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Picture this: It’s February 22 at the Berlin Film Festival and I’ve just sat, napped, counted each tile on the ceiling through Radu Jude’s Uppercase Print. It’s film as Brechtian theatre, about a 1981 incident in Botoşani, Romania, wherein schoolboy Mugur Călinescu wrote socialist messages in chalk represented as a tapestry of verbatim line-readings on a sparse set, flatly lit and acted to present the different institutions at play. The facts might be all there, but there is little formal originality. In snoozeworthy detail, Jude captures small acts towards the irrevocable movement of history. I’m bored out of my skull, and in less than a month I, along with most of the world, will be locked down at home, the cinema a memory that matters to a relative few.
That day hadn’t been all bad. In the morning, Alexandre Rockwell’s Sweet Thing had been perfectly charming if tucked away in the kid-centred ‘Generations’ strand, while I dashed around the city to catch King Vidor’s Street Scene and Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism – both masterpieces. Perhaps I was worn out by the time it came for Jude. Perhaps I had the ‘rona. Late February seems like the end of days, and yet we gallivanted. But then, when did days end? Although Covid-19 was very much in the minds and mouths of those wandering Berlin in February, what with Jia Zhangke’s seemingly miraculous appearance at the festival from an otherwise completely shut-down China to present his documentary Swimming Out Until the Sea Turns Blue, precious few masks were visible around the festival. I recall laughing, in fact, at a couple donning black leather masks at every screening. How Berlin, I thought; couldn’t be me.
Before ‘these uncertain times’, it was commonplace, if unspoken, that for those who are inclined to live in the dark, the film festival presents an alternative to the gap year. This is aided by critics workshops and other talent camps, with Twitter as a sort of mingling event that is sadly impossible to duck out of. And if you’re bored by beer pong then it’s healthier to blow your savings at DokuFest than in Bali. Both are lifestyle choices reaching toward an intangible future state. This is how I met Max Proctor, the venerable editor of Ultra Dogme, in the queue for Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I loved it, he preferred First Cow. I am a sucker for sensation, and Hittman’s 16mm film blown up huge on that screen, Cinemaxx8, was irresistible. A day earlier, 200 or so had stormed out of the same screen when, in Abel Ferrara’s Siberia, Willem Dafoe converses Golem-like with Willem Dafoe, howling at the moon and saying ‘Sounds like a woman screaming.’ Buzz abounded when the auditorium filled that we were on for a stinker following a negative Letterboxd review by Alex ‘press embargoes are a breach of my human rights’ Billington the previous day. Regardless, Siberia will survive long after pond-life influencers like Billington have been consigned to the annals of the Wayback Machine.
I saw Hillary Clinton in the flesh, or in the scales if you are so inclined, at a press conference for her 252 minute documentary Hillary, which is about twice the length of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs and which was incidentally given the same star rating by Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw. Tsai ’lacks generosity’, and Bradshaw has fully settled into old fart mode as evidenced by the presence of his collected reviews on Waterstones’ shelves. Regardless, liver-spotting him in the streets is likewise a moment of cinephile bingo for the British film festival-goer. He and Jonathan Romney, who were everywhere you turned, arm in arm and muttering to each other, even more likely to be supping on adrenochrome than Hillary. What were they muttering? Incantations? Terrible puns to use in turgid prose? One cannot be sure of much other than to avoid their capsules at all costs.
These are the sorts of places my mind went to during Uppercase Print. Clearly, I needed a pick-me-up, and felt certain to get one in the form of Visconti’s Ossessione, projected on 35mm, at Zeughauskino, the same site where a year earlier I bore witness to his The Damned, still one of the five or so best films I have ever seen. I met two esteemed colleagues beforehand, in a betting shop that sold pilsners for a euro, and was just hankering for a kebab when I realised Visconti was imminent and I was an hour away from Zeughauskino. I cut my losses and went for a kebab, angrily retiring to my hostel to try writing only to be distracted by other colleagues, other pilsners. I regretted my choices at the time, and I still do. I rue the day. But should I have treasured the spontaneous way we were able to make human contact, then?
The day I returned to London, exhausted, fed up of films and the chore of socialising that comes with them when you want to be a professional, I decided to rattle off a few screeners from my musty bedroom. That morning’s premiere at the Berlinale-Palast had been Days, and it had come to me via a private Youtube link. From the film’s opening shot, a good 5 minutes on the Lee Kang-Sheng visage, I knew that by watching at home I was losing out on the true meditative state of absorption that Tsai’s films trigger. I also knew I was watching the best film of the year. Days is Tsai Ming-Liang’s pean to silent comedy, in which Lee’s blank slate travels Keaton-like through the urban environment of Bangkok through a number of set-pieces (the acupuncture sequence, anybody?), which builds to a glorious moment of personal connection amidst the transience of 21st century urban anxiety. Tsai nods to the masters by including a recurring reference to Limelight, with a totemic ending that reminds us that cinema literally cannot die. Berlinale ended for me at home, watching a masterpiece in bed, and that is how the rest of 2020 went down. That is one memory of The Last Festival, a ‘Memory of a Free Festival’.
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