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Rotterdam 2016. The Streets, the Mountains, the Snow, and the Ocean

Three mysterious new short to medium films at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and one thrillingly lucid 1966 Spanish gem.
The French New Wave did not invent the idea of exploring a city through the wanderings of a couple—F.W. Murnau suggest as much from the Fox studio backlot in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and Luchino Visconti offered his own glorious fairy tale stroll of Cinecittà’s Venice in White Nights—but that movement certainly provided an invigorating, youthful inspiration to an emerging generation of international filmmakers to orient their cinema to the relationships close to them and to streets they know so well.
Thus we see Catalonian director José María Nunes’s 1966 masterpiece Noche de vinto tinto (Red Wine Night), which begins with a young woman distraught when her boyfriend breaks a promised date and, going out into the night, she attaches herself to a failed Romeo. The character of their meeting encapsulates all the oneiric, irrational, partially romantic, partially despondent tenor of the evening of bar hopping that follows, and that indeed makes up the entire story. Sitting by herself in the first bar she finds, the woman overhears a man making a poetic pass at another girl. Failing, he leaves the bar...and our heroine follows. And we follow too, this couple which may not even care precisely for each other but have fallen across the other’s path during a dreamy evening full of wistfulness, simmering potential, and internal distraction. Each are unnamed by the film (an opening credit claims that inside one woman is all woman), but the man, played by Pasolini’s Christ (Enrique Irazoqui, from The Gospel According to St. Matthew, two years earlier), has a quietly fierce aspect that is clearly pleased and not a little ensorcelled by the beauty of his new devotee, but also seems off in a world of his own, that this night could be any night, and indeed this girl any girl, and that these pleasures are of a theoretical kind. For her, played by a Anne Settimó (script supervisor for several Pere Portabella films and co-writer on Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos), the night, its rambling conversations, dive bars, ambient police presence and glass after glass of wine has the precariousness and urgency of a "Mortal Tale" by Eric Rohmer. Yet both are ensconced in a certain dreaminess, the dialog dubbed, music playing continually, creating a sense of recollection rather than presence, even if the film is wonderfully at pains to show us the real streets and bars of Barcelona—so much so that the opening credits highlight the location shooting. Is this sense of lostness, this fidgeting movement, the intoxication in one moment and distraction in the next, the potential and the danger—is this the new generation grown to sensitivity and asking themselves what are they to do in Franco’s Spain?
Among what have so far been funkier, stranger and altogether more extreme examples of the Barcelona film school shown at Rotterdam, Noche de vinto tinto’s drawn-out nocturnal swoon appears positively lucid. Yet at times, the cloud of confusion can be as thrilling as the sharp, clear ring of cinematic clarity. Three terrific short to medium works at Rotterdam (which admirably devoted a section to medium-length films, which notoriously have trouble playing in cinemas anywhere, including at festivals) were like a fog laid across my vision, and were all the better for it.
American avant-garde filmmaker Pat O’Neill’s Where the Chocolate Mountain has expanded his unique multi-layer collage approach with moving image tableaux to an hour-length epic of Southwest topography, mirrored imagescapes, cryptic, flaming symbols, Los Angeles freeway, totemic rotating wooden cones, and a woman’s floating face. The mountains of the title, overlapping the California and Arizona border, includes the  Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, which may be the simmering impetuous for the video’s more ominous fireworks, yet the whole piece conjures a landscape composite not only of fire but desire, urbanity, wilderness, and unfathomable mythology. In shorter form, Rotterdam mainstay Takashi Makino has miraculously made yet another cinematic experience of fluid, sensual textural immersion: Cinéma concret, which begins in digital snow layered over inscrutable celluloid sources—in monochromatic fuzz like a confetti of QR codes—before segueing into swathes of tinted color washing towards but never quite achieving rapture. And of profound, rich chroma was Dutch filmmaker (and literal film-maker: she produces her own celluloid) Esther Urlus’s petite Elli, a small strip of film of a cool, lapping ocean in deep near-pure blue, before Urlus’s optical printing technique starts strobing the image upon the revelation of a ship, perhaps a battleship, on the horizon above the beach. Like Urlus’s wonderful Konrad & Kurfurst, which I wrote on from this festival several years ago, one can take her newest film as a thrillingly tactile, material treat of iridescent pleasure, yet the origins of the film source—in this case, according to the filmmaker, shot on the spot in Greece that marked that country’s entrance into World War II—is the beguiling re-staging of a moment of historical import as if it was the slivers of a personal diary.

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