Unanswered Questions By Thomas Rothschild

in 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Thomas Rothschild

Long ago, there were times when cinema lovers were curious to discover something about the newest films of Antonioni, Kurosawa or Godard to screen in Venice, Cannes or Berlin. Nowadays, media seem to believe it is news worth spreading that the Rolling Stones will show up at the opening of the Berlinale. Their sheer presence interests journalists (or people who are regarded as journalists, anyway) more than the film made about them, and its director, Martin Scorsese.

A perverted approach of mass media to film meets the urgent need for clear answers. A fact like the presence of the Rolling Stones may be as unimportant as it actually is, but it will get priority before film criticism that merits the term.

In Rotterdam, there was no Mick Jagger and no Madonna, and not even a younger Antonioni, Kurosawa or Godard. But there were quite a lot of unanswered questions – and that is what makes art really interesting. But it’s not only the media that get excited about the Rolling Stones standing on a Berlin stage; the great majority of commercial cinema has conditioned the viewers to expect answers. They get disturbed if they are supposed to answer a question themselves, or to live with the fact that there is no answer to it.

In David Verbeek’s Shanghai Trance, a pretty young girl’s lover asks her, every time she returns home late, where she has been and whom she has met. She gives no answer, and the expression of her face suggests none. Her persistent reluctance to answer the question makes the audience no less nervous than her boyfriend: Cinema viewers have been taught to expect complete stories. They want them to have an ending, be it happy or depressing, as long as it isn’t open; they want it to be logical in terms of time and cause. Any film that does not follow the logic of everyday life, that conflicts with common sense, seems to frustrate a big part of the audience — at least outside festivals and university cinema clubs, anyway.

Tale 52 (Istoria 52), by Alexiou Alexis, offers several versions of a story. On the upper level one can understand the film as the realistic psychological portrait of a man who is losing his mind. But on a deeper level, it is a reflection on the essence of art: There is no “true story” behind the story being told. It is up to the artist to change the development at any point. Each possible interpretation is as correct as all the others, and any answer a viewer wants to give is just as good. Alexis doesn’t pretend to know what “actually” happened.

“What happened?” This is the initial question which cinemagoers pose to every narrative film they’ve paid to see. They get annoyed if they don’t get a clear answer, and even more annoyed if nothing happens. Cinema didn’t have to evolve in this direction; it’s just that the alternatives have been systematically marginalized. Nobody asks “what happens” when listening to Bach or Steve Reich. Even in the theatre, one got used to not very much happening after Chekhov, Beckett or Thomas Bernhard. But films with unanswered questions are still regarded as provocations. The announcement that the Rolling Stones will be opening a festival seems much clearer, and much more comforting.