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Viennale 2011. Space Re-Figured

Our first dispatch from the Vienna Film Festival: a cinematic plane ride, single-take feature, and two masterpieces from the Akerman retro.

My flight from New York to Vienna temporarily made a movie; it’s now a lost film, but what I saw of it was spectacular.  The plane was equipped with two video cameras, one pointing straight down, activated after the flight took off, and one pointing straight forward, which is active the moment the flight is boarded. Both videos have an unnatural, nearly uncanny flatness to them—akin to the comment that Harun Farocki has made about certain kinds of industrial video recording, that some digital footage is specifically not produced for the human eye. These images must be—but more likely for a technical eye, before someone realized the casual viewer—a passenger—might be interested.

The forward-facing camera, of interest only during taxiing, indifferently smashed the industrial shapes and figures of the JFK and Vienna airports into flat, unspooling geometric arrangements.  The compostion was always in motion, but a compressed kind of motion, panning as the plane turned this way and that, always unfurling across to re-arrange lumbering jets, banal walkways, and miniaturized hangers, all outlined in TSA-approved colors of European bank ATMs, hazard signs and other supposedly designed industrial gestures towards combining utility and aesthetics.

In flight and at night, the ground-facing camera saw nothing but vague points of light, more awash in the feedback and warping of lousy cable connection than any kind of live actuality footage; it wasn’t until we started descending over Austria that the wash gave way to cascading clouds, static-green, with roads or super-highways peaking out of wispy, moving corners and curving some wild direction. As we landed, this ever moving but never morphing topographical abstraction got a grand pseudo-dolly shot, the plane-mounted video lens forward-approaching its visual target with an acceleration that’d leave Martin Scorsese breathless. Turns out asphalt pavement at a handful of feet looks much the same in texture and tone as verdant green scroll-scapes peeling past at 25,000 feet.  (See the image above, captured on an old iPhone.) In both cases—in all three, actually, with the forward-camera bookends to the voyage—a remarkable and unrepeatable combination of inadequate, faulty technology, atmospheric conditions and time of day to produce something imminently special, intrinsically disposable, and soon to be forgotten in all but generalities.

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Amg Damgo Ni Eleuteria

These tremendous long-takes, if you’ll allow me to call them that, came to mind immediately at the festival, where the first film I saw was, with startlingly coincidence, a 90 minute single-take feature. Amg Damgo Ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria) by Filipino director Remton Siega Zuasola follows in real time the walk from beach to boat of a young girl from a small Filipino island who being married off by her family to an older man in Germany whom she does not know.  The shot starts wandering at a waterfront picnic, finding what seems a suicide attempt by the girl, finds her in the water and at the end leaves her in the water—on a boat going away. Between, the nimble actress passes through a caricatured, often whiny but also often both cartoonish and wryly humorous gauntlet made up of a local festival, the pimping overseas agent, her trendy cousin returning from abroad, her local boyfriend, nagging mother, sympathetic father, silent sister, and, of course, the single camera shot's tunnel of space.  It’s all rigged from the start due to Zuasola’s chosen technique, which casts the film like a video game—a linear corridor of events placed and then re-arranged along the single, unwavering path of the heroine, where divergences are mere illusions within the construct.  But this channel is justified by also clearly being a right of passage, one literalized by the tunnel-vision of the camera, which is usually either following or preceding its subjects.  The unrelenting nature of watching real time and real space continuously passed for 90 minutes—most of it spent walking—creates a vivid three dimensional space-time moment rended from reality, and Zuasola’s more repetitive, directed, and cloying moments are usually succcessfully navigated past by chance phantasmagoric touches (the young girl, after her attempt at death, silently dripping wet for minutes on end, an off-camera diversion by the young sister, a “fool” in the form of the village idiot) and the superb interior, pliant performance by lead actress Dona Isadora Gimeno, who, in a triumphant sequence near the film's end, rapidly oscillates back and forth between laughing gleefully and lovingly with the fool and being filled with despair at the chatter of her pimp, a scene of flux sharply in tune with the film's audacious aesthetic risk.

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J'ai faim, j'ai froid

Above: Chantal Akerman's J'ai faim, j'ai froid (1984).

Space was also dramatically figured and re-configured in two films—one short, part of an omnibus and one short feature—in the festival’s retrospective on Chantal Akerman, programmed and hosted by the Austrian Film Museum.

J’ai faim, j’ai froid (I’m Hungry, I’m Cold) is Akerman’s contribution to the 1984 omnibus semi-sequel, Paris vu par… vingt ans après. It is a breathlessly concise and precise vision of two young 17 year old runaways dropped off in Paris in the first shot and who proceed to step from frame to frame, space to space, seemingly forming the city as they go along.  Spaces are called up in front of them: “I’m hungry” and the girl steps out of frame and we cut to a food stand; “I’m cold” and a bed and covers reveal themselves.  Yet there is nothing fantastical about this film, whose clear, clean simplicity has a sparse, essential purity warmed by the coy confidences of the two girls, who ably not so much navigate the city as define it around them through their deadpan’d humorous pluck, frankness and unflappability.

An equally funny yet simultaneously far more sinister slant to living in space is taken in 1983’s short feature L’homme à la valise (The Man with the Suitcase), a journal of a woman (Akerman) returning to her flat after letting it to a friend, cleaning it up and putting things in their right place, only for a man to show up and share the space to work in (both desire to write on noisy typewriters).  The tiny Akerman and the giant man (Jeffrey Kime) get much comedic milage out of mistimed trips to the bathroom, loudly crunched crackers and Kime's sprawling frame squeezing by Akerman's stocky one in the hallway, but soon it becomes clear that Akerman’s character is being far more affected than the regular routines and normal looking flat let on.

The film almost has a kind of reverse-expressionism: instead of the mise-en-scène reflecting an exteriorization of interior states, the beautiful normality of the flat throws something inside Akerman, who becomes increasingly neurotic, obsessed and paranoid by her flatmate.  She tweaks her life to avoid his, plotting his movements first on a giant chart and later, pre-dating Godard’s Détective, using a video camera to keep an eye on his motions on the street.  Soon even her written work turns entirely to this non-life in the apartment, morphing into a diary of the man's activities—and thus representing the film’s script, thus becoming the movie.  Time loses all meaning—in one terrific shot Akerman starts to secretly boil water and watches her clock to note how long the man is in the bathroom, but she counts off the minutes in a matter of seconds and we realize that in the process of casting normal spaces of her home as neurotic, her powers are growing, Kafka-esque, into the realm of the fantastic: time is malleable, and, eventually, so is space (the walls of the flat remain normal but she breaks through them using her video camera, and a series of cuts reveal in her small bedroom the hoarded clutter of a shutin by the end of the film). The film, true to this sly expressionist core, aggregates neurosis that doesn't exist on screen, conjuring it from the comedic imagination of the woman's (and the director's) mind and re-casting these conventional spaces as strangers.

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