The Spirit of the Secession By Michel Ciment

in 45th Viennale

by Michel Ciment

The Viennale can be seen as one of the most important European events concerning cinema. It does not attempt like so many festivals to present world premieres — a dubious enterprise, except for Cannes, Venice, Berlin and perhaps San Sebastian — in the sense that there are not enough good films to feed the various competitions around the world. Instead the Viennale prefers to give a second chance to a number of works that were overlooked amidst the orgiastic programming of the leading festivals as well as to offer the local population a chance to see some of the major achievements of the year — i.e., 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile), The Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupée en deux), Woman on the Beach (Haebyonui yoin), I’m Not There, Import/Export, Lady Chatterley, No Country For Old Men or Paranoid Park.

Among the fifteen films offered for consideration to the FIPRESCI Jury — several of them being of real interest — three stood out. Besides Shotgun Stories which won the prize (see separate report), the Chinese film How Is Your Fish Today? (Jin tian de yu ze me yong?) reveals a newcomer, Guo Xiao-lu, already known for some of her novels translated into Western languages. Both conceptual and strikingly alive, it tells a double story — the fictionalized account of a young man from Southern China who travels North after having killed his girlfriend, and the trip to the same destination of Hui Rao — the actual screenwriter of the film — who tells the story. Though filmed with a limited budget and a small camera, How Is Your Fish Today? has a real visual style and a fluid narration which transcends the rather déjà vu point of departure.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind by John Gianvito, as radical in its style as in its content, was also a worthy contender for the prize. Traveling around the States, the director films the gravestones and the monuments that commemorate some of the unsung heroes of a counter — history of America: labor leaders, Indian chiefs, black people who have been the victims of the forces that have dominated the economic and political life of the country. Its stark style and uncompromising minimalism bristle with a feeling of anger all the more powerful for being expressed in a low key. It was preceded by the screening of the last opus of Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Europa 2005 — 27 October (Europa 2005 — 27 octobre). Repeating five times a one minute panoramic shot on a wall with a slight variation, it evokes the awful fate that befell two youths chased by the police on the outskirts of Paris who jumped over a wall into an electric plant, were electrocuted and burnt alive. The filmmakers end each shot with the same title ‘Gas chamber, electric chair’, equating in a shocking and dubious amalgam the planned holocaust of six millions Jews with a tragic accident.

The Viennale is indeed a place where you can have a fair idea of the state of documentary today, a very rich section being devoted to that side of cinema. In this respect, the retrospective, curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin (the accomplice of Jean-Luc Godard within the Dziga Vertov group in the early 70’s) and hosted by the Austrian Filmmuseum, was a useful complement in tracing back the history of the film essay, from Dziga Vertov, Humphrey Jennings and Leo Hurwitz to Chris Marker, Chantal Akerman and … Godard-Gorin. Called “Der Weg der Termiten”, the program refers to Manny Farber’s famous essay where the American critic extolled the termite art of the B movies directed by Antony Mann, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tourneur and others in the late 40’s, at the expense of the white elephant art of George Stevens, William Wyler and Billy Wilder praised by the Hollywood establishment. The comparison is debatable since these American underdogs were widely ignored in their time, while Duras, Straub, Pasolini, Godard and Werasethakul belong today to the official program of most festivals and are showered with praise by the majority of serious film publications. But we are thus reminded that, from the Secession onwards, Vienna has been one of the most active centers of avant-garde art, cinema and literature.