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Viennale 2014. Cinema's Torch

A report from the Vienna International Film Festival including new films, a retrospective on John Ford, and a tribute to Harun Farocki.
This year's poster for the Vienna International Film Festival is of a flame, and while around the world in other cinema-loving cities and at other cinema-loving festivals one might take that as a cue for a celluloid immolation and a move forever to digital, here in Austria cinema and film as film aren't burning up but rather are burning brightly.
The tributes and special programs in artistic director Hans Hurch's 2014 edition make this position clear: John Ford, Harun Farocki and 16mm, with new films by Tariq Teguia, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Marie Straub accompanying older ones by the same directors. These aren't just retrospectives, they are revitalizing redoubts, inexhaustible fountains of flame, of sensitivity, of consciousness, and of intervention. With such a profound retrospective program, I hope you'll forgive me telling you very little of anything new at the festival; unless, that is, you like me count cinema revived as something always new.
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John Ford, now very much in danger of the Alfred Hitchcock effect, of his canonized classics circulating only in "restored" DCP versions and his more obscure or unfashionable films not traveling at all, is being honored in resplendent 35mm by the Austrian Film Museum, which seems to greet each of my visits to its home city with surveys of personal favorites (previously, Chantal Akerman, Fritz Lang, and Jerry Lewis).
Publicity still of John Ford's Kentucky Pride
It is a joy, of course, to see such grandiose films by Ford as How Green Was My Valley (1940) and The Searchers (1956) on vibrant 35mm prints. (The weak but comparatively experimental shaggy-dog cavalry film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949] positively radiated warmth from its immaculate color quality, restored by the UCLA Film & Televsion Archive.) But better still is that pleasure particular to large retrospectives full of accepted masterpieces to encounter the smaller, more inconsequential films made in-between. Such is certainly the case for 1925's Kentucky Pride, a tale narrated by a once-favorited racing horse (!) and not so much a drama as a quintessentially Fordian combination of sentiment and silliness. Likewise 1933's Will Rogers vehicle, Doctor Bull, one of my favorites and a film, like Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (to pull another favorite), that's an example of a master filmmaker and an A-list actor collaborating on what feels merely a programmer made between more ambitious and/or lucrative projects. Such movies have a humility to them that is utterly freeing.
Nonetheless, Doctor Bull's folksy portrait of a small town in Connecticut told through the character of a modest but abused and under-appreciated local doctor (a melancholy, weary, and completely humane Rogers) so carefully and casually evokes the spaces, streets, and homes of the inhabitants, their mix of snide bigotry and innocent appreciation, and most particularly the simmering middle-aged flame between Rogers' doctor and a local widow, that the film would jump first to my mind as an ambassador for the care and carelessness so American to be found in the life of a 1930s small town. Neither as exotic as Steamboat Around the Bend nor as expansive of Judge Priest (a masterpiece strangely missing from the retrospective), Ford's too few other collaborations with Will Rogers, Doctor Bull's very unassuming modesty, so like Rogers and not like Ford, is what makes it a personal favorite.
The Searchers
Revisiting the perhaps too canonical The Searchers relievedly proved it an almost unbearably strange rather than "perfect" movie—Ford's emblematically perfect film, How Green Was My Valley, routinely, I feel, has a reputation that suffers for just this. The Searchers' elliptical, lurching narrative, slipping from real time to years-later with nary a word, some parts too long, many, including its denouement, startlingly brief, suggested to me a story and a narrative that is psychically and psychotically damaged, much in the same way as David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—also an expressionist film about a psychic break after horrendous crimes against women. A story that necessarily stumbles through to its finale, shocked and rendered inchoate after so much horror. 
More serene was 1926 silent western 3 Bad Men, beautifully photographed outdoors and touching in the gravity with which beautiful tomboy Olive Borden pulls men to her in the wilderness and draws the goodness out of them. The first two thirds is characteristically anecdotal for Ford—vivid characters expressed by and tied to vivid settings—before transforming into something else entirely, beginning with a truly awesome land rush stampede of horses, carts, and wagons hysterically grasping at newly available land—once given to a Sioux reservation, now taken away by the U.S. government—where gold has been found. From this joyful series of mobile comic skits and gleeful motion the lustful, forward thrust—ignoring that Native Americans, of course—gets pared down to the film's main heroes (the once bad, now good men), its holy and innocent young romantic couple, and pursuing baddies. The finale has more in common with the stark asceticism of Anthony Mann's western violence and Ford's own later 3 Godfathers: men's weary, shearing journey in wilderness to redemption and honor.
Drums Along the Mohawk
1939's Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford's first film in Technicolor, was indicative of the thorough work done by the museum in finding the best looking film prints. Everything I saw in the series looked at least good if not stunning, but this Henry Fonda - Claudette Colbert frontier film was like an exquisite, dead mausoleum for me watched on video; projected from this print it was absolutely present: Colbert standing to kiss Fonda goodbye in mid-distance between their log home and the discreet camera, then as he leaves her she runs in the same shot into a low angle close up, her hand in a Fordian gesture shielding her eyes from the sun, saluting her man in her own way: and there she was, Claudette Colbert in front of me—me!
The film was stiff no longer, it emerged as one of Ford's most pure films, not a shot wasted. It is simpler, true, missing a richness of the following masterpieces (Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley), but its surface is exquisitely honed and moving. Its concise drama is of a cycle of starting a home, the terror of a new home, finding the love for that home, the abject destruction of the home, and beginning again from scratch. Raids, wars, communal gatherings and pregnancies are the anxieties and bliss of the nascent American frontier, featuring a constant resurrection by resilient, stalwart people making up a communal strength that begins with a fierce marriage, Fonda and Colbert's earnest bastion of love the foundation for a marriage, a group, a country. It climaxes with one of cinema's great uses of sound, where the wailing of a child overlays Fonda's devastated walk through a tableaux of massacre, searching for his wife. We think it's the sound of horror, of the slaughter, a sound of the community, but as Fonda finally finds his wife, traumatized and huddled in the corner, the source of the sound we thought was general and representative is found: it is the sound of their own child, and one immediately quieted upon the appearance of the boy's father.
Publicity still of The Brat
The rest of this expansive, ambitious retrospective is a strong balance of expected and unexpected (including the spunky drawing room comedy whatsit The Brat [1930], featuring a truly fabulous early sync sound female brawl, and the wonderfully lax late films Two Rode Together [1961] and Donovan's Reef [1963]), with some disappointing omissions including some of Ford's more non-canonical but no less rich film (1932's Airmail, '55's The Long Gray Line, '57's The Wings of Eagles) and at least one very important early western, 1917's emblematic and powerful Harry Carey vehicle, Straight Shooting. But with a filmmaker who's made over a hundred films of which still dozens are existent, choices of course have to be made and on the whole the museum has favored the best though less eccentric and uneven side of Ford.
Still, that eccentricity shines bright even in such deservedly lionized films as The Quiet Man (1952), a supremely wacky and moving movie in verdant Technicolor, and in the midst of his rather more serious and often even ponderous films, this pure comedy from a director who rarely with remark excels at comedy was a delight. It had the Austrian audience in fits, which was a welcome experience when so much of Ford's bawdy, caricatured humor dancing around the sidelines of even the most serious movies seemed to fail to connect in Vienna, whether due to a specificity missed by non-native English speakers, or perhaps just as likely due to that bias exhibited by Manny Farber against Ford's broad, slapsticky, hammy and fourth-wall breaking ethnic humor. (Another nuance: it is a specifically masculine style of humor.) A lively, irreverent, and unassuming part of the beautiful, complex dialectic found in Ford's cinema, the humor in all these films is (personally) hilarious but also (critically) structurally essential. Tag Gallagher's majestic critical biography of Ford (free to download here) has accompanied me throughout the series and I cannot recommend it high enough.
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A decade ago ago, the Viennale programmed an enviable retrospective on the films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in which the filmmakers selected their favorite Ford films to show as well. I wasn't yet attending the festival then, but every year of the four I have attended the Viennale has consummately reiterated its dedication to the strident work in film and video done by Straub and Huillet, and after Huillet's passing in 2006, by Straub assisted by Barbara Ulrich. Alongside the Film Museum's Ford retrospective, the festival itself showed two works, À propos de Venise and Kommunisten, as well as a surprise premiere of brief short (what Straub called his "Algerian clip"), La guerre d'Algérie!
The two longer works (Venise is 24 minutes, Kommunisten 70) like last year's Dialogue d'ombres and like as well Manoel de Oliveira's The Old Man of Belemalso at the festival, and which shares its director of photography, Renato Berta, with many Straub-Huillet films—revisits long stretches of the filmmakers' past work with new footage which partially re-orients the original films. I was only able to see Kommunisten, a stark, politicized and monumental clip-reel that was appropriately my final screening of the festival, and due to abashed unfamiliarity with every included film—Workers, PeasantsFortini/Cani, Too Early, Too Late, The Death of Empedoclesi, Schwarze Sünde—except one, was nearly lost among the sheer quantity of spoken texts and embedded contexts.
New footage in Kommunisten
Briefly, the film begins with its new footage, of an off-screen Nazi (voiced by Straub!) interrogating two accused Communists, and from there moves through time via Straub and Huillet's films to address Europe and the Levant's 20th century attempt to re-balance its struggle for comradeship, community, and, implicitly, communism. (This connects the film to the late Peter von Bagh's beautiful documentary from this year, Sosialismi, which uses film clips to envision the promises of socialism.) The wartime interrogation is followed by the sole other new scene, a post-war epilogue of one survivor and his wife or lover, back to the camera, looking out their balcony window and addressing a return from imprisonment and the war, and perhaps a return to coupledom.
Time and the film moves from France (and French) to Italy (and Italian) in 2004's Workers, Peasants and a forested discussion on the difficulties of rebuilding a village, specifically tied to the interpersonal and especially sexual dramas and motivations of a woman and two male villagers. Next to Egypt, 1982, workers leaving a factory under a voiceover introducing the fervent energy and inspiration of Egypt's 1919 rebellion from the English, excised from Too Little, Too Late. (One can't help but see this time-traveling moment, evoking the Lumières' 1895 short, the 1919 Egyptian revolution, and the 1982 practical reality as a vision extended into the unfilmed present of the Arab Spring.) Then to 1977's Fortini/Cani, taking place in 1968, and showcasing the hills and valleys hiding a history of Nazi massacre, mainly landscape shots with circular or semi-circular camera movement; and finally on to Germany and German, a long held shot of a forest and spoken Hölderlin from 1987's The Death of Empedocles, singing of the people's rebirth. The last shot in Kommunisten is of Danièle Huillet in Schwarze Sünde (1990, itself a revisitation of Hölderlin), stoic and still until finally slapping the earth and declaring a "new world," against the strains of Beethoven's last movement—"The difficult decision"—of his last piece of music.
Kommunisten's thick, block-like structure creates a bold history of asides as accusations, questionings, reminiscences, capitulation, monuments, burials, analysis, and song—all in text, bodies, sound and landscape in a present after rebellion, suppression, violence. It's a film of couples and communities, of unspeaking land and old spoken words spoken again new.
Not being familiar either with the source films or their own texts, the nuances were lost on me, and I thank filmmaker and Notebook contributor Ted Fendt, who has translated several of Straub's recent films into English, for some assistance here. Less sprawling and for me more managable and surprising was the beautiful noir concision of La guerre d'Algérie!, the "Algerian clip." Despite being only 2 minutes long, its ambiguities are rich. In a single static shot a man is threatened with death at another's gunpoint; the threatened man suggests the two talk; cut to black and the man narrates briefly about his would-be killer, that his family was exterminated during WW2, that he was later called to fight in Algeria where he was asked to perform his own crimes, that he protested an order by killing his commanding officer, and that he somehow returned to France and started a family.
And now we find him about to kill this friend to whom he told all this, perhaps because a police station is nearby, perhaps so he may turn himself in—for which crime we don't know—after. Cut to the cover of a book (David Servan-Schreiber's holistic The Instinct to Heal) and from its whiteness, as a friend observed, a soothing cut to a white screen, a visual relief and anointment for this rebel and martyr while a snippet of Schubert's Erlkönig plays. And yet...who was really narrating, the victim, the assailant, or indeed a third person, since the story was adapted from an article about a psychologist's encounter with a patient? To whom was the healing book given, and is it from this book that this violent action has been inspired? As in Kommunisten, violence seems to accordion out through time, personal culpability intertwined through history: World War 2, Algeria, 25 years in between—all the way up to this very present moment captured on digital video. Suffice to say, I need to see La guerre d'Algérie! again. Like Straub's small Kafka adaptation Schakale und Araber (also revived at the festival), this fierce instance is sublime in its compact intensity and powerhouse formal directness.
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Both Straub and Huillet appeared at the festival in Harun Farocki's documentary Arbeiten zu "Klassenverhältnisse" von Danièle Huillet und Jean-Marie Straub (1983), a short on some rehearsals for their first Kafka adaptation, Class Relations (1984) in which Farocki acted. The brief glimpse into their methodology contains the same sense evoked by Pedro Costa's monumental screwball documentary on the couple editing 1999's Sicilia!, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?: Straub irascible, talkative, opinionated, Huillet in mostly silent reserve but exuding a subtle commanding presence over everything.
With Farocki's passing this year many festivals have scrambled to do minor memorial screenings but so far Vienna's is not only the biggest but cannily uses Farocki's deeply inquisitive and ranging cinema to overlap its programs: included is the German director's small documentary on Straub and Huillet directing him in Class Relations, but then also the three new films by Straub, a film by Straub's great contemporary acolyte, Pedro Costa, and then the Film Museum's impressive series on the man who influenced Straub and Costa, the immortal John Ford. (We can of course expand this modernist Venn diagram further with a tribute to Jean-Luc Godard where works of his were selected by directors with films in the Viennale; Luc Moullet for example chose the brilliant and under-known 1988 video advertisement, Puissance de la parole.)
Between Two Wars
An early film of Farocki's, 1978's Between Two Wars is an essay-drama taking apart the contradiction-rich German industrial attitude towards coal mining and production as through-line drawn from the cause of World War I to laying the groundwork for World War 2. Of history, politics, and perspicacious filmmaking in the face of pitiful finances, it exudes the force of an omnivorous filmmaker absorbing the world and then arguing, advocating, and thinking through cinema.
Characteristic of the director's great dry humor is How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Leben - BRD, 1989), which tracks from birth to old-age dementia and death at war the development of a citizen of a civilized, democratic Western country in the form of various kinds of rehearsals (how bankers deal with customer complaints), training (how to deliver a baby, how to clean the vagina of a hospitalized woman), virtual reenactment (early video game-like driver's education, kids re-staging family situations with toys for psychologists), and industrial testing (the limitations and wearwithall of car doors, dresser drawers, and mattresses), all involving role-playing and models. The idea that we all need to get used to artifice before getting used to life is at once terrifying and hilarious—usually at the same time. The bare abstraction of such common elements of work and life reveals the fundamental strangeness at the center of participation in civilized western citizenship, and the further strangeness required to participate in it with other people. The essay film ends on a note given by a manager of the life insurance practice tests, who says that his salesmen and women must both introduce fear into the minds of their clients, as well as suggest a positive future: quite a summary of capitalism!
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Assemblée Générale
Meanwhile, an eclectic assortment of new short films at the festival expanded well on these themes. In a droll, measured satiric short by the French New Wave's most under-appreciated rabble-rouser, Luc Moullet continues in his own way this unabashed look at modern living. Assemblée générale simply shows the transmutation (or actualization, even) of democracy (I just accidentally typed—or did I?—democrazy) to the drab, deadpan administrative reality of a cooperative housing meeting.
And whereas Farocki's operating principle might best be described as wry clarity and Moullet's comedic directness, the opposite approach is the case with William E. Jones' short Psychic Driving. Its source is a tantalizingly limited 1979 ABC Special News report on the American C.I.A.'s experiments using LSD, brainwashing and the psychological manipulation of psychiatric patients told through the vaguest of details and names, with scattered, lone and remarkable facts and a single, solitary victim interviewee. Jones transforms this report, which is played in its entirety, into a streaked, pulsing color field of almost entirely illegible video abstraction, under which the unaltered audio of the ABC report exposits. This manipulation is both a gesture in solidarity for the mental scarring of the victims of these governmental and scientific crimes, as well as a direct formal analogy to the degree these practices by the U.S. government are suppressed—practically speaking but also in national awareness and psyche—and distorted almost beyond recognition. Can we swim through the sea of obfuscation of mind, chemicals, policies, laws and governance? I think this film suggest it's mostly lost in a cruel blur.
Psychic Driving
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João Bénard da Costa - Others will Love the Things I Loved
I shall end this report on a new film which while unconnected directly to the above works so strongly embodies a positive spirit of cinephilia that seeing it as a festival during which I was predominantly and somewhat embarrassingly watching almost exclusively old films was affirming, if fundamentally melancholy. The great and undervalued Portuguese director Manuel Mozos, who was subject of a Viennale homage two years ago, has made an homage himself, a documentary essay dedicated to the late great actor, teacher, film writer, and director of the Portuguese Cinematheque, João Bénard da Costa.
João Bénard da Costa - Others will Love the Things I Loved is a film of deep soul assembled lovingly and insularly from blended texts by da Costa (mostly on cinema, many with nested quotations of others), documentary images of scattered places dear to his biography, and connected together by scenes of Mozos at a viewing table at the Cinematheque (where he works) viewing key films and scenes of strong meaning to da Costa—particularly Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It is as much a glancing reflection on the man's life as it is on an impending death, and thereby its reflection on films, a love for cinema, and a life working in cinema is expressive of and analogous to grander concerns of memory, love and mortality. The voiceover is read primarily by da Costa's son (who nearly shares his father's beguilingly rich, thick-voiced accent), a casting choice that draws lines through time beyond his father's passing. Yet one cannot underestimate the demure self-portraiture inside the film by Mozos himself, and the hints of his relationship to his friend and his own view of life and death—and thereby, of cinema. The documentary is not a biopic and more about a sensibility, an attitude towards the world. Part of that sensibility was to keep cinema alive within himself, and then to share that fire with others.  João Bénard da Costa, like the Viennale, is a keeper of the flame.
Great post. Thanks for sharing all those impressions.

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