January 2018, arsenal cinema

Unknown Pleasures #9
 – American Independent Film Fest


Unknown Pleasures #9 presents a selection of award-winning American independent films that provide an alternative insight into US filmmaking. Most of them are being screened in Germany for the first time. What is clear is that many deal with the question of what can be shown if there are no pictures: How can memories be depicted (MARJORIE PRIME)? How can the origins of the universe be imagined (VOYAGE OF TIME)? How can one tell one's own family story if only fragments remain (DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?) There are many, varied answers. If one looks back on the past year, it seems only right that a film that documents the day of the presidential election should be at the center of Unknown Pleasures #9. Kevin Jerome Everson's TONSLER PARK shows images of a polling station in a predominantly Afro-American district of Charlottesville, Virginia; pictures of a lived democracy. The film is one of the most important of the year. Its reduced dispositif develops a maximum force and brings home the fact that we have before us a battlefield. Since its premiere, the film's reception has changed dramatically: Last summer, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville erupted into violence and a car drove into a mass of people. The horror is palpable from the outset in Travis Wilkerson's DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? The filmmaker travels to the south to tell the story of his great-grandfather – a white man who shot dead a black man at the end of the 1940s. A family story becomes a horror story. What is conspicuous is that the films explore their environment very accurately. Regional cinema, made away from the big cities, has always represented a central strand of independent filmmaking. In these films, to talk about people means to talk about their environment – landscapes, cities, towns and buildings do not only provide a scenic background. One of the finest examples of this is Kogonada’s feature debut COLUMBUS. The eponymous medium-sized town in the state of Indiana is known for its modernist architecture. In this documentary-esque feature, architectural history and the fate of two people merge furiously. MARJORIE PRIME and ESCAPES are both by Michael Almereyda. MARJORIE PRIME is a science fiction film in which holograms (Jon Hamm, Tim Robbins, Geena Davis) take the place of dead people, to give solace and provide "living" memories. Hampton Fancher is known above all as the writer of the sci-fi classic "Blade Runner" (1982) and of "Blade Runner 2049" (2017). In ESCAPES, we learn much more about his unusual life. Terrence Malick's VOYAGE OF TIME: LIFE'S JOURNEY is also cosmic. After taking years to shoot, this documentary about the origins of the universe can now be seen in Germany for the first time.

PRINCESS CYD (Stephen Cone, USA 2017, 12.1., in the presence of Stephen Cone & 28.1.) Why Stephen Cone is not one of the most famous independent filmmakers today is one of the puzzles of our time. Over the past 10 years, he has made eight films, which in their sincerity (towards their protagonists as well as audiences), their fantastic flair for actors and their wonderful soundtracks are reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s films. In Cone’s latest film, 16-year-old Cyd visits her aunt Miranda in Chicago, a single, successful writer who every week invites friends from her intellectual circle. Cyd enjoys this new environment and falls in love with a young woman she meets in a cafe. What is most beautiful though is that Miranda and Cyd start lovingly seeking each other in their discussions about sex, success and life in general.

PERSON TO PERSON (Dustin Guy Defa, USA 2017, 13. & 23.1.) What was that line at the end of the hymn to New York "The Naked City" (1948)? "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." In his second, feature film, Dustin Guy Defa follows five people through New York and proves himself to be a masterful teller of wonderful vignettes: A young reporter (Abbi Jacobson) is seeking lurid information about a murder case and ends up in a clock shop that seems to have more of a social function than an economic one. “One of the nicest (films) told by a vinyl collector, who has a fake original of the bebop virtuoso Charlie Parker foisted on him. After a long bike chase, the cheated collector gives the cheat a lesson about his love of music. Defa writes wonderfully screwy dialogues and has an eye for the variety of maneuvers humans deploy to get out of situations.” (Dominik Kamalzadeh)

VOYAGE OF TIME: LIFE’S JOURNEY (Terrence Malick, USA/D 2016, 13. & 25.1.) When Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011) came into the cinemas, there was plenty of astonishment as the plot took a turn and started exploring the origins of the universe. Malick has now filmed an experimental, essayistic documentary based on this sequence. With spectacular imagery and narrated by Cate Blanchett, VOYAGE OF TIME tells the story of our universe, from the Big Bang to human and urban hustle-and-bustle (and beyond). The mammoth project was years in the making and is now to be seen in Germany for the first time. "More than any other Malick film, VOYAGE OF TIME provides sheer cinematic pleasure, which speaks equally to reason as to the soul." (Olaf Möller)

MARJORIE PRIME (Michael Almereyda, USA 2017, 14. & 20.1.) Sometime in the near future, holograms bring dead people back to “artificial” life. They can be programmed at will. What age should they be? What should they remind others of? And most importantly: How would one like to be remembered? Marjorie is 86 and has Alzheimer’s disease. She also has one these artificial intelligent beings, which remind her of her late husband Walter (who has stayed young). When she dies, her daughter Tess also brings her back to life as a hologram. Michael Almereyda’s MARJORIE PRIME is a calm, reflective film that is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s "Solaris" (1972). Like in Tarkovsky’s spaceship, people are confronted with their memories. Almereyda’s direction, as well as Sean Price Williams’s camera and Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) soundtrack made this one of the most successful science fiction films of recent years.

DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? (Travis Wilkerson, USA 2017, 23. & 27.1.) In 1946,  S.E. Branch, the white  racist great-grandfather of Travis Wilkerson, shot Bill Spann, a black man. Both men lived in a city in Alabama. Branch had no reason to believe that there would be consequences. In his film, Wilkerson goes on a "horror trip". He films the general store where the murder took place, talks with his own brothers and sisters about it and with others about racism, which many continue to face. DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? is a furiously angry documentary, part family history, part oral history about racism and against forgetting. "Over 15 years, Travis Wilkerson has doggedly pursued a radical political filmmaking that excoriates the operation of the structures of American power, but never before has he made a film this personal, locating the sickness of whiteness within his own tortured family history." (Mark Peranson)

ESCAPES (Michael Almereyda, USA 2016 | 16. & 24.1.) Hampton Fancher is known particularly as the author of "Blade Runner" (1982) and "Blade Runner 2049" (2017). Yet he was also an actor, a dancer and an exceptionally gifted story teller. In  ESCAPES Michael Almereyda allows him to express himself in detail and draws an eclectic but equally wild arc through 20th-century Hollywood. One story follows the next: Aged 15, Fancher went to Spain to study flamenco and on the way back was apparently invited to dinner by Marlon Brando apparently (he refused saying thank you). As an actor, Fancher was a cowboy, a killer, a rascal and once or twice a hero. Almereyda quotes plentifully from American pop culture - comics, old films and forgotten TV series. What’s particularly nice is the way Fancher’s life is linked to "Blade Runner".

COLUMBUS (Kogonada, USA 2017, 18. & 26.1.) In recent years, Kogonada has received widespread acclaim for video essays about Yasujiro Ozu, Richard Linklater or Neorealism. Now he's made his first feature film - one of the best debuts of recent years. Columbus, Indiana is a medium-sized town whose modernist buildings (designed by I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and Robert Venturi for instance) has made it a magnet for architecture fans. COLUMBUSis at once a film about architecture and a moving coming-of-age drama. Casey is 19 years old and looking after her mother, a former crack addict, when she meets Jin, a South Korean translator visiting his father, a former architecture professor who is fatally ill. The two of them explore the city, smoking; she looks hesitatingly to the future while he hopes to get his life under control. “If Columbus has a revelation to impart, it’s about the pleasures of the everyday, and about the way that the monumental, the extraordinary, can merge with the everyday to the point almost of disappearing.” (Jonathan Romney)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (Sean Baker, USA 2017, 18.1.) Since 2000, Sean Baker has made six feature films, including the i-Phone production "Tangerine" (2015). His films are always about outsiders who are pushed to the margins of society by economic forces. In Baker’s most recent film, a young mother and her six-year-old daughter make their way through life in Florida’s glaring sunlight. “THE FLORIDA PROJECT was a revelatory experience, both in and of itself and because of the fact that it so fully realized the promise of American place-specific reality-based fiction cinema […]” (Kent Jones)

GEMINI (Aaron Katz, USA 2017, 19.1., guest: Aaron Katz & 26.1.) Los Angeles, the city of film noir. An ambitious actress is found brutally murdered in her bed one morning. Her personal assistant Jill is the main suspect. As her situation becomes increasingly bleak, she resorts to drastic measures. Aaron Katz’s "Cold Weather" (2010) is one of the best contemporary works inspired by Sherlock Holmes. GEMINI is a no less fascinating perpetuation and further narration of the mythical genre of the LA thriller, to which Katz declares his love in each shot of his film. He has a profound understanding of its conventions, the expectations it raises and the pleasures it releases. Filmed in a visually addictive manner and featuring a 1990s soundtrack, the film also says plenty about Los Angeles today, about star worship, paparazzi and super-fans who know no bounds.

TONSLER PARK (Kevin Jerome Everson, USA 2017, 21. & 27.1.) On 8th November 2016, Kevin Jerome Everson filmed in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a polling station in a predominantly Afro-American precinct. With long takes and beautifully shot in black and white 16mm, TONSLER PARK observes locals on their way to vote, poll workers giving information, taking ballots, and checking IDs. It is not about single people, there are no interviews and no protagonist is brought to the fore. Can democracy been shown better? Everson is one of the most productive filmmakers in the US. In his many short and feature-length films, he concentrates on the lives of Afro-Americans and their communities. TONSLER PARK is one of the highlights of his oeuvre and one of the most important films of the year. “What we witness, in short, is a white supremacist’s nightmare – aka American democracy in action.” (Tony Pipolo) (hb)

Unknown Pleasures #9 is supported by the US Embassy in Berlin. Hannes Brühwiler curated the program. The full program is available online at www.unknownpleasures.de


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