The general temperature regarding the competition films at this year’s Berlinale was middling. Longstanding attendees complained loudly and often about how the films were selected for political reasons rather than merit. As a first-timer, I can’t comment on the festival’s trajectory from cutting-edge to mediocrity, but the handful of competition films I did see didn’t protest the point.
Still, if the competition films weren’t appealing, there were a number of other strands to see. Too many, in fact: the festival boasts more than 400 films, far more than even the most caffeinated cinephile could attend. I barely managed to flick through the 146-page program before the festival had come to an end. So, after ten days running around Berlin, is seeking out the gems an arduous or enjoyable task?
The first challenge is trying to understand what the various strands of the program represent. It used to be (or so I’m told) that the Competition was the place for bold new works, Panorama was the dumping ground for the films that didn’t make Competition and the Forum was where talented new, risk-taking directors showed their films. But the only obvious distinctions I could make were in separating the new titles from the retrospectives.
In the wake of such a challenge, the viewer becomes curator: navigating one’s own path through more than 400 films is, in itself, a curatorial act. Each mini-festival the individual creates is based on a series of judgements and denotes, for better or worse, something called ‘taste’. Looking for the bolder, riskier works, and something that strayed from the daily grind of average art-house fare, I curated a strand that was surprising – one that saw me, a cinema advocate, shed the confines of an auditorium.
Early on in the festival, I enjoyed watching the kinds of films that I might watch at home in an art-house cinema with a glass of wine. Jack, Die Gliebten Schwestern (Beloved Sisters) and My Brother’s Keeper were all engaging and even arty enough to satisfy. But increasingly I realised that satisfaction was just another form of complacency: as viewers, we have been trained through a lifetime of generic conventions to expect certain things when we sit down in the dark and that magical beam of light starts up.
For me, the turning point in the festival was watching Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol 1. I loved it. I knew before it began that I would: I’m a von Trier fan. Then, I became disappointed with myself: had I really just curated my way through the Berlinale in exactly the same fashion as every other festival I’d ever attended? Why would I travel all the way to Berlin just to live through the same experiences? After that, I became a far more daring curator.
The major highlight of my festival came under the banner of Forum Expanded. Two sessions screening newly restored works by pioneering American Underground and Queer Cinema artist Jack Smith, accompanied by panel discussions, rocked my world more than any art-house fare ever could. The first panel was an avant-gardist’s wet dream, with experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his wife and creative partner Flo, curator and restorationist Jerry Tartaglia and musician John Zorn, who used to spin records at Smith’s shows. Moderated by film scholar and curator Marc Siegel, the panel regaled the audience with stories about Smith’s life and work for almost an hour and a half. It was more intimate than passively watching a string of films and far livelier than standing in front of a white gallery wall (so often the setting for retrospective works of the avant-garde).
The two Jack Smith sessions were the city’s triumph, too: Berlin is currently the only place in the world where all of Smith’s films have screened. I couldn’t help but wonder why the works of an American Underground hero would be best received in Berlin.
Then the city seduced me and I stopped wondering.
After such an exhilarating panel, where I learnt that Allen Ginsberg came to Smith’s deathbed only to talk about himself, and that Smith would perform his seven-hour show even if no-one turned up to see it, I really wanted the conversation to continue. Film isn’t just about sitting down and shutting up (though that’s important); it’s also about sharing ideas. So my next curatorial move was to take a night off, watch nothing, and seek out bars where you can still smoke indoors while you talk film.
Conversation, that feisty beast, led me further afield and out of the festival entirely and to a John Waters exhibition. To my absolute elation, his photographic works and early shorts – never shown anywhere I’ve lived – were intelligently and playfully displayed.
What was most intriguing about the exhibition was the use of space – an issue that always comes up when exhibiting moving image art. The gallery can be a sterile setting at the best of times; when it comes to the avant-garde and the underground, it can’t help but take the work out of context. Given the playful nature of Waters’ art, the issue couldn’t be ignored and commenting on it academically would also have been a mistake. The only way to address the disjuncture was in signalling the context through artifice – the very thing that the works interrogate. And so, there was a cardboard sign cello taped to the wall with the words ‘PEEP SHOW’ scrawled in black marker. Behind the sign were three small booths. Each booth contained a small screen showing one of three of Waters’ rarely seen shorts: Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), Roman Candles (1966) and Eat Your Makeup (1968).
There was also a chair, a rubbish bin and a small shelf. On the shelf stood a roll of paper towel, a bottle of lube and an ashtray. There was even a glory hole between the booths, lined with black gaffer tape to prevent chafing. Each booth had its own curtain to ensure privacy. Though a gallery is hardly an appropriate environment for getting your rocks off, the space was sexually charged. I felt butterflies thinking about whether or not I was expected to, whether or not I should, and what would happen if I did? The questions proved to be exciting enough and brought about a kind of mental orgasm, even if I didn’t dare unbutton my trousers.
The thrill that boundary-pushing cinema can bring revived me – and reminded me why I started with the medium in the first place. It was like a sexual renaissance in a stale marriage.
My next step was to book sessions at random. I found myself in a multiplex watching something called Fucking Different – XXY. The latest in the Fucking Different documentary series from producer Kristian Petersen, a German visual-media anthropologist, XXY hopes to challenge perspectives and break transgender stereotypes. The seven short films did exactly that. One, featuring lactation fetishism, even popped my milk cherry.
As the festival drew to a close I became more reckless still. I continued along my expanded cinema path and abandoned the auditorium entirely. Wandering around flea markets, smoking shisha and taking a filmmaker as a lover, I let Berlin play out in real time. Minus those visual and thematic cues, the festival as an experience constantly surprised me.
Berlin is a city that has long been about pushing boundaries and tearing down physical and metaphorical walls. I might have enjoyed Nymphomaniac Vol 1 but it, and my response to it, was predictable. Some people will want to know if I saw George Clooney walk the red carpet or if I watched the award-winning films. I didn’t. But what I saw was exciting because I stepped out of my comfort zone and started taking responsibility in my role as curator. The greatest thing I learnt from Berlin – as a city always in conversation with itself – is that I don’t have to suffer mediocrity as a viewer because, ultimately, I have curatorial control.