Animals, absentees, actors and anecdotes: Michael Pattison’s second dispatch from IndieLisboa 2013
Reviewed below: Animal Love [6/10]; Avanti Popolo [6/10]; Greatest Hits [7/10]; Amsterdam Stories USA [6+/10].
Never judge a film by its audience or, indeed, a city by its cinephiles. Otherwise, you might be left feeling isolated, depressed. Still, if we care for cinephilia enough to cheer the increasingly rare projection of film, we ought to also care enough to lament and resist the running commentaries that can often ruin a cinema experience. In such cases, I find myself unable to become fully immersed in the film, and instead begin to wonder whatever on earth two people could find worth discussing for 90-plus minutes in the dark.
Pro: I’ve now seen Ulrich Seidl’s Animal Love (Tierische Liebe, 1996) on 35mm. Con: I have also seen it with unwanted accompaniment from whisperers and mumblers in the same row. Though I have in the past referred to these types as “those who go [to the cinema] for the pretty images”, however, in this instance I’m inclined to extend some benefit of doubt and assume it was to see the dogs, by which the whole of Screen 3 in Alvalade’s Cinema City Classic was constantly enthralled.
Animal Love is a sketch-piece comprising semi-fictional vignettes detailing various Austrians’ relationships with their beloved pets – mostly dogs, but also bunnies, ferrets, rats, guinea pigs. More specifically, it comes to view these creatures in compensatory terms: their ubiquitous presence in every frame here might be representative of some kind of absence – social, emotional, even sexual – in contemporary Vienna as a whole. Certainly, the film has Seidl’s keen but non-judgemental eye for the bizarre, which he has a knack of finding in the most mundane circumstances: a pair of homeless men who beg for money to feed their pets are paralleled with an older, presumably gay couple who spout anarchism while bringing their canine up to be a menace to other dogs as well as to its owners; an estranged couple who argue in their decrepit flat while their pet dog lies indifferently in the frame between them is juxtaposed against another couple who are into swinging (and who end the film copulating “doggy-style”); a middle-aged singleton who dances with her pet; a man with a fondness for deadpan phone sex, and so on. Never judge a dog by its owner. Or should that be the other way around?
Following Workers (covered in my previous report), Animal Love is the second film I’ve seen in Lisbon whose narrative revolved around dogs. And there was to be a third: though the dog (named Whale) in Avanti Popolo (2012) is in comparison less central to the film’s plot, its curious disappearance and even more curious reappearance troubles its owner, Mr. Gatti (Carlos Reichenbach), to a such a degree that the latter seems comparatively unmoved by an unexpected visit from his son André (André Gatti).
Avanti Popolo is one of those films that is thin on incident but heavy on (for want of a better word) texture. Uruguayan-born writer-director Michael Wahrmann’s first feature frames Brazil’s turbulent political history through its father-son relationship to subtle effect. Due to the elusive style in which it reveals its information, only keen watchers will figure early on that André is one of two brothers, the other having died a victim of the country’s military dictatorship.
The domestic/social dichotomy is ambitious turf to chart for Wahrmann, and I can’t pretend to know the full details of the historical events to which his film refers – mostly by use of Super 8 films that André projects onto the interior space of his father’s home. There’s a puzzling encounter towards the end of the film between André and a man he pays to fix his film projector, who turns out to be the sole member of the “Dogma 2000” movement, whose filmmaking manifesto stipulates firstly that you can’t shoot anything – everything must be re-dubbed from older material (such as Patton). Its length and inclusion in the film imply some kind of mission statement on its director’s behalf; we sense Wahrmann agrees with André when the latter pays backhanded compliments to Dogma 2000 by referring to it as another example of “underdeveloped” and “solitary” cinema.
When I met Warhmann the following evening, I asked him to clarify a few of the songs that feature in the film, to which someone joked that he should compile a soundtrack and sell CDs to boost profits. Indeed, Avanti Popolo begins and later reworks a gag featuring a car’s CD player, and recalled for me a film that I had caught earlier that same evening, Greatest Hits (Los mejores temas, 2012), which opens with Gabino (Gabino Rodriguez) showering, dressing and waiting for his mother to serve him a sandwich while reciting what appear to be the lyrics of the most clichéd of love songs. As it turns out, however, Gabino is trying to remember the tracklist of a CD compilation of ballads, copies of which he is planning to sell illegally; such retention of information, he believes, will allow for a more convincing sales pitch.
If this Mexican-Canadian-Dutch co-production from Mexican writer-director Nicolás Pereda begins and continues in amusingly experimental fashion, it also, quite remarkably, accumulates and captivates with deeper emotional thrusts through sheer force of will. Just as we think the film and its protagonist may be drowning in numbers, Pereda introduces Gabino’s father, who hilariously enters the domestic space and stops in his tracks to look at or beyond the camera for as long as he can keep a straight face. Soon, however, scenes begin to repeat themselves with added details and small variations, as if the actors are rehearsing. Realities collide, realities collapse: just as Gabino is getting to grips with his father’s reappearance after a ten-year absence, another actor enters the frame to play him, and the first half of the film repeats itself to different (and eventually poignant) effect.
But what’s in a story anyway? In a word – the word being Amsterdam – about as much or as little as you want. Rob Rombout and Rogier Van Eck’s Amsterdam Stories USA (2012) employs an arbitrary framework in which to investigate the impulses of everyday American life. Said framework is the US cities, towns, roads, streets, cemeteries and residents named Amsterdam; the film is an unhurried, even-paced, six-hour, four-part travelogue from New York (once New Amsterdam) to a ranch in Amsterdam, California by way of Amsterdams in upstate New York, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Idaho, as well as a host of places in between, where the filmmakers visit and encounter such people as a stand-up comedian whose stage name is Sven Amsterdam (and so on). Even counting the five-minute breaks between each chapter – East, South, Midwest, West – I didn’t leave my seat.
Rombout and Van Eck appear as eccentrics. Dutch-born but choosing to converse with one another in French (which was only subtitled in Portuguese!), they’ve employed a fascinating premise here and have assembled a wealth of interviews, from which emerge the prolonged social effects firstly of America’s immigrant origins and secondly the deeper formative events that have marked the country since World War II, such as JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and 9/11 (which actually figures comparatively little).
As author Russell Banks puts it here, the images sent abroad from America and even consumed by Americans themselves are different to what most people are actually living. And as it shifts again and again between light-hearted and more contemplative registers, Amsterdam Stories gathers a view of the United States from those whose histories and anecdotes aren’t ordinarily the stuff of cinematic quality. To quote the slogan of New York-based black news outlet Amsterdam News, “We choose to plead our own cause, because for too long others have done it for us.”
I’ll say more on Amsterdam Stories and the context of viewing it at a festival in my Festival Round-up. Before then, though, there’ll be a report on Days 5 and 6, including Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, the first entry in which I caught immediately after Amsterdam Stories following a mad dash to Lisbon’s fortress-like Culturgest. Until the next dispatch, até logo…
26th April 2013