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Berlinale 2018. How to Read Tennis and Old Books

Festival highlights include a documentary on tennis's beauty and John McEnroe's star persona, and Ted Fendt's scholarly "Classical Period".
In the Realm of Perfection
At the Berlinale, the place to be surprised by the best kind of nonfiction films is clearly the Forum, which has festival highlights The Waldheim Waltz and Jamila and now has premiered a highly unusual sports documentary by Julien Faraut. In the Realm of Perfection uses remarkable footage shot on 16mm as part of an ongoing research project by director Gil de Kermadec that focused on the French Open as a way to study the movement and play of tennis players. Faraut sets up this context and lets us revel in the footage shot the early and mid-1980s as the sport and its broadcast was changing. He connects the recordings to early cinema studies of the mysteries of human movement captured in film’s frame-by-frame detail and vouchsafes the analysis as cinematic by using Cahiers du cinéma critic and Trafic magazine founder Serge Daney’s brilliant writing on tennis as occasional commentary.
Soon the film finds its protagonist on the Roland Garros court not in the lithe and powerful beauty of tennis prowess, though this is indeed a true pleasure throughout the film, especially as Kermadec focuses not on the game but the way it’s played—but in the figure of John McEnroe. One the greatest players of the sport, McEnroe, highly driven but vocally combative and demanding, is also is a key figure in transforming the celebrity and character of tennis players into something more performative. In the Realm of Perfection reveals across multiple games on the same court—in its own way a set or stage—McEnroe’s enthrallingly mercurial, foxy and brilliant star persona. The audience’s expectations about this persona, and the personal variations they see from game to game, make him a charismatic but conflicted hero. His personality begs for audience interpretation and investment, even if that relationship may skew towards dislike or repulsion, a tennis villain. Like the great stars, we are fascinated and mystified by the shading between this icon’s feats of skill and his strong personality, and In the Realm of Perfection adroitly seeks to find where this line between talent and character lays and how one may determine or influence the other. This is the center at which Faraut’s unexpectedly analytic film makes its point: the intersection of motion dynamics, recorded events, and acting—where a sport becomes cinema. It is a terrific use of a standout archive, at once a paean to one of the most beautiful of sports and monograph-like study of a unique and controversial star.
As Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet would no doubt point out, texts contain the power to become cinema as well. American super-independent filmmaker (and Notebook contributor) Ted Fendt, who has translated, edited and written on works by Straub-Huillet, has taken up their mantel in his own idiosyncratic and hilarious way in his second feature, Classical Period. Transparently low budget, if not knowingly shabby in means yet precise in its dusky 16mm form, Fendt’s new film, like his previous works, employ the director’s friends as actors in deadpan and deceptively off-hand little moral stories, plotted as twenty-something Philly or suburban New Jerseyans might live out  Rohmer’s tales. But the real adaptation in Classical Period are of the many books read or referenced by its characters, especially its bespectacled protagonist Cal (Calvin Engime, whose particular kind of intense and dorky, if not arcane, interests left such a mark on Fendt’s last film, Short Stay), all of whose lives seem to be devoted to intense, amateur personal scholarship.
Scenes of reading—or reciting—are mixed with social interactions which either turn into discussion groups, with everyday conversations quickly routed to a book recently read or quote remembered, or are indeed literally discussion groups. Dante, Catholic martyrs in Protestant England, the poetry of Denise Levertov, and the pleasure of footnotes being possibly greater than actual texts they are about are all major points of explication or debate. As with Straub-Huillet, much pleasure and invigoration is supposed to come from the audience encountering a book or text, as well as encountering the presence of its unique interpretation as being read by a particular actor. Cal’s strange aspect as a free-floating repository of knowledge lends his readings the respectable air of monkishness, his character an ode to the gentleman scholar. But his quote-heavy manner, used as much for knowledge-drops as for humor by Fendt, also has the ability to become overbearing, stressing a life whose main reference points are the written word rather than the living world. Brief sequences of him home alone recall the quiet beauty of interiors in the films of Robert Beavers, yet reflect an isolated life.
The perfect blend of the written and the living, and the real triumph of the film, is Evelyn (Evelyn Emile), a friend of Cal’s and sometimes group member. She is as bookish as he, but also evidently conflicted about how to retain and relate to the words she encounters. As is common in films wherein a character relates a story or reads a little something, the audience may naturally search acutely in Classical Period for how the film’s many references help us better understand the interiority, dilemmas or the story path of the film’s characters. This is especially true of Fendt’s film, which upon first viewing overwhelms with words and makes it tricky, for me at least, to find the its way of either structuring the argumentation through these texts (if this is its method) or the slender story of Cal’s readings and meetings. When Evelyn reads of and speaks about Dante’s character of Pia de' Tolomei is the moment Classical Period epitomizes a cinematic ideal: the actress seems to at once embody the book she’s reading, taking it into herself, and also transform it, reveal it through her own version of the story it tells. Afterwards, she skewers Cal for his constant airing of his knowledge, and the dramatic relief this provides, and the honesty of the confession, suggests that despite a supporting role, Evelyn may be the film’s real hero.

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