Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Films of THOMAS IMBACH screen at Anthology Film Archives

So, who's this Thomas Imbach guy? Yup: that's him at left. Film buffs, particularly those with a bent toward experimental or maverick cinema, might want to learn the answer via a small retrospective of the Swiss filmmaker's work hosted this weekend by Anthology Film Archives.

Now in his mid-forties, Imbach has written and directed only nine films, beginning, according to the IMDB, in 1987 with Schlachtzeichen (not shown in the retrospective, along with the hour-long Happy Too from 2002 ) and ending (for now, at least) with his 2007 I Was a Swiss Banker. Seven of his nine films will be shown at AFA (the complete schedule is here), including two documentaries of note: the award-winning Ghetto (1997) about the kids in an upper middle class suburb of Zurich and Nano-Babies (1998) that deals with the spontaneous experiences of children placed in day-care who are too young to express their feelings in words. Also screening are Well Done (1994), the hour-long Restlessness (1990-91), Happiness is a Warm Gun (2001) and Lenz (2006).

According to the AFA press release, Imbach's "films have consistently probed the boundaries between film and video, documentary and fiction, traditional cinema and cutting edge technology." This description did not ring any particular bells with me, and indeed, having now watched three of his movies, none of the above verbiage (except that boundary between documentary and fiction) rings a bell post-viewing, either.

I Was a Swiss Banker (great title: it sounds like it could be anything from camp to a financial exposé) is actually the lightest, most free-and-easy of the films, as the titular character -- a sleaze of sorts, although we don't learn much about this -- suddenly bolts with one of his client's cash. To elude the police, into a near-by lake he must dive, and from there on, the movie is rather like a modern fairy tale. Since the hero is played by a chunky and hirsute "hottie" named Beat Marti (above left and below right, of whom we get some full-frontal along the way), and because the various women he encounters are attractive and the landscapes are lovely to look at, the film is consistently easy on the eyes. Whether or not it has much to tell us, I am not as certain.

We do see the contrast between the "banking" and "bucolic" life or nature vs commerce (one of our hero's little romances seems to nicely combine the two). Our male centerpiece is surrounded by beautiful brunettes and one very controlling strawberry blond. There is beaucoup water imagery, along with a lot of air and sky, but the plot makes no sense in terms of the real world (If you throw away the loot from your robbery, does this mean that the police will simply stop searching for you?). But heck, this is a fairy tale, so let's not analyze. I think Imbach means for "Swiss Banker" to be a kind of lark. It's certainly the lightest of the three films I saw. I just wish it provided more fun.

Lenz is another matter entirely (this filmmaker could never be accused of repeating himself). Here, a crazy man named Lenz (as in the Georg Büchner work) wanders around in a rather cold climate. We soon learn that he is not a crazy man, after all; he's simply a filmmaker, trying to research, or maybe wrap-up, his latest project (Lenz/Lens?). But he is also trying to reconcile with his estranged lover and mother of his child, which, given his mood swings (could this guy be bi-polar?) is not going well. As played by Milan Peschel (below, right), Lenz is alternately funny, loony and sad. This pretty much describes the movie, too.

There are wonderful touches throughout this film -- from a funny little "sung" story about an Eskimo to a gorgeous distance shot of skiers against a mountain road. The tension derives from the artistic impulse toward freedom coming up against the stability necessary for family life. A blond wig makes several appearances: at the beginning, again during sex, and as our hero performs a musical number in a bar. Some filmmakers seduce you by pulling you into their movies; others do it by pushing you away. I think Imbach belongs to the latter group, which makes his road a harder one but perhaps, for him, more worthwhile.

The most interesting of the films proved to be Happiness is a Warm Gun, which imagines the after-life (or maybe the moment just before death) of German peace activist Petra Kelly and her lover/murderer Gert Bastian. Hell, it would seem (according to this movie), is having to spend your limbo life in a modern airport.

Petra is played well by Linda Olsansky (above, left) who bears a pretty good resemblance to her real-life counterpart, whom we see often throughout the film in news footage. Gert is played by Herbert Fritsch (above, right, and below), who looks a much younger man than was the real Bastian.

America's own sleazebag commentator Robert Novak (of the Valerie Plame affair) also appears in the film, quizzing the real Petra about her "Communist" connections. Evidently, if you were for peace 20 years ago, according to our right wing savants, you must have been a Communist.

The movie bounces all over the place: past, present, imagination, reality. Sometimes Petra has her head wound (as seen below: a bullet hole in the side of her temple) and sometimes not. Whether this has to do with Imbach's meaning in the film or simply the way the actress has combed her hair, we don't really know. (Because the movie often imagines the life and concerns of its leading character, it bears comparison to another film opening this week that does something similar: Il Divo.) There's humor in Happiness/Gun, as well as surprise, moments of some drama, and a lot of ideas about politics, psychology, religion and humanity. Whether or not you will have the patience or desire to work these out will depend, I think, on your ability to handle Imbach's brand of "experimental" cinema.

Based on the three films I saw, all narratives, certain similarities take shape, even though the tales they tell seem quite different from each other. The males in each are hugely problematic, if not downright woeful; it's the females who understand what is important, are strong and have the better grip on life and responsibility. Visually, the director loves water imagery and nature -- whether it be sunflowers, the Matterhorn or Lake Constance (below).
Imbach has promised to attend each of the screenings and to answer question afterward. So gird up your loins, keep your mind open, and visit AFA this weekend.

No comments: