Wednesday, July 27, 2011

All About Ev(a|e) – Opening Night through to Day 4 of the 60th MIFF

Straight off: big shout-outs to all six to have signed up for MIFF's 60 Films in 17 Days Blog-A-Thon; I wish them all the best for what I consider to be a truly lunatic – if not even a somewhat cruel – undertaking.

Fruit of Paradise

Cruel? Indeed! For to needs average seeing three-and-a-half films every day for 17 days, and to write daily, and cogently, about the experience, whilst keeping healthy and somehow still finding time to keep in circulation amongst nearests and dearests, strikes me as a heavy cross to bear. Surely, were it not that this is MIFF's 60th birthday, there is no way the festival would have thought to oblige bloggers under their auspices to report – in the inaugural year for such an initiative, what's more – on as many as 60 sessions at the festival. It's a figure obviously arrived at simply and arbitrarily to rhyme with the festival's anniversary.

I also can't help but think the imposition of such a demanding target is rather a bastardisation of the spirit of a film festival. For mine, a film festival is not at all just about watching films. To lopside the focus so seriously on the film side of the equation is to greatly disparage the festive side of things. It's to grossly over-esteem the most base form of cinephilia, that which pushes the line that he or she who simply sees the most films wins.

Of course, I won't deny that a festival is a grand opportunity well worth taking to glut oneself on a banquet of cinema from every which where and when. But surely it should also offer ample opportunity to be festive, to enjoy the company of others in an atmosphere conducive to impassioned, reflective, maybe sometimes even a little boozy, discussion and debate about the cinema and, oh, everything else besides: life, the universe and everything. Setting the world to rights over drinks one film analysis at a time.

Heck, I'll admit to a certain selfishness. I'm a little sad I'll not be afforded many leisurely opportunities to chew the fat with the blog-a-thonners in the course of this year's MIFF. They simply won't have much time for it.

But don't get me wrong – I really admire the pluck of all participants, atop any pre-existing admiration – considerable, in some instances – I already have for their critical faculties and output. (Some of these folks I know very well, some not at all, while their work for me had hitherto run the whole Rumsfeldian gamut.) I just hope that, atop their pluck, I'll yet get to admire their fortitude too. I sincerely hope they don't come undone along the way and regret the pact they've made with MIFF. Were any of them to fall debilitatingly sick, would the festival accept any responsibility or liability?



The Fairy

The Greater Union complex on Russell Street, gussied up especially for the occasion, has never looked so good. And, with all due respect, I hope it never has to again, even if I am almost belatedly developing a strange sort of affection for it. It's simply no place for a venerable festival's Opening Night, not least come an anniversary edition, but MIFF was clearly hamstrung when it came to settling upon a venue this year.

Now, while it was a necessary evil to distribute the throngs who came to Opening Night into multiple cinemas within the GU complex, I was nonetheless disappointed at being sequestered away from the main arena, with it coming to transpire that the main events in Cinema 6 were not going to be transmitted into the other cinemas.

I don't think it would have been asking too much for MIFF to have hooked up a feed of the celebratory formalities occurring in Cinema 6 to all the other cinemas packed to the gills with opening nighters. Instead, bundled away with fellow media types, I was treated to a very underwhelming, altogether uninspiring pair of speeches from a couple of MPs, their by-the-book waffle not made any more compelling by frequent microphone cut-outs. The hour was only saved when Fred Schepisi was called to address the room; he immediately abandoned the dodgy mic altogether and simply took to projecting his voice to the back of the room, like an old pro – ministers, take note! (He did, however, hide in the dark while he regaled our very receptive room with his tales of MIFFs of yesteryear.)

Notwithstanding Schepisi's unanticipated cameo, it was a disappointment, both professional and personal, to miss seeing me old mucker Michelle Carey deliver her inaugural Opening Night address as Artistic Director of this sprightly, newly sexagenarian festival. If an Artistic Director gives an Opening Night address, and no media are there to observe and document it, did it really even happen? (Even if keeping us all in the dark is apt, in a punny sort of way.)

On the matter of the poor hand dealt to media, this too: it had proven to be hard work to secure an invite to Opening Night in the first place without resorting to either skulduggery or overobsequiousness, in stark contrast to the ease with which similar benison – and much more besides – can be secured at festivals overseas.

I have a whole dissertation in me upon the matter of Australian film festival culture with respects to an unfortunate, and I presume, nationwide, provincialism, which in turn I believe feeds into a narrow view of the hospitality that ought be afforded to festival guests (amongst whose ranks overseas festivals routinely consider media representatives, whether from near or from abroad).

But my thoughts on how we (“we” being MIFF; other Melbourne and Australian film festivals, and Australian film culture generally) could seriously lift our game and adopt a far less parochial, far more internationalist, outlook, the better to achieve a more internationally relevant film festival culture and, by extension, a more dynamic, outward-looking and extensively globally networked film industry, is beyond the scope of this blog post, and is rather more the stuff of a grand, lunatic research project, funding possibilities for which are being countenanced presently...

The Opening Night film: La fée (The Fairy)

Fortunately, Opening Night's film was a crowd pleaser. Directors Dominique Abel, Australian-born Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy delivered a quite charming, slapsticky, daggy yellow cardigan of a feature. (Present in person for Opening Night, I'll presume Abel and Gordon, who star in the film, too, also said (or humorously mimed) a few words to those fortunates gathered in GU Cinema 6.)

The Fairy reminded me of several Tati-esque cinema forebears. A succession of vignettes, it was not unlike a whimsy-saturated Roy Andersson film, if one was ever made depleted of almost all of his wonderful, piercing, mordant black humour. While I prefer my Tati stylings flavoured with more parts Roy Andersson or Elia Suleiman than this was, I still quite enjoyed The Fairy.

Artavazd Pelechian Shorts

MIFF promised us a revelation with this package of shorts from an only recently 'discovered' Armenian filmmaker, and boy howdy did it deliver, if not quite so emphatically with the first two of the three shorts in this selection, We (1969) and The Seasons (1972), as with the third, the frankly mind-blowing Our Century (1982).

Our Century

We and The Seasons struck me as being the love-children of Luis Buñuel's Las Hurdes (1933) and Mikhail Kalatozov's Salt for Svanetia (1930), as if the Soviet montage applied to the latter ethnographic documentary (for want of a better pigeon-holing) had in fact been applied to the former. Very beautiful – and does Pelechian demonstrate a love of action at oblique angles to the frame, or what! – We and The Seasons both are possessed of a lot of jaw-dropping imagery (imagine, for example, a welter of weatherbeaten Bear Gryllses cast in “Man and Sheep vs. Wild”), but it was Our Century that, as an ecstatic apocalyptic space race fantasia, hit me with all the force of a revelation – by comparison, the trip sequence in Tree of Life suddenly seems almost trite, leaden, obvious, unambitious...

The more that Pelechian's work is surfacing, the more is being made of the originality and influence (putatively upon Godard in particular) of his 'contrapuntal' or 'distance' montage – the former term gets a work-out in the MIFF program and in Daniel Fairfax's excellent program notes on the MIFF website; the latter appears in an interview with Scott MacDonald in his essential A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers.

For mine, I would like to posit an affinity in Pelechian's work – and, in particular, in Our Century – with the similarly musically kinetic, in toto associative montage in Jan Švankmajer's work and, in particular, in some of his short films. Our Century reminded me, more than anything else, of the Švankmajer of Leonardo's Diary (1972), which is a similarly ecstatic, virtuosic fugue of apocalyptic imagery indexed to a celebration of genius and human accomplishment, derived too from a collaged patchwork of found footage and self-generated material which, rather than the footage Pelechian shot of cosmonauts going about their business (he'd been granted extraordinary access behind the scenes of the Soviet space program), is instead an array of stunningly animated sketches drawing on the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo's Diary (not at MIFF)

Differing intellectualisations of montage might very well underpin Pelechian's and Švankmajer's practices but the work produced, I find, nonetheless generates very similar – and similarly rapturous – sensations.

(There's more about Švankmajer just below.)

Zebraman 2

Veering immediately from the sublime to the ridiculous, I chased the Pelechian program down with Takashi Miike's Zebraman 2. It was massively, forthrightly inconsequential, and kind of fun, and kind of not. Films like this have me wondering sometimes if there aren't aspects of Japanese pop culture that must be baffling even to the Japanese.

Miike remains an enigma. I'm really looking forward to his 13 Assassins, reputedly classicist after a Kurosawan fashion, which I'll see very soon in release. I know he still has it in him to produce something as profoundly consequential as Zebraman 2 so vehemently, wilfully isn't, but that said, I haven't adored anything of his since 2003's Gozu.

Class Relations (1984)

Straub-Huillet do Kafka, which makes perfect sense. As faithful a Kafka adaptation as I can think of, Class Relations is a perfect fit for the Straubs' patented artfully austere house style, although it hasn't a show of knocking off its perch as my favourite big-screen riff on Kafka, Pavel Jurácek and Jan Schmidt's wonderful Josef Kilián (1963). (Much kudos also to Koji Yamamura for his beautiful animation, A Country Doctor (2007))

Those Straubs, they sure knew how to light a scene! Their compositional sense is exquisite and immediately appreciable as such. The performance styles they elicit from their cast, however, are much more an acquired taste. Some of the cast – including Class Relations' lead (Christian Heinisch) – appear narcotised, wilfully indifferent, throughout this film, while others take more of a grandstanding approach to delivering their lines. All involved are likely, when sharing a frame, to become as still as mannequins while one of them soliloquises at length. Still, that's a good analogue for the dialogue in much of Kafka!


A lovely new queer film from Céline Sciamma, the director of the admirable Water Lilies (2007) (which I wrote a little about in a report in Senses of Cinema on the 2009 Melbourne Queer Film Festival). I found Tomboy very moving; it is my lot in life to invariably be very affected by films depicting the travails of fellow genderqueer folk, and of children in particular, all the more so when they're as well, and as naturalistically depicted, as in Tomboy. It's a beautifully measured film and I wish it to find crossover mainstream success; it's due a release in Australia soon.

All About Ev(a|e): Surviving Life and Fruit of Paradise

Curiously, Surviving Life has dropped “Theory and Practice” from its title (this is, however, consistent with the MIFF program), making my blog post of a couple of weeks ago a little less meaningfully entitled. Never mind.

Psychoanalytic film theory has a new textbook in Jan Švankmajer's sixth feature film. Not only is it his most accessible feature to date, it's also a fabulous primer in capital-S Surrealism, making explicit the indebtedness of that movement and philosophy – very much still alive and active in today's Czech Republic – to Freud's talking cure.

Švankmajer has never been such an open book before as in this film, which even goes so far as to arm its audience with the knowledge of how to decode, if simplistically, symbols and imagery which appear not only in Surviving Life but which are endemic to his cinema. This know-how is imparted at narratively expedient intervals in psychoanalytical sessions conducted within the narrative, overseen by animated portraits of Freud and Jung who duke it out for dominion over interpretation of the games played by a Švankmajer-surrogate's unconscious mind during his sleep.

The mixture of crisp cut-out animation and live-action representations of the same characters and environs throughout the film is very appealing and is consistent with mixed media, multiple-representational practices in Švankmajer's work generally (see especially Faust (1994)), as well as with traditions in Czech theatre dating much farther back still – Surviving Life's to-ing and fro-ing between animation and live-action is most definitely not, as a cut-out Švankmajer explains in a jokey prelude, merely a function of a low budget which demands low overheads for catering, per diems, etc!

There's a lot more I'd like to say about Surviving Life, pending a little more time to digest it and, ideally, a second viewing this Sunday. There was, though, one thing that really struck me so much on that first viewing that I want to mention it right here and now, and that's that within the film's dreamscapes, there's something... someone... stalking the protagonist's dream self, an omnipresent entity, perhaps even a manifest omniscience, which assumes the form of a scornful old crone who's given to occasionally making herself, and her thoughts on proceedings, explicitly known. Yes, quite to my surprise, Švankmajer would seem in Surviving Life to be hinting at the existence of.... God. Or of something like that.

Surviving Life

Where this really interests me is in connection with a section in Andrei Codrescu's fabulous book, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, in which Codrescu explains how Tristan Tzara, founder of Surrealism's forefather movement, Dada, relished speaking gibberish not merely as a provocation and catalysing kick up the arse of modernism but also, just conceivably, to aim to reach beyond conscious thought in a quest for transcendence of things worldly in a manner practiced by his Kabbalistic Jewish forebears.

The Posthuman Dada Guide (I haven't it handy, so I can't quote page numbers) goes on, if I recall correctly, to assert that William Burroughs was striving for much the same end in his application of his celebrated cut-up method, where texts were reduced to particles and reassembled randomly, the better, hopefully, to reveal in the reassembly the hand of a divinity who might not be unknowable to us were we only, all of us, to be able to transcend the crippling limitations of language and its structures.

And now in 2011 here's Švankmajer, cutting up images, images of his narrative's players reorganised in a similarly recombinatory fashion, within a narrative wholly concerned with exploring the root functioning of a human mind, its motivations, and its memory, replete, replete, I say, with simply oodles of unmistakeably Edenic imagery and featuring an inamorata named Eva (sure, that is the name of Švankmajer's late wife and long time collaborator, but...) and with an all-seeing Godlike being overseeing the workings of the protagonist's unconscious throughout... Curiouser and curiouser!

It was certainly inspired programming that put Surviving Life back-to-back with fellow Czech Věra Chytilová's Fruit of Paradise (1970). Oh, such dialogue as flowed between them, for Fruit of Paradise is a veritable tripped-out Carry on Garden of Eden!

Considerably more formally experimental an affair even than the director's earlier, beloved Daisies (1966), Fruit of Paradise is amongst the most beautiful films I've ever had the pleasure of seeing on a big screen, beautiful in equal measure to its resistance to any easy articulation of what the fuck it's all about. It's a little bit Zabriskie Point – with rather more emphasis on the Zabriskie than on the point. It might be parts a cautionary allegory about the perils of knowledge in a society in which, back in the day, knowledge's possession could be seriously compromising. It's definitely in part a serial killer flick. And there's a very bizarre love triangle thrown in there too. But mostly it's just one glorious, messy, genuinely psychedelic enigma. As such, it sure won't be everyone's cup of Fernet, but it sure is mine. And oh that Zdeněk Liška score – it's sublime!

I would urge anyone who saw Fruit of Paradise and who would like to know a little more about it and its creators to turn firstly to Jim Knox's excellent program note on the MIFF website for insight into a film, and several of its esteemed makers, very dear to his (and my!) heart.

As for me, I'll be pausing some more in coming days to ponder this business of some of the art world figures I've long most esteemed and whom I associate with some of the most out-there, probing, revolutionary art practices and accomplishments of the 20th and 21st centuries, evidently demonstrating a not at all incompatible keen interest in bothering God, something I've never myself consciously thought to devote much time nor energy to at all.


To close, I really can't be arsed knocking up another iteration of my MIFF release dates table, but here's word nonetheless of a few more release date developments:

The Woman: 18 Aug 2011
Persecution Blues: The Battle for the Tote: 25 Aug 2011
Face to Face: 8 Sep 2011
Fire in Babylon: 15 Sep 2011
Project Nim: 29 Sep 2011
The Innkeepers: TBA