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Films of Clara Van Gool, at the Fine Arts Cinema

By Peter Crimmins,
Saturday June 15, 2002

Berkeley’s serious film buffs are counting the days until the Fine Arts Cinema closes its door at the end of the month. With scant few double bills left before the theater closes. 

Each one is a bittersweet taste of the end of a chapter of local cinema. Each is also a reminder of the daringly original programming the cinema has offered East Bay film junkies for the last four years.  

The Fine Arts Cinema will be destroyed and replaced with a new building in two years. 

This weekend’s program features an example of the Fine Arts’ ability to dig up rare films that challenge and awe. A program of nine short films by Clara Von Gool – a Dutch filmmaker seen in American only in film festivals – will be screened nightly until Wed. June 19. Von Gool’s films are mostly dance, showcasing a keen sense of narrative movement and breathtaking choreography. In particular, her 1995 film "Biting and Other Effects," displays the dynamic possibilities of dance and cinema. 

“Biting and Other Effects” opens with a thrillingly frenetic Tarantella dance with a woman in a 19th century gown and a man in a double-breasted suit who are madly twirling and lunging to harpsichord music through the empty halls of an Italian Renaissance villa. The man and woman are spinning independently and the camera pans on its own axis. The three movements work together to leave both the viewer and the dancers gasping for breath. The first two minutes alone is a masterwork of Von Gool and choreographer Angelina Oei. 

Dance partners alternately break apart and hurl themselves back into each other to express love, coquetry, and inconstancy; it is considered unlucky to dance the Tarantella alone. 

The film moves outside the villa, to the streets of Pallermo, where automobile traffic and pop songs play from distant radios, clashing with the centuries-old architecture. Four people emerge from the city’s people – a couple splitting up, a long-haired pedestrian, and a young woman riding a scooter. In the villa, a woman with long black ringlets and a white dress lures the four into sporadic bursts of movement like a telepathic conjurer – a Dr. Mabuse of dance.  

The film tells the story of inconsistent love and desire among the select Pallermo inhabitants. The traffic and billboards on the streets of the city are an encroachment of modernity in the ancient city. The characters’ spontaneous dancing is a disorienting display of grace and madness in and around the unsuspecting pedestrians who carry shopping bags and newspapers. With only the music of passing cars, the four pawns dance their longing and desire. They are led to the villa where the Tarantella is danced to a climax. 

Von Gool’s great filmmaking feat in “Biting and Other Effects” and her other short films is not just her ability to effectively film the dazzling dancing for the screen. She expresses a story almost entirely through movement. In her 1998 film “Nussin” two couples – one wearing sneakers and slippers, the other loafers and high heels – dance the tango, and, appropriate to the stern yet sultry movements of tango, the wordless dancing among them leads to jealousy and murder. 

Not all of Von Gool’s films are dance films. Her most recent, a triptych film “Passing Future – 3 Solos” begins with a man alone in his apartment mourning the death of his father through a dance of angst in his own dark living room. The second – also a film about the loss of a parent – is told through first-person voiceover by the main character, a new mother who is rummaging through her deceased mother’s house and musing about the cruel irony of losing a mother while simultaneously gaining a daughter. Her internal monologue about the possibilities of trading back a life for a life, and the monologue of the third solo piece in “Passing Future,” an demented old man describing his ephemeral thoughts. Both strike a tone similar to von Gool’s characters dancing out the irrational corners of their troubled psyche. 

The films of Clara Von Gool are being double-billed with Annik Leroy’s “Vers La Mer,” a journey along the Danube river documenting the curious folding of modernity and the ancient, described as “sensual and rhythmic.” It’s the kind of film programming aficionados have come to expect and will miss at the Fine Arts Cinema.