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The 1998 Berlin International Film Festival

Jackie Brown

in Festivals & Events
on Mar 15, 1998

Trade magazine writers have jokingly claimed for years that they preprint their Berlin roundup articles with the header “Industry Disappointed At Berlin.” This year was no exception; see Variety especially.

Stacked up against this continuous din of bad news is a genuine enthusiasm for the Berlinale among American independent filmmakers, curators and critics. So what’s going on? Are the suits trying to spoil the party?

The trades attack the Festival on three fronts – the biz, the stars and the films – and it is often vulnerable in each. I have never attended a Berlinale when it has failed in all three areas, but nor has it succeeded to be completely satisfying in years. Budget cuts, bad timing and a certain administrative stiffness have contributed to its problems, but the Festival’s troubles are still overstated by the trades.

With a film culture explicitly dominated by America, and the two most important cultural and commercial events on American soil –Sundance and the AFM – straddling the Berlinale, business has been slowing down for years.

When the Americans backed away, the vacuum was filled by the aggressive European boutique sales agents – Fortissimo, Christa Saredi, Film Four and Celluloid Dreams have consistently seen brisk business there – until they now dominate sales of the Festival’s Competition entries. This year added another problem to the mix: the East Asian currency crisis caused those buyers to remain at home, and Berlin was traditionally where they bought smaller, specialized art films.

Yet the Market is nowhere near expiry. Extremely well-organized and efficient, it will likely bounce back when European cinema fetches high prices again abroad. The sheer American-ness of the AFM will make a shift of such films to L.A. impossible.

Berlin’s problem with stars is a devil of its own making. In response to the precipitous decline in East European and German filmmaking standards following the end of the Cold War, Berlin looked more explicitly to the studios – they were always present in a small way – to fill the gap with their Christmas Oscar-release films. The Festival gives their biggest movies an art imprimatur for their European launches, and the only complaints come from American journalists, frustrated by all the old news. But such launches don’t really work unless the stars come. Otherwise everybody – but especially the cutthroat European press – gets pissed off when it looks like the Berlinale is just being exploited. This year was particularly bad, with Robert DeNiro the only major name who managed to make the trip from at least seven major star-driven films.

The quality of the films presented at the Berlinale is a subject of much debate. There have been serious problems in all three major areas of the Festival’s programming – the Competition, the Forum and the Panorama –and yet only a fool would suggest that Berlin is no longer a top echelon Festival. It consistently provides a showcase for films (if not a curatorial direction) that describes something important about the state of current cinema.

For the Competition, the dearth of top-drawer German and East European films is most devastating. The French and Italians hold or adapt their production schedules for Cannes and Venice. The Americans bring already released films. That leaves Asia and Latin America. And, no surprise, that’s where the “discoveries” of the Berlinale have come from in this decade (even if Hollywood has taken home the bulk of the prizes).

Central Station by Brazilian Walter Salles had already been vested with its art-house crown at Sundance; its Berlin Golden Bear acted merely as a reinforcement. Its success follows last year’s much less interesting Berlin discovery from Brazil, Oscar-nominee Four Days in September. And yet this is a signal that a renascent South American cinema could help Berlin’s fortunes, especially with Cannes ignoring the continent of late.

America, as usual, weighed in heavily with Jackie Brown, The Big Lebowski, The Gingerbread Man, Great Expectations, Good Will Hunting, The Boxer and Wag the Dog on offer. Jackie Brown and The Big Lebowski were easily the most popular with critics and the public.

Usually Berlin provides many of the year’s most important films from Asia. This year, virtually all were interesting disappointments. The “out” gay Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan’s first “out” gay film concerns the complicated relationship between three men after the death of one of their wives. Enigmatic and intriguing at first, it gets increasingly banal as time wears on. Lin Cheng-sheng’s first film, A Drifting Life, was one of the finest (and most difficult) films to emerge from this newest generation of Taiwanese cinema, so perhaps expectations were too high for Lin’s beautiful but rather static new melodrama, Sweet Degeneration.

Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu is a strange film, sometimes looking like a tribute to Chinese exhortation films of the 1960s and sometimes like Chinese designer ethnic garbage. Its central relationship – between an intellectual town girl sent down to the countryside during the Cultural revolution and a local eunuch horse master – is a warm one but Chen subverts their story with a myriad of unnecessary political interventions and bizarre design choices. (For example, about 20 plastic flowers are attached to the Steppe grasses; incongruous to say the least, but one Italian critic thought it might be a nod to Chen’s film debut as a child star in which much the same effect was used.)

The Festival’s two most controversial films were, for this critic, also perhaps the Festival’s two best: Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy and Michael Winterbottom’s I Want You. Jordan’s film is an astonishingly faithful adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s frenetic novel about a hyperactive boy who causes mayhem and murder in the pursuit of true friendship and revenge. Paced like a lit roman candle, Jordan takes us on a frighteningly intense journey inside the boy’s head; we move from pure fantasy, sometimes featuring a radiant Virgin Mary portrayed by Sinead O’Connor, to restorative narrative sequences. For all of its many achievements, The Butcher Boy is foremost a landmark in film pacing.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Big Film God for creating Michael Winterbottom. He is one of the very few young filmmakers whose every work contains an intellectually rich backbone fleshed out with large-scale narratives. Even when he delivers an ultimately unsatisfying film, like last year’s Welcome To Sarajevo, there has been real thought about the marriage of form and story. (In Sarajevo, Winterbottom created his own “language” to understand Bosnia; a combination of news footage, documentary video, traditional 35mm cinematography and an equally diverse set of editing choices, it attempted to mirror our own mediated analysis of that tragedy.)

His newest work, I Want You, was brutally attacked in Berlin from many quarters as a familiar subject and a cold intellectual exercise. These critics are idiots and must be authoritatively ignored. The film turns on three startling revelations that bring many stories together, so a convincing precis is difficult. Suffice to say that four characters – a couple reunited after the man’s nine-year imprisonment, and a Bosnian brother and sister – in a seaside British town cross physical and emotional paths. Each must face up to their various melancholy desires, many of which seem to directly follow from the famous Elvis Costello song of the same name. Finally a meditation on ideas of interpersonal justice, especially in terms of self-sacrifice, it leaves you trembling but not weeping. Shot by Slawomir Idziak, Kieslowski’s long-time cameraman and one of cinema’s greatest filter artists, the film’s every image takes on epic proportions. This jaw-dropping intensity is matched by the quiet hunger exhibited by two very fine young actors, Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivolo, in the lead roles.

The French work was bleak. The new Jacques Doillon, especially after the creepy but brilliant Ponette, was a shockingly dumb wank about a director and his nubile acolytes. Two French musicals were well-liked by those same morons who hated Winterbottom. Alain Resnais’s Same Old Song is a standard-issue collection of “amants in Paris,” except every few minutes someone lip synchs to a famous French pop song to display their inner feelings. Cute and clever for about 15 minutes, the film becomes tired in the second hour. Much worse was Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, a kind of French “Rent” with AIDS patients and oppressed immigrants breaking into songs about their struggles. But, you know, it’s still France, so the lead character is a foxy nymphomaniac.

Two pretentious Australian films rounded out the field. The Boys seeks to psychologically “explain” the actions of three brothers accused of gang rape; its a dubious exercise made baffling by a shuffled time sequence. Only Toni Collette’s spunky performance as a tough trailer trash tart holds interest here. The Sound of One Hand Clapping sees a woman returning to Tasmania to confront the demons suffered by her immigrant parents; the resulting ham-fisted melodrama is embarrassing.

The Panorama – the parallel, “Information” section beside the Competition – has long been a happy home for American independents, particularly gay ones and documentarians. This year was no exception with Brian Sloan’s exuberant I Think I Do and Jochen Hick’s unfocused Sex/Life In L.A. representing the former, and Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir’s The Brandon Teena Story – the incredible tale of a woman living a man’s life, complete with girlfriends, until her/his murder as a young adult – and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ biographical Lou Reed: Rock And Roll Heart, the latter.

This consistency has its drawbacks. When the Panorama began, gay and lesbian cinema was just emerging. Now it is much closer to the mainstream, so continuing to focus on this work may not be as vital a mission for the section. The world of documentaries has also been radically altered over the years, and its changes perhaps are not always fully acknowledged here.

This year’s top films included Kichiku, which updates the Japanese Trotskyist pink films of the 1960s with a wild, splatter-gore third act. Sue, Amos Kollek’s intense and beautiful character study of a woman spiritually lost in Manhattan features an award-caliber performance from Anna Thompson. And the Sicilian Toto Who Lived Twice is a black-and-white orgy of goat humping and blasphemy which could well be merely dumb (but might also be profound).

In the same spirit as the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, The Forum was formed in opposition to the Competition during the heady days of Paris ‘68. Its roots are looking a little gray today. Unreconstructed Marxist documentarians and radical postmodern posturing are still on the menu. Newer innovations, like a Japanese animation night, take place even if the work doesn’t merit it.

Still, of all the sections, the Forum seems most willing to seek out new work. Its huge collection of new Japanese and Korean films is a timely reminder of the vibrancy of these national cinemas. Of the Japanese films, Sabu’s Unlucky Monkey is the triumph: a violent farce with a wicked sense of humor and an iconoclastic take on the true nature of love. The revelation from Korea was Kim Ki-Young, a filmmaker from the social problem school with a Sirkian flair, who was the subject of a small retrospective this year.

However, the finest film in the Forum, and perhaps the most fully satisfying film of the entire Festival, was not from Asia, but northern Russia. Lidija Bobrowa’s In this Country, a finely detailed portrait of a traditional collective farming town undergoing the subtle changes slowly blowing in from the new Russia, is a textbook example of perfectly conceived metaphor and directorial control. It reminds us of the beautiful precision that was the hallmark of Soviet filmmaking and a reminder too of what the Berlinale once offered in droves.

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