Vienna during the final week of October and early November: the days get noticeably shorter (it’s dark already!), the inner city is all aflutter with autumn winds, wilting leaves and that sinking feeling slowly sets in that yet another year is somehow already nearing its end. And while this may induce in some a tendency towards a perfectly reasonable cynicism about how all things inevitably expire, it can also prompt in others an equally sensible optimism about all the new things to come. For me at this year’s Viennale—one of those film festivals where to attend truly feels like a gift rather than a chore—the sense was definitely that of the latter. If the 2017 edition was overshadowed, if not haunted, by the unexpected death of its beloved festival director Hans Hurch, who was at the helm of the festival for two decades, this year, under the new direction of Eva Sangiorgi, was characterized by an air of expectancy, of looking forward. No doubt, several constellations of good fortune seemed to have conspired over the imperial capital to make this year’s festival a particularly memorable one, the most important, of course, being the absolutely stellar film program. Add to that the unseasonable warmth of the city, the bulwark-like presence of the five theaters against the mob of tourists that appeared to multiply exponentially as they bounced off tour buses, along with the feeling of being in the company of fellow moviegoers who really just want to watch movies all day. Yes, it’s the near haptic delight of being subsumed into the fold of a festival that genuinely cares about cinema in all of its forms and one that is shaped by a guiding aesthetic intelligence.
Yet that is not to say that Hans Hurch was entirely absent from the festival. In fact, he felt very much present to all of us in the Gartenbaukino where we watched Argentine director Gastón Solnicki’s deeply personal and affectionate essay film Introduzione all‘oscuro. A final farewell letter to his "most flamboyant friend" and mentor Hans, Solnicki shot the film in Vienna during the 13 days of last year’s festival in a state of "manic grief." Deftly avoiding the traps of tribute films, which most often devolve into a one-dimensional praise of its subject, Solnicki transcends the privacy of his own loss by turning the film into an archeology of grief, mining cinema’s inherent capacity to call forth and invoke the departed; treating cinema as a medium through which to communicate with and exorcise ghosts. Hans’ spectral presence is partially evoked through a collage of voice recordings, photographs, documents, objects, postcards and letters that Solnicki received from his dear friend over the years—an archive of personal artifacts re-organized here as the remnants of a trauma. Hurch, we learn, never used email, communicating instead solely through handwritten letters and so much of the film is a composite of different textual sources with his handwriting (evidence of his absence) writ large onscreen. We also hear his voice in a taped conversation between him and Solnicki, talking in tones of warm humor and playfulness about family, Jewish history and classical music. ("Carl Weber can do in two minutes what Tchaikovsky can’t do in two hours," he declares at one point).
Alongside the archival material is the roaming footage that Solnicki, with DP Rui Pocas, shot of himself wandering the grey fog-heavy streets of Vienna, revisiting the places and locales that he and Hans frequented together, tracing his memories through a map of cafes, restaurants and concert halls. Solnicki provides us too with images of the city more mysterious, dreamy, less grounded in the literal and triggering in the viewer of a set of unique associations. For example, a shot oft repeated is of ice skaters on a rink as seen from the Intercontinental Hotel window at night, the skaters twirling in pairs and groups looking so much like those forever still ice skaters in the Brueghel painting, Hunters in the Snow, which hangs here in Vienna. The city itself becomes a kind of geography of remembrance and of mourning with Solnicki consciously drawing on the mythic link between it and its morbid fascination with death: in one sequence we see a series of shots of tombstones of the great composers buried in Vienna from Schoenberg to Beethoven, eventually resting on Hurch’s modest plot in the Zentralfriedhof. The choice of classical musicians is no accident. Music is all over the film, most significantly the eponymous score by contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. It is a piece of music with a confounding structure, full of silences and half-heard vibrations of strings with sudden stabs of knife-like atonal sounds. Just as the music seems to slide in and out of coherency, so too does the film move to its own rhythm guided by Solnicki’s grief.
Gens du lac
There are moments wherein in it actually feels like he is performing some kind of séance ritual, such as when he buys black matte silk material—the same material Hans’ trademark suits he would always wear were made of—to smell it and cover his face, as if in doing so he could literally get closer to Hans’ spirit. Other moments are just wonderfully strange and haunting to watch: 1) an audience in the darkened Stadtkino at last years Viennale watching the Straub-Huillet film Antigone (I too was at that screening)—two filmmakers Hurch worked closely with in the past; 2) a shot of the grand art deco interior of the empty Gartenbaukino, (where we were watching this movie), the curtain rising, falling, a weird disembodying effect of being both here and not.
The invocation of ghosts is also at work, though in an altogether different register, in the new short Gens du Lac by filmmaker legend Jean-Marie Straub. With this latest film Straub, now 85, continues his project of creating a radically unique cinema of resistance, a cinema that is concerned with, among other thing, the holding still of time lest it cast to oblivion the record of political struggle and its relevancy to the present moment. It is a resistance that also encompasses the film’s visual language, refusing easy access and complacency on the part of the viewer. After all, this is a Straub film. Every aesthetic decision is equally a moral one. All the elements that have come to distinguish what makes a film "Straubian" are at work in these 19 dense minutes: the reading of a text by an a non-actor, direct location sound, long still takes, the careful attention to a landscape as a repository of repressed history, the refusal to assign a hierarchy of importance to what is happening within the frame.
In Gens du Lac a man (Christopher Clavert) sits upon a boat (the bow of which is adorned with a large red star) on the shores of Lake Geneva reading from Swiss author Janine Massard’s eponymous 2013 novel about a young fishermen named Paulus, who ferried fleeing political dissenters, persecuted Jewish refugees and others across the lake from a German occupied France. The text begins with a description of Paulus’ initiation into the brotherhood of the fishermen through his father, his contribution to the Resistance during the war and ends with his struggling efforts to found a new left in Lausanne in a post-war conservative Switzerland. As the man reads in his carefully modulated voice (a voice inscrutable, blank) in the background we see the placid expanse of the lake; hear the creak of the boat on the waves; see the ducks swim in and out of the frame; feel the gentle rocking of the boat on the lulling surface of the water. Several times the camera cuts away from the reader to shots of just the lake with the vague shape of mountains fusing seamlessly with sky, sailboats scattered toy-like here and there along the ebullient shore. In such moments it feels as if the lake were speaking through the text, the lake becoming a palimpsest of shifting temporalities, something that becomes accentuated as the rift between the pacific calm of the water in the present and the struggle of Paulus’ resistance in the past described in the text widens. At one moment there is mention of Paulus retrieving flasks from the shores of the lake—an allusion to those who drowned trying to swim across to safety? The image of the lake as a landscape of brave selfless resistance against oppression (Fascist Germany) gradually morphs, as the text details Paulus’ thwarted efforts to continue the fight of the left on the shores back home, to one of political entrenchment. Sudden cuts to black and a close-up of a photograph of a large crowd of demonstrators interrupt the narrative. At the end of the film there occurs a soothingly slow pan back and forth across the lake—a signature camera movement known to anyone familiar with the Straub’s work—with the surface of the water now only seemingly opaque, deceitfully unreadable. It is a moment as enigmatic as it is beautiful, a formal conceit ingrained into Straub’s working DNA. The film’s ascetic elegance, its play between the polarities of seeing versus reading (further complicated if you had to read the German subtitles), how the wave sounds, bird calls and creaking boats are ascribed the same value as the text (so that you’re attention is allowed to wander)—all are signs of Straub’s continued commitment to a cinema of rigorous beauty.
While we’re still on water, I must mention Viktor Kossakovsky’s ecstatic, terrifyingly beautiful film Aquarela. To call it a nature documentary on the very real dangers posed by climate change would be a crude simplification. Kossakovsky, whose previous work I am not familiar with, has made an exploratory visual supra-journey into the different incarnations of water, creating a new mode of seeing, hearing and thinking about this very basic of elements that is as equally crucial to our continued existence on the planet as it is also a threat. There are no talking heads, no safely overarching commentary, just water in all of its instances accompanied at times by operatic surges of heavy metal music. From Lake Baikal in Siberia, whose precariously frozen surface swallows up whole trucks and people, to gigantic ice caps in Greenland floating in astounding silence only to suddenly break apart into alarmingly large chunks, to floods and hurricane waves battering Caribbean islands and the southern U.S., Aquarella overwhelms on a scale I have never quite experienced. The camera moves with ease between the micro and the macro, diving deep underwater one moment to study incredibly up close the underside of ice blocks, its striations and bubble clusters, to capturing the enormous breath-taking scale of these very same blocks above the surface. Watching the film—eyes pulled wide open—you start to think of water, of these ice caps as sentient creatures or as conscious landscapes improvising their own form: a calm surface all of a sudden punctured by an iceberg slowly writhing its body, impossibly slow, out of the water followed by explosive popping sounds. As the film progresses the camera becomes increasingly entranced by the forever changing rhythm of waves, the screen a kind of abstract undulating canvas depicting snowflakes vanishing into the dark depths of the water, and we too get lost in the swell, begin to experience the fear, the loneliness that there is no land in sight.
The film is full of jolting shifts in perspective that interrupt the sensation of being swept away at sea, such as the sudden change in location to a sailboat braving waves that literally threaten to inundate the screen, or the appearance of dolphins swimming just below the surface of the cobalt blue ocean. One of the most physically felt series of cuts that I experienced during any screening was when, without warning, the film cuts from a towering wave crashing down—the booming sound of the surf combined with heavy metal music vibrating the cinema—to a pair of dog legs underwater, to a tracking shot of downtown Miami lashed by hurricane winds and rain, streets flooded and littered with palm trees. It is moment that I can only describe as ‘awesome’ in the true sense of the word. Kossakovsky’s fascination with water, its study in all of its forms, from frozen ice to flooding cities, has produced a boundary pushing work of images and sounds that does not fall back on readymade formulations about climate change, but one that exists beyond language, where the ineffable joins with the apocalyptic.
Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03)
Back on land the Austrian avant-garde is alive and well as is apparent by filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s new found footage film Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03). After plunging deep into the on-screen diabolical personas of Lou Chaney and Boris Karloff in his previous two "Monologues," here the latest star on Pfaffenbichler’s analytical cutting table is the clean-cut, unfailingly dapper James Mason. A compilation of excerpts gleaned from 160 films and organized into sections with mostly topographically themed headings (e.g. Leningrad, Roma, Purgatory etc.), Mason, the ever brooding romantic antihero, is re-sculpted into a man trapped within the walls of his own loneliness, exiled to a world of make-believe and appearance where he is fated to perform the same gestures, wear the same face, to be irremediably himself across a half century of cinema. Well, who was James Mason? After rising out of an oblivious sleep in the beginning of the film, Mason enters a labyrinth of screen identities, assuming a whole assortment iconic roles across different epochs: Julius Cesar, Captain Nemo, the pederast Humbert Humbert to the guardian angel in Forever, Darling (1956) that looks just like, as his co-star Lucille Ball points out, James Mason. What emerges through Pfaffenbichler’s expert and ludic montage is a man never at peace in his own skin, someone consumed by the contradictory desire to love, and the impulse to inflict violence as is shown in a whole sequence of Mason slapping and kissing women. Mason’s double persona as the world-weary Old World charmer and the vicious brute is diffused effortlessly and often hilariously from film to film, from cut to cut: Mason as the psychotic family man Ed Avery in Bigger than Life (1956) on his way to kill his son ("God was wrong!") to the next moment him planting an affectionate kiss on his beloved. Because the clips are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically Mason is freed from the strictures of linear time so that a question or a glance exchanged early in his career is left temporarily suspended only to be answered decades later by himself. The screen (and cinema as a whole for that matter) becomes a mirror through which the actor, and all of his shades of personality observes, and convenes with himself.
What is particularly fascinating and fun about Pfaffenbichler’s study is how it’s also a taxonomy of gestures, breaking down how actors are forced into the same movements and motions (answering phones, opening doors, looking out windows, et cetera) across cinema history. Of course, one of the most common is the gesture of dying and one that Mason was not spared from performing. At the end of Invest in Failure, we see him dying countless deaths until the whole fantasy structure held in place by Mason’s presence comes, quite literally, crashing down.
The performance of a death is at the core of Albert Serra’s Roi Soleil—a strange hybrid that fruitfully blurs the already fluid boundaries between performance art, gallery installation, cinema and they’re corresponding spaces. A radical re-imagining of his previous film, The Death of Louie XIV (2016), Serra documented the public performance of actor Lluís Serrat playing out the monarch’s final agonizing hours over seven days at the Galeria Graça Bandão in Lisbon. Though compressing the 29 hours of footage shot into just 62 minutes, Serra still promises, as he quipped in his lively introduction to the screening, a long painful hour. Painful, indeed, though luckily not for us. In the lengthy opening shot we see a robed corpulent figure wearing an equally sizable wig leaning against a wall in an empty gallery space that is doused in visceral red neon light, audibly wheezing as he struggles to keep himself up. It is not long though before he is on the floor, crawling and rolling around, clutching parts of his body, until he is left permanently prostrate, unable even to move. His rapid physical disintegration is accompanied by a symphony of moans and groans, shrieks and yelps. When not writhing in pain, Louie makes ironic use of the few tacky props left him: gazing at himself in an ornate handheld mirror (as if even in death he could not escape his own vanity), drinking water through a tube from glass jug, eating sweets from a cake stand. As Louie’s movements become increasingly reduced the closer the camera begins to zero in on him like a clinical instrument measuring out a graph of pain. Whereas Serra opens with a wide shot of the gallery space, with Louie placed concretely and full bodied within a discernible environment, by the end the camera is up close on his face, registering every twitch and grimace, every expression of discomfort and tortured breath. It is in this dynamic use of the camera, the play with shot durations, wide shots and extreme close-ups, that Roi soleil emerges as a work beyond the straightforward documentation of a public performance, but as a mindfully constructed work of cinema able to transcend the restrictions of perception imposed by the gallery space. The camera’s ability to capture every subtle movement of Louie’s body, every expression that flits across his face allows for an altogether different experience than physically watching the performance in a gallery: it isolates him from the surrounding space, incrementally abstracting him so that his death becomes more than just a physical one. It changes our relationship to him, simultaneously bringing us closer to him, while also emphasizing his "performativeness"—there are no false illusions of naturalism here.
However, this process of total isolation is suddenly ruptured by the echoing sound of footsteps emanating from the gallery visitors. Legs begin to circle around the now totally immobile monarch, until the camera is once again placed in a wide shot of the gallery, the audience crowding the frame with Louie’s lifeless figure placed in the center. And for the final long minutes we watch the audience watching the performance, see how they wander in and out of frame, check their phones, unsure whether or not the performance is over, until Serra himself enters the frame, checks Louie’s pulse and declares: "He is dead." To watch Serra’s cine-experiment is to know that cinema is not.