THE MEANING OF LIFFe : Ljubljana ’05 (part one : Friday)

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seen Friday 18th November at Cankarjev Dom and Kino Vic
WILLENBROCK [6/10] Germany 2005 : Andreas DRESEN : 103 mins (timed)
   Third feature by the much-touted Dresen slots neatly between his second (Grill Point) and fourth (Summer in Berlin) in terms of achivement and satisfaction-level: it's pleasing to see a director so steadily improving as he gets to know the medium. This one is a thriller-inflected character-study with flecks of low-key comedy, set in the wintry east German city of Magdeburg. 
   Title-character is a pudgy, amoral, second-hand car dealer in his mid-forties (Grill Point's Axel Prahl) who has three women on the go - including his emotionally-unstable, increasingly suspicious wife (Summer In Berlin's Inka Friedrich). Used to coasting through life on a cloud of arrogant self-regard, Willenbrock starts to lose control of his hectic romantic entanglements - and even tip towards a full-blown midlife crisis - after he becomes a victim of violent crime. 
   Watchable, well-acted picture occasionally detours into melodrama, and audiences may wonder why we should care a jot about this randy, solipsistic, capitalistic louse who bears a distracting resemblance to Divine (when "she" appeared in 'mufti' as plain Glenn Milstead). And Dresen is still on his learning-curve direction-wise, with some clumsy moments of juddery slo-mo and a score that veers towards the intrusive. 
   But the Christian Petzold-ish plot (script by Laila Stieler, from a novel by Christophe Hein) is sufficiently ambitious, distinctive and unpredictable to maintain our interest, especially in the final act when the hapless Willenbrock gets his just desserts and, perhaps, starts to see the error of his ways.

DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA – LAIBACH 2004 TOUR [5/10] Razdruzene drzave Amerike : Slovenia 2005 : Saso PODGORSEK : 64 mins (timed)
   Impressionistic DV-shot record of US tour by veteran Slovenian industrial-rock provocateurs: 'Laibach and think of America' if you like. Or perhaps that should be 'Amerika'. Or rather 'Amerikkka': ferociously anti-Bush tone pervades nearly every frame, with the band's devoted fans lining up to bewail the state of their nation – a pressing subject in the immediate wake of GWB's second election "triumph". Though barely an hour long, pic becomes somewhat monotonous somewhat quickly, with fan after fan saying the same thing over and over again: Laibach totally rule, Bush totally sucks.
In between all this preaching-to-the-converted material we do occasionally get to see the band themselves in action, and their live shows definitely pack a punch. A pity, then, that we hear so little from the band-members themselves, who remain enigmatically silent – though there is a profusion of white-on-black titlecards in which we get paragraphs of their prankish/verbose cod-philosophising ("truth is not true," etc.)
   Also intercut: brief, local-colour dystopian-USA travelogue images – ubiquitous MacDonalds, amusing roadsigns, defaced celebrity posters, urban decay. Pretty uninspired stuff on the whole, but does at least end on a high with pounding rendition of band's most famous track "Life is Life", their brilliant cod-totalitarian rejig of Opus's "Live is Life". Director's contributions never reach anything like the band's levels of originality and power – even "Life is Life" gets the most cursory visual accompaniment. Result is you leave the cinema rather more likely to buy a Laibach CD than before, but rather less likely to seek out another Podgorsek production.

MIRAGE [4/10] Illuzija : Macedonia 2004 : Svetozar RISTOVSKI : 107 mins (timed)
Though clearly made with the best of intentions, Macedonian social-drama Mirage is an unfortunately hackneyed, heavy-handed and corny treatment of a serious issue: namely bullying, and its deleterious psychological effects on the victims.  It's also far too long, and director/co-writer Ristovski could and should have gotten his point across in less than 90 minutes. As it is, the screenplay over-ambitiously attempts to present the travails of one particular lad as a metaphor for Macedonia as a whole, and what would appear to be the country's rather gloomy future.
   Result is an unappealing misery-fest which mistakes torpidness and ostentatious downbeatness for art. Marko Kovacevic is suitably angelic-looking as Marko Trifunofski, a kid of about 13 whose unpleasant homelife (alcoholic dad, downtrodden mother, harpy-like teenage sister) is only marginally more bearable than his time at school where he's the target for vicious, merciless verbal and physical attacks.
   His only form of escapism lies in his budding poetic gifts, nurtured by a kindly teacher. He also hides out in a disused railway carriage where one day he meets an ex-soldier who, it is very strongly implied, is a figment of his vivid imagination. But in a land where talented young poets have often met sticky ends, Marko's sensitivity is no protection against the harshness of teenage life…
   Ristovski and co-writer Grace Lea Troje are content to go through the motions with Mirage's plot: when one of the kids gets hold of a gun shortly after halfway, the tragic denouement is grindingly predictable. Ristovski's direction is similarly by-the-numbers: he makes increasingly copious use of a particular piece of tinkly classical piano music which, via repeated deployment in films and TV, has long since passed from familiarity into cliche. And while Marko's dead-end hometown of Veles is presented in alluringly picturesque fashion by cinematographer Vladimir Samoilovski, this doesn't really fit the bleak and grim nature of Marko's decline and fall.
   Samoilovski is also distractingly  overfond of the arty technique known as  'backlighting' when shooting interiors – sunlight slanting down through the dusty air, instead of more realistic overhead electric or neon bulbs. This material cries out for gritty, in-your-face handling, not the stodgily "beautiful" approach taken by Ristovski and company. Mirage may serve an important social function in exposing a problem area in Macedonian schools. But as a film it falls disappointingly flat; "Kes in Veles" it most certainly ain't. [Post-script: Ristovski has reportedly now relocated to Vancouver].


Neil Young

Ljubljana (Slovenia), November 18th/19th, 2005

Seen at Cankarjev Dom cultural centre: Willenbrock; Divided States of America. Seen at Kino Vic cinema : Mirage.


seen on Saturday : South by Southeast, Heading South
seen on Sunday : Dallas Among Us, Kukumi, Buffalo Boy
seen on Monday : Adam and Paul

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