On day 9 of the festival I hit the wall. I don’t mean that as a clichéd metaphor for exhaustion, but I hit an actual wall. I was walking up the stairs to my cinema seat to immerse myself in two hours of experimental film work and somehow veered off track and stumbled into a wall. It’s what the festival is all about, I suppose!
The last few days have seen my draining case of influenza gradually – ever so gradually – vanquish itself from my body and, as a result, have had a burst of energy that that served me well at a time of the festival when fatigue should be getting the better of me. Oh sure, my legs feel like they have early stage rigour mortis and I’ve occasionally found myself looking at my notes with confusion: I swear that I wrote “hello is the weather of the brain” today and I haven’t the slightest inkling of what context that was in or what it actually means. But how about the films?
Documentaries have proven to be the surprise boom of this period. Annie Goldson’s rivetting New Zealand doco about the Khmer Rouge in Brother Number One was suitably upsetting and affecting, but its lack of any directorial flair makes the film hard to judge. Of course I cried during the film – listening to the atrocities of Cambodia in the in the time of Pol Pot will do that no matter the quality of the film around it! Similarly, I was disappointed in the end result of Göran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, but not due to any technical issues. No, it was more because for a film that features the word “Mixtape” in the title, there was actually very little music in it whatsoever. Minor annoyance, perhaps, but I was in the mood for some social commentary-laden soul tunes!
The stars of the documentaries, however, have been Beth Aala’s Pool Party, an enjoyable and fun examination of the ever-changing use of a mammoth local community pool in Brooklyn, New York. For an NYC tragic like myself, Pool Party was a little slice of heaven, and it helps that there was some great music too from the likes of Deerhunter, Sonic Youth, The Ting Tings and many others. Another hit doco was Peter Richardson’s powerful How to Die in Oregon, a taxing and emotionally fraught look at the only American state to allow “dying with dignity” in any legal capacity. Anybody not moved to tears by the plight of the subjects within Richardson’s film surely has a heart of concrete; I haven’t cried this much at the cinema in a very long time. The final scene in particular, which plays out in blurry long shot as a woman takes the deadly potion to end her life, is devastating.
Whether Ruhr, the latest experimental work by James Benning, counts as a documentary at all is up for debate, but I was surprised at how much I found myself enjoying this contemplative and meditative study of the Ruhr District in Germany and how man and nature have grown to co-existing. The first hour of Benning’s experimental work is told in six short vignettes of an unmoving camera as it simply watches life exist whether that’s in a Muslim mosque, an airport runway or an underground traffic passage. The second hour is devoted to one unbroken shot of the chimney at a coca-cola factory as, every so often, steam and smoke emerge to disfigure the picturesque setting sun backdrop. It’s hypnotic and reminded me of the fine works of experimental and video art I have experienced in New York City.
Classic films like Carol Reed’s 1949 film-noir masterpiece The Third Man and Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike interpretation of Beauty and the Beast from 1946 have been sublime highlights of my festival roster so far, as has the German/Polish family film Winter’s Daughter. From director Johannes Schmid comes this charming film about two Germans from different generations discovering long-long family ties in the Poland. Featuring a standout performance by Ursula Lerner as an elderly chaperone, Winter’s Daughter had the audience, mostly filled with school children on a German field trip, enraptured.
Major disappointments so far have been few and far between, but Markus Schleinzer’s Cannes-certified Michael was definitely one of them. Heralded for its look at the banal life of a paedophile, Michael is rather boring and too timid to say anything about these evil people or their victims. The film doesn’t say anything at all, and instead just frustrates with its cold long takes and a lead actor that is hard to take seriously due to his physical likeness to Buster Bluth from Arrested Development. For completely different reasons, Zhang-ke Jia’s lucid I Wish I Knew was another disappointment. Filled with testimonials about the history of Shanghai, this film is snooze-central and featured upwards of 50 walkouts. I found it dull rather than truly terrible; even its badness wasn’t memorable.
The highlight of the period was definitely Lena Dunham’s precise examination of early-twenties drifting, Tiny Furniture. Her wickedly hilarious screenplay – she also stars as the lead character, Aura – picks apart the selfish and lazy nature of post-graduates and does so with subtle jabs at the idea of hipsters, avant guard artists and dopey highbrow posers. Another New York set film that frames the city in interesting and inventive ways, Tiny Furniture is a brave film from Dunham who is clearly unafraid to scrutinize her own existence and her own generation. I was deeply taken by it and it’s a crying shame this film, a post-Mumblecore masterpiece if we can call it that, hasn’t received a theatrical release in the 18 months since it premiered in America. It’s the best film of the festival (so far!)
Glenn is blogging daily at Stale Popcorn