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Tales from the Vienna ’hood

Sweat beads trickle down bare backs and stomachs as bodies in ill-fitting swimwear stretch out on lawn furniture or concrete slabs across a cramped suburban landscape of tract houses, overmanicured gardens and undersize swimming pools. Yes, the late-summer sun blazes down hard on the characters of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days, but it’s more than just the stifling heat and humidity that render them immobile. For these Vienna suburbanites, the clammy climate is as much psychological as it is meteorological. Like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Dog Days is an ensemble piece that juggles half a dozen loosely interconnected storylines over the course of a few successive days in the same general neighborhood. Among the characters: a home-security technician flummoxed by his inability to track down the vandal who’s keying cars at a client’s apartment building; an elderly widower who weighs his groceries to determine if he’s being “cheated” and who talks his frumpy housekeeper into performing an impromptu striptease on what would have been his 50th wedding anniversary; a divorced couple who still live together, but who haven’t spoken to each other since the death of their young child; and, perhaps most memorably, a motor-mouthed hitchhiker (played by Maria Hofstatter, one of the film’s few professional actors) whose brain seems to have been replaced with a television set. (There is an additional subplot involving a middle-aged woman’s masochistic relationship with her loutish boyfriend that, after two viewings of the film, strikes me as Dog Days’ one incongruous excess — a frenzied bit of camp melodrama that seems to have broken off from a midcareer Fassbinder romp.)

Ideologically, however, Seidl (who also co-scripted Dog Days, with Veronika Franz) couldn’t be further from Altman’s or Anderson’s robust tangles of feelings and relationships. He’s after something more, shall we say, scientific — amassing a sample of lives in extremis at the turn of the millennium and placing them in a sterile petri dish for our collective study. And if there is a direct influence on his film, it is that of a filmmaker from neighboring Germany: Werner Herzog, who, in movies like Fata Morgana, Even Dwarfs Started Small and Lessons of Darkness, observed human behavior not as a fellow member of the species, but as though he were an alien visitor crash-landed from some faraway galaxy. Like Herzog (who gets a thank-you in Dog Days’ end credits), Seidl got his start making documentaries — his latest, Jesus, You Know, in which an assortment of contemporary Austrian Catholics discuss their religious beliefs and pray on-camera, screened at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival — and here, in his narrative debut, he shows a continued fascination with the commingling of fiction and nonfiction techniques. In addition to his preference for nonprofessional performers in all sorts of odd, non-movie-star shapes and sizes, he is disposed toward static, unadorned compositions that force us to stare long and hard at things most movies would just as soon not show. Dog Days is piled high with un-nipped, un-tucked bodies urinating, copulating and engaging in other unspectacular, often absurd, sometimes unbearably tragic bits of everyday business. With Seidl, there are no comfort zones.

So, it’s easy to see how his film could be perceived as a merciless middle-class satire or a perverse peeling-back of suburbia’s plastic façade. In an enthusiastic review published on the occasion of the movie’s world premiere at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, Variety called Dog Days (which would go on to win the festival’s Grand Jury Prize) “an acid portrait of contemporary Austria (and by extension, the whole middle-class) as unspeakably dull, violent and stupid,” before making the seemingly inevitable comparison to American Beauty. Yet, to these eyes, Seidl seems less to be satirizing society’s grotesqueries (à la Sam Mendes and Alan Ball) or unearthing, David Lynch–style, the hidden evils lurking beyond white picket fences than simply recording the ways people behave when they think no one else is watching. (Whereas most movies — and, for that matter, most “reality” TV — record the ways in which people behave when they think the whole world is watching.) And precisely because he hasn’t spent the two preceding hours carefully nudging us toward some elaborate, predetermined denouement, Seidl’s final images — particularly that of the two grieving parents as they sway mournfully on their child’s abandoned swing set in the middle of a warm summer rainstorm — affect us more meaningfully than any 10 Hollywood movies that purport to offer insight into the Sisyphean rigors of middle-class life. As in the oft-misunderstood films of his countryman Michael Haneke, what some detect as cruelty in Dog Days is in fact a bleak but deeply felt humanism — a yearning that we might all learn to better love our neighbors and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves.

 

Had Seidl not elected to call his film Dog Days, he might well have named it Struggle — a title instead bestowed by Ruth Mader on her own audacious debut feature, one of several Austrian films shown in the official selection of last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Its vision of a Polish immigrant’s new life in Austria is arguably bleaker than anything in Dog Days, and it will likely have to wait even longer than Seidl’s film to get a U.S. release (if it ever does). The movies are very much of a piece, however, in their use of a supremely self-contradictory voyeurism: By creating and maintaining a kind of antiseptic intimacy between the films and their audiences, Seidl and Mader both necessarily violate the zone of privacy they’ve established between themselves and their actors/subjects.

And they’re not the only two. The push-and-pull between heightened realism (what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth”) and exploitation is at the heart of an entire wave of recent Austrian films that have taken, as their whole or partial subject, this essential dilemma: how to survive in a culture where we are constantly consuming images that tell us how we should live our lives, or becoming the images ourselves. (There is also a certain predilection for using shopping malls as the locations for sex orgies, but that’s a discussion best held for another time.) This surveillance-camera cinema, at once detached and probing, is seen to good effect in Michael Haneke’s best-known film, The Piano Teacher, as well as in his earlier trilogy of movies (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) about the relationship between societal and media violence. It even helps to shape Barbara Albert’s big-hearted, if cynical, Free Radicals, the country’s official submission to this year’s foreign-language Oscar derby and — by Austrian standards — a downright touchy-feely crowd-pleaser.

The technique reaches its undeniable zenith, however, in Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s astonishing documentary Elsewhere (2001), which immerses us in the daily routines and rituals of some of the world’s last remaining tribal cultures, from Nigerian camel breeders to Greenlander fishermen to Australian Aborigines. Distilled into 12 20-minute segments, each shot in a different part of the world during a different month of the year 2000 and presented without the aid of voice-over narration, the movie is a potent and broad-minded assessment of life as it is lived today in places where mankind has long managed to survive sans the helping hand of modern technology or, indeed, of movies.

Collectively, these films are cause for excitement. I’m not sure that any other national cinema, of the many new or revitalized ones film festivals have “introduced” to us over the past few years, has proved itself as consistently stimulating and universally relevant or as fiercely committed to — as the title of a recent Austrian film series at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music put it — “Breaking Rules.” With any luck, one of our own local film-programming outfits will sooner rather than later follow BAM’s iconoclastic lead.

DOG DAYS | Directed by ULRICH SEIDL | Written by SEIDL and VERONIKA FRANZ | Produced by

HELMUT GRASSER and PHILIPPE BOBER | Released by Leisure Time Films | At the Nuart

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