Posted Tuesday 7 August (Festival Wrap-Up)
Posted Friday 3 August (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors)
Posted Thursday 2 August (Platform)
Posted Wednesday 1 August (Calle 54, Martha.Martha, My Brother Tom, The Beaver Trilogy, The Chateau, Electric Dragon, 80,000 Volts, Nurse Betty, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories)
Posted Tuesday 31 July (The Beaver Trilogy, The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez)
Posted Monday 30 July (The Gleaners & I, Totally Flaky, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories)
Posted Sunday 29 July (Warm Water Under the Bridge, The Piano Teacher, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, The Claim, Lantana, Atanarjuat The Fast Runner, The Isle)
* * *
by Bill Mousoulis
A wonderful festival, slightly left-field of Sandra Sdraulig’s (read: less American commercial films), with perhaps only the Ishii retrospective misfiring (his films are interesting, but not really worth spotlighting). I attended around 40 sessions, and whilst there was no masterpiece like last year’s The Wind Will Carry Us or a stunner like ’99’s Sombre, there was still much to love and get excited by. In great cinema, there’s always a moment when your heart jumps, or when a subtle mood pervades you. These are the eight titles (in preferential order) that created such for me:
1. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) A surprise from Huppert, who’s been on cruise control lately. She brims with fire and ice, and elevates the film above any kind of “exercise in violence” that one could accuse Haneke of.
2. A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake (Jeroen Berkvens, 2000) I’m a fan of Nick Drake, but this absolutely floored me. Inventive cinematography serves up the spaces Nick passed through, these images then complementing the music in an extraordinary way, radically challenging any notions that his music was “abstract” or “other-worldly”. His sister’s testimony, his mother’s song and poem, the home movie footage – this is a glorious and essential document. I couldn’t stop crying.
3. Gasherbrum: The Dark Glow of the Mountains (Werner Herzog, 1984) I genuinely prefer this to Lessons of Darkness, which I find over-determined and over-beautiful. Herzog’s madness pays full dividends in Gasherbrum: we see crazy human endeavour, stunning natural light, and breathtaking snowy mountains.
4. The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000) In context, these images of harried and desperate women on the streets of Tehran are shocking in their urgency. Even more of a shock is the way Panahi breaks his style in favor of Kiarostami-like narrative elision.
5. Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000) Ambitious, exciting, but somewhat muted overall, due to the over-dominance of long shots (we berate films that are full of close-ups, but the same criticism can be levelled the other way). This was the swiftest 155 minutes I’ve ever experienced – I was salivating for the original cut (193 mins).
6. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000) A wise-child Everyman, who can make the Earth revolve around the Sun, is sacrificed to mankind. The allegorising seems to backfire at times (the Prince?), but the form remains brilliant throughout. Ironically, it was the walking sequences that had the audience members also walking.
7. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong San-soo, 2000) This works even better on a subsequent viewing. I wonder if the title suggests we should read the film in a feminist way. I love the way the director works very subtly – nothing is stressed, and, importantly, nothing concluded (the last sequence is nicely ambiguous).
8. The Isle (Kim Ki-duk, 2000) The most beautiful images I saw at MIFF this year, many of them having the poise, depth and resonance of compositions normally found in paintings. A film of terror, and the loss of the soul, but also of tenderness and understanding.
Of the other films I saw, I would group them roughly like this:
Good films, but nothing special: Eyeball to Eyeball programs, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?, La Soufriere, Lessons of Darkness, Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts, Labyrinth of Dreams, August in the Water, Crazy Family, Too Young, Birdland, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Smell of Camphor Fragrance of Jasmine, Little Otik, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, The Gleaners and I, ‘R Xmas.
Mildly disappointing films from great directors: ABC Africa, Totally Flaky, Martha.Martha, Vengo.
Poor films: Lantana, Gojoe, Angel Dust, Crazy Thunder Road, Secret Tears, Soft for Digging, Face, The Beaver Trilogy, God’s Angry Man, Huie’s Sermon, Paperboys, The Low Down, Pretty Things.
Horrible films: Fuckland, The Chateau.
Finally, a humorous (for me, anyway) example of the “reality” status of films. Audience etiquette always fascinates me, and I like to keep a lookout for odd things. Anyway, it never ceases to amaze me how if one person coughs it sets off a chain reaction of three or four other people letting loose also. The amazing thing is that this may happen only once or twice during a film – the rest of the time everyone manages to hold it in! And so I had to chuckle when during one film (it may have been Martha.Martha), this chain reaction was set off at one point by a character on screen! Like, hello – you may have permission to cough if another audience member lets go, but not if it’s done by a screen personage!
And a P.S. – congrats to all the staff of MIFF this year. Box office / ushers were terrific, especially with getting huge numbers quickly seated. And I was pleased with the projectionists too – the festival has been marred by bad focusing and sound problems in recent years, but all 40 sessions I attended went smoothly (mistakes being spotted and corrected quickly).
* * *
by Jake Wilson
These were among the memorable films from the 2001 Melbourne International Film Festival – not necessarily the best, just those I seem to have spent the most time thinking about since I saw them.
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) I hate to admit it, but this portrait of a sexually troubled woman was easily the most powerful film of the Festival, classically structured, meticulously acted and absolutely gripping for well over two hours. In the early scenes you can practically hear the swish of the editing blade (as sharp as the heroine’s tongue) and later when things get really gruelling Haneke is a master at cranking up the tension, holding reaction shots till the moment just before (or just after) it becomes unbearable. Is Haneke a profound moralist, or the European answer to Todd Solondz? While there’s something unpleasantly punitive about the film’s apparent verdict on its main character, the split between her icy highbrow front and her fascination with shameful, violent sex suggests a self-loathing portrait of the filmmaker himself – which doesn’t bode well for either Haneke or his equally transfixed audience.
The Isle (Kim Ki-duk, 2000) Another disturbing love-story centred on a woman’s sado-masochistic desires, although this one seemed content to suspend judgement on the characters and their sometimes horrific activities. There were plenty of walkouts, though I’m not sure what freaked the audience out more – the (simulated) genital mutilation or the (apparently non-simulated) cruelty to fish. Comparisons aren’t easy to find for this bizarre Korean fantasy – it’s a bit like a more lurid, comic-book version of a Tsai Ming-liang movie (fixation on water, long takes, bad sex). It also has a terrific formal gimmick: all the action is confined to a number of small huts anchored in an isolated lake. Men come to the huts to fish, avoid the law, and have sex with prostitutes; the film patiently observes them and the woman who ferries them back and forth. At times this suggests an extremely deadpan, slow-paced slapstick comedy – there’s something Buster Keaton-like in the systematic exploration of all the possibilities of a restricted spatial layout, and in the silent heroine’s willingness to go to ultimate extremes to get what she wants. The final shot rivals that of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End as an image of perverse watery eroticism (coincidentally, related territory was explored in another Festival highlight, Shohei Imamura’s lovely, mellow Warm Water Under A Red Bridge).
Special mention for best revival goes to the restored print of They’re A Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1965) with a script by Emeric Pressburger under a pseudonym. Frankly, I approached this mainly as a curiosity item – a British-Australian co-production, it has an established place of honour in neither the Powell/Pressburger filmography nor the history of local cinema. On the surface it’s a pristine time capsule containing a fantastically dated, mythical version of Sydney in the ’60s (unless you’re John Howard, in which case it’s a gritty, realistic saga of modern life). The clothes, hair, accents, attitudes. jokes and slang all belong to a lost world – presented in what even then were self-consciously iconic images, like the loving camera movement along a row of sweaty, grizzled male faces squashed together at the local pub. Yet it’s a deserved popular classic and an authentic Powell/Pressburger collaboration, energetic in style and firmly cosmopolitan in outlook. Like the same team’s The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, it builds on familiar national stereotypes to contrast two styles of masculinity, balancing the books so one is never endorsed above the other. Powell admires the down-to-earth virility of bricklaying Aussie blokes as much as he does the reserved suavity of the Italian migrant hero, Nino (Walter Chiari). “It’s a man’s country, sweetheart / where a woman can never win”, the final theme song runs; but while the gender politics of all this may be flabbergasting, there’s something undeniably cheery and rousing about the film’s vulgar humanism, for all its (sexist, racist, homophobic) limitations. Maybe it’s just the idea that white working-class men can be a force for good, happy to welcome strangers – as opposed to their more frequent depiction in contemporary Australian cinema as xenophobic, violent, and filled with despair.
Some other favourites (in no special order) were The Circle, The Gleaners And I, ABC Africa, The Beaver Trilogy, Martha…Martha…, The Ruination Of Men, Totally Flaky, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Our Lady Of The Assassins, Werckmeister Harmonies, Pie In The Sky, Faithless, Electric Dragon 60,000 Volts, Miotte By Ruiz, Brother, and Worst Contact, a short Marx-Brothers-like comedy (part of the Japanese sci-fi series Burst The Earth) about a Zen prankster extra-terrestrial with orange dreadlocks and a taste for chilli sauce.
* * *
by Mark Spratt
Brief list of highs: (in no particular order)
Atanarjuat The Fast Runner
The Gleaners & I
Under The Sand
Jungle Jazz (short)
Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts
Pie In The Sky – Brigid Berlin Story
Eyeball To Eyeball – various
The Piano Teacher
The Deep End
Labyrinth Of Dreams
Late Night Shopping
* * *
by Mark Freeman
This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival seemed more solid and in control than the 2000 program, and I suspect the standard of the films was raised a little to boot. Last year I remember reeling out of some real shockers, yet this year there were only a couple that didn’t do it for me at all. The weaker films this year at least had some redeeming features. An interesting perspective, good cinematography, or performances that lifted a dud script all managed to circumvent a repeat of the hideous Hotel Splendide experience of last year, and I never faced the temptation to walk out for air, and that’s not a bad test of the strength of the program, especially when it stretches over two and a half weeks. So, to my own personal highlights:
Lantana (Ray Lawrence, Australia, 2001) What a pleasure to pinpoint, without prejudice, an Australian film as the best thing I saw at MIFF 2001. I watched a lot of films that were more clever, more visually striking or more provocative. But none of them seemed to slide with such grace through its narrative, or feature such an impressive ensemble cast, or have a script that seemed so perfect. Multi-strand narratives are wonderful when they work (Nashville, the first two thirds of Boogie Nights) and more than awful when they don’t (Pret-a-Porter, and the indulgent Magnolia). What Lantana achieves in its attempt at the form is a fine balance of humanity and humour, strong characters, small conversations that become more potent away from the screen, rather then blasting away in front of us, and a slow dissection of relationships, families and bonds. Kerry Armstrong is God, Mandy Walker does great work, and Paul Kelly’s score is beautiful.
Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada, 2001) I’ll be the first to admit my decision to see this film was out of simple curiosity: a film set in the Arctic Circle and entirely in the Inuit language? What a pleasure, then, to find such an involving film, with such stark images, such brilliant, crystalline light. You feel every sharp icy breath, and the sun never seemed quite like the one that’s captured in this film. It sat, for me, somewhere between an astonishing immersion into an alien land and culture, and a tense, involving family saga of murder and betrayal. Little wonder its three hour length seemed to fly past: you’re just so busy consuming all that gets thrown at you both visually, aurally and dramatically. And the sequence involving Atanarjuat’s escape on the ice was one of the most riveting sequences of the Festival.
The Beaver Trilogy (Trent Harris, USA, 2000) Much has already been said about Trent Harris’ film, and maybe there’s not much new to add. But it’s greatest success, apart from the jaw dropping performances by all three ‘Gary’s’ is the slow removal from truth and into fiction, and the blurring of the line in the role of the filmmaker. It plays with issues of spectatorship so perfectly – is it true that we can only develop pathos when the truth is ‘fictionalised’? This film does so much more than just tell a story (well, the same story three times, really). It messes completely with your head, your perceptions, your position in the film, and that’s a good, no, a great thing.
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, France, 2001) I have a friend who has had it up to pussy’s bow with all these French films with dour older women having problematic relationships and descending into abject misery. And I’d be with her, if they weren’t, like The Piano Teacher, such strong, articulate films. The Piano Teacher is confrontational and difficult and really rips apart desire and fantasy, messing with issues of control and power. Performances are uniformly excellent, and even though, sure, it’s another pouty downbeat film (they’re almost the equivalent of the quirky Aussie comedy), it IS tremendous and moving and horrifying in one great package.
The Low Down (Jamie Thraves, UK, 2000) I saw this in the dying days of the Festival, having missed it on previous screenings. Glad I caught it, because it became one of the highlights for me. It’s a Breathless influenced, nuggety urban realist British film with a great visual style and an edgy, interesting structure that told its tale simply, but beautifully. Good performances, and nice improvised sequences of people sitting around chatting and drinking way too much. And it opens with The Human League’s ‘Love Action’, which is pretty bloody daring, I thought.
Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2000) Although somehow the film never seemed as smooth as it should, it contained some of the most awesome, brilliant moments at the Festival I had this year. The opening sequence, a sort of choreography of the cosmos using the human body, had me almost applauding, and then it was followed by a tremendous shot of the ‘hero’ leaving the inn and walking into the black night which was utterly perfect. Really enjoyed this, with its great use of light and its elliptical, allegorical story. Sure, it maybe sagged a little here and there, but the rest was brilliant.
Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles et al, USA, 1970-2000) Ashamed to say I had not seen this before, and now am glad I have. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so accurately depict the decline of a generation so perfectly. It’s like the ’60s are dying right before your eyes as you watch this ill-fated concert given by the Stones in ’69. As the Hells Angels beat people senseless, and Mick Jagger and Grace Slick keep talking about loving everyone and hugging rather than fighting, you can just see what a hollow absurdity the movement had become. It’s sad, and astonishing, and that final retreat after the concert (and the murder – caught, incredibly, on film) is the perfect closing to an era. Brilliant.
A few random notes:
The projectionists lifted their game this year. It wasn’t stuff-up free, but it was a hell of a lot better than last year, when every second film stopped half way through and left the audience sitting in the dark waiting for its resumption. Nice one, guys.
The ticketing procedure hasn’t improved too much. After being treated like a pariah as a silver pass holder and shoved into every miserable darkened corner of the Capitol, I upgraded to gold this year. And for what? Asked where I’d prefer my gold reserve seat to be located (either front, middle or back) I chose front. What I got was 8 rows from the back of the Capitol Theatre, way over on the left. They couldn’t have given me anything more opposed to my original request if they’d tried. That, frankly, was disgusting, and they need to fix this process up immediately. I’ll be buggered if I’m going to fork over more money to get a decent seat only to get a shitty one anyway. Real shabby. I was seriously displeased.
Have people forgotten how to have sex? If the films this year were any guide, we’re all so filled with self-loathing that we’d rather mutilate our genitalia than use them for a wee spot of horizontal folk-dancing. Put the blades and fish hooks away, children, and let’s start to play nice again, eh? Enough with the animal abuse. Lots of cruelty going on in the name of transgression and ‘art’. I think we can live without it, thanks.
The Q & A’s were generally terrific, although some sort of screening process for the questions might be a good idea. A few were of the “I didn’t get the ending” variety which made the filmmakers look a bit foolish, and others were questions from people more interested in showing their ability to question rather than their desire to hear an answer. Top moment (and this was echoed by James Hewison prior to the screening of the Closing Night film) was Rom Malco doing the whole MC Hammer thang on stage at the Capitol. He was a good sport, and a funny guy (frankly, he and the director Jesse Peretz were more interesting than their film The Chateau).
All up, a great Festival that despite a few hiccups, buzzed along swimmingly. Kudos to the team, lead by James Hewison for a rich and comprehensive program and an excellent two and a half weeks of film.
* * *
by Fiona A. Villella
Overall – and as the above entries attest – MIFF 2001 turned out to be an exciting and eventful Festival with a program that was a quantum leap from last year’s. Its ‘pioneering’ aspect was admirable – putting together a world first retrospective for ‘underrated and overlooked’ filmmaker Ishii Sogo. It managed to show the latest and most interesting in world cinema (The Piano Teacher, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Circle, Platform) and documentaries (The Gleaners and I, Gimme Shelter, Southern Comfort), and its Asian cinema section with a strong emphasis on Korean film was a success story. Of course, there were a few glaring omissions, a generally oversized and at times unwieldy program (like the doubling up of films), the many negligible films that the program could have done without, and the very poor catalogue notes, which were, at worst, blatantly misleading. However, it appeared that this year, the Festival had picked itself up and had a stronger sense of purpose and vision.
My highlights (in no particular order):
The Piano Teacher – perhaps there was nothing in the Festival program as extreme and uncompromising as Haneke/Huppert’s collaboration.
The Circle – ingenious; the absolute horror this film created out of a loose, constantly shifting narrative was monumental; singular for its synthesis of formal and political radicalism.
Werckmeister Harmonies – this was a monumental experience. The sense of metaphor and the story was a little heavy handed at times but I enjoyed every minute of this odd, bleak film – especially its elaborate camera work, and the sense of ‘heaviness’ and ‘apocalypse’ present in every detail of the frame (most especially the actors’ sad eyes).
Platform – very detached, driven by detail and nuance, and definitely requiring a second viewing. But an accomplishment for a director so young and early in his career.
Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors – just one of the Korean films that stood out for their freshness in formal experimentation and odd approach to relations between men and women.
‘R Xmas – just the way the story progresses, Ferrara’s constant use of the fading device, is fascinating. Such a simple premise for a story that nonetheless builds up a considerable degree of tension and suspense.
Barking Dogs Never Bite, Joint Security Area, The Foul King – Korean films that could be classified as ‘middle of the road’ fare but that were so packed with characterisation, story, pathos, drama, humour and life, it made them irresistible.
Warm Water Under the Bridge – Imamura has the ability to seduce even the hardest of souls.
The Ruination of Men – if only I wasn’t distracted by the number of walkouts or the various audience members around me commenting throughout the film how “sick” and “stupid” the film was, I perhaps would have gotten more out of the experience. I thoroughly enjoyed Ripstein’s ‘stage-play’ film about the central importance of baseball in a poor Mexican’s life.
Totally Flaky: its looseness and the way the narrative seemed to move freely according to the characters’ whims and desires was a breath of fresh air.
Other memorable viewing moments: Faithless, The Isle, Time and Tide, The Pledge.
Excellent documentaries: The Gleaners & I; Calle 54; Southern Comfort; Pie in the Sky; Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures; A Skin Too Few; Eyeball to Eyeball series; Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness.
Low points: The Claim, ABC Africa, Rain and The Low Down. The latter two films in particular each had distinct styles (the former, poetic and lyrical; the latter, realist and poetic) but both were about characters so shallow and incredibly uninteresting it made the whole project narcissistic and indulgent.
Comments by Fiona A. Villella
Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000) Despite its provocative and lascivious-sounding title, Virgin Stripped Bare. is on the whole a very gentle and controlled affair that is fascinating all the more for it. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it takes a droll approach to the messy matters that arise in the early stages of a relationship, like the sudden and uncontrollable sexual urges that in this case propel the male, the struggle for a woman who wants to lose her virginity to the right man, at the right and with as little pain as possible, the little dramas that take place between an intimate couple (for example, when he gets her name wrong amidst an intense sexual point) and the final moment when they have broken past all the tension and anxiety, have experienced that primal sexual exchange, and find that they realise they have found in each other their other half. Virgin Stripped Bare.ends on this very sincere and poignant tone that is a distinct (though natural) shift from the playful and seemingly light sensibility that ruled the previous 2 hours of the film. The curious and droll quality extends to its storytelling structure: the telling of a particular sequence of events from two slightly different perspectives (and the odd, uncanny sense of echo and repetition that arises) and the use of chapter headings for each new sequence and scene. One thing it suggests is that the act of the woman losing her virginity is the centre of the film, which Hong is careful to take various inroads into – carefully approaching the subject just like the character does. Virgin Stripped Bare. was another example of the excellent quality of Korean national cinema that although has existed for many years now has only become fully evident to Melbournian folks thanks to the efforts of the Festival.
Comments by Fiona A. Villella
Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000) This was quite a magnificent epic, which maintained its singularly realist tone throughout – long takes, wide shots, few close-ups, few intentionally ‘dramatic’ points. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose work Jia admires, as revealed in the interview with Stephen Teo in this issue, the emphasis is on nuance and minutiae exchanges and experiences against a larger backdrop. That Platform traces the era of Maoism to industrial modernisation and capitalist influence – and so spanning 11 years, from ’79 to 90 – is present very insidiously almost subversively throughout the film. It is never an obvious ‘theme’ but rather a symptom present in the lives of a small group of long-time friends who form a cultural troupe, which becomes privatised at an early stage of the film. The opulent attention to details of everyday life – home and family life, the village, the “symbolism” of modern technology represented by the train that in one scene majestically cuts through the frame in long shot – is encapsulated in Jia’s attention to the interactions between the young adults as a dynamic group, and their mutual allegiances, desires, isolation and frustrations. The seeming triviality of the fantasies and personalities of these young adults is tempered in almost every shot, in which they are framed in constant wide-shot filled with an ‘eternal’ Chinese countryside and ancient architecture – evoking a very fine tension between the larger social and historical forces that so insidiously rule and affect the lives of this generation. A note on the duration of the film – the screening ran for 150 minutes whereas the program has the running time at 193 minutes (the latter was the running time for the film that premiered at Venice; however, the former is the reedited version approved by Zia).
Comments by Fiona A. Villella
Calle 54 (Fernando Trueba, 2000) This documentary, devoted to the history and present of Latin Jazz, was an absolute blast. Made with a true love and respect for the music, Trueba devotes extended sessions of Calle 54 to the musicians in action, and the result is awesome. He brings out the fantastic rhythms and beats of Latin Jazz by moving his camera and cutting at various points that are in sync with the music. And the very sparse but stylish and coloured set design works wonderfully to foreground the musicians – and their passion and total immersion in the music – and the racy, throbbing music. In between all the music, Calle 54 travels to Spain, Sweden, New York and Cuba to interview key figures and places in this history, and you really get the sense that Latin Jazz is the mondo music form par excellence; a fusion of beats, rhythms and styles from many places and eras. There is nothing indulgent or sentimental about this documentary; it is pure celebratory, an affirmation of the joy and ecstasy that music can provide. And God bless Calle 54 for that!
Martha…Martha (Sandrine Veysset, 2000) Veysset’s work is very tender and lyrical, qualities that I greatly admired in her Will It Snow For Christmas? (1997) Martha.Martha also approaches its tragic characters and bleak subject matter in a very moving and tender way. Essentially about a young woman, Martha, who appears deeply unfulfilled and unhappy with herself and her life; interestingly, Veysset never provides any factual reason for this state but rather implies that something shocking took place in her early family life. Her sense of narrative structure is intriguing and a breath of fresh air – it deals with sad states without being heavy handed or caustic. An ode to the experience of being alone in the world and as it devotes at the end of the film: “to the need for consolation”.
Comments by Richard Raber
My Brother Tom (Dom Rotheroe, 2001) Entirely shot on digital video, My Brother Tom had me convinced for the first thirty minutes that it was shot on a special stock of 35mm film designed to deliver a Super-8 home movie look. Not to say that the picture was blurry or grainy as Super-8 tends to be, but rather the textual feel of the images truly evoked something frighteningly “homely”. I say frighteningly because the subject matter of My Brother Tom falls into that difficult realm: the categories of life that commercial movies never dare to deal with in such brutally honest ways. My Brother Tom traces the short, intense courtship (of sorts) between two teenagers, each suffering from suppressed incidents of sexual abuse. “The boy” is awkward; a loner who is persecuted by other school boys by day and sexually tortured by his father at night. His father also happens to be the local doctor, who by coincidence ends up treating “the girl” after she is molested by her friendly next door neighbour, who happens to also be her school teacher. These incestuous connections and overlappings are not the main focus of this beautiful work. The film prefers to leave the gruesome stuff in the dark corners, and spend its energy on the strange and difficult friendship that evolves between the two teens. Not that the difficult issues are swept under the carpet. Although the sexual crimes are brief in the scheme of things, they are delivered with a succinct and authentic level of expected trauma and disturbance. The two lead actors are flawless in their depiction of teenage vulnerabilities. Some of the most touching and revealing moments of truth in this film involve no dialogue, but outbursts of incommunicable adolescent behaviour, sometimes quite extreme and extraordinary.
Comments by Mark Freeman
The Beaver Trilogy (Trent Harris, 2001) This film has had a huge buzz at the Festival this year, and it’s clear to see why. A triptych of stories that begins with documentary and then spins into fiction, it follows the bizarre Groovin’ Gary’s efforts to make it as an Olivia Newton-John impersonator. In the first part of the trilogy, the legit documentary, Harris encourages you to laugh at Gary, with his mortician’s make-up, and squeaky, not-even-close Olivia voice. He’s kind of pathetic in his ignorance and gee-whiz approach to the camera: you feel a mixture of pity and derision for this deluded fool. But once part two begins, starring a very young Sean Penn, your position starts to shift. What’s the filmmaker trying to say – isn’t this just an abuse of the initial subject, making him seem a parody of himself, when he was already way, way out there in the first place? By the third instalment, this time with Crispin Glover, the original documentary has moved further into fiction, and our perceptions of the original source of the film shifts again. The Beaver Trilogy makes you confront issues of truth vs. fiction, and our reaction to them. Are we, in fact, more compassionate to a fictionalised version of events than to the real thing? And what are the rights of the filmmaker in this instance – is this exploitation? A great film, that poses any number of approaches and readings.
The Chateau (Jesse Peretz, 2001) Shot on digital video, it didn’t look too flash blown up onto the big screen, and a lot of The Chateau was pretty lame. But it had its moments from the mostly improvised script – but it also fell into some fairly laboured meandering around, too. More engaging, perhaps, was the Q&A with the director, and one of the actors, Rom Malco, who talked about his next project – a TV movie about MC Hammer and gave the audience a quick demonstration of the Hammer’s best ‘moves’. The film – yeah, OK – the MC Hammer stuff: pure brilliance.
Electric Dragon, 80,000 Volts (Ishii Sogo, 2001) It only runs a little short of an hour, but this film is an all out assault on the senses. The clash between Electric Dragon and Lightning Buddha is all wailing guitars, screaming feedback and cacophonous sound, matched with flashing, frantic images, subtitles screaming across the screen. The feeling once its over is a bit like coming off a roller coaster. There’s just a stunned silence and then the laughter starts to roll in. It’s out of control, this film, and a real hoot.
Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute, 2000) A really charming film from America, and a bit of a break from the harsh provocation of LaBute’s previous work, this film takes an absurd premise, and keeps it together with a great script, terrific performances and strong direction. Nurse Betty‘s investigation into the world of fandom and celebrity, and the way images inform and inspire our fantasy lives is great fun. It’s premise is pretty creaky, but LaBute gets away with it: it’s not going to change the world, but it’s a solid, enjoyable film that poses some interesting questions about our own individual dreaming.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Rolf De Heer, 2001) Look, this film may simply be Hemingway revisited (Richard Dreyfuss even kind of LOOKS like him), and there is a liberal ‘noble, mystical savage’ nonsense that prevails in this film. But given that, it’s still a quite moving, tender film, that takes elements (done to death, admittedly) and breathes life into them. I, for one, found the relationship that develops between Dreyfuss’ character and the jaguar quite beautiful and moving – but others weren’t so soft hearted. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it really has a charm and a grace that at least won me over. Also interesting was DeHeer’s comments on introducing the film. Apparently, it was financed by about half a dozen countries – a method of finance that has taken the derogatory term ‘Euro-pudding’, a sort of messy conglomeration of influences and backing. Clearly DeHeer struggled with the film (he’s always so honest this man – remember him introducing Dance Me to My Song and pretty much saying he wasn’t that into the film, but decided to do it anyway) but seems pleased with the final product. Interesting man, and a film I really enjoyed.
Comments by Fiona A. Villella
The Beaver Trilogy (Trent Harris, 2001) An interesting instalment in the docu-drama genre that has risen concomitantly with the revolution of digital cameras. However, Harris stumbled across his subject, Groovin’ Gary, accidentally whilst testing his camera equipment in a parking lot back in 1979. Groovin’ Gary is odd and hilarious though also tragic. He’s speciality is impersonations, especially of Olivia Newton-John, yet he is also a template for the isolated figure of American backwaters, suburbs and outposts longing for the fame, immortality and thrill of Television and the media in general. A subject that American cinema has long explored. And by presenting two other dramatic versions of this ‘real’ subject and his story, played respectively by Sean Penn and Crispin Glover, The Beaver Trilogy combines an exercise in formalism with an attempt to tell a complex character’s story. Consequently, for me anyway, this was a film whose idea and overall purpose kept on lingering and turning in my mind. Part of that was tied to why the director decided to edit together footage shot intermittently over the past 20 years, which generates a set of very stark associations such as life in the late ’70s, the careers and acting styles of Sean Penn and Crispin Glover early in their careers, and even the sense of fate in the way Groovin’ Gary, a desiring, yearning actor, blurs with Penn and Glover, two established actors who have themselves explored this template of the American male constrained by the suburbs.
Comments by Gaby Bila-Gunther
The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez (Sami Martin Saif, 2000) I have seen many documentaries throughout the Festival, however the one that impressed me the most was The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez. It provided such great insight into the mind of a depressed, alienated individual who had the courage to record the last months of his life; his video camera, the only witness to his madness, the only friend and confidant Ricardo obviously had. The footage made him and his obsession for the singer Bjork famous all over the US, unfortunately too late. Pity the camera couldn’t help him or his disturbed mind. Pity it couldn’t serve as a mentor or a friend Ricardo needed so badly to navigate his obsessions and loneliness. Instead the only light out of the tunnel was suicide for which the camera was the only witness. This documentary pointed to a harsh fact of contemporary reality – that often in Western society human contact and understanding is rare and replaced by technology that has helped us deal with and work through our feelings and problems. Ricardo was a sensitive lonely guy who couldn’t share his feelings with anyone else but his video camera. A very creative person who could only place that energy into the wrong obsessions.
The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez, the most disturbing reality show I have ever seen, where Big Brother (his camera) didn’t have a voice that might have saved his life.
Comments by Fiona A. Villella
The Gleaners & I (Agnès Varda, 2000) This was one very intelligent and compassionate documentary, working on various levels, going in many directions. In one sense, it was a documentary about the historical and present forms of gleaning in France, and how this is an activity always associated with a sense of frugality. And through the various intimate portraits of various gleaners, Varda shows that gleaning can represent an entire ethical, moral and social standpoint. However, it is through these portraits of a vast variety of gleaners that Varda’s wonderfully humanist approach becomes evident – their individual stories (the moment when two lovers met, the Marey family background of a farm owner, the tragic story of a man’s loss of his job and family) form multiple narrative lines that the documentary follows, glances of life lived that Varda ‘gleans’ and captures into her documentary. So there is this growing sense throughout that gleaning is a metaphor for something more profound and the theme of time passing that Varda constantly refers back to (and especially her own sense of a life lived), suggests that life really is a series of shards, fragments and moments haphazardly placed together – and that from the point of view of time – we are all gleaners. I think this is the central theme of this fascinating documentary.
Totally Flaky (Jacques Doillon, 2000) Viva Jacques Doillon! We have been quite lucky in Melbourne to have been able to view three Doillon films over the last twelve months: L’Amourese, Little Fellas and the more recent Totally Flaky. He is such a prolific filmmaker, which – as one viewer mentioned post screening – is hardly surprising given the documentary-like quality of his films. Doillon is a pioneer in that tradition of filmmaking which also includes names like Pialat, and even Cassavetes and Ferrara – that wonderful tradition in which narrative space and time is like a realm solely responsive to the impulses of the heart, body and mind. So that throughout Totally Flaky the narrative could go in any direction at any moment, depending on what feelings tempered its young characters. And likewise the tone of the story kept shifting accordingly – from sinister to heartfelt and back again – where each character remained a mystery, as uncertain of their own feelings and desires as the audience. An absolute joy.
Comments by Shan Jayaweera
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Rolf de Heer, 2000) Rolf de Heer has created a wonderful film that will further enhance his reputation as one of this country’s unique filmmakers. So often Australian films are tagged quirky – there is nothing quirky about this dark brooding film from the heart of the jungle. Passion and fear rule this world created by de Heer. Sumptuously shot and beautifully put together The Old Man who Read Love Stories features a mesmerising performance by Richard Dreyfuss – easily the best of his career – as Antonio Bolivar, an old man living in the jungle after a lifetime of adventure and experience. But for me the truly awesome feat of this film was the way it attacked the senses of the audience. The audience reactions to pain, to love and to constant fear and danger were evoked by the skill of de Heer’s direction, it was fun to see people cower, hide behind there hands, to shriek with laughter and grimace at pain. This is one to keep an eye out for. It is sure to gain international critical acclaim.
MIFF Daily Report – Posted Sunday 29 July 2001
Comments by Fiona A. Villella
There are less than seven days remaining of MIFF 2001 with many highlights already having taken place (The Circle, The Piano Teacher, Werckmeister Harmonies, Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, Little Otik and others) and many more yet to come (Platform, Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, The Gleaners and I).
It is an exciting time for the film community of Melbourne and the scores of people attending the many, many sessions on a daily basis points to the fact that the Festival has a responsibility to present its loyal audience – evidently those who may not actively participate in film culture events throughout the year but wholly support the Festival – with a strong and bold program. So far, the Festival has succeeded in this regard, and has done so with a quantum leap over last year’s program.
Warm Water Under the Bridge (Shohei Imamura, 2000) The thing I really love about Imamura is that he is a great storyteller, so that even the secondary characters throughout the plot of Warm Water are vivid and the smaller details of their lives subtly weaved into the greater narrative. This appears to be the logic of Imamura’s storytelling – various characters, motifs, location, narratives are delicately and subtly weaved together and there is a growing sense of resonance between all these various elements as the story unfolds. At the very centre of the narrative is an old-fashioned love story with a peculiar, magical realist twist – the woman harbours large amounts of water from which she is most effectively relieved at the height of sexual intercourse. In turn, our man delights in this ‘warm water’ and immediately and enthusiastically responds to her ‘daily call’ when she is struck by the urge to make love/release the water. The sense of timeless myth that hangs throughout Warm Water is conveyed through the natural elements and motifs that fill the story, such as water, physical and sexual intimacy, the association of water as a life force, and the philosophies of an old sage that punctuate the narrative – and the overall life affirming tone of the film, with natural light and earthy textures filling almost every frame. Warm Water was a quirky, well made film that was a joy to watch.
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) One thing the Festival must be congratulated for is securing so close after its Cannes premiere Michael Haneke’s astonishing The Piano Teacher. Along with The Circle, this is one of the sure highlights of the Festival, if not of the year. These are the kind of films that don’t allow you to take in anything else after you’ve seen them; that impress you so deeply with their vision, execution and intensity it is frightening. One word a wise viewer used to describe Haneke in relation to The Piano Teacher, which he shared with me after the screening, was “uncompromising” – I don’t think there is any other word. The ‘uncompromising’ aspect of this film is in the depth and intensity with which Haneke presents the fragmented, tortured inner world of the main character, played by Isabelle Huppert, or more precisely the intricate sexual desires and fantasies that fill the head and heart of Huppert, that are in turn refractions of and explanations for everything about her character (her past and present, her public and private life). Haneke masterfully explores the sexual paradigms that make up this character by contrasting them with the more conventional sexual ‘makeup’ embodied by the younger male who falls in love with her, and in so doing plays with audience expectations about what does and what does not comprise conventional romance and intimacy. What seals the fate of The Piano Teacher as a masterpiece is Isabelle Huppert’s performance, which is completely flawless and an example of the intensity that can be accomplished when performance, direction and script clinch perfectly together, inseparable. There is no doubt that The Piano Teacher would be a completely different film had Huppert not played the main character. Her precision in embodying what is an essentially highly tragic character is really quite frightening, and her ability to capture it all in a flinch of the eyes or a facial expression is incredible. An absolute highlight.
Comments by Mark Freeman
Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (Jan Harlan 2001) This is quite a loving portrait of the artist as both a young man and elder statesman, constructed through home movies, photographs and interviews with family, friends and colleagues. It’s certainly a fascinating documentary, which covers his whole career. The interviews, as we progress chronologically through his career, are insightful, with his wife Christiane proving the most engaging and interesting subject. It suffers a bit from its essential lack of objectivity – it’s very much a biased, loving view, so it would have been good to get a bit more of the Shelley Duval interview to balance out the rosiness of his portrayal. But if nothing else this documentary provides comprehensive coverage of a life and career that has had a significant impact on the world of cinema.
The Claim (Michael Winterbottom, 2001) It has some tremendous cinematography, and a startling monochromatic style for its exteriors, but The Claim never quite works. Shifting Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ to the Rocky Mountains is not such a ludicrous idea, but the landscape just dwarfs everything that occurs; it’s like the drama is swallowed by the mountains and the snow. Winterbottom tries to pack in everything: issues of redemption, modernity, betrayal, but it all gets squeezed in so tightly that it ends up a bit of a mess. That said, terrific visual style, some nice nods to other works (Polanski’s Tess, Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda) and a good performance from Nastassja Kinski. There’s a sense that there are a lot of things that are terrific about the film, but they never quite add up to make it work.
Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) My choice for the best of the Festival so far, this is a strong, engaging and invigorating film. Utilising a multi-strand narrative to weave together a range of characters, Lantana knits the ordinary and the extraordinary together with ease. Performances all round are brilliant (especially Kerry Armstrong), and Paul Kelly’s score is outstanding. Whilst the work of someone like PT Anderson ends up indulgent and conceited in its execution, Lantana maintains an honesty throughout, and it’s the small subtle things that resonate the most. Its humour and its drama emerge from Andrew Bovell’s script without appearing forced, and at 2 hours, it never outstays its welcome. Loved this a lot.
Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001) Another real treat in this year’s program. What grabbed me most about Atanarjuat The Fast Runner was the startling light, the brilliance of the Arctic Circle where it was filmed. The landscape is both beautiful and undeniably hostile, and the beginning of the film is a bit of a sci-fi – you flounder around trying to make sense of this alien world, with its customs and traditions and ‘other’ness. But once you settle into the film and you warm to the characters and the culture, Atanarjuat becomes increasingly involving, and develops quite a suspenseful impetus. It tips the scales at just under three hours, but never seems like it. Although the narrative is at its core a quite conventional one, the execution of the film (and, for that matter, some of the characters!) keeps Atanarjuat fresh and lively and compelling. It has a great humour to it, too, which balances with the high drama that is the basis of the film. Highly recommended.
The Isle (Ki-Duk Kim, 2001) Ki-Duk Kim’s film is one of those transgressive features, desperate to push things way too far, and, well, this film goes way too far. It’s certainly an intriguing, elliptical thriller – but I’m sorry, scenes of animal brutality – that aren’t faked – aren’t my cup of tea. Watching animals kicked, electrocuted, filleted for sushi whilst still alive and then set back into the water – yeech! I’m all for pushing boundaries in cinema, but brutalising animals is not part of it – that’s just a cheap way to get attention, as far as I’m concerned. Coupled with a from-below human defecation shot, and the startling propensity for the main characters to insert fish hooks into their persons either orally or vaginally, and you kind of get the idea where this one’s going. But for all the repulsion, it also has a weird humour and some great cinematography and an intriguing narrative. I guess, on balance, I admire the film and despise the ethics. Fascinating, disgusting, freakish, The Isle had people walking out, groaning and fidgeting, and laughing out loud. Not for the faint-hearted (or those who have fond memories of fishing with a loved one).
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) After fish hooks and fannies in The Isle, The Piano Teacher gives us porno, pulling and something else beginning with ‘p’…how about punching?! This is a dark, dark film, utterly fascinating, but disturbing, ugly, painful. Isabelle Huppert is the 40ish teacher of the title who stalks into peep shows and watches without self-consciousness, giving soiled items left in the perve booth a bit of a sniff for authenticity. This is the sort of film that had most of the audience at some times just going “Ewwww”, but as it hurtles towards the conclusion, it’s a bit like watching a car crash – you’re shocked, horrified, repulsed, but you can’t look away. It’s provocative not just in its images, what it’s prepared to show you, but what it says about power, desire, control. A study of not just desire, but also self-hatred and masochism, it’s not necessarily a film you enjoy as an entertainment, but it’s powerful and confronting, and never takes an easy stance, and this complexity is its greatest asset. Another highlight so far.