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Art at the 2017 Berlinale


Film being the seventh art, all moving image falls under this category. But there are numerous ways that art is expressed, even at a film festival. At the 2017 Berlinale, art was present in all forms. Art films, films about artists – fiction and non-fiction – as well as museum exhibits.

There are, obviously, many museums in Berlin, all with their own programs that have nothing to do with film or the film festival. In fact, the Staatliche Museen, or State Museum, is a group of 17 institutions throughout the city, focusing on different areas and including libraries and research facilities. And of course, some have nothing to do with art, but with history, science, etc. However, from time to time there are exhibits at art museums that run concurrently, or take advantage of the festival’s presence and timing to install filmic projects.

beuys posterOne example was “The Gold Projections,” an installation by American artist Joe Ramirez was in the Exhibition Hall at the Kulturforum, one of the Berlin state museums. Ramirez is an American artist who has studied in Chicago (at the Art Institute of Chicago) and London (at the Royal College of Art), and who now lives and works in Berlin.

For "The Gold Projections," Ramirez projects film onto wooden panels that he gilds by hand to create a 3D surface that affects how the projected film is seen. The projections take place in a darkened room so it becomes a total, meditative environment. The moving images are abstract, and some appear as thought they were giants gems floating in space. You could call this animation, but it is so much more. His work is reminiscent of fresco painters of the Italian Renaissance,

At the festival itself, there are many art films of course, but this year two films in the official selection highlighted two different artists, Joseph Beuys and Alberto Giacometti: one as a narrative feature, the other a straight documentary.

A documentary in the competition,“Beuys,” by film and theater director and writer Andres Veiel does a workman-like job of presenting the biography of this ground breaking artist, with a special focus on those years in the late 70s, early 80s in New York when creativity sprouted from every crevice of sidewalk. (Literally: take a look at “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” by Sara Driver).

final portThis is a great film for a viewer who doesn’t know Joseph Beuysor his work. But it doesn’t always go deep into his work or his artistic philosophy. Nonetheless, good use is made of archival footage – showing his installations and also freewheeling talks that he gave at the time.

Veiel takes us through various phases of Beuys’ life, including time his younger days, and his time in the Luftwaffe during WWII when he was injured in a plane crash. Even that injury speaks to his later work as an artist, but still Veiel paints Beuys with very broad brush strokes.

Actor/director  has only directed a handful of films, but each seems like a special project, tenderly wrought (some more so than others). His fifth directorial effort,“Final Portrait,” is taken from writer James Lord’s book “A Giacometti Portrait” that focuses on one act, as it were, of Alberto Giacometti.

The Swiss artist achieved fame with his sculptures, but he also painted, of course, and the film follows a period when Lord sat for the Swiss artist in Paris. What was supposed to be an afternoon became a few days and turned into weeks as Giacometti painted and re-painted Lord in his studio in 1960s Paris.

Geoffrey Rush plays Giacometti and Armie Hammer plays his subject and biographer, James Lord (Lord wrote another book on Giacometti as well as a Picasso biography). But while Giacometti puts Lord’s image on canvas, Lord is observing and capturing more than a sitting. He captures the essence of the artist, and of the time in which he lived. “Final Portrait” is a “small” film, but it harnesses a large life.

“Beuys” was presented in competition and “Final Portrait” out of competition. Both were picked up for U.S. distribution (“Beuys” by Kino Lorber; “Final Portrait” by Sony Pictures Classics), and due for release in the States in 2018. No word on whether Ramirez’s “The Gold Projections” will be seen outside of Germany any time soon.

End of the Road: The Prizes at Cannes 2017

The Beguiled

Do the awards tell us anything about the upcoming season in cinema? Or are they simply a collection of prizes that may or may not help a film through the churning waters of exhibition?

The Cannes 2017 competition jury included four women: American actor Jessica Chastain, French filmmaker Agnes Jaoui, German director Maren Ade, and Chinese actor Fan Bingbing, and five men: American actor Will Smith, directors Paolo Sorentino from Italy and Park Chan-wook from Korea, French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared, and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who served as president.

The male/female ratio of the jury is in line with past juries, as a cursory look at juries from the last dozen or so years. There may be three to four women each year - but never more than four, by the way, so men are always in the majority. Just sayin.’ So it wasn’t equal opportunity pressure that made Sofia Coppola only the second female to receive the best director prize (the first was Yuliya Solntseva for ‘The Chronicle of Flaming Years’ in 1961 - remember her?). Or maybe it was. 56 years? And, by the way, Jane Campion is still the only female Palme d’or winner, for ‘The Piano’ in 1993. Coppola was sure to mention Campion as an inspiration.

Coppola won for ‘The Beguiled, ‘ her rendition of Thomas P. Cullinan's ‘A Painted Devil,’ a story first brought to the screen by Don Siegel. Coppola came under fire because of the absence of black characters in a Civil War tale, but she has explained again and again her reasons, so in my view she’s acquired herself.

I have never seen the 1971 version - Clint Eastwood stars and, sorry, I’ve never been a fan. Now that he’s become a doddering conservative apologist, I’m happy to see I’ve been on the correct side of cinematic politics! In any event, Coppola tells her story from the point of view of the women in the house. It stars Nicole Kidman and the cast also includes Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and a young Addison Riecke, with Colin Farrell as the hapless soldier Riecke discovers.

Other women felt the love at the awards ceremony, in addition to Diane Kruger winning best actress for ‘In the Fade’ - no male competition in this category! Nicole Kidman won a special 70th anniversary award (just for being her, I guess, as well as all the Cannes films she’s appeared in). And the Camera d’Or for best first feature, went to Leonor Serraille for her Un Certain Regard entry ‘Jeune Femme.’

British filmmaker Lynne Ramsey shared the screenplay prize with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Ramsey’s film, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ stars Joaquin Phoenix as a disturbed killer for hire who puts himself out to save a teenage girl.

As for the rest of the awards, the boys were back in town. Not that many of the awards weren’t well-deserved. Joaquin Phoenix won best actor for his turn in ‘You Were Never Really Here,’ mentioned above. And ‘Loveless,’ a wrenching drama of a missing child of extremely dysfunctional parents by Andrey Zvyagintsev received the jury prize. Grand prize went to Robin Campillo’s touching story of Act Up in France, ‘120 Beats per Minute.’

The grand prize and jury prize can be seen as second and third place, respectively, and are not always awarded. The Palme d’Or is awarded every year, and this year it went to Ruben Ostlund’s uncomfortable social examination, ‘The Square.’ Proving that the boys always win? That art always wins? Proving nothing, actually, except to show the choices of a conscientious group of jurors. They can go home happy to have discharged their duties!

Artists at Work: Cannes 2017

 The Square

Filmmakers (artists in their own right, of course) seem to find great pleasure in exploring other kinds of artists at work. A number of them showed up in Cannes.

The most talked about of such films is “The Square,” by Ruben Ostlund. Ostlund’s objective here is not so much to talk about art, but to look at how far one will go to keep to the so called social niceties. Danish actor Claes Bang is the head of a museum and there is lots that goes on there, but the action begins when he loses his wallet. He thinks he’s being the liberal, educated one in dealing with the kid he thinks took the wallet, but he sinks into a hole of immoral behavior, publicly accusing an entire working class housing complex of theft.

In the midst of this, he is interviewed by an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) and has a brief fling with her - what does that mean? Also on hand is British actor Dominic West (“The Affair”) as an American artist talking about process. All the while, conceptual art pieces are considered, questioned, and in one case, literally trashed. (Workers, unaware, move the stones of an installation - cleaning it up, as it were.)

The scene of the film that has mesmerized people - and is all that anyone writes about - is a fundraising dinner where the main attraction is a performance artist who rushes the assembled as an ape: he clings, claws and drools on and at guests at the tables. No one wants to step in (impolite, yes? Politically incorrect as well, don’t you think?). For me, the bottom line of the film is - art or no art - how comfortable are we, the privileged, in our skin? And yes, you don’t have to be rich to be privileged.

Noah Baumbach has made a habit of looking into the heads of creative types: the father in “The Squid and the Whale” is a writer; Nicole Kidman’s Margot in “Margot at the Wedding” is also a writer. In “Frances HaGreta Gerwig’s character is searching for something artistic. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected)” has at its center a sculptor (Dustin Hoffman, the father of this troubled brood) and a musician (Adam Sandler, one of Hoffman’s children) in a film that is not about the art, but about the people who make it, who sell it, who talk about it.

Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz is as egotistical and self-centered as any artist is expected to be, while Sandler’s Danny, Harold’s  musician son, is giving and caring but feels the void of feeling from his father, and some of his step siblings. These emotions are the actual center of the film, as familial relationships are ripped open and exposed. And they are dealt with intellectually until  the only thing that brings everything to a head is a knock-down dragged-out fight between Danny and his financial planner half-brother Matthew (played by Ben Stiller). This may bring the two brothers down to earth, but papa will always be full of just himself. An artist’s plight, perhaps? Baumbach doesn’t say.

I think it’s pretty ballsy of Michel Hazanavicius to attempt to make a film about auteur Jean-Luc Godard. I would say the man has no fear. “Redoubtable” is a fictional account of the French New Wave bad boy at a time when the world was politically changing: That would be 1968. And Godard was changing as well.

Louis Garrel takes on the daunting task of playing Godard. He plays Godard with a certain ease, even as his character goes off on diatribes. Everything Godard says is a pronouncement, but the words come out of Garrel’s mouth effortlessly. To be truthful, I’ll bet Garrel had a blast playing Godard.

While Garrel plays a cerebral character with a certain lightness, Vincent Lindon plays Auguste Rodin with a profound fierceness - but then, he was a sculptor, using his body and muscles to create his masterpieces. “Rodin,” by Jacques Doillon turns out to be a pretty standard biopic, and not of much interest, even considering that we are talking about the creator of “The Thinker.” If not for Lindon’s intensity, there would be no good reason to watch the film. There’s lots of physicality which only boosts Lindon’s Q rating; it doesn’t tell us anything profound about this famous French artist.

It’s interesting to note that filmmakers take on real artistic characters as well as fictional ones. For the most part, it would seem that creating the latter is a walk in the park compared to attempting the real story of an actual artist. Case in point: ‘Rodin.’ But it can be done. Just take a look at Stanley Tucci’s ‘Final Portrait,’ a charming yet pointed look at the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, which was presented at the Berlinale. It has wit and some nicely fleshed out characters to boot.

And so it goes on and on. Good art and bad art. Good films about art and bad films about art. They will continue to exist side by side - perhaps until all the true stories have been told.

Reality Shows: Non fiction at Cannes

 The Venerable W

Documentary films still face an uphill battle in Cannes. Once again, no documentaries show up in the competition. When was the last time a documentary was selected for the competition? Could it have been as far back as 2004, when Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was put in the competition at the last minute and wound up winning the Palme d’Or?

There were a number of documentaries at the festival, but they are categorized as “Special Screenings” where the organizers crammed most of the non-fiction; or “Cannes Classics” - and those all have to do with cinema. In addition, Critics Week showed one, and three showed up at the Directors Fortnight, all having to do with the seventh art.

Such masters of the documentary film as Claude Lanzmann, Barbet Schroeder and Raymond Depardon all had films in the special screening section. In his film “Napalm,” Lanzmann revisits his own story of politics and possibly lost love in North Korea. Barbet Schroeder asks how Buddhist monks in Burma can wage a religious war against Muslims there in his film “The Venerable W.” Raymond Depardon has been documenting France’s social system, justice system for years. This time he turns his camera on the work of judges who must determine if patients in a Lyon mental institution are well enough to be on their own. And new to the format, Vanessa Redgrave presented “Sea Sorrow,” following the dire tales of war refugees.

As previously mentioned, the Cannes Classics section is not comprised of old, “classic” films, but rather films about film. And filmmakers. This year, the festival presented Mark Kidel’s cursory look at the life of Cary Grant. The film is titled “Becoming Cary Grant” and it purports to investigate the recesses of the star’s past to discover how he morphed from Archie Leach to the suave star. While there are some interesting moments - he grew up believing his mother died and only when he’s a Hollywood star does he discover that she was, in fact, still alive and living in a mental institution in England where his father deposited her when Grant was only 11 years old. And we get into his experiments with LSD - but under the careful supervision of his psychotherapist. What fun is that?

Eugene Jarecki, whose films take harsh looks at the US war on drugs, Henry Kissinger’s duplicitous actions and other serious topics, came to Cannes with his documentary “Promised Land,” in which he drives through America in Elvis Presley’s beloved car. While people ooh and aah, and fawn over the car, Jarecki discovers, through interviews, some of the reasons why we’ve wound up in Trumpland. It’s a sobering look at the American dream, now a nightmare.

Agnes Varda is the doyenne of French non-fiction. And at age 88 she hasn’t slowed down. For her latest film “Visages, Villages,” Varda has teamed up with the young photographer and street artist JR to create a beautiful, moving film that is about ordinary people in France, that is about aging (JR, with Varda’s permission, addresses her failing sight), that is about the past merging with the present (they try to visit Jean-Luc Godard) and with the future - the relationship between the two filmmakers is a lovely sight to behold.

“Visages, Villages” was the most moving film of the festival to this humble viewer. no wonder, then, that it was awarded the prize for best documentary, the L’œil d’or (golden eye). This is only the third year this award has been given out; it was created in 2015. And the award is not presented at the awards ceremony with the Palme d’or. If the festival organizers can be convinced to pay more attention to documentary, and to seriously include these films in the competition, perhaps one day the L’œil d’or will have the respect it - and the films it awards - deserve.

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