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The Berlinale Blog: Landscape fatality

Three North American directors bring wide open spaces to Berlin as they visualize the narrative powers of nature. From the new ‘f’ word to nth degree indie, Eve Lucas gauges their success.

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“The Meteor”

Of this year’s jury members, several are on record (Tim Robbins) and on film (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Andreas Dresen) as actors and filmmakers with an interest in environmental issues. Whether this will work in favour of Gus van Sant’s competition film on the threat posed by the new f-word to American homelands remains doubtful.

In Promised Land Steve Butler (Matt Damon) heads out with his colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) to a generic farming community where he’s charged with selling the fracking process by buying up land from locals landowners under whose largely worthless properties the subterranean shale awaits blasting to release natural gas. As a country boy from Iowa, Steve appreciates nature. He also appreciates what he considers the absolute value of money in saving doomed communities: as the local storeowner says: ‘You can’t sell landscape’.

Is it just because you can’t sell it that you shouldn’t? Landscape is an immaterial value but one fraught with association. Much more might have been made of it as a player alongside Steve and his environmental activist rivals. Like other aspects of this film, DP Linus Sandgren’s landscapes remain conventional. Aerial shots imply long-term consequences, wide-angle shots intimate the breadth of what’s at stake. Promised Land makes important points, but the use of more emphatic cinematography would have brought them into sharper focus.

Unabomber Ted Kacyzinski doubtless has strong opinions on fracking but it’s to the evolution of his virulent Luddite partialities that James Benning turns in Stemple Pass, and with it, to the wider issue of how we perceive the natural world. Consisting of four static 30-minutes shots of a hut built by Benning as a replica of the Unabomber’s cabin, the landscape visuals work, as ever with Benning, on the basis of immersion: you’re confronted, undistracted, with an image – you start to look for meaning. In Stemple Pass, Benning both complicates and facilitates that procedure with a voiced-over soundtrack, taken mostly from Kaczynski’s diaries. But there are also long periods of silence. Like Kacyzinski, we are then left to our own devices.

What then, are we witnessing? An American’s pioneering spirit in ‘pursuit of happiness’, or the dubious artificiality of a lone ranger brooding on fearful vengeance? And why is smoke coming out of the cabin chimney? Is it Benning, some passing vagrant or our own selves maybe, in flight from civilization? Like no other, Benning succeeds in showing landscape as a repository of narrative. It’s a strenuous exercise. Not everybody will accept the challenges it poses but those that do may find, if not answers, then at least a measure of understanding for the gestation of extremes.

Extremes are also the domain of Canadian director François Delisle’s The Meteor (Le Méteor), tracking landscapes with a different purpose through the inner lives of Pierre, serving 14 years for a drug-induced hit-and-run murder; his mother, who won’t live to see him released; his (former) partner; a drug-dealer; and a guard at Pierre’s prison.

Delisle presents these five people and their individual perspective on what happened – is still happening – as a series of interlocking images and off-screen narrations. Some images are self-evident: home-videos are obvious mnemonic triggers. Others, such as those of a wolf or a bird of prey only suggest a correlation – to loneliness or isolation. Many of these images are actual landscapes, sometimes peopled, often not. But even when they merely reproduce flowers or animals, Delisle is also showing an interior landscape, presupposing (like Benning) the viewer’s cooperation in joining the dots.

Formally, both movies pose questions about linguistic structures in film (how do we establish or accept relationships between visual and oral text?). Both share an interest in examining the effects of isolation with Delisle going one significant step further by showing incarceration as an extreme form of the human condition, which consists of watching – and of being watched by – those who define us. Sensory stimulation, a staple of Hollywood mainstream, has its downsides.