February 7, 2008

Berlinale Dispatch. 1.

Quick impressions of the opening night film, three shorts and one unclassifiable.

Shine a Light Shine a Light may be a so-so concert movie, but it's a brilliant choice for a festival opener. Why not start things off with a party? For the Berlinale's glamor-seeking sponsors, for the crowds that thronged Potsdamer Platz all afternoon and evening, and for the flash armies of the press, festival director Dieter Kosslick could hardly top the sight of Martin Scorsese, still (and for a few days more) Oscar's director laureate, and the Rolling Stones walking up that red carpet - together. Does it even matter if the movie's any good?

Fortunately, Shine a Light is, well, not bad. It'll make an okay DVD and, maybe with the right audience, a reasonably fun night out at IMAX, though to hear those who've seen U2 3D tell it, it's already been blown out of the water as a you-are-there experience. At the site for Shine, you can check off all the names of the top notch cinematographers Scorsese's rounded up to capture all they could over two nights in the fall of 2006; it shows, and what's more, David Tedeschi has done a bang-up job at the editing table.

Before Keith Richards jangles New York City's Beacon Theater with the curtain-raising first chords of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," though, Scorsese entertains us with a bit of behind-the-scenes squabbling (he needs that set list!) and nerves - in part because the scenes (most of which are sampled in the trailer) are funny, and in part to imply not-so-subtly that conditions for the shoot were not ideal. The best short sequence here features Bill Clinton, who'll be introducing the band later in the evening. But first he's got to meet the band - again, evidently - and he reveals, as he did in South Carolina in January, how much he's, shall we say, fallen out of touch with the knack: "You wouldn't believe how many friends in their 60s have been calling me up for tickets," he grins to Mick Jagger.

Goes over like a lead balloon. The scene crosses over into pure comedy - surely unintentional on the Clintons' part, probably at least a little intentional on Scorsese's - when Hillary arrives with her mother; hands are shaken, pictures snapped (Richards giggles into the nearest ear, "Hey Clinton, I'm Bushed") before one of the organizers informs the Stones that they'll soon be meeting 30 of the Clintons' closest friends. Charlie Watts's face falls: "I thought we just did that."

But on with the show. "Jumpin'" jumps but the set starts sagging almost immediately afterward. Things don't pick up for a long while. Jack White disappoints. Christina Aguilera more than holds her own. Buddy Guy reminds us that, as directly opposed to, oh, say, U2, when the Stones play the blues, they're going right back to where they started from. With "Sympathy for the Devil," the band, the crowd, the lights, the cuts, all finally click and soar. But that's awfully late in the game. Short archival clips, all of them expertly chosen and interspersed throughout, almost come as a relief.

Now then. Mick Jagger is 65 years old. His face shows every single one of those years, but that hair, feathered since the 70s, and that unbelievably lithe body of his - it's just unfathomable. Watch him twitch, flutter and scamper across the stage like some electrocuted insect and you can't help wondering if maybe he really did make some deal with the Devil all those years ago. Watts goes "phew!" once, but otherwise, he's absolutely on top of every number. Ronnie Wood's got no trouble at all supporting the goings on. It seems left to Richards to play the Portrait of Dorian Gray role in this band. Not that every lick hasn't got that signature swagger; but his voice is going and he's the only Stone who dresses to hide a belly. Part of what makes him great, though, is that he knows. Before launching into "Silver and Gold," he tells the audience, "Great to see you. Hell, it's great to see anybody."

Some look at the Stones these days and are embarrassed for them. I don't get it. I'm certainly not the fan I was in junior high, but they do what they do just fine and, more importantly, they still enjoy the hell out of it. We don't cringe when 65-year-old classical or jazz musicians walk out on stage; for that matter, we don't cringe at the idea of Bob Dylan still out there on his never-ending tour. Yes, when Jagger syncs his gyrating hips right up next to Aguilera's, it does give one pause. It's not that she could be his daughter. It's that she could be his granddaughter. That's the difference. This was once the sex, drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll band. But as for the music, if they play well, and they get a kick out of it and audiences get a kick out of it, why not?

Somewhat related, though, in a roundabout way: Knowing Elegy will be screening on Sunday, I finally got my hands on a copy of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, the novel the film is based on, and, probably too late, started reading it on the underground this morning. It's not long before the narrator, a man about three years younger than Mick Jagger, is creeping you out with tales of how he habitually conquers young women in their 20s. He's warding off death, and admits as much.

Green Porno As it happens, the first three short films I caught today, selections from Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno series, are all about the inextricability of sex and death - for insects, anyway. On sets and in costumes that have a handmade, Michel Gondry-like playfulness, Rossellini plays a male spider who slaps sperm on his limbs and sneaks up to the "angry" female, fulfills his Darwinian duty and skedaddles out of there before she eats him. A firefly goes courting, also facing down the threat of getting eaten by faux female fireflies. And a housefly happily humps with a big goofy smile on his/her face and proudly notes that they implant their offspring in cadavers. Here's the jolt in this one: the final image of maggots squirming in a model of Rossellini's own head. Wonder what Berlinale sponsor L'Oréal will think of that one.

Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg followed and, having gathered reviews from Toronto, I won't go on about it, but instead simply note that I had a marvelous time and that, as Maddin tries to break the wintry spell his hometown has cast over him and his fellow sleepwalkers, he raises a wide array of bewildering questions - and answers the one central to his predicament. Two rivers form "the Forks," lines directly paralleled with "the Lap" - his mother's. The pull is inescapable. The overlapping shades and tones with Roth's aging lecher, Rossellini's insects and Jagger's jagged face all made for an odd first day at the Berlinale.

I've just seen that Variety's Todd McCarthy has reviewed Shine a Light: "[I]'s a proficient celebration of the band’s great songs, performing skills and durability, and perfectly enjoyable as such."

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Posted by dwhudson at February 7, 2008 1:26 PM


Don't forget about Hanna Montana in 3-D!

Posted by: at February 7, 2008 1:58 PM

I'm sorry I missed the Rossellini shorts at Sundance. They sound like a hoot!

Posted by: Brian at February 7, 2008 3:09 PM

It's time for someone to be thinking about a shorts collection on DVD: My Dad is 100 Years Old, these, maybe a few Maddin shorts...

Posted by: David Hudson at February 7, 2008 10:59 PM

Each year I look forward to your dispatches from Berlin, David. Have fun!

Posted by: Maya at February 8, 2008 1:21 AM

How long has it been since the Stones rec'd 'opening act' billing?

Posted by: Ju-osh at February 8, 2008 8:06 AM