The Berlinale initially seems like an endless buffet filled with alluring possibilities. But, even with so much to choose from, especially with so much to choose from, there are lots of ways to feel like you’re filling your plate with the wrong stuff.
Enough with the food metaphor. What I mean is, although I try not to be quite as crazy as some of my festival-going friends who are SURE they’re always in the wrong movie, I can still be neurotic in other ways. If I see two disappointing movies in a row, I blame myself. If I’m seeing a movie that will eventually be easy to see back at home, I have the uneasy sensation that I should be watching something more obscure, experimental, difficult, unknown.
But sometimes the movie you’re watching is the movie you can get into. Such is the case with the first screening of the day, Welcome to the Rileys – I’m not quite sure what I’m doing at this well-meaning, well-acted American film, which picked up distribution recently, somewhere along the Festival road. It’s screening at Berlin after appearing at Sundance, to mixed reviews. The three lead actors – James Gandolfini, the under-used Melissa Leo, and a pre-Twilight-famed Kristen Stewart (the film was shot after Into the Wild but before Twilight was released) – are all excellent (even a cameo appearance by Ally Sheedy is vivid), but the script is dollar-book Freud. A couple damaged by the accidental death of their only child re-unite by attempting to change the course of the life of a hapless runaway stripper. The language is coarse, but it’s almost as much of a fairy tale as a Disney animation. The plusses are that I’m seeing it in one of my favorite theaters at the festival, the Cinemaxx 7, with a huge screen and comfortable wide seats, beautifully projected, and since it’s a public screening, the director, Jake Scott (whose career is mostly music videos and commercials) is there to introduce the film and answer questions afterwards.
Like many others, he references the great German beer and tells us that he spent the entire night celebrating – “I haven’t been to bed yet.” Afterwards, he tells the audience that, as a father of four whose step-sister died at 20 of a heroin overdose, his connection to the film was personal. When asked about the influence of his father, Ridley Scott (credited along with uncle Tony Scott as a producer), he says they did “fuck-all” besides helping get the film made: “The first time I showed my father the film, he fell asleep. The second time, he told me where shots needed to be shortened and where I needed music.”
Afterwards I see a Brazilian film, Besouro, in the same luxurious theater. It’s about a legendary Brazilian practicer of capoeira, a peculiarly graceful and dance-like form of martial arts, invented by African slaves who were prohibited from carrying weapons. Set in the early 20th century, it’s the story of a legendary heroic capoerista, Manuel Henrique Pereira. I’d heard that the martial-arts sequences are amazing – I’d hoped to get the same kind of feeling I do from watching a Chinese martial arts movie, with gymnastics and wire work. But even though the film is beautifully shot, the capoeira scenes don’t live up to my expectations.
Afterwards I spend a serious hour perusing the catalogue yet again, trying to suss out new possibilities, now armed with a few days of recommendations from friends, critics, and casual acquaintances (i.e., chatty seat-and-line mates). Just my luck – I find that the night before, there was a one-and-only screening – and in 3-D! -- of Su Qi-Er (True Legend), a Chinese martial arts movie directed by director and fight-stager Yuen Woo-Ping, whose credits include everything from Jackie Chan movies to the classic Tsui Hark epics, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Kill Bill. I haven’t been so disappointed since I learned that the brand-new German DVD of the Fassbinder Welt am Draht indeed does not have subtitles. I am dubious that this 205-minute obscurity will either wend its way to a cinema near me, nor come out on US or English DVDs with subtitles, anytime soon. Or maybe ever.
Ah well. I bravely continue on despite these heartbreaking cinematic tragedies, and go to the official pomp-and-circumstance competition screening of Bal (Honey), a genuinely heartbreaking and timeless Turkish movie about a 6-year-old who suffers the mysterious disappearance of his father, who scratches out a living keeping bees in primeval woods. Even if Bal does reach a cinema near me, I could never see it in such splendor. (Don’t get me started on the state of movie exhibition in San Francisco, especially in art house cinemas.) For once I feel I’m in the right place at the right time.
And I won’t beat myself up about seeing Please Give at the official screening, either, because it was the choice of a Berlin friend I made waiting in line last year at the festival. Like Nicole Holofcener’s other movies, it feels like a New Yorker short story brought to life – quirky and well-acted. But I question whether a New York mid-century-modern dealer (the always-likable Catherine Keener) would really be shocked, SHOCKED, to find out that another dealer would actually buy a table from her shop and then put it on sale for more money in his own store. And I also don’t understand why paying $235 for a pair of blue jeans for your teenage daughter is a hopeful sign of sanity. But then, at the Victoria Bar where I repair afterwards with my friends, a cocktail is about $12 – and they only accept cash.