“It’s such a struggle to self-produce your own film” sighs Davide Manuli, “if you don’t have support, it’s really hard” he continues “you’ve got no idea, cinema is a rigid and harsh structure that does not allow any intrusion among its ranks”.
Far from being dispirited, the director of La Leggenda di Kaspar Hauser even finds time to laugh at his own hardships, turning production austerity into a poetic asset. After three years spent fighting the institutional mediocrity that suffocates creativity while advocating the predictable, Manuli finally managed to bring his Kaspar Hauser to Rotterdam (Spectrum section).
It’s hard to find adequate words to convey the rare beauty of this film, for its visions are of a primeval kind; its expressive thrust passes through your guts before hitting your head. The epic pulse of techno music inflates the long shots with visceral evocation, investing the spectator with the sheer force of vision.
The skeleton of a society that is no more welcomes an androgynous Kasper Hauser, shipwrecked on the shores of a deserted island where the sheriff patrols empty alleys and duels with his own image reflected in a mirror. A techno-western whose frontier is not that of conquest but of loss, the founding myth of civilization is reduced to its ghostly remnants: the self-delusional puppets of a collapsed order.
The Duchess, the Priest, the Servant are nothing but organs of a social body that has rotted away – the setting is “y” and the year is “0” – what distinguishes them is the label on their clothes not their (dys)function. They are branded souls in the hyper-market of reality whose sleepwalk is obstructed by the arrival of Kasper and his illiterate wisdom, which the exporters of civilization cannot domesticate or sell. An alien mystery (“a king or a criminal?”) shows up in all its naked truthfulness undermining the petty certainties of a blindfolded humanity that wonders: “if there is no inside or outside, where the fuck does the foreigner come from?”. Never mind the answer: an outlandish anomaly is to be made compliant or eliminated; our dumb culture cannot afford contamination from those who speak, dress and behave differently. Yet in this post-futuristic tale Kasper is hardly mentored, he meets a society that teaches nothing because it has nothing to teach.
The scorching surrealism of a hallucinated island bears more similarities to our social currency than countless ‘observational’ films that stare at ‘reality’ without piercing its obsolete travesty. Against the figurative presumption of realism Manuli’s Kasper Hauser has the audacity to strip the real of its pretence to expose the grey void pulsing at its core.
Moving passages of operatic magnitude where dissonance sublimates into harmony grace the film, absurdity turns into prescience; sexual beauty becomes an erratic presence and a devastating absence.
With an economic situation threatening to purge cinema of its unexpected cracks of visionary insubordination Manuli’s film is an essential vessel to traverse the aesthetic aridity of western civilization and its emotional sclerosis.
A bruised urban womb, livid with solitude and alienation: New York, phallocratic capital of the new world. Venting his inner but tangible malaise is Brandon, a successful man in his thirties whose days are tormented by an unforgiving addiction. What appears as an accomplished individual is in reality a hunted prey, elegantly managing his superficial pretence while the bowels of the city hold him hostage to his own fixation. Whether performed live, alone in a toilette or on-line, sex is for Brandon invariably glacial and nihilistic, a genital coercion triggered by emotional frigidity. Sissy, his sister, on the contrary is overwhelmed by her disturbed emotional life and once she crashes into his apartment things will never be the same. The minimal functionalism of Brandon’s aseptic apartment now welcomes the dysfunctional dregs of a fractured family whose bonds are just obstructions on his walk of shame.
In Hunger a captive man would enlist his carnality at the service of liberation, in Shame a free man is imprisoned by his own body and neurotic sexuality. Iron discipline chained the Irish militant, addiction controls the free man; inner policing as opposed to repression, these are the themes asserting the topical relevance of Shame.
The film explores with observant detachment the exasperation of needs in the age of viral marketing and compulsory hedonism where desires are turned into obsessions and long-term relationships are seen as “unrealistic”. We follow a man incapable of enjoyment; enslaved by the toxic urgency of a degrading drive whose sole prospect is that of another ferocious and frantic orgasm.
A monotonous sexual symphony underpinned by the absence of a biological score, bodies are exhibited, consumed and disposed of once their erotic capital is spent: castration of the senses parading as sexual freedom. This is the world Brandon inhabits and that the director shows us symptomatically through the characters behaviour. To get rid of his (im)personal pornographic arsenal will not free Brandon from a compulsive sexuality induced by a sensorial overcharge that abolishes pleasure through commodification. Under the emotionless rule of pornocracy sentiment and the sexual act become incompatible elements, as dissonant as New York, New York whimpering into an algid dirge when sung by Sissy. When faced by the prospect of non-FMCS (Fast-Moving-Consumer-Sex) Brandon reveals his aversion towards the present time, “I’d like to be a rockstar in the 60s” while his date prefers the “here and now” which he finds, no shit, “boring”. Sex eradicated from nature becomes a tool of self-destruction, bodies emptying rather than fulfilling one another as in La Grande Bouffe by Marco Ferreri with which Shame shares the same mortuary representation of the sexual act.
A bluish photography deprives the Big Apple of its landmarks turning it into a maze of aimless depravity outlined against a collapsed society where the ultimate distinguishing mark is anonymity. The film’s cyclical structure describes the fall of Brandon into the hell of addiction while also hinting at a possible redemption born out of personal drama. Though the director is careful not to pass judgement there are latent ethical implications in the dynamics between Brandon and Sissy that somehow place addiction out of its social context.
Steve McQueen confirms here his innovative craftsmanship, never predictable or didactic, and demonstrates an aesthetic awareness able to turn pathological symptoms into narrative material. With Foucaultian rigour the director anatomises the castigated body of modernity, in a magisterial and necessary film depicting our new red desert.
Celluloid Liberation Front
This article has been previously published here.
Plot Summary: Daniel airs his polemical views on cinema at the local cineclub subsequently announcing the birth of Discrepant Cinema, an example of which follows suit.
Screening as part of the sidebar section Signals: Regained Isidor Isou’s Traité de Bave et D’Eternité is perhaps the only audiovisual relic of the Lettrist International exception made for a short made by Orson Welles in 1955 for the ITV programme Around the World with Orson Welles.Besides their debatable artistic goal – that of fusing music and poetry into one by means of random cacophonic shouting – the Lettrists are chiefly remembered as the precursors of the more respectable Situationists.
Isou’s film stemmed from the assumption that saw cinema embalmed in conventions and ‘masterpieces’, paralyzed by its own glory and unable to push the limits of expression. The film oozes with cinephilic exasperation; it’s the cry of a spect-actor asserting his proactivity in the passive unfolding of spectatorship. The filmmaker calls for a carnal interaction with the film, invoking a force that, through discrepancy, would lacerate the fabric of narrative linearity.
“WE MUST CHANGE THE RAW MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES OF CINEMA IF WE WANT TO COMMUNICATE A NEW SENSIBILITY” reads, today rather hopelessly, one of the film’s declarations.
“From now on you’ll hear: Daniel turned around, without seeing him turn” points out the voiceover in an attempt to illustrate the grammar of discrepant cinema, thankfully not in noisy Lettrist fashion. Isou dynamites the foundation of cinema: the consequential concatenation of images and sound into meaningful sequences. Against the coherent flow of tradition mutinous signs and disconnected images assault the new spectator.
The aesthetic dimension is deprived of its explicative function in relation to the story, sanctioning its divorce from logic to celebrate the marriage with creative unreason. For if “boring truths are nothing but lies” so is the rational presumption of ‘cause & effect’.
“We’ll incorporate imagination into cinema since we are destroying reality” declaims the narrator; words, in the form of declarations, remain the signifying propeller of Traité. Which is rather odd considering the programmatic hostility towards verbal codification professed by the Lettrists.
In fact, though the invitation toward an undetermined itinerary is reiterated throughout, the film often fails to honour such commitment.
The deconstructive process aimed at the irreconcilable fracture between form and content, thought and image, event and word, intuition and translation, is auspicated but hardly achieved.
What is vividly felt at the end of the film is the fracture between the film’s intentions and its formal limitations, between imaginative provocation and its effective results. Despite the rupturing tone and the practical attempts at tarnishing the very matter of filmic expression Traité remains unable to alter the dominant dichotomy of director vs spectator.
Celluloid Liberation Front
The International Film Festival Rotterdam supports film making, film producing and journalistic talent on several levels: the main festival section ‘Bright Future’ (including competitions for feature length and short films) presents recent works by first and second time filmmakers; Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund contributes to film projects in developing countries and CineMart organizes a trainee project for young film producers (Rotterdam Lab) in close collaboration with its partner organizations. Recognizing the important role of film criticism to the perception of independent cinema, the Rotterdam film festival organizes a trainee project for young film critics.