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The Golden Donkey Venice 2011

Venice! The Biennale! Retrospectives, new films, festival turmoil, art that's not cinema—all this and more!
The Ferroni Brigade

Our Deaths, in memoriam was the project title of Lav Diaz' Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning mga Engkanto (2007). For the Ferroni Brigade, it became the motto of Venice 2011—specters of dear lives gone seemed to roam the event, the Mostra internazionale d’arte cinematografica as well as the Esposizione internazionale d'arte, and beyond.

We always commemorate the murder of Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco on September 1st 2009, quietly, invariably in Venice; it was here that we heard about the crime; now, whenever we go to the press room to check our e-mails, deep down something inside us is afraid of getting another message like that one; fittingly, one of the last films we saw this year was Diaz' latest, Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011), which ends with a dedication to them, and talks about the way our loved ones, just like cherished ideas, notions and visions are essentially eternal, and remain with us long after we thought them gone. We still see the two, often.

This year, in addition, there was the gap left by the demise of Michael Althen, one of the finest minds in German-language film criticism, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on May 12th, at age 48, which freaked out TO1..., comrade Möller no end, as he turned 40 only a few days before. To bid him farewell, he read Althen's quasi-memoirs, Warte, bis es dunke ist. Eine Liebeserklärung an das Kino (2002), but only a few pages at a time—then, things got too much, and too close. In case you read German: Be sure to visit www.michaelalthen.de, where you can find his collected writings—not all of them yet, but ever more, depending on the time and energy people, these days chiefly the one and only Doris Kuhn—and can invest in this labor of love, cinephile and other.

Above: Crystal Landscape of Inner Body.

Althen was very much on TO1..., comrade Möller's mind when faced with Chén Zhèn's Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (2000): Human innards made of glass—elegance pure and simple, lucid, poignant, brutally painful (presented at the Punta della Dogana as part of the exhibition Elogio del dubio). And so was Christoph Schlingensief who died at age 49 on August 21st 2010, and whom TO1..., comrade Möller knew a bit in their young(er) days, back when the FRG was still a place where you could headbutt some sense into people by presenting them with films of a more drastic, crasser nature—works which were now part of the Golden Lion'ed German Pavilion, i.e. officially sanctioned, beatified art, therewith "pacified," "contained". The experience of looking at scenes from 100 Jahre Adolf Hitler. Die letzte Stunde im Führerbunker (1989) and Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker (1990) surrounded by those these cinexorcisms should've shocked into thinking differently, and seeing nothing but complacent indifference in their eyes was depressing, if not surprising. Visiting the Palazzo Foscari's tribute to the late, great Dmitrij Prigov whom TO1..., comrade Wurm got to know a bit in his life's dawn, was, in contrast, a pleasantly festive experience: The irascible cheekiness of his drawings and installations proved soothing, and heartening. Besides, we were almost alone there... Yet, we tried to make sure that everybody we know and like visited it, and some actually did.

Above: Dmitrij Prigov's Compositions with Labels.

So, yes, the finite nature of all things earthly was constantly on our mind during this Venice—Marco Müller's last, as it turned out. Some of you might have wondered (and in the case of Her Evercurious Delightfulness, Mrs/Miss/Ms. B., Nicole, even worried) why we took so long for the Golden Donkey Awards when, as those close to the Central Committee knew, we'd already decided months ago on the winners. The reason is quite simple: We wanted to see how things Venice would develop: whether Müller would be granted the Grand Exception and get his contract extended for a second time (something the Biennale statutes forbid), or... And it turned out to be: "or." Which we dreaded since the collapse of Berlusconi IV and the Monti Cabinet’s announcement—a government composed exclusively of technocrats spells d.i.s.a.s.t.e.r. for the arts, as they're expendable, full-frontal capitalistically speaking. Monti's Manager of Culture, Lorenzo Ornaghi, dealt with the Biennale-problem(s) swiftly, following the ancient rules of political pragmatism: Paolo Baratta, the Biennale's president since 2008, got his contract extended as he was already on the job and knew what to do, which effectively meant that Müller was out—everybody knew they didn't get along. Who would have thought that we'd ever—ever, ever, ever—think something like, "If Berlusconi had hung on only for a mere two weeks more..."

So, yes, saying that we're unhappy about this development is but a gross understatement—we're fucking horrified, because now, most probably, the last major film festival has fallen, for Alberto Barbera doesn't strike us as someone who can keep Venice on the same level as Marco Müller. Whatever one might (or simply has to) say against Müller as a person (and, judging by the stories many folks tell, there's a lot), he certainly knows how to put a strong, politically sensible, aesthetically multifaceted, intelligently challenging program together—mind, even people who bear a grudge against him for this or that reason usually agree on that, and many of those would have wanted him to stay, as the alternative apparent weren't alternatives. Barbera was never mentioned in those discussions about the festival's future as everybody supposed that he was still pissed-off by the Biennale's "behavior" towards him after the 2001-edition, not to mention that little Turin empire of his which includes a museum to be run, a film subsidizing scheme to be taken care of, and a festival to be overseen. Mind, Barbera did quite okay as Venice's director back then, program-wise, but since... His doings in Turin—especially his role in The Events of Winter 2006/7, and what became of the Turin Film Festival—don't inspire too much trust; neither do his first interviews as the new Venice-director in which he celebrates Cannes as the example to follow while suggesting changes in the Mostra's structure that sound somewhat Berlinale'sque: Barbera—or is it Baratta?—wants a market (every festival's doom), year-round activities (why?), and something campussy (which goes together with the market these days—create your coterie that crafts products tailored to the market-segment you want to serve).

We suspect that several Melchizedeks of extra-fine bubbly got drained in Toronto upon hearing the news. Folks in Locarno and San Sebastian certainly cheered as well.

Still, there are Donkeys to award, quite a few in fact, as Venice, maybe for the last time, delivered plentiful—while the juries, once again, didn't rise to the challenge. Yes, they acknowledged the genius of Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory (2011), Yorgos Lanthimos' Alpis (2011) and Tsukamoto Shin'ya's Kotoko (2011), the moving tenderness of Heoi2 On1 Waa4 (Ann Hui)'s Tou2 ze(2011) and the politically dubious yet eye-popping grandeur of Aleksandr Sokurov's Faust (2011)—still, too many awards went to the undignified and the unspeakable. Actually, there were more works of merit than Donkeys of whichever persuasion! So, we're afraid that quite a few worthies remain unacknowledged even by us—but hey!, we are not into doing things the watering can-way, even the Golden Donkey has its limits.

Aaaaaaand: By now, it even has its logo! Edgar Pêra was so moved by winning the Golden Donkey last Rotterdam that he asked his regular ad artist to design a special logo for this very special award. Check out the posters for  O Barão or, even better, the film's trailer (its tail end, to be precise). So, dear awardees ancient, current and future: If you want to show your pride in winning this most noble prize, contact us and we'll send you the appropriately-worded logo. 

And now let's see who might send us an e-mail any time soon.

The Golden Donkey goes to A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

Now, that would be the day: An e-mail from David Cronenberg! TO1..., comrade Huber and TO1..., comrade Möller actually had the honor of interviewing the master in October when he presented his greatest work in a long time at the Viennale—and, man, did we feel guilty when Cronenberg mentioned that due to us he missed the qualifiers for the Grand Prix in India! For a split second we thought about leaving him to his passion but then, in the spirit of A Dangerous Method, we continued to probe his soul through questions about his Jewish ancestry and Austrian inter-war literature. (At the end of our audience—or should we say: session?—we couldn't resist mentioning fellow Ferrari-fanatic James Glickenhaus; wouldn't that be great: David Cronenberg's Red Cars produced by Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus?!)

We didn't even have to discuss the Golden Donkey amongst us—A Dangerous Method was so obviously the sole just choice that one of us said it, the others nodded, and that was that. We all knew why this was The One: Because it's a paean to enlightenment, a meditation on what true human development takes—a film that talks about the main ideas we believe in, and does so in a way that's precise, cultured, sophisticated, casually ironic, witty, clear-headed while passionate, deeply moving while pleasantly brainy. This is our film.

The Golden Donkey Foal goes ex aequo to Evolution (Megaplex) by Marco Brambilla and Joule 3D by David Zamagni & Nadia Ranocchi

Above: Evolution (Megaplex).

Yes, the host did good, if only at the liberal AV-art front—which everybody who'd survived the Italian Pavilion would have thought impossible. Add to that: Both works are in 3D! (We didn't want to go out on a limb and also Donkey Ezio Greggio's stunningly silly piece of stupitainement all' Italiana, Box Office 3D, but...let's say: It was echt Müller to show this one as a preapertura special, one time, for the true connoisseurs; a mighty Ferronian gesture, that.) 

Marco Brambilla's 3'-Videomural offers cinema ad nauseam—hundreds, if not thousands of looped fragments from the kind of film history every doofus and his granny knows, got patched together as a moving post-apocalyptic landscape: Dirty Harry two steps fore and two steps back, Red Sea open, Red Sea close, scantily-clad vixen wiggles her hot ass, scantily-clad vixen wiggles her hot ass in exactly the same manner again, Dino roars, Dino roars again... Life as a farce in which everything stays exactly as it is while everything is constantly in motion, creating an illusion of development—but, no, it's always the same, with only the viewer's reading of the landscape changing, or not; and maybe, at some point, it gets too much and the viewer understands that some action has to be taken... Call it: Tancredi'an Desinvoltura pushed to the limit, then further, and then some. Which is exactly what we expect from the maestro who gave us a.o. Demolition Man (1993), Dinotopia (2002) and Sync (2005).

In the Biennale-context, Evolution (Megaplex) also functioned perfectly as a comment on Christian Marclay's grotesquely overrated AV-Lichtbildbühnenweihefestspiel The Clock (2011). The best line we heard about this prime example for everything that's wrong in contemporary art—call it: installation-dom's Shame (2011)—was voiced by our main MUBI-man, The Kaz, who squibed that The Clock might turn up soon for download on the net—as the middle-brow cinephile's de luxe-mobile phone accessory of choice.

Joule 3D opens with a movement that looks especially nasty when considered alongside Evolution (Megaplex): Cutely drawn fish eats cutely drawn fish—Darwinism at its basest made to look good for a socially concerned better-middle-class that would probably barf away if it had to look at all this for real. 

After the circle-munch: AV-genre scenes—line-dancing as an arcade game, body-building, pole-dancing (to a hellish techno cover of Tainted Love), etc. Somewhere in the film's middle, the great Rinaldo Censi, seated in a mock-TV-studio, holds forth about food, waste and the zero-sum game contemporary capitalism ludens adds up to. A little later, Zamagni & Ranocchi go for the kill with an image of grim Agnoli'ian wit that perfectly nails neo-liberism's conditio humana: It's like a tank whose driver is dead but stuck to the steering handles, moving aimlessly through a desert of dunes—its all about mass, you see, with the landscape's slopes shifting the dead weight in the tank around...; at some point, the tank will run out of fuel, and then, there will be nothing but stillness.

The Silver Donkey goes to Anhey ghorhey de daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) by Gurvinder Singh

This was the festival's biggest surprise. We had long pondered whether we should see Anhey ghorhey de daan or attend the parallel-scheduled screening of Damsels in Distress, which features the ever-worshipable Greta Gerwig; in the end, the argument went, we'll probably get to see the US-indie release anytime soon somewhere else, but an Indian film by a no-name? (And mind, Whit Stillman isn't exactly a favorite of ours—in contrast to Godly Greta). Good choice we made! For Anhey ghorhey de daan—the tale of one Punjabi family's plight in its hovel of a hinterland home as well as the big city among the lumpen proletariat—is exactly the kind of film we crave: A perfect mix of socialist realism and muscular Kurosawa-De Santis-Güney'ian humanism created by a refined modernist mind. Yes, the legacy of Ritwik Ghatak, who was the teacher of Mani Kaul, who was the Creative Producer of this marvel, is still alive, and obviously gets handed on through the generations. 

The Balaam's Donkey Award for Total Transcendence goes to the Triptych: 4:44 Last Day on Earth by Abel Ferrara & Die Herde des Herrn (The Flock of the Lord) by Romuald Karmakar & Il villagio di cartone (The Cardboard Village) by Ermanno Olmi, and its Predella Iz Tōkyō by Aleksej Aleksejevič German

Above: Die Herde des Herrn.

Big one, this one, a really wide ex aequo, but it seemed the right way to do it. Besides, 2011 was the Edition of the Triptych thanks to Whores' Glory as well as Eija-Liisa Ahtila's Marian ilmestys

All four are deeply spiritual works, serious even when they're funny. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a meditation on how to live into ones death, about keeping calm in the face of the inevitable, which here is nothing less than the end of the world (as we know it); what can you still do, what's left to do, what's worth what thenDie Herde des Herrn offers choice moments from encounters with believers: first some inhabitants of Marktl a few days after it was announced that the Upper Bavarian hamlet's most famous son, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, would from now on be known as Benedictus PP. XVI; then select members of the crowd who had traveled to Rome from all over the world to bid Johannes Paulus PP. II farewell and were now waiting in line somewhere near St. Peter's Square hoping to get soon (meaning: in maybe six, seven, eight hours) a glance at Karol Józef Wojtyła's human remains; life and death considered as a cycle of genuinely epic proportions—considered on a humbly human scale. Il villagio di cartone presents Christianity as a transitory man-made construction: A church is torn down—sans-papiers from all over Africa take shelter in the ruin (sanctuary is a concept long gone from our culture...); when the old priest who for decades took care of his flock in this House of God dies, he cries in a final moment of clarity that religion is nothing, care for ones fellow being everything—which, of course, is Christianity's essence forged in the chaos of centuries and millennia of progress at all costs; Christianity might pass one day soon, but the need to look after one another will remain. Iz Tōkyō, finally, set tactfully against the recent devastation of vast parts of Japan, is a small cinematic gesture to console us in our moments of sorrow and helplessness in the face of pain and destruction no human alone can ever grasp: It's about how all our cherished ones who passed on before us will remain close by. 

But there's more than the spirituality that unites the three features: They are all most fragile creations. They're works by directors who don't give a shit anymore (did they ever?) about "proper" aesthetics, making things a bit like this or that to conform with certain "general" norms and therefore "easier" for "the" audience, no: These are films that say exactly what they need to say and show exactly what they need to show—bare-boned creations, naked, whole, and absolutely unambiguous. Which especially, and tellingly, confused vast parts of Die Herde des Herrn's audience: Many who didn't know Karmakar's work left the screening after only a few minutes thinking that he was simply making fun of believers (at least that's what we guess); while many of those who knew Karmakar were in the end confused about the fact that he was actually deeply respectful of people's spiritual needs (at least that's what we guess). On the other hand: We rejoiced at the fact that quite a few who'd never seen a film by Karmakar were overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit, his patience, his refusal to consider all these faces and voices as anything less than his fellow humans—despite, despite being more than a little horrified by the deeper meaning of all that he observes: Enlightenment's last gleaming, as us Aldrich'ians would put it.

As for Iz Tōkyō: It's an example of small-scale filmmaking of uncommon perfection and solidity—that's why it's our Predella.

The Golden Stable goes to "Paradiso di Navin" (Thailand)

As this was the first time we went together to the Esposizione internazionale d'arte—took time to stroll through the Giardini and the Arsenale—and also found a few hours to visit some of the national contributions strewn all over the city (Singapore's was of prime importance as Ho Tzu-nyen was responsible for it this year, and did really, really great), we thought that this should be commemorated with an award for the liberal art-part of this our Venice 2011. Being totally supportive of the idea that nations address their state through art—something which seems almost old-fashioned in this day and age of globalization—we agreed on honoring a Pavilion with a Golden Stable. Once again, we didn't have to discuss matters for too long as the decision quickly boiled down to two options: Either Fin- or Thailand. As we had already decided on the Golden Donkey Foal(s) it seemed sensible to continue in the same vein: Subversiveness with lots of fun. Which did it for Finland, as Vesa-Pekka Rannikko's excellent piece is above all solemn and contemplative—brilliant, but not what the moment called for. That was Navin Rawanchaikul, or Chairman Navin as the Navin Party's benign leader refers to himself in his post-Batjuška, post- Zhǔxí-, post-21segiui hyangdoseong-persona. 

The Brigade was especially open for this work due to the fact that Vienna saw two major exhibitions on East Asian communist art and life in 2010 and '11: One about painting and architecture in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and one about everyday culture during the days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Our dear friend Katja Wiederspahn and the great Chris Berry put a film program together for the latter (which included two evenings with shorts from the period, a.o. the excellent 1967 Zhōngyāng xīnwén jìlù diànyǐngzhìpiànchǎng-production Máo Zhǔxí dìbācì jiējiàn hóngweìbīng), while TO1..., comrade Möller was involved on the side-lines with the former (he gave a lecture on DPRK-film history and aesthetics). So, we enjoyed a lot of socialist realist art recently, much more than usual...

The Thai-Pavilion was splendidly placed: Smack in front of the Giardini-exit—you got out and looked right at the café or bar that had been turned into Navinland's provisional capital. Inside, we rejoiced at the splendid, in some cases massive socialist realist canvases depicting Navin in the same poses as just about every Great Helmsman of the last century—and mind, there's nothing ironic about the paintings themselves, safe of course for the fact that it's Navin on them and not one of the usual celebs. Many just laughed and thought it was a joke; another many probably considered the joke a bit tasteless, what with GULags, Láogǎi etc.; others might have gotten nostalgic for a time of ideals, lost, but still, people at least believed in something, even if it usually cost millions of lives (did anybody ever count how many lives capitalism cost?); some might have pondered the question of political idealism and national/racial identity turned market commodity, which is indeed one key to the whole Navin-project (of which the Navin Party is but one part); then, some... Discourse, discourse. Of course, the works exhibited, the space created is above all a reason to get some talk going—at least it pretends to work like that, i.e. in the currently established art world way. Yet, we could never completely shake of the impression that the pavilion was taking the piss at the art scene and its players, be they gallery owners, curators independent or properly employed, theoreticians, hanger-ons etc.: Their system looked back at them like the horse-lover's abyss. If you stood there long enough, only the paintings seemed real, and what they evoked, for the better or the worse.

Above: Il canto d'amore di Alfred Prufrock

One last word: We decided once again against awarding a Grey Donkey as we considered the retrospective wanting, for the usual reasons (lack of coherence and transparency in the selection; too many films shown as videos or digital somesuchs; etc.). Let's mention at least: that TO1..., comrade Huber, was completely blown away by Alberto Grifi & Massimo Sarchielli's Anna (1975); that TO1..., comrade Möller, found himself mighty amused by Augusto Tretti's Il potere (1972); and that the whole Central Committee enjoyed the pairing of Bis (Paolo Brunatto, 1967) & Il canto d'amore di Alfred Prufrock (Nico D'Alessandria, 1967) & Hermitage (Carmelo Bene, 1968)—if only the curators had left it at that (but no, they had to tack on another Brunatto, the 1967 Vieni, dolce morte (dell' ego)...; great work but should have been programmed differently). 


VeniceVenice 2011Golden DonkeysLav DiazChristoph SchlingensiefDavid CronenbergMarco BrambillaDavid ZamagniNadia RanocchiGurvinder SinghAbel FerraraRomuald KarmakarAleksei German Jr.Ermanno Olmilong
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