Film-adelphia (Part 1)

The Philadelphia Film Festival celebrates it's 20th Anniversary this year, and although I was not able to be in the city for the entirety of the fest I was still able to catch up with a few great films, and even re-watch one of my favorites films from this year's Chicago International Film Festival.  I may not have enough material to construct a 13-day Diary, as with the CIFF, but here are some short re-caps of my experiences--film, theatre, and otherwise--while in the "City of Brotherly Love":

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
Michel Hazanivicius (OSS 117:  Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117:  Lost in Rio) has received a lot of hype recently for his new silent film era homage The Artist.  This French production features Jean Dujardin as the Rudolph Vaentino-esque George Valentin and an impressive, well-utilized cast of American actors, including Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell, Ed Lauter, and John Goodman.  The Artist has been highly praised as a result of it's previous festival screenings, from Cannes to the final night special presentation at the CIFF.  Having not been able to attend the CIFF closer, I was excited to be able to catch it with an audience at the peak of the Philly Fest, especially since the film is tailor made for an audience of film buffs.  It would be easy to write off The Artist as a simplistic crowd-pleaser, especially since it is so wrapped in the celluloid of the past that one wonders if there is anything beyond the film as a tribute to the transitional period when Hollywood production made the shift from silent film to synchronous sound recording.  Personally, films dealing with this period get me deeply hooked from the word go, so I may not be the most objective critic when it comes to The Artist, which, if handled cynically, could be boiled down to a series of quotes, from the silent era ruled by Valentino and Chaplin to the great early 40's films of Sturges and Welles.  It may be my love of this period that has led me to champion Scorsese's The Aviator so often, though many seem unimpressed, but I find Hughes's journey into the sound era, as well as his war with the Hayes office, a very telling bit of history, particularly in relation to where we are now with film technology and expression.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Gwen Stefani in The Aviator
Maybe The Aviator failed to reach it's audience (though I consider it to be one of the best of Scorsese's late career), but The Artist is a crowd-pleaser of the best sort; a popcorn romance/rise-and-fall story that no one has to be initiated into, often told with an unexpected emotional heft.  As it replays the tricks and tropes of the silent era in joyous fashion (as in a wonderful scene where a silent film starlet, Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, slides her arm through the sleeve of Valentin's jacket, mimicking a romantic encounter between them with her own substitute hand) it never succumbs to the easily sunk-to depths of commercial parody (I'm thinking more of the recent spate of Friedberg/Seltzer-helmed atrocities, where the simple act of pop-culture reference has usurped actual attempts at humor, than something like Mel Brooks's Silent Movie).  Not to mention that, aside from a few seconds at the end, The Artist is an entirely silent picture, including a few inter-titles which the film does not rely upon in excess.  I think the best way to read The Artist is as a celebration of, and return to, the visual aspects of cinematic storytelling, which is so often lost between the extremes of garish spectacle on one end, and on the other, film stories that never required a camera to be told in the first place.  An example that encompasses both of those extremes (and a film I happen to like quite a bit for what it demands visually) is Christopher Nolan's Inception.  In short, if Christoper Nolan had a quarter of the visual savvy of a Metrolpolis-era Fritz Lang, he would have saved Inception from  the unfortunate weight of it's own exposition.

Berenice Bejo in The Artist
Fritz Lang's Metropolis
Christopher Nolan's Inception
From a silent film to a nearly silent film:  I was able to catch one of two screenings at the Philly Fest of Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse...which might actually be better described as "a film containing fitful bouts of speech" than "a nearly silent film," because the character speech, though scant, is crucial.  One of the reasons I wanted to see Tarr's final film a second time has to do particularly with being able to go into the film with a sense of where the language occurs, as it tends to come out of nowhere, and, in some cases, just when you've forgotten language is even a component of the film...and in Hungarian.  With that in mind, the film carried an even greater impact for me the second time around.  Although I think the exciting aspect of Tarr's work can be the surprise of discovering how differently his filmic language operates, it was equally compelling to return to his work with a clear sense of the pacing and themes, which allowed me to see just how expansive the film is in terms of how it plays with an audience, as well as it's thematic scope.

Erika Bok in The Turin Horse
At a second pass, one aspect of note is how unexpectedly current the movie is thematically, considering it looks like it was somehow, impossibly, made in the pre-cinema era it's set in.  One way to read The Turin Horse is as an "end-of-the-world" or "apocalyptic" film.  As commercial cinema has recently returned to the mid-to-late 70's trend of "Disaster" cinema, the repetition of the Airport franchise has given way to the repeated, PG-13-rated global destruction genre, mostly due to the abysmal efforts of Roland Emmerich.  And, while I'm on the subject, let me just say that I payed to see Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 in the theatre, so forgive me if I feel a bit burned, but, putting aside the joys of using them as fodder for cultural insight and critique, those films are neither art nor entertainment, lacking the basic ability to build anything close to a memorable scene or character;  in short, they are mostly noisy, abrasive, clumsy shit.  More importantly, consistent messages get sent through the availability and relentless cable-based repeat-ability of these films that discourage any serious reflection about the rather weighty matters at hand.  Perhaps The Turin Horse, along with Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, can be read, in part, as the blow-back of Emmerich's shallow output, compounded by the current financial crisis and subsequent uprising of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.  In fact, my screening partner for The Turin Horse in Philly was Jason Del Gandio, recent author of the essential activist text, Rhetoric For Radicals.  Del Gandio, who also is currently teaching a course on "Social Movements" at Temple University, had taken me on the previous evening to the "Occupy Philly" general assembly, where we witnessed the ongoing occupation of Philadelphia's City Hall grounds in the financial district, which was (in Ecstatic fashion) a real eye-opener.  On the following day we both agreed that any consideration of the most central, substantial character speech in The Turin Horse is difficult to separate from the Here and Now:
Because everything's in ruins. Everything's been degraded, but I could say that they've ruined and degraded everything.  Because this is not some kind of cataclysm, coming about with so-called, innocent human aide.  On the contrary... It's about man's own judgement, his own judgement over his own self, which of course God has a hand in, or dare I say: takes part in.  And whatever he takes part in is the most ghastly creation that you can imagine. Because, you see, the world has been debased.  So it doesn't matter what I say because everything has been debased that they've acquired, and since they've acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they've debased everything. Because whatever they touch - and they touch everything - they've debased.  This is the way it was until the final victory.  Until the triumphant end. Acquire, debase. Debase, acquire.  Or I can put it differently if you like: to touch, debase and thereby acquire, or touch, acquire and thereby debase. It's been going on like this for centuries.  On, on and on.  This and only this, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally, but it has been going on and on.  Yet only in one way, like a rat attacks an ambush.  Because for this perfect victory it was also essential that the other side... That is, everything that's excellent, great in some way and noble should not engage in any kind of fight.  There shouldn't be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side, meaning the disappearance of the excellent, the great, the noble.  So that by now these winning winners who attack from the ambush rule the earth, and there isn't a single tiny nook where one can hide something from them, because everything they can lay their hands on is theirs.  Even things we think they can't reach - but they do reach - are also theirs. Because the sky is already theirs and all our dreams.  Theirs is the moment, nature, infinite silence. Even immorality is theirs, you understand?  Everything, everything is lost forever!  And those many noble, great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way.  They stopped at this point, and had to understand, and had to accept that there is neither god nor gods.  And the excellent, the great and the noble had to understand and accept this right from the beginning.  But of course they were quite incapable of understanding it.  They believed it and accepted it but they didn't understand it.  They just stood there, bewildered but not resigned, until something - that spark from the brain - finally enlightened them.  And all at once they realized that there is neither god nor gods.  All at once they saw that there is neither good nor bad. Then they saw and understood that if this was so, then they themselves do not exist either!  You see, I reckon this may have been the moment when we can say that they were extinguished, they burnt out. Extinguished and burnt out like the fire left to smolder in the meadow.  One was the constant loser, the other was the constant winner.  Defeat, victory, defeat, victory and one day - here in the neighborhood - I had to realize and I did realize, that I was mistaken, I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth.  Because, believe me, I know now that this change has indeed taken place.
Granted, there are a lot of interpretive threads to be plucked from this speech, which reads as much like poetry as philosophy, and, like many other significant Tarr moments, are more about creating platforms for questioning, rather than clear statements of the film maker's ideology or intent.  Also, who's to say that Tarr isn't more aligned with his primary character, the physically disabled horse driver, who has taken longer to come around to his grim fate than his own abused animal?  Possibly perverse and definitely xenophobic in his old age, he responds to the above speech with impeccable comedic timing:  "Rubbish!"

Janos Derzsi in The Turin Horse

More Film-adelphia coverage to come in Part 2,
including Ben Wheatly's Kill List and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter.


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