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.
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.
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.
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.
Is it just me, or does Anton Corbijn take a little credit for the celebrity of the musicians he took pictures of. He even preferred that the Moonmen of the MTV awards go to the directors instead of the musicians. Well, I guess he could be right about that.
“Shadow Play” does give you new insight on Corbijn’s aesthetic. He’s stereotypically a dark photographer who took pictures of gothy artists like Joy Division and Depeche Mode. What the documentary shows is how Rembrandt influenced him. There’s two or three sentences dedicated to how his father only took him to those art shows. But everything makes sense after hearing about that streak in him. The iconography, the tenebrism. EVERYTHING. I wonder if he gets blurrier as he gets older.
It also shows his humourous side. I didn’t know he directed “Heart Shaped Box.” I didn’t realize how funny and surrealist those images were, and the documentary makes it look exactly that instead of the hallowed interpretation the original video had. I didn’t know I could respect Cobain again. I didn’t know Corbijn did colour.
The movie also documents him shooting his first feature, “Control.” Seeing the making-of of that film takes away the varnish that black and white films normally present. Although Sam Riley gives the performance of his life, I do prefer Ian Curtis as a character in”24 Hour Party People” better.
Corbijn looks a bit like Mario Testino. Both tackle celebrities although the former’s gloom is nothing like the latter’s luxury.
And I didn’t catch on with the daddy issues.
And despite me apprehensions I can’t wait for “The American.”
Because of financial mismanagement and boozing, I didn’t get to see anything from HotDocs until last Thursday. “We Don’t Care About Music Anyway” was my first taste of the late night screenings. The documentary portrays a few collaborative artists in the Japanese noise rock music scene. So these people make music that our grandparents think all teenagers listen to.
The first scene is that of a trash dump, rivaling apocalyptic Cormac-esque imagery. Then we see a quasi-classical musician in an abandoned school doing things to a cello that would make Yo-Yo Ma cringe. Then we have a round table of these musicians talking about the economy their weird performances, their weird performance habits, their understanding of music.
The cinematography is effectively garish, watching darkness and trash and sweat evaporating off a man’s body. Then we see a bright white sky above heaps of garbage.
The movie comes off as an interpretation of Tokyo arts and culture, and as one of the musicians featured would say, the lack thereof. It shows Tokyo as a noisy city, and the music, if you can call it that, is a commentary on urban overstimulation and anomie. It’s like watching Dadaists if they had amplifiers and guitars.
Is it a documentary? I don’t know. It doesn’t flow or narrate like one. But one of the functions of the genre is exposing the audience to people and cliques and situations that exist, and the movie accomplished that. It’s just a confused reception to something so new. I imagine to have had the same reaction to the Sex Pistols had I lived in the 1970’s.
I met these male Lufthansa flight attendants at Woody’s the weekend of the volcano eruption. They were stuck here, they decided to go out. One of them is Swiss, can speak German, lives in Germany, but hated it when I asked if he’s German. This either involved the shaming of Germany or because he didn’t like some North American ditz who can’t tell the difference between one European country from another.
Tomer Heymann, director of “I Shot My Love,” also directed the award-winning “Paper Dolls” about Filipino drag queens, so I already like this guy. “I Shot My Love” is a Don De Lillo-esque pun, the movie being about the documentation of the pains of the two most important people in Heymann’s life. One is his mother and the other is his boyfriend Andreas – both of whom get along by the way. She likes it when he sings her beautiful German folk songs. The pain of said persons are connected to Nazi Germany – his mother a Jew whose parents are exiled Berliners and Andreas burdened by his family and country’s history.
Interestingly, there’s this over documentation of both his mother and his boyfriend’s bodies and much as he’s capturing their back stories.
Heymann, mostly invisible in the film, plays the caregiver to his mother. As presumably the youngest of five boys, he’s the only one left in Israel to take care of her as she goes through one surgery after another. He’s also the man who encourages Andreas to live in the present. Heymann, however, is your traditional documentarian in his objective stance towards the lives he’s capturing on film. Despite of what I’ve said above, the people who are weeping in front of the camera are ones personally closest to him while he mostly doesn’t react to them, or at least we don’t often see that in the frame. I’ll accept it if you think Heymann isn’t directly emotionally involved towards the ones he’s documenting.
Despite that flaw, the movie still pulls on the heartstrings. And this is my first HotDocs screening so maybe that’s why I like it more. And among other things, the movie goes to show that if an Israeli and a German can founder a functioning three-year relationship by meeting in a gay club in a city they’re both visiting, the rest of us have no excuse.
p.s “I Shot My Love” just won the Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.
This is pretty much a condensed version of the last ten or twelve posts. If you like brevity, go here. There’s also a hint of what will be up for the future.
And there are two blog entries up about an OK movie and a movie touted as the worst ever, if 33 of you care.