Some interesting Flemish shorts at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht this weekend, with mostly ingenious, violently funny plots and raw, explosive styles that are a welcome alternative to the kitchen sink drama that still seems to be the norm in Holland.
The exception to both was the short film 'Granitsa' ('Border') by Vanja d'Alcantara, a beautiful, poetic ode to travelling by train, filmed on the Trans-Siberian Express (possibly the most archetypical train journey in the world). The story is a kind of 'Brief Encounter' in body language, of a Belgian woman and Russian man meeting on the train and sharing a short, wordless romance.
Their helplessness in not being able to communicate is conveyed sympathetically by the main characters, as is their tacit understanding of the fleeting character of their relationship. But it's really the train ride itself that evokes their romance best, with its hypnotic cadence, the foreignness of all sights and sounds, the exhilaration of travelling across an unknown continent, the endless wintry steppes of Siberia gliding by, passing stations you can't decipher the names of...
The film is online here. See also this article, 'Strangers on a Train' (PDF, p. 32).
Those, and I am one of them, who find even a little ordinary-sized mole disgusting, would probably have died of disgust if they had seen the giant mole that was observed a few years ago, not far from a small village which gained a certain passing notoriety on that account.
Thus begins 'The Village Schoolmaster', an unfinished story by Franz Kafka, from the collection 'The Great Wall of China'. It stands out as one of Kafka's funniest stories, an hilarious exercise in futility which characteristically ends in dismal failure for all involved.
The story doesn't concern the giant mole itself - which is said to be "a couple of yards" long, but whose existence has never been confirmed. Instead, it focuses on an academic quarrel which arises over the quality of reporting on the alleged mole. The narrator, however, has never seen the mole. He merely heard about the "little treatise" that the village schoolmaster wrote about the sighting. (In fact, it is not even clear whether the schoolmaster personally saw the mole, or only documented accounts of it from the villagers. In surprisingly postmodern fashion, there is no objective basis whatsoever to the story: the whole thing seems to be based on hearsay.)
Due to "an incomprehensible apathy in those very circles which should have concerned themselves with it," the report has never been recognized by the appropriate authorities. With a smug nobility, the narrator then takes it upon himself to defend the schoolmaster, who "was wise enough to realize that these fragmentary efforts of his, in which no one supported him, were basically worthless." Note how the narrator seems to have definite ideas on how to write proper reports on giant moles. However, in one of those typical twists of logic, Kafka's narrator manages to antagonize the schoolmaster as soon as he gets involved in the matter.
A knowledge of his treatise would only have confused me, and I therefore refrained from reading it before my own work was completed. In fact, I did not even make contact with the teacher. It is true that he learned indirectly of my inquiries, but he did not know whether I was working for him or against him. Indeed he probably suspected the latter, although he later denied it, for I have evidence to show that he placed a number of obstacles in my path.
Amid rising distrust and enmity, but still thinking he is helping, the narrator repeats the investigation of the schoolmaster, and writes his own treatise on the mole. To make matters worse, this second treatise is met with ridicule too.
Those who gave any thought at all to my treatise told themselves, with the hopeless gloom that had characterized the debate from the outset, that no doubt the futile exertions in support of this dreary matter were about to begin again, and some of them even confused my treatise with that of the teacher.
The misunderstanding between the narrator and the schoolmaster is never resolved, even when they finally meet in person. But his meeting with the much older schoolmaster causes the narrator to draw some sarcastic conclusions about "old people", in one of those long ranting sentences:
Most old people have something deceptive, something mendacious about them in their dealings with those younger than themselves; one lives beside them peacefully, imagines the relationship to be secure, knows their prevailing opinions, receives unremitting confirmations of harmony, regards everything as a matter of course, and then suddenly, when something decisive does happen and the time comes for the long-cultivated state of calm to prove effective, these old people rise up like strangers, they possess deeper and stronger convictions, they positively unfurl their banner for the first time and with terror one reads upon it the new device. The reason for this terror lies chiefly in the fact that what the old say now is really far more just, more sensible, and - as if there were degrees of self-evidence - even more self-evident than before. But the surpremely deceitful thing about it is that they have basically always been saying what they now come out with, and that even so it is generally quite impossible to see it coming.
Quotes are from the translation by Malcolm Pasley. The full text (in a different translation) is available online.
The NAI exhibition My Public Space takes a critical look at the changing concept of publicness of city space.
Public spaces are being privatised as a result of the decrease in state intervention, they are assigned a particular theme to encourage tourism, or they are under tight surveillance to improve security. The result is a growing number of sites that are intended for a specific group instead of for everybody. In short, my public space is no longer your public space.
Contains interesting reports on the state of public space in eight European cities: Dublin, Barcelona, Rotterdam, Naples, Brussels, Berlin, Copenhagen and Tirana.
These are not tag clouds but word clouds, from a nice applet at Wordle.net. (Both images are distilled from my blog feed. The second is without filtering of common words.)
Some spoilers ahead!
One more on the underground theme, François Truffaut's 'Le Dernier Métro' (1980) quietly evokes the underground as a place of refuge and relative safety in the fearful arena of occupied Paris in WWII. At the film's center is Catherine Deneuve in one of her great roles as the liaison between different worlds, aloof but struggling under tremendous strain.
The title ('The Last Metro') refers to the curfew which made it of vital importance for Parisians, and especially those going out to the theatre, not to miss the last train home. It also symbolizes the way Truffaut depicts the occupation, not through marching soldiers or overt violence, but in everyday details, influencing the lives of all. There are hints of resistance work, of escape routes to Spain, of betrayal and doublecrossing. Shot in subdued colors by Néstor Almendros, the Paris of 'Le Dernier Métro' is a dark and secretive maze filled with shadows of fear and paranoia, where trust is a dangerous thing and hiding becomes an instinct.
All this serves as the backdrop for a quite subtle story of artists trying to survive without compromising, and most of all, an ode to the romantic world of the theatre. One of his last films, Truffaut envisioned 'Le Dernier Métro' as the second part of a trilogy on the entertainment world. The first part was 'La Nuit Américaine' ('Day for Night'), about the film world, but the third part ('L'Agence Magique'), which was to be about the world of music hall, was never realized.
The story centers around the Montmartre Theatre, whose Jewish director, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), has fled the German occupation, leaving his wife Marion (Deneuve) to lead the theatre. A new play is staged, aptly titled 'Disappearance', in which Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) is cast opposite Marion.
However, as is soon revealed, Steiner hasn't escaped at all but is in hiding in the theatre's basement, where his wife brings him food at night. From his hiding place Steiner is able to secretly direct the play, while above ground the meddling of a fanatical censor threatens to close the theatre. This situation also leads to a curious 'ménage à trois' between Lucas, Marion and Bernard - reminiscent of Truffaut's earlier 'Jules et Jim' but much more understated.
Though this may be one of Truffaut's less experimental films - with only a residu of Nouvelle Vague playfulness - its form is unmistakenly selfconscious. It is a film about a play, with much of the story devoted to rehearsals and scenes from the play, and thus the film itself looks like a theatre play too. All its scenes, even the exteriors, have a staged feel. It is as if Truffaut deliberately shows the streets of Paris as set pieces. At the same time, though, the film uses distinctly cinematic devices to evoke its theatrical feel. If this sounds paradoxical, that's exactly what Truffaut was playing with.
To give one specific example: there is practically no shot in the whole film that shows the sky or direct daylight. Even outside, there are only streets and walls, boxing the characters in and adding further to the staged, claustrophobic atmosphere. But there are two significant exeptions. The first is when Marion walks past a German officer painting in the street; the camera lingers on his painting, which prominently and ironically depicts an open sky. The second example occurs towards the end, in a scene in a hospital with large windows that bathe the room in daylight. But this scene is revealed as part of a play, implying that the windows we saw were fake - or perhaps more real, in the dazzling illusion of the theatre.
Ultimately, these tricks of form are secondary to a very human story of people forced to act out dangerous war-time roles in which they can only survive by hiding their emotions. Perhaps not Truffaut's most spectacular film, but in a thoughtful way rewarding and uplifting.
It's all I have to bring to-day,
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
Be sure you count, should I forget, -
Some one the sun could tell, -
This, and my heart, and all the bees
Which in the clover dwell.
- Emily Dickinson
See also the free e-book 'The Poems of Emily Dickinson'.