By Steven Yates.
There have been mutterings on the inside (chiefly from journalists and critics) that the Berlinale has become somewhat predictable in recent years, particularly compared to its immediate annual predecessor Rotterdam. For a long while now, with undoubted conscientiousness, the Berlinale has programmed plentiful films from the war zones of the Middle East and former Yugoslavia, alongside social issue films from the likes of Iran, Turkey and Romania. The consequence is that competent enough films are elevated to a much higher echelon. While all these aforementioned countries and regions have, in the last 10-15 years or more, given us the best that world cinema has to offer, they are not presently hitting the same heights but continue to be recipients of the major prizes in places like Berlin. Therefore, does this constitute tokenism or nepotism from major film festivals or exemplify the current state of quality in world cinema, in that there is yet nothing to surpass them?
This year’s Berlinale main competition Golden Bear winner for best film was Child’s Pose (Pozitia Copilului), the third feature from Romanian director Calin Peter Netzer. Like other Romanian high-profile festival winners of recent years, it mixes a bleak, melodramatic narrative with underlying state criticism interjected with large doses of unique black humour. Depicting an estranged family thrown into crisis, Child’s Pose takes a sharp view of the effects on the generation following Ceausescu’s brutal and oppressive regime, finding it riddled with corruption and bitterness. It is a very alluring, well-produced and acted film and deserves credit, but was in reality one of the few highpoints of an otherwise conspicuously flawed main competition. Denis Tanovic’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker was poignantly engrossing and commendable, even for an already much awarded director who, for this production, has gone full-circle to his early experiments with digital, which he used when documenting the Bosnian war in 1992-95. It is certainly a brave and worthwhile effort but one can’t help thinking his Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear award was for this untimely departure by a famous director. Would the film have been recognised in the same way at Berlin had it been a debut (albeit, a highly competent one) by an unknown director?
Of the three main awards for best film, the Alfred Bauer Prize (also a Silver Bear) – in memory of the Festival Founder – is the most likely to produce an interesting choice as it pertains to honor a feature film that opens new perspectives. The choice this year was the Canadian film Vic and Flo Saw a Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours) by Denis Côté. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, and of Brayon ancestry, Côté has already had his experimental films screened at major festivals globally. Vic and Flo Saw a Bear stars Romane Bohringer and Pierrette Robitaille as Vic and Flo respectively, lesbian lovers and former convicts who move to the Quebec countryside when Vic is released from prison. Marc-André Grondin plays Guillaume, Vic’s parole officer who finds himself drawn into Vic and Flo’s domestic drama, which accentuates when Vic starts rebelling against the constraints of her precarious new life.
To find more daring, arguably more interesting, choices of awards at major festivals, one has to look to the other prize sections. Of the international critics (Fipresci) three awards, Child’s Pose won for their main competition prize. In the Panorama section, they chose the French-Arabic co-production Inch’Allah (Dir. Anais Barbeau-Lavalette) as winner, and in the Forum section they awarded Helio Oiticica (Dir. Cesar Oiticica Filo) from Brazil. The latter film was also the recipient of Berlin’s first Caligari award. Named after the classic 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Robert Wiene (also filmed in Berlin), this new award seeks to recognize a film in the Berlinale Forum section, awarding a stylistically and thematically innovative film. It is also a further vindication of the significance this large section of the Berlinale Forum has had for cultural cinema. Helio Oiticica is by turns a documentary collage based on footage, sound recordings and innovative experimentation. Director Cesar Oiticica Filo uses this multi-media film assemblage to reignite the memory of his famous artist uncle (who died in 1980) with meticulous care and creates an exciting personal interpretation of an era.
Still, one wonders if there is a prejudice to most American Cinema due to the perception of a domineering (self-congratulatory) Hollywood. This year there was a healthy program of well-received American films and one Competition entry which unwittingly addressed the prejudice sub-hypothesis was Prince Avalanche, for which David Gordon Green took the Silver Bear for best director. Very much a standard buddy-movie, almost entirely featuring two characters called Alvin and Lance (played by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch), it is a remake of the Icelandic film Either Way (1988, Dir. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson) and is also set at the same time. Alvin and Lance spend the summer repainting the markings on an endless country road in a deserted, fire-damaged forest, living in their little tents with basic barbecue equipment and an old tape-recorder. For this version, director Green leaves behind his indie canon to create a part philosophical half-comedy, which has its funny moments even if it is a little forced in its humour at times.
In the Forum section, the narrative mood turned somewhat darker for two films: I Used to be Darker and A Single Shot. The appropriately named I Used to be Darker is Baltimore native Matt Porterfield’s often eerie and hypnotic melodrama. Taryn (Deragh Campbell) from Northern Ireland arrives impromptu in Baltimore soon after getting herself into ‘trouble’ in Ocean City, Maryland. Her visiting and seeking temporary refuge with Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and Uncle Bill (Ned Oldham) is very bad timing as they are separating and this will also be news to Taryn’s cousin Abby (Hannah Gross) who is due home between University semesters. Melodic and melancholic music seems to form a base foundation for the narrative and characterisation to seamlessly develop. Within this the director lets profound story and inner character issues mirror the melodies (just like in The Lost Coast (2008, Dir. Gabriel Fleming)) so that song lyrics seem poignantly readymade for the scenario. Indeed, there is a genuine musical link which finds its way into the film. Aside from the sub-theme of musical ambitions actually causing a wedge between the married couple, Abby finds some rare footage of her father playing in his band from many years ago which she plays on her laptop. Bill walks in to discover this pleasant nod to her father. The actual music playing is not contrived but from Ned Oldham’s musical archive. Kim Taylor, as the musician mother, also performs her own songs in the film.
A Single Shot was adapted from his own novel by first-time screenwriter Matthew F Jones. Director David M. Rosenthal’s follow-up to his acclaimed Janie Jones (2010) begins in the remote Hicksville (West Virginia) woods where hunting is prohibited and also currently off-season. John Moon (Sam Rockwell) takes his shotgun to hunt deer but mistakenly shoots a young woman. As she is dying in the mud he finds a letter and a large sum of money… In a cast that includes William H. Macy, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs and Jeffrey Wright, the trajectory follows this panicky cover-up as it spirals into a never-ending noir-like nightmare. The dual narrative of Moon trying to win back his wife and child and attempting to regain a foothold on his father’s lost farm is set against a local community of suspect friends, rednecks, criminals and dodgy lawyers encroaching in on him. Cinematographer Eduard Grau’s bleak, dark shallow-focus photography, with its blue-grey wintery monochrome, exemplifies the tension of being trapped in an eerie place where daytime is just as scary as the night.
The Forum section entry Computer Chess created something of an unofficial buzz prior to its Berlinale screenings. Considered to be the Godfather of the sub-genre mumblecore following his 2002 directorial debut, Funny Ha Ha, here Andrew Bujalski quantum leaps us back to the early years of the computer revolution (circa 1980) in what must be an amusing nostalgia slant for those old enough to remember. The zeitgeist back then was when, not whether, computers would become superior to people. Brainy geeks would studiously enter numeric Fortran and logic Prolog programming into obscure hardware interfaces, adding the ubiquitous software to make ‘artificial intelligence’ the authentic buzz term. Computer Chess is set in a sterile chain hotel conveniently situated close to the freeway of a provincial nowhere. Following the premise, detailing the arrival and to-camera sound-bites of a disparate band of enthusiastic computer nerds (including renowned critic Gerald Peary making his acting debut) for a heavily scheduled weekend conference and competition, this mockumentary comedy really goes haywire when these repressed computer game innovators suddenly have to contend with an organised sexual liberation discovery group who are also staying at the hotel.
With the typical mumblecore criteria of amateur actors and a particular focus on naturalistic dialogue to compensate for the low budget and production values, Computer Chess is still aesthetically and thematically well-researched. The authenticity is further enhanced by virtue of being shot on a black-and-white Sony video camera from the era; Bujalski shot the film in boxy aspect ratio using old Portapak video tape. Just in case some audiences think they are watching a documentary from the period, at one point the images, just like magic, change to color, the sound following the image into some trance-like psychedelic black-hole where, now alone in their rooms at night, one of the computer experts experiences a quantum leap, while another is seen having profound discussions with his computer. As the director says in the film’s press notes ‘In our current Oprah-fied culture where we so value ‘well-roundedness,’ something seems almost frightening about that kind of antisocial focus. I, of course, can’t help but admire it’. The frivolity and seriousness are both inexorably vacuumed into this time warp as though the film was a black-hole of its own and, for its awkward but compelling originality, Computer Chess could easily become a cult classic.
The Panorama section included a film called Frances Ha which had premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2012. Frances Ha posits itself comfortably as an offshoot of mumblecore and by its very title alone is a nod to Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha. Loosely categorized as a melancholy comedy film, it is directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach with Greta Gerwig co-writing and playing the title character and, by being ubiquitously on-screen, is given carte blanche in displaying her natural comic talents.
27-year-old Frances is in a middle-young-years crisis; restless, optimistic but insecure, trying but failing to find her true place in life. She shares an apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), while making another attempt to get her dancing career off the ground. Now a few years since her college graduation, she is still no nearer to her professional aspirations. Meanwhile, her love life fails because she constantly questions romance and relationships. The duration of the film follows her troubled but humorous professional and personal interactions in the manner of little slice of life sketches. Her cheery and optimistic appearance belies her low self-esteem and continual self-analysis, reminiscent of Woody Allen in his films Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). In fact, like those films, Frances Ha is filmed in black and white and set in New York. Despite (or perhaps because of) her meta-analysis, laid-back and honest nature, Frances is extremely likeable and the film is constantly funny with memorable one-liners like when she reluctantly lights a cigarette in her friend’s apartment, and says ‘I feel like an irresponsible mother in 1987’. Frances Ha is a clever and funny film which also touches a sympathetic nerve and should be seen when and where possible.
Steven Yates writes widely on film and is a member of FIPRESCI where he is also the English language supervisor for their website (www.fipresci.org).