Paradises lost, found, postponed: Michael Pattison’s third dispatch from IndieLisboa 2013

this Seidl of Paradise

Reviewed below: Art Will Save the World [7/10]; Gazzara [6/10]; Pincus [5/10]; The Unknown [9/10]; Paradise Love [7/10], Paradise Faith [6/10] and Paradise Hope [6/10].

One evening last week, I was asked in the ‘Ritz Clube’ – host this year to IndieLisboa’s nightly post-screenings parties – how as a critic I go about choosing the films I see within a film festival’s dauntingly varied programme. For Lisbon, whose screenings don’t begin until four or five in the afternoon, it was a combination of two things: instinctive judgements based on brochure notes (as well as everything else that factors into any trip to the cinema in general – synopsis, subject matter, director, production context, critical buzz, chances of it being screened again and so on), and geographical practicability, as it’s no good planning to see two films back-to-back when the trip between venues is a toss-up between a forty-minute walk and a thirty-minute Metro-ride.

As the week goes on, though, you meet fellow attendees who rave about a film you had previously overlooked, or had written off, or had opted against simply because it wasn’t in the right place at the right time. And you meet directors whose films are screening the following day, say, and whose personable manner promotes the work better than any programme description ever could.

And so you begin to tweak your itinerary a little, perhaps even promising a director during a stop-and-chat that you’ll see their film (and subsequently worrying that you won’t like it, and that the next stop-and-chat won’t go as smoothly). And, as the festival draws to a close, you start to panic that you haven’t made the most of it, that in a couple of days you’ll be back in England without ever having been to at least one film in each of the festival venues. So you’ll make amendments on the sole basis that you “ought to see a film at such-and-such a cinema” for the sake of seeing a film at such-and-such a cinema.

I made time for two documentaries after unplanned encounters with their directors. Niall McCann’s Art Will Save the World (2012) is a witty look at the 1990s British pop music scene and how monetary gain was and is its sole criterion of success, through the apparently embittered eyes of singer-songwriter Luke Haines (of The Auteurs and other projects.) A playful and often very funny film, it confronts the limitations of what might be called the biography fetish (or, fittingly, auteurism) by going along with Haines’s own image-construction, which has both defined his musical output over the years and consigned him to the commercial periphery.

As one interviewee puts it here, Haines might be too clever for his own good; one senses a healthy disdain in his lyrics – too easily termed by the press as misanthropy – that chimes well with McCann’s irreverent aesthetic, which is indebted to Godard as well as to the Michael Bakewell-directed B. S. Johnson short Fat Man on a Beach (1974). I opted for the film, which screened to a highly receptive audience in São Jorge’s Sala 3, over Before Midnight and the festival’s awards ceremony – and as a theatrical run seems unlikely, I’m glad I did.

Ben G and pal

Joe Rezwin’s Gazzara (2012), meanwhile, is more direct in its aim and focus. Beginning with actor Ben Gazzara (1930-2012) playing out a one-man sketch on stage with Rezwin as his sole audience member, the film comprises a series of conversations between the two, who met when Rezwin scored his first professional film job working on John Cassavetes’ Opening Night way back in 1976.

Details touched upon include Gazzara’s childhood, life, career, achievements and, poignantly, approaching death. Perhaps not unusual for an actor whose performances were so effortlessly and intensely naturalistic, Gazzara himself comes across as shy and sensitive, and his most outrageous or more actorly moments in the film are those of an intelligent artist deeply sceptical of the mythmaking bullshit that pervades the film industry, and which is particularly at work in Hollywood’s love for biographical overviews.

At one moment, for instance, Rezwin mentions different performers with whom Gazzara collaborated, and the actor avoids comment by mimicking chat-show rhetoric and saying each one was “the best human being I ever worked with”. It’s not until the final conversation, in Central Park, that Rezwin confronts and reveals the reasons why he wanted to make the project, admitting that he might have just wanted to hang out with the actor – who he clearly admires.

If such proximity to one’s subject makes a documentarian’s work problematic and prone to sentiment (and this critic only squeezed the film into his schedule after personally meeting Rezwin), the director’s intentions are unashamedly personal and his delivery admirably unassuming, while cinematographer Trevor Tweeten imbues conceptually ordinary material with a real cinematic edge.

Pincus (2012) is another deeply personal film. Written, produced, directed and edited by David Fenster, this low-budget autobiographical work weaves real-life threads into something resembling fiction. Pincus Finster (David Nordstrom) lives with and cares for his dad Paul (Paul Fenster), a Parkinson’s sufferer, while continuing the family’s interior decoration business with aid from his pal Dietmar (Dietmar Franosch), an illegal German immigrant. Exploiting his father’s condition to get closer to yoga teacher Anna (Christi Idavoy), Pincus navigates scenarios that play out like an extended episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Nordstrom lends the role a somehow likeable moron’s charm with simple gestures, such as when he flaps his hand at a low-hanging wire while receiving a tour of a home he is about to redecorate.

Fenster likewise shows wit when the crescendo of an incongruously ominous and atmospheric drone turns out in the next scene to be a diegetic didgeridoo being blown over Paul as some kind of spiritual remedy for his illness. Dedicated to the memory of Franosch, who died in 2012 (presumably during production), Pincus unfortunately ends just as its various dramatic threads are beginning to get interesting, and its final prolonged descent into a black cave feels like the only way to end a half-cooked plot.

The Unknown (the Browning version)

From a pitch-black cave representing “the unknown” to the darker-than-average auditorium of Cinemateca Portuguesa (‘Museo do Cinema’), where I saw Tod Browning’s succinct and rewarding 1927 masterpiece, The Unknown. I’d seen the film on a big screen before, but not on a razor-sharp 35mm print, and the complete absence of (what would have been) a corny “silent cinema” soundtrack heightened my awareness of the social element of cinema-going: you could hear the figurative pins drop between the material stomach rumbles and seat adjustments of fellow viewers, and the laughter that accompanied the many humorous scenes here became doubly infectious as a result.

Though its plotting is on-the-nose and its poetic justice is generously portioned, Lon Chaney gives one of the great performances as travelling circus employee Alonzo the Armless (not harmless!), conveying emotional shifts by widening his eyes, dropping his cheeks or laughing maniacally to hide inner torment. In the scene in which his object of desire (Joan Crawford) reveals her marital engagement to a rival performer, and a pattern of reaction shots builds anticipation of Chaney’s deepening emotional response, my hysterics were by far the cinema’s most audible.

There’s laughter of a different sort to be had across the Paradise Trilogy, the centrepiece of IndieLisboa’s Ulrich Seidl retrospective. Depicting a triangle of related women enduring the increasingly testing travails of everyday life, it’s an aesthetically consistent triptych that drags along the typical burdens and dramatic limitations of theme-driven concept art – where, as with films such as Dekalog (1988), the self-stated theme becomes an interpretable provocation in itself.

Indeed, these films play out like theses written in response to a given question, and each appears to have easy targets in its sights and an obvious method of execution. Never mind lost, this is paradise unattainable.

In Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012), the strongest of the bunch, single Viennese mother Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) arrives at a Kenyan holiday resort with romantic hopes and racial ignorance. A succession of starry-eyed encounters with impoverished locals gradually turns acidic, as Seidl employs a painful character study to reveal the unpleasant realities of the service and tourism industries and the irreconcilability between post-colonial harmony and an economic framework fundamentally dependent upon low wages and making profit.

As an Englishman abroad watching an Austrian abroad, I suspect I was one of the few who cottoned on early during Paradise: Love that the laughs were there to make the eventual ugliness all the more saddening, and by the end of the film my fellow audience members, who had earlier been in fits of laughter at Tiesel’s “committed” (read “brave”) performance, seemed to have sobered up.

FAITH no more?

In the straighter Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube, 2012), Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) devotes her entire being to the rehabilitation of Catholicism into Austrian society, knocking on the doors of indifferent sinners and scrubbing herself clean after happening upon an al fresco orgy when walking home one night. Into this arrives Anna Maria’s husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), a paraplegic Muslim hopeful of a loving marriage.

Religious intolerance, and more specifically the exclusivity of any theistic belief, provides an increasingly caustic feel that is neither original nor compelling – though cinematographers Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman are currently working wonders under Seidl’s direction. Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung, 2013), which premiered at Berlin earlier this year, concludes this narratively unpredictable but dramatically dull trilogy at a weight-loss holiday camp for teens run by disciplinarians.

Watching Hope in the festival’s video library (it screened at the cinema only after my departure), I belatedly realised Seidl’s approach across his trilogy is to implicate wider social problems through almost hysterical archetypes. He deals in extremities to evoke the essential: when Teresa leaves her resort in Love, the local taxi drivers hound her in such a choreographed way that it’s impossible to take the scene literally, though its meaning is relatable to any holidaymaker who has visited an economically backward country; in Faith, meanwhile, there is a fundamental silliness in pitching a Christian and Muslim against one another in such an unavoidably claustrophobic setting, but its real target might not even be religion per se, but the patriarchal and religious foundations of another institution: marriage.

The smart move in Hope is to provoke us with ongoing suggestions of sexual abuse, but the actual problem is the innately sexual implications of an image-obsessed society in general, as exemplified by an absurdly punitive “fat camp”, and as hinted at by intermittent appearances by Vivian Bartsch, the lead in Seidl’s similarly-themed Models (1999), covered in my first Lisbon dispatch.

Michael Pattison
29th April, 2013

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roundup

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