The Behavior of Objects and a Coup de Cinema: On The Strange Little Cat and Bird People

If the question, “What is Cinema?” defined mid-twentieth century film theory, a new inquiry, in its many connotations, seems more appropriate for our fractured and fragmented digital age: where is cinema? The numerous possible responses to this question tell us much about the particular experience of film-going in 2014, from the rise of new exhibition platforms (streaming services in our homes) to the mutating forms (digital hybrids, long-form television, video games) that reveal the ever-changing ways in which we consume audio-visual storytelling. Perhaps the most literal answer to this question – the geographical one – is no less telling: as new cinematic hot-spots continue to emerge in places such as Turkey (Cannes Palme d’or winner Winter Sleep, 2014) and the Philippines (Norte, the End of History, 2013; a September OKCMOA Film premiere), our picture of film history, and where films matter most in 2014, continues to evolve.

Among the richer places for film art in the past decade-and-a-half has been Germany, stimulated in large measure by the work done by alumni of the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Creating what has been dubbed the “Berlin School,” filmmakers such as Maren Ade (Everyone Else, 2009),Thomas Arslan (Gold, 2013), Valeska Grisebach (Longing, 2006), and above all, Christian Petzold (Barbara, 2012), have produced an emotionally textured and psychologically nuanced indie art cinema that is most recognizable, perhaps, for its shared preferences for understatement and reserve.

Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen, 2013), the remarkably assured comic first feature from the Swiss-born DFFB alumnus, shares this signature quality on the level of performance, in the frequently stoic, dispassionate expressions that the film’s middle-class subjects routinely adopt. However, in Zürcher’s work, this cool surface provides little more than a veneer, a surface reality to which the film’s many outbursts of physical and verbal violence gives lie. The Strange Little Cat on some level suggests the impossibility of suppression: for every act of emotional concealment, Zürcher provides an equal and opposite act of release. Try as though they might, nothing seems to stay entirely inside in this lightly surreal, discomfiting day and the night in the lives of a Berlin family.

Zürcher and cinematographer Alexander Haßkerl’s tightly composed domestic spaces collaborate thematically with The Strange Little Cat’s performances as they suggest a large (heard but not seen) invisible space that remains mostly hidden or concealed from the spectator. The film’s objects, on the other hand, often mimic character outbursts, exploding literally in the projectile bottle cap that smashes an overhead light bulb or metaphorically – and aurally – in the sudden, ear-splitting audio of the coffee grinder. (Sound, it should be said, generates both the film’s extensive off-camera space, and also a number of its more effective – and very wry – gags.)

Crucially, both of the above objects have concrete ties to the film’s characters. The exploding bottle cap, for instance, is modeled after and echoes the sudden acts of violence to which the woman who fills the bottle, Jenny Schily’s lonely and isolated mother character, is prone. She is the Jeanne Dielman (1975), to reference the domestic heroine at the center of Chantal Akerman’s modernist feminist masterpiece, in the midst of Zürcher’s gag-filled, Tatiesque sea of living objects (see French comedian Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, 1958). The grinder’s sharp volume, by comparison, will serve as a prompt or excuse for her youngest daughter and narrative antipode Clara (Mia Kasalo) to scream at the top of her lungs – an act that serves, more broadly, to equate the characters’ inner lives with the objects that the film animates.

Inside becomes outside, in other words, as the characters’ emotional lives find expression in the behavior of objects – again much like the films of the great French actor-director. To put it another way, Zürcher’s low-budget debut is an accomplished piece of cinematic expressionism. It is a conceptually ambitious new work of modernist art cinema that instantly ranks among the greater achievements of the more indie-minded Berlin School. Where is cinema in 2014? It’s in a nondescript Berlin flat where a first-time filmmaker miraculously has made everyday objects come alive. In the words of The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo, The Strange Little Cat is that “rare film that offers a new way of looking at the everyday world.”

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Cinema remains ever the property of France and Paris in particular, with 2014 yielding another strong slate of popular and more experimental art-minded film (see September OKCMOA Film premiere Jealousy, 2013, for one rich, recent example). This weekend witnesses the local release of an especially entrancing, Parisian-set English and French-language mash-up of mid-life melodrama and classic fairy tale, Bird People (Pascale Ferran, 2014), which Grantland’s Wesley Morris called “the most inspired thing I’ve seen [at Cannes].” Being, however, that Bird People is that almost quintessential example of a film about which the less said the better, let me close here except to say that it includes a second-part, digital coup de cinema – a sudden, dramatic turn – that defies easy technical explanation. Indeed, once the shock of the storytelling shift dissipates, the spectator will be left to wonder of the director, how did she do that? As Morris speculates, this might not only be a work of the digital era, but of the drone age too.

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