I attended the Viennale for the first time this year, both because I was already in Vienna and had been there since the summer with the purpose of improving my German and because the festival was presenting my own film, Short Stay. Below are some fading impressions written in the days following the festival of films I was happiest to have seen.
In Memory of Zsóka Nestler (Metrokino, 16mm & DCP)
Up the Danube
The only other Nestler film with which I am familiar is Ödenwaldstetten (1964), a documentary shot in Bayern in static, black and white images profiling people who live and work in the German countryside, speaking in a variety of dialects. In a tribute to Nestler’s recently deceased collaborator and wife, Zsóka, the festival screened a program of three films the two had directed together: I Budapest (In Budapest,1969), Uppför Donau (Up the Danube, 1969) and Zeit (Time, 1992).
When I Budapest began with a brief, perhaps three or four second, black and white shot of a woman at work behind a desk before suddenly cutting to a series of quick, panning shots of a church in Budapest, I was immediately in favor of all that the film would do. Presented in a terrific 16mm print and filmed by Peter Nestler with a handheld, roving camera that should be described as expressive rather than observational, the film gives an impressionistic portrait of the city in 1969 with voice-over in German translating the thoughts of some of the city’s inhabitants. Presented as a DCP (only one print survives and the negative is lost), Uppför Donau, shot in color with a slightly more static camera but a similar rhythm alternating shots both quick and of slightly longer duration, is a film intertwining history and the everyday work of people on board a Hungarian boat going along the Danube. Zeit, presented in a gorgeous, color 16mm print, focus on folk artists in Germany, sympathetically profiling a number of older men and women who spend their free time painting and carving sculptures for no reason other than the pleasure the work elicits. The film is shot with a less rambunctious camera than the earlier films, perhaps due to slightly greater material means, resulting in more static shots, the better to present the art and the subjects.
Based on the four films I have seen, it is clear that the Nestlers are as major as their German and French admirers claim. Hopefully the full American retrospective is only a short way off.
PlayTime (Gartenbaukino, 70mm)
I once saw a 35mm print of PlayTime (1967) on a smallish screen either in New York or Paris and though I laughed heartily, it was nothing compared to the festival’s presentation in Gartenbaukino of a slightly-faded, original 70mm release print with magnetic sound. As if to make up for a confusing lack of introductions for most of the other tribute screenings, the festival had the German archivist who had preserved the print give a tour de force, twenty-minute Einführung in which we were told a brief history of 70mm, the difference between a print struck from a camera negative vs. a print struck from a dupe negative and why the 2003 restoration is inferior both visually and aurally to the original print we would be seeing. And he was not lying! It wouldn’t be worth giving my scattered thoughts on this wonderful film here, but suffice it to say that I can live content with the memory of this version and never see the film again.
Tribute: Peter Hutton (Metrokino, 16mm)
In honor of Hutton’s passing this past summer, the festival presented a complete retrospective in the original format. For six days I made a daily trip to the Metrokino to see all but the final program (pausing on the final day to walk through the countryside and drink fresh white wine with friends).
Two primary aspects of Hutton’s cinema: the collection of the shots - slow, static images that are are often extremely grainy, focusing alternately on abstracted elements of landscape (light shimmering on a river, blown-out street lights on a snowy road at night, wind and light through a wind moving a curtain) and more recognizable figures (the homeless in Poland, a clown, people working on deconstructing a ship) and structures (ships, industrial buildings along a river); the assembly of these shots—finding an order, determining their duration and how they will begin and end: a fade in or a fade out, a cut to black or a cut to another image.
The films have sometimes been described as “diary films,” and yet aside from the early July ‘71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971), which focuses on Hutton’s friends, work, and home and rambunctiously uses time lapse and handheld sequences that quickly disappear from his work, what we observe in New York Near Sleep (For Saskia) (1972) through Three Landscapes (2013), and how we observe, namely with rhythmically methodical fading in and fading out or startling hard cuts—most often to varying lengths of black leader—somehow remove the documentary quality of the original recorded material. Hutton’s films at once harken back to early cinema and early photography, and yet are clearly set apart from those traditions.
The seedwork for the later films focusing on natural landscapes is already present in Hutton’s first film, the jokey In Marin County (1970), hidden beneath sped-up footage of tractors bulldozing houses set to the sound of a chipmunks-esque song. Beginning with New York Near Sleep, Hutton focuses alternately on urban and natural landscapes, always in grainy black and white (these films often give you the impression of watching a dupey print of some long, lost film from the 1930s) until color returns in sections of Time and Tide and then takes a central role in the finals films Looking at the Sea (2002), Skagafjördur (2004), Two Rivers (2007), At Sea (2007) and Three Landscapes.
Hutton has an extraordinary ability to establish an almost sleep-like rhythm through his fades—although these too, it should be noted, gradually disappear in the later films. Each shot is an event, or a vignette whose subject matter—the way a tree is moving, an overexposed street light at night, children dismantling a ship to sell the metal—is open and for us to determine, the way, as a friend recently pointed out in another context, the wide shot used by Ken Jacobs in Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son shows all the action in one massive image.
Arch of Triumph (Metrokino, 35mm)
Despite the enthusiasm of my colleagues, I cannot claim any interest in the work of Kenneth Lonergan, but the Viennale’s decision to pay tribute to him this year resulted in a Carte Blanche selection that included the rare Lewis Milestone film Arch of Triumph (1948). Or, as Christoph Huber described it, “the film that bankrupted Enterprise!” No introduction preceded the film, so I will never know why Lonergan wanted us to see it, but I can’t complain.
In the late 1930s, Charles Boyer plays an Austrian doctor exiled in Paris to escape the Nazis, performing operations in secret (the two depicted in the film are both, strangely, very unsuccessful) and trying to avoid being deported. He begins a very complicated relationship with Ingrid Bergman, playing an Italian singer exiled in France for unclear reasons. Going way over budget (hence the bankrupting of the studio) and running nearly two and a half hours (after an original cut that was evidently between three and four hours), the film has a kind of grandiose, uneconomical quality, constantly adding detail upon detail, that, together with the chopped, semi-elliptical nature of the finale, somehow adds to or produces the trauma when Bergman’s character is shot by a second lover, Boyer’s surgery fails to save her, and he then gives himself up to the Nazis to be taken to a concentration camp, seeing no more reason to live. Not a masterpiece, but messy and better!
La vallée close (Metrokino, 16mm)
A very long-awaited film for me, presented by the Viennale twice in a new 16mm print. Like Hutton, Rousseau begins by filming a place that interests him and finds a structure for his footage later. The place is the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, the source of the Sorgue River near Avignon in France. Pointing his camera into the valley where the water flows out of the earth—rendered on his high-contrast color reversal super 8 film as a black chasm in front of which tourists wander—Rousseau returned to the location over several years in the mid-1980s, eventually filming his nearby hotel room, an amusement park, a farm and an abandoned building.
Through a volume of Petrach’s poetry (the poet, we learn from a plaque late into the 2 hour 23 minute film, spent much time in the valley after the loss of his beloved Laura de Noves), Rousseau discovered the form of the film: a modified sestina; and through a book of geography for grade school students, a way of organizing the film into twelve chapters (The Cardinal Directions, Seasons, Orientation). Five in-camera edited super 8 reels, each focusing on a single, gorgeously-photographed location, are strung together per section, with the locations returning in a different order in each, as per the rules of the sestina.
Watching the film, I became acutely aware of what a loss digital has been to Rousseau’s cinema. While his most recent films have all featured direct sound recorded by his video camera, the earlier super 8 films required him to return to locations and record sound separately, creating a dense second layer to the films, long thought-out sound-image relationships. In La vallée close (1995), we hear bits of field recordings along with music, off-screen quotations (another major text: an essay by a 24-year old Bergson interpreting a passage in De Rerum Natura regarding the nature of atoms) and a series of phone conversations between Rousseau and an unheard interlocutor. The connection between sound and image, subtle and indirect, has a cumulative effect as the locations return again and again, echoing one another as their order slightly changes with each chapter.
Late in the film, when Rousseau films the plaque explaining the importance of the valley to Petrach as he dealt with the loss of Laura de Noves, one recalls and connects the phone conversations Rousseau has recorded and placed throughout the film—perhaps with a loved one—to the amazing, very dark, red, grainy night club scene earlier in the film in which his camera records a barely-visible singer performing a French pop song, ending with the refrain “avec toi, avec toi.” It seems to be a film of absence and geography, addressing both the metaphysical and the personal, with as much concern for the way a pool of light looks on a bed sheet and the way an amusement park ride’s circular lights look in the night sky. Circling around its subjects of interest like a surveyor, the film is in some ways about orientation but is equally disorienting, in that we are not given a map to any of these places, just impressions.