By Davide Caputo.
After a five-year absence, this year I returned to the Zurich Film Festival to find that the predictions I made regarding its potential in my previous review for FilmInt (6.1, 2008) had been exceeded. The festival now takes over far more of the city, expanding well beyond its hub of Bellevueplatz’s posh cinemas in the city centre to include venues in the Langestrasse area as well as the Sihlcity shopping complex to the south of Zurich; and no matter where you go, from the financial district to the altstadt, you are never far from the festival’s now-iconic lens-cum-eyeball logo. Major players also abound: movie stars including James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman and Harrison Ford graced the red carpet, as well as industry moguls Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Harvey Weinstein and present-day masters Marc Forster, Michael Haneke, Alfonso Cuarón and Atom Egoyan, who all made an appearance and participated in Q&A sessions and round table discussions. A number of new offerings from Hollywood were presented as ‘Gala Premiers’, most notably Prisoners (presented by Hugh Jackman at the festival’s most inaccessible screening) and Cuarón’s Gravity, which the director personally introduced to kick off the film’s European promotional tour.
There is no doubt that Zurich is a festival growing in significance, as the attention paid to it by the likes of The Hollywood Reporter and Variety attests; as both of these trade organs already provide a richness of industry-relevant detail I am certainly unable to, I will limit this piece to a more theoretical scope by describing my own experience of festival spectatorship, which is itself such a unique manner of consuming cinema that it stands worthy of targeted phenomenological inquiry. Primarily, what I hope to explore here is the autonomic cognitive process of pattern seeking and how this serves to inform the intense form of spectatorship that is the festival experience. By doing so, an interesting parallel to the central tenets of auteur theory seems to emerge en route.
The experience of spending eight to ten hours a day for ten days in a row in cinema differs greatly from the typical experience of spectatorship, due in part to the heightened proprioception that results from sitting in a movie theater for such an abnormally long period (a long haul flight in ultra-economy class is the best comparison I can make), but also because of the inversion that takes place between cinematic and extra-cinematic visual experience; that is, the balance of daily visual perception now tips in favor of projected moving images over that of light reflected off actual objects. It is worth pointing out that there is a difference here between watching television or computer screens for extended periods and reflected light in a dark room full of people; the light bouncing off the cinema screen is of a significantly different radiant quality, and somewhat more ‘pleasing’ to the eye compared to even the most modern LED screens, as well as still much larger; the cinematic environment itself is also significant, as it is (nearly) free from distractions and in which a social contract to stay focused on the filmic experience is in full force, in particular due to the company of the respectful cinephilic types who tend to frequent festival screenings. Hence, the intensity of the cinematic experience, already greater than that of home spectatorship, is multiplied daily. What I propose is that a different form of cognition results.
Whilst I do not deny that the principle experience of watching a film at the cinema is indeed ephemeral, i.e. taking place in the fleeting moment, there is also a degree of narrative and/or thematic ‘decompression’ or ‘sorting out’ that takes place as the film progresses, and which continues after the film finishes, often vocalized over drinks with friends or simply mulled over on the way home. Some films leave our thoughts soon after, some persist for a few days, and the special ones stay with us for a lifetime, but a degree of stimulus organisation remains part of the unconscious process of integrating the cinematic audio-visual cues into our memory; it is in this process that themes are dealt with and potentially inform our experience of real life, and it is through this process that ideology and intellectual challenges are transmitted (for better or worse), which is precisely what film analysts unpick. Faced with a rapid succession of films, however, and a lack of time to ‘decompress’ each work on its own terms, the process of sorting out the stimuli is forced to take place during the films that follow. What results, I suggest, is a reduction of the festival spectator’s ability to isolate the individual films and a heightened biased towards pattern recognition. Hence, similarities and variations on common themes come to the fore, above even critical judgement of a film’s critical value.
It is in this light that a parallel to auteur-based analysis of a body of films may be worth drawing. Expanding on the Cahiers group’s initial polemic, Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen encouraged us to engage in the process of identifying a filmmaker’s concerns or obsessions through the analysis of a body of work, a process that necessitates intent on the part of the analyst to engage with the intra-opus, inter-textual discourse that ‘hovers over’ a series of films. But clearly identifying (conscious) intent on the part of a director is a tricky business indeed, and ultimately the exercise becomes that of analysing our own tendency towards pattern seeking. As an intellectual pursuit, the auteurist approach can be fruitful nonetheless, due to the theoretical and philosophical terrain traversed, but we should remain ever-aware of the observer effect we are all prone to during the intense study of a selection of works, however the grouping is made. I will return to the issue of selection further on, but it is now time to turn my attention to the films in question here and, in particular, the various recurring motifs, storylines, and themes (including variations) identified by my own pattern-seeking process.
Families, Identities and Isolation
Crises of identity, which at times took on existential proportions, were notable in a great many of the films, both in competition and not; a common theme in art in general, this is by no means remarkable, but the specific issue of family dynamics and genetics, both as an aid and hindrance to self-actualisation, materialised as a significant issue wrestled with by several films at the festival. Whilst being a multi-faceted film, Diana (Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel) is notably driven by family conflict, not only in the film’s focus on Diana’s personal struggle with the establishment of her own identity over that of her prescribed role as ‘future Queen,’ but also in her boyfriend’s identity crisis, in which he attempts, and fails, to reconcile his relationship with the world’s most famous woman, his desire to remain anonymous, and, perhaps above all, his need to appease the wishes of his mother. In the The Manor (Directed by Shawney Cohen and Mike Gallay), a fascinating documentary about a family that runs a struggling strip club in Guelph, Canada, co-director Cohen points the camera not so much at his own life, as the introduction to the film suggests, but more so at his parents’ relationship, as he comes to term with their fallibility through an unflinching look at their humanity, complexity, and hypocrisy. In turn, this examination of his parents serves to provoke a struggle with his own identity, which is still very much determined by his relationship with his parents. In turn, the film challenges us to examine our own relationship with our parents, and the extent to which our lives and sense of identity are defined in relation to them, as well the extent to which one can ever be truly self-actualised.
Die Frau, Die Sich Traut (Directed by Marc Rensing) focuses on a woman’s attempt to establish a singular identity beyond the family unit by forgoing chemotherapy in order to swim the English Channel (like The Manor, this film features a central character who refuses critical medical treatment as a means of exercising agency over her life). The film raises the complex issue of ‘selfishness’ in the family context, namely the conflict between the dependence of family members on each other and an individual’s own needs, be they physical, emotional or financial; each side conceptualizes the other as ‘selfish,’ resulting in an irresolvable stand off between offspring and parents, each accusing the other of heightened self-regard. Set to the east of the shattered Berlin Wall, nearly twenty-five years after its demise, the German Democratic Republic casts its shadow over the film’s central character, reflected not only in the focus on the conflict between individualism and prescribed identity, but also the fact that the central character is a former GDR swimmer whose (forced) steroid use in the eighties is strongly implicated as the cause of her cervical cancer. Whilst Die Frau at times lapses into overwrought and manipulative melodrama, the stimulation attained from the complexity of its themes and subtext keeps the film engaging.
Rent-a-Family Inc. (Directed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder) elaborates on the relationship between the individual and the family unit by exploring the theatre of the family in a documentary about a Japanese company that provides stand-ins for family members, a service that allows one to design a set of relatives (or friends, or colleagues) that best suits a given occasion. The film serves as an excellent companion to The Great Happiness Space (2006), which looks at Japan’s increasingly popular male escort clubs in a similar light. Like Happiness Space, Rent-a-Family is a fascinating exploration of the effects of simulacra on one’s relationship with emotion and reality, and their (seeming) mutability by artificial means. In contrast, Still Life (Directed by Uberto Pasolini) focuses on the absence of family and the effects of loneliness through a story about a government employee tasked with tracking down family members of the recently deceased. In an odd parallel to Rent-a-Family, the film’s protagonist attempts to assemble family members and friends for what is essentially an artificial funeral, evidently more for his own benefit than anyone else’s.
Nordstrand (Directed by Florian Eichinger) is set in the desolation of the north German coast and again in the midst of a family unit under tension; it centers on two bothers, who reflect on the abuse they endured in their childhood as they explore their abandoned family home. The central conflict is again that of identity as defined by the family unit versus that which is established beyond, or in spite of, that unit, reflected in the men’s quarreling over the value of the property itself (emotional versus financial). An exercise in slow cinema, the film keeps its visuals monotonous (which the setting lends itself to well), its dialogue sparse, and its soundscape naturalistic, which makes its eighty-nine minutes feel significantly longer; but these elements conspire to create a robust, albeit uncomfortable and at times frustrating, sense of realism for the spectator.
Talea (Directed by Katharina Mückstein) also embraces art-house slowness, and like Nordstrand dispenses with the extra-diegetic soundtrack in favor of a layer of silence that teases aural pleasure out of the most quotidian sounds (breathing, whispers, eating). There is, however, one magnificent moment of slow motion—affecting both image and sound—on a dance floor in which the film’s engaging naturalism is momentarily abandoned in favor of a more magical form of realism (all the more effective due to the contrast), which does well to represent a private perceptual landscape. Talea is yet another film (yet another German film) that deals with an identity crisis, but here the focus is on a much younger character, an adopted teenage girl who flees her adopted family in pursuit of her birth mother in an attempt to understand her genetic lineage. Remarkably, the film avoids bringing to the fore its most dramatic story element, namely that of the girl’s parents’ frantic attempts to find their missing daughter and the accusation of kidnapping leveled against the girl’s birth mother; instead, the drama of the parent’s story and its results is kept off screen, save for an article in the newspaper spotted by the girl, and left entirely to the imagination of the audience.
The specter of kidnapping within a familial context is seen also in Age of Panic (La Bataille de Solférino; Directed by Justine Triet), in which a desperate, and arguably unstable, ex-husband/father attempts to exercise his visitation rights whilst his children are being babysat, against the strict orders of the mother. In contrast to the silence of Talea and Nordstrand, Age of Panic embraces chaos, in particular that of the mother’s small apartment and François Hollande’s victory rally on Paris’s boulevard St. Germain (the day on which the film is set—a moment in which France was itself in the midst of an identity crisis). The film masterfully shifts our allegiances throughout its duration; the seemingly psychopathic father of the first act becomes the savior of the second, in which the mother, apparently more concerned with her broadcasting career than the safety of her children, has them brought to the epicenter of one of Paris’s most intense political rallies. The film’s second act is indeed more anxiety provoking than most thrillers, as the children are passed through the increasingly raucous crowd by mother, father, babysitter, friends, and complete strangers. During a calmer moment of the film, the issue of the ‘totalizing’ effect of a piece of classical music is brought up in conversation by the father’s (pseudo) lawyer and friend in reference to its ability to evoke (or contain) a wide range of emotions; it is indeed this ambitious effect that Age of Panic, as well as a number of other films this year, attempts to accomplish; ‘totalizing’ not only its evocation of emotion, but also in its efforts to interweave a wide spectrum of both contemporary and more timeless—ultimately existential—issues into the narrative, accomplished for the most part through the elicitation of crises in the spectator, confounded by shifting allegiances and growingly convoluted ethical questions, both at a political and personal level.
In Age of Panic, it is the anxiety-raising navigation of children through an indifferent throng that compliments its high-level discourse; Gravity (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón), on the other hand, uses perilous maneuvers through the vacuum of space to a similar effect. There is much to say about this remarkable film, in my mind not the least of which is its superb use of positive parallax to heighten its 3D effect and augment perceptual engagement (and, by extension, emotional engagement), which greatly reduced my own massive scepticism regarding the future of this form of cinema. Although massively impressive, what has lingered with me most about this film is not its advances towards a true ‘wraparound’ effect, but rather its use of alluded to, but greatly concealed, narrative elements, and its resulting capacity to expand the scope of its narrative far beyond what we are offered within the frame. By this I refer to the film’s allusions to a political crisis (the Earthly cause and effect of Russia’s destruction of its own satellite, and the symbolism of the film’s space stations, created by past, present and future superpowers) and the personal stories of the film’s three on-screen bodies, all of which are connected to family structures and tragedies of different kinds. As many of the other films discussed here, our protagonist’s own trajectory and crises take on existential proportions, palpable in the birth imagery that abounds throughout the film, from start to finish, including umbilical cords, fetal positions, suspension in space and fluid, and gasps for breath; such imagery conspires to represent evolution itself, culminating in the ‘first steps’ out of the sea in the film’s final image, in which life is shown to persevere (some way, and for some reason) in spite of unspeakable tragedies and the universe’s frantic attempts to extinguish it at every turn.
Gravity is a ‘stellar’ example of what Hollywood’s financial forces can sometimes allow: the ability to combine thought provoking, high-concept elements, adrenaline-fuelled, emotionally charged stories, and highly perceptually engaging stimuli. It is Hollywood as its absolute best, and, arguably, cinema of the highest order. But as I have outlined thus far, its concerns with the individual crisis and its juxtaposition to a shared crisis, in particular as it relates to the (perceived) family unit, is shared with many of the works present in the festival’s line-up, irrespective of budget. Gravity is a film whose ambitions are indeed primarily commercial, but this does not stop Cuarón from embedding an art house sensibility within this framework, evident in his many cinephelic nods to a variety of films (both commercial and art house), including Solaris (1972), Barbarella (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and even Wall-E (2008), and perhaps most significantly through its use of symbolism, as outlined above. One scene in particular worth highlighting here occurs when Ryan is communicating over AM radio with an earth-bound ham radio anorak, and lapses into an imitation of a howling dog. The scene is entirely unnecessary in terms of plot progression, but is uncanny in evocation of the first living thing ever sent from Earth into space: Laika, the dog launched on a one-way mission by Russia in 1957 (all the more striking as Ryan is, at this point, in a Russian space suit). Such use of animal imagery, in particular the combination of animal and human elements and the reversion of a human to a more primitive, ‘animalistic’ state, was a recurring motif at the festival as well, which made me especially disposed to dwelling on this particular scene in Gravity.
Animals, Religion and Teenage Sex
The concept of animals is frequently raised in Age of Panic, for example, in which the father is often accused of being one. In contrast, it is the father himself who emphasizes that his children are not animals, and should not be treated as such. (It is also worth noting that the film’s most docile and likable character is indeed a dog.) Filth (Directed by Jon S. Baird) tracks its protagonist’s developing psychosis, in which he progresses towards an increasingly feral state as his hallucinations of hybrid animal/human creatures become increasingly frequent, blurring the line between man and beast. An almost identical image emerges in Miele (Directed by Valeria Golino), a film about a group of renegade suicide assistants in Italy, in which a euthanizing drug intended for dogs (as indicated by the label on the bottle) is used to help people with terminal illnesses wishing to die. An ethical dilemma is raised when a client turns out to be in perfect physical health, but is seeking suicide as an escape from psychological stress (he is an intellectual dealing with profound existential angst). An image of this man combined with that of the dog becomes greatly significant, as well as eerily reminiscent of the day’s previous screening, Filth.
Wolf at the Door (O Lobo Atrás da Porta; Directed by Fernando Coimbra), yet another film based on a kidnapping (as per Age of Panic and Talea above), implants its animal imagery straight into its title. Its thriller elements drive its plot, but its setting also serves to reflect the greater political scenario in which the story is nestled, this time highlighting the current socio-economic crisis in Brazil, in particular unemployment. The film’s greatest strength is its ability to shift our allegiances and confound expectations through major plot swerves; with hints of Fatal Attraction (1987), The Usual Suspects (1995) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film goes to a much darker place than one may expect.
In scenes evocative of both Salò (1975) and Dogville (2003), Nothing Bad Can Happen (Tore Tanzt; Directed by Katrin Gebbe) depicts a series of abuses committed against a young man with learning difficulties and epilepsy that have him reduced to living like a mistreated dog, including sleeping outside and scavenging for food. The boy is a highly misguided, devout Christian (part of the ‘Jesus Freak’ cult) taken in by a family of atheists who proceed to subject him to a series of tortures, all of which he endures as a testament to his faith. Whilst not at all favorable to the family, the film still manages to serve up a savage parody of Christianity’s cult of suffering, highlighting the masochistic elements of the faith that celebrate the virtues of enduring corporeal violence as a path to enlightenment, with Jesus as role model. Nothing Bad establishes a firm link between mental instability and the religious impulse; this notion is strongly echoed in another festival highlight, C.O.G. (Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez) which is essentially an inversion of Nothing Bad’s story and hence serves well as a companion piece in the program. Here, an atheist, homosexual graduate is taken in by a religious zealot who claims to be able to ‘save’ the boy. As in Nothing Bad, the religious impulse is connected to mental illness; in this case, it is the far more harmful (in particular to others) borderline personal disorder, whose symptoms the man’s behavior is consistent with. Like Nothing Bad, the boy is subjected to a series of humiliations by this ‘savior’ until his own identity is all but annihilated. C.O.G. also demonstrates the festival’s recurring motif of family dynamics and identity crises, as the boy’s impetus for fleeing home is precisely that of escaping his parent’s harsh judgement of him regarding his sexual preference; but rather than continuing his trajectory towards extra-familial self-actualisation, he eventually succumbs to the church’s promise of curing his ‘illness,’ and hence return him to favour with his parents. C.O.G. is a courageous swipe at the deluded pious, exposing the appeal of religion to the desperate and bigoted alike, as well putting on display its insidious ability to conceal serious mental illness and prevent its sufferers from seeking actual treatment. Religion comes under scrutiny in Devil’s Knot (Directed by Atom Egoyan) as well, which also unveils the potential evils that can arise from fundamentalism and the power of mass (religious) delusion, focusing on the effects of the ‘satanic panic’ of the late eighties (which spilled into the nineties in the American bible belt) in this real-life tragedy.
Las Horas Muertas (Directed by Aarón Fernández Lesur) and Don Jon (Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) both deal with the issue of age disparity and sexual tuition, but it is Traumland (Directed by Petra Biondina Volpe) and Puppylove (Directed by Delphine Lehericey—another animalistic title) that are most daring in their dealings with this taboo. Traumland is a film that explores the realities of illegal street prostitution in Zurich’s Langstrasse area (indeed, very near one of the festival cinemas), which manages to weave a number of issues regarding sexuality, marriage and aging into its narrative, as well as reflecting the sort of conflicts that typically arise in Switzerland, as immigrants (both recent and long-term) struggle to integrate (or assimilate), in its portrayal of the minutia of quotidian life in a block of flats. The multi-strand narrative revolves around the plight of an eighteen-year-old street prostitute from Bulgaria, in particular her relationship with a much older client. The film’s narrative tension is augmented by the subtle means through which it manages to test, and ultimately shift our allegiances by including scenes of surprisingly abhorrent behaviour from major characters late in the film, the most heinous of which involves the stealing of money from the film’s most desperate character and its re-assignment into the coffers of the Catholic Church on Christmas Eve, with fatal results. Puppylove also features sexual encounters between young girls and much older men, but in a more familiar (familial) context. It is a tight, and often amusing film that may disturb those who have forgotten or are unaware of what teenagers actually get up to. Its time frame is ambiguous, but from the lack of mobile phones and the brief glimpse of a video game console, we are informed that this story takes place immediately before the age of ubiquitous internet pornography, which hugely informs Don Jon, one of the festivals most interesting offerings.
Where Puppylove features fumbling teens taking lessons from pornographic DVDs, Don Jon takes a detailed look at what porn-on-tap can do to one’s sex life. Here again we have a May-December relationship, and one that proves to be entirely curative. Don Jon is perhaps the most ‘totalizing’ of all the festival’s films, as not a scene seemed to go by that did not trigger thoughts of the various other films’ thematic elements still decompressing in my mind. It shares with Gravity the quality of being a truly modernist horror, in which technological advances threaten humankind’s well-being (and, pushing this to an extreme perhaps, in Don Jon threatening our connection between procreation and orgasm). Like both Nothing Bad and C.O.G., religion is put in the crosshairs, as Catholic sacraments are rendered absurd. It bravely combines a serious (but often times hilarious nonetheless) exploration of the complex reality of male sexuality in the context of the internet porn age without judging its proponent. Like Gravity, Don Jon is an example of what Hollywood can achieve when it puts its mind to it, combining gravitas with style and humor, and creating cinema that is both immensely entertaining and thought provoking (indeed, these two Hollywood offerings appeared less ideologically prescriptive than many of the art house films featured in the program)—and making it look easy.
In the process of consolidating my experience of the festival in written form, my perception of the thematic interconnectedness of the works has evidently come to the fore, as the structuring of this piece demonstrates. The question I raised earlier still remains: is this purely the result of an observer effect caused by an evolutionary tendency towards pattern seeking, or are there indeed legitimately pattern-forming antecedents at work in the selection process itself? In auteur-based studies, we identify an artistic agency at work over a number of films, and filter out the ‘noise’ (as Wollen refers to it) of tertiary forces in order to isolate an inter-textual elaboration of ideas, what are essentially patterns. In a film festival, we can identify the programmers themselves as a form of such agency, in which patterns emerge due to their selection criteria, some of which they may not be consciously aware of. But it is perhaps zeitgeist that has the greatest effect on the commonality of a given set of works produced around the same time, perhaps more so than physical location or political divides, as the wide variety of national productions above demonstrate. The zeitgeist effect is that which underpins the socio-political approach of history-based film scholarship, but this exercise suggests to me that the analytical process behind this approach is perhaps not as distinct from ‘auteurism’ as I had previously believed.
Dr. Davide Caputo is an associate lecturer of film studies at the University of Kent and author of Polanski and Perception: The Psychology of Seeing and the Cinema of Roman Polanski.