I’m walking to my first film of the day, Pard, on a new sprinkling of snow. The venue is Haus der Berliner Festipiele, a 1960s glass fronted arts centre primarily used for theatrical runs and concerts. It certainly has a different atmosphere to the multiplexes I’ve been in so far and the crowd has a whiff of the high brow about them. Lights down, curtains open, film begins, Farsi dialogue, German subtitles and…oh dear. It hadn’t even occurred to me that not all screenings would have English translation provided. I decide to embrace this as part of the international festival adventure and stay til the end; cinema is a visual language, after all.
My luck may be in as the first 20 minutes unfold in near silence as a man, with a dog, arrives at an empty house by the coast and proceeds to bolt every door and black out every window in the building. He is clearly going into hiding but we don’t know who or from what. Some horrific real footage of Iranian officials killing dogs appears on the TV, perhaps indicating that all this is an effort to protect his canine companion. The man then shaves his head. So far, so intriguing, but then I’m lost. I believe the film is about creativity and the cinematic process; characters enter the scene out of nowhere, leave, come back, walk into the sea seemingly to their deaths only to appear again as a background extra. A film director figure is introduced and a previous scene is repeated, only this time presented as artifice as we now see the film crew capturing the original performance. The Farsi and German speaking contingency seem to enjoy the film, with the dog being singled out for special appreciation and cooing whenever it appears. Ultimately it’s an unsatisfactory experience for me and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t nod off, but if it appears in the UK Id be curious to find out the intricacies of the piece.
With a few hours spare before my first evening screening, I embark on my second attempt to see a film at the International, Maladies(2012) a US indie starring James Franco and Catherine Keener and directed by someone known only as Carter. I arrive at the International and I’m not disappointed, this is a really beautiful 1960’s purpose built single screen cinema. I think it looks like a Dansette. The interior is full of vintage wonders; glitter balls and chandeliers hang in the wood panelled mezzanine bar. The auditorium has a distinctive waved ceiling and the velvet blue curtain parts only to reveal a second curtain covered in sparkling gold sequins. This is a cinema where people come to have a good time.
The wonderful setting may have amplified my goodwill for Maladies, which is set around the time of the Jonestown mass suicide, although has more of a 1960’s aesthetic. It is a chamber piece, focusing on three characters, all social misfits: James Franco plays James, a former actor turned writer with a probable mental illness; his best friend Catherine (Catharine Keener), an artist and part time cross-dresser; and his sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson), an unhinged adult/child who does little but smoke, look terminally miserable and draw over Catherin’es work in coloured crayon. The three roommates are also frequently visited by their kind but lonely, closeted neighbour (David Straithairn) who has a soft spot for former soap star James. The film critiques a society whose reaction to mental disability is to foster public outcry or call the police. The only accepting character outside of the close knit group has her own disability – an elderly blind woman, who inspires James to finish his novel in Braille. Franco’s somewhat self referential performance as James the former soap opera actor (the real James Franco has a recurring role in General Hospital, playing a character Franco) is the standout, this role enabling him to utilise his leading man with an uneasy edge qualities. Maladies is a smart, witty and occasionally warm film but feels a bit stagnant, stuck in a quirky American indie cliche and a little too affected. Curiously, it is the third film I have seen at Berlinale that contains a scene of a character walking into the ocean.
After the screening I check my remaining two tickets only to discover that the screenings clash, with one film starting before the other ends. Not the most successful case of leaving my film watching in the hands of ticket availability fate. Unable to decide between the two films I instead flick through the programme and find one of my original wish list films, Computer Chessis playing this evening.
Emerging from the underground at Schanhauser Allee, I’m immediately greeted by a glorious wall of neon light radiating from this evenings venue, the Colosseum. It’s another characterful cinema, once a garage, converted in the 1920’s. It is now incorporated into a UCI multiplex, but you cant tell from the outside. I am first in the badge line so able to secure one of the comfy bright turquoise seats. This is the first time I have encountered any friction within the queue, with someone being accused of pushing in.
I wanted to see Computer Chess purely because of the title, knowing nothing else about the film before the curtains part. It turns out to be a real gem, a partially crowdfunded micro budget US comedy-with-a-satirical edge about a computer chess tournament in the early 80’s – big spectacles, big moustache’s, big computers. It’s given time warp authenticity by being shot with Sony video cameras of the era on (mostly) black and white 16mm stock, resulting in a lot of the scenes moving in and out of focus, which I don’t mind at all, it is a novelty that never gets tired for me. The first 15 minutes are the best and funniest part of the film. In a mock documentary style reminiscent of the Office, the tournament is opened by an obnoxious grandmaster chess player and we are introduced to a cohort of computer programming geniuses/nerds and their artificial intelligence. The film loses sharpness and a modicum of humour as the three day tournament is invaded by a couples counselling group and unravels into drug fuelled chaos, but it sure looks like they had a lot of fun making the film and it shows on the screen. I hope it is very warmly embraced by audiences. When at its strongest, its brilliant. I predict it could be a festival favourite.