International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020: The Gaze of the Old Filmmaker
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
— William Blake
As one of the centerpiece programs at the 49th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), “The Tyger Burns” was a canny display of un-hipness. What a joy it was to pay repeated witness to such a mammoth series of movies so gleefully, so wilfully out of touch. What better way to undercut the widespread love of emerging voices, new talents and young geniuses than to turn to aging, even senile artists who have either fallen out of fashion or lost the international spotlight. Celebrate boomer filmmakers in a festival environment obsessed with the vitality of youth? Isn’t the artistic realm the only domain we, the young, have left to claim as our own? Haven’t they taken everything else from us? Now they want our attention—our love—too?
What a series as improbable as “The Tyger Burns” uncovers is an archaeology of styles. A zeitgeist once passed through these directors; squaring yourself with their recent work is to square yourself with a living history. The grand paradox here: these old timers embrace modern technology with a curiosity and practicality that quite often surpasses the more conservative, more trendy and tasteful attempts of their youthful counterparts. Yet what they are doing is not new. The diligent spectator has to consider not only the present tense of a work but also simultaneously to chip and sift through fossilized layers of stylistic history, formal strategies and working methods buried under the sands of time.
By saying all this, I don’t mean to cause offence to the good young-person-movie likes of We Have Boots (Ngor moon yau yu her, Evans Chan, 2020)—think Oasis’ “Wonderwall” as one of the anthems of Occupy and you get what this wonderfully messy kitsch film about the kitsch aesthetics of social movements is up to—The Year of Discovery (El año del descubrimiento, Luis López Carrasco, 2020)—three-and-a-half hours spent reviving, reworking, and reimagining the audio-visual archives of Spanish labor history in the 1990s, with the best use of split-screen for decades—or Austrian Pavilion (2019)—Philipp Fleischman’s four minute portrait taken at the Biennale di Venezia shot “simultaneously” by hundreds of peephole cameras that plays onscreen like an experimental animation from the ‘30s.
But the older filmmakers were where the action was at. Some of the forms seen in “The Tyger Burns” were once in vogue, their inventors the subject of international acclaim. Certain of these filmmakers, like Karel Vachek (b. 1940) or Yamada Yoji (b. 1931), are today the last surviving members of national, cultural “New Waves” with which they themselves have had to reckon artistically for over fifty years. Others still never had the chance to bask in the warmth of any such praise, their innovations instead forged in obscurity. Many of these seasoned directors know how to do the work and they know how to have fun. The men in particular—mostly problematically, of course—have passed beyond the point where good taste is much of a consideration. One highlight in this particular aspect was “Passing Fancies”, a shorts program that, ahem, climaxed with a wonderfully smutty pair of movies that I’m sure wouldn’t stand up under their own weight but dovetailed surprisingly well as a double bill under 30 minutes.
The first: the astoundingly titled Ducky-Ducky-Ducky (2020). Two Russian supermodels meet beside a lake. A man—the elderly filmmaker himself, naturally—watches while fishing nearby. The women make cryptic small talk. Then make out. Then strip off. Then saunter over to the edge of the water and dive under its surface. Then make out nude and underwater for the remaining runtime, shimmying through the abstract greyish blur of this space as if floating in an indistinct parallel world beyond time itself. All this is expertly rendered for the most part in stately wide shots by, of all people, Sergei Solovyov (b. 1944), one of the greatest and most magisterial Russian filmmakers of the last half-century. Who also, as I mentioned, plays the fisherman, perhaps not uncoincidentally, privy to this whole show.
The second: the even more gloriously titled Corman’s Eyedrops Got Me Too Crazy (2020) by a master of schlock, Brazilian troublemaker Ivan Cardoso (b. 1952). Judging by his eagerness to record every shenanigan taking place before and after the Rotterdam screenings on his cell-phone, Cardoso had clearly seized an opportunity, while meeting the master himself at some chance encounter to shoot what would become the basis for this wild peak into a mind fill to its brim with the detritus of a life obsessed with trash cinema. In these short excerpts, Corman holds Cardoso down and forcibly administers him eyedrops intended to turn Cardoso into a cursed Corman character himself. Cardoso yells in hammy agony as he hallucinates a veritable blizzard of flickering, delirious junk images. Corman, I suppose quite the sport for this kind of thing, cackles maniacally, Vincent Price-style, as he does so.
Around all this Cardoso whips up a fantasia of recycled footage from a lifetime obsessed with highbrow and lowbrow both, as well as snippets from Corman’s equally high-and-low-brow straddling movies. Atop these images, Cardoso has superimposed (or perhaps even scratched directly) celluloid film lacerations that ripple and jig like the dancing stick men. Perhaps what worked within this microcosm of “The Tyger Burns” so well was the inspired, seemingly schizoid juxtaposition of Solovyov and Cardoso, here united in their shameless pursuit of one variety or another of sleaze.
There were also far less macho entries in the series by Michael Pilz (b. 1943) and Raquel Chalfi (b. 1939). Each produced, with an unfashionable and unflashy seriousness of purpose, what were likely my two favourite entries in “The Tyger Burns.” In The Hidden Fountain – The World of Miriam Chalfi (2019) and With Love – Volume One 1987-1996 (2020), Pilz-Chalfi investigate what it means to live—and to experience sensually—an artistic life, the former explicitly and the latter implicitly. Chalfi searches for beauty and seriousness in artmaking, namely that of her mother, the outstanding Israeli sculptor Miriam Chalfi. She does so by setting these totemic objects against the simple grace of her mother, seen in short, grudging interviews and low-fi moments captured from her family life. On the other hand, Pilz looks to the material world around him, bottling drops of time as rustling sounds and light-dappled images. Though shot over the period charted in the title, Pilz only returned to these images recently, decades after their specific contours were lost to memory. It is a world with an added significance for cinephiles, given that in the period featured Pilz spent a great deal of time staying at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Therefore, it is not merely about the artistic life but about one led loving, and pondering, movies. You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that we have seen this kind of show before. But the miracle of With Love – Volume One 1987-1996 is that the discussions that take place are less about the specifics of the subject at hand, which in isolation vary in their value as individual discussions, but about the very stuff of conversation. The soft afternoon light in the room, the gestures, the slow-building rhythm, or the smoke curling up out of a cup of coffee on the desk—Pilz’s fragmented style is such that the discussions are first and foremost vessels for these treasures, ones rescued from a quotidian world of the past and elevated into the artistic realm of the present. In a similar way, The Hidden Fountain’s subject shatters into a million throwaway moments. Like her mother’s own labour, Chalfi Jr. is attempting to chip away at her elusive subject inch by inch. For whatever reason, I found Chalfi Sr.’s dedication to it, as well as her simple seriousness of intent, deeply inspiring and moving. Likewise, the scenes of in which she sands away at a chunk of marble, with no obvious ego and only the mountain of work ahead to sharpen her concentration, are just as striking. Chalfi the filmmaker is, like her mother, trying to find the statue in the stone. In so doing, both leave the impression of a real process of artmaking, one whose devotion I find absent from the movies I regularly come in contact with as well as—let’s be honest—from my own haphazard artistic life.
I wonder too: Could a young person—not just young at heart—have made, say, Reiwa Uprising? I sincerely doubt it. Though its implicit subject matter is our present political climate and its requisite horrors (this kind of alarming techno-populism being one of them), it is a classic old man movie. About the electoral campaign of Reiwa Shinsengumi, a three-month old populist party that won two seats in the Japanese election in July 2019, the film is a dazzling mix of old dude temperament and the crazy abandon of somebody who was once a young disrupter, Hara Kazuo (b. 1945).
Whatever Hara’s own pronouncements on the subject, the film itself stakes out no real position in relation to the dubious political structure of Reiwa Shinsengumi, nor to its hucksterish leader Yamamoto Taro. Anybody even glancingly familiar with Japanese politics can surely imagine themselves being swept up in this sort of thing—the fun of an ostensibly working-class insurgent “movement,” especially one whose fundamental electoral pitch is premised on open contempt for the Liberal Democrats and the Prime Minister. But in this way, Reiwa Shinsengumi really only parallels Italy’s corrupt Five Star Movement on a much smaller scale, with its strategic but ultimately impotent blend of left and right-wing impulses encased in a populist, anti-establishment shell. As the film makes clear, the grievances are real: Yamamoto himself came from the anti-Nuclear movement, and his candidates each speak from places of deep trauma. But as always, it amounts to pure bullshit—politically and otherwise. And if you feel the same way, the movie proves itself to be a font of fascination as to how these electoral ponzi schemes operate.
That finds its apotheosis in a scene that depicts a flash-mob of performers dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This follows an elaborate reference to it during a stump speech in Ginza, in which the supposed metaphysical qualities of the song are enumerated by Ayumi Yasutomi, the speaker in question and as close to a protagonist as we have in the film. A text appears onscreen, signed by Hara, playfully explaining that he couldn’t clear the rights to the song. When we return to the scene itself, the dancers shuffle in time to some vaguely “Thriller”-like knockoff version, set at a lower and more somber pitch than the Jackson original. It sounds as if Hara has re-recorded their steps and movements in a studio, which gives the whole creepy performance a dissonance that jibes uncomfortably with the emptiness of the stunt itself. The effect, then, is to show this for what it is: a puppet version of political action. Like the team behind Reiwa Shinsengumi, the dancers move in time to some version of the original music. As spectacle, it rings hollow.
Karel Vachek’s Communism and the Net, or the End of Representative Democracy (2019) was the second brilliant, seriously politically suspect flashpoint in the series. As a movie it took on a life of its own, seemingly beyond the lived politics of its maker. Where Hara’s impassive gaze left space for the viewer to wrestle with the tougher implications suggested by the film, Vachek leaves nothing ambiguous. His perennial subject—besides himself—is Czechia, and Czechoslovakia, in all its myriad forms. Communism and the Net is no exception. Vachek is an old school Czech communist, if one with more of an anarchistic streak. Meaning: he hates, among precious few other things, Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution, both of which represent a kind of longstanding trauma for him.
In Vachek’s mind, as with most members of that sizeable demographic, what happened in the aftermath of 17th November 1989 was a cruel joke, a sick inversion of the promise of the 1968 Prague Spring. The Soviet tanks that rolled into Czechoslovakia in ‘68 guaranteed that the liberal communism promised by Alexander Dubček would never come to pass. And in this formulation, Havel’s liberalisation not only replaced socialism with a consumer economy but paved the way for the venality and corruption of his successors—each of whom have been, as any Czech under the age of 50 knows, worse than the last. Thankfully, Vachek has no tender feelings for any of them either.
What Communism and the Net basically amounts to is an irreverent five-and-a-half-hour expedition into the recesses of this trauma. Vachek is a polymorphous imagemaker, shifting between as many visual sources as possible. He wantonly repurposes images from his previous films and draws on what appear to be outtakes from these same works, as well as from news reports, YouTube lectures by Slavoj Žižek (with whom he shares a notable philosophical affinity as well as all those tricky problematics), and cell phone recordings from his lectures at FAMU. Otherwise, the new images feature him both playing a kind of master of ceremonies for the whole thing, clad in suit and top hat, as well as arranging these scenes in real time.
Before we see Vachek, for instance, ride inside a giant transparent plastic ball down a stream in the snow—not something at least obviously freighted with symbolic meaning, thank God—we also see him prepare this moment as a scene. Therewith, we get the double-vision of his work—the stager and the staged both in a single instant. In another, we see him repeat the same jockeying movements across a boardroom again and again, as if he is almost willing some kind of fiction into existence, or as if trapped inside this ongoing historical trauma from which he is unable to extricate himself.
This approach pays dividends in the moments where Vachek enumerates, say, his theory of how the Saudis should intervene into the Israel-Palestine conflict out of racial solidarity with their fellow “Arabs,” or when he rants about his hatred of multiculturalism. In a five plus hour movie, these moments abound. But as uncomfortable as they are in isolation, it is also clear that Vachek the filmmaker has, perhaps instinctively, carved out an independent space for these outbursts. (Not withstanding some questionable use of archival footage of a Jewish vaudeville show in the middle of a discussion with Gideon Levy.) These outbursts function as one fragment of this psychoportrait of his own preoccupations.
Of course, as with Kanye West or Jean-Luc Godard, whose personas function in a similar way inside their work, your mileage may vary. But what “The Tyger Burns” proposed was that this renewed attention paid to the “gaze of the old filmmaker,” as they put it, is not only a way to wade into the broad river of history, but to be revitalised by it.
Maybe were movie institutions to do so on a larger scale, to buck the currents of newness and devote a fraction of their budgets to the terminally uncool or outdated, the revitalisation would continue.
Call it a baptism.