My Own Private Berlinale pt 2

     |    Sunday February 17th, 2013

by Andrew Horn

I wasn’t burning to see Gus van Sant’s “Promised Land” but it was the first day and the Competition press screening was in twenty minutes and I just thought what the hell. It was one of those morality tales, this time about fracking. (The film was awarded an “Honorable Mention” – the Ed.)

Matt Damon and American flag - Promised Land by Gus Van Sant

Now I have probably signed about a zillion petitions to get it stopped and I daresay we’re all going to have to sign a zillion more before this is all over. Now one imagines that Mr. Van Sant is also on the side of righteousness, so why does he cast the very sympathetic Matt Damon as the regular small town guy, Steve, who is just trying to get these townspeople a new and better source of income? Ok he’s also making sure the company gets a good deal, too, but hey there’s money enough for everybody, right? He is ably assisted by his associate Sue, played by Francis McDormand, a mother constantly on the phone to her son, making sure everything is always ok at home. They are going through the townspeople one by one, making friends and closing contracts for the land rights to start the big frack.

They are oh-so-likeable, but even as Steve is trying to short-change on the bribe to the town supervisor to get his support, the waitress at the diner is smilingly handing him free coffee and even the pretty local school teacher, Alice, is making eyes at him at the local bar. For her part, Sue is getting chummy with the proprietor of the local general store (Gas, Groceries and Guns the sign says) who tells her that she’d make a big hit with the populace if she shows up for Karaoke night.

Everything is going swimmingly until another teacher, played by grand old man Hal Holbrook, stands up at the town meeting to start throwing scientific doubt on Steve’s homey pitch. And then “the devil” shows up in the form of an environmental activist who really gets things into high gear. He starts by blowing away Sue’s cute and homey Karaoke number by getting up and making an “impromptu” anti-fracking speech and then launching into a Karaoke Springsteen, tearing down the house, and getting everybody to join in. Then he shows up at Alice’s class room and wows the kids in a show-and-tell that ends with chemicals leaking all over a little toy farm which then burst into flames when he lights a match. And we all know how much kids like matches.

Now he’s beating Steve out for Alice’s affections, and he uses the bribe money Sue slips him to go away to pay for anti-fracking signs all over town. So I know this guy’s in the right, but there’s just something creepy about him, and Steve and Sue are trying so hard to make things right, and even grand old man Hal Holbrook is sort of taking a liking to Steve.

So now it’s like that in movie “Paris When It Sizzles” because we’re getting “the switch”, and “the switch on the switch”, and finally when we get to “the switch on the switch on the switch”, the whole thing just gets a bit too switchy. But yet, in spite of it, a bit too obvious. The movie ended to polite applause, and everybody moved on to the next. I was ready for a change…

Once upon a time, the American political activist Abbie Hoffman wrote a book about 60s/70s counterculture and politics called, “Steal This Book”. While Abbie was a popular figure in the media, the book was initially rejected by over 30 publishing houses. As you can imagine the title did not go down too well with prospective publishers, but it was also the content that was considered objectionable. Divided into sections “Survive”, “Fight”, and “Liberate”, the first part all about getting food, clothing, transportation, housing, education, medical care, communication, entertainment, dope, and other necessities for free, the second was about rebelling against “the man” and the third contained chapters such as “Fuck New York”, “Fuck Chicago”, “Fuck Los Angeles” and “Fuck San Francisco”.

In the end Abbie formed his own publishing company called Pirate Editions and got it out there. Despite the advice of it’s title, the book went straight into the New York Time best seller list, selling a quarter million copies in the first 6 months of release. “It’s all free, man”, but Abbie walked off with a bit of loot.

Poster with circuits and eyes - the_pirate_bay_away_from_keyboard

Today, I’m assuming everyone knows about Pirate Bay, who set itself up to facilitate file sharing of programs, movies, music and other necessities for free on the internet, to stick it to “the man”, and has shown a pretty strong “fuck you” attitude to anyone trying to get them to take something down off the site. It’s supposedly all free but no one really knows for sure and there are certainly opinions to the contrary – and so our story.

When filmmaker Simon Klose was introduced at the premier screening of his movie “TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From The Keyboard” the last thing he did before the film started was to call his IT guy to open the film up for simultaneous release on YouTube. The film then got it’s first big laugh when the Berlinale’s obligatory anti-piracy warning came on the screen. The filmmaker got his last laugh as the film was viewed a million times in the first four days – and counting.

While I don’t know if the film impressed me all that much as a film, I have to say I think it was worthwhile to see it for the subject matter. What interested me in particular was the total disconnect between the three Pirate Bay operators and the Hollywood big shots who were trying to take them down for, not actually stealing, but facilitating the theft of the content by others.

The Pirates, who seemed to be taking a certain degree of pleasure in using various and dubious twists of logic to deflect all questions of their guilt, also seemed, at the same time, puzzled by why acting like a bunch of annoying wise-guys was getting them into trouble in the first place. Hollywood on the other hand was levying fines of millions on basically a bunch of social misfits who had no means in the world of ever paying it. The only realistic revenge, ie jail time, ranged from sentences of 8 months to a year.

According to the film, after years of wrangling, they are still on appeal, and no money has been paid and no time has been served. One of the Pirate guys say that despite all efforts to stop it, the site is one of the biggest in the world.

pirate bay site

And indeed, I just checked, and yes, the Pirate Bay site is still up. So just for the hell of it I did a search for the above mentioned Competition film “Promised Land” and – what do you know? – I found a Xvid file that was just uploaded 5 minutes ago. And by the way, the visit also generated an unwanted pop up ad for “single mothers who are looking to fuck YOU”. The Revolution will not be televised but it will be brought to you by internet porn.
Who says irony is dead?

So now I’m back to the Competition with “The Grandmaster” by jury president Wong Kar Wai. Now I’m pretty used to not quite understanding what is going on in a Kung Fu movie because the cutting is really fast, people are flying around, everything is making all kinds of Kung Fu noises and it’s often based on quasi-historical events that I have absolutely no idea of. Usually things are going so fast and furious that any confusion gets lost in a flurry of flying fists, but here the fighting scenes are all in slow motion, the blood is flying in slow motion and even the rain is falling in slow motion. I have way too much time to think about what I can’t figure out.

Thankfully it’s not just me. I’m told the problem was that the director  made a four hour movie that was cut down to two.  Somehow it seemed to me that no one was paying a whole lot of attention to the various pieces of otherwise excised story that remained to confuse me.

As I understood it, it’s about a master fighter whose big achievement was to merge three distinct fighting styles. He hands down one style to a disciple, Man San, who seems to lack the appropriate humility and gets thrown out,  and comes back to be the great hope, only to get thrown out again. The master’s daughter, Gong Er, meanwhile has been practicing on her own and has mastered another style but  keeping it a secret. Then there is somebody called “The Razor” and he sort of appears and disappears and I have no idea what the heck is going on with him.

But Man Fan and Gong Er keep running into each other over the years and each one wants to defeat the other and assume their skill. And then there is this sort of wandering master, Ip Man, played by Tony Leung, who is just a totally zen presence. In a pretty amazing face off in a luxurious brothel – which is also the headquarters of the marital arts society – he’s barely moving but just kicking some serious ass. He’s fighting with one hand behind his back, he’s fighting with his eyes closed and when Gong Er faces of against him, he throws her off the balcony but then gallantly reaches out and grabs her at the last minute, flipping her up so she can make a cool looking Kung Fu landing, perched on a bannister. Their repeated fights have a very erotic tension I must say.

The three (actually four but I just don’t get this whole “Razor” thing) keep running into each other over the years, beginning in the 30s and lasting into the 50s. Each one is trying to assume the other’s Kung Fu, and effectively re-unite the Master’s technique, but in the end no one ever gets it. The movie was admittedly very beautiful to look at and had, at least in retrospect, some very interesting things going on, but like the characters, I wasn’t able to get it either.