My Own Private Berlinale 2015: Part 1

     |    Saturday, der 21. February 2015

By Andrew Horn

It always annoys me when someone complains that a movie is not ‘visual enough” or when they claim there is too much dialogue. I have always been against “absolutes” and my feeling has always been “if it works, it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t” and some years ago I was comforted by a conversation I had with a film professor who said that he believed there were actually five aspects to the experience of watching a film and what you see is only one of them. The five are: what you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you expect, and what you remember.

This year in my choice of films I feel like I fixed on the last two. It seems like personal connections or associations kept cropping up, if not in the actual decision, than in some sort of realization after the fact. And having the chance to look at some things after the fact, I find myself seeing connections emerge between the various films themselves. I don’t know if this isn’t always somehow the case, but this year it seemed particularly so. Ok, maybe some more than others, but still…

It’s not like I’m the biggest Beach Boys fan but years ago when I was making my film about Klaus Nomi, “The Nomi Song” I was very much inspired (even if only in spirit) by a  documentary about Brian Wilson called “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” by Don Was, of the band Was (not Was). While I can’t say I remember it in great detail, it made a big impression on me for having been a look at a great musician, made by a musician. It was not only personal about Brian Wilson but was very much about the music – in this case I would say two inseparable things. I remember reading somewhere that viewers were disappointed that the movie passed over a lot of the “dirt” in the story, principally the abuse that Brian endured from his father. To my mind, seeing Brian, who had basically just come out of another abusive relationship, this time with his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, there was enough of that to be seen in Brian’s face, and heard in his obviously difficult speech, I didn’t feel I needed to dwell in the gory details. Me, I wanted to hear about the music, and that’s largely what was delivered, though the story of a man trying to right himself was there too, looming in the background.


Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in „Love and Mercy“. Photo: Francois Duhamel

In „Love & Mercy“, Bill Pohlad’s Wilson bio pic playing in Berlinale Special, audiences were offered both the music and the dirt, and considering how baleful such movies can be, particularly when dealing with a person who one knows “first hand”, it was a relief not to see the movie going off the rails into some cheap attempt at impersonation. John Cusack, who made no attempt whatsoever to look like the older Brian Wilson,  said that he studied the above documentary and based his performance on what he saw, though again thankfully not trying to deliberately duplicate it. Paul Dano, who played the young Brian Wilson, was likewise more convincing for not trying to too hard at imitation (though perversely I was a bit thrown by how little the actors playing Dennis and Carl looked like their counterparts.)


John Cusack as Brian Wilson, Elizabeth Banks as Marilyn Wilson in „Love and Mercy“. Photo: Francois Duhamel

I was also happy to see that as much as the film dealt with the obligatory themes of genius, madness and  redemption in the love of a good woman, how not hokey it was and how it never took those final steps to descend into psychodrama. (That being said, Paul Giamatti made a very good villain, with a great head of hair).


Paul Giamatti and great head of hair (center) in „Love and Mercy“

And if you want to hear something more from me than just relief, I have to say the scenes about the creation of the music were for me the most enjoyable. It has always been my feeling that in order to understand loss, one has to first truly appreciate what was lost, and the joy of making the music – in this case, dealing mostly with the album Pet Sounds – was an important part of the story. While I certainly could have seen a lot more, far be it from me to be one of those people who criticize the movie I didn’t see.

And speaking of things I didn’t see, I’ll always remember an interview with Marilyn Wilson, Brian’s ex-wife, where she talked about the day that Brian brought home the test pressing of „Pet Sounds“. She said they went into the bedroom and he put it on the record player and they lay down on the bed and just listened to the record the whole way through. She described it as being a totally perfect moment. I was waiting for this to be shown in the movie, and it wasn’t. On one hand I was a bit disappointed, but on the other hand,  maybe trying to visualize it would have been to diminish it somehow. Maybe some things are better left to our imaginations.

Werner Herzog’s Competition film, „Queen of the Desert“ might not have been on my must see list but for the fact that for the last couple of years I have been employed on and off doing research work for an American documentary about Gertrude Bell – the main character in this movie as played by Nicole Kidman – and I was interested in seeing what Herzog had to say about her. I was also interested in how the story was told because Ms. Bell in her later-in-life role as a diplomat, was in part responsible for drawing the borderlines that created the modern Mid-East, a dubious achievement in my mind – though admittedly unfair to blame it all on her.


Nicole Kidman and uncredited camel in „Queen of the Desert“

The movie was not strictly about politics but given the time frame going from pre to post WWI it could not be ignored, and in fact the movie overlaps a bit with “Lawrence of Arabia” in the inclusion of both Lawrence and Prince Faisel and possibly some others that I didn’t recognize (interestingly enough, Ms. Bell as a character was absent from the Peter O’Toole epic, yet present in a fictional retelling as part of the Young Indiana Jones TV series). But if there’s one thing that really came through for me in this movie, it was the priggishness and arrogance of the British colonial attitude, not only as superior to the “natives” but also to women. As such, the movie begins in a flash forward to a meeting with Churchill and his advisors discussing the drawing up of the British Mandate in the Mid-East and realizing reluctantly that they were going to have to defer to the expertise of “the woman”, i.e. Ms. Bell, otherwise described as that “globe trotting, rump-wagging, blithering ass.” According to a 2007 article about Ms. Bell in the NY Review of Books, this last was an actual direct quote. Thankfully, the only actual rump-wagging we saw in the film was from the camels.

In fact  Nicole Kidman, came off surprisingly well, both as young Gertrude and the older desert traveler fascinated by the cultures of the Bedouins and Druze. The scenery looked great, as appropriate for a Herzog movie, but somehow Herzog’s signature off-kilter sensibility was missing here, probably due to the demands of his mainstream budget. Coming to the movie I wasn’t sure what Herzog’s point was going to be, and having seen it, I’m still not sure. Bringing some knowledge of Gertrude Bell with me, it was a bit disappointing to see her constrained as a figure who in real life was a mountaineer, archeologist, photographer, writer and diplomat, no mean feat for anyone, let alone a woman of the early 1900s. Arguably that’s a tall order and of course being a movie, one has to understandably focus on a story tellable in the time allotted. And yet…

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The concept of the Panorama film, “Je Suis Annemarie Schwarzenbach” reminded me, at least on the surface, of a Chantal Akerman film I saw many years ago called “Les Années 80″. It was a film she made – as I heard it – to pass the time while her real film, a musical called “The Golden 80s”, was stalled in the making. Akerman took her audition videos from the film and basically made them into a new movie, which culminated in a few scenes surrounding the making of the movie-to-be. I remember it getting booed when I saw it but I enjoyed it for being about “the process” and how it made characters out of all the people who wanted to be in the film.


„I am Annemarie Schwarzenbach… and you’re not.“ Still from Véronique Aubouy’s documentary.

The director, Véronique Aubouy, did something similar and at the same time very different. During her introduction, Ms. Aubouy said that she was originally intending to make a biopic about the lesbian writer/photographer, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and it seems she became so intrigued by the audition process that she never quite got around to making the actual film. What she did make however was a movie about a group of actresses – and one actor, Schwarzenbach being an a boyish looking woman – who comprised the finalists in the audition process.

During the auditions, the director sets them various tasks: explaining their respective connections to the “character”, imitating photos of her, or bringing in an object which made some sort of association for them – however metaphoric – such as a notebook, a high heel broken off a shoe, or an accordion which one of the women plays. This last leads me to my favorite part, where each of the group has to take a quote from Schwarzenbach’s writings and sing it, accompanied by two musicians – of course the accordion player was a no-brainer but the best was a Swiss woman who performed in a Germanic cabaret “Sprechgesang”. They also performed with each other in various dialogues which it gradually becomes evident are actually sort of dueling monologues between one aspect of the character and another.

In the end, rather than treating each other as rivals, the various aspirants seem united like fellow travelers on some kind of metaphysical journey. They support one another, they talk about love and their respective sexualities (some lesbian, one woman uncommitted, and the man admits to having believed himself gay and then decided otherwise), and two of the women end up falling for each other.


And she was Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Photo: Marianne Feilchenfeldt-Breslauer/Wikipedia

If we didn’t exactly learn all that much about Schwarzenbach herself, who, in fact, was a well known writer, journalist, photographer and traveler in the Mid-East (hmmm…sound familiar?), we do get what turns out to be a story about the aspirants whose journey never comes to a conclusion. While I’m sure we all have our own personal favorite, we never find out who got the part because the movie ends before “the movie” ever begins.

After the film, I asked the director if, after all this, she will finally come to actually making the biopic she started out with and she replied, probably not. In fact, she said, the audition process is still going on, continued in a series of performance pieces with a shifting group of other actresses.  The last line in the film is “there is nothing more marvelous than waiting for a woman” and there are certainly times when the anticipation, and therefore imagination, becomes an end in itself.