Monday, December 23, 2013

Notes on two films by Frank Capra: Meet John Doe (1941) and It´s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe and It´s A Wonderful Life are probably the finest films by Frank Capra. At the same time the most optimistic examples of the solidarity of common people but as well his most fathomless films. Often attacked for his sentimentality including his faith in what we call the “American dream”, Capra is much more complex. It is also remarkable that Capra had quite a lot of very different admirers, the great documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls, one of the most important American independent filmmakers John Cassavetes, the Japanese director Yoji Yamada, John Ford or the Indian master Satyajit Ray. More or less the only afinity of Capra`s very special mixture of drama and comedy exists today only in the films by Japanese Yoji Yamada.
Yamada has in common with Capra that his “solidarity" with the common people were never really approved by critics influenced by left ideologies. Ideologies are blind and useless if it comes to Cinema.
Meet John Doe is at the first sight one of these films which were supposed to prepare America for the entrance in World War II. Other examples are Hangmen also die by Fritz Lang, To Be Or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch, The Great Dictator by Charles Chaplin or Foreign Correspondent by Alfred Hitchcock. It is remarkable that Meet John Doe is probably the only Anti Nazi-film in Hollywood where the danger of fascism has already reached America while especially The Great Dictator and To Be Or Not To Be leave the fascism in an Europe which was still engrossed by the still “neutral” America.
D.B. Norton is in several aspects a wannabe American Hitler and at the same time a representant of economical power, means something like Krupp and Hitler at the same time.
The most daring aspect in Capra´s film is the confrontation between a real solidarity of the people and how easy it can be abused by political interests. Today we know that one reason the German fascism could exist was the distortion of certain traditions. For examples the solidarity of the working class before the fascism was distorted into a pseudo people´s solidarity against Jews or communists and many other ethic and political minorities. For example the Nazis changed texts of traditional songs of the working movement into pure fascistic propaganda songs.
It is an oversimplification to say that Capra only focused on his idealized America because he always works with this distortion of the American dream and he always deals with the endangerment of this dream. Capra´s optimism can not exist without these moments of a total social danger.

To deal with film history means often to brush away the dust and to ask often the reputation these films once got. From these reputations often only the simplifications survive. The dynamic in the finest films by Capra is always between idealization and a sharp questioning of his vision of America. An often one dimensional  criticism was often chewing on Capra´s anticommunism, his conservatism or his seeming sentimentality. Meet John Doe has very disturbing moments and obvious hints to American sympathies for a fascistic state embodied by D.B. Norton and his nephew who wears a Nazi-like uniform.
Even more striking  - the front line between the usual American capitalism and the tendency to an authoritarian state is very thin – which is quite a lot for a director which was put carelessly in the conservative corner.

The John Doe-movement with all its national conventions, a kind of civil right movement against corruption and exploitation turns once near the end into its opposite. The solidarity of the masses turns here caused by manipulation into an angry mob. It is one of the most disturbing moment in Capra´s work. It was interpreted as a christian metaphor, a hint to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but an interpretation like so much written on Capra again a simplification. Meaningless to say that these often as conservative labelled masters John Ford and Frank Capra were the very few during the time of World War 2 with a vision of social reality in America.
From my very German perspective this moment is one of the most representative image of the Twentieth Century. In very few moments we see a quasi revolutionary movement is
changed and distorted into a dangerous mob. Except in the films by John Ford and Terrence Malick , the American dream never appeared on film more vulnerable than here. How this American dream turns into a nightmare has the unthinkable dimension how the post-revolutionary German in the 1920s turned into one of the most barbaric terror states in the history of mankind.
In a way Capra is much closer to more recent analyses of the phenomenon of fascism than it seems at the first view. Fascism is hidden overall as well in America and often under coziness.
After all Meet John Doe is one of Capra´s richest and most complex films. The seemingly naivety of Capra is nothing else than a wrong track. It should not be overlooked that between all the elements he played with, comedy, melodrama and sentimentality, there is often a sharpness.

It´s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Another irony about the oversimplified reputation of Capra as a conservative American: There is still an internal memorandum of the FBI (source Wikipedia) on this film which calls it “subversive communistic propaganda”.
The history of reception of this film is legendary. First a commercial disaster which ruined immediately the independent company by Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens “Liberty Films”. For years this, Capra´s most ambitioned film was forgotten and rediscovered in the 1970s because the copyright was expelled and TV stations could broadcast it for free. The fact that this film has now the reputation as one if not the most famous Christmas film has a long history. Like all of Capra´s masterpieces, It´s a Wonderful Life has as well a very disturbing part, if not one of the most scariest part in Capra´s work at all. Without any doubt it was this film which used all facets of James Stewart´s art of acting, the lovable average American but as well the frustrated small town man who looses one dream after another. The abyssal aspect of James Steart´s performances we will see later in Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Two Rode Together was established in his interpretation of George Bailey. Between a sometimes euphoric optimism, brooding depressive and sometimes even violent and self destructing character remains one of the finest performances by James Stewart.
It is among so much as well one of the great ensemble pieces in American Film history, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell or Lionel Barrymore ( who was already very sick) just to mention a few – created unforgettable characters. The film remains in the fictive small town Bedford Falls. George dreams to see the world fails always. He is stuck in this boring little town when he overtook the "Baily and Loan"-bank, a kind of alternative bank which gives small credits to underprivileged ordinary people. Even his honeymoon fails while his little bank is in a crisis.
In its narrative structure, It´s a Wonderful Life is Capra´s most unorthodox film. It begins with a lot of snow falling at Christmas eve over the sleepy little town. From the off we hear Gerorge´s friends and his family praying for him who is in danger to commit suicide. Than a fantastic and very burlesque moment when angels in form of stars discussing who has to sent down to help George. Unfortunately only a former clock maker is available who is not the brightest guardian angel at all. Joseph, one of the superior angels has to introduce this former clockmaker Clarence into George´s Life. What an idea:! The first hour of this film both angels watch George Bailey´s life until that crucial moment at Christmas eve 1946 like they watching a film with us. It is a kind of film in a film but also a compilation of all themes of previous films by Capra, his love for ordinary people who try to survive in a society which is dominated by money. Even part of Capra´s own history are reflected in a poor Sicilian immigrant who owns an own house with the support of the “Bailey and Loan”.
The second part connects with the overture.
One of the most heartbreaking moments takes place at Christmas eve, George comes home fill of despair, because the money of his bank disappeared which means probably prison for him. One of his daughters plays on a piano a simple Christmas song which goes on his nerves. This melody played on piano will appear in this euphoric final later but at the moment it seems to be sad. A big miniature bridge is built among the Christmas decoration. Yes, building bridges, air fields etc was always George´s dreams . All these dreams has failed, he never left this town. In that Moment George smashes this miniature bridge and parts of the decoration he smashes his own dreams. It is a subtle hint to his intention to destroy himself. When “saved” by his guardian angel”, the film turns again into burlesque and later in a very bizarre and surrealistic nightmare. Bailey sees for some times the world without him, a nightmarish town called after the greedy rich man who would have controlled Bedford Falls without the “Bailey and Loan”-Bank. It is the bleakest scene in Capra´s work. The people George used to know, can´t recognize him. The people, friends and even his mother are full of bitterness. His younger brother is in this parallel universe dead since childhood. We know that George saved his life when he was a kid, a kid which does not exist in this parallel world.
His wife became an old maid. This scene is an absurd balance act between burlesque and sometimes very disturbing nightmarish moments. James Stewart is now an Undead who have even never lived. It is night and even horror elements are for a moment the dominating aspect of this film. Even in a more formal abstract sense, It´s a Wonderful Life proofs once again that Capra can´t be labelled as a director of feel good films. Coziness, idyll can´t exist in a film by Capra without its reverse.
There might be a lot of possible explanations why this, without doubt one if not the finest film by Frank Capra was a commercial failure. It appears as Capra´s premature swan song, the summing up of all his previous work. It is an ambitious project but already made in a Hollywood which has nothing in common with the Hollywood Capra where was so successful.
As how in a lot of some of the greatest American films, It´s a Wonderful Life seems to consist of some different movements more structured like a symphony or an opera and far away from a straight told story. The film is one of the phenomenons in the history of American Cinema, a “sensitivity which is very American but very off-Hollywood” (David Fincher on Terrence Malick) and can be compared with films like Stroheim´s Greed, Welles´ The Magnificent Ambersons, Ford´s The Searchers or finally Malick´s The Tree of Life.
Yes, and finally the Happy End, the most euphoric in the history of American Cinema the most emphasized praise of the solidarity of the common people. It is moving not because it makes us happy but because it suggests as well that we have the right to be happy even for a moment.
The end is a reward we deserve after we went through a tour de force of all emotions possible in a human life
And there is a lot more to say about this film and maybe it had to happen that it is actually rediscovered in the 1970s after it was forgotten for decades. Maybe the distance of time is needed to open our eyes. It´s a Wonderful Life is despite all its heartwarming and funny moments as well often a very daring film. You have to dig in this film for getting the beauty of it.
I am quite happy with the fact that It´s a Wonderful Life became in the last 10 years a traditional Christmas tradition for me, probably the most moving Christmas song cinema ever created.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Friday, November 29, 2013

A fictive Letter to Terrence Malick

photo: Thérèse Gonzalez

Dear Mr. Malick,

while I write this letter to you, I am aware that we probably will never meet.
I am aware that you do not know me and probably never will.

But for some years and especially since I saw your wonderful The Tree of Life around 16 times, I feel the need to express my gratitude for your films.

Not only as a cinephile and as a critic - no – as well as a person who owes you some of the greatest moments I ever experienced in Cinema.
I am talking about something which is beyond what we call great art, great cinema, something beyond wonderful images or great cinematic poetry: I am talking of authenticity.

I am aware that a film like The Tree of Life took an immense part of your (life)-time, a lot of work and the need of all what the technical apparatus of film making offers. Every gesture, every image appear to me – first of all – appear to me as really lived and felt and all my awareness of this technical apparatus of fimmaking disappears in these moments. I do not know if I shall say I watched your films or if it is more accurate to say “I lived your films”.

Before 2005, quite a lot of friends tried me to convince watching your films. Until 1999 when The Thin Red Line was screened in the competition of the Berlin Film festival, I didn´t even know your name despite I was quite familiar with the rarest names of films from India, China, Japan or even Vietnam. Well, it was a time when I was quite a very dogmatic cinephile and I avoided almost everything which came from the more recent American Cinema.

Some years passed by and I bought the DVD of The Thin Red Line as a birthday gift for a friend and before I wrapped it in gift paper, I watched it.
I was impressed but not yet passionate.
A year later, I bought for the same friend Days of Heaven on DVD and watched it again before wrapping it as a gift. I came another small step closer, at least close enough to look forward to the screening at the Berlin Film festival of The New World in 2006.
I remember also the Berlin Film festival 2004 when a Japanese lady who is a friend of mine talked about the screening at the retrospective "New Hollywood” of Days of Heaven where you surprisingly appeared after the screening. With shining eyes she told me about the enthusiastic standing ovations after the screenings. I got aready an idea that I have probably missed something.

I think it was February 12, 2006 at the Berlinale Palast, the press screening of The New World early in the morning at 9am. Even though I hate this hall (which is not a real film theater) I sat in the 7. row close enough to the screen. Beside me this Japanese lady and her boyfriend. I can´t say that I was prepared in any kind. I remember only that this film moved me from the first to the last minute. And even as I am known for my very emotional reactions during watching a film, it happened seldom that I could not stop crying the whole time of a screening. I did not only felt like having seen a pure cinematic masterpiece, I felt rather having had an encounter and - yes -  for the first time I understood the sentence about the “one big soul” in The Thin Red Line. Even though you are a filmmaker which means always you depend on the technical devices and on the division of work of film making, I felt the presence of a very delicate and as well vulnerable person, a feeling which always hunted me. 
I remember one of the aspect which moved me deeply was the strange chemistry between the fluid handeheld camera movements and the movements of Pocahontas/Kilcher like a kind of balett between the technical apparatus of film making and a human being. This kind of delicacy and vulnerability I have only see before in the films of the great Bengal filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976).

Finally you got me. You didn´t only conquered my cinephile heart, you won my heart just as a human being. From the moment I heard you were working on The Tree of Life, the following years were a very long waiting stressing my patience to its limits.

In the same year when The New World was released, I made my first trip to India. I had a talk with an Indian Muslim critic who compared your films with Sufi-poetry, a thought on which I do not want to fix your last films but which was always a big inspiration for me. But in India I thought about Jean Renoir and without knowing what your Tree of Life will be about, I always have to think about you when I remember this trip.
Renoir said once (obviously under the impression of his journey to India where he made The River) how he was moved by the way, "Indians tried to touch him". Later in one of the films on him of the serie Les Cineastes de notre Temps, he tells Michel Simon: “The soul is not in the head or in the heart but directly under the skin” - a thought which will hit me through the full power some years later when the big black woman consoles Jessica Chastain at the funeral scenes with her mighty hands.

Some years passed by and finally there was hope when your film was selected for the Cannes Film festival 2011. I got angry when I read the unbearable cynical  reviews on your film. The closing ceremony I followed through an internet TV channel. When Robert de Neiro pronounced the Golden Palm for The Tree of Life I was very glad. Not that I care very much for festival awards, but this time I thought it was important - not only for your film but also for Cinema in general.

"Do you allow the song to sing you or do you try to sing the song" (Greil Marcus on Van Morrison´s "Madame George" in "When that rough god goes riding"

Finally there was the day of the press screening, two weeks before the release in Germany:
I thought installing myself among the first 4 rows for having a bit privacy in case I get emotional. But it was full crowded. All what I felt during this Berlin Festival screening of The New World came back but even stronger. The moment when this big black woman touches the hands of jessica Chastain is burnt in my memory. I could sense it even physically.
I watched it another 6 times in theatres and until today another 9 times on DVD or Blue ray.
I exhausted myself in too much controversy discussion, if in Internet forums or even among the circles around my own film magazine. For nearly half a year there was no other film, only this one. I began to calm down in the heat of the many discussions I participated only the day when the Fipresci pronounced The Tree of Life as the film of the year and I felt glad that it was accompanied by this wonderful text by Adrian Martin “Great Events and ordinary people”.

I know it sounds very absurd and it is probably my own business, but whenever I discussed the film with others, I did not felt just the need to express my opinion defending a masterpiece – I always felt the absurd idea to "protect" the work of a person very dear to me.

Except the films by Ritwik Ghatak I knew only the feeling to have “understood” a film. The films by Ritwik Ghatak and yours belong to the films where I felt they understood me.
And what your films have in common with the films of Ritwik Ghatak is also that I never felt I have discovered them for myself. They never confirmed the thing we call “knowledge about cinema”.
They came and they touched me. These films discovered me and there is nothing I could do about.

The same with your wonderful To The Wonder, which becomes more and more one of my favorites after The Tree of Life. Just to mention the beautiful light, a light I have never seen before in cinema and I doubt I will see it ever again in my life in any other film.

I can´t say I am somewhat like an expert of your films. Until now I never bothered about the often mentioned influences of Heidegger in your films whose books  I never read until now. My personal access to your films was a fortunate accident and your films seem like a gift.
I see now a lot in Cinema with another point of view.
I have to thank you again for this.

Godard once said that films are always documentaries about the visible things in this world.
In your films I even feels the matter where we all are built of.
I think since Jean Renoir very few filmmakers have celebrated the results of the phenomenon we call creation or formation like you.
Your films are about both: Body and Soul or better – your films are made of Body and Soul.
I feel the love for this visible matter of the world in all your films.
I feel the tenderness for all the creatures appearing in your films if they are actors with names like Linda Manz, Nick Nolte, James Caviezel, Q´Orianka Kilcher, jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Olga Kurylenko, Hunter McCracken to mention only some of them. A bird, a cat, a dog, a tree, even for your dinosaurs in The Tree of Life I feel this deep love for all living creatures.
In your films I fell “the love that loves us”

Moments of your films are always coming back to me, sometimes suddenly.
The big black woman who tries to console the mourning Jessica Chastain with her mighty hands still hunts and will always hunt me.
The nakedness in the face of Brad Pitt after his factory is closed, the face of Jessica Chastain after a telegram informs her about the death of her son, the despair of Q´Orianka Kilcher after she is uprooted from her culture, the last shot with Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line, the face of Olga Kurylenko, the moment in The Tree of Life when the mourning phrases of the mother turn into this incredible chapter about the formation of the world.

I wish you all the best, health, happiness and strength.
I wish you that all the love you put in your work will be rewarded.
I do not know if you care about your birthday, but I will raise a glass on you.

With all my gratitude and my best wishes

Rüdiger Tomczak (editor of the filmmagazine shomingeki)

photo:  Thérèse Gonzalez

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Notes on Redfern, Trang Nguyen, Germany/Australia: 2012

“The greatness of Cinema is that it is dammed to the modesty of photography” (Jean-Marie Straub)

First of all, Redfern is a photo film. If I am not mistaken – a short moment of floating clouds is the only part of the film with moving images.
The sound and the images are complementing each other but keep a kind of autonomy.
Trang Nguyen´s film is both, a formalistic work and at the same time an amazing precise portrait of a small community, a community of uprooted people in Redfern, a part of Sydney. Most of them are descends of Aborigines, those native Australians who are now a minority of around 2 percent of the whole population.
Even though the film tells about a community which is in danger to disappear, lost their language or got named by the British with false names, it is more a film about people who begin to reconstruct their history fragment by fragment.
The film arises from two seemingly opposites, images which does not allow at all the illusion of moving images and a soundtrack which moves through these collection of single images like a river.. What we will remember are faces of people, places in this quarter called Redfern and the stories of some people who went through drug addiction, alcoholism or other sufferings.
As the films seems to be a re-construction of a journey the filmmaker once made. It is also about a community which tries to reconstruct the history of the people´s culture including the personal stories of its members.
What the film in its strange beauty evokes in the dreams and hopes of these people comes from the people and things the film reveals itself. I feel a bit reminded in the pioneers of Cinema like the Lumiere brothers, sometimes in one of the central ideas of André Bazin (that the beauty unfolds in the things itself) but as well in the seismographic sensibility and tenderness in her view to the people like a Yasujiro Ozu. That Trang Nguyen seems at the first sight to take everything away from what we call Cinema – it has no other effect than finally offering us pure cinema.

Redfern, once an important industry region in Australia is now in a bad state, drug dealing, high unemployment and a high crime rate. The remains of industrial buildings witnesses the disgrace of landscapes and people. The uprooting of the aborigines once hired as cheap labors is part of it.
These uprooted people are now abandoned, lost. But Trang Nguyen´s Redfern tells also about how this uprooted and abandoned people begin to find back their place in the world.
In an environment of destruction, neglect and despair, the film shows people who resist in their vitality and in their hope and their dreams.
Trang Nguyen´s perception is without the smallest trace of sentimentality but she also never betrays the hopes and dreams of these people.
Actually Redfern consists of the film we see and the film which is evoked in our head. The soundtrack creates another space than these single photographs. Even though this film is as well a work of montage, the final editing will take place in our imagination.
I saw this film now three times and it becomes more beautiful with each watching. Call it another minimalistic approach if you like but I have doubts if it is the correct definition. Redfern has this strange beauty of abandoned industry landscapes where once abandoned there will be grow plants and flowers which were supposed to be lost. To recognize a sense of beauty in this disgraced landscapes, Trang Nguyen´s “minimalism” is nothing else than an instrument to focus on the essential. I can hardly believe that this film which evoked so much thoughts, ideas and feelings in me about the world, the people and last but not least cinema – is just 30 minutes long. I am looking forward to see her next films.

Rüdiger Tomczak

more about Trang Nguyen at her website

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Notes on a 70mm-screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a very special film theatre called Grand Film Palast in Essen, Germany.

This cinema hall was easy to reach. Once you arrived at Essen main station, you cross the street and enter a shopping street. Walk straight and after ca 10 minutes turn left. You recognize the Grand Palast easily. You see the backside of the mighty big screen, an arched wall.

This film theatre is turned long time ago, I think that must have been the end of the 1980s, into a Varieté theatre. The Grand Film Palast was a relict from the last try of cinema to fight television. In Essen, the neighbor city of my hometown Bochum had even two big cinema halls with the capacity of projecting 70mm. The other one,  "Europa! which is as well closed since a long time has even a bigger screen than Grand Palast, but my dreams about cinema halls with big screens belong rather to this Grand Palast, not only it had the clearer sound.
Unforgettable was , I think it was May 1978, the screening of Stanley Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm. It was a re-release of this film which started like a commercial disaster and ended up as the greatest achievement the science fiction film ever had – until today.
I remember that even the advertising and trailers which took only a part of the big screen seemed to me already monumental.
Then the lights was dimmed, the heavy curtain slides open endless slow until the full screen size and we hear the “overture” of Kubrick´s film, György Ligeti, „Atmospheres“. After that the light went completely out and the film began, in a projection I never saw before and since, including the closing screening of this film at the Berlin Film festival 2001 which was also in 70 mm but projected on a screen much too small for this film.
I also have to say that the big inwards arched screen of the Grand Palast had a three dimensional effect on me, I never experienced again. The less spectacular scenes of this film, I could enjoy for the first time.
I have seen this film nearly 20 times, but it will always be connected with the two times I saw it in this special film theatre.
Well my passion for this film cooled off quite a bit in the last 30 years, but this film experience remained one of the greatest I ever had, because this film was projected in exactly the way it should be. Just a few years later, film theatres preferred projecting the cheaper 35mm versions of films originally recorded on 65mm matter and especially the prints of this film from the 1980s were horrible.

I have not visited this film theatre too often, what I regret today very much. Dounglas Trumbulls The Brainstorm Project (70 mm), The Right Stuff by Philip Kaufman (70mm) and also David Lynch´s Dune in 35mm Cinema scope and a few others. I can not believe I have missed Lawrence of Arabia which was screened there around 1984.

It is remarkable that a lot of these film theatres with big screens and with the ability of projecting 70mm have been closed, turned into something else or are even demolished like the other film theatre in Essen, Europe or two of three of the most beautiful film theatres in Berlin, Kosmos, Gloria (just a few year after its modernisation) and the Royal which had with its 400 square metres screen the biggest arched screen in the world.
What can be more symbolic that the re-release of 2001 in May 1978 was just a few months before the german release of the first Star Wars film. A film like star wars you can even see on your laptop and you can be sure there is no detail you miss, even its Cinema scope format is decoration, nothing more.

Of course the idea of the industry in using 70 mm on big screens was a cinema of overwhelming. The high costs of shooting and finally projecting in 70 mm made this format never to a real Standard in the industry. Even worse, a lot of films shot in 70 mm were hardly projected in this format – especially films with a lot of artistic ambitions like Masaki Kobayashi´s Kaidan, Akira Kurosawa´s Dersu Uzala, Jacques Tait´s Playtime, Terrence Malick´s Days of Heaven, Luchino Visconti´s Il Gattopardo and a lot more. 70 mm-film projection is now something for the film museums or special film festivals.

What was so special in that very evening in May 1978 was how the whole architecture and the technical advanced equipment of the cinema hall and Kubrick´s masterpiece came together.
70 mm was as the expectation of Kubrick´s investors first of all commercial interests. Kubrick used this investments in the most subversive kind one can imagine and like one critic wrote it is the „most expensive avantegarde film ever made“. The 70 mm projection of this film reveals the physical illusion of a space travel, the most – at least on the surface – attractive element of the film. At the same time Kubrick and all the possibilities of the technical apparatus, the high expensive 70mm format included reveals as well a disillusioned effect of space travels to come. A travel from earth to moon can be as boring as along distant flight (which were around 1968 by far not as much frequented like today). A 70 mm-projection of this film reveals both: the attraction of a space travel but as well its uncomfortable part, this confusion of the senses which conditioned for gravity and the awareness that a few kilometres above the earth men are lost without a lot of technical devices. Just to use a toilet in a space ship means you have to study a very long manual, one of the details you can really only realize on a big screen. Is there a more depressing moment in Cinema when one of the astronauts tries to repair an antenna, depending on his space suit? His breathing is one of the most disturbing sound effects ever used in this genre. And even though Kubrick had exactly 6 sound tracks, he sometimes works with moments of total silence.

I remember the famous star gate sequence which is as fascinating (in all its 70 mm glory) but as well very disturbing. It is relative uninteresting for me that 2001 is for a good reason praised as one of the finest technical achievements in the history of cinema and it does not matter much for me that until today the standards of special effects was set by this film. More interesting is how he has used the whole technical apparatus – including the awareness that this film will also be projected on screens between 200 and 400 square metres. He brings two elements together in Cinema which are often called to be opponents: the overwhelming and the reflective element.
In 1978 2001 was far away from being that iconic masterpiece as what it is known today. Just 10 years after its premiere t was still much more controversial discussed than today. The Grand Palast was well packed, considering that it was already a 10 years old film, a re release which would be impossible today, not to mention a re release in 70 mm.

What brought this film theatre back in my mind – and especially a screening of a film which was my favorite film until my early Twenties, which I still respect a lot but with much less passion than I used to feel for it?
Today most of contemporary and old films which mean a lot to me I see on festivals, in retrospectives – and the films which are available for me only on DVD or Blue ray like the films by Aparna Sen, Hou hsiao Hsien etc.The last three films by Terrence Malick which I saw in cinemas right at the time when they were released are exceptions. I had to hurry to see To The Wonder several times in a theatre, because it disappeared very soon. Even though my horizon changed a lot since the 1970s especially since the crush I had for 2001 and Barry Lyndon.
But there is the difference. I was not only lucky to see these films on the big screen, I had also no other choice. Video was not yet a mass medium. When I saw films like from one of my favorite contemporary filmmaker Aparna Sen which I probably will never see on a big screen as a theatrical release in my country I always try to imagine how this film would appear in a real film theatre.The same goes for Hou Hsiao Hsien, Dang Nhat Minh, Anjan Dutt, Yoji Yamada - and a lot more. Today I try to imagine these films in some of the film theatres which are only existing in my dreams now.
I do not want to complain on DVD or Blue ray I saw a lot of films in a better (often restored) version than in some film theatres and even more – I have access to much more films than before.
And I am sure in a not too far future one can build up his own home cinema in high quality in sound and image. But it will never be the same.

This screening of 2001, 1978 in one of the most beautiful film theatres I ever saw in my life was both , an amazing personal experience but I witnessed as well a part of film history. The film itself which turned from a very controversy discussed film into a cult film exactly in this 10 years after its premiere and the practice of 70 mm projections which was already disappearing in the 1970s in theatrical releases. The architecture of the Grand Palast which must be from the late 1950s to the early 1960s is as well disappearing. It was probably the first epoch in the history of film theatres when the industry set up high standards for sound and image technique, but strangely these kind of cinema halls died earlier than some theatres which already existed longer.
This very screening 2001 was at the right time and at the right place. In my memory 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Grand Palast in Essen was a happy marriage of a masterpiece of a film and a masterpiece of architecture.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Notes on the lost film theatre Atlantis, Bochum

For T.

The picture above is the only visual document I have found. “Atkantis” was one of the typical names for cinema halls, the “Atlantis” from my home town Bochum deserves this name for more than one reason. It exists only in my memory and if my memory does not betray me, it was one of the most beautiful film theatres I aver visited. Built 1957/58 it was the technical most advanced film theatre in this city. That was the time when Cinema fought with Cinema scope, 70 mm and Vista Vision against the competition of Television.
Even though I am grown up in the 1960s where already the first wave of the extinction of Cinema halls took place. Every second Super market was once a film theatre.

I was around 14 when I watched in the “Atlantis” Planet of the Apes, The Time Machine (a film which was already shown on TV but which amazed me in all its glory, vista vision and in colors). The big inwards arched screen gave me the possibility to enjoy first time in my life Cinema scope. Very few film theatres today offer this pleasure of watching a film in Cinema scope or 70 mm. These are formats which are wastes when the big screen is not arched at all. The “Atlantis” was by far the finest cinema hall for these formats. Later I saw films like Papillon and Logan´s Run, Films which are only available on DVD but just the memory to have seen these films in the right cinema hall helps me even today to remember the glory of these films.
The “Atlantis” had once around 800 seats. Later they built in the first floor a movie hall called “Atelier” and after 1976 when the “Atlantis was renovated a small film theatre was as well included, the name unfortunately escaped me.
Just 6 years later and I think Stanley Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of if not the last film screened there. Soon after the “Atlantis” was closed forever. A Super market replaced it and just the name of a pharmacy beside the former cinema hall called “Atlantis-Apotheke” reminds on the name of a destructed film theatre.
Such things happen all around the world, if in the USA, India or even the most cinephile country in the world France.
Film theatres are no protected cultural monuments which is one of the most dramatic mistake in the culture of the Twentieth Century. When the “Atlantis” was closed down forever, my other favorite film theatre in Bochum “Bali” was also closed but reopened 1985 under a new name “Metropolis”.

I remember the red seats and the entrance of the “Atlantis”which was like a secret path into a hidden paradise. During summer holidays they showed each day at 11 in the morning films for young people for less than one Euro. That were the most beautiful hours I spent in my youth. The triste every day of my working class family, the already beginning worries what to do after school disappeared for 2 hours completely. And when I attended these screenings at the “Atlantis” with my younger sister or my youngest brother, we walked home very slow, trying to safe the film experience as long as we could against the grey every day. Well, as I was far away from knowing all the great films I love today, Ozu, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Terrence Malick etc, I never really got rid of this fascination for a magic which really is a combination of the film I watched there and the architecture, the big screen and the feeling to be in a completely different world.
“The Atlantis” was one of the cinema halls where I learned seeing films. Recently I watch from time to time some films which I saw there at the first time in my life on screen like Schaffner´s Planet of the Apes, Michael Anderson´s or George Pal´s The Time Machine. While the first two films were at that time contemporary films in an aesthetic which almost disappeared at the same time like this wonderful film theatre, Pal´s film was already shown several times on TV and like in most families at that time in black and white and in the wrong aspect ratio. In a way the “Atlantis “screening of The Time Machine
gave me an idea about the fascination the film must have had for the people who watched it around 1960. When I dream about cinema halls, the “Atlantis” which is even more lost than the legendary continent come often back to me. The films which occupy my passion about cinema today like those from Aparna Sen, Terrence Malick or Hou Hsiao Hsien – or even the wonderful films by Vietnamese Dang Nhat Minh which were never released in my country – are screened in this cinema hall and I am sitting on one of the red seats looking at this mighty big screen.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Notes on Coffee in Winter, Manjeet S. Gill, England: 2013

Manjeet S. Gill called his film openly as a film “inspired by the films by Hou Hsiao Hsien”. Which reminds me in the long obsession I had in the Nineties for his films, especially his trilogy and until his last and very underrated masterpiece Kohi Jikou (Cafe Lumiere).
And especially Kohi Jikou, Hous homage to Yasujiro Ozu is a good key to Gills film.
How to live in the world of images of a director one admirers? Hous Ozu-Hommage has nothing to do with just quotations of images, it was a love declaration of a director to another despite all differences and from an own personal perspective. If Hou as a Taiwanese or Manjeet S. Gill as a british with Indian roots, both films have an own unique way od revealing their admiration for Ozu and respectively Hou.

There is also another more recent film which comes to my mind, the Edward Hopper-Homage , Shirley-Visions of reality by Austrian Gustav Deutsch whose films is divided in 13 scenes all based on a certain painting by Hopper. Manjeet S. Gills long takes are not based on easy recognizable moments from the films by Hou Hsiao Hsien but his it also does not stop at pure admiration and transforms influences into an explicit personal and vital cinematic kind.

At the first sight, very few happens in the long sequences, the film is built of. But very soon the film reveals itself as a very tight meditation of both, fragments of human lives and cinematic images.

The prologue which looks like an audition shows two of the main characters Kim and Rod introducing themselves. Even though the film is fictive I have to think what German Rudolf Thome once said about his films as “documentaries where we watch actors working”.

The story is rather a situation which unfolds itself from scene to scene. Rod, a man of Indian origins quits his job and studies photography while his wife earns now alone their living. During classes he meets a younger German students whose enthusiasm seems to be an inspiration for him who tries to escape his triste every day life as an adult and his obligations in family traditions and expectations others have in him.
Rod and Kim work together on their photos and meet more and more often for dinners and drinks. The film is not only structured in long and almost entirely static sequences but as well in single situations which keep its own independence from the plot – which is probably another affinity to the films by Hou and last but not least by Ozu.This sequences, very often separated from each other by long fade outs and black leader. The more we find orientation in these composition of sequences the more we are enabled to connect and re-edit the film in our imagination.
One of the layers of the film is reflected near the end: The films is among many other things as well about making images, collect and select them and bring it in order like Kim and Rod do for their exhibition.
Like Ozu and Hou, the connection between the sequences – even though a result of the director´s decision – seems to happen by itself. It is a bit like André Bazin once wrote about a film by Jean Renoir, that “we feel for moments a fleeting and temporary privilege to see the reality of the things.

That life is not one story but a whole universe of them we could see in Ozu´s most beautiful film Bakushu, and idea which stayed with me since a long time. The single little stories the sequences of Coffee in Winter are telling remain in my memory. One of these moments is a seeming banal sequence . Hema and Rod are sitting on the couch, side by side. The spectator´s point of view is strange. We see them in front of us, but they are sitting and we are standing like guests who are not yet allowed to take a seat. Another moment is as subtle as intense. One night, Rod comes home late at night. His wife is already sleeping. He sits on the bed and looks at his sleeping wife – for a very long time. As cinema can not reveal what a person thinks we at least get an idea that he is reflecting about something which moved him without being able to put the finger on that. A strange and touching moment.
When he talks with Kim, they exchange experiences, family stories, attitudes and decisions made or not made by cultural conditions. Sometimes it seems to me Rod moves between his home and his excursions with Kim like a spectator between his every day life and the longing and promises evoked by a film. These two poles seem to me also two very elementary poles in Cinema at all.

As soon as one gets adapted to the slow pace of the film and the long sequences, the film seem to be filled with fleeting moments of beauty, traces of happiness. A lot of farewells between Kim and Rod take place at bus stations or tram stations. A tram departs and people are again separated. Each of them has to return to their own lives.
That remembers me in Ozu´s wonderful swan song Samma no aji where the little escapes of a lonely widows ends always again in his house and his every day life.

Finally, when Rod and Kim watch their photos and select them for the exhibition, we see finally the images they made in a frame, hanging on a wall. They seem to be very engrossed and even more fleeting moments now conserved. When they look at them, they look at fragments of a lost world.

The last shot we see them from behind, drinking coffee and watching at a big building like watching at a big screen.

It is not our business anymore if Rod and Kim are lovers or not. As we witnessed fragments from their life for a limited time we have to get back to our own business. The last shot reveals the very special intense of how Hou is leaving his films, this caesura between between a film as images of fragments of life to our own.
Coffee in Winter brings a lot together, a homage to Hou Hsiao Hsien and finally a love declaration for Cinema. But as love is a very personal affair, this film is much more than a homage, a personal reflection incarnated in a strange and beautiful cinematic poem.

Rüdiger Tomczak

More about Manjeet S. Gill and the Black Country Cinema  

Monday, October 14, 2013

An Afternoon in Abries with a masterpiece called Thuong Nho Dong Que (Nostalgia for the Countryland) by Dang Nhat Minh

For T.

This text is a translation from a review, published in shomingeki No. 4, June 1997 with added comments.

The rice fields are shining greenish golden. Nham, a 17 years old boy works with others in a brickworks. We see how he works, how he sweats and how he moans because of this strain. After the work he lays down on the bricks which are ready to be burnt. The others, exhausted as well are gathering to relax. The money he earned for this hard work he passes to his sister in law. He walks home and the rice field is filling now the whole frame of the image. The film is especially about the planting and harvesting of the rice fields. The kind he picks up a rice spike and how he chews on it is referential. He is looking to the blue sky where a plane is flying.

Nhams father has died in the war. He is living with his mother, his little sister and his sister in law Ngu together. His brother (Ngu´s husband), moved away looking for work to earn his living. Form time to time Ngu receives a letter from him in which he informs her that his return will be postponed, a half hearted promise.
Nham loves poems and works with his family in the rice fields. There is an unspoken love between him and his sister in law. His over voice comments suggest that everything we see is already past. As a sensitive adolescent he resemble Harriet in Jean Renoir´s The River. He experiences in comical and sad episodes the life of this rural community. Seemingly banal episodes interfuse this subjective narration.
A Television  antenna is installed of the roof of one of the few houses with a TV. Children are mocking about a fashion parade broadcasted in Television. A pig walks through the kitchen. Villagers are talking about how life might be in the big cities. Seemingly banal events grow on the edges of the film´s story. It seems the point of view of the directors is like an excited child which is so absorbed by all these
neglibilities around Nham´s story.

Nham goes by bike to the station to pick up a niece of his neighbour. This niece has left Vietnam many years before. Sometimes the camera follows him close, another time his drive is observed from the distance. Once the point of view is absorbed by movement, the next time the cinematic space is shallowed and emphasizes the two dimensions of an image.

Quyen the homecoming niece returns to the village of her childhood. She wears sun glasses and differs so much from the people in this village like a foreigner. She tells that she has left the country to escape her husband. Later, she was in a refugee camp in Hong Kongwhere she married for a short time an American for leaving this camp. It is a clear hint to the tragedy of the Vietnamese Boat People who had to leave Vietnam. This village appears sometimes almost like an utopian place where the joys and sufferings of a whole country is gathering, a widow mourning about her husband who dies in the war, the Vietnamese who returned from a foreign country and who is dreaming from her childhood. It is about a return to the earth in a world of technical progress which intervades only in small signs. Quyen, the stranger is rediscovering her home village but at the same times as well her own alienation from her native home.

Last time I saw this film for the 32. time with my friend T. In Abries. I felt that in this nearly two hours I showed a big part of my life. My passion for this films which stayed with me for 16 years includes my love for the films by Ozu Ford and Renoir and – I just discovered it recently – it prepared myself for the wonders in the films by Terrence Malick. The same love for the sensual visible world like Renoir and Malick, the same kind how our point of view is absorbed by the things we see. And yes – long before I even knew the name of Terrence Malick, it was the first film where I sensed the “one big soul” all late masterpieces by Terrence Malick are telling about.

I was strangely moved in the kind how people are touching things or touching their hairs. The technique of the films seems to retrait itself in front of the things it reveals. Sometimes a glance rambles to a river where a boat is driving or where children are swimming. Another time we see plants moved by the wind. Images in European Cinema like that I only knew from another masterpiece by Jean Renoir: Une Partie de Campagne.
Even the identity of Nham the narrator seems to be absorbed in his encounters with the stories of others and especially in his own sensual experiences. In one scene he looks secretly at Quyen who is bathing in the the river. He takes her clothes and begin to smell them. When Quyen sees him, he is scared and disappears in the fields.

Another extraordinary moment in this film. I forgot to mention the most important. The moment Nham takes the shirt of Quyen who swims naked in the river, he closes his eyes. And even his action seems to be caused first by a sexual excitement, the expression in his face has as well something of a silent prayer at the same moment. This is probably one of the most earnest erotic scene in the history of Cinema.

A ritual festival, dedicated to the ancestors with prayers and ritual dances. In the evening a wonderful puppet show will be performed with men who move the puppets from behind a curtain in a pond and who let the puppet dance on the water. We see the fascinated glances of children and adults. In these moments I do not think in the cultural context of this beautiful performance to a culture strange to me. I remember the first puppet show I have seen in my life.

There are two moments which are burnt into my memory, strong moments which remind me that the true meaning of the term eroticism always means the biggest respect in the creation. Ngu, the lonely sister in law hugs Nham in a moment of despair. He answers this hugging. The remain for a while hugging each other. Suddenly Ngu is scared by Nhams ejaculation and takes her arms from his body. We see Nham and how he is surprised feeling the sperm on his fingers.
In another scene Nham and his sister in law discovering on a field a nest with new born birds. Ngu pets them and touches their beaks with her tongue. She smiles and sings an old Vietnamese folk song and is absorbed by this encounter like a child. In Dang Nhat Minh´s film there is always a physical sensation for the caressing of living bodies.

One of the most remarkable aspect in this film is Nham´s gender role. He is grown up almost only among women (men appear only as dead and gone or an uncle who is considered as a failure), small girls, young women, old women. His sexual awakening, one of the central elements of each films in this sub genre “Coming of age-film is connected with this subtle violence who finally puts Nham in his gender role the civilisation dictates him. The military service which follows directly his adolescence is quite a very sharp nobservation for this very gentle film. Finally what distinguishes Nham from his sister in law from his mother and the beautiful Quyen seems to be less biological than a social code.

Drunken truck drivers cause the death of two little girls, among them Nham´s little sister. The death invades with sudden violence into the world of this sensitive boy. From now on the film will be a long and eternal sad farewell. In a vision, Quyen who is waiting at the railway station for her departure, sees a boat where the two dead girls are waving to her. She says goodbye to Nham. A long time he looks after the departing train. Home is for him something concrete a sensual sensation. For Queyen the exile Vietnamese with the sad smile it is nothing more than a lost dream.

Nham gets his draft into military service. Sitting on a truck he writes following sentences on a paper: My name is Nham. I am missing my village. But I will return none day. He throws the paper into the lands ape. In another shot we see the heavy wheels of the truck on a plastered street which separates him and his beloved earth. The paper he wrote, is floating through the air. Nham´s declaration of love to his native village is lost. We see Ngu on a rice field. With the clothes and her dress protected against sun and the sharp edges of the plants she is bent over doing the hard work on which the life of the whole village depends on. Suddenly the image freezes.

Thuong Nho Dong Que is a remarkable film. Except some very few artificial moments and a few shots I almost have forgotten its form. There is so much tenderness and attention to details that every approach of analysis must fail What I have seen and what I almost believed to have touched seems to me like a personal memory for which I have to find a form for myself.
The miracle of this film is that it evokes the longing to rediscover this world with all senses of my body.

And yes, this text is written before this film became an obsession for me. I saw it just a few time when I wrote this text. Even though I saw it 32 times, I am not yet finished with this film and I never will. It came back when I saw The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. The film came back when I saw Robert Mulligan´s wonderful The Man in the Moon – and this film is a very close relative of Jean Renoir´s masterpiece The River.
It is one of these films which became a part of life and there is nothing I can do about.

Rüdiger Tomczak