The Night I Swam
The Vienna International Film Festival—or the Viennale, for short—has for many years been a kind of respite, perhaps even a bit of a beautiful secret outside of European cinephilia, for those looking to be invigorated by the ever-renewing promise of cinema. First under the direction of Alexander Horwath, who left the festival in 1997 and in 2002 took the lead of the illustrious Austrian Film Museum, and for the last 21 years under the guidance of Hans Hurch, the Viennale has cultivated that rare thing: A cultural institution that has a distinct and idiosyncratic sensibility of taste. It is a yearly event in which you can find the rare gems of the mainstream vividly mixed with expansive retrospectives, the latest films from major auteurs and exciting debutantes alike, with no fear of short or medium length works, a strong love for the avant-garde and an even more fierce adherence to the fact that cinema is a political medium and films that question the status quo should be encouraged, their makers brought into dialogue with the audience.
But this year the Viennale was doubly hobbled, first by the tragic death of Hurch in the summer after only completing part of the festival’s selection—which, for better or for worse but mostly better, he seemed overwhelmingly personally responsible for—and October of this year marking the retirement of Horwath from the Film Museum, whose yearly partnership retrospectives with the festival (including recently big programs devoted to Akerman, Lang, Ford, Jerry Lewis, and, whimsically, a “zoology” of cinema) have always been a major component for why this Austrian festival makes international waves. What these absences mean for the Viennale and the Film Museum, as well as their collaboration, is still to be seen; the festival has yet to find a new director and the new head of the Film Museum, Michael Loebenstein, is not fully responsible for this year's retrospective. Perhaps it is but mournful projection, but the 2017 festival, despite the impressive and always congenial work of its staff, did seem remarkably dimmer. The selection was respectable but lacked the tart force of previous years, and the Film Museum’s supremely promising subject, “Utopia and Correction,” which presented double features of Soviet films on diverse topics that saw often-radical shifts in form and ideology before and after the Second World War, was mostly unsubtitled in English, a disappointment considering the joyous outreach to the “international” aspect of the festival provided in years past.
Nevertheless, the personality that makes this festival one of the year’s best both in terms of diverse programming and intangible feel—helped in no small part by the charming old cinemas that house the screenings, each a pleasurable walk from another through the old-money-calcified, new-tourist-populated city center—was within easy reach. Éric Valette’s thriller film Le serpent aux mille coupures, effectively juggling the confluence of a terrorist manhunt, socially transforming French provinces, rural racism, and the overlap of Pyrenees drug trade with globalized crime, was a rare entry in one of the Viennale’s perennial blind spots of genre cinema. The festival’s signature style is more apparent in the slender and demure films that are very home here in the safe confines away from commercial necessity. Films like Damien Manivel and Kohei Igarashi’s The Night I Swam, an almost wordless travel film shot in Japan of a young boy venturing from his home in the dead of winter to catch a glimpse of his father at the job to which he so often disappears. Featuring almost no action or tension to speak of—unless one counts the natural tension of the preciousness of a young child bounding freely through this adult world—somehow the film captures with remarkable compositional precision and a humane patience childhood’s deft combination of adventure, longing, and foolishness. The echoes of both Ozu and Kiarostami are expected, but earned. Of the same scale, Argentinian director Alejo Moguillansky’s La vendedora de fósforos makes a bit of fictive mischief from a documentary project, filming the preparations in Buenos Aires for an opera by German modernist composer Helmut Lachenmann that adapts Hans Christian Andersen’s dark old tale of the match girl and blends it, unexpectedly, with the story of a woman in the Red Army Faction. The Argentine director doesn’t know what to do with Lachenmann’s music, so his wife (played by Matías Piñeiro muse María Villar) feeds him various staging ideas as the couple teeters in debt, she manages the flat of an elderly pianist (Margarita Fernández), and they shuttle their daughter from one place of work to the other. We see bits of rehearsals, but most of the film catches how the fairy tale, art, and the radical leftist politics of the 1970s—which both Lachenmann and Fernández were actually connected to—blend together and stay alive in the present, informing work, creativity, and family life. Both The Night I Swam and La vendedora de fósforos, each under 75 minutes, shot digitally on minute if not impoverished scale, and so wisp-thin that in watching them one almost feels like a member of the crew helping out, are invitations of a creative and personal cinema unflagged and perhaps even freed by the decline in the art form’s mass popularity.
As the festival unfurled, three particular films across its myriad sections somehow wound themselves around my mind, stayed with me throughout, and extended tendrils to each other. The hardest to characterize without a doubt is Araby, another collaborative directorial venture, this time between two Brazilian filmmakers, João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa. It begins in a small factory town following an older boy with a head of curls and a restrained sense of not belonging to his surroundings, and proceeds with a strange patience and an off-hand kind of a storytelling which leaves us a bit unsure who this boy is, what he’s doing, or what story, exactly, is being told. But when he happens across the diary of an injured worker, the empathy, eloquence and wisdom of this technique suddenly blossoms: We jump into the past and follow the errant path of an ex-convict (Aristides de Sousa) through different odd jobs in different towns. His isn’t a tale so much as a string of low-key anecdotes, bits of labor, conversations with momentary friends, breaks during and after work—the kind of relaxed, undemonstrative storytelling one used to find in the films of Henry King, where small, incidental asides based on character and circumstance yield minute observations flush with the way everyday life actually feels and expresses itself. The whole thing is narrated diaristically and the words actively transform and deepen the images we see, the tale of a worker and his labor across the land. It's a rare film to so treat the need, fact and extensiveness of work in life as an inextricable texture to each person and each day. There’s a conversation between our wayward hero and an older man at a loading dock about the various difficulties or ease in carrying different things that turns into a back-and-forth list— concrete (heavier than it seems), coffee (smells great)—that is just perfect. There’s also a man’s life told—an agitator who improved the lives of farmers in a small area—on a break from picking tangerines that if it were all that was Araby, I’d have left happy. Other moments are less poignant, with a limpidity that goes beyond the surprisingly casual and seems superfluous; a necessary casualty to the style, perhaps. The film’s undercurrent is of struggle, fitful happiness, and homelessness, yet its warmth and relaxation in its telling throws possible despair in the melancholy light of past reflection. But we can never forget this is a tale of the past being read—and watched—in the present.
The Big Sky
Equally languorous storytelling could be found in The Big Sky, a remarkably unknown Howard Hawks western from 1952 starring Kirk Douglas that was selected by Jean-Marie Straub to be shown in one of several homages by various filmmakers to Hans Hurch. The films of Straub and his wife Danièle Huillet were championed by Hurch (two older ones were in fact projected at this Viennale), who often showed them alongside those by one of their favorite directors, John Ford. Why Straub chose this tale of 1830s fur traders venturing far up the Missouri River into Blackfoot territory is beyond me, but there was no doubt the audience of the 35mm projection were delighted. And why The Big Sky is not better known—it is one of the great director’s best films—is also a mystery, though it may have something to do with the fact that neither Douglas’s character, nor that of his co-lead and partner in river adventures Dewey Martin, is particularly notable, leaving the bulk of the film’s acting charm on the very able shoulders of Arthur Hunnicutt’s veteran old coot. It could be, too, that even at 122 minutes the film is quite short of story dynamism; Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy writes of editor Christian Nyby continually shearing the film to reach a length to please the RKO studio, in the process eliminating the more pointed nuances of Indian hate and, later, Indian love in the story between Martin and captured Blackfoot princess Teal Eye, played by the marvelously named Elizabeth Threatt. But forget all that: The Big Sky is a gracefully casual and wandering saga that clearly desires to get nowhere, fast. Instead, it very quickly gathers its misfit group—Douglas and Martin’s adventurers, Hunnicutt’s ragged wilderness master, and a dopey-headed but ingenious outcast Blackfoot, Poor Devil—and has them cheerily floating and riding through the unpopulated land unfettered. Where most westerns of this era reveled in the spectacle of the outdoors, Hawks’s company, shooting in black and white on an RKO budget, takes the landscape not as a tourist but as one genuinely happy to be outdoors, relaxed and carefree. The story about rival big company fur traders and a jackpot score waiting for the renegade traders at the end of the Missouri is cursory and nearly beyond the point—the point being the warm camaraderie of a shared adventure, the small moments in-between grand action. Cursory, that is, until a key scene, immaculately directed and devastating in effect—perhaps even the reason Straub chose the film—of Kirk, Martin and Hunnicutt sitting by a campfire, an eye on the fearful Blackfoot princess, recounting tales that swirl with memories of beautiful women, horrible scalpings, and white men’s insatiable greed.
The award for the most patient film of all in the Viennale, and a patience asked very boldly from the audience, is a new work by America’s preeminent feature filmmaker in the so-called avant-garde or experimental cinema, James Benning. Readers is made up of four fixed shots, each around 29 minutes, of four different people reading books. Between each shot is a title card that indicates the book that was being read, along with a short excerpt from each book, which, in the film’s sparse amount of literal information, I will avoid spoiling. The ages of the readers, starting with a young woman in her 20s, get older the film progresses, the participants being three women and one man, each casually or directly related to the world of culture—one is the daughter of a famous guitarist, two are writers, and one is a performance artist. I would hardly call the film surprisingly; in fact, it’s probably just as you imagine from reading this description. Reading is at once utterly modest and humble, yet quite audacious if not impertinent in asking an audience to observe people doing an activity the substance of which—the processing and consideration of text—is completely unseen by us, no matter how hard we look. The traces of that activity—conscious and unconscious fidgeting, position changes, the way pages are turned, the levels of concentration and distraction—are given to us, the audience, to “read” in our own way. (One couldn’t help but think Benning might in fact be filming the audience of the screening to take this observation of reflections of the unseen one level further—but perhaps he knows Abbas Kiaraostami already did this in Shirin.) This double reading lets us give dedicated attention—and, no doubt, wandering minds—to an act which itself asks for similar gifts of time, attentiveness, and curiosity: books and movies, enlightenment that comes for the price of attention, and attention in turn requiring time. Argumentative or narrative content that may or may not feature in the books being read—that are suggested by their reading, by the little details of reaction, a smile, an askance glance, a pause, a pressed spine, a shifted leg—go wholly, secretly, into the vessels of body and consciousness before us that we are asked to read. Benning in fact transforms this term “reading,” commonly used with films in academia as a euphemism for analysis, directly into the activity his audience must perform to meet his film, as challenging as it is, at a place where it reveals all the little passing performances of its readers, whose behavior is undoubtedly, if subtly, changed to performative by their awareness that a fixed camera is watching them try to lose themselves in books.
We are aware, above all, of time passing, the flux between epiphany and boredom, what an image gives and what we pull out of it with difficulty; and of us self-consciously watching time pass in all its fleet quietude. The jump to a new reader, now older, as we travel from the fierce-eyed, antsy youth, to a woman beautiful in her simple, supple focus, a man whose stylish Californian poise lets us guess at the youth behind his middle-aged body, and finally to a woman beset but unconquered by Parkinson’s tremors—it is the film saying that even we readers of the readers of Readers, so attentive to the moment and its passing, cannot catch all time, it escapes before our eyes. When each shot cuts to black, it is the black blankness of the divine unknowable meeting of consciousness and creation we’ve been observing so intently. The mystery that what we see, no matter how hard we peer, is only a part of what is before us. But it is thanks to filmmakers like Dumans and Uchoa, like Howard Hawks over 60 years ago (goodness!), like Benning, to curators like Hurch and Horwath, that what has come before us on the silver screen has offered so much to see, and left so much mystery to read and re-read.