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