Alienation might be an old-fashioned term. We associate it with films of the sixties, mostly because of the drowsy characters in Antonioni’s movies, who hypnotize and sunspots each other, looking for authentic emotions, surrounded by disturbingly attractive landscape. Nowadays, things have gone too far. In the age of seemingly direct electronic communications, where each contact is only the push of a button away, real relationships between people are an illusion. Now anyone who is talking to himself on the street, not even looking at others, isn’t just crazy, but actually communicating with another voice miles away. Films are to be blamed for this as well and now they try to expiate their guilt.
One of the films shown in the program of the 19th Arsenals festival in Riga begins with the words: “Years ago, people were given the opportunity to control evolution…”. As well as control films. If we just look at the two competition programs of the festival, it seems that each film fights headlong or wily for its happy ending and tries to send us back to that childish and ingenious mood of early cinema, when everything was possible — even happiness. But nowadays happy endings have turned into a semi-happy endings, probably so they are more real and attainable. But for this purpose the film has to blend the sentimental, sorrowful and exaggerated; and deny even a part of the film itself, doubt its right of existence, because it has created some of the false models people imitate so persistently. Not only when they demonstrate their loneliness, but mostly when they sink into feigned elation and mirth, and keep pretending to enjoy food, sex and drinks.
The setting of most movies has — thanks to the globalization of thought — turned into a monotonous, constant scene, ruthlessly destroyed and demolished by the actors, which is what people actually are. A false, artificial world has teleported in reality. This world is usually not a reflection of the inner world of the characters, but it nevertheless transforms the outer world. In Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007) the past is shown as something already dead and gone, which exists only in retrospective. In the character’s journey into the past, his home-town is a beautiful flimsy décor, which slides down behind the character’s back as he travels around it, and melts like nitrate film. Esteban Sapir’s The Aerial (La Antena, 2007) uses the stylistics of silent film to tell a surrealistic story about people of the future with stolen voices, who speak only through subtitles. In their world, food consists of boxes with images — television programs. In this desperate film only a faceless woman and a blind child have their own voices. This saved them from the aggression of images.
At present, blindness is power. As if the possibility to see again and lose blindness in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), is inverted in Hamer Bent’s O’Horten, here one of the characters, alienated from life, from the women in it, the colleagues, already dressed in woman’s clothes, finds himself in a car whose driver has his eyes closed. Until that day, the character has woken up every day, looked through the window at the railway line, saw a woman bending her head over the table and then rode his train for the whole day. He has never crossed the rail tracks; for him driving a train full of people has been the routine of a blind man with a mechanical guide dog — the locomotive.
In Rafa Cortes’ Me (Yo, 2007) the only way a character can be accepted and loved in his new circle is to be like the others — to lie, smile hypocritically, get angry, cheat at cards. Otherwise, he could literally lose his life. That’s why he’s willing to imitate the others’ role in an endless play.
Sergei Loznits’s The Revue (Predstavlenie, 2008) consists of archival documentary footage from the socialist era, where a whole nation (Russia) acts, fakes and pretends, delivering a lengthy play only to preserve an idea. The entire falseness is based not so much on fear as on the desire to unite, to be with the others, to become a part of the whole, to function as a social being. It is hard for the whole nation to change an image, a role, but when this is done, it makes real blood flow, not ketchup.
In Alain Gomis’s Andalucia the protagonist wanders in the Babel of a Parisian suburb and apparently takes part in a casting, trying to choose his role in life — a recidivist, social worker or sex symbol. He actually gets a supernumerary part in a French movie (“you know what the new French films are like”, as a black mute says). But the male roles aren’t enough for him, and finally, with his mouth foolishly open again, he chooses the role of Savior. Walking on air, not on water. A cocktail of races, folklore, wisdom and lives flying around him, the whole world has come to him in multinational Paris, but in spite of that, he travels by air to Andalucia, his dream. All in all, his profession is that of an itinerant actor.
Another protagonist in Ariel Rotter’s The Other (El Otro, 2007) chooses an even more original way to escape from his life — he goes to the country where he introduces himself under the names of different dead men, which brings him misadventures and ventures with widows. The real reason for his escape is not his terminally ill father, for whom he cares with love and tenderness, but the fear of the birth of his child. He just doesn’t want the role of a father, and prefers to leave it to somebody else.
In Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy a shared walkman becomes the reason for mixing almost all Hollywood genres, set inside a five-star hotel in Bangkok. People, locked in the cages of a glass prison like in monitors, play their roles in a thriller, horror, family film and drama. Even a chambermaid and a barman enter the apartments, dress in the hotel guest’ clothes and execute their poetic porn session. Have we turned our life into a performance, covered in mediocrity and amateurism?
In Juris Poskus’ Monotony (Monotonija) a girl from the country comes to the city to take part in a casting session, certain of her success, because judging by the role’s description, she’ll have to play herself. Of course, she doesn’t get the part — otherwise the movie might be authentic. Trying to show her real nature, she loses the opportunity to save even this small bit of truth she had.
In this long saga of loneliness and alienation, Baltic films involve animals and nature — that non-indifferent nature about which Eisenstein, coincidentally born in Riga, wrote and thought. In Maris Maskalans and Laila Pakalnin’s Three Men and a Fishpond (Par dzimteniti) three men live between hunting, fishing and a bottle of concentrate. Simultaneously, the bird-life is followed — as they build nests, feed, make love, raise their offspring. In spite of the constant gunshots, which make them shudder a little, they keep leading real, satisfying lives in contrast to the three men, whose lives aren’t in danger of anything, but pass in dirtiness and stupor.
In Sulev Keedus’s Jonathan from Australia (Jonathan Austraaliast) a super luxurious ship goes around an Estonian island. The sterile life on the ship — with swimming pools, tourists sitting still in lounges — is followed in parallel to the life on the island. The tourists observe it, as they would watch an exotic movie on Discovery channel, while the natives doggedly give various performances — country weddings, pagan rituals, folk festivals. The chimera of happiness slips away from the moving island — the ship, while on the real island, the drunkards’ songs sound like sirens singing the deceitful song of possible happiness. Finally, the guests leave like spectators at the end of the show, while the natives keep imitating their life by habit.
In Roze Stiebra’s I Played, I Danced (Speleju dancoju) a version of the Orpheus myth is acted out against the backdrop of a real highway and the big city lights, on a set scene with animated characters. The allusion is that the world of the dead is in the background. The singer has to save his lover with a song, but she must not look back: this is some kind of blindness also. At the end of the song, the characters bow, the curtain falls, the scene that was raised in the air disappears like a spark in the nocturnal sky of the big city. Life, or the attempt to save it, is nothing more than a show.
Starewicz’s puppets come to life in the movie The Bug Trainer (Vabzdziu Dresuotojas) about the great creator, full of love and desire, while real people are treated like dolls — sitting on cardboard tables with drawn flowers on the vases, mechanically producing sounds and taking their place on this stage. The real and living world is the dolls’ one, where a she-wolf in human clothes suckles her little cub, baring her shining sharp teeth in a motherly smile.
In one of the best movies in this festival, Veiko Ounpuu’s Autumn Ball (Sugisball) the characters in the cubical goggling spaces of huge blocks of flats in a suburb gather at night in the local pub, which resembles a church. There, everyone confesses their sins while holding their glass. In a drinking impulse, one of the characters tries to get a middle-aged woman from the next table out of her trance, or at least out of her role of ageing with her memories belle. When she stands back bashfully, he calms her down: “Don’t worry about the others, they’re just automatons”. Only the local sex robot, the door-keeper, who also enjoys dressing in someone else’s clothes and shows up like that at cocktails, tries to build his life in a different way. But the girl he falls in love with refuses to change her former role.
All these films flashed as a warning sign from the screens of the beautiful ancient city of Riga, built with courage, wit and love, but so much resembling a giant stone scene for a co-production in-between centuries. Not everyone on the street was happy with life — that could be read on their faces. But this is the only city where I have seen so many people walking hand in hand. Not just young couples, but also a middle-aged son and his father, a mother and her ageing daughter. Two by two, supporting each other, people walk together in the bitter cold between the buildings, which look like museums from outside and inside. Hands reaching out for the fellow-man is the best arsenal against loneliness and alienation from yourself and from others. An appropriate scene for a festival?