Parky At the Pictures (9/12/2022)
(Reviews of Rimini; L'Ombra del Giorno; Mr Bachman and His Class; and Anonymous Club)
Controversy has shrouded Ulrich Seidl's diptych about a pair of Austrian brothers and it remains to be seen whether Sparta will get a UK release following accusations of child exploitation. However, Rimini does arrive in cinemas this week and the current cold snap couldn't have been better timed.
Long past his heyday, schlager singer Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) returns home to see his brother, Ewald (Georg Friedrich). After a night of drinking, shooting air rifles at bottles, and dancing to sentimental songs on the den jukebox, they collect father Ekkard (Hans-Michael Rehberg) from his old people's home to attend the funeral of their mother. Despite his dementia, Ekkard recognised Richie when he sings over the coffin.
Back in Rimini, where he lives in a peeling villa and sings to smatterings of middle-aged fans at out-of-season hotels, Richie barely notices the migrants huddling on the wintry streets. Striding around in a long sealskin coat and snakeskin cowboy boots, he uses a girdle to hold in his stomach when he performs. His patter is suave corn, his songs pure schmaltz. But he commits to his act on and off the stage, even when he is sleeping with die-hard fans like Annie (Claudia Martini), who pays for the privilege.
Richie also rents out the villa to fans and, thanks to a friend at the gym, crashes at a hotel that has closed down for the winter. He haggles with the owner of a club after only a handful of tickets are sold for his next appearance and is put out when a younger woman spurns his advances. She turns out to be his twentysomething daughter, Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher), who has come to collect the €30,000 alimony he had failed to pay to her mother. Accompanied by her boyfriend (Ibrahim Isiktas), she refuses to leave until he has apologised and paid his debt. However, the cash till refuses his card and he has to sing with Emmi (Inge Maux) - the golf widow leasing the villa - when she finds him gathering some jewellery to sell to his club boss.
Richie fails to raise more than pocket money, however, and Tessa is far from impressed with his excuses. He gets drunk and staggers back to the hotel, where he can barely cover himself with a blanket on the bed. Needing quick cash, he arranges another meeting with Annie, only for her ailing mother to need attention in the next room, She asks him to leave and sobs in her mother's arms.
Seeking out Tessa at the deserted apartment complex where she is staying in a camper van, Richie asks for forgiveness. He reminds her that he had loved her mother and had been present at her birth. Moreover, he promises to be there for her in the future and they share a tearful hug. At the hotel, Richie gives Tessa a private show and puts his heart into `Winnetou', a song about the Native American hero of Karl May's Western novels.
While visiting his father, Richie has to sing a love song to drown out the Hitler Youth anthem that Ekkard intones in the corridor. He rifles through his drawers trying to find money and settles for taking his passport. In Rimini, he has a win on a fruit machine and takes Annie and Emmi back to the hotel for a drunken party. They share secrets, with Richie confessing to orgasming for the first time in his mother's bed and Emmi revealing an encounter with a baker's assistant when she was a child. During a game of hide and seek, Richie gets Emmi alone and films her seduction on his phone before they cuddle on the bed and he assures her that he thinks she's a good woman.
Nonetheless, he uses the images to blackmail her husband into paying a sum that satisfies Tessa as a first payment. She arrives at the villa with her friends and announces not only that she's pregnant, but that she also intends moving in. Powerless to protest, even though he has nothing but disdain for her migrant friends, Richie knuckles down, as the summer comes. Meanwhile, Ekkard plays Franz Schubert's `Gute Nacht' on CD and spouts propaganda slogans from a lifetime ago. Standing stiffly to salute, the abject old man, in deep distress, stares into the camera and begs for his mother.
Feeling at times like a cover version of Xavier Giannoli's The Singer (2006), this is Ulrich Seidl's first non-factual feature since he completed the Paradise trilogy of Love (2012), Faith, and Hope (both 2013). His view of humanity has hardly mellowed in the interim and the calculatingly contrived scenario (co-scripted by wife Veronika Franz) is marbled with the acerbically macabre humour for which he has become renowned.
The fascination lies in the performance of Michael Thomas, whose Richie Bravo gives Gérard Depardieu's Alain Moreau a run for his money. Charismatic on stage and a decent crooner, he becomes grubbier out of the spotlight, with his stubble and ponytail giving him a seedy mien that is reinforced by the oilskin coat that hides the gut bulging at his white vest. Nothing he does surprises us, whether he's being a gigolo, a blackmailer, a shrugging racist, a prodigal son, or an absentee father. But he manages to prevent us from disliking him, no matter how low he stoops. Maybe it's because we instinctively know that his father has a multitude of sins to repent and that brother will do much worse in Sparta.
This is a very different Rimini from the one Federico Fellini depicted in his hometown homage, Amarcord (1973). Gone are the rich colours and warm lights to be replaced by freezing fogs that obscure the sea view and blankets of snow that reinforce the suspicion that Richie has a splinter of ice in his heart. Much credit is due to cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, who creates some splendidly disconcerting tableaux. But production designers Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin also work wonders with Richie's performance spaces, the den with its walls filled with hunting trophies, the bleakness of the empty hotel, and the grandiose vulgarity of the décor inside the shabby villa.
Matching the latter are the gaudy stage costumes designed by Tanja Hausner (who reveals character through lingerie) and the tacky sincerity of the songs written by Fritz Ostermayer and Herwig Zamernik, which Richie uses as calling cards to entice more pathetically grateful conquests. He is ridiculous, grotesque and exploitatively cruel and deserves to fall as low as his father. But Thomas cut an even more detestable figure in Seidl's Import Export (2007) and (by all accounts) his sibling stoops even lower in Sparta. Ultimately, Richie reaches a kind of accidental moral redemption, but it's likely to prove as superficial as everything else in his self-pityingly sordid existence.
L'OMBRA DEL GIORNO.
Director Giuseppe Piccioni is nowhere near as well known outside Italy as he should be. Following his collaborations with Margherita Buy on Ask For the Moon (1990) and Not of This World (1999), he guided Luigi Lo Cascio and Sandra Ceccarelli to the acting honours at the Venice Film Festival in Light of My Eyes (2001). He reunited the pair in The Life That I Wanted (2004) before providing Valeria Golino with one of her best roles in Giulia Doesn't Date At Night (2009).
Now, 35 years after he made his debut with Il grande Blek (1987), Piccioni returns his hometown of Ascoli Piceno for L'Ombra del Giorno/The Shadow of the Day, which is the latest offering from those splendid folks at CinemaItaliaUK. It screens at the Garden Cinema in London on 17 December, with Piccioni Piccioni and star Riccardo Scamarcio due to be present for a Q&A.
It's 1938 and Luciano Traini (Riccardo Scamarcio) is still suffering from the leg wound he received during the Great War. He runs a successful restaurant in Ascoli's main square, but is ready to help Anna Costanza (Benedetta Porcaroli) when she comes to the door asking for a job. Maria (Flavia Alluzzi) is surprised when Anna is rapidly promoted to replace an ageing waiter, even though she and chef Giovanni Marucci (Vincenzo Nemolato) had been reprimanded for sharing a joke about Benito Mussolini, as a nearby shop had been closed down by the Fascists for similarly careless talk.
An old professor (Antonio Salines) who is a regular customer tells Luciano that he has found a gem in Anna and he is impressed when she shows him a new way to do his books. However, when his old army buddy, Osvaldo (Lino Musella), who has become a Fascist bigwig, comes to book the restaurant for a reunion, Anna receives a ticking off for pointing out that they already have a booking for a communion lunch. However, Luciano is curious when Osvaldo takes Anna outside for a private word.
He is dismayed during the party, when she asks the black-shirted guests why Il Duce has reneged on his promise to give women the vote. Anna refuses her share of the tips and accuses Luciano of being their stooge. But she relents after he informs her of the hostile reception accorded Italian troops after the war and how difficult it was to find a niche in a society that had scorned their sacrifice. She accepts his word, but makes it clear that any she no longer feels the attraction that was growing between them.
Yet Anna feels a pang when Amelia (Valeria Bilello) comes into the restaurant and kisses Luciano when he gives her 500 lira. He tells Anna that they had been engaged before the war, only for her to run away to Rome to become an actress. She hadn't enjoyed the lifestyle, however, and Luciano had taken pity on her on her return to Ascoli, even though he no longer wished to marry her.
On a day off that coincides with Adolf Hitler's visit to Italy, Luciano and Anna have a picnic and he is enchanted by her dancing to the sound of some distant jazz. However, she is disconcerted when he gives her a brooch and reveals a couple of nights later that her real name is Esther Bauer and that it would be better if she disappeared to spare Luciano future trouble.
Instead they become lovers and Luciano reassures Anna that everything will be fine. She befriends Corrado (Costantino Seghi), a delivery boy whose mother used to work in the kitchen. But everything changes when Anna's French socialist husband, Émile Costa (Waël Sersoub) arrives out of the blue needing somewhere to hide. Luciano lets him stay in the basement, but he tells Anna that they will both have to leave and she is crestfallen. He reminds her that he can't afford any trouble and she warns him that doing nothing while the Fascists are in power will come back to haunt him once they have been overthrown.
Émile thanks Luciano for his kindness, but also points out that the day of reckoning will come. Blackshirts prowl around upstairs checking papers and Luciano urges the professor to watch what he says around Corrado, as no one can be trusted (especially as he has spotted him consorting with Osvaldo). Giovanni also notices that Corrado asks lots of questions and he notices when Anna is away for a prolonged period (because she has been bathing Émile and providing him with a little consolation).
When Osvaldo comes to ask Luciano if he has seen some of his chief suspects, he notices an exchange of glances as Corrado serves coffee. Both Luciano and Anna feign ignorance when Osvaldo shows them Émile's file, but they sense the net is closing and Luciano tells Anna that Corrado is spying for the Fascists. In the days after Mussolini declares war on Britain and France, the professor is arrested and a downpour sends people scurrying to their homes. When his homeland falls, Émile despairs and calls on bombs to destroy Ascoli because he knows Anna is in love with Luciano.
He sits in his empty restaurant and looks on to the piazza. Where beaming schoolgirls had once given gymnastic displays with hula hoops to honour the regime, a small boy in a gas mask kicks a tin can through the puddles. When Émile plays the radio and smokes in the cellar, Luciano reprimands him and turns off the light because it will show at street level.
One night, Osvaldo comes to celebrate Amelia's hit show at the nearby theatre. Giovanni is furious with Corrado for keeping a gun in his jacket pocket and Luciano also admonishes him for sitting beside Osvaldo at the table. Amelia is jealous of Anna and forces her to sing a song, but is moved when she chooses a sentimental love ballad and delivers it with quiet sincerity. As they bundle out, Corrado is humiliated when he's left standing in the rain and he wanders back inside to find some wine. Oblivious to his presence, Giovanni and Luciano discuss Émile and Corrado goes to investigate.
Finding Anna and Émile together, he pulls his pistol, only for Luciano to knock him out with a bottle. When he comes round, he promises to keep quiet because he has known Luciano since he was a child. But he grabs the gun and taunts Luciano about his feigned Fascist allegiance and relishes the prospect of Osvaldo finding out. However, he allows himself to be distracted and fatally wounds himself in the ensuing struggle.
Giovanni helps Luciano dump the body in the river and, the next morning, they reassure Corrado's mother (Sandra Ceccarelli) that he is probably sleeping off a hangover. When he fails to turn up, Osvaldo conducts a search of the restaurant and Anna is relieved when they don't find Émile. However, Giovanni is arrested for spiking Osvaldo's meal the previous evening and Luciano tells him to stay strong, as he is led away.
There's no news of him, as Luciano and Anna make love in his apartment. He has arranged for her and Émile to take a fishing boat to safety and she asks him to come with her. However, he claims to be too afraid and she reminds him that he's a war hero. That night, Luciano dons his black shirt and medal ribbons in order to pass through the checkpoint on the coast road. They arrive at dawn and Anna makes him promise to survive the war so they can meet again. As Luciano watches the rowing boat pull away, he removes his ribbons and tosses them on to the sand.
Cogently reminding Italians of the dangers of extreme prejudice, this composed reflection on the Fascist state has acquired added poignancy since the election of Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy in the year that marks the centenary of Mussolini's accession to power in 1922. Indeed, one can hear echoes throughout the story of Il Duce's infamous line from a 1925 speech: `Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible and with force if necessary.'
This sums up Osvaldo's modus operandi and the apolitical Luciano accepts the merits of seeming to acquiesce. However, he is prepared to risk his neck to do the right thing by both Anna and Émile, even though he knows nothing about the latter's views and makes no attempt to understand them. This elemental decency epitomises Piccioni's film, which stands as nobly as the Art Nouveau Caffè Meletti in the Piazza del Popolo.
It has its melodramatic moments, the majority of which involve Corrado. But the exploration of such themes as love, honour, integrity, and courage evoke wartime classics like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), which celebrates its 80th anniversary this month. Despite being more buttoned up, Luciano has much in common with Rick Blaine and, as he surveys the passing scene from the restaurant window, Riccardo Scamarcio limns Humphrey Bogart's brand of vulnerable virility in making the limping Luciano such a decorously flawed anti-hero.
Although Benedetta Porcaroli is much the same age as Ingrid Bergman when she played Ilsa Lund, Anna/Esther is nowhere near as worldly (or discreet) and the screenplay by Piccioni, Gualtiero Rosella, and Annick Emdin rather evades an assessment of her conflicted feelings for Luciano and Émile. Nevertheless, Porcaroli and the rest of the ensemble convey the changing mood of the times with an expertise that is matched by the darkening light and colours in Isabella Angelini's production design and Michele D'Attanasio's cinematography. Esmeralda Calabria's editing similarly reinforces the shift between acquiescence and anxiety, although Michele Braga's score can occasionally be a touch emphatic. But this remains a thoughtful recreation of a sombre period whose message is encapsulated in the professor's contention that `disobeying a wrong law is sometimes an obligation'.
MR BACHMANN AND HIS CLASS.
Picking up where Nicolas Philibert's Être et Avoir (2002) left off, Maria Speth's Mr Bachmann and His Class is an epic tribute to a teacher who has spent 17 years at the Georg Büchner Comprehensive in the German factory town of Stadtallendorf. At 217 minutes, this may seem as much of an ordeal to some as a double period of their worst subject. But those versed in the ways and rhythms of veteran American documentarist Frederick Wiseman will soon feel in good hands, as Speth chronicles her sixtysomething friend's interactions with Class 6B.
Early morning and bakeries are preparing for the day, as children catch the bus to school. Dieter Bachmann at the front of the class in a beanie and a band t-shirt and makes the kids come in again, as he was unhappy with the way they wandered into the room. While they wait for stragglers, he invites the sleepy ones to take a `dive' doze on their desks. But, once he starts telling the story of a table that tried to impress a guitar, he gets everyone involved and keeps them on their toes by getting them to share their ethnic insights into the tale.
Class 6B numbers 19 12-14 year olds, whose roots lie in several different countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Russia, Brazil, Morocco, and Sardinia. They seem to get on well enough, with the banter continued into a home economics lesson, in which a female teacher teases a boy who claims that cooking is fine, but that washing up and tidying away is woman's work.
Bachmann reminds Hasan that he needs to improve his maths and reading if he is to progress to secondary school and sets an example in a library lesson by reading a book. Another class is taken by a male teacher whose children are back in Turkey and he makes the kids consider what they would take with them if they suddenly had to leave.
Origins and a sense of belonging also preoccupy Turkish-born teacher Aynur Bal, as Class 6B discuss whether they would rather live in Germany or their ancestral home. As someone who has faced a similar dilemma, she's moved to tears by some of the answers and excuses herself for being sensitive at the moment because she's pregnant. When one lad remarks that his mate's in love with her, she tells him to stop being stupid. She meets with Bachmann to discuss Hasan and Stefanie, who need to up their game.
Along with German, maths, and art, Bachmann teaches music and 6B students pick up instruments to nurdle around, while he shows one of the boys how to juggle. He's pleased with one girl strumming along to `Shalom Chaverim' and encourages some of the others to jam on `Smoke on the Water'. When some mothers come to the school for tea, Bachmann sings `Knockin' on Heaven's Door' with a backing group, while Samy earns a round of applause for an acoustic guitar piece. The younger siblings of the 6B kids happily chatter with Bachmann, as they have been told all about him and what a good teacher he is.
During a lesson on Till Eulenspiegel, Bachmann sings a song he once wrote and class members grab instruments to play along. He's impressed by their readiness to join in and introduces them to his singing buddy, Mr Konrad. The class join in with `Jolene' and Stefanie's Bulgarian father gets treated to an impromptu concert when he comes to discuss his secondary prospects. But he has a harder time with Rabia's mother, as she wants to leave Stadtallendorf, even though she knows the school has worked wonders for her daughter's confidence and self-esteem.
Bachmann also has to use all of his powers of persuasion when Jamie decides he doesn't want to help those facing a test with their English vocabulary. Going around the class, Bachmann seeks to show that his classmates' parents have had a tough time relocating and assimilating to new languages and cultures and how co-operation is the best way to learn and grow together. As he has already passed, Jamie doesn't see why he has to waste his time on those who didn't work hard enough and keeps grumbling after Bachmann reminds him that his own family has had its share of troubles.
At lunchtime, Bachmann chats with Ilknur and her friend about who does the chores at home. They agree to do the cooking on a forthcoming class trip. The afternoon session with fractions proves boisterous, with Cengiz shouting out and risking the promise of an early home time. Finally, after they are made to stand behind their chairs for a minute's silence, the class is dismissed, even though Cengiz continues to fool around in the corridor.
Class 6B is shown a film about Gastarbeiters and how they were received by the local population in the 1960s. Ms Bal shocks them by revealing that Allendorf (as it was then known) had been the site of several work camps during the Second World War and that the factories had produced munitions. They discuss how they would feel if there was a crucifix in the classroom and whether Muslims are allowed inside Christian churches. She takes their sometimes muddled replies in her stride, as they learn how their own experience fits into a wider historical movement.
Following shots from around the town of Third Reich relics, we join the class on a trip to the museum, where they learn that 17,000 people from 22 countries had been forced to work in war industries. The guide stresses that the majority came from Eastern Europe and were badly treated, as the Nazis believed them to be inferior. They recognise the factories as the ones that now employ their parents and the guide describes how they were repurposed after the war and Turkish labour was sought when Germans didn't want to accept low-paid jobs.
One lunch hour, Stefanie makes Ferhan cry and Bachmann has to send her out in order to keep the peace. He recognises that Stefanie had not meant to insult Ferhan, but had touched a nerve and he persuades her to apologise. When Rabia falls asleep in class, he deduces that she is stressed at home and sends her off for a nap rather than chastising her.
Some of the boys try sculpting at a stone yard. Bachmann chats with the owner about his time in teaching and how he had come to the profession with a wife and two kids in his forties. He hadn't been convinced he was cut out for the job and still thinks he goes too easy on the shirkers. But he enjoys shaping potential and helping kids discover themselves, as he does during a collage lesson, in which he talks through ideas to inspire the students to reach their own conclusions.
He can be stern when he needs to be, however. When Ferhan reads a story about puppies and kittens, some of the boys mock her German. Cengiz is slung out, while Ayman is quizzed about why he wouldn't help Ferhan correct her mistakes. The boy protests that he doesn't know enough himself, but the girls insist it's because they are regarded as second-class and Bachmann keeps the peace by accepting the sincerity of Ayman's explanation, even though he doubts its veracity.
Off duty, Bachmann hangs out with a younger male teacher, Öndur Kavdar. They discuss his dual Turkish citizenship and his regret that things back home had taken a turn for the worse. He's surprised that Bachmann is approaching his retirement, as he seems much younger. Moreover, he wonders who is going to take his place in the affections of the children, if anyone can.
His rapport is certainly evident during a story writing task, in which he allows the classmates to comment on the tales. Stefanie is particularly praised for the ambition of her writing when she has only been studying German for six months. Thea Lucia also comes in for praise, although Ayman is commended for relating the outline in a detail that proves he had been paying attention.
After Hasan wins a boxing bout, Bachmann asks him about his daily routine and he complains about the amount of training he has to do. When the subject of girlfriends comes up, Hasan is quick to declare that he will never marry because he won't find anyone as good as his mother. The discussion turns to whether being a housewife is a job and Stefanie and Ilknur aver that they would thump their partners if they did nothing around the house. Stefanie flirts with Cengiz in calling him dumb and Bachmann reveals that his ex-wife is a psychologist whose friend did a paper on intelligence and the age at which teenagers lose their virginity,
In a lesson on surnames, Bachmann reveals that his father was originally called Kowalski. However, the Nazis outlawed Slavic names in the mid-1930s and his grandmother had been so nervous re-registering that an angry official had given her the name `Bachmann' and the family had been stuck with it.
Ilknur's parents want her to wear a headscarf after her next birthday and Ferhan lets her try on hers. Bachmann is supportive of them both and Rabia, when she insists she'll never wear one. This ability to coax out opinions and have the students justify them is tested when Bachmann sings a folk song about gay love and only a minority led by Rabia are okay with same sex relationships.
Having dished out sweets before an exam, Bachmann goes through the grades and tells the students whether they will be going to high school or secondary school. Hasan and Stefanie are disappointed with their Ds, but he consoles them with the fact they are making decent progress.
The class trip takes them into the countryside and they get the chance to ride horses. As they're staying in a quiet village, the boys are frustrated by the 10pm curfew and Bachmann sits them down and discovers a side of tough guys Jamie and Mattia that he hadn't seen before. He's also impressed when the latter overlooks a fight in the dormitory and spares the culprits the indignity of being sent home. Two of the girls bake a cake for Hasan's birthday and he gets a guitar for his present. Bachmann leads a campfire sing-song and gets everyone to describe their first homes. Everyone listens and no one judges.
Back at school, Bachmann tells Hasan that his parents had worked hard during the week and got plastered at weekends. So, he started staying away from them and playing football and knows that some of his students also have domestic issues that make studying difficult. A heavily pregnant Ms Bal drops in to wish 6B all the best for the seventh grade and is touched when boys and girls get emotional in giving her a hug.
They are just as touched when they help Bachmann dismantle the tables in his room and clear the plants. He presents them with their report cards and reminds them that the grades don't reflect their personalities or how they have flourished over the last year. As the class leaves for the last time, Hasan gives Bachmann a hat in the colours of the Bulgarian flag. He's delighted, but becomes reflective as he sits alone and wipes away a tear at the end of what he has called `my longest relationship'. However, he will always have Hasan's parting words ringing in his ears: `We did good things in this room.'
For all that it resembles such actualities as Julie Bertuccelli's School of Babel (2014) and Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane's School Life (2016), this is so much more than a fly-on-the-wall account of a much-loved teacher's last hurrah. Dieter Bachmann may well be a gifted educator, but he is also a socially conscious soul who recognises that he is probably the best hope that his many of his students have of making something of themselves. That's why he nurtures their personalities, as well as their intellects and takes the time to develop the aptitudes that their parents are too busy to appreciate and their neighbours are too indifferent to even notice.
There are awkward moments, when entrenched notions prevent the kids from recognising the merits of their classmates or their right to live on their own terms. The discussion of homosexuality is particularly discomfiting. But so are the casual racist and sexist remarks that some of the boys toss into conversations without the foggiest that they are going to cause offence because they are made without compunction at home. Bachmann doesn't admonish like a scalded liberal, however. He encourages the culprit to justify their beliefs and then lets their classmates have the last word.
At 65, Bachmann has considerably more experience of recent German history than his charges or his colleagues. Consequently, he is able to link the slave labourers of the Third Reich with the Gastarbeiters of the economic boom and the migrants of the new millennium. Speth couches this history lesson in the same insouciant manner that she allows other salient points to drift into the film's ether, with Rabia's blossoming highlighting what a young woman can achieve if she is given the opportunity to learn and contribute to the making of decisions that will shape her life.
Such poignant rites of passage also testify to the discretion of Speth, cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider and sound recordist Peter Roigk, who clearly put the children at their ease in order to capture them so naturally. But the ego-free Bachmann similarly avoids performing for the camera, whether he's breaking into song, confiding secrets from his past, or devising unconventional tasks to lower guards and cajole contributions from kids who are not used to being heard, regardless of which language they try to speak.
Speth also makes adroit use of what Yasujiro Ozu used to call `pillow shots', as she withdraws from the classroom to show the surrounding heimat under a blanket of snow, the factory chimneys belching sooty smoke into the air, the narrow streets and functional housing, and the trees budding and blooming in the nearby park. But the fascination comes from the crosstalk between Class 6B and the empathetic maverick who cared enough to do so much more than teach them.
Having befriended Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett while making her music promos, Melbourne-based director Danny Cohen asked her to keep an audio diary over the three-year period covered in his debut feature, Anonymous Club. The result is an intimate insight into the nature of performance, the psychological impact of celebrity, and the extent to which personality and creativity are intrinsically linked.
In `Part One: You Must Be Having So Much Fun', Barnett wishes she hadn't agreed to commit her thoughts to a dictaphone, as she has often struggled in interviews to be the `strong, powerful communicator' she feels she should be. As we see her meeting fans and appearing on radio and TV shows, Barnett reveals that she is humbled by the messages left on her website, as she shares many of the feelings of isolation and inadequacy expressed by her fans. Yet, in songs like `I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch', she summons a fury that is anything but self-effacing.
In Berlin, she admits to feeling sad and reconciling herself to the fact it's sometimes okay not to be okay. She tells the tape about crying on stage and it simultaneously feeling liberating and embarrassing, as she wonders what the crowd thought about the person they had paid to see having a meltdown. Invariably shown alone in hotel rooms or in sleeping compartments on trains, Barnett feels conflicted about being away from home and taking her music on the road for people to hear and, perhaps, relate to.
Over shots of a visit to Niagara Falls, Barnett muses about the source of her songs and why she puts herself through the stress of writing and the exposure of performing. As an introvert, she finds it odd that she feels a compulsion to share deeply personal views and emotions which she can't seem to process in other ways. This leads into `Part Two: Idling Insignificantly', in which she complains that she's not in the right place to make the diary recordings because she can't see what value they would have for anyone. She mooches around the house trying to write songs and haikus and admits she shouldn't whinge so much when so much is going her way. But, even as she accepts an award with her band, the voicetrack describes a documentary about Nico and her struggles to cope with the pressure of being an artist.
Shruggingly conceding that her head is as empty as her heart and the page on which she's supposed to be writing, Barnett laments the fact that she sits at her desk and waits for inspiration, even though she's got nothing to say. The screen goes black and we hear Barnett strumming furiously, as she repeatedly intones, `I wanna die.'
Cohen sits with Barnett, as she tidies her apartment and wishes she could find a house rather than leave most of her stuff in storage. Over footage of her getting a new guitar made (she's left-handed), we hear a 5am recording, in which she declares that changes have to be made because she needs to get out of her current routine before it becomes a rut.
In `Part Three: Solo-tude', Barnett decides to tour small venues on her own so that she can reconnect with her songs. Backstage, she paces nervously, as she imagines an audience full of people who have received re-gifted tickets or have `hate-bought' them in order to criticise everything she does. Cohen indulges her self-doubt and she laughs it off before going on stage to open with the Hank Williams classic, `I'm So Lonesome I Could Die'.
However, the shows go well and Barnett feels energised by the contact with people in smallish spaces who want to listen to her songs. She also enjoys re-engaging with her lyrics and is eager to write better songs. Cohen eavesdrops in a hotel room, as Barnett works on a new piece that references bush fires, the birth of a niece, and the death of an uncle. Reflecting on when a song is finished (if it ever is), she jokes about the fine line between a tune being timeless and out of date.
It's evident that Barnett has benefited from the solo experience and, from the clip of the audience singing along to `Sunday Roast', she seems to have developed a new confidence on stage. Moreover, she has had revelations in silence rather than while making her diary entries and she starts `Part Four: I Just Can't Yell Anymore' with a sense of serene solitude in a new home. As she strums, she's joined by a tabby cat, which plonks itself down on a cushion and looks wonderfully unimpressed by the camera or the music.
Ready to record again, Barnett workshops songs with drummer friend Stella Mozgawa. She feels positive that she can make work that helps the hearer feel better about life and themselves, which seems evident from the audience singing along with `Depreston'. As Barnett concludes, `My albums won't be with me on my deathbed holding my hand. This film will not be with us as we lie dying, but I'd like to think in the bigger scheme of things, it will live on and help other people, or inspire other people, or create some sort of conversation for some purpose.'
Similar in some regards to Charli XCX: Alone Together (2021), Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler's up-close account of a six-week writing and recording jag during a Covid-19 lockdown, this is an intriguing portrait of the artist as a young woman. In both her recordings and one-to-one encounters, Barnett has an honesty that matches her (in)articulacy, as she tries to make sense of what she does and fathom why people place so much trust in musicians to light the way through life. Her ramblings aren't always revelatory, but they prompt us to pause and reflect on the missteps, doubts, and crises that go into creating a work of art.
Cohen apparently amassed 30 hours of 16mm footage and it has a warmth that complements the audio content. However, the visuals can feel a bit random, with the visit to Niagara jarringly contrasting with the heartfelt confession on the soundtrack. Many of the concert clips are cut against the rhythm of the covering song and few of them sync up with a live performance. This may seem modish, but the dislocating effect distracts from Barnett's lyrics, which are the strong point of her work, even though she has also written some catchy tunes. Moreover, as Barnett frets about her shows feeling scripted and pointless, fragmenting them in this manner feels like frittering a crucial resource.
But it's the self-aware candour of the diary extracts that leaves the deepest impression, as the pain she endures to pour herself into her work is exacerbated by the sadness and self-doubt that makes her withdraw into herself. Apart from the session with Mozgawa and the odd conversation with Cohen, she invariably leads a solitary existence that keeps her locked inside her head. Yet, her vulnerability is vital to her artistry and it's hard to see how she could produce such relatable gems as `Avant Gardener' and `Hopefulessness' in any other way.