2009 NZIFF Diversions

September 6, 2009



If, like me, you cringe at the memory of Volker Schlöndorff’s overrated lost opportunity, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), you might think twice about seeing Uli Edel’s gratuitous political-thriller, THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX. That said, watching the film can be instructive, not so much for what it is, but for what it pretends to be.


The Baader Meinhof Complex doesn’t live up to its name. This big dumb film is as specious as big-subject, big-gesture movies get, in fact with the exception of the quality period detail, I could only find one redeeming feature in this travesty – I'll get to that later. I gave the film the benefit of the doubt for the first 30 minutes (actually, the first 130), assuming that Edel was setting us up with his in-your-face generic tropes to lure us in before shifting to something genuinely challenging. Alas, from go to woah Edel ‘entertains’ us with one cliché after another. The actors shamelessly chew the scenery, the music is typical of action-movies, and Edel strains to impress us with ‘exciting’ set pieces, such as right-wing thugs pummelling protestors, or the ‘fascist’ establishment being riddled ‘Bonny and Clyde’ style with volleys of bullets. We virtually feel them whiz by our heads as we share the thrill of killing for one’s principals. All the while he reminds us that these were wrong-head actions by misguided people. Edel also expects us to be impressed by (perhaps identify with) the anti-establishment anger of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), in fact at one point we are literally invited to climb into the bath with sexy Gudrun.


It’s obvious that Edel cares nothing for the people on whom his film is based, even less for what motivated them. His only concern (it seems) was to ensure a good return on investment for the financers. Depressingly, the film has attracted large and seemingly appreciative audiences, and yet this sexed-up nonsense is little more than a cartoon, which I guess gives the film one unintended virtue – separating sheep from goats.


There is a scene early in the film where Meinhof laments not being able to ‘make a difference’ through film. This is one of a number of cynical asides in what is ultimately a defeatist, amoral, right wing movie. One of the most shameful moments comes just before Meinhof’s demise, where Edel frames Gedeck against a stark prison wall with her hair cropped short (martyr-chic) to look every bit like Falconetti in Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc. If that wasn’t bad enough, the final risible insult is the use of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” over the closing credits. Edel knows no shame. Brecht and Fassbinder must have turned in their graves. This film typifies the sort of cultural and political colonisation they actively opposed, and a product of the mindset the Red Army Faction were ostensibly at war with.


The Baader Meinhof Complex is more than a lost opportunity. It flagrantly sidesteps an examination of the Red Army Faction in preference for jaundiced sensationalism. At one point, Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz as the man tasked with combating the group) proposes that changing the conditions that give rise to terrorism could be the best solution. Gasp! Finally we have a moment where the film comes anywhere near percipient observation, but it goes nowhere. It’s rendered impotent (and tokenistic) by the remaining 149 minutes of sexually charged comic-book twaddle – which, at the end of day, is what The Baader Meinhof Complex is all about. A further travesty is that the film is being touted as a prime example of the ‘new’ German cinema while far more substantial films by artists of significance, such as Valeska Grisebach and Nanouk Leopold, are more or less ignored.


JERICHOW | Christian Petzold, 2008


Speaking of which, another new German film that failed to live up to expectations (although, it wasn’t a bad film by any means) was Christian Petzold’s JERICHOW. Petzold’s first film, The State I Am In (2000), was impressive, but his subsequent output has yet to fulfil that early promise. It’s hard to say why. Some criticise his clinical coolness, his tendency to observe emotions rather than evoke them (as A. O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review), but I have no problem with observational restraint – in fact, I prefer it. Petzold’s films have interesting premises and an equally appealing visual style (evoking comparisons with early Wenders and Fassbinder), but for me there isn’t enough subtext. Jerichow is a good example. Given the history of German racism against the Turks, this riff on ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ looked set to take the tale into a Haneke-like dissection of lingering fascism, but Petzold sidesteps that potentially didactic route in favour of a modest tale about the dark heart of humankind, albeit one with decidedly Teutonic overtones.


None of the characters in this taut chamber-piece are attractive, but the most empathetic attention is given to the sometimes brutish, heavy-drinking Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish immigrant who owns a successful chain of snack bars in the Jerichow area of former East Germany. Ali is married to Laura (Nina Hoss, who played the lead in Yella), but their marriage isn’t happy. He hires Thomas (Brenno Fürmann), a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, as his driver/assistant. After Laura seduces Thomas the familiar Postman scenario kicks in, with a twist predicated on the empathy Petzold has encouraged the viewer to feel for Ali, that also offers a passing comment about racist privilege. Actually, Jerichow is less about racism and more about enmity, but for me, it’s too passive. However, it successfully conveys the economic and emotional void of present-day Germany, but with a narrative premise this familiar one can be forgiven for expecting more.


BROKEN EMBRACES | Pedro Almodóvar, 2009


Pedro Almodóvar’s BROKEN EMBRACES is perfect. Perfectly designed, perfectly composed and scored, full of perfect faces, and a perfectly mounted noir-tinged homage to classic Hollywood. It's also a perfect bore.


It wasn’t the longest two-hours of my life, but it confirmed that Almodóvar’s films are not for me. Enthusiastic critics in the 80s likened them to Buñuel and Godard, which probably accounts for the feeling that I must be missing something. Almodóvar is a distinctive and accomplished filmmaker. His films promote tolerance and respect, are genuinely fond of people, non-judgmental, and entertaining. He has great technical mastery; an iconoclastic sensibility; is cine-literate; critical of piety and hypocrisy; an advocate for political, religious, cultural and sexual freedom, and has been revered for his contribution to world cinema for the last three decades. His films are appreciated in all parts of the world, which is more than can be said about many cine-heavyweights (even Tarkovsky’s fans struggle to defend him against charges of pretence and elitism). Yet, for the most part, Almodóvar’s films leave me unmoved and indifferent.


Maybe I‘m just an elitist who likes pretentious cinema, but the truth is, it’s hard to get excited about films that merely entertain (no matter how gorgeously constructed they are), usually because they do all the work. Such films are primarily focused on stories and characters, and play best to empathetic (non-critical) viewers. One basically gets on for the ride, and on that level Almodóvar’s films are fine, superior even, but compared to the best of world cinema, they’re somewhat M.O.R. It’s not that his films have no thematic substance, but they’re rarely deep. The theme of blindness in Broken Embraces (a blind filmmaker, no less) had potential, but it went nowhere – in fact it became a liability. This may sound harsh, but Almodóvar’s films can be like glorified TV: artfully structured episodes of Friends with Penelope Cruz as a moviefied Courtney Cox. Cruz is a capable actress, but her function here is only slightly less superficial than the pop-art crucifixes and inane paintings of guns that decorate the interiors. While it’s unfair to criticise Almodóvar for not being another Buñuel or Godard, this is precisely the company he is often aligned with, a critical appraisal that I find hard to accept. However, judging by the applause at the end of the screening, Almodóvar won’t be losing sleep over uncomprehending quibbles like mine.


A CHRISTMAS TALE | Arnaud Desplechin, 2008


However, being perplexed by Almodóvar’s eminence is nothing compared to my failure to comprehend Arnaud Desplechin’s stature. Kings and Queen irritated me to the core, and while A CHRISTMAS TALE is a slightly more tolerable 150 minutes, it was almost as M.O.R as Broken Embraces. It has more going for it in some respects, but it could also be the more facile of the two, crammed as it is with what we are presumably expected to accept as the epitome of modern cinematic cool. With a calculated choice of actors; a deliberately eclectic choice of music; direct-to-camera monologues that are as specious as they are irrelevant; and self-satisfied posturing on virtually every level, superficial attractiveness characterises A Christmas Tale to a tee.


It didn’t help that this intellectually modest movie was shown alongside more substantial films about familial dysfunction, such as Kore-eda’s Still Walking (a poetic and aesthetically satisfying film about a family scarred by the death of a child) and Assayas’s Summer Hours (a study on the consequences of subordinating humanitarian values with economic and/or political ones). A Christmas Tale has a few interesting ideas, but they aren’t really given seriously attention. One of the best ideas comes late in the film when Élizabeth (Anne Consigny) tells her father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) that she suffers from perpetual sadness. He responds by reading a passage from Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ about the divergence between altruism and selfishness, which is read against shots of urban decay. Getting to that point took more than two hours, after which the film continued to flitter along to its modest conclusion. The real value of the film may be as an encapsulation of the narcissistic meaning behind the Nietzsche quote. Was this intentional, or is the film merely a bourgeois entertainment? Given the critical acclaim for Desplechin and his work, I’d like to think it could be both, but I suspect the latter. However, if I'm proven wrong, I will gladly applaud Desplechin as a most subtle iconoclast and become a steadfast fan.


DISGRACE | Steve Jacob, 2008


Steve Jacob’s DISGRACE begins with professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) being dismissed from a Cape Town university for sexual impropriety. He decides to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) in a remote part of the South African Eastern Cape. Recently separated from her lesbian partner, Lucy grows and sells flowers with the help of Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), a black man who bought land from Lucy with grant money and is building a house nearby. Lucy and Petrus embody the new social order in South Africa. Disgrace is about Lurie coming to terms with his ingrained colonialism, and the reality of living in post-apartheid South Africa.


There is nothing especially poetic about Jacob’s adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s prize-winning novel, but I’ve been led to believe that it faithfully conveys it’s political complexities. All well and good, but does it work as a film? Most people would probably think so, and I agree to a point, but (as I see it) it suffers from the same constraints that compromised Teza and Firaaq. Even Malkovich has said that, “people in life are much more complicated than movies allow.” The key word of course is ‘allow’. Who allows or doesn’t allow it? Well, it’s ‘us’, or more to the point, that broad entity known as ‘the commercial audience’.


I’ve touched on this before when talking about the limitations some filmmakers are forced to deal with when tackling political subject matter, essentially having to ensure they don’t alienate ‘us’. This can result in overtly audience-friendly films, almost to the point of condescension. But of course, it can be avoided. For example, the Inuit drama, Before Tomorrow is a lovely melding of the poetic and the political. Form and content are wholly in sync, enabling the formal qualities to speak with as much political conviction as the ideas implicit in the drama. The pressure to conform to commercial imperatives is a form of expansionism, so to resist such mindsets is to confront a pervasive form of oppression. The filmmakers of Before Tomorrow managed to avoid the dilution of artistry and meaning, and created a moving and thoughtful film free of emphatic appeals to sentimentality and emotionalism. It stands as a lesson on how it can be done, although whether it satisfies investors is quite a different kettle of fish.


The thing is, everyone thinks they know what a good film is, but the fact that no one came to the Edward Yang retrospective last year indicates that ‘good’ cinema is a subjective notion at best, perhaps even an irrelevant one. Even cinephiles struggle with demanding cinema. It was disheartening to hear film-buffs sniff at the “long-take indulgence” of Albert Serra while expressing admiration for Disgrace. Not that Jacob’s film is bad, but it simply doesn’t orbit the same sun as Birdsong. Nor does it pretend to. Disgrace is a movie with a message.


John Malkovich gets his fair share of flack, because he can be bad, but often he’s just miscast or indulged. In Disgrace, he’s miscast AND indulged. All it would have taken to integrate him into the film would have been to change Lurie’s sexual proclivity, providing a much more convincing context for Malkovich’s mincing. No, all he had to do was play it straight. Maybe Jacob convinced himself that the performance brought added depth to Lurie’s character, given Lucy’s lesbianism. Some said that Ben Kingsley would have been better. Perhaps, but Malkovich embodies the lingering vestiges of habitual privilege convincingly, even if he skates close to caricature and risks overemphasising the already-blatant metaphor his character inhabits. In the end, there’s something begrudging about the concessions made by the central white protagonists, and while the message about the necessity to adapt to changes in the social order is sincere, it ultimately felt tokenistic to me.


IN THE LOOP | Armando Iannucci, 2008


I expected more from Armando Iannucci’s IN THE LOOP. It gave me a few laughs, but like most of the humour in this coked-up comedy, they were largely predicated on verbal abuse, elaborately composed torrents of spitting verbiage invariably employed at someone’s expense. Ha ha. God knows Anglo-American politics is ripe for satire, especially the deceptive criminal rhetoric that led to the invasion of Iraq, but this hyperbolic film skirts the issue by wading in the shallow end of political spin-doctoring. As a cynical take on backstabbing bureaucrats ripping each other’s hearts out, it reflects something of the character of the loathsome ideology that currently leads the world by the nose, but I’m surprised that many people consider this constant barrage of insult to be cutting-edge comedy.


I haven’t seen The Thick of It (the British TV satire the film is based on), so I can only presume that it works well as television, but as an updated riff on Yes, Minister it lacks comparable wit and perception. Neither could anyone call the film political, despite its setting. In the Loop tells us nothing we don’t already know about the scoundrels who presume to lead us, and yet most reviewers can’t shout its praises loudly enough. Some have even tried to liken it to Dr. Strangelove – go figure.


One thing In the Loop has in common with the other films I’ve mentioned in this post is that they’re all likely to seem stronger to me when seen outside of the festival, when not in such close proximity to the truly great films in this years programme. I’m aware that many will rate A Christmas Tale as one of the 2009 highlights, and some will argue that the others should be appreciated for what they are rather than what they’re not, but for me, the film festival is a time for cinematic discovery and celebration, not for sitting through glorified television. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these films are bad or don’t belong in the festival, but compared to the truly great films in this festival (see 2009 NZIFF Big Guns), they are simply diversions.


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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