Looking for Originality: The Same Old Songs By Ronald Bergan

in 65th Venice International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

Many years ago, a young critic writing on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, noted a wonderful scene when a baby carriage rolls down a flight of stairs. He was too young and ignorant to know that it was a homage to The Battleship Potemkin. The younger a critic is the more likely he or she is to find something original in a film. One person’s originality is another person’s familiarity.

The older I get and the more films I see, the more derivative I find most films. I still seek originality, even to the extent of originality for its own sake. Out of the 21 films in the official competition in Venice this year, there were only four films that one could call original. The others, while not all bad, in fact some were even good, were rather derivative.

While the winner of the Golden Lion, The Wrestler, was winning in other ways, and Mickey Rourke’s performance as the ageing, washed-up pro wrestler of the title was excellent — he seemed to be drawing on a lifetime of experience — Darren Aronofsky’s film hardly broke any new ground. It was rather too reminiscent of boxing movies like The Champ, The Set-Up and Fat City.

Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married is another in the genre of a dysfunctional family getting together for a marriage, the apotheosis of which is Robert Altman’s The Wedding, and Kathryn Bigelow’s dubious Hurt Locker (dreadful title) showed how our brave troops are defending freedom in Iraq, a subject Sam Fuller dealt with far more effectively. Amir Naderi’s Vegas: A True Story, was a riveting study of gambling, addiction and obsession, though dealt with less schematically in films such as Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels (La Baie des Anges).

Former cinematographer Lik-Wai’s Plastic City is grotesquely derivative of every Hong Kong and Taiwanese gangster movie over the last decades with added clichés from Brazilian gang warfare films set in the favelas, while Werner Schroeter’s Nuit de chien (dubbed Merde de Chien) was an embarrassingly bad dated futuristic drama, the kind that should have been ended by Alphaville.

The four films in competition that could be called original and trying to extend the language of cinema were Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic’s Occupation (L’Autre), with a strange William Wilsonian story of a woman jealous of her doppelganger; Semih Kaplanoglu’s Milk (Süt), another fine Turkish movie, with an inventive sense of narrative, which moves easily between the realistic and surrealistic, from the sequential to the episodic; Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier (Bumaznyj soldat), a fascinating absurdist drama — the antithesis of The Right Stuff — which narrates (backwards) the days before and after Yuri Gagarin’s space flight; and Tariq Teguia’s Inland (Gabbla), an Algerian film, and the FIPRESCI winner, that shows lonely figures in an unfriendly landscape, where silence is eloquent, while making a poignant non-didactic political statement about the desperate migration of people from third world countries. All this proved that there are still a minority of directors making films that don’t immediately remind one of better films on the same subject and in the same style.