Permanent Vacation

~ Films / Words ~

This Ain’t California

2012, Dir. Marten Persiel


2012, Berlin. A group of friends reunite to mourn the death of their childhood friend, Denis, who was killed on a mission in Afghanistan. Having lost contact with each other for years, the group are all astounded by the tragic incident, but also by the fact that he grew up to become a soldier. When they knew him, back in the days of the German Democratic Republic, he was an anti-establishment wild boy, a free-spirited troublemaker; he was Panik, the hero of their teenage years.

The morose opening gives way to exciteful tones as Panik’s portrait is woven throughout a fast-paced, seamlessly edited mixture of fiction, found footage -shot in beautifully wistful super 8- and animated re-enactments -great work by Sasha Zivkovic who evokes an air of mysticism in his moving sketches. This is a tribute to the pure joy of a long lost youth, the liberating feeling of being careless and full of enthusiasm, and also, of belonging to a close-knit community brought together by a shared passion; skateboarding.

Contrarily to the GDR’s authoritatively imposed union under the communist dogma, this group of kids formed a camaraderie of their own, re-inventing East Berlin’s brutalist architectural landscape as their playground, re-creating the trappings of Western popular culture through their own DIY ethos -and having tons of fun while doing it.

This Ain’t California indeed, as acts like withdrawing from a children’s swimming championship or, skating aimlessly in the city’s central square, that would be seen as non-complex options in a liberal environment, take some form of political defiance when put in the GDR’s social context. Whereas the film up to this point could be described as a sort of The Big Chill meets Goodbye Lenin!, its indifference in wielding criticism against the ideas of either Communism or Capitalist Neoliberalism fends off comparison towards the latter. While we are encouraged to laugh out to the GDR’s attempt to model skateboarding as an Olympic sport, for instance, the full-blown commercialisation of it in the Western part of Europe and the US is not touched upon.      

The director’s, Marten Persiel, decision to tackle on this kind of socio-political issues only on the surface, could be seen as somewhat problematic considering the film’s context. However, This Ain’t California does not pretend to be anything more than what it is: a recounting of a singular time and place in the life of a bunch of kids who immersed themselves in an exciting, new-born subculture, while growing up in, what is considered by many, ‘the wrong side’ of the wall.

Ultimately, the film is less about going back to the early 80s East Berlin and more about transmitting the viewer into a past drawn from a more personal experience; the feeling of seeing the world again as a teenager, all restless and hungry for exploration, and the ecstatic joy of a new discovery, even if it is merely that of screwing wheels to a wooden board. “You relate to things differently when you build them yourself”, says one of the characters in the film, something widely forgotten today, surely.

This Ain’t California is a fascinating saga of a community that came to full glory and faded away. A quite small, perhaps, part of East Berlin’s history, albeit major on a personal scale, for the young lives lived there, and visualised in a most enthralling way. 

frances ha

2012, Dir. Noah Baumbach

Intelligent, gawky, non-stereotypically beautiful and undeniably charismatic, Greta Gerwig is the perfect antidote to the polished young Hollywood, a worthy, at last, new talent to talk about. Surely, at 29 and with several credits in mumblecore and other indie films, she is not exactly the new kid on the block but Frances Ha marks, without a doubt, her entrance to stardom.

Gerwig clearly is a muse for talented filmmaker and real-life partner Noah Baumbach, but he never treats her like a radiant goddess. Like other of his protagonists, her title character is caught in a post-collegiate malaise; not mature enough for the Real World, she’s still living out of a dorm figuratively (and, at one point, literally) and barely working as an apprentice at a dance company, struggling to make ends meet. While breaking up with her boyfriend seems like a necessary routine, the announcement that her best friend Sophie will be moving out of their flat comes as a big blow. Refreshingly, Frances’ most important relationship is not a romantic link but an idealised friendship that provides the film’s core; what sets off Frances’ journey is the realisation that growing up also means, to a great extend, growing apart. 

Despite her gradual separation from whom she sees as herself “with different hair”, Frances does not lose her joie de vivre and Baumbach and Gerwig celebrate every little joy and mishap in her stunted growth in full force. Insecure, clumsy, socially awkward, impulsive and, as one character frequently puts it, “undateable”, Frances remains uniquely genuine, a delight to watch even (or one could say even more) when she messes up. Contrarily to what could end up a quirky clutter of kooky young New Yorkers, her efforts and failures never cease to feel real and we can’t help but fall in love with her by the end of the film and want her to succeed. Frances has a great sense of humour, and so does this film, brimming with real-life wit and relatable situations; i.e a scene in which, desperate for late-night cash, she finally finds an ATM but almost refuses to use it because of the $3 bank fee.

If there’s one theme that defines Frances Ha, it’s its lack of stasis, a fitting characteristic considering its protagonist’s inclination to dance. Frequently uprooted by causes not always prompted by her actions, Frances finds herself couch-surfing across scattered New York City flats, and Baumbach’s episodic film is divided by title cards indicating her varied address changes over the course of a year or so. The filmmaker soaks his film in vintage Nouvelle Vague ambience, from its grainy, monochrome photography and lively montages to its more direct associations: a reference to Jean-Pierre Leaud, a Bande à Part homage, and a running-in-the-streets scene choreographed to David Bowie’s Modern Love, which conjures a similar moment from Leos Carax’s New Wave-inspired Mauvais Sang (1986).

Light and optimistic in tone, the film is given a fairy tale-like denouement with Frances finally crossing the half-way point she’s been lingering over –and that makes of an hour and 26 minutes of cinematic joy. Her reunion with Sophie is as emotional as Manhattan’s famous finale but, more than a mere tribute to Woody Allen’s mastery, the scene, as Frances Ha in its whole, holds its own charming idiosyncrasy; a unique mixture of exuberance, melancholy and compassion all brought out by its star’s perfect-to-the note performance

Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time.

Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.

Susan Sontag, The Decay of Cinema (1996)


Heading East - The East End Film Festival 2013 programme announced


East End Film Festival’s director Alison Poltock and head of programming Andrew Simpson announced yesterday details of the event’s 12th edition which seems to be the largest and most ambitious in its history so far. The festival, which will take place from 25 June to 10 July, boasts a diverse programme focusing on first and second features by emerging filmmakers around the world that add up to over 80 titles, most of them international or UK premieres. 

Complementing the main features strand, EEFF has a dedicated youth programme, CUTTING EAST that is curated by young people themselves, a 3-day industry section, MIND THE GAP featuring panel discussions, workshops and networking events, a focus on Argentinian cinema programmed by last year’s winner Armando Bo (El Ultimo Elvis) and the brand new EMERGE that launches this year and aims to explore the role of digital technology in filmmaking. Last but not least, it would not be a true East London event without fresh music talent to which a whole day is dedicated, the 13th of July (EAST END LIVE).

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Me And You (Io E Te)

2012, Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci


For someone who has watched and cherished Bertolucci’s least acclaimed coming-of-age summer tale Stealing Beauty (1996) the news the auteur’s new project would be about a lonely fourteen-year-old who spends his days locked in his building’s basement was delighting. I knew, however, I was in the company of very few others -sadly, like many old film ‘masters’, Bertolucci just isn’t that relevant anymore. As the film started rolling I couldn’t hold back feelings of dismay. Do contemporary teenagers still listen to The Cure and The Strokes? What does an immobilised 72-year-old really have to say about today’s youth? And how much room is there for a small Italian film released in the shadow of Harmony Korine’s in-your-face sexy, blinged-up yet dystopian Spring Breakers? The answer is: just enough. Because You And Me, as the title suggests, is a very personal, intimate film about two troubled individuals who cross paths and this crossing brings a small yet emotionally charged change, making their lives just a little bitbetter.

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As the police searched for the Tate killers, Easy Rider roared across America’s screens through the long, hot summer of 1969, through the fall, and into the new year, the new decade. And what a wild ride it would be. The Manson murders may have been a sign, but most people would be too busy making movies, doing drugs, having sex and spending money to heed it.  

Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Simon Killer

2012, Dir. Antonio Campos


Antonio Campos has a flair for the dark; in his debut film Afterschool (2008) he introduced us to desensitised, web-video and pornography obsessed student Robert, who, seemingly remains untouched after he accidentally captures on his mobile the death of two of his schoolmates by poisonous drugs.

In his follow-up, Simon Killer, he tells yet another twisted tale, that of the title character, a college graduate who goes to Paris to get over a painful break up. “She was a whore” Simon tells his French cousin in the introductory scene, “I’d like to meet someone new”. And this is exactly what he sets out to do, seeking some soothing and companionship -that gradually turns to obsession and mania. 

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Cosy Biscuit

What I wouldn’t give for a nine to five
Biscuits in the right hand drawer,
teabreaks, and typists to mentally undress.

The same faces. Somewhere to hang
your hat and shake your umbrella.
Cosy. Everything in its place.

Upgraded every few years. Hobbies
Glass of beer at lunchtime
Pension to look forward to.

Two kids. Homeloving wife.
Bit on the side when the occasion arises
H.P. Nothing fancy. Neat semi.

What I wouldn’t give for a nine to five.
Glass of beer in the right hand drawer
H.P. on everything at lunchtime

The same 2 kids. Somewhere to hang
your wife and shake your bit on the side.
Teabreaks and a pension to mentally undress

The same semifaces upgraded.
Hobbies every few years, neat typists
in wet macs when the umbrella arises.

What I wouldn’t give for a cosy biscuit.

-Roger McGough


Norwegian Wood

2010, Dir. Anh Hung Tran


Haruki Murakami’s nostalgic coming-of-age novel Norwegian Wood is one of those books that quickly become hot film projects. A global success, selling over 10 million copies worldwide, it is the acclaimed author’s most accessible work - a story of youth, sexuality, love and loss set in late sixties Tokyo. The book’s international fan base not only indicates a successful film adaptation, but also offers Japanese cinema the opportunity to approach a more mainstream western audience showcasing a production totally different from the horror, manga and anime films or Takeshi Kitano’s idiosyncratic creations that it is popular for. Of course, there’s always a difficulty in adapting books for the screen and the more famous the writer, the bigger the challenge for the filmmaker. In Norwegian Wood the main challenge is that the narrative progresses slowly with its main character largely remaining passive through it.

The protagonist is Toru Watanabe, a 19-year-old student spending his time between classes, part-time jobs and one-night stands encouraged by his dorm friend Nagawasa. His seemingly carefree student life, though, is clouded by Toru’s grief for his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide when they were still in high school. One day, he runs into Kizuki’s long-term girlfriend, the beautiful and fragile Naoko and they soon come close to each other, drawn together by their mutual wound. However, their romance abruptly comes to a halt as Naoko, constantly tormented by the past, withdraws to a remote retreat leaving Toru devastated. Deeply in love, he promises to stay loyal until she gets better, but their relationship is increasingly challenged, not only by Naoko’s worsening condition, but also from the coming of a new girl in Toru’s life, the lively and free-spirited Midori.

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Life in a Day

2011, Dir. Kevin Mac Donald


The premise of ‘Life in a Day’ sounds dull if not daunting: YouTube invited its users to upload personal videos shot on July 24th 2010 with the opportunity to see them on the big screen as part of a feature-length documentary. In an age where interactive media and reality shows dominate, a project like this was to be expected – with many imitators sure to follow.

The idea of a feature-length edit of YouTube clips brings to mind shaky camerawork and highly pixelated shots with the end result resembling a visual soup. Apart from the technical issues however, I was even more concerned about the actual content of these videos. Boredom and narcissism hardly ever led to anything worthwhile and, aiming predominantly at a young mainstream audience (YouTube users themselves), I was afraid that the result would look like a cheesy advert: happy people playing with their cameras and fame driven wannabes posing ambitiously in front of the lens…

Surprisingly, ‘Life in a Day’ overcomes these easily laid traps and makes a rather sweet and honest account of different people’s fragmented, yet worth watching little stories. Credit is all due to Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void), an undeniably skilled director and experienced documentarian who was given the hard task of creating a narrative out of over 80,000 submissions. Without avoiding videos with darker content, but also able to recognise the –sometimes unconscious- humour in other clips, Macdonald succeeded in creating an admirably balanced, sincere and beautiful film to watch.

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