Monday, December 29, 2008

The Long Goodbye

As one examines the programs for various film festivals, certain patterns start to emerge. January's Noir City festival features classics of a very specific genre.  February's SFIndie Fest often has a high quotient of sci-fi films.  March's Asian American Film Festival usually contains a heavy dose of Japanese gangster (yakuza) films.  

However, the first film festival of San Francisco's calendar year -- the Goethe Institute's Berlin & Beyond Festival -- usually seems to have a morbid fascination with death and depression.  If the holiday season and a bleak new year weren't enough to break your spirit, have no fear. German filmmakers are eager to sit you down in the Castro Theater and work your very last nerve.

Sometimes Berlin & Beyond comes through with amazing, uplifting films.  Among my favorites in recent years have been To The Limit, Lapislazuli, Sergeant Pepper and Rhythm Is It!. Scheduled for the opening night (January 15)  of the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival) is a remarkably sensitive and poetic film about loneliness, alienation, death, and depression that will grab you in ways you don't expect.  Written and directed by Doris Dorrie with a rare beauty, Cherry Blossoms will haunt you.

The film starts out innocently enough. Rudi and Trudi are an elderly couple living in rural Bavaria whose grown children have moved to the city and developed very busy lives.  When doctors tell Trudi that her husband has a terminal illness, and suggest that she think about doing something together that the couple might have put off for too long, her thoughts instantly turn toward visiting their son Karl, who now lives in Tokyo.  

Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) has always had a fascination with Japanese culture.  When she was young, she was fascinated with Butoh theater and shadow dance (she still treasures a collection of photos taken of her wildly gesticulating in Butoh makeup).  Her home is decorated with several paintings of Mt. Fuji.  One of her favorite books is Hokusai's One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. 

However, Rudi (Elmar Weppar), is an aging number cruncher for the local Department of Waste Management who follows an unwavering routine.  Rudi is decidedly averse to change. A sudden trip to Berlin to visit their two other children makes them acutely aware that their presence is, at best, an intrusion. Their grandchildren are obsessed with handheld electronic games. Their son and daughter can't wait for them to leave so they can get on with their lives.  Only their daughter's lesbian lover Franzi (Nadja Uhl) can seem to find the time and generosity of spirit to go sightseeing with them (she has no hesitation about taking Trudi to a Butoh dance recital).  

Realizing that time spent with their children is not helping matters, Trudi (who has been nervously keeping an eye on Rudi for signs of his illness) suggests that they take a side trip to the Baltic Sea. Rudi acquiesces but, several mornings later, awakens to discover that his wife has unexpectedly died in her sleep.

With Trudi having spent her life taking care of him, Rudi has no idea what will happen next.  He is startled to learn about Trudi's artistic yearnings from Franzi, a near stranger who, in a very short time gained more insight into Trudi than any of their self-absorbed children ever had. 

Shocked by the realization that his selfishness had stifled his wife's true nature, Rudi flies to Tokyo to visit his son Karl, packing some of Trudi's favorite clothes to accompany him on the trip. Because Rudi has never shown much interest in his children, he's surprised to discover that Karl has essentially followed in his father's footsteps to become a numbers-crunching workaholic with no real emotional attachments.  Communication between the two men is strained, at best. 

Left alone, Rudi occasionally dons Trudi's clothes and cleans his son's apartment. Finally, he gets up the courage to explore Tokyo.  Trips to massage parlors only exacerbate his loneliness, guilt, and the pain of missing his wife. One day, while walking through a public park, he spots a young performance artist wearing the same kind of white makeup that he had seen in Trudi's Butoh pictures.  Upon introducing himself to Yu (Aya Irizuki), he learns that since her mother's death a year ago, Yu has been using dance as a way of staying in touch with her mother's spirit.

Yu is a creature unlike anyone Rudi has ever met. She is essentially homeless, living in a pup tent in a public park, and dragging her possessions around in a suitcase.  Yet she is able to touch Rudi's heart as she explains how cherry blossoms hold a beauty that can never last, that must be savored in the moment.  

The two form an odd friendship and, when Karl can't find the time, Yu agrees to accompany Rudi to Mt. Fuji. While Rudi's death scene (in Butoh makeup by a lakeside with Mt. Fuji in the background) is beautifully staged, its dramatic impact is overshadowed by a subsequent scene in which Yu and Karl stand together in a Tokyo crematorium, gently using chopsticks to transfer Rudi's charred bones to the urn which will contain the old man's ashes.  It is a scene of unspoken tenderness, intimacy, and compassion shared between strangers -- quite the opposite of either Trudi or Rudi's funeral services in Germany.

Cherry Blossoms is a rare achievement which uses the traditions of two radically different cultures to bring peace and understanding to a grieving widower's final days.  Dorrie's film benefits greatly from Claus Bantzer's touching. simply orchestrated, and evocative original score which, together with Hanno Lentz's stunning cinematography, provides a foundation of delicacy, sensitivity, and resolve to Dorrie's overriding artistic vision.

* * * * * * * *

Screening on Monday morning, January 19 is a documentary that, for some, may prove every bit as provocative as its subject.  Nicola Graef's Ich, Immendorff chronicles the last years in the life of one of Germany's leading contemporary artists.  The sheer discipline and organization of Immendorff's mind is inspiring -- not to mention the quality of his work (much of which is done on large canvases).

The Comic Muse With Pug (1995)

Jorg Immendorff, who died in May 2007 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) was fearless in his determination (with the assistance of staff) to keep working  at creating art and meticulously directing installations of exhibits of his art -- even as he became confined to a wheelchair, lost control of his arms and legs, and eventually required assistance from a mobile respirator.  

The nature of this particular disease process is horrifying in that the mind stays clear while paralysis starts to envelop the limbs and torso. Diagnosed in 1998 with ALS, Immendorff did not lose his flair for the outrageous.  In 2000 (at the age of 55) he married a former student who was 30 years younger than him (they had met when she was 17).  

Ohne Title (1996)

Although their daughter (Ida) was born in 2001, two years later Immendorff was busted on charges of possessing cocaine (he was found in a luxury hotel room with seven prostitutes -- and four more en route to the party).  During his trial in July 2004 he admitted to having organized 27 similar orgies between 2001 and 2003.

The film includes numerous interviews with Immendorff's colleagues as well as his mother, and the artist's first and second wives.  What shines through it all is the creative force and sheer tenacity that kept Immendorff going until late in his disease process.  It is a remarkable story -- certainly not the kind of intimate portrait that the public is used to imagining about an outspoken artist determined to keep living his obviously diminished life to the fullest extent possible.

Both of these films had a strange impact on me for very personal reasons.  Several years ago, one of the subcontractors who worked for me as a medical transcriptionist died of Lou Gehrig's disease.  To my total amazement (as well as her husband's shock when he finally connected the dots), Leslie insisted on going down into their basement office and trying to transcribe medical reports as her disease progressed.  She kept transcribing until two weeks before she died.

Cherry Blossoms hit even little closer to home.  For many years my mother had a passion for Japanese art.  My parents traveled to Japan at least twice and the walls in the living room were decorated with Japanese scrolls and multi-paneled prints.  A running gag in our family was my mother's insistence that when her time came to die, we should just carry her up to Mt. Fuji so that she could throw herself into the volcano.  

Alas, she now has advancing Alzheimer's disease.  At this point, I doubt she can remember much, if anything about her love of Japanese art.  This picture (taken in 1957) shows her with Hiroko, a Japanese exchange student who stayed with our family for several weeks when we lived in Brooklyn.  That's me in the middle.

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