…and the quest to see everything

Archive for May 10, 2010

Hot Docs Hangover – Gasland


(ph thewip)

You have to see this movie, and I hope this wins the Oscar.

I already told you guys about the reasons for my bias against the depressing documentary genre. The same reason applies here in “Gasland”, and water pollution innately elicits that kind of reaction. There are, however, silver linings in this dark cloud.

In director Josh Fox’s travels to the heartland of America to see about the damage caused by companies drilling for natural gas, he finds fun things and people like the most comfortable couch in America, a woman ironically freezing dead birds in Walmart bags, some guy who reminds me of Jeff Foxworthy (not pictured) successfully lighting up his water on fire, a healthy women with the worst smoker’s cough I’ve ever heard, Fox playing the banjo and him finding about the chemicals with long names that he can’t confidently pronounce them. His inclusion of reading out those words in that way is a brave choice.

Fox looks like a Williamsburg hipster and is kinda raised as one, but like his interviewees, he is, not to condescend, one of God’s children. The men and women in the heartland. American. Simple decent folk who’s had their roots in the rural regions.

But these people are deservedly shown as intelligent persons who know about their land and further educated themselves about it because of the changes in the past decade. Companies like Halliburton shamelessly drill for these natural gases in people’s front yards. Like one of the title cards in the movie, it doesn’t take a genius to find this stuff out. These people also tell him about their confrontations with the workers of those companies, showing how brave and resilient they could be when it comes to a hidden national crisis.

The movie does ask its American target to be patriotic but that call isn’t based on the more popular reasons for so called ‘patriotism’ today. His kind of real patriotism has a Walden-esque streak, a love for the nature he grew up with and can be irreversibly destroyed.

Also featured in the movie is a scene between congressmen and women and some of the leading officials of these companies. It’s so humiliating that it passes as torture. Did it work? I’ll say yes.


Hot Docs Hangover – The Fog of War


(ph. SPC)

Originally released in2003, the seminal documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert Strange McNamara,” about the infamous war criminal is also an strong aesthetic display of archive footage, screen shots of data and numbers, dominoes falling down on top of maps, machinery, tape recorded conversations, skulls falling down stairwells, Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s pen wagging while he’s shot off centre on a canted angle and director Errol Morris’s slightly yell-y, smarmy voice. Apparently some of the objects, especially the dominoes, counterpoint McNamara’s self-denial, but most of what he says seem to match whatever metaphoric representation is on-screen.

War is never glamorized in this documentary. Its instruments are either numbers on paper or missiles, in one scene the former visually represented the latter. Both objects represent the beginning and end stages of what happens in wars in the twentieth century. Something so small and raw is quickly transformed into a leviathan that can destroy and kill. The imagery never gets empowering like your typical soldier with a rifle.

“The Fog of War” would be maligned if we called it an examination of evil, since evil depicted on film have certain visual or plot cues, and this documentary sort of disproves what we know about that. ‘Evil’ isn’t about piercing stares in the same way that ‘art’ isn’t about someone’s self-expression of suffering. McNamara, being interviewed about his life and Vietnam, isn’t unrepentant and he also doesn’t dissociate himself from his actions. If anything he’s very passionate and slightly jovial. But his actions can never make us fully sympathetic of him and is what makes him a war criminal, despite his personality. One of his ‘lessons’ include doubt, even contradicting a Sister Aloysius-esque lesson of having to do evil to do good.He even asks the camera how much evil has to be done to accomplish good.

And yes, destruction can occur partly because of intent. But his role in showing data and pushing buttons are just as instrumental in the hundreds of thousands of deaths that he helped bring in both in Japan and Vietnam. While confronting one person who has had so much power we do tend to throw around the word ‘evil,’ but instead we get the ‘horrific,’ the consequences bearing more impact than the cause.

McNamara reluctantly blames others like LBJ for Vietnam and denies his involvement in Agent Orange, but his job as a yes-man for calculating warmongers is still just as bad. Morris implicitly delivers this message and makes him tell little bursts of truths buried under careful wording. The director nonetheless finds a place for empathy, which is McNamara’s first life lesson. In a way, he is America, going through each war and its peaceful intervals the same way the country did. We still don’t want him prosecuted despite of what he did. As many have said, he compartmentalizes, but he shouldn’t let Vietnam define his life. In his time in Ford, he did help introduce the seat belt, after all.

(I also wanna say that my apprehensions towards the documentary as a genre is probably because of the depressing material. I actually cried at one point while looking at the missiles, and couldn’t look at McNamara’s face when he was welling up.)

2003 isn’t a typical banner year like the ‘better than you remember’ 2002 nor the achievements in 2006. But the year that George Bush began the misguided occupation of Iraq must have affected the West’s popular culture. The movies of 2003 still felt like it was under the beer goggles of the Academy, but they still had themes like anti-Republicanism, subversion, helplessness, violence, etc. With “The Fog of War” also came “Dogville,” “Cold Mountain,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” “City of God,” “Elephant,” “The Dreamers.” That and there were a hell of  a lot of sequels too.


RIP Lena Horne


(ph. doctormacro)


Hot Docs Hangover – Strange Powers


(heartbreaker. ph. stereogum)

Now I know what to illegally download the next free time I get.

I doubt my positive feelings towards “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields,” knowing that this is just the novelty of knowing someone so clever and so short. What I like about this movie is that it shows you the annoying side of the subject yet those things make you like the man. A linear presentation of the life of the indie musician, it doesn’t shy away from his lower moments. Like his unfriendliness towards music journalists – although I wanted to see more of that. And that time when the blogs accused him of being racist and thus called him ‘cracker,’ which isn’t a racist term at all. The movie also shows him going to gay bars and writing his non-house music. Doesn’t work for me at all.

(showstealer)

Another positive element of the movie is Claudia Gonson, Merritt’s long time friend, collaborator, band mate and fruit fly. I’ve known too many girls like her – not the prettiest nor skinniest, alternative, very intelligent and very confident, that voice I’ve heard too many times, that youthful exuberance even at 40. But she never gets boring. The scenes with her involve their songwriting, revels on their use of words like ‘chord progression,’ and it shows how they’re all about the method and not the madness.

The movie is not about an icon but a refreshing portrayal of an evolving artist. It’s a good, thinking man’s laugh, and I hope it comes out in the theatres again.