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Thessaloniki Report by Rosemary Heather

I Miss Sonia Henie

Karpo Godina , I Miss Sonia Henie (1972)

Rosemary Heather reports on Serbian Kino Clubs, Carmelo Bene, Timothy Carey, and Jeff Keen at the Experimental Forum at the 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

The Experimental Forum section at the 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival offered such a rich viewing experience it is difficult to know where to begin when discussing it. The quality of the presentation was entirely down to the programming vision of Vassily Bourikas, an individual so passionate about avant-garde film that he single-handedly revives the category from historical curiosity to living, breathing art form.

Changing notions of what now constitutes ‘mainstream culture’ mean that ideas such as ‘underground’, ‘avant-garde’ or ‘oppositional’, are also in flux. The particularly thorough approach that Bourikas brings to the presentation of avant-garde film allows us to, as he says, “extract the context’” which, in the 20th century, gave the ethos of art experimentation such vitality.

TIFF’s Serbian Kino Clubs screenings, for instance, revive to memory the role that filmmakers in (then) Yugoslavia played in the international conversation about avant-garde film. A legacy of Tito’s program for ‘popular technological education’, the true origins of the Kino Clubs are in avant-garde notions about the revolutionary potential of film technology itself. The TIFF screenings were of works from those clubs that had moved on from their original function -  providing a venue for the making of what were essentially home movies. Dusan Makavejev is the most famous product of Tito’s initiative. Although no Kino Club films by him were shown at TIFF, the screenings did give insight into the particular mix of sex, social protest and anti-militarism that is so distinctive in W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).

With abundant nudity, full-on sex, and the chaotic feeling that formal experimentation can bring, superficial viewing might assume the Kino Cub films were partaking of the generalised language of the counter-culture (see in particular the films of Ljubomir Simunic). Deeper knowledge of the context yields a different reading. In Miroslav Bata Petrovic and Juliana Terek’s Personal Discipline, a naked women (the film’s co-director) shaves her head while sitting in front of a mirror, then ventures out into public in disguise to meet her lover, images of the two having sex being inter-cut throughout the film. Easily understood as a rebellious act – a denunciation of femininity, perhaps – in Serbia at the time, shaving one’s head had a more specific meaning: opposition to the army. Personal Discipline was made in 1983, showing just how enduring the language of liberation as developed in the 60s has proved to be when applied to local contexts.

Tensions produced by the Communist system is also the subject of Karpo Godina’s Litany of Happy People (1969-71). Few films, I’m sure, have more spectacularly fulfilled the role of retrospectively predicting political events. Part of TIFF’s extraordinary Experimental Ex-Yu programme of films, Litany of Happy People maps the ethno-political terms of the country’s future disintegration. Featuring portraits of the region’s inhabitants, all shot against the exterior wall of a farmhouse, each portrait groups its subjects by type: gypsy children, peasants in traditional dress, old women wearing the black garb of mourning. Undermining this pastoral idyll is the film’s soundtrack, a rollicking folk-rock song about the “love” that connects the country’s various ethnic groups. Although not necessarily a premonition of civil war, the film nonetheless imparts a clear-eyed view of Yugoslavia’s fragility, the artificiality of its construct under Communism. The song’s refrain wishing “The Eastern Bloc as a whole be buried in a hole!” suggests the ethnic unity imposed by the communist system, along with the system itself, was considered to be fraudulent. This did prove to be true.

Litany of Happy People

Karpo Godina, Litany of Happy People (1969-71)

Unlike most Communist countries, Yugoslavia had a fairly relaxed attitude about the movement of people across its borders. It is perhaps thanks to this policy alone that we have the historical curiosity, I Miss Sonia Henie (1972). Karpo Godina masterminded the project, inviting seven filmmakers – including Makavejev, Milos Forman, Paul Morrissey, Buck Henry and Frederick Wiseman, all attending the 1st Belgrade International Film Festival in 1971 – to contribute short 3 minute films, each structured according to a simple set of rules, and including required mention of the phrase “I miss Sonia Henie”. Referring to the figure skating champion and film star of the mid 20th century, the sentence was originally uttered by Snoopy, at one time apparently a hero of the international underground. Typical of the omnibus film, the results are uneven. Buck Henry’s contribution is the most inventive. He manages to contrive a scenario in which the sentence is scrawled on a piece of paper by the erect penis of a guy in a coma – a gag no less funny today.  More interesting than the film is the way it suggests, as Bourakis has noted, that Yugoslavia was a destination point on the international map of culture.

A maverick sensibility animated by the spirit of the time unites the Amantes Sunt Amantes programme, which presented works by four exceptional cinematic talents: Italy’s Carmelo Bene, the USA’s Timothy Carey, the UK’s Jeff Keen, and the Serb, Ljubomir Simunic. Shared by the filmmakers is an explosive sense of creative ferment.  Most eccentric is Timothy Carey’s Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena (1970). A barely coherent melange of talking animals and grannies on roller skates, the film prominently features a dithering, insouciant Carey, who had already made a career as a successful Hollywood character actor, and was a friend of John Cassavetes (producer of the movie.) Carey, also director of the more-known cult film The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), comes across as a light-hearted, non-gay Jack Smith; or maybe a Kenneth Anger without the interest in Satanism. These comparisons are of interest especially because in Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, Carey provides a rare example of camp sensibility devoid of a gay subtext. Presenting himself as a holy fool who naturally gravitates to the company of women, children and animals (there are virtually no other men in the film), Carey finds within camp aesthetics the opportunity to express a parallel subtext about the discontents of masculinity.

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Timothy Carey, Tweet's Ladies of Pasadena (1970)

Exploration of alternatives to ‘straight’ society also drive the Pop Art informed 8mm films of the UK’s Jeff Keen. Working far from the Structuralist orthodoxies of the London scene, Keen’s  densely-layered mini-masterpieces are populated by members of Brighton’s bohemian milieu. Handmade, using animation, colour-tinting, collage, superimposition, double-exposures and found sound, Keen made the most of the intimacy that small-gauge filmmaking so readily conveys to portray the creatively full home life he enjoyed with his family and friends. In addition to aestheticising the image in every manner possible, the films are given structure via an ambiance of narrative, one that is derived through reference to the mise en scene of pulp cinema. This is especially true of the epic 33 minute-long White Dust (1970-72), in which costumed and sometimes masked performers inhabit the genres of horror, sci-fi, mystery and soft-core pornography. Consistent with his lack of interest in London’s film scene, Keen believed the obvious audience for his expanded cinema would be found on television, and to a limited degree he saw this wish fulfilled.  Channel 4 and the Arts Council of England commissioned Artwar in 1993, but the broadcaster declined to show the work as individual segments, inserted into the broadcast stream without contextualization, as had Keen originally envisioned.

Most deranged viewing in the festival was found in the work of the Italian, Carmelo Bene. It is not within recent memory that I can think of a film that left me, post-viewing, feeling physically energized and mentally refreshed. This is an admittedly curious outcome considering that sitting through Bene’s two-hour long Our Lady of the Turks (1968) is a somewhat brutalizing experience.  A theatre director of wide-renown in Italy who died in 2002, Bene made five films, between the years 1968-1973. He referred to this creative interlude as a ‘parentheses’; it left him permanently alienated from the art form. With most scenes constructed around Bene’s performance (sometimes talking to himself, using alternating shots), Our Lady of the Turks presents the actor in a succession of absurd scenarios. Rolling around on the floor, hands tied behind his back, Bene pulls books off a chair with his teeth; runs desperately through a field, menaced by the sounds of military drumming and gunshots; pushes himself backwards off a balcony (not easy to do!) then writhes about on the ground, loosely covered in bandages; attempts to make love to a naked women while dressed in a suit of armour, accompanied, hilariously, by sounds of the metal squeaking; repeatedly harms himself and is helpless…The film continues on like this, never letting up in its intensity, 9/10ths of the soundtrack comprised of the filmmaker’s feverish talk.

“The illusion is divine!” he declares, making it clear the saint can never quite be separated from the idiot (a similar world view is espoused by Carey). Like an extended anxiety dream, in which you are late for your train because your shoes are nowhere to be found, Bene’s vision is of life as a struggle, with periods of rampant egomania superseded by episodes of self-sabotage.  For clues to the source of this torment, you don’t have to look far. The artist’s attempts to find love and erotic release are mediated by the presence of flesh and blood religious figures, most predominantly the Madonna, with whom he engages in carnal relations. Not surprisingly, while this psychodrama is particularly Catholic in flavour, it loses none of its relevance for the non-believer.  Bene’s argument was not only with the Catholic Church. He considered his work in film to be an attack on the medium. Judging by my own experience, Bene’s highly idiosyncratic brand of cinematic assault produces effects for the viewer that are nothing less than revelatory.  His work also stands as eminently contemporary: a project of distanciation from within. The success of the confrontation he constructs is probably all the more effective because Bene positions himself within the film as our surrogate; he suffers along with us, we suffer along with him.

It is this lack of faith in notions of reality accepted at face value, and active steps taken to militate against such notions, that all the films presented in TIFF’s Experimental Forum program had in common. If the works are, more or less, products of the culture that emanated from the 1960s, they also point to the broad openness to artistic experimentation that was so characteristic of the 20th century. Today we are still enjoying the effects of the cultural revolution such experimentation brought on; but as a culture we, for the most part, have lost sight of this fact. Which is why programming such as Bourikas’ contribution to the Thessaloniki Film Festival is so welcome, so necessary and so relevant.

For more information on the Experimental Forum, visit Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

About the Author: Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer and curator.


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