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Marrakech International Film Festival: A Talk with Shinya Tsukamoto, Honoring Paul Verhoeven, & a Look at The Fixer

Tsukamoto said that the driving influence of his breakout ‘90s genre work was the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo.

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Marrakech International Film Festival: A Talk with Shinya Tsukamoto, Honoring Paul Verhoeven, & a Look at The Fixer
Photo: Marrakech International Film Festival

Under the high patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI—to say nothing of the friendly participation of nearly three dozen multinational corporate sponsors—your correspondent was treated to just over a week in Marrakech, for the city’s 16th Marrakesh International Film Festival (FIFM). On the flight from New York, a United Nations employee told me the country’s vertiginous economics weren’t so different from those of the United States, “but the difference is that in Marrakech, you will actually see it.” He wasn’t wrong: The floors of the palatial hotel-resort-spa-compound housing the American critics’ contingent were walked day and night by employees with spray bottles and paper towels, spot-cleaning every last inch of marble and glass for maximum lustre. Cab drivers in permanent turnaround outside the main quadrangle of hotels decried the festival compound for clogging traffic on the palm tree-laden main drag of El Yarmouk Boulevard, while children in the street ambushed American publicists with rose petals after the sun went down—then castigated them for refusing to pay for the privilege.

FIFM honorees—which this year included Paul Verhoeven, veteran Moroccan comic actor Abderrahim “Abderrouf” Tounsi, and Russian cinema at large—were fêted at late-night open bars with free-for-all gourmet food faucets. At one such event, a beauty queen saw fit to complain to me that there wasn’t a single Moroccan film in the festival competition. Beyond FIFM’s state-subsidized glitz and glamor, the festival is unlike any other: the screening committee is shrouded in mystery; only 14 titles jockey for jury prizes (a majority of them having world-premiered earlier in the year); all screenings are free to the registered public; there are no shorts programs or documentary sidebars; and competition directors walk the red carpet merely to receive standing ovations—instead of, for instance, the customary maddening and/or meandering Q&A sessions.

Having missed the kickoff tribute to the late Abbas Kiarostami, I arrived on the day of a far different homage: to Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, whose gnashing 1990s classics Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tokyo Fist would screen for Marrakshi ticketholders later in the week, alongside his 2014 adaptation of Fires on the Plain. Following an introduction from Dutch-French filmmaker Jan Koenen—whose documentary work, in one announcer’s words, “revolutionized the way we look at vaping”—and an appropriately bludgeoning clip show, Tsukamoto accepted his award on a stage gussied up to look like a cinema-themed Situation Room, with Marrakech’s 12th-century-old Koutoubia Mosque standing in for Wolf Blitzer’s Capitol Building.

Tsukamoto delivered a soft-spoken, elegant rumination on the cyclical nature of human folly and the inevitable catastrophe of war, and capped with an abrupt just-the-facts-ma’am announcement: “One last thing. I played an important part in Martin Scorsese’s last movie, Silence. It is a terrific movie. If you have a chance, I vividly recommend that you go see it.” Curiously, the tribute presaged a screening of a film completely unrelated to Tsukamoto: Flemish director Bavo Defurne’s Souvenir, a Pink Martini-scored trifle starring Isabelle Huppert as a factory worker with a long-buried past singing torch-burners for Eurovision. (The film was introduced by Defurne, who described working with Huppert as “an optimist trying to convince a pessimist that hope exists.”) Like Che Guevara wrote about Stromboli, “the only word for the film is ’bad’”; nevertheless, for all the willing extremity of the festival’s programming, imagining this particular audience crossing this tapis rouge in their best tuxedos and sequins to watch Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet boggles the mind.

The next morning, in the Berber-deco gardens of the Hotel la Mamounia, where Hitchcock shot The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1933, I tried to pry Tsukamoto for further tidbits on Silence. He hedged thusly: “Scorsese only casts actors for whom he has total respect and confidence. He listens to all their suggestions and wisely assimilates them in his direction. I always wondered what made his movies so grand, so intriguing, and I learned it’s his ability to cultivate relationships with his actors.” As for his cameo in Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s extraordinarily bleak Shin Godzilla, Tsukamoto offered that “Godzilla movies are part of my cinematic heritage, but going into it, I didn’t expect the role to be as important as it was. I was flattered to realize, then and there, that the directors had written it especially for me.”

In a classic bit of journalistic foot-chomping, I asked Tsukamoto about the “angry energy” of his breakout ‘90s genre work, but he countered by advising that his driving influence was the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo—a city that “grew up” in postwar tandem with the filmmaker himself. “You could take Tokyo as a symbol of contemporary urbanity unto itself, but I’m not forcing a link there. What I’m interested in is the link between human beings and their environments, and now I’m more interested in nature. Back then I felt a spontaneous drive coming from inside of me, and that’s what appeared on the screen,” Tsukamoto told me. “The city is my most familiar environment. We all felt repressed by it, a kind of love-hate, attraction-repulsion relationship. That contradictory feeling is what shows up in my earlier movies.”

Paul Verhoeven delivered a “masterclass” later that day with veteran French critic Jean-Pierre Lavoignat, a rat-a-tat 90-minute Q&A for an audience comprised of Moroccan students and restless journalists. At the end of a year dominated by adulation for Elle, the Dutch master’s victory lap continues unabated; with his mischievous grin, he came across as the opposite of the prototypically reticent European auteur. Juicy details were dropped, like his insistence that he and Huppert spent on all their time in preproduction discussing “the color of the dress and the styles of the makeup,” advocating no rehearsals or psychology work on Huppert’s character. “We didn’t try to know exactly how she felt, why she felt it or how she would behave in a given situation. I felt from the first moment that I shouldn’t try to direct Isabelle by talking too much. She was so much that character that anything she did was correct, and anyhow, better than what I had in mind.”

Verhoeven said he moved to Hollywood to make RoboCop because his wife forced him to, pointed out Jacques Rivette’s rave of Showgirls in Cahiers du Cinéma as absolution despite concurrent pans in the U.S., and claimed the reason Starship Troopers came out as uncompromised as it did was because “the regime changed every three or four months at Sony. If they had actually looked at the movie, they would have stopped it, because the movie was saying, ’Oh, and by the way, your heroes are fascists.’”

Verhoeven would receive his official FIFM tribute minutes later, ascending the stage to Basil Pouledouris’s Starship Troopers theme after a speech from Huppert and leading with a tale about a film called Crusades that he had intended to shoot in Marrakech decades ago with Arnold Schwarzenegger, before the Carolco Pictures insurance money fell through. (Morocco’s longtime status as a safe harbor for myriad “Eastern” locales in Hollywood productions provided a postmodern schizophrenia to more than a few festival conversations, but that’s neither here nor there.) The clip-show format would be repeated for Tounsi later in the same week, for the Russian tribute and for Isabelle Adjani; here it proved delirious, as a slow-motion replay of Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven screaming into each other’s faces in Turkish Delight silently looped behind Verhoeven just when his speech reached its emotional crescendo—bracketed, naturally, by pauses whereby an Arabic interpreter could relay his gratitude one paragraph at a time. His eyes glistening, Verhoeven mentioned that he’d never before received a tribute in all his 78 years, and was then audibly directed to walk mid-stage to receive his trophy from Huppert—before scampering off to introduce RoboCop (dubbed in French) in the city’s central square in Jma El-Fnaa, one of several screenings in the square suffused with a beneficent, carnival atmosphere.

The lack of cross-pollinating hype at a festival like this is no disadvantage. Whereas Toronto or Sundance screenings boom or bust on word-of-mouth recommendations/dismissals from the attendant press, each movie at FIFM gets two screenings at most, neither of which are almost ever sold out. So when it dawned on me that I was at risk of spending my first two days without seeing a single competition title, it was easy to duck into the single-screen Cinema Colisée—a gorgeous movie palace nestled inside a decrepit apartment building—for Romanian director Adrian Sitaru’s The Fixer. If nowhere near as grandiose in his camera language as his contemporaries Puiu, Porumboiu, or Mungiu, the film can’t help but introduce Sitaru as a serious talent.

The Fixer follows its eponymous go-between, Radu (Tudor Istodor), who, as a trainee for the Agence France Presse, takes it upon himself to organize a French journalist’s interview with a 14-year-old victim (Diana Spatarescu) of human trafficking. Sitaru’s attenuation to cultural-lingual fault lines provides the narrative its foundational anxiety. When Radu works a family connection to make his bones as a journalist, a string of consequences swiftly double back to make him doubt the decision on grounds of intent, preparation, or both. Jockeying notions of exploitation and privacy come to a boil at the exact moment he makes himself essential to the scoop, a blistering real-time exchange with the girl in question wherein Sitaru’s camera doesn’t budge beyond the confines of her policeman protector’s SUV.

There’s no Spotlight moment to this film: It exhausts every possible apprehension of journalistic success, putting the viewer as deep in the quagmire as its tenuous protagonists, with only a sliver of notional relief ahead. It also packs perhaps the most bittersweet coda I’ve seen on a movie screen this calendar year. As one chain-smoking flack offers Radu early in his quest for the almighty exclusive, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

The Marrakech International Film Festival runs from December 2—10.

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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