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Viennale 2015. Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

A series dedicated to animals, tributes to Tippi Hedron, Manoel de Oliveira & Ida Lupino and more at the Vienna International Film Festival.
Chis Marker's Chat écoutant la musique
There are dog people and there are cat people, this we know, and there are even people who claim to be of both—though latent sympathies remain unspoken, like with a parent and which child is their favorite. With the Vienna Film Festival welcoming me with a tumbling collection of dog and cat short films spanning cinema's history—the Austrian Film Museum, an essential destination each year collaborating with the Viennale, is hosting a “a brief zoology of cinema” throughout the festivities—it is clear that filmmakers, too, have their preference. Silent cinema decidedly prefers the more easily trained and exhibited canine, with 1907’s surreal favorite Les chiens savants as a certain kind of cruel pinnacle. For the cats, Chris Marker, already the presiding figure over so much in 20th century art, I think we can easily claim is the cine-laureate. One need not know how they weave through his life but only watch three minutes of the lyrical ode to his cat Guillaume-en-Égypte, Chat écoutant la musique, a film whose eye has as much overflowing love for its subject as any director has for his muse. I hesitate to dare delineate such characteristics or imply bias, but I wonder, beyond mere preference, are there dog filmmakers? Directors for whom sympathy, directness, friendship and transparency are virtues? Or the cat auteurs who prize wonder, distance and mystery? The thought occurred to me perhaps too late, as now the Film Museum’s retrospective has moved on in its cine-safari, visiting donkeys (Au hasard Balathazar), monsters (Godzilla), leopards (Bringing Up Baby) and ants (Phase IV), now crowding my head with a menagerie of possible animist directors.
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Chris Marker already brought before me, I couldn’t help but wish he had been able to make Innocence of Memories, a promising film based on a museum based on a book based on an impossible but real love story. Where is the source of this tale? Is it Nobel-prizing winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s novel, The Memory of Innocence, about the true story of a fiery affair turned romantic obsession between high class Kemal and a shop girl with the delicious name of Fusun? Is it the museum dedicated to Fusun and the objects, real and imagined, of their love and relationship that Kemal and Pamuk set-up based on the man’s possessive infatuation? Is it Istanbul, the city and the images of which are inextricable from the tale, from the museum, from the author and its subject? This quicksand locus of memory, objects, love, voyeurism, and the city—it could have no better spirit guide than Chris Marker. Alas, the film of the museum of the book of the story feels a bit of a flat re-telling and, in a way, re-selling of this marvelous nesting of personal histories and their various containers. As the book took the tale, as the building took these lives, this film should have taken them all and re-imagined them as something equally of all it contains and also something moving the story beyond its previous constraints. The sadness of the film is not a new sadness it tells, but rather the realization that clearly this marvelous tale and its unusual container is more eloquent and more special elsewhere, outside of the cinema. But what am I saying? Now I must read this book and now I must visit this museum—and for those desires I am certainly grateful to this film.
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“Poet on a Business Trip”: I do not know how this title reads in Chinese, but in English its matter-of-fact anomaly, a title suggestive of silent film actualities and Luc Moullet’s drollness, serves well the curiously blasé, marvelously unusual film by Ju Anqi. It looks and feels like the time capsule it in fact is: the director took Shu, a young Chinese poet, on a road trip to the barren western (and Uygur) province of Xinjiang back in 2002, during which he composed 16 poems. For reasons mysterious and possibly political, the footage was not edited until recently, making Poet on a Business Trip a film made now, in a way, about a film made over a decade ago. This is not its only uneasiness. It imperceptibly blends impulses towards documentary filmmaking and fiction at a time before this was a de facto standard in the world of the art film. As Shu hitchhikes and buses through Xinjiang, talking to truck drivers, awkwardly sleeping with prostitutes, looking for hostels, and walking seemingly without particular inspiration through spectacularly arid, uncommunicative landscapes, it is clear Ju is staging scenes, possibly in collaboration with the introverted poet. And yet these scenes are so simple and brisk, the drama, if one can call it that, so uneventful, the mise en scène utterly unpretentious and downright shabby in its grubbed black and white, zero production design, and society of forgotten outback, Poet on a Business Trip feels unassumingly something special and direct, like unmediated fiction. Rossellini comes to mind, as does Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias's brilliant roadside study of Brazil, A Opção. We get to see and hear of a region of China so rarely exposed in cinema and certainly never revealed in such a manner, that of, at once, a tourist and a native: a perspective coming from someone with what is clearly a sensitive and forlorn internal life—each of the often quite beautiful 16 poems is printed on the screen, somewhat structuring the film into chapters, but quietly and obliquely—and such an inexpressive, nearly passive external life. We read of a soul and then look, curious, at this slightly bent, very skinny young man in fishing cap and hosteler’s rucksack moving through a familiar yet foreign land, his own edge of the world, and can only project onto that figure and into that landscape our observant, unactionable inquiries.
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Reel 22 of Anne Charlotte Robertson's Five Year Diary
I blinked and Chris Marker's cat jumped from his little video to Anne Charlotte Robertson 8mm film diaries. "I lived alone with my cat," say Robertson, a relentless self-documenter whose diaries speed through her habits, hobbies, worries, joys, days and nights, in a voiceover recorded at least a decade after the making of this diary and the life it exhibits,"but she was not a lover." Dense, beautiful compositions of a life fretted over, maintained, shown, and in progress, the Viennale projected three 25-minute diary films of dozens more made by the filmmaker between the early 1980s to late ‘90s that make up her epic 38-hour Five Year Diary. Each excerpt shown built on the last directly but with the considerable, subtle complexity of a woman at once seen fully and forcefully but pierced by all that is unsaid, unseen, un-understood: a few years later, different spaces, different people, modified habits, evolved looks, new thoughts. The soundtrack of the first film is three separate tracks, one of music, one of Robertson’s babble-mouth "ravings" recorded by her boyfriend at the time, and the final one the narrative voiceover that she sometimes performed live but here was preserved on the film itself; the second film's soundtrack is of a meeting between the filmmaker and two dominating, male filmmaker-professors in her masters program attempting to characterize what she is doing and telling her how to change her art; and the third is nearly silent—a fascinating progression. These diaries as well as another program of Robertson's short films are being shown at the festival in conjunction with two other "R"s—Mark Rappaport and Jean-Claude Rousseau, an eclectic group perhaps drawn together by their outsider, intimast approach to small-scale but deep inquiries. As a perfect example: Robertson's cat, back in 1981, rolled blissfully, extended to her limits, in the warmth of the ground's sun-patch. The camera panned spontaneously from this unrestrained ecstasy to spring's flowers nearby, just beginning their bloom: a moment of observed daily joy, and also the most powerful of yearnings from she who held the camera.
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Outrage
For Robertson to step in front of the camera is an act of profound courage whose directness, with the help of the Harvard Film Archives’ preservation of her work, remains incredibly fresh. The Viennale is also celebrating a woman who had the inspiration and the courage to step from in front of to behind the camera: Hollywood alt-goddess Ida Lupino. She now seems quite known, at least among the buffs who like to wave off others' wide-eyed personal discoveries as knowledge well under the collective belt, but I can assure you far too few know this actress. I love her personally from Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, Raoul Walsh's They Drive By Night, and William A. Wellman's The Light That Failed, and, recently, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, and yet know so little beyond when her path crossed with great male directors...and even less know of the independent productions she pioneered, taking directorial reigns, in the late 1940s and early 50s as the Hollywood studio system exhibited its first shaky signs of fatal illness.
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For me, Ida Lupino’s second film Outrage is as bracing, daring, original and sublimely sensitive as Roberto Rossellini’s canonical Stromboli, also released in 1950. (The comparison here is not a light one: the journey across landscape and through a woman's psychological and bodily turmoil is shared between Rossellini’s Ingrid Bergman and Lupino’s Mala Powers, who in fact resembles Bergman in this, her incredible introductory role.) The film's story of rape and attempted recovery as a complex relationship between interior state of mind, exterior terrain, a body in motion and stasis, the surrounding people, and a soul in turmoil is a beautiful expansion and elaboration from Lupino's wonderful debut, Never Fear (1949) about a dancer recovering from polio. (In perhaps her best known film as director, Lupino transmutes these women's journeys to a masculine escapade amongst war buddies, the terrifyingly stripped existential noir The Hitch-Hiker.)
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My first Animals program of shorts at the Film Museum walked an uneasy line bobbing and weaving between exploitation and exaltation, and the features that have followed have only underscored violent variation with somewhat sickening lurches. How else to describe Richard Brooks’ 1956 The Last Hunt? Clearly a film intended under MGM honcho Dore Schary as a liberal re-evaluation of the American West (and the Hollywood Western) by dramatizing the epoch of dwindling buffalo population and ensuing hysterical obsession over the poor beast, Brooks’ film has death on its mind from its opening titles to its final scene, leaving a flat, acrid taste of ashes in the mouth. Stewart Granger plays an ace hunter weary and disgusted with his history of killing and the pall of death around him, and yet is cajoled into one last hunt by kill-happy, money-grubbing Robert Taylor, who re-applies his stiff dark handsomeness into a rare kind of stubborn psychopathy. And neediness: one of the most perverse side notes of this tale of grim deaths is that Taylor just wants a friend who he can kill with. All buffalo shot in the film, we are informed before the picture play starts, are part of the government’s yearly culling of the population...which hardly makes the scores shot on camera in the film any less painful to watch. Whether or not Brooks, Schary, Granger and Taylor at the time saw the buffalo in the film as allegorical of Native American genocide is not apparent—”buffalo means life to the Indian,” someone remarks—but viewed now this pervasive atmosphere of blood-misted vision is impossible to not apply to the even greater atrocity. I personally doubt The Last Hunt is even a good movie, but it hardly matters in the face of such an evocation of the nasty terms of a certain time and kind of living and being American.
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Yet all harm against animals is forgiven by William A. Wellman’s serene, tender and utterly modest masterpiece, Good-Bye, My Lady. A journeyman director resolutely forgotten as an artist by all but the few who have bloomed inside recent retrospectives of the filmmaker (or by creating their own through Turner Classic Movies, odd DVD releases, and obscure torrents), the commentary surrounding his 1950s work is mainly focused on the highly unusual Track of the Cat, whose wonderful esoteria seems to jump out to many left unimpressed by or forgetful of Wellman’s more self-effacing studio work. Like that film another independent production from John Wayne’s short-lived Batjac company, Good-Bye, My Lady is only esoteric in its sure simplicity, dedicating itself to a special duo, a young orphan eager to grow up (Brandon de Wilde) and his old-coot adopted uncle (Walter Brennan), in a special place, Mississippi, transformed through the appearance in their backyard swampland of a very special kind of dog. The boy discovers, falls in love with, captures, trains, and eventually let’s go this special creature, whom despite the film’s uneventful plot, low key tone, and off-hand folksiness, somehow embodies with cosmic importance. Indeed, in this impoverished lowland, where most conversation not about hunting dogs revolves around coffee, mail order dentures, and woodcutting, and whose scope is restrained almost entirely to a dumpy but cozy one-room cabin and verdant surrounding swamp country, somehow the relationship between this boy, his surrogate father, and his dog seems to encompass all relationships between all people and that which is around them, whether it be parentage, loved ones, nature or God. Suffice to say, one would be hard-pressed to find a better movie anywhere on this earth, and hard pressed to find a better understanding of the importance of animals to man.
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Rin Tin Tin in Clash of the Wolves may not have been accorded the calm awe of Wellman’s Lady, but the remarkable sentience and respect given to the dog’s character (!) in this 1925 silent classic speaks to the nearly inconceivable popularity of the dog actor. Most impressive of all, beyond the canine's charisma, the stunts and the profile almost as famous as Barrymore’s, is this film’s early use of long camera lens to capture Rin Tin Tin sprinting across a distant landscape. The dog’s giddy speed combines with the lens flattening the space between camera and subject and the result is a thrilling streak of motion: the dog’s fierce, stretched stride sharp as anything, but the ground underneath him and the land around him a blur of motion. It made me think of later exaggerations of manic speed, Looney Tunes animations or Edgar Reitz’s Speed, Cinema One. Here, the dog star went beyond gasp-inducing stunts to attain a kind of merging with the film itself, his pattering silhouette pacing the celluloid 24 frames a second.
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Yet turned around again—oh this alternation if painful!—and we saw Jean Tourane's Une fée pas comme les autres… (1957), a loose fairytale hodgepodge starring a cast populated solely by such adorable animals as ducks, puppies, cats, and chicks. No doubt generations of French children grew up watching this unmissable, bonkers piece of dreck, but to my horrified eyes all I saw was a false utopia of cross-species society forced together in fraught anxiety. The look of nervousness and terror in the eyes of most of the animals forced by god knows what means to be dressed up and paraded about as if sort of human was deeply unpleasant to watch, and I had the additional sensation one may get when looking at the Pyramids: just how many deaths allowed this to be born before us? It was like watching a Nazi documentary on Theresienstadt, knowing just how many bodies were kept out of frame. The film exhibits a joyful satisfaction in its animal manipulation, stripping the idea of film “direction” down to a kind of persecution of its cast, and cynically suggesting that to make a movie all you need is a network of conventions and caricatures explained through liberal exposition—who even needs humans except as overseers? This is a cruel provincial sideshow turns into cinema. “It is not enough to suffer, one has to die for beauty,” proclaims the narrator about, I think, one of the female ducks in the film, but unintentionally suggesting just how much animal harm must have gone into making this wonderland feel so silly, cute and pure. A line from the far superior piece of animal insanity that this film was cleverly paired with—Mark Lewis’s cult classic comedic docu-nightmare Cane Toads—get close to the soul of Une fée pas comme les autres…, saying of the dreaded Aussie pest that certain people “regard them with perverted reverence."
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If there a meeting place between these, let's say, attitudes of animal cinema, it could be found in Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness. Made by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in 1927, six years before their original King Kong, Chang takes Robert Flaherty's subtle dramatization of exotic documentary subject in a film like Nanook of the North and delivers it in an even more confident storytelling wrapper, going to the place (here, Siam), using the people, their culture and lives, but then building a straight narrative drama around it. The unconquerable nature of the jungle is the film's subject, but the biome itself isn't the actual focus as much as the bounty of animals types in the film: tame, wild, captive, free, killers, myths, terrors and friends. Nearly 90 years later the integration of these creatures in the film still manages to transcend the story and filmmakers' contrivances, above all because the camera holds even the most captive animal in a kind of awe. Watching Chang you get that rare, marvelous sense that what is before the camera is before it for the first time, that both cameramen and subjects are surprised by their meeting in the lush, laced greenery. What Chang documents is an encounter.
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The pinnacle of this animal series during my time at the festival came with another shorts collection, "Animali Criminali," named after the Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi short film, itself gathering extracts of films, most from the silent era, of animals fighting and consuming one another. It was a mise en abyme of this shorts program, a collection of humans watching animals kill one another or humans kill those animals: a Nazi documentary about survival of the fittest, Peter Kubelka's ever-sharp safari-travelogue remix Unsere Afrikareise (cleverly juxtaposed against a single take tourist video of a spectacular safari occurrence), one Hanna-Barbera cartoon, one Chuck Jones one, a doc on cockfighting, a stunning silent observing a floor of boas decimate each rabbit introduced in front of the camera...and so on. It was, like much of the Film Museum's retrospective, a very tough watch, the air in the cinema not the reverent kind of silence often annoyingly accompanying cinematheque screenings but instead a kind of ghastly, ashamed quiet. We were implicated and felt it. The gradual sense, with nearly every short film, that you can feel the hand on the camera and the eye through the viewfinder: choosing this as something that should be filmed. And then we chose to partake in such deaths, visions wetted by blood fresh before us though long ago dried and re-absorbed in the earth. Luckily, there were a few cartoons to save us, their animal violence daffy and harmless, pure inspiration and inventiveness whose participants were invulnerable, immortal beings gifted to each other and to us for timeless playful levity.
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In such an atmosphere, the impulse for me to say, "alas, if only the Viennale's retrospective was for a filmmaker, plain and simple, as it was in recent years with Chantal Akerman, Fritz Lang, Jerry Lewis, and John Ford," is strong, even when I know—and as importantly, feel—that this "zoology" is a more powerful proposal of cinema, re-orienting our vision to subjects often seen at (or considered as) the sidelines, but who in fact literally embody, on the screen, the base pleasure and pain at the heart of the cinema.
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And even for those old fashioned, director-obsessed folk like myself, aside from the festival's tribute to Ida Lupino there is eclectic presentation in homage to Manoel de Oliveira, whose passing in April has led many of the world's more sensitive organizations to immediately pay tribute to such an imposing but still under-seen titan. So, thanks to the Viennale I got to see two features and a short film I thought I may not get to experience for a long time—yet the selection, made by none other than Pedro Costa, now the most important living Portuguese filmmaker, has been shown, at least at the screenings I attended, with no introduction or comment from the curator. At the stunning projection of Francisca (1981), a three-hour anti-romance shrouded in languorous shadows, droopy with a melancholy at once droll and tragic, and muffled in spectacular erudition and voluptuously stark form, the few (very few) in the audience were treated to impromptu contextual remarks by a Portuguese critic who just happened to be passing by, something for which I think we were all very thankful.
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I wish such a spontaneous revision of the festival's baffling silent handling of this tribute had the luck to also have happened at the screening of Oliveira's unique film adaptation of a rural community's passion play performance, Acto da Primavera (Rite of Spring, 1963). With credits a who's who of major Portuguese masters (António Reis, Paulo Rocha), the film is a confluence of Oliveira's love of radically re-contextualizing theatrical performance and the dramatization of lengthy texts with a gathering of provincial amateur-master participants who sing-song Christ's passion with a stiffness that allows them to becomes vessels for voice, sound, soul and spirit. I wished so much to know more about this union of visiting city folk and villagers, of cinema and theater, of modernity channeling through time itself. And who these people were, this Mary Magdalene with her overwhelming black hair a spilled waterfall of brambles, and the achingly pained voice of the Virgin: these two local women alone beg as many questions as they deserve tributes. I was left alone with my own thoughts, that strange sense in an Oliveira film of simultaneous boredom and rapture (the critic at Francisca described that film as inexplicably hypnotic, which may be saying the same thing)—and that to make a passion play in the countryside during a dictatorship, staging the people and the government (made of the people) as turning away again and again from the Christ...that this is a strong thought.
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Un autre jour
Such forcefulness requires some grace, so I sought refuge among the short, slightly made, soulfully resonant films Jean-Claude Rousseau, another "R" in the section including Anne Charlotte Robertson. This French director's films are very precious indeed, though I must admit that some of his recent digital miniatures don't always work for me; occasionally I have the same ambivalent response to their images as to Jean-Marie Straub's current phase working with digital. But when they do connect with me, the paradox of their bare, personal means—the result, seemingly, of a sensitive flaneur traveling with his camera and interlacing pulsed silences and pauses among his supple, sidelong discoveries—the paradox of so little manifesting itself with but a few moving images as charged with inquiry and sublimity...it feels like pure magic. Such is the case with Un autre jour, a single shot of perfect brevity and emotional completeness, the camera pointed at a sun-lit lake, a small beach, a waterside shack out of Rebecca...and a family that finally walks into frame and to the water, the camera calling forth the view and the view calling forth this man, woman and child. The second film, Fantastique, featured Rousseau himself as do many of these little portrait-departures which carve out ideas of space, people and spirit from his travels. Made of two shots—a chair seen through a darkened hallway facing a lit space we can't see, and a claustrophobic view halfway up a flight looking at a staircase to an empty wall—alternated in discreet, essential mystery, Rousseau is seated and summoned off screen, up the stairs, only to press against the wall and vanish. After a pause of black he descends and returns to his seat..and yet after a moment in the amber light, retains or regains his curiosity and heads back up the stairs. What a magnificent something from a few shadows, light and movement, the beyond and within at once hidden and manifest!
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And somewhere between Oliveira and Rousseau lays Marnie, dear Marnie, Tippi's Marnie, Sean's Marnie—Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie. Tippi Hedron is the guest of honor at this Viennale, which with great wisdom fetes the actress with this 1964 scarlet monstrosity, so unhip: a lushly psychosexual kammerspiel of confounding loggerhea, rich sociopathy and boundless perversity. A failure at release, the film has traveled with the underground, characteristically sneaky, unsettling but shadowy magnetism of an anomaly, a director at his zenith stumbling, an actress trapped and accosted, a film as stiff, stylized, and uncontainable as Dreyer’s Gertud, also released in 1964 and also at the Viennale this year. (Marnie is to Gertrud as The Birds, shown in Vienna as a crossover between Tribute Tippi and the animals series, is to Antonioni and specifically Red Desert.) Such things may ruin a movie at first but in fact create the dark corners where such strangeness can fester and transform into beauty and the unexplainable. That certainly is Marnie, a monument of the creepiest, strangest of human romances.
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Perhaps Marnie too belongs best in the Film Museum's "zoology," an idea of cinema that as I passed through the wilds of the Viennale seemed to encompass more and more. After all, Jean-Marie Straub's new short film, L'aquarium et la nation, in name and form describes the modern, 19th century concept of nationhood—and specifically French nationhood, defining and living within a nation—as fish bobbing about between two transparent planes of glass, constantly searching for food and completely ignorant of the camera on one side of them and the greater world on the other. The starkness of Straub's film could be found in two other solemn creatures forcefully shown at the Viennale: a force of history, John Gianvito's epic of present-day Philippines as utterly intertwined and crippled by the mostly unspoken, untold history of American imperial rule, Wake (Subic); and a force of aesthetics, Klaus Wyborny's multi-screen fantasia The Light of the World, which documents and re-projects in overlapping panels various film festival screenings of his 2010 film, Studies for the Decay of the West.
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Slap Happy Lion
Such stern cinema begged for some levity, but of a kind that would not undercut the impact of these three very precise, very strong evaluations of the world. So to animals again and the best program yet: animated animals! For a lovely stretch in the illuminated darkness it took the audience away from the abuse and repercussions so prevalent in the Film Museum's series and indeed implied in some of the strongest new films at the Viennale, including those by Straub and Gianvito. We all escaped for a brief time to a world of exaggeration, whimsy, injury without pain, joy unfettered by reality's grim rules. Tex Avery's Slap Happy Lion (1947), like Chuck Jones' Whoa, Be-Gone! (1958), brimful of brilliant anecdotes of torture and mishaps contorting bodies and punning physics with pleasure and perspicacity. Such manic, happy destruction was countered by the humane animation of Nick Park's sublime, startlingly human clay creatures and Yuriy Norshteyn's fragile, exquisitely tender and divine Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). The balance of this program, my last one, was perfect. It ended with tremendous cleverness and sly understanding of the general tenor of underlining horror in the entirety of the animals retrospective with Martin Arnold's Shadow Cuts (2010), which stutters and re-plays a moment of pleasure between Mickey and Goofy until it seems to turn inside out from joy to grotesque suffering. Such an ending hardly had the power to diminish the exuberant pleasure of the preceding animations—it was the only program I saw that featured nearly constant laughter from children in the audience—but instead played on our pleasure and familiarity with what came before to twist and deepen our vision. Unexpectedly, this escape to the fantasy of animation was turned right back around and we were confronted, looking at the faces so familiar from Disney cartoons convulsing uncontrollably under Martin's guiding remix, with a very real suffering. I must admit, I shudder to think of the larger implications on the art and morality of cinema that this zoology introduces. And surely we humans too should be counted amongst creatures in cinema's zoo!
Ju says he set aside Poet on a Business Trip because he and Shu (Hou Xianbo) had falling-out during production, which left Ju so bitter and exhausted that he wouldn’t even look at the footage. The two reconciled in 2012 and Ju decided to finally finish the movie.
Thank you, TFN, for the clarification. Nice to hear from you as well.

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