Gold Standard

Jem Cohen, Museum Hours, 2012, HD video, color, 107 minutes.

THE VIENNALE TURNED FIFTY THIS YEAR, and as befits an event that shuns red carpets and festival politics-as-usual, it did not make too big a deal of the milestone. While Vienna’s international film festival is not above populist concessions—this edition’s included a tribute to Michael Caine and Ben Affleck’s Argo as opening-night film—it does not by any means cater to all tastes. As festivals the world over succumb ever more to industry pressures and sponsorship demands, the Viennale’s longtime director, Hans Hurch, has repeatedly stressed the importance of programming without strings. (“On the one hand I’m a very diplomatic guy, but on the other hand I can be very Stalinist,” he told Sight and Sound last year.) For its half-centenary, this most coherent of European festivals simply played to its strengths, offering a range of retrospectives that ran deep and broad, and a deftly chosen sample of the past year’s most consequential films, with evening slots at the largest venue, the seven-hundred-plus-seat Gartenbau, accorded to the likes of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (winner of the international critics’ prize), and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (anointed by an audience jury assembled by the local daily Der Standard).

A film festival program that seeks to be polemical inevitably steps on some toes, and Hurch’s occasionally combative relationship with the local film industry erupted last month into a public skirmish with the director Ulrich Seidl. Denied prime-time screenings for the first two movies in his Paradise trilogy (the latter of which just won a top prize at Venice), Seidl withdrew them both, citing Hurch’s habit of sidelining Austrian cinema. In Seidl’s absence, the highest-profile Austrian film was the American director Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, set largely within Vienna’s venerable Kunsthistoriches Museum. Cohen’s film had its world premiere in Locarno earlier this year, but the sold-out Vienna screening felt like a homecoming. (Executive producer Patti Smith marked the occasion with a charmingly underrehearsed acoustic performance, interspersed with readings from her memoir Just Kids, at the ornate, intimate Metro cinema.) Revolving around the friendship that develops between two lonely middle-aged people, a kindly museum docent (Viennale staffer Bobby Sommer) and a distracted visitor (Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara), Museum Hours is many things in one, among them a city symphony from an outsider’s perspective and, as such, a testament to the act of seeing anew. Not unlike a John Berger essay, Cohen’s ever curious, supremely generous film asserts the role of art as a living thing, premised on human relationships and encounters with the world, with the potential to transform how we see and indeed how we live.

James Benning, Easy Rider, 2012, HD video, color, 95 minutes.

Festival regular James Benning returned this year with further confirmation that his switch to digital three years ago has only energized the onetime celluloid purist. His new Easy Rider is a remake of the hippie-culture monument in much the same way that his Faces, from last year, reframed the John Cassavetes classic: a duration-based metonymic exercise that interacts in surprising and provocative ways with the viewer’s memory of the original. Both pilgrimage and desecration, Benning’s Easy Rider, in which each shot matches the length of a scene in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film, is one of his richest (and wittiest) recent works: a road trip through the movie’s locations that questions the mythology of landscape and the meaning of counterculture. Another new Benning work, The War, culled from Internet videos of anarchic interventions by the Russian political art collective Voina, was pulled from the festival at the group’s request. The War, which Benning showed at a private screening, performs a simple trick of separating image and text, much as in his 2010 performance Reforming the Past, a reinterpretation of his earlier North on Evers. In The War, explanatory context and English subtitles are withheld, and eventually provided over a black screen at the end; the disjunction exaggerates and enriches the act of ascribing meaning to the startling documentary fragments.

Retrospectives are far from an afterthought at the Viennale, where a discerning attendee is likely to see more old films than new ones. The Austrian Film Museum hosted a concurrent Fritz Lang retrospective, but there were also spotlights on lesser-known names. Alberto Grifi (1938–2007), whose epochal 1970s real-life drama Anna, codirected with Massimo Sarchielli, has found new admirers since its restoration last year, was the subject of a welcome focus. Grifi’s work ranged from found-footage experiments (La verifica incerta) to sci-fi allegory (Dinni e la normalina). But the heart of his remarkable oeuvre can be found in his ’70s political videos, eruptions of self-reflexive vérité that drew on and fed into the energy of the times. Lia (1977), a counterpart to Anna, is a nearly half-hour single take, much of it devoted to a young woman’s impassioned monologue at an “anti-psychiatry counter-conference” in Milan, mounted in opposition to an establishment event. Parco Lambro Juvenile Proletariat Festival (1976), commissioned as a document of a Woodstock-like rock festival, turns into a chronicle of an impromptu protest over food prices, culminating in the mass looting and cooking of the poultry supplies (“the socialization of the chickens”). These extraordinary documents of their historical moment speak to Grifi’s uncanny sensitivity to the currents of thought and feeling swirling around him, his live-wire responsiveness to ideas as they form and life as it happens.

Another eye-opener: a sidebar of films by the Portuguese filmmaker Manuel Mozos, drolly and fondly introduced at his screenings by his younger colleague and dogged champion Miguel Gomes. Something of a forgotten man and missing link in post-Salazar cinema, Mozos has had a stop-start, catch-as-catch-can career, one that is perhaps (as Gomes suggests) emblematic of a film culture that has survived and in many ways thrived despite neglect and isolation. Among Mozos’s documentaries is a national-cinema survey from 1996 whose tentatively punctuated title, Portuguese Cinema…(?), speaks volumes. (It opens with João Bénard da Costa, the late director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa, declaring that “Portuguese cinema has never existed.”) Stalled for years, Mozos’s great work, Xavier, came close to becoming a lost film and, little seen outside Portugal, very nearly remains one. It was completed in 2002, but shot in 1991, not long after Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, and features the same wonderful actor, Pedro Hestnes (who died last year), in the title role as a troubled youth whose world is closing in on him. At once deadpan and dreamy, rich in everyday detail but also given to romantic stylization, Xavier is an odd and indelible movie: Its ellipses may be a function of its difficult production or indications of how its drifting protagonist experiences his life. Either way, it’s a work of bone-deep melancholy, a young man’s film that bears the scars of age.