A Thousand Herrings
by Alexey Gusev
The Miskolc CineFest is devoted exclusively to debuts and the second films, and this regulation permits critics and spectators to make allowances for a lack of professionalism and maturity of artistic thought – a very strange indulgence. Citizen Kane was a debut, and À bout de souffle too, and Ossessione… or one could remember sex, lies, and videotape, which has remained the only more-then-acceptable film of Soderbergh’s career. It’s natural and even proper for youth to conquer the heavens, to decide world problems and to create texts with a single exhalation, without cracks and chips of “reasonable doubt” that are inevitably left on a soul after long years of contemplating all evil under the sun. It is quite appropriate for young people to be inspired defenders, or, more often, severe prosecutors, or, if breeding is good, judges. Age hasn’t reduced them yet to unobtrusive jurors; they are angry and improvident, they have quick minds and sharp tongues. At least, they should have, and they always did.
But, apparently, nowadays is different. The Miskolc competition, although it’s comprised only of American and European productions, is quite representative of the current state of cinema. It’s the very average profile by which one can judge the true stuffing of what is going on, passing the whipped cream of chefs-d’œuvre and the crispy bottom crust of the underground. Well, in view of Miskolc CineFest’s specificity, it’s more correct to discuss not “what is going on” but “what will go on tomorrow”. The bitter hereafter of the festival mainstream. For only three young filmmakers of sixteen that had been presented in Miskolc availed theirselves of their youth. All the rest, at the most, used the worst in it.
Many years ago, at the beginning of 1920s, Viktor Shklovsky wrote the text I’ve named mine after: “There are taskbooks, tasks in them are in order. Some are on equation with one unknown quantity, the others, further, are on quadratic equations. And there is a list of answers in the end of the taskbook. It’s in order too: 4835 – 5 sheep, 4836 – 17 taps, 4837 – 13 days, 4838 – 1000 herrings. Very unhappy is one who will begin to study mathematics straight from answers and will try to find any sense in this precise column.
It’s tasks and the courses of their decision that are important, not answers. In the same situation as the man who wants to study mathematics and learns the columns of answers are those theorists who are interested in art with ideas and conclusions but not with system of things. […] Very unhappy is the writer who tries to increase the weight of his work not with the development of its course but with the value of his task’s answer. As if the task #4838 is bigger and more important than task #4837 only because of one of them has an answer “13” and the other has an answer “a thousand herrings”. It’s just two tasks, and both are for the third school grade”.
Sorry for such an extensive quote, but it’s key reasoning for the correct comprehension of the majority of current “young cinema”. During the time that the Miskolc CineFest lasted we learned a lot about: the problems of female alcoholism (Smashed), the problems of Kurdish immigrants within Austrian society (Your Beauty Is Worth Nothing (Deine Schönheit ist nichts wert)), the problems of children in divorced families (Beast Paradise (Le paradis des bêtes)), the problems of tyrannical motherhood (Teddy Bear), the problems of incomprehension between young and old generations (Dollhouse), the problems of growing up (The Trip (Izlet)) and, specifically, of growing up in a strictly religious environment (Electrick Children)… And, certainly, we got still more enlightenment from the short film competition. A very impressive programme, very important and useful, but just for two things. Either you are preparing your thesis in the sociology of the modern world, or you are extremely sensitive and responsive to others’ sufferings (at the same level as the heroine of Breaking the Waves, more or less) and, at the same time, are pathologically senseless to all that concerns cinematic language and film structure. For all of the listed films (except, maybe, Teddy Bear) are scarcely feeble from a professional point of view and full of childish mistakes of narration, editing etc. It looks like it would be a serious matter to fill in the gaps in professional abilities or, at least, make them less important. But that seriousness alone just cannot act this way. It’s possibly correct about the seriousness of the approach to the problem, and of the attitude to the problem, but not of the problem itself. But approach and attitude in cinema art manifest themselves exactly as a film form, and in no other way.
It is irresistibly nice when some child is talking about God or their sense of life or troubles in the Middle East, but it is doubtful whether he can express something substantive. The gift of youth is a very original, essentially individual view on life and the world, not an understanding of them; the latter comes later, only with experience and along with good taste. A young filmmaker possesses the terrific possibility of style, that is the very view of life, in human terms; but if his social responsibility is stronger than his unscrupulous god-gifted energy of vision, he will be just enchanted with many, many thousands of herrings and will lose all of his advantage with clusters of noble and banal babbling in return. In other words, if you utter a banality at 25 years old but present it in some sharp, finished, dainty form, it’s okay: firstly, soon you’ll grow wiser; secondly, truly good and viable style can itself teach its possessor many subtle and important things; thirdly, most probably, this style, even aside from the director’s awareness, adds some unexpected details to his banal intention. But if you, still at 25 years old, neglect such snobbish notions as editing rhythm or the inner logic of colours (for all of this is only for critics’ pleasure, and your film is for people, right?) as far as your ideas are too important and urgent for diverting your attention away from them, the outcome is predictable: you will be condemned to banality this time and will never find a way to tell something else.
The lesser evil is just to ignore the natural tumult of youth and to sacrifice the freshness (presumed) of an individual view not to the importance of the topic but to careful conventional workmanship. In some specific cases this mode could even become a winning move, as in the case of the FIPRESCI winner at this Miskolc CineFest, Romanian Radu Jude’s film Everybody In Our Family (Toata lumea din familia noastra), that is almost indistinguishable (methodically, stylistically, technically, thematically) from the best samples of the current Romanian New Wave; but this very soil is so fertile nowadays that even just a strict adherence to its behest is enough to making a really good movie, as this one undoubtedly is. This context demands rather a sophisticated complex of requirements, the ‘strict adherence’ in it is really difficult, so Radu Jude’s almost faultless exercise deserved our award without any reservations. But the point is that this film could deserve this award not only at a festival specializing in first and second works.
Nothing in Radu Jude’s film gives its second line in the director’s filmography away.
Certainly, it’s absolutely not bad; it’s just remarkable.
But such a fertile soil is not very often the case even in a whole film history, not to mention the pretty meagre modern cinema context. Polite People (Kurteist fólk), Teddy Bear, Compliance or, with less convincing results, Hell, are all films which try to please an audience, and not without success (by the way, they were pretty popular at this festival); but they are pure commercial products: nice, dexterous, and irreparably faceless. Once again, it’s absolutely not bad too; it’s just a non-festival kind of cinema, and without any trace of debut. It’s easy to get why they are here, in Miskolc: thanks to their topics, “humane”, and “sensitive”, and “socially weighty”, and so on. Indeed, their topics have all these qualities — unlike directors’ treatments of them, if you interpret the term “treatment” as a complex of thoughts rather than a state of profound pensiveness.
The true aim of all these films is to stimulate and lighten an audience’s empathy, not to provoke it to some reflections or new conclusions through comprehension of a filmic text; well, it’s clearly a commercial aim. And, of course, there are very few mistakes in these exercises; duh! these are for the third school grade. There is nothing new; conformism is often peculiar to youth. But, as I’ve said above, it’s its worst peculiarity.
Finally, three mentioned exclusions from this gloomy habit are: Anne Émond’s Night # 1 (Nuit # 1), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and Kristina Buozyte’s Vanishing Waves. And these directors’ naming, for the first time in this article, make sense, because all these three films have, as one Russian poet said, “non-common facial expressions”. It doesn’t matter how old these directors are according to their IDs; their films are young.
They try to re-define cinema itself; they are disobedient, pertinacious, and persistent; they care only about the cinematographic form of their message, for they know that it’s the only channel of sense in the field of art. And, of course, they are extremely different.
Anne Émond explores the nakedness of souls within naked space, with over-verbose script written in the best traditions of over-exquisite French literature. Peter Strickland constructs a radically cinephiliac illusive world of giallo (im-)mortal remains full of scarlet flashes and death-rattles, some Barton Finkean trip on the other side of sight and sound. And Kristina Buozyte uses a sci-fi entourage to free-fill a screen with affected ornate images, with extra-long shots of human loneliness and exaltation, with some rural kind of late surrealism.
It’s important to notice that all these three films are undeniably of bad taste. Their ambitions are so great and their intonations are so vigorous that they just cannot avoid certain noticeable gaps. Some shocking images in Vanishing Waves seem amateurish and a little naive; some extensive soliloquys in Night # 1 leave the film mechanism to run idle; and the construction of Berberian Sound Studio is so cunning that the director outwits himself and just cannot reduce it to any satisfactory conclusion. But all of these mistakes, and sometimes flagrant mistakes, are from the real difficulty of the tasks. And the turbulent unevenness of these films promises much more than a smoothness of their conformist competitors or a respectable anxiety of socially responsible ones. They don’t care about a thousand herrings, they aren’t charmed with it. Maybe, they are not the best in the arena of cinema — so far; but it’s better than to be the best in the herring pond.
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2012