Monday, Feb 20, 16:46 CET. Potsdamer Platz.
“Many (if not all) critics tend to fall into two categories, which might be called the Big Game Hunters and the Explorers. The Big Game (read: masterpiece) Hunters are basically out for trophies to possess, stuff, and hang on their walls; the Explorers usually poke around simply to see what they find.
If the Hunters are mainly concerned with what Farber has called White Elephant Art — monoliths, like Kubrick’s in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that leave lasting traces — the Explorers are more drawn to Farber’s contrasting category of Termite Art, which “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
Whenever I attend a film festival, these words of Jonathan Rosenbaum rattle around my mind.
For such a lowly critic as I, unhampered by print deadlines and with the relative freedom to write about the films of my own choosing, the choices I make as a route through the asphalt jungle of Berlin become a confrontation with my own taste. Since Carlo Chatrian took over as Berlinale Artistic Director in 2019, his major structural change has been the inclusion of the Encounters section. Considered the second-rung on the programme hierarchy, this is a space for established contemporary filmmakers with a broader reach than Arsenal’s experimental Forum section, but whose works might be considered too avant-garde for the main Competition. Though this is a uniformly unmissable section, it has had the undesirable effect of permitting competition spaces to be taken up by examples of ‘national cinema’, star-driven films to add some ‘Hollywood Glamour’, and most terrifying of all, feel-good festival fare. Maybe this was the plan all along.
This year, filmmakers including Bas Devos, Lois Patiño, and Hong Sang-soo brought large-scale or cutting-edge works to Encounters. Shouldn’t their work be considered worthy of the main slate? I’m asking because in a world where most festival-attending cinephiles will know the work from filmmakers up and down the programme, perhaps the foundations of Rosenbaum’s Hunter/Explorer have been flipped. From conversations I have had here, it seems that Claire Simon trumps Spielberg. Perhaps the big-game trophies are found in the forum strand, while the muck and mire of the Competition or Special screenings is where those rarefied termites reside.
I believe in the hunter and explorer dynamic, because film festival writing is travel writing. And there is no form of tourism lazier than the film festival excursion. Through corporate sponsorship, venue partners, and unimaginative town planning, festival organisers and their colleagues at the town hall will use the event to plan a route for audiences around their city.
Berlinale is a prime example of this. With press screenings largely taking place at the Potsdamer Cinemaxx, a 19 (sic) screen multiplex in the heart of Berlin’s financial district, delegates are encouraged to spend their time (and cash, always cash) at amenities such as Dunkin’ and Vapiano. The new shopping centre is open! The old shopping centre is across the road. To find a decent bar, or even a proper kebab, one must catch a train. So Alonso, as you navigate The Grey City, has your compass made a hunter or an explorer out of you?
Tuesday, Feb 21, 01:52 CET. A hotel room near Gleisdreieck Park.
As my IFFR field notes might attest, for me, film festivals are perhaps the most literal embodiment of media voraciousness, not only due to the sheer amount of features being logged, but also for how our own predatory nature comes to the forefront. What Rosenbaum posits in that quote does seem to be at least a very general approximation of the most prevalent attitudes in this strange environment where art, advertisement and discourse all seem to collide.
Sadly, the side you find yourself on rarely has to do with individual conviction or even your own volition, and tends to be more a result of your role within the festival. I too come to Berlin with the “luxury” of not having many assignments delineating what I ought to watch, essentially leaving choices to my own temperament and the constant dialogue (and self-questioning) I tend to have around my “area of expertise”.
I guess this leaves me on the explorer side, which isn’t really a position I even thought one could have just some years ago, when I followed Cannes dispatches religiously to find out what the latest precociously proclaimed masterpiece was, excitingly waiting 10 months for it to be shown in Costa Rica’s sole non-multiplex cinema. Since this Berlinale is one of my first big “in real life” festivals, I’ve never been in a situation where I had privileged access to what might be cinephilia’s most anticipated releases, so my reasoning used to be perhaps an antiquated ideal of “reporting back” (I blame my tedious journalistic background). But, as I learned from music festivals and belated Cannes winner disillusionments, hype almost without exception leads to some level of disappointment.
You graciously describe the contemporary art world’s late capitalist core under its “forward thinking” veneer, one of Uber sponsorships, Sydney Sweeney billboards and gentrified food halls where employees frown when they see your clunky laptop taking up the space that might be had by another diner. Just checking my email inbox and seeing the constant reminders of daily red-carpet press calls and VIP arrivals is like a peek into an alternate universe; not necessarily better or worse, simply distanced from my romanticized vision of a shared space for discussions around boundary-pushing cinema.
As a perhaps subconscious response, I try to have my festival experience somewhat on the margins of all the elbowing for the best spot at the daily Palast Competition World Premiere. I feel a certain freedom (and privilege, I guess) in just having my gut feeling and some general descriptors guiding me to what sounds like a more eclectic and/or imaginative experience. This year, that has seen me delve almost fully into the Encounters and Forum sections.
Like the cinephile typology at the heart of this conversation we’re having, I think the most engaging cinema, at Berlinale or elsewhere, has us doing this same exercise of putting into question not only what we’re seeing, but how we are seeing it. Has anything brought you to a point of audiovisual nirvana?
Wednesday, Feb 22, 16:28 CET. Potsdamer Platz.
You are correct to identify my generosity with regard to the late capitalist festival. This event is nothing if not a mandala—if Sweeney is the transcendent embodiment of this, then so be it. Allow me then to perform PR on behalf of the Berlinale:
The festival is inherently and intentionally overwhelming, with a glut of tight-packed screenings designed to beat the festival reviewer into some malleable form that will declare an out-of-focus Hong film to be a masterpiece. Often, you will have spotted critics ignoring the hype, heads buried in a paperback Duras until the lights fall. Is this sheer monk-like purity of devotion to CINEMA, or the side-effect of too much coffee? Once or twice I will ask these true believers, but they pretend to speak no English.
After a day of four screenings, divided only by bad coffee or a sprint to the next venue, or some unwanted encounter with a local, the facts of films begin to slip away, and bizarre connections emerge. Reincarnation drives Patiño’s Samsara to a superb flicker sequence, but I watched it a mere hour after finishing a film of similar ethos, A24’s aspirational transnational romance Past Lives. This can be no coincidence. In Samsara, the young boy squeezes droplets of water onto his grandmother, triggering a moment of atmospheric change. This occurs too in Devos’ Here, where a remarkable shot of moss is disturbed gently by the first spells of rain, to signal a character’s revelation. This can be no coincidence. Petzold’s Roter Himmel contains a climatic fire, then the following screening of Viver Mal begins with the chapter heading ‘Brincar com o fogo (playing with fire)’. This can be no coincidence.
The competition titles pertain to the paranoia of such woozy compression, and always benefit from it: after days of sub-par Hollywood-adjacent product like Andrew Tate-satire Manodrome and the Hubert Bals-templated Totem, it is no wonder Jordan Cronk would declare Angela Schanelec’s Music a masterpiece. This muscular and modernist retelling of the Oedipus myth may be a film of powerful and mysterious ellipsis, but it has a form which does not look out of place in the Forum. Its sovereignty comes from the size of its screen, and its proximity to tripe.
Given the audience reaction at yesterday’s 08:45 press screening—walkouts, heckling, boos—you might expect Music to contain visceral elements of violence and pornography, rather than beautifully cold and aesthetic compositions, with temporal elisions that slip unashamedly past notions of character development or catharsis. Form, then, is offensive to the hunter of one kind, while to the Cronkite explorer, Schanelec may be a trophy mounted.
Have connections formed along your pathway? Are you following the Horn of Tristero to oblivion? Has your self-imposed exile to the margins of the programme resulted in the discovery of any true innovation, or does the Emperor of the Forum have no clothes?
Thursday, Feb 23, 16:20 GMT / 10:20 CST. Gatwick – San José flight, at some point over the Atlantic Ocean.
– are you going to Berlinale?
– for what? 🙂 starring at empty eyes suffering from succes? 🙂
Going by our shared experiences around the aseptic and monolithic Potsdamer Platz, I’ve been thinking about how film festivals are such an unnatural way of approaching an artform that it merits a humble expansion of our colonial dichotomous analogy. Given the deplorable conditions one submits to, when no meal times are scheduled and caffeine becomes more a necessity than a delight, some of the clean-cut positivism and thirst for “reason” that guided the white intruders of yore is perhaps diluted.
Our red-eyed visages are glued to an assortment of screens, malnourished and sleep-deprived, almost forcing ourselves into the Eureka moment that justifies the whole thing. We aren’t merely thrill-seeking explorers living off wholesome memories, nor the sporting hunters posing for a picture with their game. No, we’re closer to the demented antiheroes of Lovecraft and Conrad. Former explorers turned antiquarians of forsaken lore, frantically leafing through their tomes for that brief dose of enlightenment, and hunters lost in the dense and overwhelming heart of darkness, feeling we’re chased down by something or someone. (Twitter? Letterboxd? Publicists? Our own imposter syndrome?)
Like the Pynchonian connections you’ve established between seemingly dissimilar works, I do feel interesting parallels arise from this amplified sensory state. I’ve been thinking a lot about the two extra-diegetic musical cues in James Benning’s Allensworth, somewhat anachronistic expressions of wider and ever-expanding Roots, that really establish the titular town as a living and breathing entity beyond the limited realm of historiography. In the aforementioned Samsara by Patiño, the lo-fi trap beats of a Laos collective have been reverberating in my mind ever since, perhaps one of the few instances where I feel his non-transcendental sections diverge from a somewhat commonplace path of arthouse ethnography. These people are not only exoticized and mystical, their identity also molds and permeates our globalized take on pop culture. This postmodern dance of meaning is perhaps fully embodied by Deborah Stratman’s Last Things, in which disparate formats are juxtaposed and bypass the established borders between the scientific and the fantastical, basically displaying an audiovisual smorgasbord where organic and artificial textures join forces to visualize humanity’s eventual transformation.
Can cinema communicate these new forms? Is there still revelatory power in the cinematic image, or are those words only muttered when having a second pintEditor’s note: it was more like my fifth. with other film people after the 10pm screening? Examples like Burak Çevik’s Unutma Biçimleri do make me think once again about all the ways in which cinema can still reinvent itself and play around with its own approximation of other media (poetry in this case). Perhaps it’s that same Cronkonian impulse to celebrate the daring that comes out viscerally when a deflating streak of middling festival fare is broken by an imaginative moment, but I have to admit I was doing the DiCaprio Once Upon A Time in Hollywood meme as soon as I saw overlapping dialogues and two layers of subtitles in this new-to-me Turkish filmmaker’s Forum highlight.
With Çevik, it also feels somewhat refreshing not having to rely on the tired templates of auteurism to contextualize a film’s virtues. Something I also appreciate in Martín Shanley’s high concept young adulthood comedy Arturo a los 30, a free film that can orchestrate an enthralling cross-cutting interlude across timelines and vignettes, strung together by a palpable sense of epistolary melancholy, and boast the confidence to follow that up with good ol’ cringeworthy public oral sex. Even within the Forum’s eclectic realm, discussions tend to always lead to proper names and big oeuvres (trade your Petzold for a Benning), so I think perhaps its fanfareless pockets is where the section’s ethos can be fully grasped.
Has surprise been part of your experience? New names perhaps locking a spot in future priority rankings? Or do you crave the first opportunity to go back to the Masters?
Sunday, Feb 26, 19:47 CET. Actual Berlin.
Dear Alonso & Ben,
I write to you both on the final day of the festival—Sunday, February 26th—from the comfort of my own home, relieved that this yearly eruption of constant happenings has finally come to a close. To answer your question, Alonso, this year came with many surprises for me. Primarily, I was surprised at my own disinterest in physically going to the movies. This was the first year since 2015 that I wasn’t able to take off substantial time from my day job to attend the festival. But there was an unexpected freedom in this restriction; for once, I felt zero FOMO. Sure, I’m keen to see Schanelec’s Music, but the screenings didn’t fit my life schedule so for now I shrug and trust I’ll have the chance soon enough.
I made it out to the Forum Expanded Installation with Ben one lovely Tuesday afternoon, and had a great time lying in comfortable bean bag chairs and watching objects of varying quality and formal construction. Most of all, though, it was lovely to see Tenzin Phuntsog’s 35mm films Pala Amala (Father Mother) and Dreams mounted beautifully, the former alongside prayer boxes fashioned to hold small screens for individual video messages, rare images making their way directly to our eyes from the Tibetan countryside.
The best thing about ‘my Berlinale’ was seeing old friends (the two of you and the whole photogénie crew in particular!) and meeting internet acquaintances in person. Meanwhile, sitting in the dark staring at a lighted screen for hours at a time day after day seems to have lost its allure for me. I don’t know exactly what it means, but some of it is my own parting of ways with a large portion of what is shown at festivals. Increasingly, my formal interests lie with works which don’t tend to make it through to festivals of this stature, and are generally screened under far less prestigious circumstances. Ultimately, I find that by presenting us with so much more information than any human being could reasonably take in (I had no idea, for example, that Jean-Claude Brisseau’s profound De bruit et de fureur was screening in a brand new restoration until it had already happened), the festival apparatus asks us to move away from the interpersonal…while the avant-garde asks us to move closer to one another.
A friend of mine who shoots on 16mm (and does not work with digital) held a screening in his kitchen near the beginning of the Berlinale. We were five people in a modest space, watching a projection smaller than most people’s TVs, and it was easily my favorite thing I saw ‘at the festival’. We watched several shorts—some which he owns prints of, and some of his own work, as well as two rolls of material I shot in 2014—all interspersed with conversation, sharing thoughts on each film, reflecting on the images and how they intersected with our personal perceptions of the world. It felt like the festival experience condensed into a more manageable framework, stripped of all frills and allowing for deeper engagement with the work at hand.
I’m well aware that there’s nothing revelatory about claiming small screenings among friends are better than big festival ones, but I guess I’ll take this chance to pontificate nevertheless. Rather than hunt or explore, I try with each passing year to simply be.
Monday, Feb 27, 23:09 CST. A room on the outskirts of San José.
Dear Max & Ben,
After just starting to settle back in my own time zone and daily routine in the tropics, I watched eight Berlinale Forum films on my weekend from the ‘comfort’ of my own living room. Why I did that after already leaving the inescapable drone of buzzwords and notification alarms of the festival premises, I’m not completely sure. Perhaps I’m not quite on Max’s level of FOMO immunity, or I wanted to compress all those films into the timeline of the festival, forcing myself to associate them with an experience I already left behind. Whatever the case, this self-imposed, audiovisual force-feeding did two things: it provided me with some new discoveries, and made Max’s words resonate even stronger.
As for the first statement, I do want to give shout-outs to Ulises de la Orden’s powerful, three-hour archival reconstruction of the 1985 trials against Videla’s military junta, El juicio; Antoine Bourges’ formally and structurally rigorous but tenderly constructed Concrete Valley, Melisa Liebenthal’s playful and almost objet trouvé exploration of contemporary identities, El rostro de la medusa; and the restoration of Antonio Carlos da Fontoura’s vividly anarchic A Rainha Diaba. With that out of the way, and notwithstanding it being perhaps the best continuous stretch of films I saw during the whole festival, said experience did leave me cold.
Going back to Max’s point about the depersonalized festival experience, that really comes to the forefront when you realize there aren’t any kebab joints or cheap hostel bars to meet up in and actually engage in a conversation about the films you saw that day, or simply listen to what others have to say about the maligned competition slate, or randomly encounter a fringe avant-garde celebrity. The drive to go blind into an unknown quantity just by a friend’s drunken recommendation really loses its appeal when the prospect of going back to the good ol’ Stadtklause and comparing your filmic temperaments is no longer there.
As the days after my arrival in San José have gone by, I’ve seen my rhythm begin to slow down. Five screenings on Saturday, three on Sunday, just the one today, and tomorrow…I think I’ll save up the remaining screeners for another time, hopefully sharing them with a kindred spirit curious about Joao Canijo’s double feature, or the links between West African rituals and artificial intelligence, and just make some time to enjoy a personally enticing era of film; one that exists beyond Twitter’s hot take machinery and the freelancer’s self-flagellatory urge to monetize every last morsel of leisurely joy. Go back to simply being, and forgetting about Potsdamer Platz’s endless shadow. But can I really?
As you look at Berlinale from the rearview mirror, what do you find there, Ben? How is that gray image constructed?
Hugs for both of you,
Tuesday, Feb 28, 16:56 GMT. A flat in South London.
It’s nearly a week since I left Berlin. By the time I got out of Viver Mal, the second part of João Canijo’s depressive hotel-strapped diptych ode to hating your mother (Mal Viver screened a few days earlier), I was ready to go home. But Nicolas Ray told us that was impossible. On my night-time flight, it seemed like everybody was absconding from the Palast. Rolled-up beanies abound, and Daunt Books tote bags are the uniform of the aspirant-Brit-critic. Many still wore their accreditation badges around their necks, a dog tag from the warzone of cinema. From the red eyes, and legs that barely carried them to their planes, Schanelec has given them all a shelling.
Before boarding, I drank a final vom Fass in the airport lounge and contemplated the films I didn’t see. “I could have got more out. I could have got more,” I thought, as three film producers from [redacted] sat at the table next to me and clinked glasses over the sale of their film [redacted] during the European Film Market, which takes place adjacent to the Berlinale. A natural eavesdropper, though their volume level suggested they wanted me to hear, it was tough not to take in their tales of taking this or that agent, actor, or distributor out drinking, to seduce them into a sale. For most people who attend Berlinale, this is a genuine networking opportunity where parties can close business deals and secure relationships in a formal but brief setting. It is a conference. To sickos like you and I, Alonso, this is a chance to travel many hundreds of miles to see Mubi’s 2023 slate a few months early.
The streets around Potsdamer Platz were layered in my mind’s eye. I can see Stresemannstraße—the Lidl, the pet shop, the cut-through past beloved Stadtklaus which might get you to the front of a Cinemaxx queue a few moments sooner. I have no idea if the producers were on the streets I visualised. One expects they were somewhere far trendier, like Mitte. But the festival—and my dogged insistence on staying in the same cheap nearby hostel year after year—has shrunk my conception of the city into a few small blocks. The trip to meet you, Max, at the Forum Expanded exhibit in Wedding’s Silent Green, was just about the only time I saw someplace new. Perhaps I should have bragged to the producers about it.
When Schanelec delivers another of her trademark dislocating cuts in Music, I wasn’t lost at all, because I knew that the wide, pale grey street could only be Potsdamer Platz. I don’t have this strange level of intense feeling around another city centre, but the spacious quietude of The Platz does something. Between screenings of the Berlinale programme, which always seeks to challenge, even if it does not succeed, it’s the perfect palate cleanser. A place that negates history, commercialism, and art into a blurry mass of straight roads and glass windows. I don’t know if it’s conducive to good criticism, but I’m addicted.