finds himself appropriating the Jewish past, to the point that his obsessions turn into conspiracies which turn into madness. The Memory Thief is highly reminiscent of Taxi Driver, especially toward the end, featuring a similar character arc to that of Travis Bickle. I have to admit I didn’t completely buy Mark Webber in the role – his performance struck me as self-conscious and affected – but the film still fascinates. Gil Kofman was present for a Q&A (which turned out to be the sparsest attended screening I’ve ever seen in which a director was present) and was insightful, courteous, and very articulate.

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PLUS

Revisions:

#1) http://i10.photobucket.com/albums/a106/AntoniusBlock/507071.jpg yes – for a genre noted for its artifice, it’s the realism of the long-take aesthetic that makes this work so well, and it’s not without a hint of the autobiographical. I suspect the above was an homage to P&P.

#2) http://i10.photobucket.com/albums/a106/AntoniusBlock/507072.jpg YES – to provide a famous quote about this film: “There are mysteries in this movie and then there are deeper mysteries.”

#3) http://i10.photobucket.com/albums/a106/AntoniusBlock/507073.jpg yes – compared the two versions and definitely prefer the latter.

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Reading:

Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

Written 80 years ago in Germany, this book is most famous for being the source novel to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which, considering Kubrick’s reputation as a director who significantly altered his source stories, is all the more remarkable for how extremely loyal his adaptation of this is. Although Eyes Wide Shut is updated to a modern American milieu, virtually every scene and character (and much of the dialogue) is straight out of the novel, with the one exception of the Sydney Pollack character who is invented for the film. The book, at least in its translation (by Otto P. Schinnerer, 1955), is actually a bit sparse; Kubrick really seems to have embellished the story in terms of subtlety, in addition to brilliantly realizing what is essential in each scene. If anything, the novel is actually more explicit in terms of its mirroring of Bill/Fridolin’s experiences with Alice/Albertina’s dreams, with several details overtly interconnected between the two that are toned down a bit in the film. But what’s incredible about the film to me – which I watched again after reading the novel – is how it can have so many layers of subtlety (esp. in terms of color, composition, and props) and at the same time, even if one doesn’t pick up on those things, still works so well as this dreamy mood piece, so richly realized, and so haunting.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

This is a collection of short essays on how technological advances in painting and photography – and the sheer proliferation of images – have shaped western cultural norms. For me, the most interesting essay was on the history of oil paintings. Berger suggests that oil paintings allowed the eye to practically grasp painted objects because of their clarity, something that the invention of photography would later accentuate. Although there were a few painters who really did use the form to create works of art, most oil paintings were done for rich patrons to reflect their own wealth back to them. This leads into a larger discussion on how oil paintings and photography aid capitalism, how advertising uses the image to create desire, and how through the history of nude paintings women essentially became commodities. This was written back in the 70s, and like so much of the revisionist criticism of that era, it’s highly critical of the way that images have been utilized to uphold certain ideologies (especially capitalism). Though I found this immensely interesting and would certainly consider it a worthwhile read, I’m drawn more to Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (which is certainly related to all this) if only because it dares to view a discussion like this in a more optimistic light.