Two Reviews by Lax Madapati

Instititute Benjamenta (1995), Nico Icon (1995)

Lax Madapati reviews some films that are off the beaten path.

Institute Benjamenta

Running Time: 1:44

Cast: Mark Rylance, Gottfried John, Daniel Smith, Peter Whitfield, Joseph Alessi, Jonathan Stone, Cesar Sarachu, Peter Lovstrom, Uri Roodner and Alice Krige

Director: The Brothers Quay
Screenplay: Alan Passes and The Brothers Quay
Cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland
Music: Lech Jankowski

Institute Benjamenta or This Dream People Call Human Life is the first full-length live action feature of the cult masters of stop-motion animation, the Brothers Quay (Stephen and Timothy Quay). It is loosely based on the novella `Jakob Von Gunten' by the Swiss author Robert Walser and also borrows sporadically from his other works.

Set in a dream-like world where fantasy frequently collides with reality, this film narrates through our protagonist Jakob (played by Mark Rylance), the tale of a school for the training of servants, run by siblings Lisa and Herr Benjamenta (played by Alice Krige and Gottfried John), whose curriculum constitutes the endless repetition of each single lesson meticulously until honed to perfection. Lessons vary from arranging cutlery on dining tables to saying the right words in domestic situations and adopting a servile tone to converse with prospective employers. The film begins with Jakob's entry into the institute and enrollment. As it progresses with his training and subsequent involvement with the other students of the institute and with Lisa and Herr Benjamenta, he witnesses the school's slow dis- integration and eventual demise.

There isn't much of a script here and the Brothers Quay's style of narration is very jarring and uneven. Most of the actions of the characters involved in the institute's activities seem to be with apparently no reason or motive at all. For example, Jakob is provided with a room with such a low ceiling that he cannot stand erect anywhere in the room. Lisa seems to have a fondness for Jakob that may or may not be love for him and it is never made clear. The drastic actions Lisa takes towards the end comes abruptly and as a surprise to the viewers and this action was never justified by any on going proceedings until then. Is it because of the guilt she feels of her feelings toward Jakob? Or is it fear that it may elicit the consternation of her brother ? Most under-explained and puzzling is Herr Benjamenta's character and his deeds.

What is good about the movie though is the brilliant use of lighting in most of the scenes and the sudden horizonally swivelling cameras which are trade marks of Brothers Quay, as can be seen from their stop-motion animation works like Epic of Gilgamesh (1981) and Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988) Some of the scenes have such exceptional work from the technical crew that the effect is one of dreaminess and Kafkaesque surrealism. The Brothers Quay seem to have a penchant for playing real life characters like puppets from one of their animation projects. This amazing (and sometimes unsettling) effect for the most part has to do a lot with the fine and controlled body language of all the characters involved in the proceedings - the 8 students and 2 owners of the institute. It is in ground-breaking scenes like these that the Brothers Quay excel and provide a good reason to watch the movie.

Mark Rylance seems to be a specialist in playing characters in a dispassionate and sometimes nonchalant style as seen from his other works, notably the recent Angels and Insects (1995). Alice Krige does well in a rather under-developed character but the outstanding one is Gottfried John as Herr Benjamenta. He succeeds in bringing out the fears within Herr Benjamenta and in the process, frightens the viewers, though why he does all that he does is left unexplained. The rest of the cast is adequate. The music for the most part matches up with the mood and atmosphere of the visuals, with abundant use of piano and percussion by first-timer Lech Jankowski.

Maybe this is a film where the visuals take more importance than the story and characters. Sometime midway through the film, we are offered a close-up of the guiding policy of Institute Benjamenta adorning a plaque on a wall in the classroom - "less but very meticulous". The same thing may very well have been the guiding policy of the Brothers Quay in making this film.

Rating: On the SuperNova Scale *** / *****

(The Supernova Scale: - dud; * poor; ** fair; *** good; **** excellent; ***** memorable)

Nico Icon

Running Time: 1:12
Cast: None credited
Director: Susanne Ofteringer
Screenplay: Susanne Ofteringer
Cinematography: Judith Kaufmann, Katarzyna Remin
Music: Jens Tukiendorf, Charles Blackwell

Nico Icon, through a series of interviews and original footage, attempts to portray the story of a multi-faceted woman Nico who was a member of the '60s rock band 'The Velvet Underground'. A refugee from Germany born Christa Paffgen during World War II, Nico was also a fashion model, a reclusive beauty, a feckless mother and a reckless junkie. Or so, the director Susanne Ofteringer wants us to believe, at the end of it all.

The film, or rather documentary, starts off with Nico singing the Velvet Underground's 'Femme Fatale' in a very lugubrious tone and alternates between clips of original footage and interviews with several people associated with Nico at various stages of her life. What is surprising is the number of famous people Nico has associated herself with, right from her modeling days upto her ultimate obscure demise, veering on a path of self-destruction, self- inflicted and substance abuse.

In between clips of original footage, we get to hear different view points of the many people Nico's path in life crossed with. Most of them seem to agree that the beauty that she is, Nico resented her own good looks and would much rather be depressed and gloomy and be known as a musician rather than just a beautiful woman. Jackson Browne, the rock musician and one of Nico's many lovers (who also contributed to her first solo album 'Chelsea Girl') explains about her initiation into The Velvet Underground. Paul Morrisey, director of most of Andy Warhol movies and who was responsible for putting Nico with The Velvet Underground as a second singer and organ player via Andy Warhol, amid strong initial resistance from band members Lou Reed and company, tells how Nico deliberately spoilt her looks by dying her hair with strange colors and taking drugs. Danny Fields, music journalist, explains her association with rock legend Jim Morrison and how she enjoyed Morrison's alleged attempt to kill her once during a sex ritual.

Most touching of all accounts on Nico is the one narrated by Edith Boulonge, mother of one of Nico's many lovers Alian Delon, by who Nico begot a child Ari. Edith tells how after Alian discovered that Nico was pregnant and disowned her child, asked Edith to choose between her son Alian and Nico's child Ari. Edith chose to take care of the child Ari and justifies it saying, "Alian is a grown-up and he can take care of himself but Ari is a little child and needs a mother". She sure didn`t want the child to be with Nico as all she would do is feed little Ari with potato chips. There is also an interesting narration from the grown up Ari (who is now thirty years old and lives in Paris) who claims that it was his own mother Nico that initiated him into heroin when he was eighteen and went to Manchester to live with Nico.

No doubt the footage that Ofteringer manages to uncover is exhaustive - ranging from French TV commercials, to performance pieces of the Velvet Under ground's ironic debut at the American Psychiatric Convention to her debut in films in the legendary film maker Federico Fellini's classic 'La Dolce Vita' (1960) as a blonde model to her heydays of association with Andy Warhol and her final days of drugs, decadence and eventual but eventless demise. With clever and snappy editing, all this footage is intertwined with the interviews and juxtaposed with music and dialogue to create a fast paced pop collage. For the most part, the film does take an unbiased and disinterested stance but sometimes strays into irritating `show-me-some-sympathy' portrayals with words like 'she is alone' flying across images of Nico.

Much like the ambiguous title of the film 'Nico Icon', Ofteringer portrays Nico in an ambiguous manner - as a person whose life was mostly filled with sadness and despair but who actually derived pleasure from it all.

Rating: On the SuperNova Scale ***1/2 / *****

(The Supernova Scale: - dud; * poor; ** fair; *** good; **** excellent; ***** memorable)

Note about the Velvet Underground

This rock and roll band was formed in 1965 with the initial line-up of Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker on drums, John Cale and Sterling Morrison on guitars. Later on, Doug and Billy Yule replaced John Cale and Maureen Tucker respective ly and Andy Warhol, who produced VU's early records, added on Nico as a second singer and organ player. VU released their first self titled record in 1967 and made another three studio albums in the next three years, none of which cracked the Top 100 charts. Two members John Cale and Lou Reed went on to be popular and the other two remained in total obscurity. Four managers are in litigation about Nico's royalties and her son Ari is also trying to get his share.

But during those five hard-fought and hard-luck years, VU had an un- deniable influence on a whole generation of youngsters. It`s true that hardly anyone bought any records of VU. But ironically, those who did, went on to form their own bands - David Bowie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, R.E.M., U2, Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth... The list is endless and filled with the super stars of today's rock. Recently, the record label Polydor released remastered editions of many of VU's albums.


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