Archive for June, 2019

Sydney Film Festival

June 16, 2019

I saw five films. Short accounts only of some of them as I have already gone to such length about the German film “festival.” I’ve linked to various reviews of each.

1. Pain and Glory – Almodovar .

Self-referential and likely as not destined to be a “late work.” Beautifully made as all Almodovar films are, which owes quite a lot to his “team.”  I enjoyed it; D, less so – too much talking. For a “gay” film there wasn’t much sex – everyone’s got too old for it. I particularly appreciated the fresh autobiographical angle cast on Bad Education –my favourite Almodovar film.

2. Never Look Away

A fictionalisation of the life the German artist Gerhard Richter. Richter (born 1932) emigrated from the East to the West just before the Wall went up and from Socialist Realism (Dresden) to “Capitalist Realism” (Dusseldorf). The film ends with his breakthrough in the West in the sixties. The German title translates as “Work without an author” which refers to Richter’s reputation-making works which were blurry paintings of “found” snapshots.

When I was watching the film the shadows cast by the third Reich seemed just too neatly invoked, but it turns out that Richter’s aunt, compulsorily sterilized as a schizophrenic as part of Aktion T4 and later starved to death in the final months of the war, really did pass through the clinic led by his SS gynaecologist father-in-law, though this was only discovered many years after the events of this film. You can see why this was an attractive scenario for a film treatment which ran to 189 minutes without seeming long at all.  Scathing review by someone who cares about Gerhard Richter and art here.

3. This is not Berlin

A gay/bisexual coming-of-age film set in Mexico City in 1986. At first I thought the title was differentiation from the world of Herr Issyvoo but in fact the reference was to the 1936 and 1968 Olympics (which were a bit more of the same in terms of the domestic political circumstances in the host country) and then performance art protests during the 1986 World Cup (also, obviously, in Mexico). It was all a bit of a trial for me because the protagonists’ coming of age involved drug-enhanced punk-music of a kind which I find almost unbearable. My elder sister was in a similar scene (though more musical than performance art), a few years earlier, and I have mixed memories of my encounters with it – so much boring noise and younger-brother hanging around. If she’d given me some drugs it might have been a more positive experience for me.

4. So Long, My Son (地久天长)

A Chinese saga running from about 1975 to 2015 (and from about 8.35 to 11.30 pm).

Three couples become friends as “educated youth” banished to the countryside. Returning to their home town (a northern city) two of them have sons born on the same day (cue Il Trovatore or, parodically, The Gondoliers). One of the women falls pregnant again and the woman of the other couple, in her role as a “leader,” ensures that an abortion ensues pursuant to the one-child policy. The abortion goes badly – that is, worse than just an unsought  abortion: the woman can no longer have children. So what? She’s not supposed to have any more, after all.  Then, ten or so years later,  the son of the leader forces his playmate the other boy (a non-swimmer) to play in a reservoir where he duly drowns. (I’ve unscrambled the film’s chronology: the film starts with this event without fully spelling out the role of the surviving boy.)

The now childless couple, inconsolable and with nothing to say to their friends, emigrate to Fujian where they adopt an orphan whom they give the name of their dead son. Unsurprisingly, he rejects them as soon as he is old enough. Meanwhile, the younger sister of the leader visits prior to her departure to the US and falls pregnant to the now childless man. She offers the child to him but he says that won’t solve the problem. You just know that isn’t the end of the story but it’s left as a sleeper.

Time flies, everyone gets richer. The third couple, who have a bit of a subsidiary plot line of their own after the man is imprisoned for attending a “lights out” party early in the piece, overcome their offstage travails and have a son. The onetime leader, dying, seeks a final reunion; after the funeral her son, now a doctor, tells the other family what happened at the reservoir; the childless couple sweep their son’s grave; the doctor has a son; the adopted son comes home down in Fujian with his girlfriend; skyping from the US the younger sister of the leader (aunt of the doctor) reveals her son to the now not childless father.

D stayed away. He scorns films about China which he considers likely to have been made for foreign consumption. He couldn’t see how a drama hinging on the one-child policy could fail to be such a film. Certainly US reviews (Variety; Hollywood Reporter) rather superficially in my opinion zero in on the one child policy as the iniquitous source of the characters’ suffering.

Following some internet investigations after I recounted the film,  D reluctantly conceded his suspicions might have been misplaced. The film already has a China release; the State Theatre film festival audience was well-leavened by Chinese people. (Fewer of the whitey audience lasted the full distance.)

The Chinese title, which roughly translates as “So long as the world endures” an epithet relating to sentiments such as friendship or hate, is used as the chorus in the Chinese lyrics for Auld Lang Syne –which features in the film. Viewed from this angle, the theme is not so much the one-child policy as the endurance of the characters and their friendship in the face of the tumultuous changes and, yes, sufferings, of the past 40 years.

Presumably this is a more acceptable narrative for Chinese presentation.

The film was  a real tear-jerker. I went along with the flow but  afterwards was left with a few niggles.

First, though this is perhaps the smallest – in all the sufferings (including mass job loss on entry to a market economy) nobody ends up worse off. Everybody becomes rich. That, I’d say, is part of the acceptable narrative.

Secondly, in the film there are six mothers (the women in each of the original couples, the niece,the mother of the adopted child and the doctor’s wife) but none of them has a daughter – the children are all sons. So much for holding up half the sky and a suspiciously convenient sidestep of a major aspect of resistance to the one-child policy.

Thirdly, though really just a corollary of the second niggle, there is a neat plot device where the father of the childless couple is contacted on his mobile phone. Despite his apparent desire to escape his previous life, he hasn’t changed the number. It’s neat because this means that plot developments triggered by calls from old acquaintances are always signalled by the also unchanged and distinctive call tone – the opening theme from Mozart’s Symphony No 40. But we never saw his wife with a phone of her own.

5. Queen of Hearts

Anne is a Danish children’s lawyer with a beautiful house, a doctor husband, Peter, and two lovely twin daughters aged nine or ten. Gustav, Peter’s troubled son from his first marriage, arrives to spend the summer holidays with them before enrolling for his final year of school in Denmark. Gustav has run out of chances back in Sweden where he was previously living with his mother.

Gustav doesn’t want to be there, but, as Peter tells him, as a minor he has no choice – other than boarding school. After some initial difficulties, Gustav embraces his new family. A golden-lit idyll ensues – pony club for the girls; swimming in lakes; water pistols; long northern summer nights. Anne, Peter and Gustav take turns reading ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to the twins – which turns out to be the source of the title (in English at least; the Danish title “Dronningen” simply means “Queen”).

And then Anne embraces Gustav and more – there is some pretty graphic sex including fellatio with what I presume was a  prosthetic penis (it looked a bit thick and straight to be real). That’s hardly a plot-spoiler above the quasi-anatomic detail because the affair is the publicized premise of the film. I had to cover my eyes for some of this. It cannot end well and it doesn’t. The season shifts to a bleak but still gorgeously filmed winter.

Sentence first, verdict afterwards – the Carroll/Dodgson Queen is hardly a sympathetic character.

Peter reads to his daughters:

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

It’s almost unthinkable that Anne should act as she does, yet how can such events (even if less “unthinkable” when a step-father rather than a step-mother is the adult party) be anything but unthinkable? The “unthinkability” is the horror. Reversing the more common genders casts a fresh light on all the usual tropes mobilised to force the younger party to keep the secret.

Trine Dyrholm’s performance as Anne is a tour de force.


That’s the film festival for me this year. It’s a special experience worth treasuring. A lot of this has to do with being in the State Theatre, and given a choice I always try to choose a screening there.  But it is also about joining with others, many of whom are diving deeper into a binge than I ever manage.  I didn’t spot any actual duffle coats and thermoses this year, but they were figuratively present in the  buzz of conversation, reunion and shared journey.  You rarely  get this from the sparsely filled late night arthouse sessions which are my normal cinematic fare.

German Overalls

June 15, 2019

[For title allusion, see here.]

It’s June so it’s film festival time.

That mainly means the Sydney Film Festival.  More of that later.

First, (starting in May) was the German Film Festival.  That is now one of the many “festivals” mounted by Palace Cinemas through the year.  It can be difficult to keep up with them.  They are these days not so much festivals as special promotions.  Ironically, now that almost all films are screened from DVDs, festivals have lost their logistical ontological necessity.

The equivalent French and Italian film festivals draw bigger crowds – the French because France is so chic; the Italian because there are more Italians here.

I went to:

Adam und Evelyn;
Sealed Lips
The Captain.

There’s a kind of theme, or perhaps double theme, at work here.

The first three are all about “die ehemalige DDR.”

Balloon is a “true story” about an escape from East to West made by two families in about 1978.  There was a Disney film made not long after. This remake could equally be a Disney film from a later age – it was fun though (justly, I’d say) it has been critically panned.

The main premise of the drama is that, one family having failed in their initial escape attempt, the two families must make their escape before the Stasi catch up with them by following the clues.  There is more than one dramatic cliche.  The local Stasi man lives just over the road and his daughter and the son of one escaping family have a romance (I’m thinking “I am sixteen going on seventeen” here).  And the chief escapee-hunter always chews some kind of peppermint or chewing gum, so you know he is a baddie – think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the opposite direction and Robert Helpmann as the child-catcher general.

Of the three I liked Adam und Evelyn the best.  It’s based on a novel, about a young couple who almost accidentally leave the DDR via Hungary in the summer of 1989.  The allegory is hardly subtle though amazingly I didn’t really pick up on the hint in the title  until a scene where Adam starts reading to Evelyn from the Gideon’s bible they find in a hotel room once they have crossed to the west.  Not everyone will agree with the implication that the DDR was paradise (it depends really on the very particular circumstances of Adam in this story).  One point I took away from the film was that the people who left in the summer of 89 had little way of knowing that a mere 4 or 5 months later the wall would be coming down. (As a corollary, nor had those who did not go: in the film, when Adam returns to his home at the end of the year he finds it has been emptied of its contents – probably by his neighbours.  Why not?  They weren’t expecting him back.)

I reckon I have detected a new stock figure.  In both films there is a sympathetic character from the mainstream – a bit like the legendary “Cossack who winked” of 1917, or (to draw a more tenuous bow)  the gay boys’ sympathetic (though generally also marginalised in some way) female friend (eg Beautiful Thing).  In Ballon it is a young child’s kindergarten teacher who keeps to herself what the child has blurted out at school; in Adam & Evelyn it is a Czech border guard on the way to Hungary who says nothing about the woman hiding in the boot of Adam’s car.

Sealed Lips deals with the predicament of German communist women who had gone to the USSSR in the 1930s, where they had become embroiled in various purges and ultimately consigned to the gulag.  On their return to the DDR in about 1952 (that’s to say, the return of the lucky survivors), they must keep their USSR sufferings secret.  They foolishly imagine that the death of Stalin might make a difference but find not.  I wish this could have been better.  Part of the problem was to attempt to deal with too much. We had to include a gulag atrocity AND a 1989 flashback which linked to a stymied romance with an idealistic young doctor who had returned to the West a mere 36 years ago – AND they were still talking to each other on the phone?  puhleeze!

Meanwhile, as to the fourth, it’s back to the SBS[the Hitler channel]-syndrome, cos after all we all know that Germans are either communists or Nazis, right?

Hence The Captain.  It’s a film treatment (not the first) of Willi Herold, a German soldier who in the last weeks WWII by means of an adventitiously found uniform impersonated an airforce captain. Proclaiming himself to be on a special mission authorised by the Fuhrer, Herold embarked on a spree of summary execution and mass murder of deserters, “traitors” and, as it happens, 5 Dutch “spies”.  The incident concerning the Dutch “spies” doesn’t make it into the film, though I suspect it was the original reason Herold was being looked for when he was apprehended by the Allies not long after the end of hostilities.

It’s a story which defies belief.  Herold wasn’t even twenty years old at the time.  How can anyone ever have believed his impersonation?  The film posits that it suited people to do so or at least pretend to.   In such dark times (and this applies to Herold himself) it may well be easier to join in committing atrocities than to risk being a victim of such atrocities oneself.  In a variant of the stock figure I have referred to above, just one man, urged by Herold at gunpoint to join in the slaughter, instead shoots himself.

It’s a visually striking film, mostly in black and white which carries its own reminiscence of WWII German newsreel.  At one grim point I had to go out for a cigarette.   Of the four films I saw in the “festival” this seems the most likely to have an (art house) general release.

Roger Covell

June 4, 2019

The Australia Ensemble and UNSW announced today that Roger Covell has died.

It doesn’t seem more than a year ago that I ran into him and Patricia Brown, his wife,  on a city underground train and we had a short but pleasant conversation about the opera du jour and the future of the Australia Ensemble.

Covell  made a great contribution to music in Australia and in Sydney, as music critic for the SMH and at UNSW – the Australia Ensemble is probably his monument so far as I am concerned, though that is not to belittle his other contributions, some of which, such as the UNSW Opera, have receded into the mists of time.

A relatively little-known fact is that as a young man Covell was one of four applicants for the role of founding editor of Quadrant.  James McAuley got the job.  Covell subsequently contributed to that journal from time to time. I forgive him for that [!], but I think he dodged a bullet and we can be grateful that his career took a more strictly musical turn.