Now in its sixth year, the annual CPH PIX Film Festival has quickly found itself in the figurative front row of Danish cinema. One of a triptych that make up the annual Copenhagen Film Festivals circuit – including the slight, but charming children and youth festival, BUSTER, and the non-fiction genre-debunking centrepiece, CPH:DOX – PIX is unashamedly the most cinematically broad of the three, with an interest in fiction filmmakers world over; from towering cinematic heavyweights to new kids on the block. Squeezing out, as it does, the regular scheduling of nine beautiful Copenhagen movie theatres and less traditional cinematic venues (a lascivious national park, an abandoned hospital and a microbrewery, to name but three of many) every April to make way for the cumbersome two-week program, boasting a whopping 400 screenings of 162 movies.
These stats are absolutely ludicrous, of course. With just over half a million inhabitants, Copenhagen is a small city and, more importantly, PIX is far from the international bonanza that every small-time festival quixotically dreams of becoming. I’d expect that PIX could expunge fifty of its less remarkable featured films without much outcry from audiences (in fact, the cull would probably see the remaining screenings sell-out more easily, to boot).
While PIX fails to engulf the international cultural zeitgeist like its more prodigious and punkish sister event, CPH:DOX, it’s evidently striking a chord with the locals, whose exemplary grasp of the English tongue comes in handy here (subtitling in the native Danish is seemingly non-existent at the festival). Despite the wincingly high ticket price per movie (85 Danish kroner, equivalent to US$15), this has been the most financially viable year of PIX’s history, with over 50.000 admissions, a 16% rise on last year’s festival. This success is not only a bankable entailment of the diverse program (which, despite being overstuffed, is their most impressive yet), but the fact that, for the first time, the pleasingly omnipresent festival director, Jacob Neiiendam, and his small team of worker bees are not only aware of CPH PIX’s scope and limitations, but turning them into the festival’s selling points.
Before ironing out those kinks, follow me on a tangent. Editor for Cinema Scope and co-director/writer of the baffling mythological meta-western “film-within-a-film”, La última película, Mark Peranson has claimed that “there are fifty outstanding films per year, films that any programmer or critic, personal taste aside, would agree are films that any self-respecting international film festival should show.” (1) He goes on to admit himself that this lofty idea is relegated to idealistic fancy as, despite programmers best efforts, the inscrutable chain of command and commerce sees the bigger festivals – the TIFFs, Cannes, Venices, Rotterdams and Berlins of this oversaturated cultural enterprise – fighting with their funds to gain exclusivity of the top 50, while the middling festivals (Locarno, Edinburgh, Vancouver et al) are left with the scraps. CPH PIX weighs in somewhere below these festivals in the welterweight division: big and rich enough to pull in top-drawer stuff from the previous years’ bigger festivals, but unlikely to find space at the table for bona fide premieres (with the exception of the locally hatched hip-hop drama Flow, as detailed below). To put it bluntly, PIX is an “audience festival”, rather than a “business festival”. (2) What it lacks in industry clout it makes up for in audience populism and an inclusivist’s spirit that sees many of the top 50 dispersed across the bigger festivals brought together in one, handy “greatest hits” program package.
At the top of this half-centennial chart, and my personal contender for the most essential film experience of the year thus far, is the late Aleksei German’s delightfully louche Hard To Be a God, which featured in the festival’s “Maestros” branch alongside Jia Zhangke’s vigorous crime allegory of an oppressed Chinese populace forced into acts of violence in A Touch of Sin, and French New Wave progeny Philippe Garrel’s tragic-drama about the seemingly commonplace polyamory amongst the French in Jealousy.
Lightly adapted from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name, German’s decade-in-the-making project was ultimately finished by his wife, son and screenwriting partner, Svetlana Karmalita. The resulting film is a savage sci-fi parable, telling the story of thirty scientists, sociologists and do-gooders from Mother Earth who travel to the neighbouring Arkanar, a wretched parallel world stuck 800 years in the past, and – without their supercilious assistance – is set for a grave, unliberated future.
Hard To Be a God came to PIX following it’s mummed debut at the Rome International Film Festival last September, where Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young labelled it “frustratingly incomprehensible”; (3) and later at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Indiewire’s Neil Young damned the film with faint, if brilliantly eloquent praise as a “Gilliamesque gallimaufry of cloacal maximalism”. (4) Yes, Hard To Be A God is a mess, but it’s the sort of creatively bombastic, brazenly political and utterly dumbfounding mess one could only wish was filling our cinemas on a weekly basis. It’s so messy, in fact, that those desiring a storyline to help necessitate the near three-hour running time will be short-changed (the brief opening synopsis above is told entirely through one maladroit opening narration). Instead, German sustains our intrigue through embellished set and costume design, in-camera visual effects and ever-moving tracking shots, which do not as much frame scenes as much as they do actively interfere with them.
If Tom Tykwer’s Kieślowski-inspired, Run Lola Run (1998)was an appropriation of frenetic action video game aesthetics, Hard To Be a God resembles the same sort of tireless (and leisurely) world building of a third-person adventure romp, only this time with more excreta. The camera is brisk, the scenes are barbaric, the characters are exceptionally disgusting and the embers of a late, underpraised master of Russian cinema shine bright long after the 177 minutes draw to a mortal end.
Blue Ruinwas another film that reached these Scandinavian shores with a great deal of prestige to live up to, following its win of the critic’s FIPRESCI prize during Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2013. While its position next to the irredeemably trashy German queer horror movie Der Samurai in the vaguely defined “World Views” series seemed dubious, filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore effort proved a big hit with the ticket buying audience, whom were perhaps drawn to the movie’s mordantly humorous “Nordic noir”-like flavours.
Macon Blair plays the dishevelled Dwight, a beachside vagrant whose scraggly beard and tattered clothes cloak a man with a dirtied past. His ghostly solitude erupts when a sympathetic policewoman notifies him that he is leaving prison. Before we have the time to discover exactly who “he” is, Dwight transforms into a man on a bloodthirsty mission, ditching the beard for a nebbish suburban look and returning to his childhood hometown to single-handedly hunt down his prey from behind the wheel of his rusty old blue Pontiac. So blinded and blighted by his vengeance, his pursuit quickly escalates into an atypical game of cat-and-mouse, with fatal conclusions.
Manning director, writer and cinematographer duties, Saulnier illustrates a proficiency in well-worn revenge noir sensibilities while showing a willingness to subvert them. In many senses, Blue Ruin is the anti-Pulp Fiction, delivering gorgeously shot, close-up sequences of ugly violence doused in acerbic wit, yet imbuing an inexplicable pointlessness to the violence in the first place. Dwight is a pretty clumsy predator, and his mission is not one of valour but of ultimate, utterly compelling pity.
Just like any good festival should, CPH PIX’s program was anachronistic enough to apply what Film Comment’s Robert Koehler has labelled the “twin compass poles” (5) needed for any festival worth its salt; challenging audiences to encounter the forerunning practitioners of new world cinema, while exploring the overlooked treasures of the old.
Beyond the de rigueur retrospective for Chilean bizarro auteur and psychomagic propagator, Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the most noteworthy bits of clever programming PIX had to its armoury this year was a visit from Chicagoan director William “call me Bill” Friedkin. The notoriously uncompromising figure behind such brawny knockouts as Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A. and Bug – plus telegraphed masterpieces The French Connection, The Exorcist and his vicious latest, Killer Joe – Friedkin is something of a wisecracking, countercultural mouthpiece for the American film industry of yesteryear; where unbridled, often preposterous director’s vision reigned and producers bowed. In town to receive an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Danish Film Academy, the guest of honour was at hand for an entire week to appear on national TV, in newspapers and introduce his twelve feature movies in front of fawning PIX audiences. At best a patchy career in the movies, even Friedkin’s lesser works, when introduced by the cordial filmmaker himself, presented themselves as small, but dedicated wonders on the big screen. From the eerily prescient TV documentary The People vs. Paul Crump; to the initially panned, now recently restored and praised, existential thriller Sorcerer (which, Friedkin went on later to explain, is the film he is most satisfied with, despite various cast dropouts, extreme producer constraints and life-threatening shoots).
Each one of these screening and Q&A sessions were illuminating, but the apex of the retrospective came with an extended interview hosted by local prodigy and Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn. Taking place in front of a sold-out crowd in the palatial Dagmar Theatre (owned by Carl Theodor Dreyer, as Friedkin gleefully enlightened the audience), the ambling conversation revealed not only the pair’s mutual fondness for each other’s work, but a fundamental dispute on the worth of the cinematic medium as both a commercial and cultural edifice. Inevitably, most of the contestation centred on the incessantly peddled, but overwrought concerns of film vs. digital production, with Refn’s brattish, art-is-in-the-celluloid sententiousness perfectly perforated by his senior stage member’s refreshingly dynamic attitude towards newfangled filmmaking apparatus, and all the brilliant possibilities they can bring.
Clocking in at just over ninety-minutes, the interview was without doubt one of the most affecting attractions of the entire two weeks, galvanising the budding filmmakers amongst the audience to go out and define a new era of cinematic provocation, while suggesting that this sage luminary still has the brio to keep directing fantastically idiosyncratic movies of his own.
Having Friedkin’s labour of love re-presented and discussed in detail by the humble mogul himself helped strip away the caustic air of cynicism that all too often permeates in the organ grinding film festival circuit, and in it’s place spread a positivistic tone to what the rest of the festival would bring.
While CPH PIX doesn’t usually have the scope nor desire to enlist lots of world exclusives, there were two notable and pleasingly distinctive Danish productions receiving their world premiere at this year’s event.
Tucked away in the blackened basement of the Danish Film Institute was a very special anti-screening of the latest project from local cult composer Morten Svenstrup. With the evocative title Barndom og Revolution (translated into crooked English as Childhood and Revolution), the project sets out to question what makes the cinema “cinematic”, and what part does sound have to play in this discourse? In practice, the recorded broadcast manifested as a soundscape where whispering voices, moaning instruments and indecipherable noises swell to create a sonic plane so rich and intoxicating that venturing into visuals would seem superfluous.
A highly idiosyncratic endeavour, it’s unlikely that Svenstrup’s complex reverie will be distributed to picture houses across the world. This is, I think, a great shame. A production of such stirring sensuality and cognitive splendour, Barndom og Revolution celebrates what film sound designer Walter Murch has eloquently pronounced as the symbiotic relationship metaphoric distance between film visuals and film sound, (6) while cutting the audio-visual tie to prove that, in some inexplicable fashion, sound has a place of its own on the screen.
From cripplingly fringe outsider art to unabashedly mainstream popcorn fare, the biggest and brightest premiere at PIX this year was the gritty hip-hop Danish drama Flow (Ækte Vare).
Set in a housing projects development on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Flow centres on a crew of down and out teenagers credulously waiting for their break into the Danish rap game. They’re not bad rhymers, but the quietly intelligent Michael (Kian Rosenberg Larsson) is the one with the talent. During a rowdy improv rap battle outside a club, he grabs the attention of established rapper Apollo (Rasmus Hammerich) and is invited in as his ghost-writer for a hefty weekly sum. Finally given his shot at the big time, Michael struggles to keep a cool-head with his newly fledged fame, and his loyalty to his old friends is put into question.
After years working on short films, documentaries and music videos, Danish-Iraqi director Fenar Ahmad steps up to the mike as if it’s make or break. Very rarely do you find a debutant director with such a technical aptitude for filmmaking, using pulsing close-ups and one-take tracking shots to shape the similar precariousness of the hip-hop game.
With such a meticulous execution of the aesthetics, Flow looks and sounds like a very authenticated portrait of the cutthroat Danish rap game (even leading man Larsson doubles up his day job rapping under the alias Gilli). Unfortunately, the comfortable confidence with the subject matter ultimately leads to Flow’s downfall, with the meandering improvisation and a lackadaisical plotting eventually strangling the life out of the narrative. Falling short of the hip-hop movie masterpiece we’ve been waiting some thirty years for, Flow is a film of impressive visual thrills but lacks a narrative potency to see it be of genuine interest to anyone outside the niche market in which it is created and marketed.
Along with Flow, there were nine other directorial debuts in the running for the jury-led New Talent Grand Pix prize. One of the hopefuls overlooked by the jury was Michalis Konstantatos’ none-more-bleak, dyspeptic social drama, Luton, about three seemingly normal Greek people, who slowly reveal themselves to be a trio of canoodling, violent sociopaths.
The latest in a running streak of Greek “weird wave cinema”, Konstantatos pars down the awkward funnies of Dogtooth and ATTENBERG for a Michael Haneke-like preoccupation with the banality of evil. It’s the typical incendiary stuff you find throughout the festival (Kim Ki-Duk’s facile silent satyr play, Moebius, springs to mind), made only slightly more tolerable through the new director’s nihilistic rendition of post-crash Greek society.
Another unlucky competitor for the 15,000-euro prize fund was Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. A noted favourite from this year’s Sundance, this zesty anti-rom-com tells the tale of NY comedienne Donna Stern (played with poise and charm by Jenny Slate) whose life is rolled off the rails when she is dumped, fired and impregnated all before Valentine’s Day. At a sprightly 83-minutes, Obvious Child is an often hilarious and surprisingly scornful comedy about abortion, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Alexander Payne’s vehement 1996 debut Citizen Ruth was unleashed on the screens. Even at this early stage, I’m certain Robespierre will have a similarly fecund filmmaking career as her compatriot.
Beating the rest to the coveted Grand Pix trophy was Eskil Vogt’s Blind, a dense, but frisky Norwegian drama that melds harsh reality with fantasy to devastating effect.
Having recently lost her sight, Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) refuses to leave the confines of her Oslo apartment. The world outside is alien to her now, and she worries that she no longer plays a part. In-between visits from her husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), she battles her housebound boredom by typing out a story. It’s unclear whether her tale is fact or fable, but Ingrid lets her imagination run wild and, in the process, her biggest fears and fantasies start to surface. Is she writing her own life as it happens, or has she lost control and become blind to her own reality?
Teetering on Michel Gondry levels of whimsy, Eskil Vogt manages to pitch his thorny plot with just the right level of humour and pathos. He’s a greatly skilled storyteller, whose experience as co-screenwriter in Joachim Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st prove an enviable ability to balance narrative intellect with cerebral intuition. These things all come to play beautifully in Blind, and enable Vogt to flutter capriciously between film genres and tones. Blind is a tragedy; a comedy; a psychological thriller; a sexy power-struggle; an extempore nightmare; a trance, it is all of these things, while simultaneously being none of them at all. Ingrid’s vivacious imagination is a screen surrogate for Vogt’s own mind. It’s only been a few weeks, but I can’t wait to have another peek.
3-16 April 2014
Festival website: http://www.cphpix.dk
1. Mark Peranson, “Two Modes of Film Festivals”, Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, Wallflower Press, London, 2009.
3. Deborah Young, “Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom): Rome Review”.
5. Robert Koehler, “Cinephilia and Film Festivals”, Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, Wallflower Press, London, 2009.
6. Walter Murch, “Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See”.