Genius Bar

Wang Bing, Ta'ang, 2016, color, sound, 148 minutes.

EXCUSE THE FRAGMENTARY NATURE of the following ruminations, but I am now halfway through a ten-day binge of jet-lagged cinematic submission, synaptically haggard and synesthetically nullified, yet somehow alert enough to grind out a few words on my laptop. So trumpets and timpani if you please, here are some first impressions of the sixty-sixth Berlin International Film Festival:

Lots of films about artists and writers (mostly writers), in both documentary and biopic format, including Emily Dickinson, Robert Frank, Oda Jaune, and Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, to name a few. Many seem less concerned with illuminating their subjects than reassuring audiences that said subjects conform to a certain type—which is, of course, the nonconformist. In the case of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s made-for-HBO Mapplethorpe documentary, the film reinforces that typically American (specifically New Yorkese) malaise of equating “ambition” with shameless careerism, ruthless competition, and unnatural levels of insecurity—which, taken together, guarantees success in the art world and completely excuses treating people close to you like garbage along the way. Let this be a lesson to young aspiring creative people everywhere: If you’re not an insufferable self-obsessed asshole, you just can’t be a genius—sorry. That seems to be the definition of genius echoed in, well, Genius, a melodramatic biopic of Thomas Wolfe, whose greatness surely resided in his inability to feel any empathy whatsoever for those with whom he was closest, especially his long-term editor, the esteemed Maxwell Perkins (who also edited Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Is it mere coincidence that the one subject who shuns these toxic traits belongs to the most formally ambitious and successful of the films mentioned thus far? That would be art writer John Berger—the focus of The Seasons in Quincy, which consists of four short cinematic portraits by as many directors—a writer whose sensitivity to nuance relates directly to his profound and intricately developed sense of morality, which is explored in great detail in this composite film.

Lots of films about real people (mostly real), in both documentary and feature-film format. Many of these engage with the notion of home: either the attempt to establish one or the struggle to escape it. One of the indisputable highlights so far is Ta’ang, Wang Bing’s documentary on the eponymous minority living on the mountainous border between Myanmar and China’s Yunnan Province. A civil war has broken out on the Myanmar side, one of those wars rarely covered beyond local press, forcing the Ta’ang to flee their homes for the uncertainty of refugee life in China. Wang, like Berger a deeply moral artist—one whose subjects tend to be on the losing side of global capitalism—followed these people in their forced nomadism over several months, editing the footage into a 148-minute masterpiece depicting dignity in the face of dehumanizing displacement.

Another documentary, Fan Jian’s Wu Tu (My Land), follows the plight of a young couple in Beijing, illegal tenant farmers who refuse to leave their home after the land on which it rests is sold to real-estate speculators. Failing to secure a fair price by the village council, the couple endure threats and humiliation, but their intransigence is ultimately successful: They are able stay for several years, raising their infant daughter and caring for their parents while continuing to grow their own vegetables. Fan’s film demonstrates the great redemptive value of seemingly minor acts of resistance against indifferent and hostile systems.

Katsuyuki Hirano, Happiness Avenue, 1986, Super 8, color, sound, 93 minutes.

Ideals can be oppressive when you try to live beneath them. This seems to be the message behind Thomas Vintenberg’s latest feature, The Commune, one of the better of the few main competition entries I’ve seen. Set in 1970s Denmark, a middle-age newscaster persuades her husband to turn a massive house he inherited into a communal living situation, a decision that ultimately leads to the bitter dissolution of their relationship and nearly compromises her sanity. Vintenberg deploys psychological dynamics with great subtlety, so that the film, which could have devolved into mere hippie-bashing, becomes an insightful exploration of the clash between idealistic human-arranged collectivities and the burning needs of individualism.

Finally, punk’s still not dead. A program in the Forum section, “Hachimiri Madness,” showcases Japanese films from the 1970s and ’80s. Screaming, hypersexual insanity! Twenty-two-year-olds with Super 8 cameras running naked shrieking through the streets of Tokyo! These films—by directors like Sion Sono, Katsuyuki Hirano, and Nobuhiro Suwa—haven’t lost their power to shock, annoy, and alienate. Mass walkouts at screenings. More on that when I get my brain back.

The 66th Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 11 through February 21, 2016.