I missed the German Die Unsichtbare (Cracks in the Shell, Christian Schwochow) — a curious theatre psychodrama pitched somewhere between Black Swan and Jacques Rivette — during the International Film Festival Rotterdam. No matter: I caught it on the plane back to Australia — just one of dozens of 'world movie' offerings in Economy class.
The wide world is certainly changing for cinephiles: the specialness of what we once expected to see only if we were clutching a precious entry ticket to the Pathé or Cinerama cinemas in the heart of Rotterdam has gradually been diffused. Now, as a member of a jury, a contributor to de Filmkrant or, indeed, any customer with an Internet connection and a magic password, I might watch some of the festival films on-line before, during or after the event. Or I might be lucky to catch some of them 'in the air'.
Do all cinephiles dream, like me, of being in charge of programming on long-haul plane flights? About a decade ago, an unexpected bump-up to Business class had me stunned when personalised service offered me a viewing of Haneke's Code Unknown (2000), while the plebs up the back (my usual spot) had to make do with mediocre Hollywood action flicks and rom-coms. But this elitism has somewhat broken down today (unless they are now watching Ken Jacobs and Lav Diaz in Business, who knows?): on my Melbourne-Rotterdam return flight, I was able to study at leisure Manoel de Oliveira's sublime The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) — which is, astonishingly, perfect plane viewing — and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (1997) which, like a previous flight's viewing of his Tokyo Sonata (2008), made me rather queasy as I hovered there above our sad, haunted planet.
Things — bits of films — connect in unpredictable, surreal ways in the minds of viewers and critics. Strange Case of Angelica, which begins our image-box sequence, is an explicit meditation upon photography: stillness, movement, the developing and pegging of a row of shots, frame-animation as resurrection, death as a heavenly beyond. What began as a solid film project in Oliveira's mind long ago (the screenplay already published) is now paradoxically brushed up and enlivened with digital effects for its Chagall-like reverie of lovers in flight.
In Rotterdam, Julio Bressane's remarkable Rua Aperana 52 also caressed, in an equally ghostly but more melancholic way, its chosen photographic traces: in this case, images of the house in which the director himself grew up, and its nearby environment. Also shot digitally, it is a mournful conjuring of a world that is lost, and a cinematic art about to be lost. "Nobody watches these films", mused Bressane as he gestured towards we eager few in our seats.
Photographs, still images, enter many circuits other than these plaintive allegories of cinema proposed by Oliveira and Bressane. Cure is also about haunting (in the disquietingly traumatic vein of most Kurosawa), but it's more substantially about the social vanity of the 'police procedural': mug shots of victims and suspects lined up neatly along an increasingly deranged cop's work wall. The rational order of this photographic regime is mocked by the increasingly hallucinatory nature of the smudgy events whirling around it, the bloody stainings and graffiti-like markings appearing and disappearing at every turn.
Between the cinema hall and the airplane, there's the art gallery: another space mined by Rotterdam. In Sascha Pohle's video Reframing the Artist, on loop in an unceremonious bunker, Chinese artists re-enact, Mumblecore-style, European and American movie visions of the great painters' tortured lives. The imaginary artworks that briefly filled the diegeses of these fictions — Scarlett Johansson as model for Vermeer, Edward G. Robinson's naïve surrealist streetscapes in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) — live once more as pure, perfect kitsch, and are plonked down on a table like the hail of tourist postcards in Godard's Les carabiniers (1963), for our distracted, 21st century gaze. Is my plane leaving now?