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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Part of our coverage of the 27th Denver International Film Festival

The Danube is to Europe what the Mississippi is to the United States. It’s more than just a river, it’s a place of legend, a living history, a connection to the past. Donau Dunaj Duna Dunav Dunarea (the title is “Danube” in five different languages) illustrates that point with a long, strange journey home.

All Aboard

Two pilgrims joke on the Danube
Two pilgrims joke on the Danube

Bruno is a riverboat captain (the film’s title is his boat’s name). In Vienna, Austria, several pilgrims try to board his boat. A boy of 15 is trying to fill his mother’s last wish. An Olympic swimmer, she wanted to be buried on the Danube at the Iron Gate. She asked specifically for captain Bruno to take her there, but he turns the boy away, leaving him no choice but to try to make the thousand-kilometer trip in a two-man fishing boat. One woman is allowed aboard, however. We don’t know exactly why she’s on board, but we do know she uses drugs and she found herself drawn to the ship by a majestic black bird.

One night, in a rainstorm, they pick up a swimmer, a man in a cowboy hat trying to swim the border from Hungary into Austria, and who nearly drowns in the process. They also stop for the boy and his mother’s coffin, plucked from the river by the authorities.

Also on board is an engineer and his young girlfriend, who seems to want a much more serious and long-term relationship than the engineer is willing to give.

More than Travelogue

Like The Motorcycle Diaries, the journey is measured not in days but in distance. The film starts about 1900 km from the mouth of the river and continues its countdown as the journey progresses. As the boat and the film drift along, we see the world from the eyes of a river, watching the change from the affluence of Western Europe, to the decrepitude of the former Communist countries such as Hungary, to the war-stricken poverty of recent war zones like Serbia.

The most haunting image of the film is of major, four-lane highway once towering over the river, now collapsed and slanting into the Danube from both banks. A single boy plays on the bridge, riding his bike down the sloping asphalt into the brown the river.

The movie is a travelogue, with gorgeous photography and peppy, spicy music from many cultures. But the movie also has a somber, holy aspect that raises it above cine-tourism. The only time the camera leaves the boat is to follow one of its passengers “home.” For different characters, that may mean a final resting place, or it may mean making a new start. By making these departures cinematically parallel, however, the film shows its poetic soul and takes on another dimension.