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Berlinale. Palast of Swords Reversed: Dispatch #1

Berlinale 2010

Photo by Zorana Musikic.

Difficulty with the early stages of formulating an idea, a plan or your goals. The confusion of too many ideas or the indecision of too few - creating trouble with completion. Your mental talents must fit the situation - see if you are too strong or too weak for the situation at hand. Sometimes, experiencing a negative is necessary in order to achieve something better - triggering the strength of your mind into action.
Ace of Swords (Reversed)

Berlin, 8.48am Friday
Films seen (feature length) so far: 4
Notably worthwhile: 0
Walkouts: 1

A grey and snowy post-dawn here in Berlin on the second day of the 60th Berlinale. "Where joy should reign / These skies restrain" as a-Ha put it in Stay On These Roads 22 years ago. Those lines, and also that song in general, popped into my mind on Wednesday night at the Akademie der Künste as I sat on the floor watching James Benning's triple-projection digital installation Tulare Road. This formed part of an exhibition entitled Traces the Sand Left In The Machine, itself part of the 'Forum Expanded' section of the Forum, the supposedly more edgy and radical of the Berlinale's principal components (Competition/Panorama/Forum).

This is the 40th Forum and the 5th Forum Expanded, the latter showcasing moving-image works shown in venues other than cinemas. And despite having spent the bulk of my Thursday inside a cinema—the multiplex Cinemaxx at the festival's Potsdamer Platz hub—Benning's installation remains by far the most effective, memorable and distinctive "thing" I have seen under the umbrella of Berlinale 60.

I approched Tulare Road—which comprises three views of what may or may not be the same straight road in rural California at three meteorologically distinct times of the year (foggy/dampish/clear)—with a degree of trepidation. In Rotterdam last week I had decidedly mixed reactions to Benning's first full-length digital feature, the 120-minute Ruhr, which struck me as truly "experimental" in that the director—responsible in the previous decade for no fewer than five 16mm masterpieces in Los, El Valley Centro, Ten Skies, 13 Lakes and the sublimely transcendent casting a glance—seemed to be learning his way through the possibilities of digital while "on the job." The uneven results (steadily downhill after a stunning opening sequence) reminded me both of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (which I've always interpreted as the Russian master exploring various film-making styles and discovering which of them best suited his personality and talents) and those horror compendiums of the 1960s and 1970s such as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and Tales From the Crypt, which critics would inevitably sum up with the enticingly archaic term "curate's egg."

Anyway, back to Berlin, and to Tulare Road. The film—and I do consider it a film—presents what might be termed a roadkill-eye view of the road, stretching away to a vanishing-point which is mist-obscured in the brumaire left-hand screen but more "visible" in the second and third screens. Cars and trucks pass both ways on the road, but the traffic is sparse. Because the three screens show loops set at different lengths—I didn't time them, but was told that one was a six-minute loop, one four and a half minutes, not sure about the third—the 18 minutes feature various combinations and recombinations as the same cars "pass" each other on different screens simultaneously, or else silence and calm reigns for a few delicate seconds before the next vehicle rumbles or whizzes in and out of view.

Calmingly ruminative and yet consistently provocative in its conjugation of mathematical structures and real-world elements, Tulare Road provides further confirmation that the Benning of the digital present/future remains as necessary and unmissable artist as that of the 16mm past. I could barely tear myself away from his screens, and must have seen the entire 18 minute sequence three full times before I was dragged away—almost literally—for dinner in a fish-restaurant ten minutes' walk away through the snowy permafrosted streets and across the iced-up river Spree. I can only offer my apologies to the other artists in the show—there were four other works on view, but all I managed in their direction was to cast a cursory glance. Traces the Sand Left in the Machine is on at the Akademie der Künste in Hanseatenweg, part of the Tiergarten park, until 21st February.

And what of the "proper" films? I'm concentrating mainly on the Forum this year (mainly avoiding the Competition titles that screen at the unavoidably enormous Berlinale Palast) and the first day of press screenings yielded the usual mixed bag. Best of the bunch was the likeably bizarre Kanikōsen by the Japanese director who bills himself as 'Sabu.' It's based on a 1929 novel about exploited workers on a crab-fishing vessel, one which became an unlikely reprint bestseller a couple of years ago thanks to the global financial crisis and its impact on Japan. Combining aspects of Metropolis, The Battleship Potemkin, Das Boot and the fish-factory scenes from eXistenZ, Kanikōsen (the title means "crab fishing boat") has its draggy patches and repetitions—twenty minutes could easily be pruned from its 109 minute running-time—and the tone veers waywardly between quirky whimsy and grim claustrophobic despair. But in the end its paean to anarcho-syndicalism is touchingly rousing in an unapologetically old-school agit-prop manner, and there's a boldness to Sabu's approach which certainly feels "Forum-like" in its confrontational iconoclasm.

Also seen at Cinemaxx: Eastern Drift (Indigène d'Eurasie) by the esteemed-in-certain-quarters Lithuanian writer-director Šarūnas Bartas. Essentially a crime melodrama decked out with a smattering of art-film tropes, this steely modern noir stars Bartas himself as a drug-dealing "yob" whose criminal exploits take him to various grim corners of Europe. The picture's presentation of women has more than a whiff of casual misogyny, and its presentation of Bartas has more than an odour of narcissism—he gives himself countless moody close-ups, and at one point we get to see his still-trim body, and backside, in the buff. The "deliberate" tone and arch dialogue proved too much for many viewers at an unexpectedly crowded press screening, and there were several walkouts long before the end. I stuck with it, however, and was ultimately glad to have done so. This was my first experience of Bartas and he does enough to make me a little curious to see more—I'm told his previous work (he's made only three features since 1998) is rather more austere and forbidding, and tends not to feature himself in a leading role.

Though patient and indulgent with Bartas, I bailed out on Argentinian slow-burner The Counting of the Damages (El recuento de los daños), by  Inés de Oliveira Cézar, before the halfway point, prodded exitward by the ponderous pretentiousness of a picture which struck me as emblematic of the worst kind of pseudo-artistic cinema from this particular country: all sententious dialogue, meaningful looks, pregnant pauses, at the service of a daft coincidence-reliant plot involving the tragic aftermath of a car crash. My favourite picture at last year's Forum was Argentinean—Mariano De Rosa's startlingly confident mainstream/arthouse mashup Green Waters (Aguas Verdes)—but The Counting of the Damages is very much the other end of the scale. After developing "walkout-itis" in Rotterdam, where one particularly bleak afternoon I bailed on four consecutive pictures, I'm trying to give pictures more of a chance here in Berlin. But it would be a major surprise if, this time next week as I depart for the airport, my walkout tally hasn't increased severalfold. Time will tell. It's 9.48am in Berlin and by writing so much I have managed to miss the 9.30 Forum press show of Sona, the Other Myself, a Korean documentary which can't be as bad as its lousy title. The old paradox: to watch films or write about them? How to strike the best balance between the two? After nearly ten years covering festivals, I'm still learning my way through the forest.

Wow, thanks very much for the notes James! Any plans to bring the film/exhibit to New York?
Notes on Tulare Road by James Benning 3 screen installation, HD ProRes, 18 minutes, 2010 at Akademie der Künste, Berlin 1) it’s the same road 2) shot at 3 different times in November & December, 2009 3) left: fog, 5 vehicles, 6 minute loop plays 3 times 4) center: light rain, 1 vehicle, 4.5 minute loop plays 4 times 5) right: partly cloudy, 3 vehicles, 3 minute loop pays 6 times 6) beginning title: Tulare Road 7) end title: James Benning 8) during the 18 minutes 38 vehicles pass through 9) left: 5 × 3 = 15 10) center: 1 × 4 = 4 11) right: 3 × 6 = 18 12) 15 + 4 + 18 = 37 13) center: between loops 2 & 3 a pickup truck is added 14) 37 + 1 = 38 15) 0f the 38 vehicles, 10 are unique 16) left: 5 17) center: 1 + 1 = 2 18) right: 3 19) 5 + 2 + 3 = 10 20) the 10 unique vehicles are: 1 luxury car, 4 pickup trucks, 1 small SUV, 1 prison bus, 1 flatbed truck, 1 empty semi truck, and 1 water truck 21) the actual name of the road is Utica Avenue 22) it runs east and west, the camera looks west 23) Utica Avenue is in California’s Great Central Valley 24) it is 20 miles long 25) it connects Interstate 5 to Corcoran 26) Corcoran has a maximum security prison 27) it houses Sirhan Bishara Sirhan and Charles Manson 28) the landscape is a dried lake bed with 1000’ of topsoil 29) to the left is a cotton field (off season) 30) to the right is a rice field (off season) 31) the land is owned by banks and insurance companies 32) the water for farming is provided by State and Federal irrigation systems built with public money 33) much of the farm labor is undocumented workers 34) the Great Central Valley feeds one quarter of the US 35) the 2009 profit was greater than the total of all of the gold ever found in California 36) the Valley is a capitalist gold mine. 37) many of the farm workers live in poverty.

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