Every year film festivals run a little differently, a fact I was reminded of as hundreds of people were turned away from the early-morning press screenings at the Berlinale Palast, heretofore open to those with non-press-passes (such as myself) after the press has been admitted. The hordes were incredulous and angry, knowing the Berlinale Palast would be half-empty. Wondering why I had gotten up for the 8:30 a.m. screening of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s (The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) first fiction film, Howl, my question was quickly answered when I realized I would at least be early in line at the nearby ticket office where passholders have to queue up daily to get their tickets for the next day.
I scored 5 tickets in a row at the International for Day Three, Saturday, partly because the two press screenings I’d counted on getting into that morning (Howl and The Ghost Writer) were among them, partly because it’s a theater I love. Almost nothing I tried to get for Friday was available that day (film festivals are a source of both pleasure and pain, even before you see the movies). I walked away with one ticket for the fancy screening that night of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan at 10:30 p.m.
The press screenings for the Panorama were still admitting other passholders, it seemed, so I saw Mat Whitecross’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, starring Andy Serkis in a vivid performance as Ian Dury, polio-stricken lead singer and songwriter of proto-punk-rock band The Blockheads. Kinetic, well-acted, and compelling, the film sometimes seemed not to trust the power of its material, interpolating wacky animated segments, vaudeville elements, and distracting editing techniques.
Next up was Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar, by James Rasin, about the amazingly beautiful and photogenic transsexual, born Jimmy Slattery, who briefly fulfilled her MGM/Kim Novak dreams in Warhol’s Factory before dying of cancer at the age of 29 in 1974. Lou Reed immortalized her in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” but declined to be among those interviewed, a roundup of the usual suspects: Fran Lebowitz, Paul Morrissey, Holly Woodlawn, Taylor Mead, Geraldine Smith, and archival footage of Jackie Curtis and Warhol. The film is a labor of love, using the fetishistic Darling ephemera collection of longtime companion Jeremiah Newton, whose recent burial of Darling’s ashes bookends the film. The Sundance imprimatur insures that it will eventually find its way to television.
I found my way to a Fassbinder film I’d never seen, Rio das Mortes (1971), part of the hommage to Hanna Schygulla, impossibly adorable, like a kewpie doll made out of whipped cream. Introduced in black lingerie, soon exposing a heart-shaped derriere lying nude on a bed with her hapless lover, your eyes are always drawn to her. The film also features Fassbinder’s lover Gunther Kaufman. A trifle clunky, especially when compared with the same year’s Merchant of Four Seasons or the next year’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but something of a treat for Fassbinder completists. I sat next to a young South African filmmaker, Jenna Bass, fresh from Sundance, where she’d shown her short film The Tunnel to great acclaim, also part of the Berlinale Shorts program. She was taking full advantage of the Berlinale 60-year retrospective program. Play it Again, curated by David Thomson, having already that day seen Sergei Paradjanov’s 1984 The Legend of The Suram Fortress and Nagisa Oshima’s 1975 In The Realm of the Senses.
A trifle overconfident after navigating the icy streets of Potsdamer Platz, I achieved a classic slip-and-fall on my way to My Name is Khan, happily not cracking any bones but learning just what the phrase “having the wind knocked out of you” really means. Plus acquiring an interesting set of bruises down my right side. “We must really love movies,” I thought to myself, my constant film festival mantra, often intoned while waiting in interminable lines. Trudging all the way up to the highest reaches of the Berlinale Palast, the 10:30 screening of a 165-minute film started well after 11, as the crowd was diverted by real-time footage displayed onscreen of Shah Rukh Khan, costar Kajol, and director Karan Johar wending their way slowly down the red carpet. Every time Khan signed an autograph or hopped over to a microphone-wielding interviewer, squeals of delight echoed through the theater.
It was the right crowd to see the movie with, but not, alas, the right movie. Khan, who famously was recently detained for questioning at Newark Airport because his name turned upon a computer alert list, plays an autistic man. Despite a disclaimer, the performance is awkward and offensive – Khan, a pleasure to watch exposing his chiseled abs and dancing in the rain in Om Shant Om’s delirious “My Heart is Breaking From the Pain of Disco,” largely creates the character by avoiding eye contact, and he isn’t helped by a script that alternates halting speech for him with florid articulation. The film, a rather simplistic piece of kitsch that sends Khan on a years-long mission to tell the President (Bush or Obama) that his name is Khan and he’s not a terrorist, would have elicited boos at Cannes, but Berlin gave it credulous applause, especially after painful sequences set in a Song-of-the-South-worthy black sharecropper-village where Khan is serenaded by “We Shall Overcome” by a church full of characters with names like Funny Hair Joel and Mama Jenny. Khan later returns to single-handedly rescue the inhabitants of Wilhelmina from a hurricane-induced flood. Oy.
The rapturous applause afterwards led Khan to declare “you get unconditional love from your mother and German fans.” I could only agree.