Berlinale 2018 – The Films. Day 8: Eldorado, Museo (Museum), Touch Me Not

 

Day Eight – 22 February

Time for another migrant movie, there are so few of them. This time, it’s a documentary – and so much better than Transit!
Director Markus Imhoof draws an inappropriate parallel between his Swiss family welcoming an Italian child refugee in the 1940s, a girl who died shortly after being sent home again, and the famous migrants of today. And he means about all of them, whether they come from war zones or only from peaceful poverty. Starting on a navy vessel, deployed to amass the masses in the Mediterranean, he moves on to Italian camps, and finally Switzerland. They have it bad, no doubt about that. But nobody forced them on their voyage, in particular not those from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, &ct, who, we’re told, will be sent back again without exception.

A mere twenty years ago, TV showed images of starving Africans on a monthly basis. Today, they no longer starve, and they’re coming. Coming to stay (one major difference to WWII times). And it’s a mass problem. Africa’s a kettle boiling over, European nations the kitchen paper to soak up the spillings.
We watch a scene from a refugee camp, of a Nigerian man screaming and complaining: demanding. It’s human nature. He's probably dreamt of changing life as an email spammer (ugly stereotype about Nigeria: check) for a spot in the starting eleven of Barca. That’s human nature. It's his right. Or modernity: It’s not enough to be alive, and the grass is always greener...
For many of these men, life was not worse in Africa (on whatever scale you decide to rate that: a life). A union official takes the filmmaker to illegal workers, exploited by the mafia and local industry. We learn, tomatoes for Africa are not grown in Africa, but here in Italy, by the hands of Africans, then canned and sent south. You would think it a good idea to reduce the heat under that kettle and invest in African economy, not in migrants.
Imhoof continues to tell us about history, about Swiss villages forcing their overpopulation into migration to a new continent, America. This European migration is sometimes cited, but... well, you know how that turned out for the Indians. Same goes for other historic migration movements, the Mongols, the Vandals, the Europeans in Africa. Ok, that’s polemics.
Eldorado’s (that’s the title) ending is probably the best part, revealing a grotesque lie of European politics: A Senegalese man is sent back home from Switzerland, and he plans to use his 3,000 Francs farewell gift to buy some cattle. The voice from the off then tells us of a new trade agreement between Senegal and the EU, leading to European milk being sold cheaper in Dakar than the own produce. That’s the problem. The European milk production a reason for migration, aid for refugees as another subvention for the agricultural industry. It would be funny, were it not so sad. Only losers in this game.

Prediction: They won't make it.

Mexican Film Museo (Museum) tells the story of an actual museum heist in the voice of one of the perpetrators. On Christmas Eve 1985, two vet school students entered the archaeological museum of Mexico City that at the time was in course of renovation, and made away with 140 precious artefacts. We follow their often funny, and sometimes sad, attempts to sell the hot goods, first in Mexico City, then in another province, and finally in Acapulco. It has been officially established that "José" and "Wilson" (not their actual names) acted alone, yet the film seems to cast some doubts on that version. How should these two be able to identify the most valuable pieces, how did they learn the technics to open the vitrines, &ct.

The film’s final words are: “If you ever tell our story, don’t tell the truth. Why ruin a good story with the truth?” If you do some research, you will find not only a variation in the number of stolen artworks, but more relevant diversions from the filmic truth (as foremost the timeline of events). But apart from this, and being too long (128 minutes, where ninety would be largely sufficient without all the unnecessary fillers), the amusing film raises some serious questions about art and the art trade. Who is the rightful owner of an archaeological artefact? One example talks of a gallon carrying half a billion (today’s) dollars of gold that sank on the voyage from Paraguay to Spain, and now, centuries later, is discovered in US waters. Who owns the gold, the US, Spain, Paraguay, the private treasure hunter who located it and without whom it would not have been found? Paraguay at the time was a colony subjected to Spanish law you might argue, and thus has the weakest claim of all, but there is no easy answer. A headdress in the museum is only a replica, “the original in Austria”, whilst Mexican authorities robbed a deity from Maya territory and took it to the capital. (One robber’s sudden patriotic enthusiasm is not really believable btw.)
And art... There are two kinds of people: those who live now, care for life that they value over any artefact; and those who ignore temporality and only want to serve and preserve. In Museo, the news of the heist is followed by the news of an earthquake – and the family switches off the TV. What is truly relevant? Maybe art is only, what you make of it (would that be the “aura”?). Film characters use centuries old artefacts to mix a cocktail, yet keep insisting on their beauty – do they really look different from Made in China plastic (and could you tell the original from a film prop)? Juan destroys his nephews’ belief in Santa Claus and gets told, how much that had mattered to them, yet they seem to enjoy the toys. All these trivial details, and more, hint at deeper questions put forth by director Alonso Ruizpalacios.

On top (or: bottom), there’s some “experimentalism” - actors frozen in movement, one of the worst choreographed fight scenes ever, &ct. The mask they steal looks suspiciously like The Mask (Jim Carey).
Prediction: Shorten it, straighten it, and it’s not only a good, but a great movie.

 

It’s impossible to talk about Touch Me Not without touching on some sensitive spots. No, I'm sorry for that horrible pun.

Let me start again: A short while ago, I've been marking the following lines in a short story by Donald Barthelme: “’[Name of film] explores the issues of love and sex without ever being chaste.’ I marvelled over this over the full half-hour we sat on the ground waiting for clearance on my return from Los Angeles, thinking of adequate responses, such as ‘Well we avoided that at least’, but no response I could conjure up was equal to or could be equal to the original text which I tore out of the magazine and folded and placed, folded, in my jacket pocket for further consideration at some time in the future when I might need a giggle.”

Ahem, Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not explores the issue of sex without ever being obscene. I was actually looking forward to see some X-rated art today. But it was different from what I had expected. The film mixes professional actors with amateurs (that sounds questionable too) who partly play a role and partly themselves. The camera – and the filmmaker frequently appearing on a portable TV (to me at least, she looks strangely aggressive/violent/pathological almost) – follows a literally untouchable woman on her encounters with sex therapists, call boys, and, most of the time, attending a group of severely handicapped persons’ sensuality sessions as a spectator. No, "disabled" is the word, sorry. And “not suffering” from their disability (despite the person saying that, ‘really wishes to be able to lift his arm sometimes, or do this, and that’). For large parts, it’s hard to digest, although in terms of explicitness it remains tame, no hardcore here (thankfully?). They have all the right in the world to do as they please, to live and forget about their condition, but it’s also human to feel repulsion - you have that right, too. A bad word comes to mind: "Freak show." It doesn't exclude them from being willing to participate, and exhhibitionist. There's also a plot, in the end at least we think to understand that toucho-phobe (that's a word? tangero-phobe maybe... tango-phobe? "noli me tangere" gone wrong).

See, the problem with all that 1970s free love, self help and -experience stuff, is the importance you ascribe to primary biological functions. You can talk and treat everything to death, you can create your own traumata by simple belief. And then, there’s the de-individualization that paradoxically arises from (supposedly) perfect individuality. Free, they become a mass, exchangeable in a (therapy) group. It no longer matters, who touches whom, not even whether it’s a man or a woman (but yeah, we got rid of women, anyway). In exaggeration, everything loses meaning. These people seem to take themselves tremendously important. First of all a German transvestite, who gives the impression of playing a role all the time. Can sex itself become a fetish (what for)? They’re all dead serious, which could not be said from the audience at all times.

Towards the end, we finally get to hear a word of feeling instead of mere sensation, from the mouth of one very likeable paraplegic (he’s still hard to look at, admit it). I think it's him as well, who at one point complains about the dichotomy of good and evil, “invented by Christianity”. Wrong, you’d need to go  further back there, way further. “There are some grey shades of everything” (- let me guess: fifty?).

20tieth Century saw a paradigm change: Now, sex comes first, as an expression of the ego, then, in a second step, emotion and the other. Did it really solve more problems than give rise to new ones? Are these people finding what they're after in a S/M club? Or should we pity them, ever more entangling themselves in a hopeless hunt for relief?

 

 

Berlinale, 15-25 February 2018

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism

 

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