When a publicist invited me to watch a streamed version of the German film “Houston” that premiered at the Sundance Festival two days ago, I could not resist.
London-based HanWay Films is handling world sales for the Sundance-bound feature HOUSTON by Bastian Günther (World Dramatic Competition). HOUSTON charts the epic melt-down of a German headhunter (Ulrich Tukur – THE WHITE RIBBON) whose desperate pursuit of a Texas oil exec is hampered by booze, jetlag and a questionable sidekick.
To start with, I lived in Houston in the early 70s (on assignment for the Trotskyist movement) and was curious to see what a German art film director had to say about this ghastly place.
Next, I would see any film that Ulrich Tukur was in. “The White Ribbon”, a masterpiece by the Austrian film-provocateur Michael Haneke, featured Tukur as a semifeudal overlord who is meant to prefigure the rise of Nazism.
Finally, it gave me an excuse to say something about the Sundance Festival, an event that I regard as inimical to film art despite its pretensions to the contrary. Along with the Weinstein brothers, Robert Redford has turned “indie” filmmaking into a profit-seeking, soul-destroying operation with few distinctions from the traditional Hollywood production companies. Largely due to my need to pay attention to matters more urgent and more political than the film industry, I have only gotten about half-way through Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”. But if you want to understand what’s wrong with the American film industry, there is no better place to start. You’ll notice an observation in the second paragraph below (the quote is from Biskind’s postscript) that Sundance has “dangerously infantilized auteurism”. When I went to Biskind’s book a little while ago to find an apt quote on Sundance, little did I suspect that it would overlap so much with my description of Werner Herzog as “the last auteur”. In terms of saying to “some guy at NYU…go make a film”, I can’t think of a better description of Lena Dunham even though she is a woman. Maybe if she apprenticed with an experienced director for 10 years, she would be making more interesting films. Ahh, probably not.
The ferocious competition, alongside the twin obsessions with the young and the new, means there is little opportunity to fail, and from failing to learn. There is no apprentice system. “Most of the ’70s guys just shoveled shit for Roger Corman, learned their craft long before they found their voices,” says James Schamus. “Spielberg did so much TV, people have no clue. Whereas these days, you say to some guy at NYU, ‘Why don’t you go make some TV’ it’s like, ‘Please. Out of my sight.’ “
Sundance was supposed to fill this hole, but there’s a big difference between working for Corman and a Sundance lab that lasts three weeks at most. There are few first novels in filmmaking, efforts that go into the drawer or up in flames, because there are no—or very few—second chances. Or, to put it another way, indie film is almost exclusively a cinema of first films. “The psychology of the American independent has supplanted the auteur psychology,” Schamus continues. “There’s no question to me that Sundance, as a culture, has dangerously infantilized auteurism, because the reigning assumption is that by the time you’re seventeen or eighteen years old, you’re pretty much an auteur if you’re going to be an auteur, and if you’re not, you’re not. If you’d put that on someone like Coppola, I don’t think he’d ever have been Coppola. What could that guy have said at the age of twenty? Your first independent film has gotta be your film, your voice. So now the pressure is really on from the time you’re out of diapers to be an artist. It’s become a grim kind of joke.”
For obvious reasons, European directors whose films show at Sundance are less likely to have gone through the workshops there. Born in 1974, Bastian Günther is clearly not interested in following any fashionable trends. “Houston” is a totally unique film with a perspective more Kafkaesque than any I have ever seen on film, including Orson Welles’s 1962 adaption of “The Trial”.
Although I have no idea whether this was Günther’s intention, his Houston evokes Kafka’s “America”, an unfinished novel that has the characteristic nightmarish quality in which the hero is put through all sorts of bizarre and threatening situations, even if they incorporate a comic tone.
Clemens Trunschka (Ulrich Tukur) is an overweight, alcoholic 51-year-old corporate recruiter who is dispatched to Houston to set up an interview with Steve Ringer, the CEO of a multibillion-dollar oil company. Throughout the film, Ringer remains as elusive as a character in a Kafka novel. If Trunschka’s salvation rests on setting up a meeting with Ringer (an apt name), then we identify with his growing misery as the executive remains one step ahead of him and determined to avoid contact with someone so much lower on the corporate food chain.
After checking into a hotel in downtown Houston, Clemens heads to the bar to seek solace in a glass of whiskey. Within minutes an American named Robert Wagner (Garret Dillahunt) sits down next to him and offers to buy him his next drink. To describe Wagner as overbearing and needy would be the understatement of the century. The character seems inspired by the cable guy character Jim Carrey played but much closer to a real person than Carrey’s typical overblown comic persona. Throughout the film, Wagner clings to Clemens, trying in every which way to bind with him. He calls him “Clem”, even though such a name was wildly inappropriate for the reserved, tightly wound salaryman Tukur is playing.
Essentially this is a two-character story with the city of Houston providing a backdrop. If you have seen Jacques Tati’s neglected masterpiece “Play Time”, you will have an idea of what effect Günther was striving for. Downtown Houston is every bit as soulless as the studio-built metropolis that Tati satirized but even more bizarre since it is real.
Much of Clemens’s time is spent driving here and there are on Houston’s freeways searching for his prey. I felt a shudder as I saw these roads for the first time in 40 years. Not too long ago I recounted my experiences there and invite you to see them at: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/life-in-houston/.
Let me conclude with some thoughts on this year’s Sundance Festival that was reported on by the exceedingly shallow Mahnola Dargis in today’s NY Times. This is the sort of fare on display:
A self-aware exploration of masculine desire and cinematic representation, “Interior” would make an excellent double bill with another of this year’s best selections, “Don Jon’s Addiction.” Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars as the title libertine, “Don Jon’s” pivots on a New Jerseyan whose addiction to pornography transcends his relationships with living, breathing women. Working in initially broad strokes that become progressively more nuanced as the narrative deepens, Mr. Gordon-Levitt explores what happens to Don Jon when he tries to settle down with a woman (a terrific Scarlett Johansson, doing one of her finest interpretations of a succulent peach), whose realness poses a challenge to Don Jon’s reliance on his plastic pleasures. In its current amusingly smutty state, the movie, which was picked up for distribution here, will probably face its own ratings battle.
I can’t think of any actor more overexposed than Joseph Gordon-Levitt who I last saw in the dreadful “Looper”. Like James Franco, another “sensitive” soul, this is someone who has lived in a bubble his entire life. He began working in TV commercials at the age of four and by fifteen landed his first big role in “3rd Rock from the Sun”, a TV situation comedy.
A film about a New Jerseyan addicted to pornography is pretty much what you can expect out of Sundance. Like Lena Dunham, another child of privilege who struck it rich with another Sundance award winner “Tiny Furniture” in 2010, Gordon-Levitt exists in a rarefied world of the movie set, $100 per plate restaurants, chauffeured limousines, and vacations on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
With America falling apart materially and spiritually all about us, it is no surprise that Robert Redford—a major funder of the Democratic Party—would foist such garbage on the public just as the other silver-screen pillar of the Democratic Party—Harvey Weinstein—would be playing the same role.