It was September, Spain, pre-streaming years. I walked from my room around the peaceful bay of San Sebastian to the old town, quiet and almost empty in early morning. Sleepwalking into the first screening of Donostia Zinemaldia, I sat in a darkened cinema for the film to begin. It’s Argentinian but that’s all I know. By end credit scroll, I am clutching my seat. I leave bewildered, astonished. I’d never seen a film like it. Excited, I flew back to the UK and waited for its release. I never heard of it again.
I actively avoid mediocre horror, languid art house and predictable drama
That feeling of exalted discovery made me a film critic. It also brought me back to Berlinale 2022 (pictured above) as well as Cannes 2022, which has yet to announce its formal line-up. Attending an in-person festival screening is like putting cash into cyber currency: you don’t know what you’re going to get from your investment. Where else can I savour the choices of often esoteric programmers whose idea of a great film is a far cry from mine? I’m not an ideal critic. Lately, I think I shouldn’t be one at all. Critics have to see everything across all genres. I actively avoid mediocre horror, languid art house and predictable drama. Bad casting (I’m looking at you Call Jane), poor cinematography and boring slow pacing gets an eye roll. I don’t want to watch a scene counting, “3, 4, 5, 6, 7 seconds, good God, cut it now.” Films that don’t work rile me. They feel like a waste of time. It’s not that I’m right and the filmmaker is wrong. It means I’m not this film’s target audience.
Being a critic isn’t that much fun but it’s not never fun. I sat next to a colleague during a domestic drama when he nodded to the screen and whispered, “I have those shelves.” And films can make a fool out of me, she with the aisle seat. I walked out of Venom because it was stupid and I had something better to do. When I was asked to work on its sequel, I had to watch the film all over again right to the end. The second half was so much better than the first, I learned a lesson to watch to the end, moron.
So, I approached this year’s Berlinale – my first was 2007 – with the freedom of not having to see anything in particular. Berliners love the cinema and tickets sell out quickly, even for classics that are out there somewhere on YouTube or Vimeo. The lucky few who got tickets for this year’s Berlinale retrospective, ‘No Angels – Mae West, Rosalind Russell & Carole Lombard’, postponed from 2021, came back with raves. This year’s Glasgow Film Festival’s retrospective ‘Winds of Change’ – the films of 1962 – features Lonely Are the Brave, Days of Wine and Roses, Cape Fear (original), To Kill a Mockingbird, The Miracle Worker and the sensational Manchurian Candidate with Angela Lansbury in the most sinister role. Retrospectives are our cavern of cave paintings, eternally marvelled at, rediscovered and reinterpreted.
Ultimately, we love what we love. I was stunned by the symmetry of Robert Pattinson’s face and Zoe Kravitz’s expressive, exquisite face in The Batman. The out-of-petrol truck sequence in Licorice Pizza, the restaurant scene in Power of the Dog, West Side Story’s fight scene in the salt storage – or even its opening sequence with the dancers throwing around paint tins – engulf you in another world. But I can’t be enthusiastic about something that doesn’t do it for me. This leads me to thinking that, yes, maybe I have seen too much, analysed too much, talked too much, written too much. Maybe I am now too old to be one of those enthusiastic, all-embracing, cheerful critics embraced by publicists and studios alike. I learned my craft when the strict, stickler critic was in vogue, so maybe it’s time for me to die off?
Yeah, maybe. I attended Berlinale 2022 anyway. I travelled to Potsdamer Platz on the U-Bahn using the Jelbi app, had a stick shoved up my nose, a band clipped on my wrist and my laminate examined many times simply to land in one of those plush red seats at the Berliner Palast. Again, I didn’t know what I was going to see except it was Indonesian. It started all mystical and quiet – is her husband a ghost in the jungle? Is this some Apichatpong Weerasethaku style-stuff? Slowly, it opened and became something unexpected. I watched entranced by this intimate, relatable and unpredictable narrative set in 1960s Indonesia, a place of which I know nothing. Fascinating traditional dances were done at house parties. Marital dynamics unfolded in weird yet believable ways. The film is called Nana: Before, Now & Then by second generation filmmaker Kamila Andini and it blew me away.
After some searching, I did finally find that Argentinian feature that I loved so much in San Sebastian. Directed by Fabián Bielinsky of the rightfully famous Nine Queens, the film was called The Aura. It was his last. Bielinsky died from a heart attack in 2006. The Aura never found distribution in the UK. C