VIENNALE: Comedy and Catharsis

A Jerry Lewis retrospective, an homage to Will Ferrell and the disturbing world of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing

Vienna is a commodious city for a film festival. Skirting the Ring is the small ensemble of cinemas, coterminous with trams, bicycle- and footpaths, rustling through crisp seasonal mists biding one’s time between films. Just three days into the festival, there was already a lot to take in.

The Viennale’s Opening Gala, on 24 October, had an appealing circuitry all its own. The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davies is about a sometime capricious folk singer, navigating his way through the New York winter music scene of 1961.

Unravelling a skein of well-crafted motifs, they weft in and out of their narrative, leaving no thread unfettered by the end. There are riffs, refrains and bridges aplenty and a tabby cat rescues our protagonist from being altogether ‘too precious’.

Particularly impressive, is a cameo by John Goodman as a degenerate, occultist jazz aficionado with whom Llewyn is confined in a Studebaker on the road to Boston. Scan the film set for the 1968 Wiener Festwochen poster!

This year’s Viennale includes a Jerry Lewis retrospective, juxtaposing The Nutty Professor (an inversion of Jekyll and Hyde) with Scorsese’s consummately crafted The King of Comedy, made exactly 20 years later.

Here Lewis is at his best alongside Robert De Niro, whose character’s narcissistic pathology and potential violence draws out Lewis’ legendary sad clown – as moving and as “method” as any by De Niro.

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davies features a capricious folk singer | Photo: Inside Llewyn Davies

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davies features a capricious folk singer | Photo: Inside Llewyn Davies

The Viennale also pays homage to Will Ferrell, his first festival tribute, including Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy the tongue-in-cheek satire of 1970s TV culture, paved by improvisatory wit and one-liners.

The film of Ferrell’s Broadway performance You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush, yields more roughage – particularly speculating on Morocco’s contribution to Bush’s “coalition of the willing”: monkeys to be trained to look for landmines.

Of the European features, Justine Triet’s La Bataille de Sollerno, a “documentary style drama”, begins in a brilliant panic over a custody battle for two traumatised children during the French presidential elections, leaving little room before it dives into distended “realism”. Augustin Toscano’s and Ezequiel Radusky’s Los Duenos is a meandering but amiable exploration of a privileged class and their serfs that secretly wish to swap places.

With Woody Allen’s much anticipated Blue Jasmine on the horizon, Allen ingratiates us by getting back in front of the camera, his signature wit and rhythm in tango to John Tarturro’s, Fading Gigolo. As far-fetched as the plot may seem, Allen seamlessly turns himself into a classy pimp to Tarturro’s middle-aged Don Juan.

It is a tale tenderly rendered, via a panoply of fringe dwellers whose dignity remains intact.

Among this year’s documentaries, Alan Berliner’s First Cousin, Once Removed is a chronicle of his cousin and mentor Edwin Honig’s descent into Alzheimer’s.

The film highlights Honig’s grappling with regret, but uses persistent wordplay, despite ensuing memory loss. As family members are drawn back into the unravelled fray, I find myself wondering about the ebb and flow of documentary objectivity.

The Iranian expat Mehrnaz Saeedvafa’s Jerry and Me raises similar questions when she narrates her own her-story, through a Jerry Lewis “prism”, viewing his films as a child in Iran then as an adult American immigrant and feminist, later lecturing on his films at Columbia University.

Penny Lane’s Our Nixon offers promise, but with the five hundred reels of newly-released home video from White House aides, there are no new revelations on the Watergate affair. Austrian Ruth Beckermann’s Those Who Go, Those Who Stay is more successful, a collage of archival material depicting her flaneur’s view of a fragmented world in reflective motion.

The most ambitious of the documentaries, however, is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Contrary to its being vaunted as a “surreal” film, the exploration of the power of redemptive imagination is entirely credible, psychologically valid.

A sell-out at the box office, it is a frightening film and will surely be a hit of this year’s Viennale – a bone-chilling, gut-wrenching 159 minutes, which makes you question just how long you should be willing to stay.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a bone-chilling 159 minutes | Photo: The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a bone-chilling 159 minutes | Photo: The Act of Killing

On location in Indonesia, Oppenheimer had trouped in planning one film only to find himself “improvising” through another. He fell in among a group of executioners, responsible for the Sumatran massacres of 1965/66. His “heroes” were so full of braggadocio, they fully complied with his proffered process of “re-enacting” their crimes. They exhibit creative genius and the film holds potential healing.

All in all, the film is cathartic and may yet prove to be so for a whole culture. This is not a case of director-as-therapist but about communal responsibility, of a calibre we have not seen since Capturing the Friedmans. But The Act of Killing is also a paradigm-shifting film, illustrating the redemptive qualities of performance, personally, communally; possibly nationally.

It must find full release in Vienna.


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