All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


The City Below (Christoph Hochhäusler, Germany)
Few films I've seen in recent years exemplify the sense of contemporary existence as a decentered, groundless state of (anti-)affairs as well as Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below. In an opportunistic moment, when every third art film is "about the financial collapse" or tries to shine on the most facile veneer of topicality, Hochhäusler has produced a work of art that exhibits sensitive, up-to-the-minute social and aesthetic responses to the crises of our time. As massive an artistic breakthrough for Hochhäusler as In The Shadows is for Arslan (Go Germany!), The City Below moves in the exact opposite direction. Instead of consolidating gains in toward genre commentary or fine-tuned professionalism, Hochhäusler delves into the troubled unconscious of art film semiosis. Does The City Below “make sense” by the time we’re done with it? Has it moved into realms of the patently absurd? Or is it perhaps, on its immediate face, aping certain recognizable genre moves (“trouble in the business world;” “the indecent proposal”) in order to finally challenge its spectators’ secure position within our own material realm? As the film opens, we discover that “banker of the year” Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Bühler) is increasingly remote from the boardroom-universe over which he lords. By contrast, the young go-getters in mid-management jockey for position, and one of them, Oliver Steve (Mark Waschke) has an attractive young wife Svenja (writer-director Nicolette Krebitz) who Cordes covets. This jarringly simplistic triangle becomes, in Hochhäusler’s hands, a self-consuming, almost Resnais-like inquiry into mobility and containment. Seeing as money is the universal medium of exchange, and its devaluation has effectively unmoored all other tokens of interaction throughout the human signifying chain, the evacuation of personality, if not meaning itself, becomes the logical consequence of the international monetary crisis. (The City Below’s final scene is as perfect and inexplicable and bizarre as that of Wild Grass.) Hochhäusler, too, is concerned with spatial matters, buffeting his mismatched hollow-man lovers between dark recesses, wan “homes” evacuated of all human color, and above all, the impervious glass skyscrapers of late capital on the wane. (Hochhäusler’s ambiance of unmoored architecture as world-unglued recalls Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle, something not nearly enough films have the good taste to do.) The City Below had its detractors at Cannes, to be sure, but I suspect this may have had to do with its accomplishment of something genuinely new. Instead of merely narrativizing the economic collapse, Hochhäusler collapsed the economy of narrative; instead of allowing characters to traverse cinematic space, The City Below permits space to virtually come after the viewer with a vengeance. I am anxious for a second viewing (and a third), but I am quite confident that Hochhäusler has delivered a near-masterpiece.


The Robber (Benjamin Heisenberg, Germany / Austria)
In many recent German films, particularly those that I would call artistically adventurous or intellectually advanced (oh, the backflips one must undergo to avoid saying "New Berlin School..."), there has been a significant engagement with cinematic space as an aesthetic as well as a social / political problem. (Here I think we see the philosophical inheritance from the more advanced wing of the original New German Cinema -- Fassbinder, Kluge, and early Wenders, and these filmmakers' engagement with advanced contemporary film culture, particularly folks like Pedro Costa and especially Apichatpong Weerasethakul.) How does one move through space? Movement, in terms of the attempt to traverse boundaries or confront the limitations imposed by space, is becoming more pronounced in some of these films. I find I’m seeing a new degree of restlessness, met with an increase in the obstacles facing protagonists as they try to navigate an uncertain physical world. (This assertion or “push-back” of space and locale is the direct opposite of most commercial cinema, which treats locations as neutral containers for action, a narrative golf course to be played through hole by hole.) We can see this at work in The Robber, which has already been released to theatres in Germany and may actually be seen be more than a handful of North American viewers thanks to its surprise inclusion in this year's New York Film Festival.

Heisenberg’s treatment of the Johann Rettenberger story, adapted along with Martin Prinz from the author’s own novel, consistently favors hardened surfaces and physical gesture over psychology, which could be said to represent a tendency of the group of auteurs with whom Heisenberg is affiliated, however loosely. However, The Robber actually accelerates this aspect, somewhat literally, by casting its lot with a unique atmosphere of fitful kineticism. Of course, this is perfectly apposite when filming the story of a champion marathon runner who is also a solo-act rip-and-run bank robber. Speed was the name of Rettenberger’s game. But Heisenberg constructs The Robber as a series of self-contained, almost anti-dialectical scenarios involving the negotiation of obstacles. While we get a certain amount of basic social context – television announcers filling in ex-con Rettenberger’s “inspiring” story during his first major marathon victory, or the periodic intrusions of Johann’s irksome parole officer (Markus Schleinzer) as the voice of liberal concern – the very structure of The Robber militates against things adding up. Similarly, spaces become extensions of Johann’s own forward drive, but are no less material for this sleight of hand. We jump from socially acceptable sport to criminality with straight shots, and only Andreas Lust’s deep-set eyes provide any sense of a continuous personality. Rather it is in his hunger for propulsion, practically a quest to exit his own skin, that there “is” a Rettenberger. He is a kind of Nietzschean will to disintegrate, and Heisenberg transmits this propulsion as a second-order sensation to his audience. (A crackerjack sequence of Johann evading the cops through a midtown building verges on parkour, but even the pre-robbery point-of-view shots of Johann tearing down the street in his stolen cars blasting the radio provide the clear thrill of Rettenberger’s vertiginous non-being.) However Heisenberg and Prinz, to their great credit, are the intellectuals Rettenberger was not, and the final third of The Robber returns us to the human race by bringing Johann’s race against embodiment to a grinding halt. He eventually becomes his own final hurdle, and that’s the one none of us can finally clear. Heisenberg’s film is about withdrawal, not the conquering of distance. There’s a reason why, despite one’s possible expectations, it is not called The Runner.


The American (Anton Corbijn)
Despite its brevity, I do feel as though my Nashville Scene review sums up the majority of my views on this film. However, one thing I've discovered, to my surprise, is that The American is proving divisive, and has a few more champions than detractors. This actually satisfies me to some extent. This isn't the type of film that I want to see trounced, or that I want to see stars and studios afraid to make. But I have to admit, I'm mystified by the kind of praise Corbijn's film is receiving. There's a general acknowledgment that the script is crap, with its tin-eared "homage" to existentialist, tender-hearted machismo really resulting in nothing but a coagulation of ugly clichés. But people seem to think The American is rigorous, or at least formally minded. Sure, there are a few shots, like the overhead view of the snaky desert road in the third act, that demonstrate rather obnoxiously that Corbijn and crew are "making art," or working within enough of a visual framework to generate a reasonable facsimile. But these overstated gestures, when they appear, are (to crib for a moment from the great Acquarello's website) "strictly film school." Throw massive resources at any newly minted USC or NYU grad, and they'll give you exactly that. It's all sizzle, no steak. And as for the rest of The American's supposed sumptuousness, all I can say is, location location location. It's possible I'm too avant-garde damaged to appreciate average, workmanlike landscape cinematography anymore. (Although, why should I?) But there is nothing in The American's imagery of the Italian countryside that is enframed, composed, or otherwise spatially "worked with." It's just delivered, like a found object, and not a very considered one at that. It's as though, once a magnificent locale was secured, that "problem" was considered solved, and not thought about again. I can understand that The American wants us to be thinking about The American Friend and The Passenger. But it doesn't measure up. Look again. (Stults, help me out, dude...)

Orly (Angela Schanelec, Germany / France)
Many recent art films, both in Germany and elsewhere, have attempted to focus greater visual and analytical attention on those areas of our lives that anthropologist Marc Augé has famously termed “non-places.” This would not only entail the usual suspect areas, such as highways or airports, but suburban nether regions and the spaces in between those non-spaces. Christian Petzold’s recent cinema exemplifies this, with its focus on movement through networks as the fundamental condition of things, both in the globalized / neoliberal economic sphere, and more specifically in the post-reunification East. But in subtler ways, earlier efforts by Christoph Hochhäusler, Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler and others have touched on suburbanization as a no-man’s-land, indicative of a moment of renewed rootlessness and the failure of meaningful social bonding. Schanelec’s best work, such as Afternoon, has participated in this deft ongoing critique. But her newest film Orly is, sad to say, a dunderheaded literalization of “life in transit,” and as such a complete misfire. A French / German co-production, naturally, Orly consists of three-and-a-half extended dialogues within the titular airport. Schanelec adopts an unusual and risky tack of filming her scenes right in the middle if the airport terminals during what appear to be near-normal operational conditions; to her credit, she maintains her usual formal control instead of lapsing into handheld Dogmetism. But Schanelec’s dialogues, which function as semi-detachable short stories, are precious to a fault, and exemplify the anti-cinematic metteur-en-scène work Truffaut and company decried over a century ago. Fans of actorly acting may enjoy watching, for example, Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini go to town on a hesitant midlife flirtation as agonizingly chiseled as an off-the-shelf wedding diamond. But in the past Schanelec’s work has displayed an aching precision in replicating the delicacy of human interaction, and has always made room for the unexpected. Orly will have its champions – it’s not actively bad, I suppose – but it is the sort of well-behaved, talky art film any number of directors might have made.