Viennese Action

Dennis Lim on the 48th Viennale

Left: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Attenberg, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Right: Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 110 minutes.

IN AN AGE when film festivals seem increasingly packaged (as opposed to programmed), when their supposed goal of something-for-everybody plurality mainly begets middlebrow blandness, the curatorial coherence—and one might even say, the unapologetic good taste—of an event like the Viennale sets it apart more than ever. Most festivals of a certain size struggle to retain any trace of personality, but the Viennale, which concluded its forty-eighth edition earlier this month (featuring some 350 screenings over thirteen days), is a big festival with a legible point of view, rooted in a strong sense both of film history and of what matters in contemporary world cinema.

The festival trailer sets the tone: Following commissions from Jean-Luc Godard (2008) and James Benning (2009), this year’s was by Cannes Palme d’Or laureate Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose atmospheric minute-long spelunk, Empire, is a refashioned outtake from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). As usual, the main selection included most of the year’s cinephile-anointed favorites—films by Apichatpong, Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, Godard—but also made ample room for emerging filmmakers. Quebecois director Denis Côté, the subject of an early-career spotlight, presented his new feature, Curling; the story of an isolated father and daughter in a snowbound backwater, it derives its power from a creeping flavor of mystery and a slowly emerging humanity. Likewise finding surprising depths of emotion in off-kilter moods and characters (not to mention another eccentric father-daughter relationship), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is a wholly original coming-of-age movie, rife with erotic stirrings and mortal dread, and anchored in a Red Desert–like sense of place. (The setting is a Greek industrial town.) An equally intriguing experiment in the art of deadpan, Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation is yet another dispatch on the spiritual emptiness of the new China, but the film assumes the ingenious guise of a radically distended slacker comedy.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Empire, 2010.

Equal emphasis is given to documentaries, and this year’s nonfiction slate was notable for the range of formal approaches to politically or historically charged subjects. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu recounts the dictator’s career exclusively through Romanian state footage (and craftily invented sound design). Similarly, Susana de Sousa Dias’s 48 looks back at Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship (the title refers to the number of years he was in power) through official archival images, pairing mugshotlike photographs of political prisoners with their voice-over recollections. Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario, Room 164 filters the familiar headlines of Mexican drug violence through a sustained, gruesomely detailed motel-room monologue of a masked ex–cartel hitman, who provides visual interest by compulsively sketching and list making in a drawing pad. John Gianvito’s four-hour-plus Vapor Trail (Clark), ostensibly an account of toxic military pollution at the US Clark Air Base in the Philippines, opens up—via essayistic digressions, archival photos, and expansive interviews with victims and activists—into a sober, epic indictment of the American imperial project. Equally ambitious and pointed in its politics, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space is a Marxist cine-essay about the contemporary maritime economy. Reminding us that 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea, the film traverses major ports (from Rotterdam to Hong Kong) and ventures inland on highways and railroads, examining the rise of the shipping container, the changes in transport systems, and the toll that global capitalism has exerted on human labor.

As at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Viennale’s closest counterpart in terms of sensibility, retrospectives comfortably share center stage. In conjunction with the Viennale, the Austrian Filmmuseum organized a monthlong Éric Rohmer survey. The festival also honored another recently departed giant of French cinema, the director of photography William Lubtchansky, showcasing his collaborations with Jacques Rivette, Straub/Huillet, Godard, Agnès Varda, and others. A less obvious choice, American B-movie pulpmeister Larry Cohen received his own tribute, and the comic anarchy and tabloid energy of films like God Told Me To (1976) and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) seemed as fresh and subversive as ever. It was one of the festival’s most successful retrospectives in years, and Cohen, a youthful seventy, was in conspicuous attendance, wisecracking his way through Q&A sessions. At one introduction, he graciously thanked his hosts for the honor, then added: “Don’t let it happen again.”

The forty-eighth edition of the Viennale ran October 21–November 3, 2010. For more details, click here.