This is the final installment in a two-part series about my experiences at Bergen International Film Festival in October. Read the first part here.
Monday, October 25
Life During Wartime (USA)
I’m not sure if I wanted Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling) to return to the universe of his 1998 masterpiece, the dark comedy Happiness. When Solondz scrathed away the gloss at the surface of American suburbia, only to find pedophilia, depression, vanity and a host of other human shortcomings, he did it with an attitude that was provocatively non-judgmental, leaving you hating yourself for your reaction, much more than you despised its central characters. In returning to the story, he risked ruining what was so great about Happiness.
Unfortunately, Life During Wartime, returning to a family which had bravely tried to move on after the father was arrested for child abuse, did exactly what I feared it would. There is no balance to Solondz cringe-inducing cynicism – this was where the paradoxical warmth and understated empathy of Happiness came in – and I hated just about every character, and Solondz, too. An early scene provides an example of what I’m talking about. Timmy, who has been told that his father is dead, learns that he is in fact in jail for child abuse, and asks his mother, Trish (played by Allison Janney), what that a man does when he abuses a child. Unfortunately, Janney plays this role in much the same, hysterical way she has done in films like Juno and Away We Go, which means that when she says to Timmy, “don’t let anyone put anything inside you,” it feels like it’s played for laughs. The same goes for the the an important scene with Timmy and his prospective new stepfather. When Life During Wartime ends up feeling cheap and exploitative, it’s because in moments like these, Solondz sides with his audience and our mental safety mechanisms, and against his characters, abandoning the sensitivity that made Happiness so challenging.
Southern District (Bolivia)
While initially interesting, this drama about the challenges of an upper-class Bolivian family in a time of social change, failed to engage me on an emotional level. The real main character of the story is the butler, Wilson, who the mater familias likes to think she is treating like an equal, even though it is clear in every scene that he is only treated respectfully as long as he doesn’t make any demand and shows gratitude for the chance to be available to the family at all times. In every scene, the camera is moving in a circular motion, which creates a sense that we are somehow just eavesdropping on the conversations, and that the characters never really come into focus. When used to maximum effect – as it was in for example Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003) – such a narrative technique can serve to heighten our curiosity about the characters, as we are invited to grasp for something that can help us focus our attention, but unfortunately, Southern District never quite achieves that level of commitment.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields (USA)
If you’re like me, you’ve wanted to be inside the brain of Stephin Merritt ever since you first heard a song by The Magnetic Fields. And, if you want to get a songwriter, you have to know something about how he writes songs. Not surprisingly, therefore, the question of craft is the most interesting in this somewhat unfocused Magnetic Fields documentary. Getting Merritt to talk to a documentary crew is a major accomplishment in itself, and the scenes from the recording studio with Merritt and his writing partner Claudia Gonson not only offer glimpses into the the Magnetic Fields method, but into their special friendship as well. The documentary also relitigates the mid-aughts controversy over music and morals, without breaking new ground, apart from getting music critic Sasha Frere-Jones to say on camera that he wished he hadn’t started it in the first place. In the end, crammed in between live performances of some of the band’s finest songs, is the question of what this film really wanted to say.
Tuesday October 26
The Trotsky (Canada)
Billed as a socialist high-school comedy, The Trotsky has some of the anti-authoritarian charm of a classic like John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), although its shtick wears a little thin after a while. Jay Baruchel plays Leon, the son of a factory-owner, whose Marxist convictions gets him ostracised from the family and a reputation as a high-school rebel. Mixed in with his hilarious attempts to adjust his political radicalism to the small-bore politics of student organizing, there is a love story, already written in destiny, or at least in the memoirs of the real Leon Trotsky. I’ve always found Baruchel (of Undeclared, She’s Out Of My League) to be mildly annoying, but here, finally, that is made into an asset, as it makes him perfect for the role of neurotic and uncompromising Leon. After all, you can’t have a revolution without rubbing some people the wrong way. At the very least, The Trotsky turns some clichês on their heads.
Amphetamine (Hong Kong)
Straight swimming instructor Kafka (Byron Pang) struggles with an amphetamin addiction and his relationship with Daniel (Thomas Price) in this promising queer drama from Hong Kong director Scud. When I ended up not liking it, it had to do with the main argument of the love/non-love story – that some relationships demand the ultimate sacrifice – did not feel convincing in this particular instance. The film has a hypnotic visual palette, but it’s main characters remain mysteries throughout, and not in the good ‘please let me know more’ way. I get their physical attraction – in fact, I found Thomas Price to be really, really hot – but the way Daniel allowed himself to be mamipulated struck me as a serious character flaw. Also, I propose a moratorium on using the global financial crisis as a cinematic metaphor. It’s a clichê already.
Au Revoir, Taipei (Taiwan)
After Amphetamine, a film with pretensions it never quite found the right metaphors to fulfil, it was great to see a film that, like another festival highlight, Cold Weather, had no other ambition than telling an entertaining story. Taipei is as light a comedy as they come, but it wins further charm point by never actually introducing even an ounce of the (self-)seriousness so often present in festival favorites. Ostensibly a mob comedy about young Kai trying to deliver a package for his uncle in order to earn a trip to Paris to see his girlfriend, it evolves into a surprisingly sweet and funny film about teen friendships. Even the smaller characters get short scenes to make them relateable, and although most of them are made for laughs, it never feels cheap or cynical. This neon-lit non-love story is a real treat.
Wednesday October 27
With every compilation of short films, there’s a couple of pitfalls; if the compilation has a theme, there is a risk that theme itself will get in the way of the storytelling, but if there is no over-arching theme, you risk that the films become so different that it’s hard to understand why they were presented together in the first place. Unfortunately, Revolucion suffers from a bit of both. It has a theme, but the films are so different, and so uneven, that the concept itself at some point starts to take my attention away from the films. An all-star team of Mexican talent – Diego Luna (Milk), Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries), Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season) and Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light) among others – contributed are represented, reflecting on the state of the Mexican revolution. It works best on the concrete level – a film about how a Mexican-American immigrant reconnections with her heritage when going back to Mexico for her father’s funeral, for example – but for a running time of 110 minutes, there are simply too few memorable moments.
Waiting for Superman (USA)
I said in the first installment that a documentary about the American NASCAR obsession (Racing Dreams) is a subject not easily translated to Northern Europe. Enter Waiting for Superman, a documentary about American education policy, and a surprisingly potent box-office force. The cultural divide between Norway and the US is biggest in the sense that Norway has an almost exclusively public school system, whereas the US has a variety of private alternatives. As someone who comes from a culture of public education, and who thinks our system works relatively well, although we have some problems with poor test scores here as well, it’s a little hard to evaluate the education reform argument at the core of this film. Davis Guggenheim deserves recognition, however, for showing his hand, in what amount to a political stump speech for charter schools and against the perceived crippling powers of teachers unions. I balked somewhat at his apparent belief in a one size fits all education policy – based on the model developed by the eloquent polemicist Jeffrey Canada – and from what I’ve read about them, charter schools don’t always test better than regular schools, but the core of his film is important. As long as there are so many failing schools in America, it’s absolutely cruel to decide to who gets accepted into a charter school via a lottery. This cruelty lends extra punch to Guggenheim’s argument, and to the final scenes.
Blank City (USA)
I’ve written before about my general preference for films and art that in some way tries to push the envelope, and thus Blank City, a documentary about the people that made up the New York alternative scene in the seventies and eighties should have been right up my alley. And sure, there are some things of interest in this film. But in the long run, how interesting is it really to hear the victors retrospectively patting themselves on the back for having challenged political correctness and the status quo, while simultaneously moaning about the predictable toothlessness of current culture? Yeah, not very, not every for a nostalgia buff like me. Relatively little context is provided, furthering the sense that the film is mostly preaching to those who were there when it happened. It’s a kind of exclusive nostalgia that’s not particularly appealing.
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