Tuesday 8 June 2021


Wanting to celebrate their 50th year in style but hampered somewhat by that pesky pandemic, the organisers behind the Rotterdam International Film Festival (AKA IFFR) decided to split the festival into two portions this year, the first being in February and the second taking place at the start of June with some actual films in actual (socially distanced) cinemas.

With real world commitments taking hold of my life a bit more than the February edition, I didn't get to see as many of the June edition's films as I would have liked, but still managed to delve into what these new strands had to offer. Separated into Harbour, Bright Future, Short & Mid-length and Cinema Regained, it was in the last, most experimental, film history led strand where I found the most to enjoy.

Beginning with Nicolas Zuckerfeld's There Are Not 36 Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse, which is pretty much what you'd expect it to be and then some, the film starts with an extended montage of men getting on horses, all clipped from classic Westerns of Hollywood's golden age and complete with cowboys, the cavalry, "Indians" and assorted lawlessness. For any fan of cinema, it's quite thrilling to see this selection of old Hollywood horse operas, and as the doc's scope expands out to a wider view of Hollywood storytelling, pairing up moments from years apart (covering the Raoul Walsh films 1915's Regeneration, 1964's A Distant Trumpet and many in-between) to show how much reliance there is on a set formula. The film takes a turn half way in, as Zuckerfeld's narration moves the film into a more academic realm as he discusses Edgardo Cozarinsky's book, Cinematografos, and delves into the Raoul Walsh quote that serves as the film's title. There Are Not 36 Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse works best as an art film, the very wordy canter of the second chapter a dramatic shift from the visual gallop of the first, and is probably for film history buffs only.

My second film of this extended festival came from the Harbour segment, the big draw being a debut acting role for Zack Mulligan, AKA one of the subject of Bing Liu's excellent Oscar-nominated skateboarding documentary, Minding the Gap. With opening shots of American cornfields setting the scene, Death on the Streets introduces us to Mulligan as Kurt, a down on his luck almost 30-something with a wife, two kids and a lot of money problems. Doing his best to keep his head above water with day work in the local farming industry, he's a quiet man with enough dignity or foolhardiness to turn down the help offered by local well-wishers, including his father in law who creates fake odd jobs around his house in order to give Kurt a hand-out.

In no small part due to the heavy emotional baggage that comes with Mulligan after Minding the Gap, he acquits himself well in a role that has no flashy moments, only one man's quiet desperation as he looks upon the rock face of the gig economy. The film is awkwardly weighted, spending two thirds of its runtime setting up its last act that, although it limits the appearance of the impressive Katie Folger as Kurt's wife, actually gets close to delivering the message it's aiming for, with despair mixed with hope coming in the form of homelessness. Emotionally pitched somewhere close to Kogonada's Columbus and touching on some similar themes to Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, it's let down by a lack of narrative drive and some truly amateurish acting from the supporting players. A sharper script and a more ruthless editor might have given Mulligan a better film for his debut, but he's a likeable screen presence you want to root for.

With the promise that you'll never watch Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street in the same way again, The Philosophy of Horror: A Symphony of Film Theory uses old reels of the first two films to create something new, different and strangely compelling to watch. Manipulated, dyed, blacked out with pen and looking generally like it's been stored in a high school boiler room, this isn't a print that's in pristine condition, and is merely used as a vehicle for a deeper dive into film theory, featuring clipped excerpts from Noel Carroll's Philosophy of Horror book. Although a similar effect could have been achieved by using another classic horror film, like, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, for example, the whole reason why Freddy Krueger's first outing works in this context is the dreamlike trance it draws you into. Featuring no music or dialogue from the actual film and soundtracked by Ádám Márton Horváth's grungey, guitar feedback led soundscape, it's quite easy to be drawn into this weird world of freeze frames, repeated images and distorted, strobing faces.

With mouths agape like they're silently screaming out for help, the film occasionally moves on for a few frames, allowing Heather Langenkamp's fear to project towards us as the boogeyman looms into view. With its rhythmic, pulsating score and vivid colours, whatever has been done to this strip of celluloid has turned it into something almost Lovecraftian in the process, whilst also mimicking and replicating the mania of a dream state, albeit an occasionally nightmarish one. It's self-indulgent, using up portions of its runtime for an opening overture and an intermission, and although it might not deliver any coherent analysis on Wes Craven's horror masterpiece (and with a surprising lack of Krueger on screen), it's a bold, impressively realised visual experiment.

Last up from the Cinema Regained strand was Bill Morrison's The Village Detective - A Song Cycle. Given the treatment of the source material in the last film I'd seen, I went into Bill Morrison's film to find startling similarities, although in this case the distorted film was truly breathtaking to see come to life. Picking up where he left off with Dawson City: Frozen Time, the story of Morrison's latest film begins with an email he received from the great, sadly departed composer Johan Johansson, who heard about a canister containing four reels of film that had been dredged up from the sea bed by a lobster trawler off the coast of his native Iceland. With hopes from Morrison and the National Film Archive of Iceland that it would be a lost silent classic, it turned out to be Derevenskij Detectiv (The Village Detective), a 1969 Soviet film that was considered neither lost or rare. Diving headfirst into the history of the film and its star Mikhail Zharov, Morrison uses clips from "lost" films like 1917's The Fall of the Romanoffs and from Zharov's many big screen credits to chart his career and the history of Soviet cinema.

Considered at the time to be a star on the same level as Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, here Zharov stands in for all the forgotten actors from cinema's first 50 years, whose credits are reduced to a potted history in film history textbooks. Donning wigs and beards to play everything from prisoners of a regime to noted dignitaries, it's fascinating to watch his career across the decades, from young supporting actor in 1915's Tsar Ivan the Terrible to his role as Aniskin in The Village Detective, that became a regular role towards the end of his life.

As the film plays out for us - including the sprockets that fill the frame - it's almost impossible to decipher, but it's that unique power of cinema language that means we want to. Piecing the fragments together in our brain in order to understand the narrative (helped by David Lang's accordion score), what we're watching in its purest form is a collection of still images that lay underwater for decades, but that with the help of a bright bulb and some forward motion are able in all its damaged, corrupted glory to still tell us a story. It's a brilliant, breathtaking experience that will fill you with immense nostalgia for the format and a renewed hope that these films aren't lost to time. No-one's going to find a DCP drive at the bottom of the ocean in 50 years, and if they do it's not going to be of much use to anyone, but here, as we watch reach the end and watch the image deteriorate before our eyes, it's a beautiful thing to watch.


And with that, sadly, my time at IFFR draws to a close. This was my first year taking part in the festival, and although I was only able to visit it in a virtual space, I look forward to hopefully joining them in person at some point in the near future. Overall, both outings had a great selection of new, exciting pieces of cinema, including many that I look forward to seeing find an appreciative audience that, with any luck, I'll be a part of.

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