Tuesday and Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Sodankylä Forever (2010)

by on October 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Parts 1 & 2 playing Tue Oct 11 at 8:15*; Parts 3 & 4 playing Wed Oct 12 at 8:45* at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Director Peter von Bagh in person

 

To quote the NYFF program notes, “Surely the most singular of events in the annual calendar of film culture, the Midnight Sun Film Festival is held every June in the Finnish village of Sodankylä beyond the arctic circle—where the sun never sets. Founded by Aki and Mika Kaurismäki along with Anssi Mänttäri and Peter Von Bagh in 1985, the festival has played host to an international who’s who of directors and each day begins with a two-hour discussion. To mark the festival’s silver anniversary, festival director Peter Von Bagh edited together highlights from these dialogues to create an epic four-part choral history of cinema drawn from the anecdotes, insights, and wisdom of his all-star cast: Coppola, Fuller, Forman, Chabrol, Corman, Demy, Kieslowski, Kiarostami, Varda, Oliveira, Erice, Rouch, Gilliam, Jancso—and 64 more! Call it Finland’s idiosyncratic and playful answer to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema!

 

As D.A. Pennebaker has noted, “Woodstock is fucking nothing if you have been at the Midnight Sun Film Festival.”

 

Sounds like an essential event for cinephiles.

 

Nico Baumbach for Film Comment (Sept/Oct 2011):

Von Bagh’s four-part series is a wise and generous act of preservation. Assembled largely from interviews with directors conducted over a 25 -year period at the Midnight Sun Film Festival he runs in the tiny Finnish town of Sodankylä, the film does double duty as a celebration of the festival itself and as a veritable history of cinema and of the 20th century. As von Bagh explains, the life of cinema is short enough “that a small festival far up north can span it completely.” One of the questions addressed to all guests – “What was the first film you saw?” – becomes a way to extend the story of the festival back to the silent era, because a “festival is as deep as the memory it contains.”

 


 

Baumbach continues:

Von Bagh’s montage is more associative than dialectical. Functionally recorded interview segments are clustered around themes such as “censorship,” “painting,” or “what film would you take to a desert island?” Film clips, when shown, tend to be brief and drawn from screenings in the theater itself, perhaps a concession to copyright law, but also a way to ground the film in the festival experience. Film stills and scenes from daily life in Sodankylä during the festival form the remainder of what is largely a talking-head affair. Despite the conventional expository presentation, von Bagh’s guiding intelligence is always in evidence. His narration manages not to call attention to itself even as it issues bold and at times cryptic proclamations that recall Marker. André Bazin (pictured holding a cat) is “the greatest critic”; Jancsó is “the master of historical cinema”; and Keaton’s The General is “as profound as Tolstoy’s philosophy of history.”

 

Von Bagh has been making films for over 40 years but is better known as a historian and festival director. Sodankylä Forever unites these various roles, and one begins to feel that, above all, it is a document of a specific discourse about cinema. Cinema, in this Bazinian vision, wrests truth from transient, mundane reality. Risks, uncertainty, “untamed nature” all tend to be favored over a word Kusturica utters with scorn, “storytelling,” which isn’t to say that Sodankylä Forever isn’t packed with good stories. In general, the tone is celebratory, but an air of nostalgia and even melancholy (aided by a Finnish dirge that is used as a refrain) haunts the film. There is a fear that cinema, or at least this idea of cinema, is headed for extinction. Whether we like it or not, Coppola tells us, “this new thing is here now,” but he doesn’t say what it is.

 

 

Nick James for Sight & Sound, in April 2011 and later online:

I saw only part of Peter von Bagh’s 270-minute Sodankylä Forever, a documentary compilation of interviews conducted at the legendary Festival of the Midnight Sun. This warm bath of nostalgia for better cinéphile times contains many indelible moments: Michael Powell sitting by a log fire with — Jarmusch at his feet made me wistful; hearing Chabrol talk about how he became a filmmaker had me giggling. A similar reverence for the likes of Tom Mix and Eisenstein — plus a self-deprecating humour — can be found in Federico Veiroj’s La vida útil (A Useful Life), about a veteran Uruguayan projectionist who finds that his job is coming to an end.

 

Watching a few hours of Peter von Bagh’s splendid film Sodankylä Forever in Rotterdam earlier this year gave me some notion of what his festival would be like. Bagh has a very crisp and considered way with English that makes his famous two-hour interviews with guest filmmakers (which make up the bulk of his film) a real treat. They begin the day at 10am in the Sodankylä school hall (one of the festival’s four venues – two of which are tents) and follow a routine that begins with the question, “What was the first film you remember seeing?” Filmmakers often fight shy of this personal line of questioning, but von Bagh’s gentle nudging usually eases them past shyness.

 

Olaf Möller, succinctly, in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2011):

Out of literally hundreds of hours of taped public discussions, film historian Peter von Bagh carves a forceful, fast-moving, often melancholic but frequently funny essay about cinema as the essence of the 20th century. A smart work – half elegy, half rallying cry – by a master raconteur.

 

And later, as quoted in the film’s press notes:

There’s no self indulgence here. Von Bagh’s strength and authority as a storyteller makes one follow the narrative where and howsoever it goes and moves, for there are quite a few sharp turns to it, sudden changes of direction which might first look like detours but prove to be simply the faster road less travelled. Also take note of the decisiveness with which the work moves no grand gestures with the camera (most of the stuff was probably shot with no intention other than to record an event for the archives, and it shows), nothing fancy in the editing, just a simple and very precise idea about how and why a scene should begin and end. In all that, ‘Sodankylä Forever’ has the grace of the bear: those rolling moves that manage to look rough and jerky while smoothly elegant at the same time.

 

 

David Bordwell for his blog:

Watching old clips, catching snatches of the Johnny Guitar theme, and hearing revered directors spin their yarns is enough to bring pleasure… The Yearning for the First Cinema Experience treats a core cinephile topic: What was your earliest encounter with the movies? Disney films, as you might expect, play a major role, but so too does Frankenstein (which made Victor Erice realize that people kill other people) and even the MGM lion (which startled Kiarostami in his childhood). The First Experience includes more mature epiphanies, such as Bob Rafelson’s obsessive visits to Manhattan’s Thalia. If the official classics get particular attention, it’s perhaps because, as Costa-Gavras says, “Everything was done in the silent cinema.”

 

So cinephiles are nostalgists, sentimentalists, even narcissists. But we aren’t oblivious to history behind the screen. The Century of Cinema episode focuses on directors’ relation to World War II (a continuing fascination of von Bagh’s). An era of purges, battlefront savagery, and prison camps, created, Szabo reflects, “a generation without fathers.” Jancsó, who served time in a Finnish POW camp, pays tribute to his hosts with a recitation, in Hungarian, of the opening of the Kalevala.

 

After the war, however, several Western European directors recall the advent of a new era of intelligence and creative engagement. The spirit was most apparent in the Italian Neorealist films. Erice tells of sneaking a forbidden print of Rome, Open City out of customs so that Spanish cinephiles could see it. In Eastern Europe, of course, things were different, and tales of censorship and young directors’ struggle to innovate are treated as continuations of wartime crises and constraints. Alexei German sums up the status of the artist who refuses to affirm official culture: “We are not the doctors, we are the pain.” Samuel Fuller, who has already explained that being assigned to a rear-guard unit in a retreat is a death warrant, is given the epilogue. He recalls visiting the tidiest graveyard he has ever seen and turning to watch the wind rustling the grass. Was he imagining how the scene would look on film? Naturally, arch-cinephile von Bagh shows us.

 

 
Jesse Cataldo for Slant:

Using footage from a minor festival taking place in an isolated corner of the world, it presents moviemaking as a battle of underdogs against unbeatable forces, scrabbling to keep their work untouched.

 
The running theme of all these lectures becomes the external duress that shapes films and creative cultures, from the global calamity of World War II to the cold clutches of communism, on to the strictures of the American studio system. Milos Forman’s comment that he was the best person to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it was fundamentally a Czech movie indicates a shared experience that crosses national and political lines.

 

The realization that filmmaking is a struggle for every director seems like a pat conclusion, but Sodankyla Forever digs deeper, exploring the effects of these pressures on individual voices, and how new solutions are shaped in response. This is all crystallized through a debate over a screening of Battleship Potemkin where filmmakers who lived under Soviet rule argue the work’s merits. Some walk out in protest. Others defend the movie, claiming Eisenstein as a fellow victim of inviolable totalitarian demands. The film defers to neither side, its endless parade of half-familiar faces only serving to identify the fragility of their product.

 

– Compiled by Brynn White

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