January 20, 2013
Unknown Pleasures: Viewing U.S. Indie Cinema From Afar

Catering to virtually every niche, Berlin offers some 70 film festivals each year. Since 2009, the first on the calendar has been the Unknown Pleasures Festival. Held during the first two weeks of January at the historic Babylon Cinema in former East Berlin, it is a work of love run entirely by three enthusiasts of US independent cinema, providing a sorely needed platform for recent American arthouse films.

This year’s edition opened on a disappointing note with the German premiere of Michel Gondry’s The We and the I. Typically saccharine and contrived, Gondry’s latest portrays a group of Bronx teens on the bus ride home after their last day of school. During the improbably long journey each makes major discoveries about themselves, their friendships, the virtues of loyalty and the woes of bullying. With nothing new to say, it compares miserably to films with an actual feel for adolescent realities, such as Laurent Cantet’s The Class.

Gondry was one of a handful of big names on the program, which also included Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Werner Herzog. While sometimes stretching the indie label, these titles attract the largest audiences each year and guarantee the festival’s survival. The true highlight, however, is the always excellently curated selection of microbudget films, as the majority would be all but impossible to see otherwise, having little hope of being picked up by a German distributor.

The greatest discovery this year was Amy Seimetz’s feature debut Sun Don’t Shine. A worthy addition to the rich cinematic tradition of young lovers taking flight on the American road, it’s everything an indie film should be. Fully transcending its budgetary constraints, the film employs a bare premise – a runaway couple’s desperate attempt at getting rid of a body, kept within a 24-hour timeframe and involving only three other characters – and focuses on capturing the lovers’ manic intensity as they fall victim to increasingly acute paranoia. The excellent lead performances (Kate Lyn Sheil is particularly superb) create compelling characters whose actions, though often hysterical, never beggar belief, while the feverish 16mm cinematography anticipates their undoing from the very first frame, imbuing their predicament with tragic resonance.

Interestingly, both Mark Jackson’s Without and Nathan Silver’s Exit Elena center on a girl in her late teens / early twenties who takes up a job as caretaker for a senior as an attempt at emotional escape. While Without benefits from higher production values, Exit Elena is the more accomplished film. In Without, the protagonist is left alone with her charge in an isolated house and Jackson plays with horror film conventions, using red herrings to build up intrigue and suspense around the trauma that haunts his heroine, sacrificing psychological depth at the service of a strained and unsatisfying denouement. Silver approaches his material more subtly, relying on the titular Elena’s awkward though increasingly intimate interactions with her invasive host family to hint at her backstory without ever fully revealing it, thus painting a far more nuanced and involving portrait.

In Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, approaching adulthood forces 17-year-old Jackie to overcome her longstanding sexual attraction to her older brother. In a manner distinctive of a lot of American independent cinema – Juno being the most successful example – the dialogue-heavy script presents young characters that are uniformly blasé and wise beyond their years, which may up the hip factor, but radically undermines the realism aspired to, robbing the film of any real import. Considering how the same themes have been used to brilliantly probe and deconstruct the institution of the family in recent Greek cinema, as in the work of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the appropriation of the arch-taboo topic of incest here merely serves to spruce up an otherwise conventional coming of age story.

This year’s program featured a number of documentaries, the most outstanding being Thom Andersen’s Reconversão, which continues the director’s preoccupation with the filmic representation of architecture. Made up primarily of stationary shots running at a few frames per second and accompanied by a steady and soothingly monotone voice-over, the film works like a particularly fascinating and philosophical lecture on the oeuvre of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. No small credit goes to Andersen’s DP Peter Bo Rappmund, whose own Tectonics was also shown at the festival.

In an extraordinary and purely visual essay film, Rappmund photographs the entirety of the US-Mexico border in 200 shots, also played at a few frames per seconds. Without voice-overs or titles, Tectonics finds a happy medium between photography and film, inviting the distanced appreciation and scrutiny characteristic of the former all the while maintaining the latter’s contextualizing linearity. Impeccably composed and often arrestingly poetic, Rappmund’s images elicit a deeply introspective consideration of the geopolitical circumstances they portray and of the infinite associations they conjure.

Article originally published by Filmmaker on 17 Jan 2013.

Unknown Pleasures #5  01-16 Jan 2013, Babylon Mitte, Berlin. Full programme on their website.

June 3, 2012
Freiluftkinos in June

Hoping this summer stops being a capricious little cock-tease, finally decides to set off proper and give us the glorious sunny days and balmy nights we so pine for (and deserve!), Berlin’s beloved Freiluftkinos have again put together a great selection of films from the last year to enjoy under the open sky.

Maybe out of superstition, vindictiveness or simply Schadenfreude, this month’s programmes seem to put an emphasis on the sky being a right ass. One variant has space-Nazis raining down from it, threatening to finish off what they started back in 1939. The gleefully idiotic Iron Sky is showing at the Freiluftkino Kreuzberg (June 6, 21:30), Insel (June 7, 20:45) and Friedrichshain (June 20, 21:45).

In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon again delivers a masterful performance as a family man unable to distinguish whether his doomsday visions of raging tornadoes and oily rainstorms are reality or manifestations of latent paranoid schizophrenia. This favourite from last year’s festival circuit will also screen in Friedrichshain (June 14, 21:45) Kreuzberg (June 15, 21:45), and Insel (May 28, 21:30).

And then there’s of course Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which can be watched in Kreuzberg (June 29, 21:45) and whose sky effectively trumps the other two in dickishness by hurling down a planet twice the size of earth to finally put an end to frivolous human kind.

In non-sky related business, Roman Polanski’s gut-splitting chamber drama Carnage is offered in Friedrichshain (June 6, 21:30), Kreuzberg (June 20, 21:45) and Insel (June 3, 21:45), and in the unlikely case you haven’t seen it yet (or in the more likely case that you’re dying to see it again), the uber-cool Drive is being shown in Friedrichshain (June 29, 21:45).

Other arthouse highlights include the much-hyped (and much-deserving) Shame, showing in Kreuzberg (June 1, 21:30), and the excellent girl-who-escapes-from-a-cult-traumatised drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, screened in Friedrichshain (June 26, 21:45).

All of the above films are shown in the English original version with German subtitles.

Freiluftkino Kreuzberg, Mariannenplatz 2, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor | Full programme

Freiluftkino Friedrichshain, Freilichtbühne im Volkspark Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Strausberger Platz | Full programme

Freiluftkino Insel im Cassiopeia, Revaler Straße 99, S-Bhf Warschauer Straße | Full programme

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Exberliner

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March 5, 2012
Happy Birthday Pier Paolo Pasolini!

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Today would have been Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 90th birthday. One of Italy’s most interesting artists, his work – be it as a filmmaker, poet, novelist, playwright, or journalist – always provided passionate, stimulating and, more often than not, inflammatory commentary on the state of Italian culture and politics. Outside of Italy, he is probably best known for his films and he is widely considered one of the most significant European auteurs of the 1960s and 70s, with contemporary directors as diverse as Michael Haneke, Nanni Moretti, Peter Greenaway and Catherine Breillat citing him as a major influence.

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My favourite Pasolini films are probably Teorema (1968), Porcile (1969) and Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975). These films form an unofficial trilogy and provide Pasolini’s scathing critique of the bourgeoisie of his time and of what he labelled as the rise of ‘New Fascism’ in the postwar era. Salò is the best known of the three; however, this is mainly due to its infamous scenes of rape, torture and coprophagia, and it is unlikely that those that watch it out of context for those reasons alone are able to draw much from the film. By watching them in succession, a clear evolution becomes apparent as both the thematic negativity and the aesthetic mannerism, which are more moderate in Teorema, become total in Salò, thus rendering the escalation of Pasolini’s personal despair palpable and contextualising the atrocities depicted in Salò beyond mere provocation. Like most of Pasolini’s work, these films are neither easy to watch nor to interpret and no account attempting to offer a definite explanation is ever fully satisfactory. Pasolini regarded this ‘New Fascism’ as representing a novel and unprecedented form of power, whose totalizing influence eluded rationality and that no rational discourse could hope to either define or oppose. He therefore crafted a cinematic form of poetry intent on inspiring contemplation rather than providing answers and it is this aspect that makes the trilogy endlessly fascinating, inviting repeated viewings and virtually limitless deliberation.


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Unfortunately, no retrospectives are taking place in Berlin to coincide with his birthday. Still, the Schwules Museum Berlin has set up an exhibition of materials pertaining to Pasolini’s literary and cinematic oeuvre, inviting consideration of one of the many paradoxes that defined his life: his homosexuality and his art’s position towards it. The exhibition is already open and will run until the 1st of May.  Also, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura is organizing two events: a discussion between journalist Paolo Lepri and literature critic Filippo La Porta regarding Pasolini’s lasting intellectual legacy (19th March, 19:00, in Italian with live German translation) and a ‘musical-literary’ evening, exploring Pasolini’s artistic legacy through readings of his songs, fiction and poetry (20th March, 19:30, in Italian and German).

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January 3, 2012
Long live arthouse cinemas! Here comes the Zukunft

It’s heartening to know that with everyone bewailing the death of independent cinemas, not only does Berlin have one of the largest and best selections of arthouse film theatres, but one that keeps on growing as well!

One of these cinemas is the Tilsiter Lichtspiele. A bit of an insider’s tip, this small, historical and remarkably cheap cinema offers a consistently excellent monthly programme as well as various retrospectives and film series, with its trademark being screenings of silent classics accompanied by live performances of modern, often electronic, music.

Following a series of successful screenings of Metropolis with live psychedelic and blues soundtracks at the Pompeij open-air cinema near Ostkreuz last summer, Tilsiter is now opening a new indoor cinema at the same location: Zukunft! Located in a semi-dilapidated building once host to a notorious techno/drug club that then burned down (hence the Pompeij name), it will also feature a Kneipe serving the Tilsiter’s own brand beer, an exhibition space, and a music club in the basement. The first screening room will be inaugurated on the Epiphany (for the pagans out there, that means January 6th), while the second will open in February.

My tip: if you’ve got a strong stomach, go see Gaspar Noé’s flawed but visually mind-blowing Enter the Void at 22:00 on opening day. Take a couple of friends with you and enjoy what will certainly be a heated debate about its various merits or lack thereof in the Kneipe afterwards. 

Zukunft Kino | Laskerstr. 5 / Ecke Markgrafendamm, S-Bahnhof Ostkreuz

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December 23, 2011
Pussyfooting around a scary Great Dane - Lars von Trier at the Babylon

Props to the Babylon for setting up an excellent retrospective of the work of one of today’s most gifted cineastes, Lars von Trier, and more laudably still, considering his post-Cannes press embargo, for getting him in person for a two-hour Q&A.

One would have thought that his new film, Melancholia – an epic, highly stylized and characteristically apocalyptic meditation on human virtue – together with the media furore he provoked at Cannes a few months back, would have served as more than adequate basis for a stimulating session with the limelight-savvy von Trier.

Sadly, the three pundits for the occasion – Babylon director Timothy Grossman, author Friedemann Beyer and Die Welt’s film editor Hanns-Georg Rodek – as terrified as they were of his proclivity for gross impropriety, squandered a great opportunity.

Melancholia, still unreleased in Germany (to be released on Oct 6) and shown in two exclusive previews the night before, could easily have been discussed at length even without bringing up that dreadful N— business.

Even so, it must have seemed excessively imprudent (it was, after all, while discussing the film that the ineffable happened), as it received as good as no mention.

The questions were almost exclusively anecdotal, inquiring on well-trodden terrain such as the fake ‘von’ in his surname, his time at film school, his relationship with his mother and biological father, and the Dogme 95 manifesto.

Not information wholly lacking in interest, to be fair, but stuff that anyone willing to pay €12 to hear the man speak is sure to know and anyone else can find in neatly summarized form here.

It truly is a shame, as von Trier wasn’t unreceptive and seemed delighted when he saw the turnout – the hall was packed, with every seat taken and dewy-eyed fans lining the walls and walkways.

However, he grew visibly frustrated with the insipid questions and after repeatedly pleading for some “concrete” ones, he told his hosts to “pull [their] fucking acts together!” (Setting off an explosion of cheers and applause from the audience.)

As this failed to happen, the audience took over control of the remaining half hour by shouting in their questions and interrupting the pundits mid-sentence – an overdue change of course the guest of honour did not discourage.

This allowed him to elaborate on his much-disputed regard for women by discussing his next film, Nymphomaniac, a hard-core exploration of female sexuality from birth to middle age.

It turns out that while conducting interviews as research for it, he discovered that a large number of sexually experienced, middle-aged women (his primary source of reference for the film) actually hold him as a champion of feminism, encouraging him to be far more explicit in his treatment of this subject he holds so dear. He didn’t reveal how he would trump Antichrist’s self-circumcision.

It would have been impossible for his Nazi gaffe not to be the elephant in the room the entire evening. The director was of course the only one to utter the forbidden word, throwing it in a handful of times and prompting nervous giggles from his hosts and a hasty change of subject.

The one time Cannes was brought up by an audience member, the crowd readily booed the fool down – clearly, on this point, they saw eye to eye with the men on stage.

Yet, when von Trier had explained his belief in provocation being one of the most effective tools for stirring people out of inertia and stimulating discussion, everyone had nodded approvingly.

Here you have a highly intelligent artist that loves to provoke and is just begging to be taken to task – can it be a coincidence that he chose the former Reich capital to hold his first significant public appearance since the scandal?

It was evident from the atmosphere in the room (and from the price of the ticket) that anyone present was a great admirer of the Danish director.

How can a cinema full of people who supposedly love his work – films whose very essence lies in their ability to provoke and fuel debate – not jump at the opportunity of taking his challenge rather than placing him on a high pedestal and allowing him to grow bored there?

Originally published in Exberliner as a review of a Q&A held at the Babylon cinema on the 2nd of September 2011

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