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pages from a cold island: LIGHTS OUT (part one)

 

"At the flicker of a switch
We can count the stars"
The Auteurs, Lights Out (1999)

Fin aout, debut septembre...And that's on balance good news, because it means the countdown to the next Viennale is well and truly underway. The Viennale International Film Festival is, based on my personal experience of Euro-fests since Tallinn back in 2001, the most rewarding, stimulating, unmissable of the continent's myriad cinema-related events. Indeed, after attending last year as a jury-member - we gave the prize to Miguel Gomes's Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele querido mes de agosto) - I somewhat pantingly wrote (shamelessly paraphrasing Tommy Lee Jones in 2007 Viennale selection No Country For Old Men) that it "may not be the best film festival in the world, but if it ain't, it'll certainly do until the best one comes along."

 

V' 09 (official site), once again sailing forth under the eminently benign dictatorship of Hans Hurch, runs from October 22nd to November 4th. This part of the year is an ideal time to experience Austria's absurdly culture-and-history-saturated capital (in the footsteps of Pabst, Stroheim, Ophuls, Seidl, Haneke, Wilder, Lang, Lamarr, Peter Kern, John Cook) as you briskly circumnavigate the Ringstrasse between screenings, proceeding at a civilised but energetic clip from Urania to Kunstlerhaus to Gartenbaukino and beyond.


A selection of the highlights from the main festival lineup has already been revealed - along with the full list of features and shorts showing in the parallel, month-long "Retrospective" selection. The latter, which takes place at the Austrian Filmmuseum (a cinematheque tucked away in a corner of the rambling Hofburg palace) is a glorious annual feature of the Viennale: a carefully-curated delve into the archives of world cinema, usually comprising 30-40 features (everything on film, needless to say) and a similar number of shorts, devised and compiled by an august, venerable figure in global cinephilia.

 

In 2007, Jean-Pierre Gorin presented The Way of the Termite, a puckish cornucopia of essay-films (highlight: Gorin's own 1986 big-ideas/small-trains masterpiece Routine Pleasures). Last year it was Thom Andersen's turn, an august one-city travelogue entitled Los Angeles - A City in Film based on his own magnificent documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (highlight: H B Halicki's uniquely berserk 1974 smash-em-up-smorgasbord Gone In Sixty Seconds, screened via a suitably-degraded Swedish-subtitled original 35mm print.)  This year it's Jonathan Rosenbaum with The Unquiet American Transgressive Comedies from the U.S. "Overall," writes Rosenbaum, "the main criteria have been fun and edification..." "[Also] to try to say something about the American character, both positively and negatively, as a 'loud' and disruptive force, both in the world outside and within its own borders."  Rosenbaum is responsible for half a dozen (*) out of my personal must-see top ten from what's been released of the entire programme so far. Viz:

 

1. When the Clouds Roll By (Victor Fleming & Theodore Reed, 1919)* 
"[Starring and] based on a scenario written by [Douglas] Fairbanks ...a strange and surreal comedy with one scene that takes place within his stomach: his dinner, looking very much like a primeval version of the Fruit of the Loom guys, acts up as he tries to digest a late meal." (Sean Axmaker)

2. Au hasard, Balthazar (Robery Bresson, 1966) 
"Heart-breaking and magnificent, [this] story of a donkey's life and death in rural France is the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest of 20th-century filmmakers." (J.Hoberman)

 

3. Female Trouble (Waters, 1974)*
"Wickedly funny cult film is a celebration of Crime and Beauty, both personified by Divine ...Verbally, facially and physically no female has seemed so confident about her beauty since Mae West." (Danny Peary)

 

4. Sherlock Junior (Buster Keaton, 1924)*

"The most technically innovative feature of the silent era ... [a] dazzling, surreal comedy [that] explores the nature of film, both as an art form and as a world to which those with wild imaginations can escape. (Peary)

 

5. Seven Chances (Keaton, 1925)*
"In many ways, this is the purest of Keaton films... So many silent films now seem woefully out-of-date. But Seven Chances is ahead even of the other Keatons in that it takes for granted the coming of a society where transactions between men and women (or whatever) are akin to throwing dice. The jokes are hilarious, but we dare not laugh out loud for fear of waking Buster from his endless dream." (David Thomson)

 

6. Hot Times (Jim McBride, 1974)*
"A kind of Jewish comic reply to The Lords of Flatbush, in which a number of misogynist, Portnoy-esque sex hang-ups are laid bare in a High School USA setting. However, if one peels away the phony zaniness ... and the supposedly zappy voice-over narration, one is left with a film surprisingly true to McBride's underground origins, notable for some persuasively bizarre touches and a superlatively fluid visual style." (Verina Glaessner)

7. Manila: In the Claws of Neon (Maynila: sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Lino Brocka, 1975) 
"Brocka's sense of realism and urgency (you get the sense that he shot these pictures just outside the theater and delivered them, still steaming, straight to the big screen) helps sell [melodrama] as absolute truth." (Noel Vera)

 

8. Splinter (Toby Wilkins, 2008)
"Exactly what a B-movie should be, Wilkins' resourceful Splinter uses its limited means to its advantage, the film so focused on keeping terror at a fever pitch that it has scant time for needless exposition or elaborate narrative complications.... [A] lean piece of raw meat that swiftly establishes character dynamics before getting to the taut, terrifying good stuff." (Nick Schager)

 

9. Christmas In July (1940, Preston Sturges)*
"... Another of those one-man creations by Preston Sturges for Paramount, [it's] just about as cunning and carefree a comedy as any one could possibly preordain—the perfect restorative, in fact, for battered humors and jangled nerves. As a post-election jog to national sanity, we recommend "Christmas in July." (Bosley Crowther, November 8th 1940)

 

10. Intimacies of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo (Intimidades de Shakespeare y Victor Hugo, Yulene Olaizola, 2008) 
"Simply taking her vid camera and sound mic into her grandmother's Mexico City residence at the corners of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo streets, Olaizola unearths a rich, presumably true tale of a lady and the strange, possibly murderous man who lived under (and on top of) her roof for years." (Robert Koehler)

Of the non-Rosenbaum selections above, Au hasard, Balthazar is showing "for Tilda Swinton", alongside a dozen or so features in which the 'tribute-guest' herself features (". Having already seen Julia, The Deep End and Michael Clayton, I particularly aspire to view Friendship's Death(Wollen, 1987) and Man to Man (Maybury, 1991.)

 

Manila is one of nine features in a mini-retro devoted to Filipino master Lino Brocka - including the brilliant Insiang (1976), plus the likes ofYou are Weighed in the Balance But Are Found Wanting (1974) and Bona (1980). I intend to see them all.

 

Alert eyes will spot that my ten includes only a couple of new movies. But I'm also keen to squeeze in Peter Kern's Blutsfreundschaft, Raya Martin's Independencia, Jessia Hausner's Lourdes, Alain Guiraudie's The King of Escape, Coppola's Tetro, Jennifer Reeves When It Was Blue and Suwa & Girardot's Yuki & Nina, along with the documentary Ne change rien (Pedro Costa) and the short Le Streghe - femmes entre elles (Jean-Marie Straub.)

 

To be fair, not that many of the non-archive titles have actually been unveiled yet, but they include the following that I can personally recommend: Agrarian Utopia (Uruphong Raksasad, 2009), Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) and Survival Song (YU Guangyi, 2008), while from the Rosenbaum retrospective I (along with most folks) am already very familiar with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the original Hairspray, Rushmore, Bulworth, The King of Comedy and Adaptation.

 

By early November I hope to be equally au fait with Joe Dante's Matinee (1993), Leo McCarey's Duck Soup (1933, showing with the Laurel and Hardy classic short The Music Box [James Parrott, 1932]) and the Hawks Monkey Business (1952). Much less exposed - and therefore very high on my want-see list: Laughter (Harry D'Abbadie D'Arrast, 1930), Chameleon Street (Wendell B Harris Jr, 1989) and When Pigs Fly (Sara Driver, 1993).

Indeed, so packed is this year's Retrospective with tantalising options that, as in previous years, I find myself (A) wishing I lived in Vienna, at least for the entire beloved month of October, and (B) musing what I could come up with in the (very unlikely) event I were given carte blanche to curate a Viennale Retrospective of my own.

My ponderings in this regard have been strongly influenced by a book I read a couple of weeks ago, namely Dan Streible's Fight Pictures - A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (University of California Press, paperback $24.95 / £16.95). Read all about it here, next week...

***

pages from a cold island is a monthly dispatch from the European film scene by Neil Young.

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