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Berlinale 2015. Correspondences #11

Daniel Kasman finishes his Berlin film festival reports with tales of cyclopian 3D, Ermanno Olmi's WWI, & Technicolor "The Naked Spur".
Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies
Dear Adam,
I want to quibble with you on a point you made about an art installation in the Forum Expanded section. Discussing the simple but strangely transfixing Je proclame la destruction, you wrote to me of the order of its two shots, of first the radical speaker coming to the microphone and then the young student hero pushing through the crowd. But this installation was on loop—couldn't it be the other way around, that the hero enters, we see an empty stage, and then the radical steps up to declare destruction? I don't recall Robert Bresson's original film (from which these two shots are taken) enough to know the order, but one of the shifting pleasures of this installation was how sometimes one shot seemed to precede the other, only for the continual repetition to shift that sense of time and causality. Sometimes the call conjures the film's hero, and sometimes the hero is announced to the crowd by the name of "destruction"!
Speaking of declaring destruction, I caught a very nice short film at the Akademie der Künste (where this exhibit was installed), a premiere of a new digital work by American avant-garde director Ken Jacobs, the fantastically titled Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies. It features Jacobs's now usual method of stereoscopic animation of two digital frames shuddering back and forth to create a strobing sense of constant evolving motion that in fact goes nowhere. It has an abstract expressionist force to it that is underscored by a musique concrète soundtrack of electronic glitches and New York field recordings.
What the original source images are that are seemingly exploded onto the screen, I have no idea; Jacobs (and his son Nisi, who assists) has selected frozen frames that look like bursting splashes of water—or the cosmos, as the title implies. These globules, in stark monochromatic black and white (with brief flashes of color), are given spherical three dimensionality by the optical trick of the animation, and are later flattened completely in one of many plays with the spatial possibilities of a medium many dismissively think is two dimensional. The main question I was left with, after this short, was in regards to what were either two quick references to some context for the footage, or, as in the director's bombastic masterpiece Seeking the Monkey King (2011), a kind of mindstate in which the film's experiments are pursued. The first reference comes in the filmmaker's usual opening warning that his stroboscopic technique might cause seizures, which is accompanied by a mention of the Reichstag fire and 9/11; and finally in a closing remark which I was unable to properly notate, about some online footage or discussion of that New York disaster. The mostly German audience at the screening also seemed a bit shocked by these notes, and especially the mention of one of first of the Nazi's many insidious crimes of power.
Another single-minded but no less effective film by an old master, Italian great Ermanno Olmi has made a tone poem for the war which in cinema best represents the capacity for barbarism in humanity and in its very nature catalyzes class conflict into a ghastly hierarchy of murder: World War I. Based on tales told to him by the director's father, and shot in a black and white tinted here and there like a silent film, Greenery Will Bloom Again takes place in a single bunker in the Italian Alps on one snowbound night of cold, sickness, misery, and petering morale. All the usual First World War conventions are mobilized in this slim feature, but in a muffled and heart-rending way which does not desire to distinguish between all the grizzled, bundled and sad-eyed men, or provide much in the way of story beyond a few pitiful conflicts which wane as the beautiful night saps the souls of normal men. Like the director's previous feature, The Cardboard Village (2011), the simplicity of the setting and the bareness of the story point away from the specifics of the surface of the film—despite many beautiful moments of the era, like a montage of the images of home and women pinned to the inside of each man's bunk...until we reach one bunk that has no pictures, as the man has no home—and suggest a more abstract motivation. It is, perhaps, to wrap in the night and in the snow, in this snake-like bunker under fire, under ice, under the gaze of the moon, full of the dwindling fire of a few lives, the simple but yet unchanging truism that war always and only harms humanity.
To move onto some experiences more uplifting and beautiful, like you I've been dipping into as much of the "Glorious Technicolor" retrospective as I can; as you noted earlier, we saw The Wizard of Ozand it was a terrific, fresh experience. It's not always a great movie but it's one that's so charged every moment of it, charged with magic. It also struck me as unusual, among other attributes, for a Hollywood movie in 1939 or for that matter ever to tell it's tale so purely in the realm of a fantasy's allegory. I'm not clear on why it, or for that matter most of the films in this retrospective were selected; the catalog notes offer little indication and later introductions before screenings did little to point towards the ideas behind the curation, which seems somewhat random and certainly hardly expansive.
A publicity photo for The Naked Spur
Later, I caught the great 1953 The Naked Spur by noir-turned-Western master Anthony Mann. It is one of several Westerns Mann made in this period with James Stewart that vividly explored neurosis in the star persona that the actor, before the Second World War, presented as nothing but well-intentioned, effusive with earnest kindness and only angry in exasperation at others' lack of human foresight. I wonder why this film, with its relatively restrained palette—shot almost entirely on location in the Colorado Rockies—was in the Technicolor series, especially as the print that was exhibited was by no means poor but seemed too fogged to show off anything indicative or brilliant. (Similarly, the wonderful Anne of the Indies was projected on 35mm but from a horrid, splotchy digital restoration that made night scenes look like they were being streamed in 360p.)
Still, the force of the restraint of The Naked Spur's palette is in keeping with Mann's honed and pure vision of the West as a space in which moral positions are battled through psychology, landscape and violence. James Stewart's red plaid jacket is his defining costuming in the film, yet its scuffed dustiness sells the realism of his trail-worn experience better than the artifice extravagant colors might bring. (The subtly of the color is such that I hadn't realized his, the hero's, jacket matched the shirt of Robert Ryan's villain in color and texture until well into the film.) The green foliage of the Rockies' forests in the middle of each composition tends to push the characters closer to us, accentuating their small group's fraught tension despite the expanse of the wilderness, and despite the picturesqueness of the surroundings.
Yet if there's one reason to shoot this film in Technicolor, it is to show the fierceness of Stewart's flinty blue eyes. They are shaded for most of the film and really only are shown when his character is angry and taken beyond restraint. And when he is it's something to behold, a vision of momentary psychosis and malevolence that's shocking in such a normally genteel star. In the first revelation of his eyes, back against the landscape, a gun in each hand, his sweaty bandana and the blue sky behind him focus all the screen's energy on those eyes and their cruel energy. Later, the sky enrobes first Janet Leigh and finally Stewart's character in International Klein Blue as they each in their turn look at the other for the first time with a look of love. Such emotional color really stands out within an aesthetic so consistently underplayed that a key sequence taking place in a cave—the only, I believe, scene shot in the studio—has a sandy, soft look more like that of the post-Technicolor Westerns of the 1970s. Mann and cinematographer William C. Mellor already anticipate the "realism" that pores more and more into the Westerns after the late sixites, where dirty = real: tight close-ups of Robert Ryan's prisoner and his teenaged runaway lover Leigh have a sweaty, sticky, swarthy, unshaven feel to them.
A last word for Technicolor and my last word from Berlin: I think I've fallen in love with a moving image. That image would be the bare-footed, bacon-cutting, impetuous Sammy, the young Ozarks cabin woman played by Betty Field in Henry Hathaway's 1941 adaptation of The Sheperd of the Hills, a film you talked about wonderfully in your past correspondence. With her brazen, face-forward nature, rolled jeans and front-tucked sweater, tromping through puddles and over hills with considerable verve and rarely wearing shoes, she was probably thought a rural tomboy by 1941 audiences, but in 2015 she stands firm in the frame as a very modern young woman, already looking, moving, and behaving with the darting consciousness and moods of a playful Parisian heroine of the French New Wave, or a much-improved upon, resilient and fiercely tender Williamsburg hipster. When she tears up, the big Klieg lights refracting the drops like crystals on her face, or when her blue eyes light on fire when she sees John Wayne—himself given in the film the most beautiful, wayward speech on love, delivered in moving naivety behind a curtain to her—and as she crosses the backwoods terrain with pluck in her body and a tremendous smartness and goodness of being, one wants to follow her into battle or marry her, or at least hope and pray for the happiness of this woman animated in the colored shadows of Technicolor. Glorious Technicolor, indeed. Film can live, yes it can; up there and in you.
Thank you so much for your correspondences, Adam.
Until next time,Danny

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