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Viennale 1: LIFE'S HALT

Above: Ricardo Iscar's Dance to the Spirits.

"When I become death, death is the seed from which I grow."
—William S Burroughs, Ah Pook Is Here.

Not to be morbid or anything, but the shadow of mortality has been a dominant theme of nearly all the best stuff I've seen so far at the 48th Vienna International Film Festival (Viennale for short), most inescapably in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat), which clicked with me more than most "Joe" efforts, I suspect, mainly because of its surprisingly prominent horror-movie touches.

Certain spooky scenes involving ape-like jungle "beings" with bright red eyes recall "lowbrow" antecedents like John Carpenter's The Fog (1980), Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead quartet (1971-5) and Eugenio Martín's Horror Express (1972), not to mention the more nightmarish alternate-realities of David Lynch - though Apichatpong has cited specifically Thai genre cinema as his main inspiration.

My other standout here also premiered at Cannes, where it also won a Palme: back in May Gregg Araki's Kaboom became the first laureate of the 'Queer Palme d'Or', a gong seemingly modelled on Berlin's long-running Teddy award. Araki's deliriously enjoyable and breezily apocalyptic take on the sex-and-drug saturated college comedy screened Out Of Competition on the Croisette—and while it's hardly the kind of thing to appeal to august, prestige-conscious jurors, this sort of genre-bending, consistently hilarious, utterly genial and polymorphously perverse sci-fi is drastically harder to pull off than it looks. My boat was decisively floated: to paraphrase the saucy innuendo of the Bloodhound Gang, "I'm Siskel and I'm Ebert and you're getting two thumbs up."

Indeed, in terms of accessibility, audacity and sheer storytelling chutzpah, Kaboom can be spoken of in the same breath as Hitoshi Matsumoto's brain-frying masterpiece Symbol (Shinboru) (2009)—which is playing here at the Viennale, and which I caught at Tromsø's film festival way up north of the Arctic Circle back in January.

Full disclosure: I'm on the Tromsø programming board, and as of this year I'm also no longer an unbiased, unconnected visitor to the Viennale either, having contributed an essay on Austrian experimental-shorts maker Siegfried A Fruhauf to the catalogue, and performing five paid "moderations" (introductions and/or Q&As, including Uncle Boonmee.) So this means I must refrain from general comments on the merits of the festival as such, confining my remarks in these reports to assessments of individual films.

That said, while I gave festival director Hans Hurch a few suggestions in recent months, my programming involvement has been minimal. And in many cases I'd never even heard of the movies before going through the schedule just before setting off. Among the "wild cards" I took a gamble on, the most pleasing result has been via Dance to the Spirits (Dansa als esperits), a documentary by the Spanish director Ricardo Iscar.

For some reason I was expecting a study of African music, but what I got was an up-close study of traditional medicine in a remote corner of Cameroon, where a clinic has been operating for nearly 30 years. I'm not normally a fan of the now-hackneyed "fly on the wall" approach, where the subjects act as if there are no cameras present, but here it wasn't a problem at all—so fascinating is the material, and so unfussy its presentation via a series of extended, commentary-free sequences showing various aspects of clinic life.

Nature encroaches on all sides, and indeed is welcomed as a source of energy potentials which may be used to cure the patients—many of whom have as a diagnosis "witchcraft secret." Indeed, Iscar's contemplative study of people within specific environments—often nocturnal and jungle-dominated—makes Dance to the Spirits a plausible double-bill companion to Uncle Boonmee, as some Viennale patrons may have found for themselves when one picture followed the other at the Urania cinema on Sunday afternoon.

In both movies, death is often discussed and seldom far from the protagonists' minds—but in a manner that's reflective and realistic rather than off-puttingly morbid. Even in Kaboom, so preoccupied with Eros that there was a palpable my-place-or-yours vibe in the lobby as patrons exited the cinema, Thanatos was much more than a supporting player. The threat of nuclear apocalypse (from religious cultists rather than an enemy superpower) endows proceedings with a pleasingly quaint cold-war-paranoia vibe, highly appropriate for a city which, in the years and decades after Harry Lime, found itself on a sinister but profitable frontier as a key gateway between east and west.

And in the city's cinemas over these past few days, death has been very much "at one's elbow": funeral rites of wildly differing sorts presented in Alexei Fedorchenko's seductive, finally slightly slight Silent Souls (Ovsyanki)—I preferred his more larkish debut, 2005's First on the Moon—and John Ford's slow-starting, speed-gathering Kentucky melodrama The Sun Shines Bright (1953).

I followed the latter with another seldom-shown gem from the archives, Juliette Berto and Jean-Paul Roger's Snow (Neige) from 1981, the co-director playing the lead as a Pigalle barmaid engaged in differing types of relationships with three men, two of whom have bitten the dust by the time the credits rolled. Snow was part of a tribute to recently deceased cinematographer William Lubchantsky, just as the Viennale's parallel Retrospective programme showcased the entire oeuvre of the late Eric Rohmer: in cinema, afterlives can take other forms than reincarnation...

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