Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Final Verdict on Karlovy Vary - The anti-Cannes

A typical Karlovy Vary sight

After the glamorous Mediterranean setting of May's Cannes, coming to the Czech Republic's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival can be a bit of a shock. Whereas Cannes always seemed abuzz with activity, the Czech event, held in one of Central Europe's premier spa towns, had a decidedly slower rhythm. The annual event served not as a showcase of the industry's movers and shakers but as a forum devoted to the public appreciation of a startling array of world cinema. This year's Karlovy Vary held between July 3 and 11 featured an eclectic mix of films from often unheralded national cinemas handily living up to its reputation as the anti-Cannes - a festival with a winningly idiosyncratic and regional touch.

Through its "East of the West" competition, Karlovy Vary brought attention to current Central and Eastern European film revealing how these countries have left their cultural imprint on several mainstream genres. The most bold genre re-imagining was the Croat thriller No One's Son, about a disillusioned disabled war veteran who discovers a frightening truth about his straight-laced parents. Much of the picture’s energy, which explores a broken region where "Three wars stood tall," derives from its ever present rock soundtrack. The music gives the narrative of radical alienation caused by recent, if obscure conflicts, an unexpected universality. Unfortunately, the loud strum of the guitar sometimes undercuts the emotional beats by lending them a ponderous quality. Although a flawed film, No One's Son remains an intriguing example of how Eastern European filmmakers appropriate the quintessentially American genre of noir.

The stars of Crayfish

Bulgarian director Ivan Tscherkelov’s Crayfish is a slow burn take on the Mafia film far more interested in painting portraits of eccentric characters than fulfilling the demands of genre convention. Doka and Bonza are unemployed best friends who spend their days searching for crawfish and listening to music. Both take side jobs from competing organized crime bosses which will lead the friends to an unexpected collision. Tscherkelov intentionally forgoes suspense to relish upon the strange ticks off his ensemble that live in an off-kilter universe. At one point, a bored house wife putters around her home before eventually pouring water on a hot stove just to watch it bubble. The resulting images are striking examples of the strange beauty that comes into being through boredom and stagnation. Focusing on moments such as these creates a film comprised of disjointed vignettes that satisfy by themselves, but make for a disappointingly sterile whole. All East-of the West selections that played with the confines of their genres were representative of the surprising movie going experiences unique to Karlovy Vary.

Some of the greatest films of the festival were far removed from Eastern European cinema, but no less challenging. The sidebar "Another View - Tokyo Filmex Presents" showcased the best of a Japanese festival which appear to have the same programming sensibilities as Karlovy Vary. Tokyo Filmex's 2008 Audience Award Winner Love Exposure appeared destined for failure by virtue of its incredibly long, nearly 4-hour running time. How could a movie about a self-professed "high school voyeuristic photo maniac" hold one's attention? With ease, it seems as the genre bending picture effortlessly constructs a rollicking narrative that proves emotionally engrossing even as it casts a devastating view on contemporary Japanese identity. To call filmmaker Sion Sono's picture a revelation is an understatement (click here for a full review of the film).

A far different film featured in the Tokyo Filmex side bar was the comparatively austere but no less emotionally involving drama Passion. It follows a group of thirtysomething friends after one couple announces their intention to marry. This seemingly happy declaration slowly leads to the discovery that their relations are based upon mutual animosity rather than any sort of affection. The early shot of a hand bracing itself against a taxi window before a near collision, heralds a film where characters are hurled into a world of frightening emotional unknowns while remaining frozen in a limbo of disquiet. So beautifully do the full-bodied performances and understated direction create an atmosphere of overwhelming tension that the rustle of clothing has the same impact as an explosion. Although the film invests itself most intensely upon the sometimes sadistic dynamics of the central characters, it briefly widens its societal lens during a scene in a junior high school. The teacher asks her class to remember a peer who recently committed suicide. What should be a comforting moment devolves into a horrifying one when the majority of the kids admit to heartlessly antagonizing the dead child. This scene underscores how hatred seeps into facets of life far separate from that of the bourgeois couples. The sublimely crafted Passion, so unlike the strangely exuberant Love Exposure, creates a broad view of societal malaise with the most careful and simplest of strokes.

Outside of the Tokyo Filmex selections, the dramas at Karlovy Vary less successfully fused their deeply personal tales with wide ranging social commentary. The American film Sin Nombre features a surprisingly unsentimental view of the Mexican underworld and the plight of South American immigrants. Teenaged Sayre seeks to immigrate illegally to New Jersey with her father from Guatemala. Moving through Mexico, she meets with Caspar, a gangster desperately trying to break away from the criminal life. The problem with the often beautifully directed film is the vision of Mexico that it propagates. The characters struggle in an utterly lawless landscape, mired in corruption and violence. Sin Nombre captures an uber-American vision of its Southern neighbor that is so simplistic as to only reinforce a cultural myopia towards a more complex Mexican experience.

Teza, an Ethiopian film recently recognized as the African continent's best, faces a similar dilemma in how it depicts the life of activists. By following the experience of the Ethiopian doctor Teza returning home from Germany in the early 1990s, the work sheds light on the hardships of the Ethiopian diaspora throughout the country's recent history. The protagonist traffics within the mileau of political rebels who struggle against the constraints of authority. Their life seems to consist solely of impassioned speeches about ideals, a one-dimensional characterization that renders their struggles dramatically inert. This disappointing narrative flaw detracts from the film's often masterful editing which visually articulates how Teza's past and present remain intertwined. When Teza sees an Ethiopian child shot by soldiers, the film becomes a visual metaphor for the death of his happy childhood. As the boy falls towards the ground, the film cuts to a shot of a young Teza falling in his place boldly illustrating the terrible present's ability to change, even destroy the past. This compelling and complex meditation on history's non-linearity gets muddled by the film's depiction of political life in the most basic and theatrical terms.

La Pivellina poster at Karlovy Vary

One of the best dramas at the festival was the decidedly a-political Italian production La Pivellina. An aging circus performer named Patty finds a little girl alone in the park with a note from her mother testifying that she will someday return. Although the film is simply a series of scenes where an elderly couple grapples with the presence of one so young and dependent, it captivates thanks to the always tangible sense that these happy moments are fleeting ones. The superbly acted film rose above the many more superficially intense films at Karlovy Vary by how it subtly unveils the joy a child can bring to even the most unlikely parents.

Complementing the many dramas presented were comedies where the best had ambitions far beyond simple laughs. Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat's bitter El Artista exemplified this trend using searing satire to construct a deadly serious indictment on the pretensions and ignorance of the art world. Jorge is a nurse that sells the abstract art of his virtually mute autistic patient as his own. His con grows recently stifling its very success, in the very futility of its exposure. He begins to radiate a quiet desperation after the admittance "I am not an artist" receives only happy guffaws from party goers. The nurse has fallen into a world where everything is a fraud from the resume where 'no education' equals 'self-taught' to the meaningless platitudes of doting critics. The filmmakers never present the patient's venerated artwork relying instead point of view shots from the vantage point of the painting providing an intimate view of the so-called art experts and connoisseurs that underscores their buffoonery. Bizarrely, the refusal to show the vaunted works transforms the artist's creative process into a monumentally precious act which becomes somehow tainted by being accepted into an aloof art establishment. Relentlessly exposing a humanities field where lies lead to great success, the cutting and bizarre El Artista revealed the merits of Karlovy Vary's equally strange programming tastes.

Showcased American filmmaker Alan Rudloph

This taste for the absurd manifested itself even in the retrospectives that honored luminaries of cinema. While big stars like a Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich were celebrated, it was the series focused on the relatively obscure American auteur Alan Rudolph that was particularly memorable. The series is that a body of work and clean with energy and waits while showcasing an artist increasingly concerned with how fluid fashion crystallizes a historical moment. His rough edged early film, 1972's Remember My Name, initially appears to be a run-of-the-mill tale of a woman wronged. Starring a deranged Geraldine Chaplin as a recently released murderer, the film hangs on the tension between naturalistic performances and a theatrical mise en scène. Chaplin's character meanders through a town that recalls her imprisonment including decorated signs that warn "Shoot a gun. Go to prison" and handcuffed mannequins in department stores.

The famed drag queen Divine as mob boss

Rudolph's over the top aesthetic fits far more seamlessly in his 1984 sex comedy Choose Me about a smooth talker who simultaneously woos a radio sex therapist, a bartender, and a girl married to a French criminal. The film becomes a hilarious set of unbelievable coincidences when the self-proclaimed "pathological liar" deals with his romantic entanglements. Amplifying the ridiculous nature of the narrative is a world that comments explicitly on the crazed scenario - a fight over a girl named Eve takes place in a room decorated by the movie poster All About Eve. This utterly charming feature seem positively reserved when compared to 1985's Trouble in Mind which highlights the downfall of a family man via a shift in appearance from flannel shirts to a bizarre 80s hodgepodge of Billy Idol and glam rocker. That the film stars famed drag queen Divine as a villainous mob boss further lends a touch of insanity to the proceedings. With gleeful vehemence, the suit wearing icon spews misogynistic declarations like "Women are despicable!" Taken apart, the Rudolph films are imperfect oddities, but presented together they became a wholly satisfying showcase of a unique creative vision.

A brief scene in the Korean coming-of-age film Somewhere I Have Never Traveled reflected the driving philosophy of this year's Karlovy Vary. Follow instructions from a manual on global etiquette, two siblings enact greetings from around the world. Karlovy Vary presented a similarly broad range of cultural perspectives from cinemas far outside the mainstream. From a glorious epic about a love struck voyeur to a film where Divine plays a mobster, many films screened simply could not be seen elsewhere. Living up to its moniker as the anti-Cannes, Karlovy Vary was not bound to the cult of the auteur and used this freedom to highlight art not codified by the critical establishment. The result was a festival where attendees took part in an adventure, experiencing cinema at its boldest and unexpected.

Next up: The Final Verdict on the Giffoni Film Festival

A delicious Italian dish

Now that Karlovy Vary has been discussed in detail, I will make a final verdict on the other July film festival - Gifffoni. Featuring an exclusive interview with festival programmer Luca Apolito, the next article will provide an insider's view on the world's biggest youth film festival. Stay tuned!

Complete Karlovy Vary Coverage

1st impressions:

Highs and Lows:

Comedy Pt. 1:

Comedy Pt. 2:


Anonymous said...

Are you a student at Princeton? This blog came up on my "cannes alerts" and if you are a student there....can you tell me if Princeton has a film program?

Fareed Ben-Youssef said...

I am in the Princeton Class of '09, and received an English Degree with a concentration in film.

Princeton does not have a film studies major per say, but it does offer a minor in the field. Also - some individual departments allow for specialized concentrations in film (English and German).

At the undergraduate level, there are many courses that deal with different facets of the medium and
there are student run organizations on campus like "Subtitles: The Princeton Film Society" dedicated to organizing screenings and substantial film festivals.