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Festival Work

Finding work at the Berlin Film Festival

PROLOGUE: Finding Work

Berlinale, like several other international film festivals, has a "market" component to the festivities separate from the regular, film-going experience, an entire other beast where a multitude of producers, distributors, sales agents and others gather to meet and make business.  At such "market festivals" there can be a sickening intimacy between the grounded, simple pleasure of watching a movie as an audience member and the cut-throat bustle and shill of film (and festivals) as a vertiginously complicated business interest and commerce.  We all know (or at least we should) that film isn't just an art but an industry, and therefore a business. But the results of the actual production of something—the films themselves—seem terribly distant when a festival submerges one not in the "work" of filmmaking, but the moneymaking and marketing of filmmaking, a distressingly abstracted negotiation of chits, widgets, icons and hucksterism.

Stepping out of the cinema and into the reality of an international monetary concern makes one want to flee right back into the cosy dark of the theater and try to forget the vested interests—or, more precisely, the myriad of disinterests—that keeps films getting made (or not) and seen (or not).

The contrast between this festival world and the real one—or, that is to say, the world more in contact with things, people, their interactions and needs—was thrown into dramatic relief through a series of films that were startling in such an environment because they were, simply, portraits of work.  Of living to work and working to live, or where living becomes work and vice versa.  A loose collection of films across the many sections of the Berlinale offered totalizing, immersive visions of work in a very full sense, films where work and life are inextricable, the interaction and struggle with the everyday inherent in existence.  Where touching, molding, fighting with the world are an unavoidable and overwhelming fact of life.

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I. REALITY: Working to live (Michael Pilz's Heaven and Earth)

For me, the festival began in proper with Michael Pilz's Heaven and Earth, a rare vision of producers, people who make things, and make them only to survive. A four hour, two part, 16mm study of an impoverished and obscure Austrian mountain village, the film defies the roundedness of making a composite of the variety of individuals and lives of the area (for example, woman are almost entirely absent from the film) in favor of honing in on the seasonal particulars of scouting and farming the awkward, hilly land.

As Pilz leaves out more of the community (except, in general, when they are pitching in as a group on a farming project or traveling for supplies from one area to another), more of leisure time (if there is any to begin with), as well as the historical context of the evolution of the area, we are left with a despairing immersion into a desolate corner of human life—a life consumed by work because people are moving away, prices for buying things are rising, prices for selling their products are falling, and everything in sight seems to be on the downturn. Production becomes a reassurance that people are effecting the world around them, and that their work is being rewarded, at least materially.

In the film's only voiceover narration, Pilz returns again and again to ancient-prophetic sayings which ironize with grand but distant sympathy the existence of such an attempt at isolation and self-sufficiency.  Yet despite this Biblical-historiographic tone occasionally leveled on the images—as well as the film's own 30 year old age, the film was released in 1982 and this is a new restoration—Heaven and Earth remains startlingly present because the people in the film are living only for the present.  Every rock moved, fence mended, path trod is a rock, fence and path that keeps these figures alive today.  They fill the past with the bounty missing from the present, mourning its passing while finding no joy in the necessary, day-in, day-out toil of today, a place where the future holds no presence.  They make to survive, to see, feel and taste their impact on a world around them that is increasingly hostile and lonely, a world of dwindling resources and dispersing communities.  And sticking a plow in the ground seems like a task and accomplishment so humble as to appear pathetic.

II. FANTASY: Living to work (Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets and Art History)

Swanberg's diptych is another miniature epic living absolutely in the present.  But due to the kind of work portrayed (filmmaking) the necessity of surviving, or at the very least existing, that is embodied in nearly every frame of Heaven and Earth is re-cast in these two digital features as the necessity of work. In these fictions, the people make their lives out of work, fully integrating day-to-day living (and especially the sexual possibilities of the night) with their creative work.  Both films are markedly self-reflexive not just in terms of being about movie making but being about filmmakers (cast and crew) who find personal, social interest in the people (the raw material) making films—and then make films fueled and inspired by that interest.  Where Heaven and Earth's human figures are nibbling on the edge, trying to find a way on this Earth to forage a path to some kind of non-constant work (I daren't call it leisure or relaxation), Swanberg's figures turn inward and consume themselves in the work process.

In Silver Bullets, a girl's presence in her boyfriend's personal video project and in a larger budgeted genre film directed by someone else simultaneously inspires both directors (the boyfriend is played by Swanberg) and corrodes their relationships with the girl-actress.  Art History, a much more nocturnal and confined affair, collapses the fiction of "acting" when, during the making of a naturalistic-improvisational-talky porn film (directed by Swanberg), the two stars begin to experiment personally and sexually between takes.

I don't think there is a single scene in these two films—whose editing was the most precise and engaged of any films I saw at Berlinale—that wasn't centered around a figure's work, the repercussions of previous work, the potential for future work, or questioning where work with one figure ended and another began.   (I use the term "figure" here becuse it is hard to call these actors lit in lonely pools and exhibiting in-the-moment "naturalism" anything in the way of psychologically developed or believable characters—they are essentially allegorical, an aspect Swanberg underplays continually, though not always successfully, with the supposedly realistic style of interaction.)  Here, work no longer means only filmmaking but rather, in Swanberg's grand self-inquisitive aspect of these two videos, forging relationships—because the production of a film becomes indistinguishable with the social activity between shooting, and, terribly, one cannot have one without the other.

Work becomes a necessity because, for these figures, work is the function that creates, elaborates, and tests compatibility with people; and likewise there would be no reason to be with people, and no way to understand or connect with them, without the work of filmmaking.  The two features are dark, closed utopian visions of introversion and self-consumption, told, appropriately, via references to the genres of horror and pornography.

III. IDEAL: Work as living (Minoru Shibuya's Doctor's Day Off)

The parasitic dependency implied in the video dyptich by Joe Swanberg is parried in this film, from the Forum's short retrospective (originating at Tokyo Filmex) of Shochiku director Minoru Shibuya. Of the few Shibuya films I've seen, all of which have a nuanced attention to the character of members of lower classes, this one in particular features a comprehensive, flavourful immersion into American Occupation-era city slums.  It is a common setting for much drama of the time period, but few films provide such individual and active direction of principle and character actors as Shibuya does, actors engaging the spaces and objects around them as ways to express themselves.

A local doctor in a squalid water-side neighborhood attempts to take a day off but is continually, comically beset by requests for assistance—babies being born, a local repatriated soldier who's insane, an agitated yakuza, unwanted pregnancies, a robbery and rape victim.  Through it all the doctor, played by Eijirô Yanagi, keeps up a level of energetic optimism bordering on giddy delusion.  The lurching, bawdy incongruity between the doctor's supremely good natured, warm hearted, and highly moral attitude, the comical merry-go-round of victims showing up at his doorstep, and the unending parade of pathetic sorrow surrounding him greatly undercuts the feeling that his attitude expresses the strong, positive social messages dicated by the Americans during the recently ended Occupation.  Indeed, less the doctor's unperturbable spunk and optimism seem too sweet, Shibuya undercuts such relentless goodness by, for example, having the doctor get dead drunk and then insist in helping a woman give birth...we get a characteristic Shibuya ellipsis, ending a scene before we think we've seen everything that will happen, and the doctor wakes up the next day, is reminded of the patient, realizes there were complications, and screams emergency...only to find out he misremembered and in fact baby and mother are fine.

The film is made up of a generally plotless series of barely evolving anecdotes connecting the various infirmities of the neighborhood with various small melodramas of attempting (to borrow the title of another Shibuya) righteous behavior in a crappy world.  As such, the doctor's bustling activity and repeated visits and updates to patients throughout Doctor's Day Off does nothing to suggest that being a doctor is a job one performs.  Instead, the doctor's existence and function in the world is the job; his movement, energy, unbridled goodness, democratic desire to help all no matter who or at what time is, in fact, a way of life, and doctoring is an expression of that philosophy in the form of work.   Less about labor (Pilz) or dependency (Swanberg), Doctor's Day Off is work as an expression and application of one's attitude towards living to the world around them.

Image above is a publicity still (c) Shochiku Co., Ltd.

IV. MYTH: Living as work (Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse)

Which leads us, sadly but fully, to the opposite side of the coin of Shibuya's optimistic application—Béla Tarr's vision of living a life so cursed that every aching moment of it is labor, from standing up, putting on clothes, or eating a boiled potato to staring out a window.

All is labor, the damp-weight pull of the volumous material world something one no longer has the will or energy to fight against and instead works within, struggling as with a dead weight, accepting it like a prisoner accepting ball-and-chain shackles—the lugubrious drag of every living, breathing moment.  The labor here has little value (pulling a cart, fetching water, boiling a potato, clothing a relative), the social dependency, between a father and his daughter in a small farm house, is a hatred curdled into silent a routine/ritual of daily existence, and the very idea that either of these two figures (that word again) have any sort of attitude or interpretation of the world that they apply to it by living their own way is laughable.  Their actions are dictated from waking to nightfall by the plodding requirements of continuation in a world where, like when fighting the wind which whips at their bodies and howls around their house like Victor Sjöström's mythic The Wind, they must push at every moment to remain upright.

The burden is so heavy, life is so much work, that the two fall into a kind of weighted-rhythm, like a pendulum, mill's water wheel, or better yet, and too obvious I admit, the muscular, slow-heaving movement of the titular horse in the film's opening shot, struggling to move its hefty body ever-forwards with no destination in sight and no motivation but the rhythm of movement dictated to it by another force.  Of all the films, this one is most direct in the its depiction of its human figures as something other than real human beings; Tarr's father and daughter are deathly solemn material pillars of accursed, thoughtless perseverance, fighting for the next day to come just in case someone might lift the blight on the world.  But each and every lugubrious second and minute and day unfolds with the morose creep of an inevitable fate, and undoutably neither father nor daughter would know what to do with respite if they were ever blessed with it.

V. THE MIND: Work as psychological neurosis (Alexander Mindadze's Innocent Saturday)

There is no work to be seen in this Ukranian film taking place on the day of and day after the first accident at Chernobly, as no employer I know pays for mental anguish. What is seen instead is an evolution of the way work is portrayed in this grouping—moving away from day to day labor and moving into the realm of administration, which reguires meditation, and, as such, psychology (finally, humans who no longer figures!).

Innocent Sunday's main character, played with intensely interior concentration by Anton Shagin, is no laborer; despite the lack of context the film gives, he clearly is a bureaucrat or administrator type, a man of average upbringing but strong and conservative intellect and ambition, desirous to move upwards in a system (Soviet bureaucracy) whose strictures and hostility can be benefited from by a man who contains himself and surpresses others.  All this is written on Shagin's face, shot in a widescreen handheld "realistic" style, and which suggests a history back to the literature of the late 19th century and early 20th that became aware of this new, dangerous, conflicted class of publicly ethical men who, deep down, were supremely immoral, and who generally controlled the fate, abstract or real, of laboring workers by managing them or the companies or states that controlled them.

The nuclear disaster gives director Alexander Mindadze an opportunity to ferret out in supreme duration the cracking neurosis in the nuances of a face that has taught itself a rigid self-disipline in order to be able to be an upright Soviet leader—no doubt one of the last modern societies to have featured a large population of such corrosive figures, the bureaucrat in internal crisis.  (American cinema, on the other hand, currently prefers the melodrama of meglomania and scale, as in Wall Street, or the white-collar tensions of office politics, as in Glengarry Glen Ross, the Berlinale selection Margin Call, or The Office.)  The idea is that the need to manage workers ruthlessly demands a position that, in having to administer in horrible ways for the greater good (and often personally working at self-advancement at the cost of others), is prone to neurosis and psychological instability.

Thus while the shakycam of Innocent Saturday seems initially motivated by an on-the-ground vérité approach to shooting a different kind of "disaster film," it is more aptly linked to the neurotic breakdown of an administrator who put all his faith in, and sacrificed much around him for, the sancity of the administration.  Until it explodes and leaks invisible toxic rays over the populace.  Where Pilz, Swanberg, Shibuya and Tarr deal with work being done now, in reality, Innocent Sunday is grasping at a world post-work—the body and its attitude is no longer the subject, we are now in the world of the mind.  And the fallout created by the world the mind is a terrible thing indeed.

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EPILOGUE: The effacing of work and workers: James Benning's Milwaukee/Duisburg

In Benning's video installation, pairing a digitally slowed down single shot of his 1972 short Time and a Half with his short film made for the omnibus Jeonju Digital Project, Pig Iron, so that each video lasts the same amount of time, work is entirely absent.  Bodies move in the frames, only across it in Mikwaukee (above, left), and across, within and without it in Duisburg (from Pig Iron, above right), one the movement of a flâneur (left), the other of a patrol (right).

Nothing is to be done; in the iron factory of Duisburg trains are cryptically loaded with hot metal deep within the factory, deep within the shot, nearly out of sight, the actual process obscured by the composition.  Trains move in and out as if by themselves, the orange of the human figures (that word again! Here we are post-psychology, perhaps only pictorial) almost curious about what's going on rather than vigilant or concerned (let alone laboring).  Work here is obscure, automated.  We don't know what's going on or why, what's being produced or where it's going; we just get an oblique angle at a mammoth, coal-dark installation that does something, and does it without the input of humans at all.  And on the left, in Milkwaukee, the figures continue to move right to left, ever...so...slowly, the digital processing of the original film staggering and smearing the movement into a journey without a destination or indeed a movement without even a journey, just inching movement (in a way, similar to the Tarr), a struggle for no apparent reason.

So it seems we have come full circle, beginning in a festival bustling with an abstract notion of work, of production, and ending the same way.  Perhaps if work was as evident in the world as it is in the majority of the above films, it no longer would need to be a subject of the cinema (and specifically this "niche" and generally disenfranchised cinema called independent, art-house, experimental, retrospective, etc.).  And perhaps then my next report could be called something like "festival romance"...

this is a superb commentary!

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