The Gate Crasher: At the Viennale

The Gatecrasher: Nov. 2009

I gate-crashed the opening of the Viennale in the Rathaus the other day. I had tried to get a press pass, but, informed by the PR lady that there weren’t any left – yeah right! I mean, the Viennale is hardly Cannes – I took a friend and we got in under assumed names.

Was it worth it? As I woke up the next day, my stonking headache (there had been a free bar) reminded me of many days-after-great-nights from the past. But, well… you tell me.

I tried my best. Full of the sanguine glow of the half-inebriated, I had arrived early with my fellow-gatecrasher, Viktor. We were rewarded by the sight of the Rathaus’s main hall crammed with tables bedecked with finery, a free-bar at either end and a buffet stretched along one of its sides. Catching each other’s eye as we each took a beer from a cute Ottakringer lady, we shared one thought: This was going to be good!

We lurked a while, trying not to stand-out, as the other guests slowly trickled in. Viktor suggested hanging out inconspicuously in the semi-concealed Illy lounge at one end of the hall, above the Jameson bar – cool your heals, David, too early to start on the hard stuff yet.

So who was there? Surrounded by two foppish English guys with outrageous drawls and absurd jokes, there was Tilda Swinton!!  Chat her up? My nerve failed me!

Of course, it should have been easy: the usual opener, “You know a good nightclub around here?” followed immediately by a charming rant (“I want lights, I want people-you know, energy, fun, action,” etc., etc.), and then some silly anecdotes and bingo!

Sadly, her fame intruded. I knew my manner would have been all wrong: Crusading self-assurance would have been replaced by nagging, stammering self-doubt.

In minutes, she was gone, first to sit down with some other guests and then, as quickly as she had come, to vanish into the night. What remained were the other not-so-famous invitees, less exciting, but also less scary. After a few espressos with Viktor, I got-up, cut-off my riveting exposition on Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method and stormed off to down a Jameson and go hunting for some female companionship: Such is the process by which biological necessities take-over from intellectual niceties.

To make a long story short, I didn’t find any nice girls, only boring conversations in the process of looking. Why? Surely at a set-piece like the Viennale, both should abound. But this was not the case – and let me explain why.

It’s a question of values – the norms at events such as these are almost guaranteed to produce mediocrity. As a practiced host myself, I know that a party needs only three things to be fun: booze, interesting conversation and cute girls (speaking as a man, of course).

Here, all we got was the drink.

Firstly, there were no cute girls. Despite the vista of glamor a film festival opening party provides, and despite the promise of powerful movie-moguls, the glam factor was low. The reasons? Stunning girls apparently weren’t invited – and if they came, it was only as the wives of the faceless empty suits who made up the body of the guest-list.

In any case, they probably wouldn’t have come anyway: Not enough attractive men (present company excepted, of course). Aside from a few director types (I saw one guy who was the spitting image of Quentin Tarentino), the vast majority looked too corporate to be fun. Far better to hit the local disco and spend the evening gyrating with well-muscled hunks.

Of course, nice-looking girls might fancy an interesting conversation. On this count too, they sensibly stayed away. I tried my best all evening to have a discursive conversation, and apart from some quality time with Viktor, I drew a blank.

In fact, this kind of event is almost designed to defeat intelligent conversation. I mean, it’s hard to be reflective and look like a Master of the Universe!  Speaking with intelligence about almost anything involves being tentative, possibly hesitant, as care is taken to express a difficult point; the speaker, struggling for accuracy appears nervous, even awkward.

Who wants to look like such a loser at a red-carpet reception? Hardly de rigeur.

Secondly, the way to do well in any organization (and remember the Viennale is primarily a kind of trade fair for the movies) is to play the game and not ‘fight to be right’ on any abstract level. It’s about political correctness: Any milieu needs its temporary fads, fashions and aficionados…

So, for example, everyone I met was raving about the film by an Iranian refugee about the fate of three other refugees who had fled the country. (Surprise, surprise – what a perfect fit to the current hysteria about big, bad Iran.) Naturally, not one of the people I talked to had a critic’s take on why it was a good film – comparing it, say, to a benchmark icon like Fellini’s Satyricon – or even why all the ‘phantasmagoria’ made sense.

Which brought me to my depressing conclusion: It was a very thin veneer of filmology burdening the majority of the Viennale guests.

Here at one of Vienna’s cultural Meccas, the majority of people didn’t even know what Satyricon was (nor even Federico) and seemed similarly clueless when I told them how Josef von Hovarth (who?!) used to sit around at social events (actually Vienna coffee houses), chuckling to himself, as he got material for his next play.

(Perhaps I am underestimating my audience; perhaps they were just unimpressed with my implicit and, perhaps overly flattering, comparison.)

But at the Viennale nobody seemed to know anything about what might be termed culture. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; they are working on the cultural exploitation of issues important to the political establishment.

I left with the feeling of a wasted evening, and a depressing one at that.

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