Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Berlin Film Festival Diaries
My Way - Report #1 (February 18)

by Marcia Pally

February 18, 1996

Two years ago, with the creation of two sections in the Berlin Film Festival press cafe, 1) smoking and 2) the banal, puerile, Americanized non-smoking, I believed greatness of German culture was on the wane--the culture of Mozart, Schiller, Goethe, Heine and Cabaret. Out of respect for those great dead Germans, I lobbied for the two sections to be changed to smoking and chain-smoking, and was accused of trying to make more Germans dead. So my campaign was unsuccessful. But I am relieved to see that shreds of German greatness are being revived by the arrangement this year in the Royal Palast theater: smokers sit behind a Plexiglas wall. Some viewers felt this recalled unpleasant associations with ghettoes and other such great German ideas, but I prefer to think the Royal Palast is borrowing from Germany's great Jewish heritage, which, in Orthodox synagogues, sits women behind walls call Mechitzas. Now the Berlinale has Smoking Mechitzas. Germany has done it again, neither America nor American Jews have thought of it.


I am pleased to report that, not only is German culture in good health, but so is the American. Some literacy snobs in the U.S. have been alarmed that 40% of the adult population cannot read a newspaper article and summarize it and only the top 2s% can be considered "highly literate," or at least literate by American standards. But as I look at recent American movies, I'm downright impressed by the culture. Consider the new memory-retrieval genre exemplified by Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic and the new Panorama film Unforgettable (by John Dahl, The Last Seduction). Unforgettable is a cross between the earlier Strange Days and Interview with a Vampire, with blood-sucking replaced by shooting up cerebral fluid from Other People's Brains (which I understand was the film's provisional title). This provides memory flashes from other people's lives. Ray Liotta does this for two hours, but this is not what I mean by American culture. I mean the Enlightenment underpinnings of the memory-retrieval genre. The Enlightenment proposed that education brings understanding and the ability to address the problems of social organization. The memory retrieval films suggest the same thing: that the added education (from Other People's Brains) brings understanding and the ability to address problems. Well, perhaps not education, but the film suggests at least that basic information brings the ability to solve problems. Perhaps not precisely information but at least "raw experience," as Liotta says. Or if not actual experience, then at least pictures of experiences that look a lot like Nintendo games. That counts as "culture," does it not, at least by American standards ?

The party for Unforgettable, organized by Albert Wiederspiel, had two great dollops of culture: a terrific jazz band and duck liver which for some reason Mr. Wiederspiel served in sorbet-sized scoops that, with the pinkish color of the meat, looked unavoidably like men's genitals. This made eating them "cultural," I suppose. It made me wonder what sorts of games Wiederspiel had in mind.


Those readers who have not yet had their fill of culture might look to Richard III. Shakespeare is guaranteed culture, even if the Richard Loncraine-lan McKellen adaptation sets the film during a fascist putsch in 1930s England and gives it the speed and lust of a political thriller. It's redundant to say that everyone onscreen is smashing, except Annette Bening whose hollow whine has never since The Grifters found a role slight enough to suit it. But more impressive than the acting is the adaptation itself, which has the genius to recast "Now is the winter of our discontent..." as a victory-ball toast that ends in a urinal. I believe this brings us back to the Wiederspiel school of culture.


At the press conference for "Get Shorty", Danny DeVito expressed disappointment that the film received no Oscar nominations and said he and Travolta intend to nab awards next year for a new film in which Travolta play a farmer and DeVito, a pig.

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