Filmmaking At The Kerb

in 42nd Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Gabe Klinger

Good taste goes a long way when programming a film festival. A market-oriented event such as Toronto leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it becomes apparent that regular moviegoers are forced to endure the same process of discerning good from bad as trade journalists and distributors. Some festivals have too good of taste, and their selections become too rich and dense to fully absorb. The essential difference in programming between the bland and the adventurous is in retrospective offerings, which allow you to connect various aspects in recent international cinema to films from the past.

This year’s Viennale hosted, in collaboration with the Metro Kino Filmarchiv, works by Paul Fejos, from early shorts to his Hollywood flirtations to late European masterpieces. It also presented, with the Filmmuseum as its home, an exhaustive Straub/Huillet + John Ford program, running all month (which is reasonable since even in the festival’s two weeks it would be impossible for an out-of-towner to be a completist).

And to add riches to riches, Godardian-Farberite Jean-Pierre Gorin’s films, emerging Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu’s films, programs from ex-Viennese Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, and, though it was buried deep in the program book, the late Vlado Kristl’s works, which reveal themselves as the testament of a sad and wounded career, marred with misunderstandings and lack of money.

A German resident, born in Zagreb and survived by a daughter (who introduced her father’s screenings), Kristl was an artist who connected with few (among them Straub and Huillet), and was ignored by many more. He died in July of this year and was still active until recently. However, he stated that his last “real” work was Obrigkeitsfilm, from 1971, because (taken from his words which are included in the Viennale program book) he had been run over by the “system” like Gaudi had been run over by a tram on the street, leaving him to “bleed to death on the kerb”.

It is easy to have your enthusiasm “kerbed” by ulterior forces. The screening of Obrigkeitsfilm at the Viennale was a relative success, though: it was nearly full and young people lingered happily after the screening to discuss and ramble on this, frankly, intolerable film.

In fact, nothing was so badly aged as Kristl’s diatribe against the middle-class; it didn’t help the film was in German and unsubtitled so that the few of us non-speakers in the audience couldn’t grasp what was being said. But rather than cohering in some kind of form (even though it’s so obviously contra-form), Obrigkeitsfilm feels like a poor man’s Glauber Rocha – full of orgy-astic scenes and fourth-wall breaking, but seemingly without a sense of conviction. The result is a work that’s quite pointless (possibly damaging to say of a film by someone who’s so marginal, but at least Kristl enjoyed some success as a painter during his lifetime).

Jean-Pierre Gorin is another filmmaker “kerbed” by the system. He has rarely made films – in fact, really only two all by his lonesome – but they are attractive for many reasons: firstly, because of his collaborations, from beyond Godard and Farber, to Les Blank (Poto and Cabengo), Babette Mangolte (Routine Pleasures, My Crasy Life), and Peter Sellars (Letter to Peter, on Saint François d’Assise by Oliver Messiaen), and secondly, because he always finds in his subjects the freedom to construct forms that are more complex than documentaries usually allow for. And documentaries, it’s worth noting, have been Gorin’s chosen genre, though as the smaller shadow of the two towering figures that are Godard and Farber, it’s risky to further categorize someone as uniquely situated in American filmmaking as he is.

Marginality is attractive to all filmmakers to the point of sabotaging their own careers, as von Stroheim did, famously, and Paul Fejos, less famously. Unease is a more appropriate way of describing Fejos, who could have been a successful director-for-hire at Universal, but instead chose the way of the traveler, looking through his camera to find the peoples and landscapes – from Madagascar to Sweden – that he found genuine interest in.

Different from current American filmmaker Jem Cohen, whose films situate the viewer in an anti- bourgeois framework, Fejos was representative of a time when escaping capitalist imperialism was still very tangible. As Cohen’s film, Chain, shows us, one doesn’t necessarily have to be in the U.S. to experience the same oddly familiar backdrop of modern commercial complexes; you can be in Paris or in a ‘burb’ in Ohio.

David Fenster, another American filmmaker at the Viennale with his film Trona, walks along a similar pathway in two-fold: he bluntly places his conventional business-man character in the middle of nowhere in an elliptical, illogical cut that is one of the film’s highpoints, and also never aspires to be grandiose, never reaching archs, or making statements, but to an extreme means that makes Trona deceptively small.

Fenster’s marginality is in storytelling, which also puts him in a unique place. He could make a film in Hollywood if he wanted to; it would easily be subversive, and he would be able to tag on a satisfying end that a discerning viewer could dispose of without difficulty. Fenster is more about small moments and characters, anyway, whereas other marginal filmmakers are working upon layers of theory and ideology that become intrinsic to the way they shoot and edit. Fenster is smart enough to retain intuition over intellectuality, and the intellectuals will be envious of him for it.

The two best films of the Viennale were by the same filmmaker as the best film in Berlin, and the best film in Toronto, and surely the best film of the next festival. The filmmaker is Agnès Varda, whose shorts, new and old, wherever shown, have the tendency to make everything else look awkward and unnecessary in comparison. As part of Amos Vogel’s original Cinema 16 programs, Varda’s L’Opera Mouffe (a.k.a. Diary of a Pregnant Woman) was revived, just as her latest sketch, a one and a half minute trailer presented intermittently throughout the Viennale, was shown for the first time.

Shot in a continuous spiraling movement, where fields are remembered, and wheat and salt experience metamorphoses; where waltzes are heard, as are natural sounds; where a jump-cut reveals five tops spinning simultaneously – echoing the rhythmic exchange of images of beggars and daytime market-goers on the Paris streets in L’Opera Mouffe -, and Varda intervenes to tie a few things together, as she is known for doing so marvelously, without concluding much: “Once the salt has lost its power, what can it be salted with?”

A loose meaning might be taken from this question, which is that we’ve run out of film, and that digital video has become pepper to celluloid’s salt. In the 46 year gap between L’Opera Mouffe and the Viennale trailer, Varda, who made her conversion to DV with Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse, helps to define this sea change to audiences. The juxtaposition belongs to her as much as it belongs to festivals like the Viennale, who continue to take at stake what the past has to offer.

Gabe Klinger