The Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is like a restaurant that everyone keeps going to even though the quality of the food is consistently unpredictable. The festival has fashioned itself as an idiosyncratic player in the field. As festival director Lars Henrik Gass declared on opening night, it is a festival that “prides itself on doing things the hard way.” It doesn’t play the excellence game. It is preoccupied with an operation more urgent than taste. But what – at a restaurant, at a film festival – could be more essential of an occupation than offering the public something good to eat – something good to watch, to think?
A sentiment of heroic risk and rule-bending permeated re-selected, guest-curated by Tobias Hering who researched and selected films from the festival’s collection of analogue film prints. re-selected 1 featured Robert Nelson’s Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) with Rubén Gámez’s La fórmula secreta (The Secret Formula, 1965). In 1966, festival directors Hilmar Hoffmann and Will Wehling introduced “a prize for the misjudged” film, a wild card film that fell outside of the official jury’s verdicts. Nelson’s film was the inaugural recipient of this prize, followed by Gamez’s which was awarded the prize under maximised exceptional conditions in 1968. According to Hering’s program notes, “Oberhausen owes some of the most valuable treasures in its archives to this rather peculiar award” because when a film is awarded, a print is acquired for the festival’s archive. From this vantage point of the present, the black and white sequences arranged in La fórmula secreta conform to the playbook of existential symbolism. From a man and woman’s ambiguous embraces in the street to the evisceration of farm animals at the hands of an adolescent boy (which, through brutal edits, suggest that the embraces and the slaughter are one, or deeply related), it would even be appropriate to say the film contributed to the symbolic language of that playbook, even though certain motifs, like an ending crawl of international corporate entities, are exhausted now. Reproduced in the festival catalogue is a letter of correspondence between Wehling to Gámez asking the director to omit the opening credits because the production year is cited there as 1965 (a film cannot compete if it is over two years old). Furthermore, its states that the festival will write to “Mr Schmitt” (a representative of the Goethe-Institute Mexico) to suggest awarding a prize to his film. Despite the festival’s 35-minute time cap, the film’s 43-minute run time was excused. The program notes continue, “Still, this wheeling and dealing on the part of the directors benefited a film that today is one of the most exciting works in the archives.” I don’t know what happened to the misjudged film of 1977 (the program’s gap year), nor is it stated when the award was officially discontinued. It is a very tightly framed historical gesture.
The idea of an award that exists outside the rubric of official judgement could be viewed as an exciting fracture in institutional meritocracy – however anyone who has ever served on a festival jury might liken this to an interference by upper management. I feel like I need to introduce a more banal possibility to the historical narrative in an attempt to offer a rebalancing of the tone. The rhetoric that couches the festival’s program throughout the catalogue is consistently a tone of urgency and importance – no matter what the temperature of the politics, or the form. I don’t cast doubt on the value projected onto Nelson and Gámez’s films, which both share markers of historically radical cinematic projects (a cinematic language composed of satire, surreal violence and defamiliarised grotesqueness in response to systemic injustices), but complicated feelings about the initiative hinder me from celebrating the patronage of the films beyond the heroics dished in the story of the loophole award.
A smoke screen of intention also hangs over the International Competition’s hit-or-miss (but mostly miss) reputation, which seems to stem from Gass’s 2013 commandment that Compiling a Selection of Films is not an Artistic Strategy, it Brings Such a Strategy to Light. In this curatorial treatise Gass claims that he is not a film curator, but a compiler, “A compiler of films becomes invisible behind the films, the program itself becomes anonymous; a curator attracts visibility above the program, which becomes personified, so to speak, precisely because it is his creation,” and he does not compile alone, “The group protects me from articulating my own preferences…The others protect me from becoming private in public.” In reading this, the task of compiling resembled the contours of groupthink (“the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility” 1) or a detached modernist strategy, but what would Modernism be without its interlocutors? I believe – to reference Tara Judah’s 2018 festival report – this how we end up with a handful of “trees” (five) in the “forest of Kurzfilmtage”. This year, that forest is a biodiversity that dutifully signals inclusion, critiques of technology, and investigations into socio-geographical oddities. All reliable motifs of radicality. What I can’t reconcile is how a selection can be assembled by a group of people and remain devoid of preference, personality and creativity, yet claim the status of a “difficult” or risk-taking agenda. Without a discursive bed to lie in, the compass the public is given to navigate the international competition is strictly our own individual preferences. Hence, conversationally out to sea – I liked this, I didn’t like that. If we become conditioned to view the program in this atomised way, then it is a handful of films, and they alone, that conduct the work of being difficult and risky.
In F(X) (2018) Naveen Padmanabha puts two bots grasping at compassionate dialogue at the centre of the dry, meandering courtship á la Marienbad. But what marks a relation, not necessarily romantic or platonic but human, is so deeply compromised by our technology-addled sociality. How could we consider ourselves qualified to gauge their success? The film’s stilted dialogue and piled-on pretention hearkens to our struggles to sincerely relate and casts intellectual posturing as a strategy to further relationships. In fact, the short film shares the same opening track as Woody Allen’s Manhattan (George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”), an exemplar film of that sensibility. The opening dialogue begins with the male bot walking into a bar and asking, “Why is that guy holding a skull?” Another man putters around, holds a skull, and picks up and puts down other objects. A person seated at the bar answers, “He can’t remember how certain objects look so he often mistakes one for another”. He vacillates his gaze between a vase holding flowers and a painting that represents it. In the bar there is a cellist who performs the same Bach composition repeatedly because he is trapped in the memory of playing it for the first time. In algebra “f(x)” is a function that indicates a special relationship where each input, “x”, has a single output. These characters seem to be experiencing some malfunction, and are relegated to this empty club matrix-cum-purgatory, like a waiting room for flawed algorithms. Abundant with filmic tropes and references that are frequently interrupted with edits and varied, formal experiments, Padmanabha’s existential digital slapstick manages a soft tension between the tender and rigid. Alice and Bob try to suss out each other’s formats and perform their functions, which seems to be pseudo-philosophical banter. It is precocious but sweet in an unfamiliar way, leaving me unsure, but not unsettled, about where our affections should land in the observation of a function.
The trio of Anastasia Veber, Anastasia Braiko, and Egor Sevastyanov make films under the name Art Union Marmalade. Their film Syndrome IO (2018) received Second Prize of the Jury of the Ministry for Family, Children, Youth, Culture and Sport of North Rhine-Westphalia, and special mention by the International Jury. At first, IO presents a three-way romantic situation, but the film is, for the most part, depleted of any rosy sense of romance. Instead, we see a fairly objective lens on a couple together at leisure, and individually grooming or exercising. The majority of the scenes are statically framed with the exception of a tracking shot of a third wheel stomping towards a daytime brawl or when the male is shown driving somewhere with a baseball bat in tow. Whenever the main couple appears on screen, whether embracing or embroiled in conflict, we see them as young, ticking time bombs of violent emotion and misguided competition. Their dynamic calls to mind the contemptuous parents in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017), hurtling towards a hetero-domestic stasis with accumulated passions, betrayals and vitriol teeming just under the surface. However, that social and cinematic reading became distanced as the film revealed that image to be just that, an image. The film examines this image of a young flame stoked by toxic masculinity and body image issues, but it is examined within an elaborate work of expanded cinema presented within the film itself. Alternating between intensity and repose, the inner mental life of these characters and the relationship between their image as an assignment or within this film, is perfectly inaccessible.
Mark Jenkin’s Vertical Shapes in a Horizontal Landscape (2018) begins when Jenkin waves goodbye to Andrew Kötting and setting off on a journey to visit Derek Jarman’s burial site. A grainy, pastoral Brexit meditation sounds like a beaten horse in description, but my skepticism was dislodged by minute two. These soft and unadorned images reinforce what Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams called “a myth functioning as a memory” – the myth being the stark contrast between the city (impossible capitalist cesspit) and country (inspiring, unproblematic hearth). Following the election of Conservative leader Theresa May in 2017, the British countryside continues to be anything but simple, resolved stretches of calm. These images superimposed with Jenkin’s soft, defeated journalistic narration betrays the ongoing romanticism of the countryside. As we look over at a field of sheep, he reads, “We imposed a structure on ourselves, we’ve gone running towards painless white clean consensus with our arms out wide. The decision has been made and the committee who meet in public have inevitably settled on vanilla.” The debunking of romanticism extends to the romanticism of Jenkin’s pilgrimage, between two cinematic checkpoints, Kötting and Jarman. Jenkin abandons Jarman because he’s run out of time and needs to catch the last bus towards the train into the city.
Perhaps what the programming agenda intends is for us to see the work without the baggage of interlocution. However, this compiler-curator duality subverts the possibility for a curator-artist symbiosis that would place these works within well-deserved and expanded conversations that are present in programs that have curators or programmers attributed to them, for example Conditional Cinema, re-selected, and the theme program. Some works have the potential to host their own court, but a single film awash in a collage-program can’t surpass our desire to locate intention. Then, our conversations become search parties for curatorial intention.
Regarding good discursive failures, the theme this year initially held promise for me. The Language of Attraction: Trailers between Advertising and the Avant-garde comprised eight programs on the subject of trailers jointly curated by film preservationists Mark Toscano (of the Academy Film Archive) and Cathy Blake (of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Toscano’s sections focused on films that employ the trailer as an artistic format including two programs featuring American artists Damon Packard and Chris Langdon (Inga Uwais). Langdon’s films were described as “just really funny” and in the first sentence of Packard program notes, Toscano described his work as “TRULY independent, TRULY original, and TRULY visionary.” A voice that echoed the exclamatory expressions in the many post-war American trailers. Both programs were lighthearted, and highlighted the playful appropriation of certain genre sensibilities, but in the Packard program, while amusing at first with its rehashing of the horror genre, his films ran comically lengthy despite the brevity that trailer format implies. He deployed the satirical method of showing us something familiar ad nauseum to demonstrate its state of wroteness, such as humanoid entities terrorising urban settings with the affectation of frustrated motors skills, or women covered in blood running across wide angle shots, from assailants (presumably), or in psychologically crazed states of Satanic (presumably) possession, or both. Many people abandoned Packard’s screening, including myself, but some people stayed. His work must resonate with them in a very singular way. A way that I really hope is complex, obscure, misunderstood, or even unsettling, because it’s a rare, exciting sentiment, and in principle, I support that affect as the outcome of an encounter with art, a person, or even a lemon.
Blake’s programs assembled historical strands. Never Before Possible showed trailers that were promoted alongside a gimmick (framed as some sort of new cinematic technology) that ornamented the film’s theatrical release. Keith M. Johnston, an academic authority on trailers from the University of East Anglia, introduced the program, offering a meticulous rundown of various gimmicks. In the program we saw the trailer for John Waters’ Polyester (1981) which advertised Odorama, a sampler scratch-and-sniff card that corresponded to the scents on film. This olfactory trend was set in motion by William Castle when he applied Smell-O-Vision to Scent of Mystery (1960). Castle’s films had repeat appearances in this particular program including the trailer for House on the Haunted Hill (1959) as seen with Emergo, and The Tingler (1959) which was “filmed” in Percepto. Both effects were appropriately akin to funhouse-style surprise elements that would act as precedents for the kind of hyperbolic theatre experiences on offer today. The steady demand for spectacle extends to our contemporary moment, and with the presence of a scholar, I was geared up for some sort of Debordian hot take, but I had mistaken a cabaret for a colloquium. While most audiences are, in my view, delighted to have a new subject presented to them in the context of a festival, I felt that the program overall failed to captivate the imagination of the audiences, despite offering numerous angles of engagement in an oddly similar mode of energetic address as the form they were presenting.
By contrast, there are few things that can so easily excite and bring people together like karaoke. Conditional Cinema (curated by Mika Taanila) gathers works that invoke cinema without conventional cinematic form. The program proposes works of cinema under certain conditions other than what we recognise as cinema, so situations, events, occasionally performed, occasionally participatory. This year began with the German premiere of SpeechKaraoke – Film Speeches, a special edition conceived for Oberhausen by the Finnish collective Speech Karaoke Action Group. For SpeechKaraoke, audiences selected a film-related speech from a catalogue of 51 tracks, ranging from awards, film manifestos, and iconic speeches. The setlist shared the festival’s counter-curatorial sensibility and displayed a variety of speeches, some more explicitly political than others, others completely obscure, including a Communique delivered by the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade which firebombed a porn video store in Vancouver, Canada. Initially, I had wondered if this firebombing of an adult video store was an act of antagonism towards sex workers, but upon further investigation, the action appeared to be solely an attempt to eliminate a distribution network of snuff films and child pornography. I’m not sure if anyone rehearsed this niche anarchist text at the event, but I was retroactively charmed by how some of the tracks were gateways to not-exactly film histories. While SpeechKaraoke was fun, it would have been far more effective at the Festival Bar against a legitimately social backdrop, rather than unnecessarily importing that social element into the cinema. I’m not certain that it merited a spot in the festival’s overall program, as the “film” overworked to temporarily recode a space where we have all been seated and quiet this week with defamiliarised social levity. Instead, why not advocate for the best possible conditions to directly galvanise people socially? What was ultimately revealed to me, more than anything else, during SpeechKaraoke was that the people are in need of cultivated opportunities to say “fuck” over and over again as indicated by the audience’s strong affinity to recitations of Christian Bale’s iconic rant on the set of Terminator Salvation (2012) and Edward Norton’s mirror monologue from Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2003). Norton’s “Fuck You Monologue” (as it is listed) indiscriminately throws the entire city of New York under the bus regardless of race, class, politics, or occupation. Even though the words of these speeches pass through us, like good conduits, didn’t it at times feel more like trying on an outrageous outfit from a political closet? My curmudgeonly view comes into full focus, but the cathartic utility of cursing stands.
International Short Film Festival Oberhausen / Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
1-6 May 2019
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de/en/