As they cheered and hooted, they were far more confident than the film actors on display, who seemed ill at ease when they stepped from their cars, like celebrity criminals ferried to a mass trial by jury at the Palazzo, a full-scale cultural Nuremberg furnished with film clips of the atrocities they had helped to commit.
– JG Ballard
Thanks to the telecratic vulgarity eroding the rhetorical leftovers of pre-jurassic eras, the Italian peninsula profiles itself as the caricatured avant-garde of a near democratic future. With a calendar girl for Minister of Gender Equality, a Minister of Culture who disapproves of films without watching them and a widespread sense of demented perversion, things have never looked so fabulous. The festival itself, beyond the pathetic critical pretence, is the perfect corollary to such a successful misery. Droves of human beans busy selling canned punditry in the sacred name of cinema and the most putrid hypocrisies swept under the (red) carpet by the clergy of world cinema ushered a grotesque spectacle of fine spiritual penury.
A militarised Fellinian circus choreographed by Francis Bacon on the set of L’Année dernière à Marienbad, the festival floats uneasy in the cloacal drain of the Italian post-industrialised heart: the Venetian lagoon. Forever worshipping the simulacra of post-decadent beauty, Venice in itself is well beyond Death…parochial stardom camouflaged as vulgar bourgeois liturgy, everyone seems to be high on this annihilating degradation. Ingloriously rusting in front of it, the spectra of an industrial citadel conspires to mechanically (de)contaminate the surfacing scum. Perhaps the constant postponement of the new Palazzo del Cinema will aspire to the aseptic magniloquence of an airport terminal or a shopping mall temple since the festival punters (“professionals” in primis) behave exactly the same way people do in those places, possibly worse. The average comments you would get in any suburban multiplex after a screening would certainly feel more heartfelt than the blathering verdicts dinning the queues and anti-social areas of the festival. Peppered with the sterile pomposity of recognised cinephilia they rivalled the rotten fumes of the lagoon in terms of mor(t)al toxicity. Armed forces taking pictures with smiling pin-ups, onlookers ambushing daunted movie stars and an adamant army of cultural vassals boasting a facial repertory ranging from vile to servile depending on the ranks of their interlocutors, make the sales opening season look like a desirable experience. Illogically so, in this luxury tideland of cultural resort films of challenging coherence and stimulating cogency got stranded between the 1st and the 11th of September 2010…waiting to be washed away by the consumerist down-rush instantly re-designing our imaginative foreshore once the ephemeral tide of advertising has retreated.
Any cinematic manifestation should find adequate images to explore, confute and expose the currency of the human experience, both in its latent and manifest externalisations, and it is often here that they blatantly fail, the perfunctory gaze of (too) many occultural operators refuses, or perhaps does not even conceive, to face it opting thus for the reconciling comfort of a good movie. But, dare one say it, today more than ever what is dreadfully needed is to depolarise complacency and dissipate contusive aesthetics able to generate a potential for action where cinema is subtracted from its accessory role of consumer good.
The most interesting works we saw in Venice this year were all related by a distinctive urgency, an almost primeval exigency to abrade the intangible substance of film, to make the viewing experience a necessary process to promptly foil the falsification of experience.
After having been away from the silver screen for 17 years the vagrant Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski returned two years ago with the truly surprising Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anna) and confirmed his sheer talent in Venice this year with Essential Killing, undoubtedly the best film we saw at the festival. Essential Killing is a film that does not allow itself to be passively consumed, staged on a serrated intimacy interspersed with sudden long-shot quivers of vast evocation. Vincent Gallo donates an impeccable silent performance as a fugitive Taliban, caught in Afghanistan (the set is Israel), tortured and deported to Poland (some of it is actually Norway) in one of the United States’ many prison camps (yes, Guantanamo is not the only one). Hunted by official history and those who redact it always on the vanquishing side, the protagonist escapes through the glacial hostility of an alien space where he would have never found himself had they not forcibly inscribed his story. It is on this primeval survival struggle that the film operates an imaginative miracle. Neither political nor apolitical, as the director pointed out, which obviously does not giveaway to indifference but on the contrary reconsiders the oversimplified narrative of the “war on terror”. Terror is indeed what besieges the Taliban/Gallo, forced to kill in order to survive, and condemned to abscond after having being denied the right to existence. Oppressed by a manufactured dichotomy, events drive him at their own pace and rules. An immaculate cinematography pairs a sonic mise-en-scène where diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are seamlessly intertwined, the whizzing blade piercing the prisoner’s ear after a point-blank shoot out drones into a mono-tonal symphony of snow-capped wilderness. The bucolic candour of breathtaking landscapes and crystalline details frame the protagonist’s animal strife against an adverse whole, only a mute and deaf woman (Emmanuelle Signer), roughly liquidated by her drunken husband, will abet the battered man, done for with his mere presence.
The sonic horror of The Shout meets the political subtlety of Moonlighting in a work of visionary fortitude, sharp foresight and crackerjack wriggles. Skolimowski’s return to the polluted galaxy of moving images is not only a welcomed but also a very much-needed one.
With Tony Manero (2008) the young Pablo Larrain had already shown the archetypal possibilities of historical (national) cinema and how the virus of totalitarianism infects and colonises the psycho-sexual hemisphere of compliant individuals. In Post Mortem, a sort of chronological prequel of Tony Manero, through the dissection of Allende’s corpse the Chilean director anatomises social sloth, the eternal guardian of institutional crimes. Larrain’s film depicts the uneventful trajectory from complacency to complicity paved by the pedestrian execution of state procedures whose legitimacy is measured in terms of military force and not ethical dignity. The grainy photography and its geometrical insistence catatonically accompany a story of evil banality.
With cyanotic perseverance Mario, the autopsy transcriber played by the immense Alfredo Castro, “courts” his neighbour, an eclipsed variety dancer, but desperation is the only possible prelude to sex and marriage the deprecating attempt at enfranchising his self from the mortal clamp of solitude. Away from the current strand of hysterical demonising, the film unassumingly illustrates the sallow corruption of the majority, the militarisation of everyday life sanctioning the death of human reciprocity and the triumph of the fascism of indifference. In politics as well as in private life the “common man” buries his responsibilities and kills his desires, absolved for having obeyed the orders of the given captor and not of his conscience.
When presenting L’Avventura at Cannes in 1960 Michelangelo Antonioni issued a statement denuding the “emotional sickness of our time” remarking how “eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him[…]and he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse of an unhappy, miserable and futile kind”.
Vincent Gallo transversally resumed such intuition burdened by fifty years of further degradation with a brave endeavour of lo-fi accuracy, Promises Written in Water, his most musical film to date, with “musical” referring to his own music, for everything in Gallo’s work solipsistically revolves around Gallo’s world. In fact the mournful minimalism of his sonic output, the acoustic wimples of elusive melodies and candid cacophonies perspire here into images of gaunt intensity orchestrating a story of feedbacking modernity. Eros and Thanatos correspond to the same scrawniest pulsion, the love letter opening the film begs for a painless death as if the only possible act of love was to deliver the beloved one from the algid burden of existence. Metropolitan life is caught into an emotive void invading all the spaces: bars, restaurants, houses, streets and the obsessive focus on the out of frame reflectively points towards the origin of such claustrophobia. The naked body of Delfine Bafort feels already dead when still alive and not even the re/de/generating rite of dance injects the faintest trace of subsistence in her skeletal body. Possessed by the deadly tribalism of a techno trance her dance turns into a death song that Gallo listens to and films with mortuary stolidity. Love decomposes into death, better still; they ineluctably match each other thus giving birth to a despotic romance sealed by eloquent silences reaching for the soul of a terminally ill eros. In a world where emotional and sexual fulfillment is absent, la mort is not petite, but grand and ineluctable like the undertaker’s venal procedures. Unlike the redeeming force featured in Buffalo 66, in Promises love is framed with clinical detachment in the reiterative failure to explain its agonising centrality, no matter how many times the doomed affair is repeated, the affective knell echoes in the arrested heart which could not keep the promise.
Following Prove per una Tragedia Siciliana (Rehearsals for a Sicilian Tragedy, 2009) John Turturro pursues his singularly anachronistic journey through his genetic half with Passione, a documentary on Neapolitan music. The subject matter is as endlessly fecund as it is prone to be ungracefully abashed by stereotypes of the benevolent and malevolent kind alike. Mostly due to his childlike curiosity and unprejudiced wonder the Italo-American actor manages to enter one of the neuralgic centres of humanity with the rarest of all luggages: the absence of preconceptions. Like Walter Benjamin before him Turturro instinctively felt the need to “investigate the living game of historical forces and especially of popular life that in the savage and barbaric beauty of the city has left its mark in an involuntary manner and with artistic regularity”. (1) Considered his (under)privileged position as an implicated outsider, Turturro passionately depicts with lucidity “a city drenched in contradictions and painted with sound”, grasping its unique spirit of tormented celebration in spite and because of its many troubles. Music, as life itself, in Naples belongs to the streets, it stems from the melodious fragrance of the Neapolitan language invading all forms of public life with stories, recollections and lies. The documentary is articulated on a series of vignettes where the director stages brief musical numbers to introduce the given artist providing precious contextualisation to every act. For those still convinced that Neapolitan music is confined to an idiot playing romantic ballads with his mandolin in front of the sea, the documentary discloses an iridescent world of polyhedral sounds going back to the varied influences Naples underwent throughout the centuries, from Arabs to Americans. The amplified soul of the city is movingly captured by its music, its voice, almost its cry as all emotive stances are melodramatically overemphasised. Turturro’s look goes well beyond the popular art of life investigating also the gloomier angles of a harsh reality such as the Neapolitan one, for instance the occasional racism of its people. The great Afroamericaneapolitan jazzman James Senese, son of an Afro-American soldier and a Neapolitan woman, remembers in an interview the unpleasant condition that a black child growing up in post-war Naples was inevitably exposed to, how the warm reciprocity characterising Neapolitans would suddenly turn to racist jokes.
All in all, what is most striking in this documentary, besides the range of sublime music showcased, is Turturro’s balanced yet participating outlook on a most fascinating yet highly problematic reality.
Of Naples the spectator most vividly feels what the Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo said about the pregnancy of the theatrical experience: “In theatre one seriously lives what the others badly act in life” and realises that the difference between the stage and the street is the one thing Naples is missing.
Hallucinated is the return of Paul Morrissey, his anti-naturalistic realism sharply dressed in digital story, told as a modern tale of an alien migrant from Latin America landing on the Atlantic coast of the American nightmare. Traded like cattle in the land of cowboys he refuses to travel hidden in the trunk of a car, unable to be enslaved he inscrutably grazes the poisonous flora of a perverted zoo. A place where teenage moms use horse somniferous as anti-depressant, paternity is a bureaucratic dispute with seasonal surfers and an art dealer sells children. Psychologically impenetrable the migrant “visitor” crosses this space with utter detachment considering convenient contingencies at times (such as marring a wealthy landowner) but eventually taking to the sea once again devoid of any emotions towards this land and the spectator. The artificial verisimilitude with which Morrissey has been narrating marginal lives resurfaces here where the director lives and found the human trash of a new periphery. Rejected by the same codes that pushed Morrissey’s human “scum” in the New York gutters, the new outcasts inhabit an unglamorous dark area of News from Nowhere.
The festival finds its officious conclusion in Monte Hellman’s return on the Road to Nowhere, a film against which all the 90 films shown in Venice, and particularly those we have not seen, can/should be read. One of the brightest apprentices, along with Jack Hill and Paul Bartel, to come out the Cormanian factory, Monte Hellman is the heretical apologist of an independent practice that does not surrender to univocal nor prescriptive definitions. A nomadic director, who in a suffocating land drew a labyrinthine itinerary through cinematic genres, commercial dictations and quirky visions. Foreigners in their own land, his characters have always embarked upon journeys without intention or end looking into the enigmatic absurdity of life for an impossible answer. With abstract realism Hellman brought Beckett to an acid west populated by innocent outlaws where the rarefied frontier does not correspond to a spirit of conquest but of loss, filmic deflation. This time the gamble is on a noir, on its contrived clichés, perhaps on its death, surely on the latter.
Road to Nowhere eludes the synopsis thus ushering the pleasure of an illegible narrative, of a shooting ending up in a shootout where figurative relations and formal connections, that usually guarantee a certain “digestibility”, are deserted and the police for a weapon mistake a camera.
A mutinous meta-film whose incipit leaves no certainties: a copied copy of the film is played on a laptop…the spectator is abruptly eradicated from the conservatory addiction to linearity and contemplable experimentation. It is the director himself who is re-watching his never-completed film in a prison cell where the blogger scriptwriter has brought a copy of the film and a camera to film them watching how he filmed himself while filming his movie. The quest for a movie to take form warps into an inquest about its disquieting uncertainty where the story does not seem to match the narrative from which it stems. A couple has carried out a colossal swindle and subsequently committed suicide when things went wrong, the director wanted to make a film on this piece of news. The actress they cast falls in love with the director but her reasons are unclear, she might be the real protagonist behind the fraud. The two lanes (fiction and reality) confound each other into a black laptop, what it exactly is that we/they are watching we/they do not sense. No more succubus but, dared, the audience is invited to experience the ambiguity of a narration staging the crisis of filmmaking whilst simultaneously “opening” new perceptive organisations, altered sensitive solutions. As the director himself pointed out during the Venice press conference: “this movie is an impossible riddle and it is only for the audience to solve it”. Road to Nowhere in fact favours not its own individual coherence but its open decipherability defining itself on the basis of multiple readings advancing so an inclusive hypothesis between film and spectator.
Here we feast on the fertile equivoques and “inconsistencies” of a nouveau roman (the film is dedicated to Alain Robbe-Grillet), the polyphonies of an open melody, the negation of its presuppositions. Countless inconclusive solutions will redesign the perceptive filmscape of this indefinite work pondering on the formal limits of narration without drawing conclusions as if to expose the inherent inadequacy of cinema in relating to life’s many antilogies.
A film that begins when finished and finishes questioning its own assumptions “violently back upstream on the road to nowhere”…
What the festival in its inherent ambivalence exposed is the very role of the spectator within the catastrophe; most urgently felt are the epochal mutations taking place within and despite (wo)mankind. The comatose position of cinema and its consumers is now endangered by imminent contortions of historical proportions; the (cultural) landscape we give so much for granted will soon disappear and our role severely questioned. Cinema still functions as a social thermometer, but the patient does not show the symptoms of an aggravating fever, leaving no space for any plausible diagnosis. Perennial sedation might be a convincing option but remains clinically inoperable. Movement within and beyond cinema is censored, “the enormous energy of the twentieth century (what if not cinema?), enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, is being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause” (JG Ballard). While happily we shop in this supermarket of atrocities, motionless pictures, autistically edited by the incapacity to emote in front of the infinite possibilities of cataclysms and their implicit reconsideration of the ruling order poison our organisms. Not even cinema manages to give movement and/or an anima to what is (not) animated as superbly demonstrated by Avati’s Festival, the only film Venice had the guts to present, or vice versa.
PS: Quentin Tarantino was the jury president, Sofia Coppola won the Golden Lion with Somewhere and almost 40 Italian films were present in the different sections of the festival. Apart from Ascanio Celestini’s La Pecora Nera they did nothing but replicate, paraphrase, quote on celluloid the dying Fellinian circus and the assorted inhumanity that did (not) animate the festival. The Franco-Ellenic nymphet Ariane Labed won Best Actress, Vincent Gallo the male counterpart. Marco Müller and his gang at the controls. Bless.
Venice International Film Festival
1-11 September 2010
Festival website: http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/festival/