Before Sunset

Festival reports typically give the impression that their writers surveyed the proceedings from a high chair – no matter how intelligent the observations, there’s seldom an indication of how the writer’s experiences at the festival might have affected them; by this I don’t mean as professionals (or aspiring professionals) attending an industry event with career concerns in mind (though this would be interesting), but simply as film lovers with an evolving understanding of how cinema figures into their lives. For better or worse, such will not be the case with this report, if only because if I were to follow the standard deadpan model of festival reporting, I wouldn’t be honest to what I experienced, or why I was there in the first place.

I attended as a participant of the 2nd Berlinale Talent Campus, the brainchild of Festival director Dieter Kosslick, which convenes 520 emerging filmmakers from 84 countries to attend workshops led by established filmmakers and other industry professionals, and to give them a taste of what “the promised land” of a major international film festival is like. It’s an idea that other festivals such as Sundance and Venice are thinking of adopting, and personally I found it to be the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my short happy life in the global cinematic industrial complex. I was determined to make the most of my opportunity in the films I saw, the workshops I attended and the people I met.

Jet lag has a way of sapping such determination: the first 24 hours spent wandering grey, alien landscapes, whether outside (the overrated Unter den Linden) or inside (the European Film Market, with its innumerable booths of salespeople wearing looks of grim determination). The disorientation lasted through my first screening, Patrice Leconte’s competition entry Intimate Strangers (2004), which to my chagrin had German subtitles, not English. Stuck in the middle of a 50-seat row, I made an exercise of it by foregoing the dialogue and focusing on the cinematic elements to see how much could be made of them. The audience laughed quite a bit at whatever Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Lucini were saying; Bonnaire is a striking presence as always, though I’ve never seen her in such a cardboard role, a nymphomaniac femme fatale who wanders into Lucini’s accounting office, mistaking him for a psychoanalyst, and spilling out her dirty secrets. The cinematography was noirish, shadowy shallow focus and the music was Hitchcock/ Herrmann galore; a standard-issue set of retrograde signifiers. It made me resolve to make films as cinematically rich as possible should some uncomprehending sap such as myself ever stumble into an unsubtitled screening.

The conversational currency of national cinemas

Things started to come together at the first afternoon of the Talent Campus, an intense succession of introductions that made one feel like a college freshman: never have I been able to meet filmmakers from Iran, India, Argentina, Slovenia, all in one big room…with comp beverages to boot! The conversation flowed freely, everyone had their own light to shed on the global spectrum of filmmaking, whether planning their careers after film school or promoting their first feature (most memorable: a young Kenyan filmmaker who didn’t go to film school but was making films using his own DV camera and computer).

As my way into conversations, I resorted to discussing people’s respective national cinemas. A dubious approach, but it didn’t backfire as often as it surprised people that an American would actually know about movies from Greece, Singapore, Senegal or Canada. The one time it did backfire was while standing in line with two Korean filmmakers, when I asked them what they thought about Kim Ki-duk (who went on to win Best Director at the Festival for Samaritan Girl [2004]), to which one of them rolled her eyes and disengaged. Later, she told me she had assumed I was one of those Westerners who for some strange reason take a liking to Kim’s degrading misogynistic films, perhaps because they are regarded as Orientalised versions of Michael Haneke. I confessed to her that I had never even seen a Kim Ki-duk film and I was just trying to make small talk.

A Tale of Two Sisters

More negotiation over Korean cinema ensued the following evening when I joined two new friends from Columbia and Turkey to watch Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). It was remarkable to learn that this psychological horror tour de force, about a troubled teen suffering bouts of paranoid schizophrenia while contending with an evil stepmother, was a hit in its home country, given that the near-incomprehensible narrative is something like the last 1/2 hour of Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) stretched ad infinitum. We were all amazed by its breathlessly plot-free originality. But when I asked my Korean friend for his opinion he said it was too much a rip-off of Japanese gothic horror, colonial beach house setting and all.

I got to ask the hometown opinion of my Columbian colleague after we watched Joshua Marston’s debut feature Maria Full of Grace (2004), a competition entry fresh from its triumphant unveiling at Sundance. A compelling work of cinematic journalism, it follows a pregnant teen through her trials as a mule for the Columbian cartel as she painfully learns how to swallow cocaine-filled latex pellets before sneaking them via airline to New York. In its canny blend of social realism with thriller melodrama, it follows the slick, commercial example of consciousness-raising filmmaking made popular by Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000) and Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002), missing only the biting wit found in Soderbergh and Frears’ dialogues, which in its own way is a welcome relief. I had to wonder what it meant for an American to make a film set in Columbia, especially when my friend was striving to bring his recently completed feature to an American audience. When I asked him if he felt that his country’s story was being co-opted by foreigners, he replied that Columbians have a hard time coming to terms with their nation’s drug crisis, and that it may take a foreigner to break through that stigma and tell the story.

My funhouse experience among international peers could be reflected in another Latin-American based competition film, Daniel Burman’s Lost Embrace (2004), about a Jewish Argentinean coming to terms with his father’s mysterious Zionist past, while tending to the family business in a shopping centre buzzing with outlets run by Italians, Jews, Koreans, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians. The lilting script is highly sensitive to character interactions and personal identity issues, but much of the subtlety is undermined by jittery “new wave” camerawork that adds excessive mania to the story and emphasises the script’s narrative calculations instead of masking them.

Notes of Itinerant Cinephiles

On the second day of the Campus I decided to play hooky and take a bus to the theatre complex in order to catch a rare opportunity to see a film by Hiroshi Shimizu, a contemporary of Ozu and Mizoguchi who was once regarded as their equal but is now all but forgotten. Another Asian was waiting for the bus, so I asked him if he was going to the Shimizu. He was Chris Fujiwara, a Boston critic (and Senses of Cinema contributor) whose essays and reviews I’ve long enjoyed, and who happened to be serving the Campus as an advisor for the Talent press. This kind of opportunity, to finally meet someone from the faceless community of online cinephiles, was what I’d been hoping for. It turned out that he knew me from an online review I wrote of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2002), a criminally neglected film by his colleague John Gianvito. We learned we had both attended the previous evening’s retro screening of The Love Eterne (Li Han Hsiang, 1963), a fascinating early Shaw Brothers production with a bizarre gender configuration. It’s the classic Chinese legend of a girl disguised as a boy in order to attend school who falls in love with a male classmate – except that in this production both parts were played by women. A shared disdain for Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) confirmed our new friendship.

Notes of an Itinerant Performer

The Shimizu film, a 1941 effort titled Notes of an Itinerant Performer, was a revelation. I especially loved its dynamic use of foreground and background; the interplay between camera and onscreen objects that conceals and reveals characters ranked up there with the best of Renoir and Mizoguchi. Like Mizoguchi, Shimizu also seems punch-drunk on tracking shots, and uses them to a stunning variety of effects, from dramatic to comic. The story also seems Mizoguchian – a dancer in a travelling show is sold to a rich household to be the dance instructor for the master’s daughter. When the patriarch dies the family is thrown into disarray, causing the woman to make sacrifices in order to save them. The resolution is rather un-Mizoguchian – instead of going for full throttle dramatic intensity it opts for something less assuming, more frank and unexpected, like in some of Ozu’s endings. Like Mizo and Ozu, Shimizu is attuned to the transience of life, and how people make moral decisions in response to the less-than-ideal situations in which they find themselves. If Shimizu’s other films are as good as this, then he really should be considered among the all-time elite Japanese filmmakers.

These were some of the notes that I scribbled during the screening. Chris was doing the same, and the faint rustle of two pens on notepads added another layer to the already-scratchy soundtrack. I didn’t mind this sound at all; it signified a communion of film buffs who had met haphazardly, who wouldn’t run into each other again for the rest of the Festival, but at the same moment were sharing the unbridled joy of discovering a masterpiece.

Doing It Yourself

The early Talent Campus events were graced by the presence of known industry figures such as David Puttnam (an inspirational speaker), Anthony Minghella and Walter Murch; but for me the most exciting and empowering presentation, “From Budget to Distribution: Digital Success Stories”, was made by Peter Broderick, an independent distribution consultant. His argument: that it is reasonable, perhaps even necessary, for independent filmmakers to market and distribute their films by themselves. He likened the deals that most indie filmmakers make with distribution companies to a pact in which a parent gives their firstborn to the custody of the state; most never see their films again. Broderick sees the digital technology available to indie filmmakers as nothing short of a revolution, not only in how films can be made but also in how they can be marketed and distributed. Filmmakers can use their own website and email lists to build a community of “patrons” around them; they can sell their films directly through the mail and ask for investments in their productions. There are probably better ideas than these that no one has thought of yet – the point is that there are new tools available for filmmakers to use; it’s just a matter of discovering how to maximise their utility, by being as creative in their promotion as they are in their production.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the mediocre, I suffered through Country of My Skull (2004), an overblown prestige picture helmed by an apparently somnolent John Boorman that somehow made it into the competition. Samuel L. Jackson is woefully typecast as a wisecracking African-American journalist who flirts with Juliette Binoche, who is woefully miscast as a sensitive South African radio reporter with one mother of a white guilt trip. In a reprise of everything that was wrong about Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), the experiences of black South Africans are filtered and reduced by the rhetorical reflections of the two protagonists; their debates over the conduct of the landmark Truth and Reconciliation Hearings serve as romantic foreplay; their bedroom gyrations serve as trite symbolism for interracial healing, and after the deed is done they eventually return to their respective spouses (!) A shame that such an important topic was turned into such conventional tripe.

But it still was not as bad as a stupendous waste of money titled Process (C.S. Leigh, 2003), which screened at a heavily publicised Talent Campus “event” with live spoken word and music accompaniment by John Cale. Both the film and the live event amounted to miscarriages of arthouse pretension – the film was an expensive-looking, shallow assemblage of handsomely composed but tedious long-takes depicting an actress’ descent into self-annihilation, making strained efforts at shock value. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if not for Cale’s intermittent live-mic accompaniment, resembling a DVD commentary track done by a senile coffeehouse pervert muttering pseudo-poetic nonsense about souls fucking like snails. Earlier in the day a colleague had spouted a diatribe about how contemporary European filmmaking was mired in its own self-conscious excess and out of touch with real, organic life – his words came to mind as I spotted three Afghan documentarians, whom the Talent Campus had taken great pains to bring over to talk about their hardships as women filmmakers in their home country, fleeing for the exit during the opening 15 minute sequence of brutal, gratuitously explicit intercourse between two men and a woman. Afterwards, in trying to make sense of what I had seen, I read the press packet, upon which I found that the director had listed a page full of film references relevant to his project (including Abbas Kiarostami!). This pedantic attempt at instant street cred was something that I had done with some of my own film publicity materials, and at that moment I vowed never to do it again.

Depressed that so much money was being deployed to create shit, I had to watch a lo-fi labour of love called End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003) to bring me back to the creative impulse imparted by Peter Broderick. Directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, the film was done on the cheap (perhaps as a way to mimic the Ramones’ DIY aesthetic); the self-effacing style provides ample room for the Ramones to come through as themselves, both in their interviews and especially the priceless concert footage, in which their manic energy and originality is breathtakingly evident. I left the screening in exhilaration and awe: to think that four ugly, delinquent kids from Queens could create such original, homemade music, with a sound and an attitude so raw and pure, so singular. Was it due to or in spite of the chaos and ruin of their personal lives, summation or sublimation? Was it a blessing that they never found real material success? Throughout the years, the more the world around them changed, the more the Ramones, the Bressonian Balthazars of rock, remained the same.

Capturing the Freedom: Akerman vs Linklater

One of the most Ramones-like works of cinema for me, in its obsessive singularity and pure simplicity, is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1860 Bruxelles (1976). It remained the only Akerman film I had seen until the screening of her new film, Tomorrow We Move (2004). From what I had read it was a revisiting of the light comedy of some of her other films like A Couch in New York (1996). It was certainly nothing like Jeanne Dielman, save some thin thematic connections about women’s relationships with their domiciles. The comedy felt precious, the spontaneity forced, everything announcing itself as “free”. (But then I have the same problem with recent Olivier Assayas and Patrice Chereau.) It wasn’t insufferable, but I walked out of this with half an hour to go if only because I had a hunch the remainder was going to play out the same, and the Richard Linklater competition film was starting in minutes.

Before Sunset

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Before Sunset (2004), especially since it was a sequel – I have great respect for Linklater’s films and I enjoyed Before Sunrise (1995) well enough, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Nine years after Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse is back in Europe, this time Paris, on a book tour. His book, naturalement, commemorates that magical day-long conversation in Vienna with Celine (Julie Delpy). And wouldn’t you know it, he spots Celine in the bookstore. They decide to spend the two hours before he has to catch his plane catching up on each others’ lives, having not seen each other since that fateful day. Whereas Before Sunrise captured the highlights of that day in 90 minutes, this time the film documents each of the 90 minutes spent between them in real time. Technically this virtuoso accomplishment demonstrates just how much skill Linklater has acquired in his craft over the last decade, seamlessly he integrates his scenes so they flow naturally from one to the next, without a single moment lost or ringing false. It’s also a testament to Hawke and Delpy’s rapport: as they did nine years ago, they do an awful lot of talking throughout this film, and as with the previous film this dialogue-heavy premise succeeds with the viewer, if they buy into the notion that two people who hardly know each other can hit it off like Hawke and Delpy do.

Before Sunrise may have been dismissed by some as an American male collegiate’s European wet dream, and while I agree that both films amount to a sort of fantasy diptych, their purpose isn’t escapist. These fantasies summon an awareness of what is real vs what may be possible in one’s capacity to interact with another person. I give Linklater a lot of credit for believing that a magical connection between two human beings as he depicts is possible, especially because in Before Sunset he shows why it must be possible. These two reunite with ten years of personal baggage, and the lines on their faces tell all one needs to know about what has changed – the gleaming perpetual idealism of the first movie is replaced with a wisecracking weariness and a grinding sense of insecurity, obligation and even mortality. They talk about their jobs, their families, the loved ones they’ve lost, and the things they feel they have to do to keep going. Whereas the talk-talk-talking of the first movie was an outward expression of youthful exuberance and tireless play with various pet theories derived from both classroom and bookstore, here the incessant conversation seems driven by desperation, a fear of silence. Sometimes they seem like they’re trying to impress each other, presenting a version of themselves based on the topics they choose to discuss. On the other hand, the talking is a front for what’s really going on between these two people, how much they are listening to each other, actively evaluating out how much the other has changed, whether they are the person they thought they had been enchanted by nine years ago and were a hair’s width from starting a new life with them, if only…

And then this process of assessment is no longer trained on the other person, but about themselves, what choices they have made and where it has led them to in life. And here I just lost it and broke down. It’s rare that a film so specifically captures a discrete moment of life, and with such vividness, as if the screen had evaporated and you’re riding shotgun in the taxi listening to two people slouched in the backseat, trying their hardest to communicate their emotions as honestly and as clearly to each other as they can, when even they can’t fully fathom the depths of their own despair. What is this then, but human communication as an act of faith: they throw everything they have into the belief that the other person understands them, in the dwindling moments they have before they have to say goodbye once again.

And then there’s the ending. Beautiful, startling, unbelievably perfect, so natural it’s unreal. So fitting for a movie that plays it moment by moment because it understands that life, for better or worse, is about being in the moment one is in right now and making the most of it, now. It’s all one really can do.

Taking Direction #1: Stephen Frears

Lines had formed every morning at the Campus for tickets to limited seating sessions with three big-name British directors discussing their technique with actors. By several accounts Alan Parker had given a dry, routine account of his practice; Mike Leigh patiently explained his unconventional method of not only rehearsing but also collaborating on the screenplay with his actors to a young audience both confused and enthralled by his methods. Leigh had provided an iconoclastic working model, just the kind of thing that young filmmakers latch on to in their paradoxical desire to have a distinct path to follow in attempting to make an artistic breakthrough.

This may account for why the packed session led by Stephen Frears was met with palpable exasperation. “What do you all think we know that you don’t?” Frears wondered aloud to a chorus of nervous titters. Over the course of the hour, he had little to say beyond that. His appearance of bemused apathy created the most electric atmosphere of any presentation, there was no certainty in how to interpret him. One person blurted, “Why are you here? You don’t seem to have anything to say about the subject,” to which Frears replied “Well you’re not being attentive enough”, while another hissed back at the first person, “His record speaks for itself!” For those who had been moved by Leigh’s intimate, close collaborations with his actors, Frears’ approach may have amounted to a dousing of cold water. Basically for him it came down to the script; the rest – casting, rehearsing, shooting – all came naturally. No need for intense rehearsal; if the script is good, an actor worth his or her salt will read it and know what is required. It sounded like professionalism/academicism to a fault, but there was something to be said for his refusal to make the craft sound sexy or gimmicky, at least at the risk of losing focus on the work to be done.

My own take on this session was that, deliberately or not, Frears gave us all a chance to take the director’s seat, by giving a rather effective impersonation of a difficult, unyielding actor, making us come up with approaches to elicit the responses we wanted out of him, while at the same time making ourselves question our own reasons for wanting those responses. In letting us direct him, he still managed to direct us.

Taking Direction #2: Zhu Wen

Last year an obscure film called Seafood (2001), directed by Zhu Wen, blindsided me with one of the most transgressive visions of China I had ever witnessed. Zhu’s new film South of the Clouds (2004) was screening at the Berlinale. I decided to take the opportunity to meet him and perhaps finesse an interview.

My first screening of the film was like a reprise of the Intimate Strangers fiasco – German subtitles, no English. I thought my Chinese was good, but it wasn’t enough to get the nuances. The look and feel was nothing like Seafood: an old man leaves his family to pursue a lifelong dream to visit the exotic western province of Yunnan. It was nice and gentle and quietly observed, somewhat in the manner of Tsai Ming-liang, but compared to the reckless abandon of Seafood it felt geriatric and deliberate. Still, there were amazing visuals – one shot, of the blue sky reflected upon a lake’s surface as two boats float upon the lake, so that they appear to be drifting through the reflected clouds, was hands down the most beautiful image I encountered at the Festival.

Ironically, the film’s cinematographer told me afterwards that he was watching festival films for their visuals as he couldn’t understand any language other than Chinese. He asserted the same thing I had after my Intimate Strangers viewing – that a great film can be understood solely through its visuals. Perhaps I had to reconsider my position.

South of the Clouds

The next day I watched it again with English subtitles, and this time everything clicked. I could see some of the same elements that characterised Seafood – the protagonist’s need to travel to a touristy resort area, only to come face to face with his utter powerlessness in the world and its mysterious systems of oppression. The film floats effortlessly across the line dividing fantasy and reality: just when the old man arrives at his destination, the narrative slips imperceptibly into a dream sequence that plays as though it were the idealised version of his odyssey. Somehow we never quite wake up from this dream, even when it turns into a horrible Kafkaesque nightmare. This time it was clear that I was contending with a strong voice and a unique vision.

Of course the natural reaction to originality is to couch it in terms of the familiar – I kept wondering if Zhu had seen Tsai’s or Rossellini’s movies or Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). Upon interviewing him my first question was about his influences, to which he replied: “One must realise that when watching a film they are losing 90 minutes of time they could be spending in the world”. I don’t know how much this was a put-on – he later admitted to wanting to see the new films by Angelopoulos and Rohmer at the Festival – but little did he know that it was what I felt I needed to hear. I confided to him that I felt like a drug addict in my compulsive need to watch at least one movie a day. I was telling this to someone whom, I learned, hadn’t touched a movie camera until his first feature, who had spent five years as an electrical engineer, writing fiction on the side until spending six years as a published writer, and then one day decides that he needs to make a movie in order to continue his artistic development. Without going to film school, without ever having touched a movie camera, he makes Seafood, which next to Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000) I regard as the second-best Chinese film I’ve seen this decade.

Talking with Zhu about his career path, I came away feeling that a professional’s knowledge of the craft of a given medium isn’t as important as simply having a clear vision of what one wants to accomplish; having that, it’s just a matter of getting it done. “I always find my way”, Zhu said in a slow deliberate English that underscored his point. This was the second time I’ve heard a filmmaker say that seeing movies isn’t important in order to make good movies (Bruno Dumont was the first). It takes a pretty confident person to make this kind of assertion – and Zhu’s confidence is apparent in both films he’s made, in how they make sudden, radical shifts in their narratives and still manage to feel natural and organic. These shifts seem to parallel the shifts in his own life, from engineer to novelist to filmmaker. I came away from our conversation feeling that everything I needed to do was quite simple and it was just a matter of focusing on what really mattered. Being conversant in cinema – the quality I tried to convey in making an impression on nearly everyone I had met in Berlin – was plummeting as a priority. When I returned home from my greatest week in the world of cinema, I told my wife that my new goal in becoming a great filmmaker was to focus less on movies and more on life, herself included. (Don’t think she’s let me forget.)