by Anthony Nield in Home Cinema @ The Digital Fix , 29.12.2011
Filmmaker Mara Mattuschka and choreographer Chris Haring have been collaborating since 2004. To date they’ve made four films together, beginning with the 15-minute black and white short Legal Errorist. That particular work found its way onto Index DVD’s 2006 compilation As She Likes It: Female Performance Art from Austria and now, five years later, the three remaining films have been brought together by the same label for Burning Down the Palace. For those who haven’t sampled the earlier disc, Legal Errorist positioned itself somewhere between experimental cinema and performance piece. The central aspect was a “monologue” delivered with immense physicality by Stephanie Cumming. (I use inverted commas as the dialogue was often rendered nonsensical or prone to massive pauses overtaken by movement.) The aim of the film was not so much to simply document the performance as it was to aid it; the emphatic sound design, the minimal production design, the alternating intensity of the editing rhythms and so on, were all carefully selected so as to enhance and co-exist with Cumming’s immediate presence. Arguably, that presence was such that it outshone any overt cinematic considerations, but nonetheless this clearly wasn’t an exercise in straightforward documentary.

Mattuschka and Haring’s subsequent films remain rooted in Legal Errorist’s original conception, and yet each also finds them moving gradually away. Cumming remains a fixture in each, as do many of the behind-the-scenes team, all present since that initial short. Mattuschka edits as well as co-directing and co-conceiving the films with Haring; Sepp Nermuth provides the cinematography; and Andreas Berger creates the distinctive soundscapes. Haring meanwhile has honed each of the performances with his Liquid Loft collective - originally staged at an hour-plus length, now trimmed to around the half-hour mark. Yet whilst there remains this hook in the theatrical, the films also see a shift towards a greater, more independent visual component complete with more obviously cinematic flourishes. In the most basic terms we find the black and white of Legal Errorist replaced with colour, whilst its single ‘set’ (barely perceived given the minimal lighting) and single performer are opened out to encompass ever more complex situations. The budgets also necessarily increased; the most recent production being a far cry from the self-financed status of their fifteen-minute debut.

Part Time Heroes unfolds in a number of cell-like rooms of an empty Viennese department store, Running Sushi opts for a purely computer-generated background and Burning Palace employs the plush surroundings of the Hotel Altstadt in Kirchengasse to embody its titular environs. Populating each, respectively, are a collection of either the famous or the fame-hungry, a combative couple and, to quote Andrea B. Braidt, “figures ensnared in erotic innuendo”. As with Cumming in Legal Errorist, these characters have a tendency to talk in monologues and ones accompanied by Haring’s choreography - dance, essentially, although not in the conventionally held sense. Indeed, music is at a minimum, rather Berger’s sound designs have a tendency towards to bursts of aural texture as opposed to anything resembling a melody or even basic instrumentation. Moreover, the dialogue often spills into similar territory with noises replacing words. Communication does take place between characters - most obviously in the two-hander Running Sushi - but the predominant mode is one of isolation as though each figure where delivering their own performance piece irrespective of how densely populated their given film is.

Interpretation of the three films, it would seem, is largely left to the viewer. There’s an interview contained in the accompanying booklet which would seem to confirm this given the convergent ideas of Mattuschka and Haring. When asked if we should consider Part Time Heroes, Running Sushi and Burning Palace as a trilogy, Haring declares “they are always dealing with the same thing”, yet Mattuschka interjects by pointing out that “for [her] the focus is always changing”(!) Certainly from a purely cinematic point of view it is easy to trace a progress as each film gains in scope and, arguably, in confidence. Yet from a thematic angle we find that isolationism running through the characters, specifically from an emotional standpoint, cropping up time and again. Any communication in Part Time Heroes is done via lip-synching and reflections. In Running Sushi it amounts to hyper-stylised violence. And the sexual element of Burning Palace, though heavy, is entirely unfulfilled. Nobody connects, or at least not in a positive fashion.

For me this worked best in Burning Palace, a film that seeks to maintain as much mystery as possible. It’s more readily intriguing as a result and certainly more so than Running Sushi and its over-egged stylisation where the performances comes across as more animated than the CG backgrounds. This isn’t to say that Running Sushi fails entirely - its Japanese influences bring an interesting mixture of anime, computer game methods and martial arts to the overall style - just that it lacks the subtlety of the two other, superior films. All three have a similar running time, yet it is Part Time Heroes and, especially, Burning Palace that invite the viewer to really use those minutes to investigate what is happening onscreen. The latter, in particular, is all the more enticing given its Lynchian vibes: lip-synched performance out of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. (the whole look and feel is more than a little Club Silencio), video imagery out of Inland Empire and shorts such as Darkened Room. Indeed, David Lynch’s miniatures of late - most recently The 3 Rs, his festival trailer for Viennale 2011 - seem to be heading increasingly into the experimental performance-based filmmaking Mattuschka and Haring have occupied these past seven years…


Burning Down the Palace compiles three shorts totalling 93 minutes - plus a five-minute extra - onto a dual-layered encoded for Region 0 PAL. All of the films were shot on Beta SP (with some 35mm employed from Burning Palace) and their presentation necessarily reflects that. The image is crisp and clean, demonstrating no flaws in terms of wear or damage, yet comes with the slightly overbearing whites and lack of true detail that comes with the format. The hyper-stylisation of Running Sushi demonstrates this more than the others, with the more subtle tones of Burning Palace being the most forgiving. With that said, the transfers don’t accentuate these aspects and as such it’s safe to say that we are seeing the films exactly as intended. Original aspect ratios are also maintained, 1.33:1 in the case of Part Time Heroes and 1.78:1 for the latter two. Anamorphic enhancement is also in place. As for the soundtrack, DD2.0 renderings are available on each and none of them presents any problems. Indeed, the soundscapes are crisp enough to identify the edits, though once again I see no reason to assume that the disc is accentuating the fact. The dialogue is predominantly in English, with only the pre-credits scene from Running Sushi spoken in German. This particular exchange comes with white English subtitles burnt into the image.

Extras include a five-minute ‘making of’ devoted to Burning Palace and a 22-page bilingual booklet in German and English. The former was put together by Mattuschka and Haring themselves and consists of a tightly edited collection of B-roll footage. There’s no genuine insight to be gained here, but it does offer an intriguing glimpse of the two directors on-set. The latter provides an interview with the pair conducted in 2009 - which is full of information and insight - plus notes for each film, full credits and brief bios for Mattuschka and Haring.

Anthony Nield
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