RMA 2018 De Palma, Pure and Impure

When people draw up their lofty pantheons of the eternally great directors, Brian De Palma (born 1940, now 77) frequently disappears early in the cull. Of course, he has his fervent fans all over the world – more visibly and vocally now in the Internet age, with their numerous, extravagant, idolatory websites. And there has always been a steady trickle of intensely detailed analyses from a more microscopic perspective (1). But when push comes to shove, few are likely to rate De Palma alongside names like Carl Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles or Jean Renoir.

What is this resistance to valuing De Palma? Partly, it is a matter of the kind of films he makes: not exactly humanist – and humanism remains, despite all protestations to the contrary, the supreme criterion for the majority of moviegoers, professional or otherwise: films centred on three dimensional, richly personalised characters, or themes in the traditional literary or theatrical sense (love, death, struggle, hope …). And, despite his own claim that he moved a little more toward “character-driven” stories at the time of Casualties of War (1989) and Carlito’s Way (1993), De Palma, it seems, is forever fated to be included in the legion of filmmakers deemed variously cold, mechanical, calculating, even “cruel and indifferent” (as David Thomson called him) – turning people into puppets or ciphers for his formalistic games. And when those games involve the spectacular depiction of sex and/or violence, as is frequently the case, we are faced with a decidedly impure cinema.

The filmmaker himself sees the matter entirely differently – and he has expressed himself on this point many times, in numerous interviews and in the feature documentary De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015). For him, by contrast, what he creates is pure cinema – exploiting to the hilt what it is that cinema, and cinema alone, can do, engineer and create: movement, spectacle, action, intrigue, suspense, catastrophe … a constant, finely balanced dance between the opposing energies of chaos and control.

However, there is one clear and present danger in attending too closely to De Palma’s interviews and other public statements. He is one of the many filmmakers who do not really enjoy speaking or theorising about their own work. De Palma has reluctantly crafted a ‘persona’ for the public – a well-rehearsed story to tell about himself and his life that he unfailingly repeats, without variation, from one platform to the next. Finally (and this is again true of many directors, as well as artists in general), this story is more a mask than a confession. As any psychoanalyst could tell you, the tale that is confidently repeated verbatim the moment that a patient hits the couch is a defense mechanism rather than a genuine self-exploration. In De Palma’s personal case, the public biography both highlights and obscures something essential about his trajectory as a cinematic creator.

Brian De Palma is a product of the 1960s – of its counter-cultural currents, and its political upheavals. The two, interconnected films that first brought him a measure of public attention – Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), both starring a young Robert De Niro in his pre-Martin Scorsese phase – embodied the director’s stated dream: “If I could be the American Godard, that would be great”(2). They are low-budget, anarchic, scattershot, semi-improvised films that “act out”, in comical-grotesque terms, the various obsessions, anxieties and liberations of those years as De Palma experienced and reflected them. Some version of Women’s Liberation jostles with paranoiac fears over vast government conspiracies and cover-ups; the sudden intermixing of white and black cultures on home turf intersects with the war in Vietnam.

At the same time, the 1960s were, for the USA and other Western countries, a period when mass media exploded – and seemed to truly mediate and distort all lived experience, whether through the TV window of the nightly news, or the big screen fantasies of Hollywood movie entertainment. De Palma’s earliest shorts reflect his wide-eyed immersion in both popular and art cinema traditions (Woton’s Wake, 1962); his commissioned documentaries explore new “modes of vision” in technology and art (The Responsive Eye, 1966); and his collaboration with avant-garde theatre guru Richard Schechner’s The Performance Group in Dionysus in 69 (1970) captured – across a split-screen – the heady dream to “break on through to the other side” of all inhibiting social codes and conventions, even to the point of shattering and fleeing the screen-spectacle itself.

None of these formative experiences in 1960s counterculture ever entirely leave De Palma, even at the most seemingly “mainstream” moments of his career, such as Mission: Impossible (1996). Some of the actors from his earliest efforts keep popping up, such as De Niro and especially the ultra-stylised William Finley (1940-2012). Experimenting with “expanded vision” (for instance, with split or multiple screens) remains an enduring passion. The confrontational politics do not disappear, either, as Redacted (2007), his fierce anti-war pamphlet for the Internet age, proves. Even the dream of ultimately “breaking out” of society’s status quo returns – now in cosmic or apocalyptic terms – in respectively, Mission to Mars (2000) and Snake Eyes (1998), which was originally to conclude with a giant tidal wave washing the whole mess of Atlantic City down the drain.De Palma’s oft-repeated account of his wild 1960s ride, however, concludes with a nasty sting in the tale. At the time of Greetings or Hi, Mom!, he appeared on a television talk show. As he recalls it, he took the opportunity to extoll the virtues of personal freedom and political revolution. But at a certain point, the host politely interrupted – in order to cut an advertisement selling some banal consumer product. It was a primal scene of disillusionment in the Life of Brian: he had been swallowed up by the dominant capitalistic, media system; he had become just another entertaining diversion, a sideshow in the carnival of America’s self-propagation. So many of his films – from Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), on which he lost creative control, to Redacted and beyond, will re-tell some version, duly transposed, of this “formative experience” that bred life-long wariness and cynicism in him. Qualities of character that (as, for example, producer Art Linson’s affectionate portrait of the director in A Pound of Flesh makes clear) have no doubt helped him navigate the regularly treacherous waters of commercial filmmaking. (more…)

Should we go to Chorus or not?

It rarely happens to us, leaving a cinema before the end of the film. But during Berlinale 2015 our film schedule was so tight that we had to leave Chorus 20 minutes before the end to catch another film. It’s not that Chorus was a bad film, but we felt relieved when we closed the cinema doors behind us. Taken away from the devastating lives of Christophe and Irène who – after ten years of unsolved misery were confronted with the awful truth about what happened to their 8 year old son. The film reveals their pain and sadness after they lost their child who was taken by a pedophile and never returned home.

The question raises: do we want to know what happened? And if so, why would we want to know what happened? At this point we approach a major dispute in the essential of cinema. Before we mentioned that cinema is a wonderful medium that has the incredible power to take you to another world where you have never been, to make to feel what didn’t really happen to you, and to make you explore situations that exists far from your daily life. Cinema enriched your knowledge of the world, it creates awareness.

On the streets in Berlin Charlotte and I had a discussion why the director would make such a film. It was hard to find a reason why, which is weird because it’s not that we close our eyes from severe topics. The amount of pleasant versus unpleasant films should be about the same in the history of film. For our film program we always search for a balance between funny and emotional stories. But why is pedophili a subject we somehow couldn’t deal with? Was is too uncomforable to sit and watch how lonely and terrible Christophe and Irene felt? I was ashamed for them, because of what happened to them; a confusing feeling that I couldn’t stand.

To be honest I was surprised that Chorus was released in the Dutch cinemas, taken the past news about child abuse in churches and nursery. Yet, I had to see the end of the film. For me it felt as an unsolved project as well: what happened to Christophe and Irène? I felt miserable in Berlin after being confronted with the offenders confession. But, months later I didn’t feel so bad as then. Chorus is about unbearable pain and loss, but also about the power of memories, deep relations and independent development. Time doesn’t heal a wound, Irène mentioned in the film. She refuses to put aside what happened, she hates the meaning of mourning. You can’t look away from the past, you can’t look away from what’s happening in our world.

The subject of this blog shouldn’t be about censure. We did something wrong here: we walked away in the middle of a film. The uneasy scenes made me develop a premature opinion. Therefore, the message is: always watch the end of a film before you make statement about it.

Hiroshima Mon Amour: the infinite love story

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) tells the story of a French woman and a Japanese man who, both happily married, have a one-night romance in Hiroshima.

She, their names are never revealed, has come to Japan to play on a film about peace. He is an architect whose wife is out of town. They meet the day before her return to France. Locked up in a hotel room they make love and talk about Hiroshima.
It is a banal tale that happens everywhere in the world, a thousand times a day. But the city is the one place where it’s hardest to imagine. It’s Hiroshima, 1957, barely twelve years after the bombing.
As the film opens we see two naked bodies, the bodies of him and her. Untouched, glooming, sensual, entwined. Him and her in a bed. They talk about Hiroshima. She talks; he listens or contradicts her.

HE: You saw nothing in Hiroshima.

SHE: I saw everything. Everything. The Hospital for instance,
I saw it. I’m sure I did. There is a hospital in Hiroshima. How
could I help seeing it?

HE: you did not see the hospital in Hiroshima. You saw
nothing in Hiroshima

Their bodies make place for the hospital. We see different bodies. This time dead bodies, mutilated, coated with ashes and dust; a metaphor for time and place. We see the city burning. This the other Hiroshima.
In Hiroshima every gesture, word or encounter takes on a meaning that transcends its literal meaning. A love story set in Hiroshima is a different love story. Incorporating the horror of the past in a love affair that is so wonderful and special is more credible than if it had occurred anywhere else in the world. In Hiroshima love, horror, memory’s and hope have a different meaning.

At first director Alain Resnais wanted to make a short documentary about August 6, 1945. He spent a few months working on the script, but eventually got stuck and realised the story lend itself more for a feature film. He involved Magritte Duras at that time already an acclaimed novelist, not to forget enfant terrible, who wrote the scenario within two months working closely with the director.

The film garnered international acclaim upon its release in 1959. It received the Fipresci International Critics Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Scenario. Moreover the film changed the cinematic culture and became a pioneer of the French New Wave. With its mixture of reality and fantasy, documentary images and fictional flashbacks Alain Resnais created a non-linear fragmented storyline formally only known in literature, making the film truly the love child of a filmmaker and novelist.

As a literature student, putting literature on a pedestal far above cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour taught me how stupid I had been. The film opened a world of cinema I had known nothing about. A type of film where strong dialogues still exist; a type of film where characters, just as in novels, stay with you forever; a type or film that questions continuously but never forces an answer. A credible, infinite love story: how many of them have you seen?

There are few films I can watch over and over again and Hiroshima Mon Amour is and will always be one of them. And I will always end up with the same ambivalent feeling. Hoping they will never meet again, hoping they will please meet again.

The essential of our cinema

Why do we watch film? It is a fundamental question that constantly occupies your mind when you organize a film festival. An even better question would be: why do we think that you should see our unique selection of films?


Film has the extraordinary power to take you to a world that would otherwise remain unexplored. It increases your awareness of reality and it expands your ability to feel what you otherwise would not feel, to see what would have otherwise remained hidden, and to make you consider what you would not have thought before. Using the knowledge and experience you already possess, a film simultaneously helps you to reflect on your past experiences and lets you discover new ones. Films are a celebration, a warm embrace, a bitter fight, and an endless quest. And what is remarkable, is that you were there watching all of it unfold.

I can go on and on about this, for example how different films draw your attention to political, societal, emotional, relational, historical and futuristic issues. Instead of giving you a one-sided opinion on my fascination of the medium, I want you to think of your first memory of an art house film.

I will start and tell you about mine. Lilya 4-ever from Lucas Moodyson (2002). My parents had seen the film on IFFR and then it was shown later on television. I was 14, it was Sunday, and I had nothing to do. Lilya 4-ever is an intense and miserable story about a beautiful young girl that grows up in a doomed and backward village in Estonia. It is no surprise that she falls in love with a boy that takes control of her life and keeps her in Sweden to work as a prostitute. I was perhaps a bit too young and impressionable when I viewed the film as it made a huge of an impact on me.  I realized: if Lilya’s life would have been mine, then I would have probably made the same choices. Within 1.5 hours I cared more for Lilya than I did about my peers at school. I wished she could have become my friend so that I could take her into my home and get her life back on track. I did not want anything to do anymore with men and I decided not to fall in love with any man ever. My fictive bond with Leyla eventually watered down, but I still realize that girls like Lilya are out there and I cannot undo the haunting impression the film left on me. I was confronted with a terrible situation, but the way this filmmaker showed it to me was also inspiring.

I believe that everyone reading this should have a connection to film like I do: a feeling of identification, and the repulsion or desire to be someone else. Film does not always have to be politically engaged nor does it have to be socially relevant or have educational value. Film pulls you out of your ordinary life and its habits of mind. How you choose that to happen and to what extent does not matter to me as long as you let yourself experience the medium before you. Believe me, it will be an enriching experience.

The power of film is the reason why we are organizing Roffa Mon Amour for the third time. There are so many good films being made every year, and our goal is to offer a stage for as many unique films as we can. That is why we invite you to join us to Roffa Mon Amour from July 22 until July 26: to let you get inspired by the five best new films in cinema this year. 

Lisa Smith