Sunday, January 30, 2011

John Cook at AFA

Early last month, Anthology Film Archives presented an almost-retrospective (3 of 4 feature films) of Canadian-Austrian filmmaker John Cook, active throughout the 1970s in his adopted home of Vienna. It is the type of programming AFA excels in- a spirited retrieval of a minor yet dynamic artist, a vital contribution to a cinephilic education in an age of haphazard digital proliferation. Although Cook’s oeuvre presented here did indeed strike me as minor, he apparently has become posthumously (Cook died in 2001) revered in Austria. This may have as much to do with the miniscule national film industry as it does with the nature of the films themselves. Olaf Moller tackles the question here- the best English language writing on Cook I’ve found on the web. The 3 prints screened by AFA were on loan from the Austrian Film Museum, and were preceded by introductions from the American distributor of new dvd releases.
Despite its brevity, Cook’s retrospective satisfied, displaying creative variation and rapid artistic development. The quantum leaps in technique and effect between the three films (all produced in a six year time-span) suggest a thoughtful, independent artist searching for a style in a new medium (Cook came to Europe as a professional photographer.) One can speculate on the periods of reflection and correction in the interims. Development of the auteur’s process aside, the retrospective offered many attractions: the vivid capturing of Vienna in the 70s, an inside look at its working class and bohemian milieus, and even a portrait of Cook himself, who acts in Slow Summer. Cook’s work is close to experience, if not outright autobiographical, and situated in the present. In all three works, a tension emerges between Cook’s nouvelle vague-influenced casual impulsiveness, and the langourous drag of small budgets, cinematic inexperience, and authorial persona. Only the last work, Clinch, seems worthy of occupying any place in the Austrian film canon, although the other pieces are not mere expat diletantism. If not quite sparkling, they are the products of a grown man and mature artist with an admirable bent towards exploration inward, and outward towards his new, adopted country.
The earliest work, 1973’s I Just Can’t Go On, is a documentary-like look at the small but bustling life of Cook’s building janitor. A frumpy but good-natured mother of three, she is inexplicably married to a young, aimless gypsy, a would-be prize fighter stuck in a working-class rut. They make an odd couple, an obvious fact that Cook downplays. Instead the film is a microsociology of working-class life, specifically its small limitations, disappointments, and diversions. Although the portrait’s protagonist mutters “I just can’t go on” in the last reel, its clear that she can, and does, but devoid of any real hopes or expectations for a better future. Between work hours she plays cards with her family, accompanies her husband to outdoor fights, and keeps her household in order. There is a tenderness between the couple, even after she realizes that his boxing career is a pipe dream- he is pummelled in his first and only fight, and must find gainful employment to avoid imprisonment on a youthful criminal conviction. Cook records both work and play with a handheld camera and natural lighting; anything but such a verite approach would be off-key. Audio and image are mostly unsynced, and at times completely autonomous, the former extended monologues by husband and (mainly) wife, the images roughly stitched together of their daily activities. The boxing montages are roughly lyrical, despite the crude technique. Essentially a home movie, a dry run of method, it is a precursor to the better and more professionally accomplished look at working-class ennui in Clinch. However, its roughly hewn vitality and the odd charisma of its subjects generate a melancholic charm.
Slow Summer, coming three years later, begins with a metanarrative trope- Cook visits a friend to review footage from a previous summer. Their commentary recedes to allow a conventional, if indeed molasses slow, narrative about Cook (or a Cook-like character played by the director, to be precise) and a clique of friends to unfold. None of these petty-bourgeois bohemians is particularly likable, but Cook, pining and stewing over a break-up (he is trying to make “the Ilse movie” in her honor) comes off the worst. Self-deprecation notwithstanding, he’s a manipulative jerk without much screen charisma. As director, however, Cook demonstrates a rapid development from his previous work. Although still shooting on grainy black-and-white, his montage is confident, dialogue and continuity well executed. The dive into cinema evident in I Just Can’t Go On’s rough form enters the narrative here as a conceptual concern, albeit with a framing device that doesn’t quite deliver what it suggests. A bigger problem is the dull characters; their little romances and endeavors fail to draw much more then a shrug from them or us. There’s not enough charm in its drowsy rhythms for Slow Summer to rise above much more than a modest snapshot. The moments that remain are not the characters or their obscure motivations, but interesting asides amongst the talking, driving, drinking- a rude cabbie, naked children on scooters, a discussion of Lou Reed’s Transformer album.
Finally there was Clinch, based on a novel by Helmut Zenker, and announcing its break from the previous features immediately with its bright color compositions. In the first sequence a fantastically repulsive gang of park landscapers, who break up their day with drinking and whoring, try to compel a middle-aged woman to show her parts. Protagonist Hermann dourly navigates the depravity of his peers, but silently seethes over his life conditions. With a sullen child’s demeanor and the habits of a sailor, Hermann’s hapless charm emerges only slowly. Incapable of commitment, he disappoints his loving girlfriend, is estranged from the conservative family with whom he still lives, and eventually walks off his miserable job, falling into a crisis that concludes with imprisonment for beating up his brother, an intolerable aspiring yuppie. Whats with Hermann? Perhaps a close literary likeness is Berlin Alexanderplatz’s Franz Biberkopf, the marginalized laborer on the razors edge of lumpenproletariat, led by overwhelming external powers, “like an animal to slaughter,” to a terrible end. In short, he suffers acutely from an alienation unique to prosperous and comfortable societies (represented by his family passively gathered around the television), as well as a real exploitation in his role of unskilled laborer. Although his facade is inscrutable, Hermann’s slow persistence upon returning to the world is evidence of a well-spring of resilient inner resistance. Clinch surprises in its sophisticated maintenance of dread in the midst of which Hermann scores a series of believable lucky breaks: a decent job with loyal coworkers, the return of his girlfriend, now with child. The film abruptly ends as the last and only wedding guest departs, leaving Hermann staring headlong into a future, although vastly improved, still limited by the melancholic horizons of working class stability. Developing from I Just Can’t Go On, Cook lets this final work live and breathe with the daily concerns of working-class life: discussions of work routines, patient sequences of Hermann and the truck he drives, minor flarings of workplace disputes. An obvious debt here to both Italian neo-realism as well as the post-68 cinematic return of the declasse from the likes of Tanner, Godard, Fassbinder, and others. If this was to be the culmination of Cook’s career (or at least this retrospective), it is a principled and solid finish.

-Ben Webster

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