Partycrashers is an on-going series of video dispatches from critics Michael Pattison and Neil Young.
Two white blokes from England sit down to discuss avant-garde cinema and the merits of Diversity® on the balcony of an Austrian arts museum. As bad jokes go, this one has a half-appropriate punch line: mournful whale-cries, blaring out with anarchist abandon, threaten to drown the “what do you think, this is what I think” exchange in a wall of sonic scorn. It’s almost as if we were asking for it.
Graz, Austria. Birthplace of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Of a man named Schwarzenegger too. History has done what it can to sever both men’s umbilical ties: the former is less famous for being born in Graz than being assassinated in Sarajevo, while in 2005 Arnie withdrew his name from a football stadium christened in his honor, after local authorities hemmed and hawed following his refusal, as the Governor of California, to stop the state execution of atoned Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams.
The Diagonale, “festival of Austrian films,” has been held here since 1998. At a “domestic” event such as this, all those burdens embedded within any worthwhile artistic endeavor are sharpened: to position oneself within a vertical (historical) and horizontal (social) landscape, to respect and respond to a rich cultural lineage, to contribute to an unfolding discourse. The best works rise to the occasion; others fall away. Such events must be celebratory even when unevenness is a given. Nationhood, belonging, identity—slippery terms to begin with—have nothing to draw upon but one another. Everyone knows each other. Disagreements—part and parcel of anything as subjective as cinephilia—must be whispered, if voiced at all.
None of this is a bad thing, but the jury’s still out as to whether it’s all good. On 12 March 2016, a few hours before this year’s numerous festival awards were handed out at the nearby Orpheum theater, Neil and I perched on seats in “the Needle,” a viewing deck in the city’s Kunsthaus, west of the rapid-flowing River Mur and across from Schloßberg, the small mount overlooking the center. As a name, the Needle implies a prohibitively narrow space, a freakishly thin postmodern sculpture, some kind of medieval torture device.
It’s none of these things, of course—though, this being a Saturday (heavier footfall, excited kids), we did have to compete with a torturous soundscape. Those mournful-cum-despairing background notes emanate not from some dreadful brass band rehearsing for the awards ceremony, but from a dangerously democratic exhibition space in which any member of the public could blow into giant, spindly appliances pretending to be musical instruments. Speak, and they shall wail. —Michael Pattison