More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
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A month before Cambridge Film Festival starts, and following last month’s survey of What is Catalan cinema ? (550 page-views), we take another dive for strings of pearls, linked by their preoccupations, this time into the archive that is Fifteen fine festival films (now, seemingly, with the improbable more than 19,000 page-views…).
Put another way, what follows is a teasing-apart of strands in the best of (largely) subtitled festival cinema, the pick of what has been seen at Cambridge Film Festival between 2011 and 2013. They are not themes, by any means, unique to these films, for we can find them in The Matrix (1999) and its trilogy, Good Will Hunting (1997), or The Truman Show (1998), or ones that reductively sum up the films in either case – since, of course, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – but, rather, they are touchstones to what may evoke a response in others.
And themes that, in any case, interlink (as the classic circles do, demonstrating colour-mixing, of red, green and blue) : finding the hidden truth is another aspect of being corrupted, yet of seeking renewal…
Our themes for this posting :
1. Innocence corrupted – and yet…
2. Knowing the beginning for the first time
3. Finding the truth behind the appearance
1. Innocence corrupted – and yet…
The selected films :
As if I am not There (2010) - from 2011
Premise : Samira, a newly started primary teacher, is caught up in the cruelty and selfishness of war, and used for sex, even if latterly with greater tenderness
Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun binatang) (2012) (Festival review) - from 2012
Premise : Threatened with expulsion from her paradisiacal life in the zoo, Lana leaves for a better life, but it vanishes, and she becomes prey
The Taste of Money (Do-nui mat) (2012) - from 2013
Premise : Lightly mocked for his gaucheness, Joo Young-Jak (‘Mr Joo’) seems immune to money’s attractions, but he sees how wealth changes status
In each film, a way back is offered or found, (which, using the language of money, we also symbolically call ‘changed fortunes’) – often both found and offered, for it is with and through the company chairman’s daughter’s changed perspective on her family in The Taste of Money that Joo Young-Jak (Kang-woo Kim) has the courage to act differently and selflessly at the close of the film, and, in Postcards from the Zoo, Lana (Ladya Cheryl ?) feels to be reaching out for her past life as a place that she loves, and where its inhabitants love her.
In between, we have Samira (Natasa Petrovic) in As if I am not There, who, rather as Lana also seems to do, disassociates from her oppressive present : when we first see Samira, she finds herself – unintentionally, in these terms – left to reflect on what went before. War has been unkind to her, and now she is in another country, with no home to which to return. She chooses to face what happened, just as we viewers in part live through it with her, and acts with kindness.
Engaging with her experience allows Samira a different perspective on what life in all its fullness can be for her now, just as Lana has lost what was maybe complacence about her home (and her place in the world), and can gratefully embrace what it offers. In the case of Joo Young-Jak, the film brings us to a more enigmatic close, but one where his companion and he have acted with thought and decency, to right the wrongs of the dynasty of which they have been part.
There is a fourth film that links with this theme, and which was shown at the opening of the Festival in 2012, when director Robert Guediguian took part in a Q&A : The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011) (Festival review). There, Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride) and Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) do not so much lose sight of their principles, as get enmeshed in a judicial process that pushes them in directions that cause them not to share their instincts for good. Nonetheless, they separately act on those instincts, and so reaffirm their beliefs in the meaning of life and in each other.
2. Knowing the beginning for the first time
The selected films :
The Idiot (Idioot) (2011) (Estonia) - from 2012
Premise : A stylized, but sympathetic, retelling of Dostoyevsky’s novel about the saintly ‘fool’ Prince Myshkin, who disarms others even as he harms himself
Kosmos (2010) - from 2011
Premise : Along with Myshkin, another man who, when not looked at in the round, is in danger of being misunderstood (by being over-praised)
Upstream Color (2013) (Young Americans) - from 2013
Premise : Most definitely another film not to be understood naturalistically, it shows the eye of faith seeing connections that their maker intended broken
Starting with the last of these, in the chance meeting and awkward understanding between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, the writer and director of Upstream Color) we see evoked a feeling that would have one not only seek a sense of safety, snuggled with an unquestioning other in an unlikely confined space, but also, when no longer frightened, would break through into another reality.
No more so than The Taste of Money, this is not really a revenge tale, or about paranoia or conspiracy (though it entertains or employs these aspects), yet it shows / finds literal roots for what has happened. In a circularity that characterizes these narratives, it goes back to the place where those roots once grew freely, again – as with Postcards from the Zoo – with an Eden-like notion, in the vividness of the blooms, of the potential for beauty and for nurture gets subverted. Kosmos, too, has a highly spiritual dimension, which envisages, in its ending shot, a transcendent quality to life and to what we experience :
It embodies, through the unexplained character, power, and actions of a stranger come to town, a challenge to us as to the nature of generosity, a holy way of life, and ‘organized’ religion. Named Kosmos by the young woman whom he likewise describes by calling her Neptün (Türkü Turan), and played by the almost ceaselessly present Sermet Yesil, we do not know whether he is blessed or cursed by the attention that he receives for the act that he performs as soon as he arrives, of saving her brother, and which is inconveniently treated as heroism: for, even at the start, the expectations of – and upon – this Kosmos seem immense and crushing.
However, it is largely only in moments of quiet and isolation, often with Neptün (who both hides from and seeks him), that we see that Kosmos is truly not limited by human constraints. Yet not seeing himself in relation to them when they are in the form of mores, he makes us ask when and to whom the rules can / do apply – not least in relation to Dostoyevsky again, this time with Raskolinkov in the novel Crime and Punishment (from 1866). The Idiot was published soon after (by instalment, between 1868 and 1869), and, if we look at Myshkin alongside Kosmos, we more easily see how our conception of the good person, or of the life well lived, can enslave us to all-or-nothing perfectionist thinking about others (often enough), who may then be seen as capable of no wrongdoing, or, as the case may be, disappoint us.
By contrast, Reha Erdem (the writer / director of Kosmos) seems to want to shatter such a conception, which contrariwise puts the hypocrisy I could never do something dreadful like that ! onto our lips, and thereby creates (if only in our own denied image) the archetype of ‘the bad person’. We will have the same problems relating to Myshkin, but this time because what can be characterized as his extreme passivity, which Risto Kübar has the knack of making seem both irritatingly real and yet otherworldly.
Unlike Kosmos, who maybe finds some better resting-place (or might have to keep going), Myshkin is mentally delivered back to where he began. We must ask, and ask carefully – heeding any faint reply : In whose terms, though, does it make sense to ask whether either man failed – or succeeded ?
In both films, we see lives taken, which different actions might have prevented, and we see love having the power to intoxicate and destroy. Its usual emblem is symbolized to Myshkin by the display of a bleeding heart, gaudy and neon, which transfixes him, and we then see him proceed to be powerless to ignore it. Yet philosophy or religion aside, and just in terms of the making of this film, it creates moods within different ecclesiastical interiors in the Aleksandri kirik (Narva, Estonia), from this evocation of an ikon in a shrine, to a railway-carriage, to a garden, or lapping water…
By contrast, Upstream Color’s looping on itself seems a little different (with at least one hurtful cycle broken). Yet the film’s ending feels exemplary, if not in a didactic way, of the patterns in films such as Leviathan (as screened at last year’s Festival) or Samsara. Or, equally and in common with other of the Fifteen fine festival films, such as Dimensions (2011) (which premiered at the Festival in 2011) or Formentera (2012) (UK premiere, from 2012), of that sensation that Eliot describes in Four Quartets :
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
3. Finding the truth behind the appearance
The selected films :
The Night Elvis Died (La nit que va morir Elvis) (2010) (Catalan) - from 2012
Premise : See the paragraph, in italics, quoted below from What is Catalan cinema ?
The Redemption of the Fish (La redempció dels peixos) (2013) (Catalan) – UK premiere, from 2013
Premise : Likewise, see the paragraph, in italics, quoted below from What is Catalan cinema ?
Tirza (2010) - from 2011
Premise : A university teacher who has recently lost his job waves his favourite daughter off on a flight to Namibia – then, when there is no news, goes off in search of her
To cut this longish posting a little shorter, we take a detour to What is Catalan cinema ?, from which we lift the following paragraph, where two of these films have been talked about before :
On another level, and in Venice, we again have finding the truth in The Redemption of The Fish (La redempció dels peixos) (2013), as Marc tracks down his past, and is seduced and misled by the shapes, shadows and reflections of La Serenissima : so many of these films revolve historical and familial disputes and allegiances in a rich and productive way. In V.O.S. (2009), we have that theme translated into the playful and malleable notion of relation and relationships, in and out of making a film that crosses the barrier between ‘life’ and ‘film’ in a way as inventive and thought-provoking as Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). And - but one might need to read further, with the links below to reviews on this blog - The Night Elvis Died (La Nit Que Va Morir L’Elvis) (2010) teases apart the layers of reality (not least with its quiet homage to Paris, Texas (1984))…
In The Night Elvis Died – whose title refers to when, during the production of the town’s passion-play, Aureli Mercader’s (Blai Llopis’) life unravelled, and what we now see is a man who has forgotten everything but the broad thrust of what happened – the amnesia is our link to Tirza. A feature of film construction that takes us back beyond Hitchcock’s famous use, when he collaborated with a self-celebrated master-of-dreams in Salvador Dalí for Spellbound (1945), we see another man, becoming as ragged, run down and lost as Aureli is, in Jörgen Hofmeester. He only finds out, as he voyages, what his own story is, travelling in the company of Kaisa, a young girl who works as a prostitute, far into the striking territories of Namibia.
With Jörgen (Gijs Scholten von Aschat) both confronting, yet at the same time avoiding, his attitudes to the country’s Dutch colonial past (and other matters) and what those global connections mean, Arnon Grunberg co-adapted his novel in such a way that Jörgen’s involuntary strings of revelation to Kaisa (Keitumetse Matlabo), sometimes drifting from English into Dutch, leads us to the heart of who he is – and the void within him that he has hidden from himself. His narration tips us over into the muddle of our emotions about the man whom he plays, and into the twisted mess of family that has been the genesis of so much torture, violence, degradation, and pain.
When, in The Night Elvis Died, Aureli finds out his truth, the film nigh on destructs with the intensity of the experience, almost fully as much for us as for him, and we are brought before staggering images and insights – which leave Dalí’s role, in dream-imagery, for Hitchcock far behind (albeit his were for the purposes of dream-interpretation). (One is reminded, though in a very different way, of the disintegration in, and the dislocations in the narration of, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man ! (1973) (itself rescreened at a recent Festival).)
Much more quiet than this is the realization that steals upon Marc in the shimmering Venice of The Redemption of The Fish – perhaps attuned, in tribute, to the shifting sensations of David Lean’s seemingly personal favourite film Summertime (1955), with Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi, but, in parallel, to those of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Yet it is not Marc (Miquel Quer) who is the one here with the tendencies to retelling / reformulating (if not to actual amnesia), but the one because of whom he has gone there to find out more :
One is curiously reminded of ‘the closing reveal’ in another Catalan film, the Festival favourite of 2012 that was Black Bread (Pa Negre) (2010). Yet, compared with the younger Andreu (and what he gains, which What is Catalan cinema ? characterizes roughly as ‘A naturalistic, but haunted, story of a child’s perspective on betrayal, sex and anger’), Marc experiences so many varied things during his short trip.
Not only a host of reactions and feelings (and – with them – a rush and self-realization of maturity), but : relaxed lunches by the canal-side, the Commedia dell’Arte, the under-surface sound made by the waters of the lagoon, moonlight on The Lido, and plumbing the loneliness and emptiness of the quiet corners of the city, as well as books and artefacts, and what they reveal. In closing, and acknowledging again that recognizing the beginning for what it is and penetrating to the truth are not always discrete descriptions, one last paragraph from Whatis Catalan cinema ?, which leads into talking about a film that links, in a profoundly moving way, a Dante scholar, graffiti-encrusted former gun-emplacements, a confused man in hospital, and the history of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War :
Directors such as Ken Loach, working with screenwriter Jim Allen in Land and Freedom (1995), have brought a British perspective on seeking to fight pro-fascist Nationalist forces, but Jesús Garay’s Eyes on the Sky (Mirant al Cel) (2008) delves less into the politics and the pointlessness of brother against brother, but rather, and very movingly, into the ‘visceralness’ of what it means to tick down to something that changes individual lives for ever : although Garay is from Santander, not Catalunya, again this is in the very North of Spain.
Closing note :
Since Cambridge Film Festival 2013, Eyes on the Sky has had a special screening (plus Q&A) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (@ICA), as did another of its Catalan films, The Forest (El bosc), which What is Catalan cinema ? characterized by the key-words Magical realism – Twisted love – Collectivization – Other worlds – Symbolism – Unreal feast, and the short phrase An account of a civil war through how the hated better-off classes fared.
On 23 August 2014, the ICA screens a third one of these films, The Redemption of the Fish, with a Q&A…
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)