Thursday 30 June 2022

Sydney Film Festival - Janice Tong's ūüé• 1st Filmic Postcard - TCHAIKOVSKY'S WIFE (Kirill Serebrennikov, Russia/France/Switzerland, 2022)

Alyona Mikhailova as Antonina Miliukova, aka Tchaikovsky's
wife, eavesdropping on her husband's music lesson

Whilst I haven't seen writer director Kirill Serebrennikov’s film from last year, Petrov's Flu,(2021) which received much attention, I did catch his earlier film The Student (2016) on one of the streaming services a few years ago. Although I don’t remember much of the storyline, a moody and brooding sense of the film remained…and the same can be said about Tchaikovsky's Wife, a film that draws you into a kind of fever-dream, spiralic, toxic and in this instance, of the paradoxical undressing kind: where one is seized by hallucinations and inhibition before death overwhelms body and mind.


Serebrennikov’s Tchaikovsky's Wife has all the hallmarks of an epic film, with its gorgeous period costumes, splendid interiors, the mise-en-sc√®ne is opulent in mood and tone, either created by natural light or by golden candle-lit interiors and, not to mention its 2 hour 23 minute run time. This latter fact may have put off some audiences (and critics), hence the many reviews that described the film as repetitive or mundane. 


Let's strip back all the veneer; this is not a film about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the man, the pianist, the world famous composer of beloved ballets (Swan LakeThe NutcrackerSleeping Beauty, to name but a few), no please, it is a film about Antonina Miliukova, akaTchaikovsky's wife– the name unknown to many, including myself. And her introduction is by way of her more famous husband. Although in real life she is once removed, Antonina is, however, centre stage in this film. And as a woman watching this film, I found her insufferable moments, the long dregs of boredom, the day prolonged and stretched beyond recognition, of ennui and dystopia, is but of a life imagined of women in that epoch. 


The 'confrontation' with Odin Lund Biron as Tchaikovsky

The colour palette that describes her milieu is like that of a barley field, a mix of washed stone and muted grass. She is washed out and faded; the shine of her husband surpasses her non-existent life, which is made more lowly by the instilled behaviour of that period. Her retreat into a kind of demi-madness and ‘hysterical’ stupor is all but standard fare (I’m using the word hysteriahere because this was the common description of women who exhibited any kind of outward emotion in those days, I imagine that audiences today would simply see her behaviour as of the everyday). 


There are many levels of invention in Serebrennikov’s dreamic film. Some sequences are reminiscent, in both lighting and cinematography, of Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) with the camera trailing behind Antonina(an astonishing performance by Alyona Mikhailova) as she frantically forces her way into a restaurant in search of her husband, months after he has deserted her. Vladislav Opelyants’ cinematography is fluid, febrile, inventive and immaculate. 


Their marriage was never meant to be: what it was meant to be was a sham marriage; of convenience to Tchaikovsky, who preferred men to women and of a self-seduction on Antonina’s part – an obsession of this great man who led her away from her small but secure life as a professional seamstress, to study music under Tchaikosvky’s tutelage at the Moscow Music Conservatory before professing her love for him in a couple of letters when she was well past the ‘marrying age’ for women at the time. Then bingo, he marries her. They only managed to stay together for 6 weeks (or 2 ½ months) before their disparate temperaments and psychologies drove Tchaikovsky permanently away. Like the fly that antagonised Tchaikovsky during their first meeting at her flat, (this fly motif recurs throughout the film) their relationship is symbolised by an insect that instils in us a sole instinct to shoo it away, or better yet, to swat it. The fly also conjures up the idea of annoyance, pestilence and death; and symbolises malice, neglect or decay.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) with his wife
Antonina Miliukova in 1877 from the
Collection of State P. Tchaikovsky

Despite the interesting chapters described in letters and biography (written by his brother, Modest) of Tchaikovsky’s very obvious and malicious hatred of AntoninaSerebrennikov’s film showed a woman of who had two faces; one in which she lived in a daydream of being Tchaikovsky’s wife, adored, venerated and perhaps even loved by her husband in the way she loved and worshipped him; and the other, the devastation that was wrecked by a lovesick myopic woman, who ended up in a sordid and unhappy affair with her divorce lawyer.


This kind of wretchedness produced a woman that led Serebrennikov’s film to its creative heights. The opening sequence had Tchaikovsky literally rising from the dead (it was at his deathbed viewing) to berate Antonina for daring to show up at his funeral. Their marriage reception was described as a ‘funeral’ by Antonina’s sister, where Tchaikovsky only had eyes for his friend, and fed him, not his bride, morsels of the wedding feast. Once the root of Antonina’s misery has taken a hold of her body and soul, was when she fully becomes Tchaikovsky’s wife. We see her in another sequence where she was asked to take her pick of a careful selection of handsome men having been handpicked for their distinctive looks and physique especially for her. Having undressed in the room and paying her their full attention, they waited to be chosen. Antonina considered each one with a discerning eye, like that of a farmer selecting their prized bull and then, having examined each one, but selecting none, her only response was to remain in the room with all of them and to close the door to the camera. The Antonina men then appear in a fantastical operatic dance sequence at the climax of the film. I’ve always loved these kinds of interludes in films and was not disappointed. 


Oh, for those who wanted to know about Tchaikovsky (played misogynistically here by Odin Lund Biron), there are a number of documentaries available, including the recent highly-rated BBC drama Tchaikovsky: The Tragic Life of a Musical Genius and of course Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers with Richard Chamberlain (who is, incidentally, an accomplished pianist) as the great man himself. However, I would suggest to best get to ‘know’ Tchaikovskythrough his music, think Eugene Onegin or his Piano Concerto No. 1 (though I can’t now unsee the image of Chamberlain’s performance of said piece in my mind’s eye).



#sydneyfilmfestival  8th - 19th June 2022.



Wednesday 29 June 2022

CANBERRA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL -26-28 August 2022 - Festival Director Andrew Pike sends in a first announcement

CIFF returns for an immersive and exciting 3-day event on 26 - 28 August, at the NFSA’s Arc Cinema. Details of the 8 screenings are available in the program calendar available for download from the CIFF website: 
This year, CIFF continues with its theme of retrospective programming, with a celebration of the work of two Australians who flourished in Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s - the actor Dame Judith Anderson, and the Oscar-winning writer-director John Farrow. 

The program includes a new documentary about Farrow’s life and work, and the filmmakers - Claude Gonzales and Frans Vandenburg - will be present to introduce their documentary and three of Farrow’s finest “noir” thrillers. The three Farrow selections are THE BIG CLOCK (1948), ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949) (both DCPs) and a superb mint condition 35mm print of WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950) with Robert Mitchum, Claude Rains, Faith Domergue (featured on the CIFF poster) and Farrow’s wife, Maureen O'Sullivan.

Dr Desley Deacon, the author of a recent biography of Judith Anderson, will also be a CIFF Guest and will introduce two of Anderson’s most impressive screen performances - Hitchcock’s REBECCA as the devious housekeeper, and the seldom seen “noir” Western PURSUED (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Robert Mitchum as a man haunted by childhood trauma, and Judith Anderson as the matriarch of a frontier family and the keeper of terrible secrets.

The program also includes two comedies by Ernst Lubitsch - his gleefully amoral pre-Code comedy, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, recently screened at CINEMA REBORN), and his last completed film, CLUNY BROWN (1946), starring Jennifer Jones as a plumber!

Tickets for CIFF are now available through the CIFF website.

Best -


Andrew Pike, 
Festival Director


PO Box 680, Mitchell ACT 2911
Ph: 0412 440 954

Ngunnawal Country

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work.

Tuesday 28 June 2022

Early Days in the Australian Cinema Revival - On the set of THE DEVIL TO PAY (Bruce Beresford, 1962)

 Thanks to that meticulous record-keeper Richard Brennan for this photo taken on the set of The Devil to Pay  in 1961.  Materials and copies of the film are held in the NFSA and it should also be noted that one of the supporting cast was the gorgeousTania Verstak later famous as Miss Australia and then Miss World. Such nostalgia.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

 Left to right Ron Blair (in pool), Bruce Beresford, Gina Eviston, unidentified male,  Richard Brennan, Richard Keys.

Monday 27 June 2022

“Story matters because story is a metaphor for life…” Part Two - Tom Ryan revives screenwriting guru Robert McKee's memories - On Acting and Story

This is the second part of an extended interview conducted by Melbourne-based film critic Tom Ryan when scriptwriting guru Robert McKee visited Australia in 2003. The first part can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


When someone makes a biopic about Robert McKee somewhere down the track, from the history of film who would you cast in the lead? Let’s set Brian Cox aside and give someone else a go.




It can be.


Gene Hackman.


Gene Hackman, Young Frankenstein

He could do just about anything.


He can do anything. The guy’s a national treasure. And I love him. He’s done so many great films. Do you remember Mississippi Burning? He’s sitting in the bar and this red-necked arse-hole is sitting in the chair across from him, giving him some grief about black people. And Gene Hackman, under the screen, reaches across and grabs the guy by the balls. Remember? And he says something really sharp. That’s a moment we all dream of: somebody’s giving us that kind of crap and we have the guts just to reach across and squeeze, and tell this guy what for in a nice cool voice. In the hands of a lesser actor, what would that moment be like? But Hackman can do that and you absolutely believe it.

He’s a genius. And funnier’n hell. A great comic too. That scene in Young Frankenstein, where he plays the blind guy: [imitating Hackman’s delivery] “But wait, wait. I was going to make espresso.”


Growing up, going to the movies, who were your heroes?


The actors, you mean? I’ll tell you a story about me in high school. If my wife were here, she’d be hitting me over the head for telling you these things. High schools don’t have fraternities; universities and colleges do. We decided to create a fraternity at our high school. Alright? And we called it Alpha Epsilon New, which didn’t mean anything. But it stood for Alfred E. Newman. OK? Mad Magazine. Right? And the patron saint, our hero, that we used to do a ritual to, that we used to kind of pray to, was Errol Flynn. 

It was all satire. We were having fun with it. Right? It was all tongue-in-cheek for us, but we would have innocent people come over and we would do the Errol Flynn ritual, praying to him to protect us from whatever.

I thought Errol Flynn was fantastic.


Errol Flynn, The Sun Also Rises

Which Errol Flynn? Robin Hood? Captain Blood?


All the way down to The Sun Also Rises, when he plays that down-and-out alcoholic. I just loved the guy, you know. I knew he was decadent. You could see it in everything that he did. But he was decadent with style. Captain Blood, of course. And when he comes flying down out of the trees in Robin Hood and lights on the ground, you just know that in his mind he’s thinking, “This is the silliest damn thing.” But he pulls it off. 

I’m not alone in this, of course, but my hero of all heroes was Humphrey Bogart. You?


Cary Grant, North By Northwest

For me it was always Cary Grant. The epitome of style! I knew that if I could be a man walking out into the world, looking like that, with that bearing, I could conquer all.


He was like Errol Flynn without decadence. There was actually a morality in him. Yeah, we loved him too. He was such a wonderful light comic: His Girl FridayBringing Up BabyNorth by Northwest, etc. But you know, the trouble with Cary Grant for me and, I think, for others, was that he was so handsome, he was so elegant, that we had no hope of being like him. 


Tread softly, Mr. McKee. You’re treading on my dreams.


OK, Tom, but you take my point. You could dream about being Bogey. He was down on our level. There was a possibility that we could be like Bogey. We knew we could be as decadent as Errol Flynn. Bogey had a morality too, but he was approachable. Cary Grant was like a god. It was impossible to even dream of achieving that kind of grace.


Tell me, why do films matter?


Why do stories matter?


Not all films tell stories, though.


Well they all do, but not always very well.




What matters is story. My lecture isn’t just for screenwriters and television writers: 20 or 30% of the people there will be novelists and playwrights. Story matters and film is the primary art form of the 20th century for telling stories. In the 19th century, it was the novel. In the Victorian era, it was the theatre. And, I tell you, in the 21st century I think it’s going to be television. Personally, I think films are in trouble.

Story matters. And I don’t care whether it’s told on the big screen, the small screen, on the page or the stage. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is story. And story matters because story is a metaphor for life. The great critic, Kenneth Burke – I quote him in my book – said, “Stories are equipment for living.” Stories civilize us as human beings. When they’re beautifully done, they bring us into worlds we can never know and they express to us and allow us to experience the humanities of countless characters we could never possibly meet. And we do it in an aesthetic relationship, not a personal relationship, because in life you may meet people as fascinating as Hamlet, but you would never know it. 

Story allows us to go into worlds we don’t know, which enlarges our view of life on the whole planet. And we find humanity, like our own, inside of these characters, and are allowed to live vicariously through the lives of other human beings. It enriches your understanding of what it is to be a human being. 

Without story, we would be animals. Life alone does not teach you how to live. Life alone will not make you a human being. 


But surely the lesson of a story is never as direct as that?


I don’t mean it in a didactic sense. I don’t mean it as a set of instructions of what to do or what not to do. I mean, Aristotle said that one of the great pleasures of going to the theatre is learning. But it’s not learning lessons of that kind; it’s learning what it is to be a human being. It doesn’t tell you necessarily what to do with your life. Right? It just makes you understand your own humanity and the humanity of other human beings, so as you can live in a civilized way, so as you can look at a human being other than yourself and say, “That’s a human being like me.”

Woody Allen

So the filmmakers and the writers that you admire are the humanist filmmakers for whom this is also a concern?


Yeah, but, you know, humanists like Woody Allen and the Marx brothers too. Not just serious dramatic storytellers, but the great comic minds enrich us enormously. So all great storytellers, comic or tragic, bring us into contact with all kinds of elements and qualities of life and humanity. 

This is a good question you’ve raised, because I want an Australian audience to understand that I’m not there to teach them how to make Hollywood films. I’m there to teach them how to make international films. From the Australian point of view to tell their stories, the way they see life, but to tell it in such a way that the world will flock to the film, not just the Australian audience. 

There are two keys to making international films: to give the audience this double pleasure. What an audience wants first is to enter a world that they do not know. The audience does not go to a film to see what they already know. They go with a prayer: “Please God, don’t let it be the same old thing.” Right? 

So even if you make it a film about a family living in a flat, a little suburban condominium in the suburbs of Sydney, you gotta get into that family and into that world and show us an aspect of that life that we’ve never seen before. So you want to enter this world that you don’t know. You want the anthropological pleasure of living in this world that you’ve never seen before. Then the second pleasure when you enter that world that is fascinating to your eyes and ears is that you discover yourself in that world. 

Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Strictly Ballroom

For example, a wonderful film like Strictly Ballroom, a big hit, gives us a world we’ve never seen before. It’s suburban Australia, but inside of that world you discover in these characters a humanity just… like… your… own. And then you identify with that character, you empathise, and you find yourself living in a world you could never possibly enter. It isn’t just a documentary. You know what I mean? You go into it. You live in it. And that discovery of the humanity at the heart of the story told about a world you don’t know, that double pleasure, discovering yourself in a world you’ve never been in before, is what an international audience wants. 

You do that and you’ll have a success. So I teach in both of those directions and I say, “Don’t give us a catalogue of cliches. Don’t imitate Hollywood and don’t imitate the French.” You know what I mean? Don’t do the art movie and don’t do Hollywood. Make a film like Shine, that is brilliant, rich in humanity, in a world we’ve never seen before. 

Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love

There are reasons why these films find a huge international success. They’re beautifully told stories in a richly-rendered world we don’t know with humanity at the heart of it. That’s what we go to the movies for. We don’t get it very often, but that’s what we keep goin’ for. You know, a wonderful film from Taiwan [sic, Hong Kong] called In the Mood for Love creates such a strange world to us and they’re so deeply concerned… I was sittin’ in front o’ that film just screaming in my head, “Will you say something to this woman. Open your mouth. You don’t even have to say it well. She’s waiting. Just say it. Whatever.” Two years ago, when I was teaching in Paris, that film was a huge hit there. And it’s from Taiwan [sic].

(To be concluded)

Sunday 26 June 2022

On the centenary of Judy Garland's birth - David Hare pays tribute to a great artist

 Given June is the birth month for La Gumm, why resist any longer.

Here’s one of my favorite challenge dances from Chuck Walters’ 1950 Summer Stock, with Gene Kelly partnering Judy.


If truth be told it was Kelly, along with Walters who rescued Garland from a final all-out ban of Garland by Mayer, Metro and even Freed, after the catastrophe of Annie Get Your Gun.


To get Summer Stock moving, Kelly and Walters engaged Joe Pasternak as producer and Kelly maintained the fight to keep Judy on target to finish the picture


In a sense Kelly was, with this enormous effort, returning a favor to Judy which she had granted him a mere eight years earlier when she eased him into his first part as “Harry” in his first picture, For Me and My Gal in 1942. Great artists never forget their mentors.


Here’s another tribute


This is, I think Cole Porter’s most beautiful ballad, and it barely survived being cut from The Pirate after filming was completed in 1947.


Not only was it disliked by Mayer, after he’d also ordered the removal of the Voodoo number, but Kelly broke his ankle earlier in the week filming the Mack the Black number and would be laid up for weeks but, undaunted, Minnelli and Garland staged the number to one verse with Kelly here supine for a single take. 


In less than two minutes Garland’s range and incredible technique is in full, glorious display.


I just watched the film again, at 1 am when I couldn't sleep. Needless to say I saw the whole thing. I was amazed once again by the limpidity and sublimity of the Warner Archive Blu-ray. 


Every three strip disc of theirs that comes down the pike these days--THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, IVANHOE, CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS--I think, "this is far better than the one before". But THE PIRATE is by far the greatest three-strip the Warner Archive has released so far, and the quality of it necessitates a complete reappraisal of the film. 


Happy 100th Dorothy.



Saturday 25 June 2022

Sydney Film Festival - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison tracks down some unfamiliar paths to find BEFORE , NOW AND THEN (Kamila Andini, Indonesia), MEDITERRANEAN FEVER (Maha Haj, Israel), RIMINI (Ulrich Seidl, Germany), THE DAY AFTER (Kamar Ahmad Simon, Bangladesh) and SUPER FURBALL2 (Joona Tena, FINLAND)

I dipped into the end of this year’s Sydney Film Festival which appeared to be thriving after the Covid Break. They usually jam all the attractive material into the first weekend to encourage repeat business so it’s unlikely that the few films I saw represent the two hundred on show. Without the guide of familiar name film-makers I found myself picking viewing on the basis of session times

What I saw did meet the criteria I always push for these events - unfamiliar material that is not likely to surface any other way. Did it have to be so grim though?


Before, Now and Then

The Indonesian Nana/Before, Now and Then, directed & written by Kamila Andini,  is an extraordinarily tranquil film for one that deals in revolution, decapitation and multiple adulteries. Incidents are laid out in apparently random order and only come together in the final scene when Arawinda Kirana, the girl we’ve been seeing in the background is identified. I’m still wondering about the Ox wandering about the house - the disruptive presence of a Communist butcher - Oh come on!


There’s a hazy narrative with elegant Happy Salma and her sister fleeing through the wood to escape not the Dutch or the Japanese but the bandit who wants her (and a few more apparently) as a wife. The distant apparition of her husband (she’s beginning to forget his smell) among the trees comes with an inset of her father, who warned her to move on, being joined on his way to the mosque by a group one of whom produces a machete.


Further along, we find her dying the hair of her older Sudanese husband Arswendy Bening Swara, whose business she manages while caring for a second family. His decorative pin gift is used to secure her long hair tied in a bun which takes on symbolic importance that her young daughter is rejecting. A cycle messenger brings assignation notes along with gifts of meat wrapped in leaves from the husband’s new tootsie Laura Basuki, who the daughter takes to, and who becomes a member of the extended family. As an outing, the women leap into the flowing river together. This is very much a film playing to the senses rather than the mind.


With all the expected business, objects take on significance strange to the outside viewer - the brass insect ash tray or water jug. Salma turns the leaf packages into a delicious native meal. Ornamental carp drift under the title. The gift of the long sash fixed by the pin changes our heroine’s carriage. The husband does his traditional Sudanese choreography at a gathering for the neighbors, one of the many musical interludes that intrude into the images and the track of the film. The radio brings news of the 1966 Soeharto – Sukarno transition, the only real clue to the film’s time span. 


Deploring the terrible fate of their gender, (“Why do we have to live like this?”) the women slip off and smoke ready mades. We’re just getting used to all this when there’s a switch into wanna-be Wong Kar-Wai romance melodrama, which is a bit much as the husband actually encourages Happy to move on, letting the kids decide who they want to be with (disturbing this) at a meeting of judgmental family friends.


As well as the varied musical scoring, there is the film’s visual texture – lemony diffusion where lighting a cigarette causes a flare. Before, Now and Then is too contemplative for an audience conditioned by Hollywood but provides a glimpse not only of an unfamiliar film industry but an unfamiliar mindset. It’s not really something I would seek out but it is a useful reference point and clearly the work of gifted individuals. 

Mediterranean Fever

Mediterranean Fever (title in English) offers more than it finally delivers. Like director Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs,it deals with Palestinians living in Israel, something we know perilously little about, and it has a striking opening with a woman’s body lying on the floor of her Haifa apartment, which proves to be a digression.


We get into the plot of family man, former bank worker Amer Hlehel for whom things are not going well. His attempt to support himself as an author isn’t working out (his dad prompts that he still hasn’t started writing). Hlehl’s two years of therapy haven’t proved productive and his school age son keeps on succumbing to what the doctor describes as Mediterranean Fever - an unexplained ailment that strikes people of his ethnicity.


As if things weren’t bad enough, aggressive neighbor Ashraf Farah moves in downstairs with his mean dogs barking, loud music and borrowing home appliances late at night. The newcomer forces his company on our hero and we worry about the menace he represents but the men prove to have unexpected things in common - both are stay at home husbands and the film cuts between them on the phone doing household chores (“Can you put beige with whites in the wash?”) At the housewarming, he insists Hlehl attend, a couple of debt collector heavies show up and Hlehl seeks out their company - claiming he is doing research on the underground for his novel.


Hlehl’s wife demands to know why he is socialising with someone he doesn’t like and the intrigue deepens when Farah proves to be a dead shot when they go hunting with his friends. Pressure mounts on both men when the cause of  Hlehl’s son’s malady proves to relate to his politics (“Palestinian is not a religion” the medical records clerk warns him) and the black helmet bikers put rounds through the window of Farah’s family home. There’s the scene of Hlehl getting a panic attack in the claustrophobic car wash.


It proves that he has a solution to all their problems which inverts the balance between the two men - and unfortunately leads to a feeble conclusion. 


Efficiently made, this one will have to go in the informative basket.


And if you’re into revolting there’s Rimini from Ulrich Seidl, an established German film-maker whose output hasn’t previously reached me. This one sets its field of reference early on. In corset and shoulder-length hair, Michael Thomas’ Ritchie Bravo is the entertainment for busloads of elderly, mainly female tourists in coastal summer resort town Rimini. It’s winter and the 007 Lounge manager is cutting his share of the take.


Thomas’ main line of business is as gigolo for the elderly customers, one of whom has brought her bed ridden mother to occupy the adjoining room while they cavort. The film-makers take a very dim view of senior citizen sex.


The issue is complicated by Thomas’ now senile WW2 fascist dad Hans-Michael Rehberg (Schindler’s List), frustrated by the fact that the photo mural doors in his retirement home are all locked, and the arrival of twenty something Tessa G√∂ttlicher, who Thomas moves on before he discovers that she is his abandoned daughter pursuing eighteen years of child support and bringing her silent, bearded Muslim hoodie companion.


The appeal of this one is its grotesquerie, particularly if you like watching drunken sixty year olds make out.  Thomas rents out his Richie Bravo Villa, a fan monument decorated with his memorabilia. He performs sentimental ballads from the sixties and poses for selfies with the customers. Thomas serenades G√∂ttlicher with the theme from a Winnetou movie. There’s the striking shot of his sparse audience all recording his performance on their ‘phones. His final coup is achieved by blackmail, using his own record of one of his couplings and it rebounds on him without it undermining his heroic self-esteem.


The film is revolting and tedious but Thomas gives an imposing performance and that and the depiction of bleak, windswept, winter time beach front Rimini, with homeless people sleeping on the footpath outside the tacky cabarets, deserve a better movie.

The Day After

Anyadin... /The Day After follows one of the hundred year old Bangladeshi river Rocket paddle boats traveling the two days from Dhaka to Khulna. The captain is continually swearing at other craft sailing at night without search lights and at the dredger which threatens to force them onto a mud bank. We see customers divided between fifty-dollar cabins and five-dollar deck passengers, with an argument over the use of toilets. The poor are told they are Rohingyas. 


What appears to be the outward trip, picks out the girl singer, the ticket seller being besieged with demands for refunds and a Video blogger whose camera drone, caught by the wind immediately plunges off the deck into deep water never to be seen again. Our interest in what appears exotic and intriguing is echoed by the two European girl tourists on board.


This holds attention well enough but when these become-familiar faces are replaced by Stanford University students grilling a politician passenger the film outstays its welcome.


It looks like observational documentary but director Kamar Ahmad Simon showed up to blow the whistle, when he described it as hybrid fiction where his own cast mixed with genuine travelers over twenty-two trips during eight years - one just to take sound, the ubiquitous motor noise having penetrated most of his shooting.


The occasional attractive scenics and the picture of busy shipboard activity do convince and I did like the re-appearance of the Vlogger for the final moments.

Super Furball 2

Supermarsu 2/Super Furball 2 directed by Joona Tena is the second in the series of kids films from Finland mixing digital animation and live action. Emilia, the so Scandinavian Blonde pre-teen heroine of the first film, now Senni Peltoniemi, still converts into super hero guinea pig Super Furball by taking a swig from the pet’s water bottle. This time she’s called upon to stop a speeding underground train (driven by author Paula Noronen in a guest shot) before it crushes a talking snail (voiced by Jani Karvinen) with a shell that’s a speaker system. 


The Viking Chief Guinea pig, who instructs her on the roof of the space needle, questions her judgment but still sends her ahead in time via Furball taxi, to when her school bully Greasy Antero has become the magnate world leader and has eliminated the bee population, leaving people to fertilise plants by hand and margarine as the most popular ice cream flavor.


This traces back to an incident at the bully’s exclusive birthday party where gifts were ranked by cost and bee Joonas Saartamo caused chaos, leading to Emilia’s disrupting the factory hive scheme and Greasy shipped off to the super strict military school in the Arctic from which he emerged as a vindictive dictator.


Intervention by Super Furball, including a spectacular helicopter crash into the yellow  canola field brings things out with the expected kids’ morality and ecological comment matching the director’s previous Syv√§lle salattu.


Unfortunately, the live-action material is inferior to the toon sections and characters like Emilia’s decorator-mother roller painting over pictures on the wall and  furniture, the teacher who gives lessons got up as a tree and cowboy headmaster going round shouting “Yipee”, just register as grotesque.


This one’s heart is in the right place but whether a sub-titled version will play with it’s intended child and adult audiences is speculative.


The festival's word of mouth on other material was good and I guess I’ll keep on coming back for more, despite the dispiritingly familiar retrospectives and the grim notion of entertainment that the program tends towards. The films in the national events are less of a chore.

Friday 24 June 2022

German Film Festival - Janice Tong's Second ūüé•Filmic Postcard - MONTE VERITA (StefanJ√§ger, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, 2021) + THE LAST EXECUTION (Franziska St√ľnkel, Germany, 2021)

One of about 500 original photos of the Monte Verita community that have survived

It wasn’t until later, long after the lights have dimmed in the theatre, and definitely after I have driven home in the dark, and even after I went to bed that night; in fact, it wasn’t until the next morning as I was heading to work that I had a chance to think back on the
 Monte Verit√† community, and to that unique time just at the turn of the 20th century, that I came to a better appreciation of this film.    

The approach to unpacking Stefan J√§ger’s film is not only about the intrigue or air of mystery that surrounded the Monte Verit√† community – rather affectionately known as the Monte Verit√† Vegetable Cooperative– but instead lies in a meticulous reinvention of a time, where, rather like Deleuze and Guattari geophilosophy, (and also much like my favourite ‘walkers’ John Rogers and Iain Sinclair’s geopsychology) gives us a view into a line of flight that J√§ger so skillfully resurfaces from the past; where he connects imperceptible points that require further thought and further research.


Society at that point required a release from itself, an ejection or escape from its conventions – the Monte Verit√† community was, in a way, shaped by culture rather than simply taking on a stance of counterculture (and with it, this word’s literal meaning). It is a reset (like the fire in the film) from the norm; a line of flight that shoots off into a different direction and in so doing, opens up wide uncharted spaces – possibilities beyond society’s limit. Furthering this idea, J√§ger introduces to this ready microcosm cum commune a new figure, that of photography, of appearances/disappearances, of a kind of co-temporal ghostliness. J√§ger’s necessary invention here is to bring about a new thoughtline to the Monte Verit√† group. There were after all, 500 or so photographs that detailed the activities at that time, with photographer unknown, on which J√§ger’s story makes its appearance.

Maresi Riegner as Hanna - is this the gaze of a fragile bourgeois housewife?
Or, the gaze where the face in the mirror is no longer familiar?


There are two beginnings: one where the film opens with a close-up of a woman’s face, half covered by a fan, which is fluttering rapidly to create a cooling breeze for its holder; the second beginning speaks to J√§ger’s own visit to Monte Verit√† in 1989 with Cinema & Giovent√Ļ as a part of the Locarno Film Festival (Monte Verit√† is a stone’s throw away from Locarno) and was struck by the history of the place and how it still resonated with us even today: nature, conservation, women’s rights. It drew him into exploring more about the women behind the original movement. Let me further digress. There are actually three beginnings: the third is that ofHenri Oedenkoven and Ida Hofmann-Oedenkoven, her sister, Jenny Gr√§ser and Lotte Hattemer (the daughter of the mayor of Berlin) who came together as the founding figures of the Monte Verit√† Vegetable Cooperative. This, to a certain extent, is also their story. 


Max Hubacher as Otto Gross, the resident hippie psychoanalyst

Let’s go back to the woman, whose incessant fanning necessarily generated her flight from fancy into the freedom of the commune. Hanna Leitner is a housewife, she suffers from a kind of breathlessness, where any show of emotion or agitation of the mind or spirit would render her faint. This loss of consciousness, no doubt, is her mind’s way of dealing with an insufferable way of life; stilted, conformed, and controlled by her unbearable husband. Her escape through the encouragement of her doctor and friend, the psychoanalyst Otto Gross (who is sometimes referred to as the father figure of counterculture, and yes, counterculture existed prior to the sixties; and yes, he was an advocate for free love and used drugs recreationally). 


Hanna (played by Maresi Riegner who was previously in the little seen but beautiful Egon Schiele: Tod und M√§dchen) literally fled in the night to Monte Verit√†, arriving ill-prepared for what she was about to see, let alone experience. Here, she opened her mind and eyes to their adaptive way of living; Gross was there too, as was the dispirited Lotte whom she befriended. Soon, Hanna set up a project for herself, to be the official photographer of the commune (her husband was a photographer, as was Ida’s husband). Her photographs were more like projections from her own mind, reflecting transformation or transit of time; and unlike the typical daguerreotypes of the time, where you must restrict all movement for the camera, here, she captured the freedom of being simply alive; and with that, time and movement. 


Remember what Sontag said about photography, that it holds so much power in a modern society that we have come to rely on appearances rather than our own experiences of events. I would suggest the Monte Verit√† photos were able to not only sustain this notion, but also fuse it with a kind of mysticism, transporting the esprit of the place to us across time.  Perhaps that is what propelled J√§ger to create some kind of authorship for these photographs. To some degree cinema also serves as a medium to create a kind of mimetic power. Like Monte Verit√† itself, the photographs became an agent of transformation for Hanna and also for the inhabitants there. 

The community with Julia Jentsch as Ida Hofman in the blue dress and Joel Basman as Hermann Hesse seated next to Hanna

 There’s almost too much history to unpack when you consider the region around Lake Maggiore at the bottom of Monte Verit√†, where on the western side of the lake, there are monasteries from the 1600s in honour of St Francis of Assisi. Over the years, philosophers, composers and writers like Nietzsche and Lou von Salome, as well as Faur√© and Balzac before them.  Stendhal,GoetheTchaikovsky and Rossini all frequented that region. During the time of the Monte Verit√† commune,writer Herman Hesse and the American dancer Isadora Duncan were regular visitors.


The cast is superbly chosen. Julia Jentsch from the brilliant TV series Pagan Peak played the unassuming and ever-practical Ida Hofmann and Hannah Herzsprung from another stellar TV series, Babylon Berlin, gave us the elusive LotteMax Hubacher from The Captain (2017) was Gross. Also, try to listen out for the soundscape, as J√§ger says that it has its own storyline: how breathing, or breath itself becomes a metaphor for freedom.

The inescapable palette of a dead man walking.
Lars Eidinger, The Last Execution

On the other hand, Franziska St√ľnkel’s The Last Execution did not leave me with the same kind of impression. The fact that it dealt with a difficult topic, as the title of the film implies, does little justice to what transpires in the story: how it is told and how it ebbs and flows. Based on the last few months of Werner Teske’s life, the last man to be executed in the former East Germany before the abolition of the death penalty in 1987. 


Lars Eidinger needs no introduction, he is now a familiar face in the New German Cinema scene (I’m quoting the German Film Festival site here, and not the actual New German Cinema movement from 1962 to 1982), made notable (for me at least) from Olivier Assayas’ very captivating Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and later in Personal Shopper (2016); and of course, he carries an extensive filmography to his name (79 credits in 20 years), more notably the incredibly creative and avant-garde film Mack the Knife - Brecht's Threepenny Film (2018) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s beautiful ode to art and the artistic spirit, Never Look Away (2018), both of which I had the good fortune to see at the Sydney German Film Festival in 2019. Eidinger is Dr. Franz Walter, a rather dull play-it-by-the-book academic, who has a good streak of ambition, but seemed a tad too naive about the events that befall him. He was literally hauled off a plane and offered a professorship if he were to take on a new role in the GDR's foreign intelligence service in the interim. He and his girlfriend were given a new apartment with all the mod cons and a generous salary. How anyone would not think that they’ve just signed their life away (and with it, their loyalties, freedom as well as hopes and dreams) is beyond comprehension – once the paperwork is signed, the GDR owned you, clear and simple.

Devid Striesow as  handler Dirk Hartmann (back) with
Walter  (Lars Eidinger, front)

Dr Walter’s handler Dirk Hartmann is portrayed by Devid Striesow, a fine actor. I still remember his performance years ago in Tom Tykwer’s (2010) where he played Sebastian Schipper’s lover, and you’ve got it, Schipper is the director of the single-take Victoria (2015) which was again showcased at the German Film Festival this year. 


The whole situation between the two men felt slightly too simplistic and perhaps the worst part is that the film under-utilises both men’s talents. This film is writer/director Franziska St√ľnkel’s second feature; and whilst we understand her intentions and navigation around a horrendous topic; some shots where the mise-en-sc√®ne was appropriately claustrophobic with a nausea affecting colour palette (perhaps aided by shooting at several original GDR locations such as the former ministry building of the State Security Service in Berlin-Lichtenberg and the prison of Hohensch√∂nhausen) made watching uneasy. But I think perhaps St√ľnkel’s rather short shooting period of 25 days didn’t provide the time needed to fully flesh out his morbid piece of drama. Although one cannot help but see the significance in the visual rhyme of St√ľnkel with the German word dunkel, which means a blackness that is deeper than night, or a darkness like the abyss. 


#german film festivalwas at selected Palace cinemas around Australia. Franziska St√ľnkel was a guest of the festival.