Crime Wave

02.15.13

James Benning, Stemple Pass, 2012, HD, color, sound, 121 minutes.


NAVIGATING THE HUNDREDS of films comprising the Berlinale is nerve-wracking—you always feel like you’re bound to miss the big one, whatever that may be. Lest your Berlinale experience become a marathon of unwatchables showcasing poly-mediocrity James Franco, the best survival tactic is to ignore the hype. Creatures of instinct, some of us simply can’t do otherwise; inevitably, when I bump into someone I know, I’ll be asked for tips, at which point I am left temporarily paralyzed by the retrieval process as my companion’s face forms an embarrassed smile. Because his films so often evince the placidity of the perceptive process itself, it’s surely no accident that James Benning’s new one, Stemple Pass, is often the first I manage to name. Titled after the Montana no-man’s-land where Theodore Kaczynski dwelled, hunted, and sent out his homemade bombs, the film stars Benning’s re-creation of the Kaczynski cabin in the wilds of California and consists of four static shots, one for each season, over which Benning reads a selection of the Unabomber’s writings.

Criminality—its shifting statuses, mutant forms, gray shadings, and glorifications—is foregrounded in a number of documentaries featured in this year’s celebrated Panorama section. TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay away from Keyboard explores the anarchist ethos of the Swedish computer geniuses behind the Pirate Bay, the world’s largest file-sharing site, and Hollywood’s attempts to destroy them. The narrative dramatizes the tension between a status quo too enfeebled by convention to learn how to make money in new ways and a generation already living in a future where “copyright” has become obsolete. Out in East Berlin: Lesbians and Gays in the GDR revisits the Stasi abuse endured by the out-and-proud on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Stateside, a group of young Latino musicians’ mindless homages to Mexican drug lords is contrasted with the sobering daily life of a Juárez crime scene investigator in Narco Cultura.

Finally, the brain fog of the past few days begins to clear, and I am reminded of surprise discoveries. The quiet Cuban feature La Piscina (The Swimming Pool) unfolds over a single afternoon at a public pool, where four handicapped adolescents have gathered for swimming lessons; it loudly affirms that the Latin American cinematic renaissance is still going full throttle. And I never expected to find myself falling for a Taiwanese romcom, but Arvin Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was done so well—in terms of its writing, editing, and lead performances—that it upstages every Hollywood-backed production I’ve seen so far. The narrative’s simple premise—a middle-aged man with a wife and son begins an affair with a younger man, drifting back into a life he had left behind when he married—allows for a realistic and intriguing look at how modern sexuality operates behind a veil of Confucian norms. While there is a tendency among gay-themed films from East Asia (well, anywhere really) to fall into cliché or unintentional homophobia, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow masterfully avoids these pitfalls.

Travis Jeppesen

The sixty-third Berlinale runs through Sunday, February 17th.