Normally, I don't write about the movies I go to see at the Gene Siskel Film Center, as their release is usually so small that the vast majority of my readers here would have no chance of seeing them unless they live in Chicago and can make it to the same theater before the run ends. However, since I have a membership at the Siskel (it's an off-shoot of the Art Institute, and therefore sells membership packages that offer cheaper tickets and perks like free popcorn), I find myself attending screenings there on a fairly regular basis.
The Gene Siskel Film Center is Chicago's foremost independent cinema, featuring a selection of documentaries, art films, foreign films, indie films, and retrospectives of historically significant directors and film genres. It is a place to go when you want to challenge yourself, more so than be entertained. Right now, the Siskel is running its annual European Union Film Festival, and because I fancy myself to be the sort of person who ought to enjoy foreign films, I try to find something worth seeing every year. In my years of attendance, I've learned it's better to stick to films that are either in a language I can understand (i.e. German), or that have been nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The latter promises some degree of quality, and in absence of that, the former ensures that I at least get language comprehension practice. I've imposed these restrictions because, frankly, I've seen a lot of terrible, obtuse, and pretentious films over the course of my encounters with the E.U. Film Festival.
This year, a documentary caught my eye, entitled Rabbit a la Berlin, which purported to tell the tale of a colony of rabbits that thrived in the no-man's-land that existed between the two layers of the Berlin Wall. The documentary would not only tell the story of the rabbits, but it would showcase them as a parable of life in East Berlin, and life after the Reunification. As a Cold War history buff and lover of all things cute and furry, it was a irresistible combination. Unfortunately, Rabbit a la Berlin was being shown as a double feature with another documentary about the Berlin Wall called, The Invisible Frame, a sequel to the 1988 documentary Cycling the Frame. Both movies feature the indie actress Tilda Swinton biking the 96-mile path of the Berlin Wall. I was... less than enthused.
Since Justin also speaks German and enjoys documentaries, I invited him to accompany me, and (unsurprisingly, given our divergent opinions on the weirdness that was Laika: Dog in Space) we each enjoyed one film more than the other. For my part, my pre-theater bias was confirmed, and I found much to admire in Rabbit a la Berlin. The bunnies were indeed adorable, and I thought the filmmakers were quite clever in their construction of the film. They included humorous interviews with East German border guards who watched the rabbits out of boredom during their sentry duty, as well as the perspective of an elderly hunter who mused on rabbit psychology. There was a ridiculous computer-generated recreation of the rabbit's Utopian homeland between the walls, complete with an analysis by a biologist as to why the rabbits were able to thrive in such a habitat. Best of all, however, was a series of historical photographs interspersed throughout the film that all featured rabbits in the background. I'm not sure if they were authentic or if they had been Photoshopped, but they served to connect the plight of the bunnies to their larger historical milieu. I thought the brief film was great, but Justin later confessed to sleeping through several minutes.
Justin, however, somehow managed to enjoy The Invisible Frame, which literally featured nothing but Tilda Swinton riding a bicycle and doing wacky things around Berlin. There was Tilda reading a book in the middle of a fork in the road, Tilda reading a poem in a forest, Tilda pumping water, Tilda laying in a meadow and waving her hands to simulate the movement of a bird while chanting, "Flap, flap, flap," and Tilda supplying a pretentious voice-over musing on life and how it has continued since the wall fell.
Shortly after the film began, I leaned over to Justin and suggested we give it ten more minutes to become more interesting, but when the ten minutes were up, he wished to stay. He was enjoying the cinematography and the look at an unseen side of Berlin. Plus, Justin likes to bike himself, so I think part of him was imagining it was him on the same journey. I, however, have never wanted to walk out of a movie so badly in my life, and I have never been pushed far enough to walk out on a film before, no matter how much I wasn't enjoying it. The only thing worse than sitting through The Invisible Frame is knowing that it's a sequel, and there's another film out there in the world of Tilda doing little more than riding a bike.
On the plus side, Justin and I have now expanded our repertoire of inside jokes, given the proliferation of pompous absurdity provided by the film. Also, I'm pretty sure he owes me now. I don't know when, I don't know where, but I suspect there may be a chick-flick in our future...