Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sydney Film Festival 2009: Three Monkeys

The beacon of Sydney’s film-life is back in its 56th year. Until its arrival, it was difficult to imagine how film-starved this city has become. Devoid of proper cinematheques and with the local art house theatres playing ‘Angels and Demons’, Sydney can not even remotely be called a film-friendly city.
Alas, this year’s festival is a lot leaner, slimmer and, unfortunately thinner… Unlike the stupendously overloaded 2007 edition, the 56th outing of the festival offers a collection of gems that barely make a mark on the radar.
I found it somewhat ironic that the festival’s promotional poster features a nerdy looking guy and a tired-looking dog sitting in an armchair in what supposedly means to a TV set. The logo? ‘Don’t try this at home’. ‘… or you might go to sleep’ should’ve been the punchline.
No no no. I’m not deprecating the standard festival fare that is featured here. It’s just, even I had to admit half-heartedly, there were going to be very few surprises this year. Yet, as I booked my twelve sessions (the only ones I could master up some enthusiasm), I was hoping for a miracle.

THREE MONKEYS: Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Before I begin the review of the following film, I’m going to indulge in a little digression.
It’s the 2009 Cannes film festival. The Jury has convened to make their final decision. Who’s going to get a bite of the small prize pool? While the only prize that really counts at Cannes is Palm d’Or, it’s better to go away with at least a small paper certificate than without anything. It is an unusually good competition this time around, which some commentators had already dubbed ‘the battle of the auteurs’. The Palme d’Or was probably a foregone conclusion with Hupert as the president and Haneke presenting his strongest film in years (so we hear). The rest of the prizes would have proven difficult to distribute considering the exceptional standard of most of the films. One prize that is almost as equally coveted is the best-director gong. Various jury members present their choices ‘Almodovar. Campion. How about Von Trier? No, that would be too much for him. Audriad has made an amazing film. Isn’t it time one of the greatest French filmmakers received a prize here – Alain Resnais. Yes, that would be perfect, he’s at the death’s door and he’s made such a beautiful film…’ But from a corner comes a quiet but dignified voice “I think the prize should go to Brilliante Mendoza…” The voice belongs to Nuri Bilge Ceylan – a Cannes darling who was the lucky recipient of the said award in 2008. The jury stares at Nuri in stupefication (except Isabelle Hupert, whose astonishing face NEVER changes its expression). “Yes… I think he made an amazing film… it’s a really challenging and enigmatic movie with a unique style”. “But you can’t see anything in it” pitch in a few of the members. “Well… it is a very dark film, so the director has found the appropriate treatment for it”… “But the material… it’s like a B-grade Hollywood thriller dressed up as a snuff move”. “… it’s a brilliant treatment of a B-movie. Just like my film from last year, for which I won the best director prize”. Since nobody in the room had seen Nuri’s film and were too ashamed to admit it, the jury unanimously decided to give the prize to Mendoza’s film – the worst film in the history of Cannes according to the press.
This is of course a big load of conjecture and I can not confirm Ceylan’s attitude to Mendoza’s film (which I haven’t seen). Yet I couldn’t help but think about it while watching the latest film in the Turkish director’s cannon – ‘Three Monkeys’, although I much prefer the sound of its Turkish title , pronounced ‘Uch Meymoun’.
The story tastes like badly aged wine. An influential politician, just before the elections, runs over a pedestrian on a dark, isolated road. His plate number is recorded by another driver and in desperation, the politician seeks the help of his driver, Eyup. He asks Eyup to take his place and give himself up to the police. He’d only have to sit it out for a year and upon release will receive a large sum of money for services provided. Eyup, considering the odds, takes the offer. His wife and son are strangely unmoved about the arrangement. The beautiful Hacer goes on about her routine as always, fretting over her handsome, adolescent son Ismail, who has failed his school exams and prefers to loiter about. Ismail is also bored and being stuck in a small coastal town does not help. Soon he’s pressuring his mother to ask the politician for an advance so he could get a car. The mother reluctantly complies, but when she meets the man decides to get something for herself too. No, not money. Just a good lay. In the tradition of those great Hollywood noirs, the plot thickens into a black pool of blood, but slow enough that you could say ‘Preminger, Hitchcock, Visconti, Chandler and Tarkovsky’ before the next scene comes.
Mixing Tarkovsky and Chandler (or most likely Cain - the references are too generalised here) is a great idea on paper and Ceylan makes a very strong attempt to bring this gimmick to life. Yet, essentially the two aesthetics are not just incompatible, they are mutually exclusive. Chandler’s characters inhabit a universe that is driven by dialogue, wordplay and language. You could probably film an entire Chandler film in a dark closet and still get a pretty good picture. Tarkovsky on the other hand requires not so much dialogue as poetry – to accompany the powerful images he conjures up. The free associative way that Tarkovsky constructs his films, full of ellipsis’s, off-screen dialogue and negative spaces, is diametrically opposed to Chandler’s focus on human psychology and semantics. So Ceylan’s film never really knows where it wants to be. It is a very reluctant thriller. The mechanical plot clicks its way through an almost too pat a conclusion. But it is not really the airport novel plot that is at fault here. Trashy material has made the basis of many a good film – just look at any Godard adaptation. What is problematic however is Ceylan’s off-handed, simplistic and at times offensively stereotypical treatment of his characters. At times I thought I was watching a really corny 70s Turkish melodrama, which happened to be photographed by Christopher Doyle. None, and I mean none of the main characters come remotely close to being complex. Complexity is suggested by the loaded imagery, but immediately dissipates when the characters so much as open their mouths or make a predictable plot movement. They are driven by the customary characteristics that define a typically ‘Eastern’ patriarchal unit. The one to suffer most is of course the woman. Not only is she presented to be morally dubious, but is also a weak creature in thrall of the man. It is possible that Ceylan is making a non-too subtle critique on the way men abuse the women in their lives. But I don’t buy it. There’s just a way that Ceylan photographs Hacer, with her twisted mouth and a desperate look in her eyes that suggests some kind of primal instability – a madness that is just brimming under the surface of her finely etched features.
Ceylan is obviously much more concerned with the way the light falls on the actors, the furniture and the landscape, than he is with philosophical musings on guilt and redemption (themes that are central to his work). Had he attempted to even slightly move away from the formulaic narrative, he might have achieved something resembling the iconographic grandeur of Tarkovsky or Antonioni for that matter. For Ceylan has a truly astounding eye: his images are mercilessly detailed and at times overpoweringly monumental (take for example the brilliant last shot). Looking back at his previous film, ‘Climates’ I understand why I enjoyed it so much. By taking out the narrative out of the equation, Ceylan had given his images the possibility to tell thousands of stories instead of just one. His new film on the other hand reveals only one story – that of the director’s very significant shortcomings.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Belated end to a failed reporting career: The last few days of Telluride 2008

The insignificance of it all…
I don’t envy the journalistic masses who have to shuttle from one film festival to another like constant refugees in search of happiness.
After two intense nights of film viewing and writing I quickly gave up on 'reporting' in Telluride. No wonder. There was no one paying me for it after all. Could there even be a choice between writing a blog that no one reads and late-night drinking amidst the romantic setting of Colorado mountains?

Fast forward two and a half months (and then another four months) and I get the strong desire to finish off the job with one (actually two) massive chunk of post-reportage. Aha. And that’s only because I have absolutely no desire to work on the film I’m supposed to be working on.
So how did it go in the last three days of the fest? I don’t remember much actually, so I’ll avoid the chronology of the events as much as I can.

Looking in the crystal ball, I see David Fincher - sitting only slightly regally as the newly crowned
king of American cinema (at least that was the insinuation of the leaflet published by the festival). The man was humble and funny in a way that is only too correct for an autocratic director such as him. “It was all Darius Khonji” or “the amazing talent of Jodie Foster transformed the film” and so on. Well good for him! As a visual stylist Fincher is yet to be surpassed in contemporary American cinema and the selection of segments from his best music videos and commercials proved it. Yet the twenty minute segment of the latest instalment in the Brad Pitt trilogy also proved that he will never truly achieve a cinematic nirvana that he COULD have delivered had he worked outside of the studio system. Even in its unedited form, these loosely connected scenes displayed a brilliant visual sensibility, yet overall, the whole thing was just… a literary adaptation. There was something old and heavy about the whole affair, like a film made by a director in his twilight years (Funny and Alexander comes to mind). It was all Capra with technicolor sugar-coating and I really think that American filmmakers should get over Mr. Smith. Watching Cate Blanchet do another Meryl Streep transformation (this time as a ballerina) I kept thinking where is the man who put those cones on Maddonna’s tits gone?
Rather more fascinating encounter awaited me in old library hall where an unkempt-looking man with dirty long hair and a pot belly pranced about nervously with a pile of papers in his hand. Slavoj Zizek. The great, enfant terrible of post-everything philosophy took up the stage to explicate the astounding wonders of a soapy Nazi melodrama called… oh god… just a moment while I check the title on IMDB.

Found the title, but I’ll have to take a coffee break.

Right... it was called 'The Great Sacrifice'. Do I need to go into the plot? Well, alright then. A young man comes back from his travels in Asia and decides to marry the virginal daughter of a local historian (or maybe he was a philosopher). It is all very upper-class with readings of Nietzche in an enormous mansion with darkened rooms and performances of melancholy pieces by Bach. This intellectual potpourri is not really to the liking of our hero, who likes the outdoors and “healthy thoughts”. He doesn’t have to search long to find his ideal in a Finnish neighbour who likes to swim naked in the lake and ride horses through the countryside, in between arrow shooting practices and frequent sex sessions. We don’t get to see much of the last bit alas – Nazi filmmakers proved to be surprisingly conservative when it came showing bodies in action, other than when they prance around half-naked in water or on horses.

Zizek was a nervous mess as he sprouted forth ideas on the aesthetics of fascism and how closely it relates to the aesthetics of contemporary cinema. The philosopher is famous for contradicting himself and one couldn’t escape the notion that he was frequently coming up against his own remarks. “We should believe in cinema because it’s more real that reality itself” and then “the truth is on the outside, not inside the soul – which is fake”. Considering that the film he was showing was busy depicting the melodramatic ‘soul’ of fascist ideology, it was certainly a complete lie. What are we to believe then? Frankly Zizek’s theories spouted during this mini-lecture and in the extended (and quite brilliant) documentary ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’ (which I managed to see only recently) engage on a visceral level, but after a close scrutiny don’t hold up very long. Maybe that’s why he’s so open about his contradictory nature… However, I’m too cautious about attempting to unravel any of his philosophical dictums – I’m not ready to go completely mad just yet.
An important occasion of the festival was the screening of the restored print of Lola Montes, which glowed and glistened like a polished diamond. Yet, somehow, it failed to generate the emotional charge of Ophulse’s other masterpieces. Only in the last few scenes does the pathos and irony of the situation register its power. For me, the film remains first of all, an astonishing feat on a purely artistic, aesthetic level. The camera turns into a crafty magician, rising up and down, pirouetting around time and space. Genius, even if a tad boring.
Amidst all the archival, retrospective screenings, it was a distinct shock to find oneself seated at the surprise, world premiere of Danny Boyle’s kinetic take on Bollywood cinema – ‘Slamdog Millionaire’. Like most of Boyle’s work, ‘Slamdog’ runs fast and think later. It has a complex structure that encircles the entire life of the lead character from childhood to adulthood. The scenes depicting the children of Mumbai are truly terrific, shot with a demonic energy that immediately sweeps the viewers into their cinematic reality. While Boyle keeps his eyes open on the most despicable conditions that children face in contemporary India (in particular children with no families and homes) he still manages to cover it all with a saccharine coat that dilutes the hopelessness of reality. Which is why I guess the audience screamed ‘Oscar’ in ecstasy after it all finished. How easy it is for people to digest shit when it is served with plentiful of chocolate.

Talking about shit… Despondent at being unable to see anything at the ‘Opera House’ I dragged myself (very reluctantly) to a screening of …. ‘Hunger’. Despite its multitude of prizes and rhapsodic reviews I really didn’t feel like sitting through a film about an Irish terrorist who starves himself to death in a British prison. Especially since hunger was a constant presence in my stomach throughout the five days of the festival (food being expensive and all). Sitting in the most uncomfortable seat imaginable, which was perched on the balcony of the tiny theatre, I looked at the most moving and powerful images that blinked on Telluride’s screens. Even while the prisoners smeared their shit all over the walls of that horrific prison I could barely look away. The astonishing precision and clarity of each scene and shot was breathtaking. Not to say anything about the extraordinary real transformations of the actors who turned from handsome young men into blue corpses covered with cuts and bruises. At times, the film recalled images from Francis Bacon and Leucian Freud and even at its most horrific had a tangible poetry about it.

The hyper-kinetic Korean ‘Noodle-Western’ by Kim Ji Woon made no apologies for recycling the over-chewed remnants of Sergio Leone’s films. The title says it all of course: ‘The Good, The Bad and The Weird’. Revolving around three highly divergent characters (a hero, a villain and a fool) who rush through the film in order to get their hands on some treasure, the film basically is concerned with staging as many spectacular and comical shoot-out scenes as possible.
Ji Woon, whose previous efforts include the Korean hit ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ and an exceptional segment for the horror trilogy ‘3 extremes’, made a solid Pop-mash of various film references, in-jokes and some inventive physical comedy. Unlike Takeshi Miike who also attempted an idiosyncratic ‘Noodle-Western’ recently, Woon is primarily concerned with surfaces and their immediate, visceral effects. The movie works horizontally and does not dig deep, it spreads out wide across different periods, styles and themes, brushing past all that historical bric-a-brac like some 2-D animated character from ‘Sailor-Moon’.
Ji Woon was present at the screening as a sparse group of film-nuts huddled under plastic covers and umbrellas while sitting on dripping fold-out chairs in the open air cinema as heavy rain poured mercilessly in the bitter cold. It was surreal and otherworldly and very appropriately Ji Woon bubbled on saying absolutely nothing of consequence. I loved it…

Quite a contrast really to the somber and wrenching mood that the Austrian film ‘Revanche’ was radiating in one of the small cinemas across the street. I seriously suspect that Austrians have developed only one aesthetic movement in cinema and are desperately sticking to their guns – whatever anyone else might be doing. How might one categorise this ‘movement’. Is there a term that I don’t know about? I’d call it the ‘lancent’ or ‘morgue-table’ cinema. Well, why not? The British have their ‘Kitchen Sink’ don’t they?
The thing about the Austrians is their Arian precision and coldness, which reminds me of a lancet-cut in the flesh. It bleeds and is horrific, but somehow you are meant to remain detached and analytical. The emotional response is always akin to a deadening shock and speechlessness. Now, Gotz Spielman’s film about revenge is nowhere near the harrowing terror unleashed by Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’, but in its brutal clockwork mechanism and unflinching look at human fallibility, it makes for an uneasy viewing experience. What Spielman does however in the end is effective because he has been so uncompromising throughout the rest of the film. He mellows his existentialist angst and gives the characters a ray of hope (and by default – the audience too). Its transcendental resolution does not ring fake, because it is as powerful as all the horror that has come before it.
Overall, I think the film is a much more balanced and successful work than its more extreme and fetishist counterparts by… say Ulrich Seidl.

Finally, THE film that had everyone talking and lining up in the long queues. ‘I Loved You So Long’ was the filmmaking debut of the French writer Philippe Claudel and somehow it had become the word-of-mouth sensation of the festival.
Starting Kristin Scott-Thomas in what could only be called a ‘performance of a career’, this Bergmanoid film developed through a brilliantly tuned structure. It pits the audiences with a character that is a cross between Joan Crawford and Hanibal Lecter – at least that’s how it seems in the beginning – and tells us that we must sympathise with her plight. Juliette (Thomas) has just been released from prison and her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) is there to meet her. They haven’t seen each other for 15 years. Juliette moves in with Lea and her family and tries quietly and desperately to adapt back into society. Of course, the moment anyone hears of her horrific crime, they reject her instantly. You see, she has murdered her son.
Scott plays her character almost like a Sphynx come to life. Her face is a mask; impenetrable, mysterious and at times frightening. Every time she’s around children you see her facial muscles jerk just a little. You know she’s in absolute agony, but never fully trust her. The director brilliantly builds the tension by giving clues and hints – much like Chabrol does in his bourgeois satires of the 60s and 90s, yet ultimately he can not avoid the final act of ‘disclosure’. And what a let down it is… Instead of a sensational tale of alienation and rebellion we get a snivelling TV movie by the end. The brilliance of the best Chabrol films lies in their lack of release. The pent up frustration and confusion gets exacerbated by the end. We leave more anxious after his films are finished than we got there. Claudel pussy-foots the real issues of his film by giving us a reassuring pat on the back. We get the Bergmanoid hysterics and ethical/moral issues I hinted about, but Bergman would have made EVERYONE face the issues – not just a single character that we can feel sorry about and think “thank God THAT hasn’t happened to me”. I had a layer of disgust and disenchantment over my whole body when I left the theatre as I looked at all the happy, exorcised and cried out faces of nice little old ladies and their rich husbands.
Other films I witnessed were: some Scottish kitchen-sink drama about two children who run away from home (we’ve all seen it before so I won’t even try to remember its name), a mildly amusing Hitchcockian thriller with the beautiful Jean Simmons called ‘So long at the fair’ (made in 1950, featuring the exact same story that appeared as an episode in 'Alfred Hitchcock presents', which is much better in my opinion) and a portion of the epic ‘The Emigrants’ - starring Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow - by one of the greatest of all Swedish directors, Jan Troel.
Troel was there to give a talk and I just loved listening to this exceptionally grounded, humble and fascinating director. I immediately wanted to see everything he’s directed, but then as things turned out didn’t get to see a single of his films in their entirety.
That’s one of the problems with Telluride. Too many films, too little time. You spend more time organising schedules than watching films. But… I’m not complaining. Other than the ‘Golden Apricot International Film Festival’ I have never been in such close proximity to so many amazing, talented filmmakers and never had a more ‘educational’ film-going experience. And once you get past all the self-congratulatory “we’re just here to celebrate film” bullshit, Telluride does start to weave its magic pretty quickly. No wonder the customary goodbye line at the end was “see you next year” … Well, maybe in a few years…