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Breaking Boundaries, Onscreen and Off, at the Rotterdam Film Festival 

The sky's the limit

Wednesday, Feb 11 2009
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A hustling river port on the Nieuwe Maas, with a glassy, ultramodern skyline that might’ve been laid out in SimCity, Rotterdam once a year comes down with a case of Film Festival.

This most determinedly obscurantist of the European majors falls in the dead of January and is positioned as both a summary and inauguration, its phonebook-size program a yearbook of the festival circuit’s “difficult” fare, alongside many world and international premieres. The truce of an archetypal city of commerce with the most entrenched anti-commercial art? Well, nothing’s so binary, least of all in the birthplace of bourgeois patronage.

This is the second year of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 21-February 1) under the now-contracted directorship of Rutger Wolfson, who’s announced a curatorial ambition to prod at boundaries between screen, stage and conceptual art (Wolfson is former director of Middelburg’s De Vleeshal gallery; current display: “The Unbearable Limit of the Exhibition Space”).

click to enlarge Enter The Forbidden Door if you dare.
  • Enter The Forbidden Door if you dare.

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Among this year’s outreach experiments was Urban Screens, nightly public video projections of commissioned works by Guy Maddin, Carlos Reygadas and Rotterdam’s own Nanouk Leopold, flickering high above the city. This explains the jumble resembling Isabella Rossellini on the face of the Robeco office tower. In conjunction with the festival’s Hungry Ghosts program, spotlighting tales of the supernatural from East Asia, a plethora of invitees (including Thailand’s Wisit Sasanatieng and Vietnam’s Nguyen Vinh Son) provided installation-chambers for a “Haunted House” inside the former Fotomuseum building. Meanwhile, uptown at the Pathé multiplex, Takeshi Kitano’s fable-farce Achilles and the Tortoise conflated the art-world novelty industry with Japanese game-show stunts. In the festival newsletter, The Daily Tiger, one could read an interview with the editor of Dutch film journal Skrein, now extinct upon losing its Ministry of Culture stipend: “Proven quality loses out to fashionable initiatives: the money is going to those doing something with ‘urban culture.’”

In bringing his latest feature, Frontier of the Dawn, to Rotterdam, Philippe Garrel seemed a talismanic figure of the fest’s self-image. In a 40-year career, he’s sold fewer tickets in Paris than Johnny Hallyday during a weekend stand at the Olympia but subsists on a thin broth of acclaim, filming his reveries on loose ends and even breeding a bona fide celebrity in son/collaborator/youthful alter ego, Louis. Frontier sets the camera-stethoscope to two relationships’ slow dyings. It’s a lesser work, but the black-and-white is wetly lush, with Garrel’s focus so acute that it’s hard to tell what year the action takes place, and if starlet Laura Smet is playing herself or Nico or ... Frances Farmer? (The French press were a-froth over Smet’s life-imitates-art on-set breakdown.)

From all corners of the Earth, tyros and sophomores convened in solemn confidence of their genius, carrying film canisters of the Harsh Truths and Uncompromised Visions that Rotterdam trades in. From the U.K., there was Duane Hopkins and Better Things, chronicling the private lives of dope-sick teens and their desiccant elderly relations waiting ’round to die in gray-scale Gloucestershire. (Hopkins sculpts surprising frissons from lethargy through the cadences of his cutting.) From Mexico came Amat Escalante and Los Bastardos, a grubby death trip starring émigrés gone outlaw north of the border. It’s essentially a spinoff of Herr Haneke’s EuroShock Theater, including phony empathy with First World Ennui and Oppressed Brown People and a boo! act of violence to yank the atrophied scene-making taut. From conservative style and feinted radicalism to fundamentalist hysteria: Indonesian director Joko Anwar’s The Forbidden Door, part of the Hungry Ghosts lineup, read nicely as a surrealist screed against abortion, women in the workplace, and broadband voyeur-decadence, climaxing with a Christmas dinner turned abattoir. The guy’s got spunk — shouldn’t have skipped the Q & A.

To know who was provoking (rather than “provoking”), you had only to follow the laughter — in this case to the eyeroll reception for hoary anarchist Jean-Claude Brisseau’s out-of-competition À l’aventure, which finds the Maestro continuing further down the rabbit hole of his Nicholson Baker–grade obsession with female masturbation. Scenes are often a few lighting decisions away from an upscale Van Nuys production, yet this former schoolteacher’s lectures on spiritualized sex and landscape — the permeable floodwall against despair — are a more moving and useful curriculum than anything to be got in most high schools, save Gatsby.

I nearly had a fit when some rubbish Dutch “tone poem” short threatened to make me late for the revival of Brooklyn boy (and frequent Kubrick/Cassavetes ensemble player) Timothy Carey’s 1962 The World’s Greatest Sinner. This fleapit A Face in the Crowd has its leering director-star playing a William Jennings Bryant-meets-Gene Vincent pile of demagogue, who asserts his will to power by leading a platoon of saxophonists between farmer’s markets and county fairs, there to waggle his manboobs and greasy forelock in hypnotic transports of rockabilly/avant-jazz ecstasy. This is, incidentally, toward a confirmation of the True Faith ... one wonders how Cardinal Spellman received the gift.

Likewise honored was Pole Jerzy Skolimowski, a retro prompted by his return to direction after a 16-year hiatus. In the 1960s, young, buzzy-with-ideas Skolimowski made cinema a choreographic carnival, as in Barrier’s concert of blocking in a streetcar terminus. Essential viewing is 1971’s Deep End, and his newest, Four Nights with Anna, which place that bantering resourcefulness over reservoirs of horrible emotion. Set around a suburban London bathhouse and a sodden Polish backwater, respectively, the films are paralleled by their sly control of audience sympathy for their lovelorn protagonists, and an idea of romantic obsession as the mother of invention.

Among new works, Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums towered, as her output continues to loom Eiffel-style over this low decade. Denis does narrative as a constellation of gestures, revealing or merely beautiful. Here they outline the residents — working class, mostly of Afro-Caribbean origin — of one building in the Parisian suburbs. The scene everyone will rightly single out: Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Mati Diop, Adèle Ado, Nicole Dogue (and D.P. Agnès Godard, somewhere, somehow ... ) wedged in a tiny neighborhood café, curling smokelike through one another to The Commodores’ “Nightshift.” Behold that rare level of conscious control not set into the slimy aspic of Style — as in Skolimowski’s seamless-elaborate Deep End set piece, where John Moulder-Brown stalks in and out of one Red Light Soho street corner, its clubs, hotdog stands and fuck-cubbies, driven to and fro by the hectoring jam of Can’s “Mother Sky.” This is a medium at its full power of synthesis — a hyperconsciousness of spaces, a song pulse, inchoate feelings invoked — where The Unbearable Limit of the Screen is no limit at all.

Reach the writer at nick.pinkerton@gmail.com

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