Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Dog Tulip


(My Dog Tulip/ New Yorker Films, 2009)
       
       The idleness of animation has only gained ground. Computer animation reigns, even when confronted with supposedly traditional animation. Tim Burton’s stop-motion films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox all made liberal use of computer graphics in order to make the jerkiness of stop-motion look slick. In the meantime, the films that don’t bother with physical materials and go straight for the digital jugular are outpacing everything else. The Pixar movies rake in millions of dollars each year, and always seem to gain attendant critical praise, as if kiddie guns were being held to the heads of those damned uptight critics. It is hand-drawn animation we can almost forget about. Aside from Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Bellville, and his recent The Illusionist, nary a hand-drawn animated feature can be named from the past decade. America, at least, has completely discredited such a practice.
            So now along comes My Dog Tulip, a goofy, potty-mouthed, introspective, whimsical film featuring an old British man jerking across the screen, in etchy color or mere pencil lines, and his Alsatian Bitch, Tulip, who barks, pants, and defecates likewise. In short, the film is every sentiment we have come to inspect from a Pixar film, minus politeness and pop. Because those two elements are nowhere to be found, the film can indulge in traditional animation with fewer constraints than any computer-generated blockbuster can indulge in its form. Because it indulges in all stages of animation, the film is an experience for all ages. It is the least pretentious film this year.
(My Dog Tulip/New Yorker Films, 2009)

            The story hardly needs describing, due to its simplicity and mootness, but here it goes: J.R Ackerley was an English journalist and essayist who worked for the BBC from the late 20’s until his death, in 1967. He ran in intellectual circles and was openly gay, but you will not find these facts in the film. They might explain, though, why he was an unmarried and reticent man in old age, yet filled to the brim with mental curiosity. He has searched, as he puts it, for the “ideal friend” his entire life, but can only find too many flaws in people. He is the ideal candidate for a dog owner, and so he finally acquires one from a lowly acquaintance and names her Tulip. Despite her hyperactivity, her anxiety, and his difficulty in training her, Tulip proves to be a joy, bringing enough bestial habits for Ackerley’s mind to bounce off of for the next fifteen years. Along the way, he learns how to properly scold his dog, how to introduce her to other people, and eventually, how to find her a mate. These situations bring out a host of characters, voiced by actors including the late Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini, and Brian Murray. Christopher Plummer provides the voice of Ackerley himself, his voice believably belonging to a man who gave up on humanity, finding each person in his life ridiculous in their manners. Tulip, on the other hand, is ridiculous because she wants to be, because it simply is her spirit. Ackerley, like any dog lover, prefers to live by the maxim that appears at the start of the film; “Unable to love each other, the English naturally turn to dogs.”
            The reason directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger bothered with this idea at all is because it is based on Ackerley’s memoir of the same name, a book beloved by dog aficionados. But aside from the people truly love dogs, the Fierlinger’s have made their film for people who truly love sloppiness. People who find imperfection a riot. Who find people a group worth looking at cynically, before laughing. Ackerley, as a man, is never someone to just nod along with. His ignorance of puppies and his shortsighted planning are only additional failures of human nature. But with their half-finished drawings, imprecise frames scribbles and doodles, the Fierlinger’s mean to guide us to the humor in our inherent incapacities. Their film stands athwart the march of modern animation towards some sort of master race of digital frames, an endless ironic loop of corrections.
But My Dog Tulip isn’t yelling “stop.” It will likely slink away, not making much money. All the lines that needed to be drawn were drawn, and that’s all real animators care about.
(My Dog Tulip/New Yorker Films, 2009)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blake Edwards; 1922-2010

(Director Blake Edwards)
    
     There is a scene that I saw at barely more than a glance, on a small screen, in a noisy and hurried setting, but will nonetheless always be lodged somewhere in my brain. It is a scene where two men, both disguised as gorillas, attempting a break in and robbery, circle either side of a wall, unaware of the other. They circle around in such unintended perfect continuity that when one reaches the left side of the wall, the other has just come around to the right. They stop in their tracks, because they hear each other and know someone is there. They continue creeping around the wall.
       This is a scene from The Pink Panther (1963). It is the first in what would become a series of eight films, including A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Each of these films featured Peter Sellers as the clumsy, daffy, highly incompetent inspector Clouseau, a frenchman with a weirdly fake accent and a penchant for getting himself in to catastrophic situations and having the dumb luck to get out of them. What better character for cinema? A walking (or tripping or falling) embodiment of anti-grace, an absurd man in a position to be taken seriously by society, especially high society. His Inspector Clouseau was an heir to Buster Keaton's accidental heroes, except he inverted even them; the films were additions to a long line of a certain folly-of-man satire one can trace back to Don Quixote. 
     But all this can be largely credited to the film's director, Blake Edwards. He understood the athleticism, and non-athleticism, of the moving image better than most comedy directors. He knew when stretch out a conversation until it was funny, when to stretch out a slapstick gag until it was funny, and when to throw in a subtle bit of humor that he didn't much care if we comprehended. His films--aside from The Pink Panther series, there are more than thirty, not all of them comedies-- epitomized unpretentious, restrained, yet utterly fearless moving image humor.
    Blake Edwards died yesterday in Santa Monica California. He was 88 years old.
    For more complete obituaries, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/dec/16/blake-edwards-obituary
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/movies/17edwards.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&src=ISMR_HP_LO_MST_FB

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Black Swan

(Natalie Portman in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

         Ever since Roman Polanski made Repulsion (1965) and Ingmar Bergman made Persona (1966), the theme of Women in Anguish has been slathered across the ensuing decades in films such as 3 Women (1977) and Mulholland Drive (2001). But even Repulsion and Persona had their predecessors; The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for instance, is one of the earliest, and perhaps the greatest, film about the persecution of a misunderstood female. Cinema’s casual obsession with the beauty and vulnerability of the female figure has been, by degrees, compassionate, feminist, trashy and exploitative. But the theme didn’t turn truly cynical until the 60’s came along, and ever since then, it has been a steady progression of Women in Really Hot Anguish.
            Now we are faced with Black Swan, a film that perfectly intersects the psycho-sexual gore politics of Repulsion with the neurotic expressionism of any Bergman film. While the film is, arguably, pure trash, it is also visually addictive and outrageous enough to verge on either black comedy or self-parody.
            The films stars Natalie Portman, who ends up being the most confounding part of the story. This is not because we don’t expect the gradual psychosis her character descends in to as she works herself to the brink trying to be the perfect Swan Queen in Swan Lake. It is not because we don’t know which of her violent and sexual fantasies are real and which are hallucinations (who cares). It has something to do with Portman’s natural demeanor. She has always been a female equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio; a woman-child, somewhat clueless, always trying a little too hard. She is both irritating and cute, nothing more. This works to the advantage of the story after a certain point. When we first meet her character, Nina, she is shy, helpless, and unwilling to stand up for herself. We keep waiting for her to tell her sleazy ballet choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to get lost, but she never does. We keep wanting her to stop apologizing and show some pride, but she is incapable of it. Yet just when it looks like we might be stuck with this infuriating character for the rest of the film, along comes Lily, played by a spunky, outstanding Mila Kunis. As Nina gets to know this seasoned ballerina from San Francisco, we watch her loosen up a little. She starts smoking cigarettes, dropping ecstasy and making out with strangers; she tells off her unbearable mother (Barbara Hershey). And much more. It is largely thanks to Kunis that these scenes carry any weight. She has grasped the feel of this movie far better than Portman, and besides, her character is more likable. She has a sense of humor and a wicked smile. Kunis is a far more subtle physical actress than Portman is, and she manages to communicate a sense of the demonic without straining herself. Eventually, our sympathies go to Nina, as she hysterically crams her stuffed animals down the garbage shoot and slams the door on her mother. But only because we know Lily is right around the corner.
(Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

            Like everything else in the film, Kunis’ gifts are both a problem and a saving grace. Nina is meant to be the pure one and Kunis is meant to be her menacing rival . Or is she? Is Lily merely a manifestation of Nina’s dark side? The answer is yes in both cases, giving us a confused impression that resonates everywhere else in the film. The parallels between the story of Swan Lake and the story of the film are clunky and obvious. Yet the way director Darren Aronofsky lets the visual rhythms flow is so insistent that all is almost forgiven. At the same time, Aronofsky has always been more of a music video director than a filmmaker; his jittery tracking shots and penchant for shrill horror-movie sound effects would drag the film to an amateur level if it weren’t for the director of photography, Matthew Libatique. Libatique has worked with Aronofsky twice before, and seems to have mastered ways of turning the director’s kitschy leanings in to off-kilter compositions that feel like actual nightmares. His camera choreography of the dance sequences, including several tense training sessions, communicate a palpable sense of spinning around on stage, not knowing when or how you’re going to fumble. But even his camerawork can’t make us care about our silly protagonist. Black Swan is a chain of contradictions and compensations. It is a deliberately incoherent film that we find it increasingly easy to surrender to.
            The real reason we surrender is simple and crude. Girls stabbing each other with glass, having random sex, suffering nervous breakdowns. It is one of cinemas most pornographic and cynical triumphs that these things are a joy to watch. Perhaps Bergman and Polanski wouldn’t care for Black Swan, but they’d see their own methods in it. Dreyer might be secretly turned on, like the rest of the crowd. Bring on the bombshells. 
(Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Motion Studies: Left Foot, Right Foot

(Lars Rudolph and Peter Fitz in Werckmeister Harmonies/ 13 Productions)

      Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) stands out, among other reasons, for its monolithic sense of human activity. People eat, drink, wash dishes, chop wood, sleep and sit, staring at nothing; all unusual sights in film. Bela Tarr takes his strange sense of natural existence to its most astonishing length in a scene involving two men, Janos (Lars Rudolph) and Gyuri (Peter Fitz). The scene is in Black and White, like the rest of the film.
The two men leave the house of Gyuri, a self appointed town official, and start walking down an empty dirt road in the frosty and flat village that is the film’s setting. The sky should be gray, but instead it is white. Both men wear coats and walk side by side as they trade words about a petition Gyuri means to convince certain villagers to sign. Though both are in focus, Janos is in the foreground. He looks up and down, over and under with his bug-eyes that seek fascination in all sights. Gyuri is in the background, his face in a constant frown, his hand on his black bowler hat. Janos mentions the circus that has come to town, and the whale that is the centerpiece of the circus. He tells Gyuri that he must see it to see the wonders of God’s creation. Gyuri replies in a brusque manner first they have to deal with the list. They fall silent and walk. We have seen Janos walk along roads repeatedly in this film; but never have we seen a walk like this. Janos falls slightly behind Gyuri, who walks with a mechanical limp and an unchanging posture. Janos’ unkempt hair blows in the wind and flakes of snow, or debris, that dance around the frame. Janos stares ahead, his teeth clenched, then down at the ground. They pass by what looks like the same stone building over and over. We finally fall behind them and circle around to their backs. They stop when they meet two more wandering villagers, ranting to Gyuri about the violence in town, the circus and the uncertainty of the world. Janos offers to get Gyuri lunch and leaves. Gyuri impatiently informs the men that he has a list to show them. He removes it from his coat.
This shot was emulated by Gus Van Sant for his film Gerry, with slight variations, two years after Werckmeister Harmonies. Van Sant may have thought he was doing Tarr one better by making his actors walk even longer. But Tarr’s walk refuses to suffer in comparison. He is the ideal experiential filmmaker, and shots like this one are ideally experienced rather than comprehended. His walk follows the same rule as any in that it has a start point and an end point. But Tarr manages to make the viewer feel as if they are accompanying the two men on some out-of-body level, something that we can’t possibly experience in an actual walk. He never flinches from the labor, the deliberateness of people moving. As for us, he has us simply glide. The monotony of other’s becomes our trance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Marwencol


(Marwencol/ Open Face)
        

           Conceivably, those of us who kept a distance from videogames and didn’t crave the unceasing attention of others in our childhoods would like to go back to that time now and then. We could build our fortresses in our mother’s gardens, fill them with soldiers, and make up stories in which they fight each other. This is exactly what Mark Hogancamp reminds us of, as he crouches on his lawn and moves around the doll soldier figures that occupy his miniature world, called Marwencol. Unfortunately, his stage of life is not childhood—it’s somewhere in his forties—and his reasons for building his imaginary town are rather more scarred than a child’s reasons.
(Marwencol/ Open Face)


            Hogancamp’s project only began after his mind was erased. An alcoholic with a talent for illustration, he had been married, then divorced, and only barely held down a job at local diner in Kingston, New York before being beaten into a coma one night outside a bar. He lay unconscious for nine days before waking up, but with no recollection of his past. He re-learned how to walk, read, write and speak, although his body movements remained somewhat jerky and his speech labored and grammatically dubious. What is most remarkable about Hogamcamp’s misfortune is that it has, in fact, saved his life. He no longer feels any desire to drink. His emotions are muted, his expressive abilities similar to an autistic person’s. All that is fully intact—stronger?—is his imagination. Forgoing conventional therapy, he sets about building his World War II-era town of American soldiers versus German bullies, available bombshell women (barbies), and a diner that acts as a central location to the wandering narrative he improvises. Each of the characters in Marwencol are figures of Hogancamp’s actual acquaintances; his boss, a neighbor he has a crush on, his mother, his roommate. A photographer who takes an interest in the project is eventually added as a character, as is this film’s director, Jeff Malmberg. Hogancamp’s creation is character-driven, gruesome, devoid of political correctness, and aware of genre conventions and pop-culture in a distant, passive way. It is, as Malmberg’s camera crouches with Hogancamp to re-position another figure, a thrilling place to be. Hogancamp manages to photograph every happening in the town, but keeps all the photographs stored away in boxes. Knowing what we do about modern culture, we know they will not be kept in those boxes for long. The film is evidence of their exposure.
(Mark Hogancamp in Marwencol/Open Face)


            But it is not cruel evidence. It has been evident throughout documentary history that every documentary about a person has used its subject to a great degree, and its release means the subject is exploited. But Malmberg’s film is toned-back and fixated; it is a portrait that enhances the mystery of Mark Hogancamp. It does not, like so many misbegotten works of non-fiction, explain him away and throw him on a screen. We only learn the basic facts about Hogancamp’s past life; there is no need for the probing details. Hogancamp sometimes seems to recall moments from his past, but he could be making them up as he goes along. He sometimes seems to be reminding himself to make a distinction between the characters in his town and the real people he knows. A psychologist would have a field day with this behavior, but Malmberg, correctly, does not. He is also correct to shoot Hogancamp against highly literal, non-emotive backgrounds; Hogancamp is seen walking down the main road near his home in many shots, dragging along a toy truck containing his soldiers, surrounded by evergreen trees and hills.  Otherwise, he might be walking around downtown Kingston, near the sight of his beating. The town looks desolate and rigid, like Marwencol. The people who are interviewed, or who interact with Hogancamp, are shown in sparse clips and are treated as exactly what they are; amused bystanders. Even when Hogancamp goes to New York City, for a reluctant show of his photographs, he is shown as an awkward figure in a hushed and hurried model of city. As one interview subject notes, Hogancamp’s creation contains no irony in its use of dolls. Malmberg’s camera gazes at actual society in the same way. 
            The few artistic flourishes Malmberg does allow himself are hit-or-miss. A stop motion recreation of a scene in the town is sloppy, random and delightful; a bloody fight scene staged to marching-band war music we could have done without. But Malmberg’s film is that rare brave and weird achievement that does not sensationalize the minor derangement of its subject, lectures the viewer on nothing and creates a pedastel for nobody. In the end, we may have seen a true existential film, but not a bleak one. Marwencol is spirited, playful and almost as ignorant as Mark Hogancamp is of modern trends and commentary. It is a film the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer might have shot if he were a documentarian. But the childlike urges and the pent-up rage of a damaged man make Malmberg's film something even more aberrant. When Hogancamp proclaims that he wants to live in Marwencol all the time, we almost want to join him, as neighbors.
(Marwencol/Open Face)
           

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Questions

December brings to mind images of snowfall, kitschy Christmas lights, tree lighting ceremonies in cities all over the world, mascots of reindeer and Santa Claus, scary fat men with beards, merchandise, glittering merchandise, wrapped merchandise…and a batch of watchable films. This is, typically speaking the time of year when all the serious films come out, and so The Collector will be taking films a little more seriously than we already do this month. This will be the month of reviews, so expect almost nothing but.
The state of cinema as we find it by this holiday season is a highly confused one. I am not talking about movies being bad. Most movies, according to most filmgoers, have always been bad. I mean confused in that we have never been more uncertain how valuable films are right now. This is because many films barely look like films; is Avatar even a movie? Is Saw 3D? Is Harry Potter? To my mind, no; these are interactive spectacles, not films. They are the Choose Your Own Adventure of interactive media. On the other hand, that which is film; Winter’s Bone, Enter the Void, Boxing Gym, Catfish. These are interesting films, but do they provide a clear alternative to these anti-cinema technical spectacles? Again, I don’t think so, because several of them (Enter the Void, Catfish) are only barely movies, communicating a world where gadgets and alternate realities dominate us, just as they dominate the movies themselves. So Enter the Void is a film built on explosions of color and the floating, ghostly motion of a spirit. Catfish is built on casual narcissism and the creepy digital grain of Facebook. Both these films are boldly experimental, but in their conceptions, even they verge close to interactive art rather than film. Enter the Void at times feels like a demented videogame while Catfish feels like…well, Facebook and digital cameras. Both exemplify directors trying to find a way to bend the formulas of Internet and videogame imagery (loosely speaking) in to cinema. It’s fascinating to watch but how far is it, really, from wearing plastic 3-D glasses?
So to my mind, only films such as Winter’s Bone, Boxing Gym and a few others really provide a cling of formal cinema this year. But I hold out hope for this month. And so we roll in to the end of the year, the first full year of existence for this lonely blog...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/Warner Bros.)
      
       Those who have not read the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or missed the last one or more Harry Potter films, or who have been dwelling in a cave in Siberia for the past decade, should be assured that they won’t have the vaguest idea of what is happening in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To the basically uninitiated, the film will look like it is about a boy with glasses--for some reason, a real VIP-- whose friends run around with him everywhere flailing wands like mad men when they aren’t bickering at each other, hurriedly encountering so many mustached, long haired, and inhuman characters that it is impossible to tell who are their friends and who are their enemies, all the while being stalked by a cult of goth scenesters and an arrogant biker gang. To the initiated, the film will either fulfill the same obligations as the book, or it won’t.
            Literally speaking, it doesn’t. This is only part one of the mammoth conclusion to J.K Rowling’s series, so the film ends as suddenly as it begins. The first thing we see is a pair or ghoulish eyes, the last thing we see is some blaring flash of wizard-light. Squished—and oh, so tightly--- between these two images is the story of how Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emily Watson) careen through a magical version of England, being chased by Lord Voldemort and his whole host of Evil, trying to outwit the dark lord with various trickery, but not quite succeeding. Voldemort has taken over, so Wizards (Harry Potter and all his chums with wands) and Muggles (us regular schmoes) are not allowed to live side by side. Muggles and half-bloods must be killed and dark magic must prevail. Not one scene of all this high pursuit takes place at the school, Hogwarts; it’s too dangerous to go back there, although this is not made clear in the film. It leaves the film with a strong sense of anxiety for both the audience and the characters. No time for them to camp out in the highlands any longer, they better run for the woods. No time for us to camp our eyes on the remarkable sets, costumes, or Helena Bonham-Carter’s gleefully stylized performance; we’ve got part two to see, next summer.
(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/Warner Bros.)

            All this anxiety is acceptable in and of itself; the film is about the various misgivings, conflicts and anxieties that almost tear Harry and his friends apart. But the film is all too ready to ignore the real elephant in its room, which is most certainly not Voldemort. It’s the “Muggle” world, or reality as we might call it. The first several Harry Potter installments benefited from juxtaposing Harry’s drab home life with the take-off-the-blindfold thrill of the world of Hogwarts. From there on, it steadily turned in to a body of work that hated reality with vitriol. Although this film is ostensibly about how the harmony between Wizards and Muggles is being disrupted, it is unclear where Rowling’s and the filmmaker’s sympathies really lie. The scenes on the streets of present-day London feel like a relief to the regular viewer; to Harry and his friends, they are an opportunity to smash up a café or drive recklessly through a tunnel. Then it’s back to this weird alternate reality, never entirely defined, where the characters feel more at home, pointing sticks and screaming Latin gibberish. There is none of the juxtaposition with the world we know; that of cars that sometimes break down and animals that don’t say a word, of total exposure and daydreaming. Aside from a cheap connotation of totalitarian regimes, there is no concrete metaphor for us in this other world. There is no grey area between right and wrong. The exploits of Harry and co. have become so divorced from being even a mirror of reality that each character has come to look as though they are in on a scheme the rest of us just don’t get. Harry and Voldemort may as well be on the same side.
        Of course, when a fictional world comes to resemble a scheme rather than a believable place, there is something poisonous about the imagination that spawned it. So without explicitly implicating Ms. Rowling—this is her creation per se, but she didn’t make the film—let’s place the blame on a whole strand of movie culture. At times, this film resembles The Dark Knight, other times Inception; there are dashes of The Matrix and obvious similarities to The Lord of the Rings. The film has the flight and feel of every other gadillion-dollar grossing franchise in recent memory, each one a fantasy or sci-fi spectacle. Harry Potter, as an idea, no longer looks like a kid who flies around on a broom and learns of his true abilities as a wizard. He looks like an anxious compendium of pop, now bursting at the seams. There are still likeable scenes and images in this film, including one animated segment that slows down, takes a breath, and creates a world far more mysterious than any shot surrounding it. But the films may be lost to cultural memory except as something that inspired a lot of fanaticism and made a lot of money. They are technically stunning, but have been anxiously losing their true wizardry almost since birth.
(Emily Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint/FlashNews4U.com)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Boxing Gym

http://i.indiewire.com/images/uploads/i/Wiseman_MAIN.jpg
(from Boxing Gym/Zipporah Films, 2010)

One irritating visual cliché in films is the foot shot. This is the shot that shows a character’s feet at ground level, usually in motion. In his new documentary Boxing Gym, Frederick Wiseman takes this dead image and re-births it. Uma Thurman’s moving feet in Tarantino’s brawl-fests are shown to tag some supposed dramatic energy on to her characters; the moving feet of boxers in Wiseman’s brawl-fest are shown because these characters move like dancers. They parry around a punching bag with the left foot in front, followed by the right foot. They do a tap dance in the ring while they threaten to punch each other’s lights out. It may be self-evident that this film has much in common with Wiseman’s La Danse, from last year. But that film was actually about ballet. This film is about a dance with violence, or rather, pseudo-violence making constant contact with the real thing.
            Perhaps the protagonist of the film is Richard Lord, the manager of the boxing gym of the title, in Austin, Texas. Most of the people who come in and out of the gym are locals from all social classes and ethnicities. Men only have the slightest edge on women in attendance, and many of the regular participants are married or divorced working people over forty years old. There is apparently even a 68-year old woman who can “…hit the punching bag better than any one else,” according to Lord. But although Lord presides over all the operations in the gym, he tries to stay out of the way. The protagonist may also be the young man who rides in from Houston, casually boasting of needing to “take things up a notch.” It may be Eric, whose daughter, we are informed, attends Virginia Tech and is wounded in the fateful shooting that occurred there, some time near the end of the film. Characters such as these—victims and proponents of violence real and staged—are among the huge cast of characters, but they are the one’s Wiseman gently guides our attention to. Otherwise, he doesn’t intrude; a barely registered agreement between Richard Lord and his camera.
            But despite its pre-occupations, it would be a grave mistake to recognize Boxing Gym as a romantic film, or even more tepidly, a film with a message. Boxing Gym is a work built on physicality, deriving its rhythms from people’s bodies rather than a narrative or a meaning. The film is not ruled by any theme, insofar as there is one. It is ruled by spectacular images like the one of five boxers, warming up in the ring by doing a frog-leap exercise; four crouch down, the fifth propels himself over each of their backs with his hands until he reaches the front of the chain, at which point the new last man stands and propels himself to the front of the chain, where he crouches down…and so forth. All this amounts to nothing more than a fascination with the way images move across the screen. Wiseman is one of the few filmmakers today to concern himself with such a basic objective. This approach takes more guts than in takes to punch a man across the cheek.
http://b.vimeocdn.com/ts/911/210/91121091_200.jpg
(from Boxing Gym/Zipporah Films, 2010)
            So while on one level, this particular dance from the eighty-year old Wiseman is a work of deep concern, even stating that goes far overboard. His films are in one sense public service announcements, and in another sense vast, observational tapestries. They are in one sense deeply personal and in another sense staggeringly holistic. We can’t ever be sure. They are so cool, so presentational (not representational), that they can hardly even be written about. This is not to say that Wiseman never shows his hand; Boxing Gym takes on an unpredictable structure in which nearly two-thirds of the film are spent in the close quarters of the gym before we are shown wide shots of the surrounding city in the middle of the day. Wiseman knows when he has to pull back and take a long view of the surroundings. No film can do without a context. But Wiseman’s context is, literally, a long view, nothing more. There is no romance or metaphor in those Austin buildings. Only room for sparring.
              

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cell 211

(Alberto Amann in Cell 211/ Canal+Espana)
There is a certain strand of art film that can find nothing better to do than wallow in wretched imagery. “Wretched” meaning images of blood, sharp objects penetrating skin, bruises, vomit, clubbings, starvation, and the like. Topics of conversation not suitable for the dinner table. Images borne out of the presumption that this is a no-holds-barred film, unafraid to show un-sugar-coated reality. Recent films in this strand include 2008’s Hunger, 2003’s Irreversible and 2009's Antichrist. Cell 211, directed by the Spanish filmmaker Daniel Monzon, is one of the most recent additions to the wretched reality strand.
            The film announces its brutality from the get-go. A prisoner in a shadowed cell, one that looks not quite of this world, opens his veins into a sink and calmly does away with himself. The cell he is in is cell 211, which Juan Oliver (Alberto Amman), a new guard at the prison, will be involuntarily locked in after a riot knocks him unconscious during a prison tour. His subsequent initiation into the prison--full of militant Basques and regular Spaniards, all who believe him to be an inmate-- cobbles together a collection of abrasive characters, including Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a prison gang-leader who takes a liking to Juan. These developments are proceeded by the required dossier of imagery: fists hitting faces, batons hitting people, a severed ear, and finally, a shot of Juan’s pregnant, unconscious wife, having been beaten down by a guard outside the prison where she was one of the many rioting protesters. She simply wanted to see her husband, whose safety she was concerned about; now, she lies in a hospital, dying. Predictably, it is only here, at the climax of wretchedness, that the film softens up; a poor pregnant woman, beaten senseless. Now, Juan will lose it. He will turn against the guards and find himself siding with the militants. This cues more images of throat-slitting, male-on-male brawling, a hanging attempt; shame if you aren't slapped awake by this film!
(Luis Tosar and Juan Oliver in Cell 211/Canal+Espana)

            Monzon tries to care about the story and produces several haunting, claustrophobic scenes; one involving Malamadre walking down a corridor, guided by a guard’s voice towards a file on Juan; another involves Juan sitting in his cell and staring at the crazed engravings on the wall. Monzon fills his film with pretensions towards social commentary on the conflict between Spain and the Basque region, and on the Spanish prison system, but these points becomes easily overwhelmed by the parade of wretchedness. What Monzon and his contemporaries (Noe, McQueen, Winterbottom, et. al) who make us stare at hard reality don’t understand is the other hard reality they aren’t penetrating; the audience’s sense of reason. Any excessively violent Hollywood film would cause the audience to walk away with an impression of rapid-fire close-ups of gore and sadism. Cell 211 accomplishes nothing more and nothing less. The only difference between its excessiveness and the excessiveness of Rambo are the suggestions that this is reality we’re dealing with, and we take reality seriously. The mature viewer will not be fooled. When a film presents us with non-stop wretched imagery, yet asks us to feel empathetic about its substance, it simply becomes sensation. The violence in Cell 211 is merely cringe-inducing and shows us nothing about the menace and anxiety of living in prison; the only feelings that can earn the brutality.
Wretched imagery in modern art films more often than not creates a product that we don’t mind getting out of our heads as we exit the theater. Cinema is probably the most successful spectator sport of all time. While there have been brutal films that have penetrated the consciousness of the audience and transcended spectatorship, the recent crop of highly lauded films are doing no such thing. The last line is Cell 211 is: “Any questions?” No, I think we have more answers at this point.
(Monica Belucci in Irreversible/Studio Canal)
(Michael Fassbender in Hunger/Film4)








Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Motion Studies: In a Petri Dish



           
1.                    A gliding pan to the left scans the faces of children in an English prep school, frightened by the sounds of the caning of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) in the gym below their classroom. The pan takes on the stiff movement of one of the senior heads of the dorm who often surveys the boys, checking the degree to which they behave as composed, non-emoting men, as Britain’s enlightened are meant to behave. The whacks continue in a series of sharp reverberations that are immune to any dulling the walls and ceiling usually provide.
2.                    One boy is not behaving well. He returns to his scientific studies and peers through a telescope on his desk.
3.                    The petri dish in to which he peers contains a clear green liquid surrounding rectangles of bacteria hoarding themselves together. The whacking continues. The bacteria hoard themselves together as if they have a certain purpose; here are the lowest forms of life (like Mick Travis, his toublesome friends, the gay young teenager, the scrawny kid with black hair…) shaping in to a form of menacing organization (as do Mick and his band of rebels). It is not discernable what this shape is or what it means, but it begins to look like a mouth, then a face, then a weapon, then…(just see what you want to).
4.                    Lindsay Anderson’s If…(1968), is a film so deliberately charged with symbolism and red-herrings—often combined—that this image could easily irritate us to the point of tuning us out. In its combination of radical camera stylization as a means of communicating rebellious feeling, it ends up looking weirdly outdated, in a way that only late-60's films can look. It is an intriguing bit of experimentation; a pan followed by a literally miniature assembly. This is Anderson’s clever way of communicating the spirit of 60’s radicalism, yet it ultimately fails to get past the tired notion that “we had to be there.” Like that boy, we had to be looking through that telescope to feel the analogy; like Mick, we had to feel the whacks to feel like rebelling. Motion creates a beautiful metaphor; that metaphor lets us down.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who was on those train tracks?

60 Minutes recently did a special on a mysterious silent film shot in San Francisco in 1906. . The camera is positioned on the front of a tram moving down Market Street, in the broad daylight, full of men, women, children, horses, carriages, vendors, and a few cars. Some people seem aware of the camera pointing it out, or waving at it, but most people simply go about their business. A darevil darts in front of the tram on his bike. All is well.
Film historian David Kiehn has uncovered the fact that the film was shot just days before the great earthquake that struck the city. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes about his quest to find the truth, and it is quite an intriguing story. The authorship of the film belongs to the Miles Brothers, film producers who shot both this film and the subsequent films detailing the destruction of San Francisco. But authorship has little relevance when confronted with this piece of cinema. Only history.
Below is the full film taken from Youtube. Below that is the link to the 60 Minutes story. Be sure to watch the additional films of San Francisco after the earthquake and take them as part of the same, eerie piece of work. Note the similarities.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6966797n&tag=contentMain%3BcontentBody

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bikers in the Rain

I shot a short film in the spring of this year. It is now complete. I do not know what will come of it. I do not know, or care, if it is a great film or not; I only made it because I had to. Since I did not keep a journal for this shoot, I will have to simply remember it. That said, everything noted herein is absolutely true.

(Photo by Mark Webster)

April 20th, 2010.
1) It is about to rain. This much is obvious. I drive in to downtown Portsmouth to pick up my Mom and her friend (no relation to filming). I drive back and probably exude some vaguely anxious, pessimistic mood the whole way. This is what happens in the absolute final stages of pre-production; you are waiting for everybody to arrive at the location, but you know something will go kaput. It practically is shooting time, but not quite. Some problem will certainly wedge its way in.

2) I pedal my bike to Little Harbor Road. Now is when the wedge comes; I get a call from Benji. He tells me his car broke down on I-95. He had to pull over and call AAA, but he had no idea when he can get here. I’m anxious, and I’m the one directing. So I ask him if, when he gets the car fixed, he can still show up. (Yes, this is the wrong thing to say. I don’t care at the moment.) He says he will. He’s a loyal friend. Without Benji, we will have no idea when a car or a person is coming down the road to interfere with our shot until it’s too late. It has to be completely clear for the purposes of the film; the most inherent point of the story is that the main character is isolated in his surroundings. If there is a major problem, there will be only four people to fix it. Maybe that’s enough, maybe not.

3) I arrive at Little Harbor Road. I wait, watch the traffic swish by, watch the clouds move as if they are made of molasses. After some minutes, I get a call from Kevin. He and Zach are here, but they drove too far down the road. They describe where they are, and I tell them to drive back the way they came. It takes no time for them to get here.

4) Mark has arrived. He came out from the South Street Cemetery, just like he did when I first met him in this same spot: a lanky, shaggy dot on a bike, wheeling defiantly past the gravestones. It occurs to me only now that he appears as a character would in one of Ford or Kurosawa’s more sentimental shots. But this image looks bizarre and nearly hilarious. It could have been more interesting than any shot in the actual film. But it passed us by.
(Photo by Damon Griffin)

5) I’ve attached the tripod to Mark’s handlebar. Everybody’s been introduced. I look over my four pages of silly notes for the shoot. I hand Zach a trash bag filled with two masks, a tuft of black and white feathers, two tiny bottles of dark and light red solution (respectively) that will serve as blood, and some ragged clothes that look like they could be lying around by the side of a road. Because they will be. We set off down Little Harbor Road.

6) One important thing you should do when directing a film is just let the location take over. It is inevitable that it will take over. So if there’s going to be rain, let there be rain. If your pants get muddy, let them get muddy. If there’s too much wind blowing to hear the bike pedaling, mix the sound later on so that it all sounds like wind, or remove the sound entirely. If cars drive by and yet it’ s the best shot you got, cut it up in to several shots, excluding the car, and live with the jump cuts. If you don’t just let nature have its way with you, not a single shot will be captured. If you don’t let nature have its way with you and your film is still finished, it will suffer the consequences of perfection.

7) We are gathered at the mouth of the dirt road that veers off from Little Harbor Road, and will serve as the “beginning” of Kevin’s journey. I tell Mark and Kevin where to position themselves. Kevin is applying blood to his leg. The fact that it looks very real cheers me. Mark turns on the camera and starts shooting as Kevin bends over to touch his wounded leg, lost and confused on some wooded road. I realize I am talking through the first half of the shot. We’ll edit it out later.

8) The first shot doesn’t work. This is because Kevin misunderstood the moment when he is supposed to jump on the bike, after wheeling it for uphill for about a minute. He goes past the crest of the hill, still wheeling it alongside him. Mark follows, not realizing anything is wrong. Can I accommodate this mistake? Can we make do with this way? No. Man up, Damon. Put your foot down. When an actor does something wrong, then you tell him that he did something wrong. I yell for everybody to stop, many seconds after I should have.

9) The next three, four, five shots go over just fine. I actually enjoy watching Zach place the bird feathers by the side of the road and spread them out so they are intermingled with the leaves and shrubbery. I enjoy sprinkling blood on the feathers, and making sure that Kevin knows where the feathers will be, when he should notice them and stop biking. We are playing with orientation, and I am actually enjoying the (supposed) fruits of our labors. This is a good sign, right? It’s ironic if it is, because this good sign comes right at the moment of the first sign of danger in the film; a dead bird, followed by Mark’s rough dolly close to Kevin’s leg as he rolls up his pant leg and surveys the dried blood on his knee.

10) This film actually follows a rough orientation in the biking scenes. We are behind Kevin; Kevin is biking straight ahead, down the middle of the road, surrounded by forests on both sides. It will suffice. But we don’t know where specifically he is, why the dirt road suddenly became a paved road, at what point he began or at what point he intends to end up. Orientation in the context of chaos is what we are aiming for on this film. It is the same combination Herzog perfected in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and earlier, Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer disorients us with startling montage and constant close-ups that elude any setting. But he orients us with a steady gaze of Maria Falconetti’s face-- all faces for that matter-- usually shot from a low angle. Herzog simply orients us with setting--the rainforest--and a group of people who are moving through that setting, by foot and raft. Later, he disorients those same devices. I am taking the Herzog approach. Except I’m not waiting until later to distort anything.
(from Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972/dir. Werner Herzog, Anchor Bay Entertainment)
(Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928/dir. Carl Theordor Dreyer; Gaumont/Janus Films)
11) Kevin starts biking at the dead end of Little Harbor Road; he is moving back the way we came, to Sagamore Ave. I’m letting him and Mark take it from here. They know what they’re doing. In the meantime, I walk with Zach back towards a bend in the road where he will hang the masks on delicate tree limbs. He remarks on a large, ominous tree with roots that look like their steaming mad about having been confined to a tree. He says it’s creepy and I should get a shot. I agree with him and seriously consider it, but the shot never happens. I feel that we are on surer footing now, and when I watch the footage later, it looks that way. As strange as it may sound, I think this feeling can be entirely attributed to us being on paved ground rather than a bumpy dirt road. Literally, surer footing.

12) When a film is being made on the fly, with semi-professionals and non-professionals, with no money, and was planned and instigated entirely by the director, then there really is such a thing as an auteur. I am the auteur of this film; but it doesn’t make me feel all-powerful or special. It is getting too dark for the camcorder we’re using; cars are coming by too often, stalling the shot; Benji couldn’t make it; it will rain any moment. Nonetheless, I did organize just about everything. The three people I am with are all assuming this is my vision and I know what I’m doing. So I am forced to feel the same way. I am sure all young film students and teenagers trying to make it in to film school feel the same way, until they realize that they aren’t much of an authority, that their voice sounds too squeaky, that they can’t answer a lot of questions, that they’re probably talking too much in the first place.

13) Kevin bikes down the road on the final stretch of his journey. Mark wheels close until he is parallel to Kevin, then pulls behind him. It is a very smooth, graceful shot. Then a car comes by and ruins it all. We shoot again.

14) Kevin wheels to a stop at the clothes sprawled across the bushes. The cloudy sky has decided to saturate all colors for us.  Kevin inspects the clothes, confused, and sees the blood trailing away from them. Cut. He is back on his bike, pedaling away from the scene furiously. Rain starts pouring down. The woods begin to clear. They stop when a car slows down and honks at them. It was bound to happen at some point. Kevin just starts biking again from the spot where he stopped and soon comes out on to busy, civilized Sagamore Road.
(Photo by Damon Griffin)

15) We are wet. I don’t want the camera to get damaged, or the bikes to get rusty. Shooting is done for this day. We still have to shoot the scenes in Cambridge on the weekend. I still have to haul myself down to Boston for that segment of the shoot. In time, I will realize that Mark had accidentally recorded only the minutes where we rehearsed the final three shots of the film, and stopped recording for the actual takes; a week later, we will do a quick re-shoot. In time, I will realize just what a bitch it will be to edit this film. In time, I will submit it to, and see it get rejected from, the New Hampshire Film Festival. Fuck it. I just keep going. If you want to make films, you don’t wait for them to happen to you, you force them on the world. You will be subjected to a cannonade of disappointments, compromises, dead-ends, technical breakdowns, lost commitments, and you just keep going.  You make the same mistakes over and over again until you just stop making them out of sheer soreness. You try to save up more money, you try to use a better camera, make more connections, submit to more film festivals, and they all ignore you; the camera you want is too expensive. You just keep going. You kick and scream and raise a ruckus and fall hard against the pavement, and everything happens short of God himself stepping down from the sky to personally tell you to quit filmmaking, and you keep going. And even if God does in fact come down from the sky to tell you the facts, you tell him to go to hell and you keep going. Eventually, you’ve found some images that people want to see. You have better cameras. You may have made some money. It doesn’t matter, dammit, none of it matters, reality will have to crack someday, you keep going.

Postscript by Will Treacy:When your actors do something "wrong", it could actually be brilliant. If it truly is wrong for the shot, you don't just tell them they did something wrong, you say something like, "that was great, but why don't we try it like this this time" Another good trick is to ask them for their ideas until they align with yours, and then they feel like they're contributing and came up with the idea. A huge part of directing is knowing how to work with actors

Friday, October 15, 2010

News: A Festival of Photochemicals

Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard/ Dir. Luchino Visconti, 20th Century Fox, 1963)

A.O Scott writes in 'To Save and Project' his recent article in The New York Times, that films are "..fragile things that often exist only fleetingly in their definitive state." It couldn't be stated any better. As he later notes, ninety percent of American silent films and fifty percent of American sound films made before 1950 are lost. Many films exist only fleetingly, period. But MOMA's forthcoming series screening newly preserved films, starting in November, is at least a warm embrace of a partially doomed situation. Films from all over the world, such as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard(1963), Manoel de Oliviera's Acto da Primavera and Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970) have all been given restorations for this series. Even Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979)--supervised by the 71-year old director, who chose to add thirty minutes to the existing product--will be given a screening, with Schlondorff in attendance.
   This effort is either a step in the right direction--no one could fault the achievements of arduous, dogged film preservation, for films of any era-- or a half-witted attempt to cater to supposedly improve a film's "vision." It is great that some of these films are oddities, but why are they all films made after 1950? Couldn't MOMA and its preservation crew have gone the distance and dug up films from the long-ago past, simply because they must be found? In any case, getting a more diverse array of films found and cleaned up seems more important to this writer than pretensions about making the director's "intent" clearer and shinier, or adding thirty extra minutes. To read the full article, see here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/movies/15restore.html?_r=1&hpw

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Motion Studies: Scenery's gone with the Wind


A Moontower, similar to the one in Dazed and Confused
     
     Dazed and Confused (1993) is a film that shuns the grand scheme of things and celebrates rowdy, youthful minutiae. So why add an artificial sense of grandiosity at the end? This is the problem that befalls it at the point near the end, when the party the Texas high school has put together in an empty park begins drawing to a close, after a fight breaks up. The song “Tuesday’s gone with the Wind” by Lynyrd Skynyrd rises to a crescendo over a long arial shot of the swarm of teenagers scattering.
            An establishing shot to end a prolonged sequence; nothing wrong with that. But there is something off here. This is a film about teenagers. Teenagers drinking, smoking, beating up freshmen, making out, playing 70’s hair music, “driving around.” This scene at the park—known as “The Moontower,” after the tower that stands in the center—is the thudding, stumbling denoument to a day full of such activity. Do we really need a grandiose shot of a camera slowly circling a scene, presiding over it all, as if to look down on these people? As the camera inches to the right, we look at the dots below and cannot bring ourselves to think of them as dots in a grand drama. We have already come to think of them as bumbling, outrageous teenagers in a free-flowing, intoxicated party that happened very much on earth. This closing shot looks like a composition that snuck out of a costume drama or an epic disaster film. And while Dazed and Confused in one sense is both of those, it is a shot that looks aloof. Those few circling inches look pretentious and out of place. It is further complicated when we see, in the upper corner of the screen, shafts of yellow light grazing the trees. Yes, it is almost day. But with those few inches, the joke’s already up; we know it’s not the sun, but the production lights.
            (This is an off-putting moment in an otherwise highly enjoyable film, leading me to find a way to forgive director Richard Linklater. I can think of exactly one pardon; perhaps he intended the shot to be from the point of view of the top of the moontower. But even then, Linklater would have to have established where the moontower is located on the field exactly and what the view is like from the top looking directly down, and it is too obvious that the shot is from a helicopter. Linklater doesn’t get a free hall pass on this one.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jack Goes Boating


(Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating/ dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman;Overture Films, 2010)
    
       Theater is not so much an originator of cinema as an antagonist. It seems that, even if there is still the occasional movie based on a play, we have successfully pulled cinema far enough from the stage to consider them separate entities; art forms that share some basic traits while respecting each other’s separate spaces. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, the director and star of Jack Goes Boating, is a man of both worlds, and his film is indeed based on a play. Since the playwright—Robert Glaudini, another man of both worlds—authored the screenplay himself, the results should be interesting.
            The film begins as if Hoffman wasn’t sure how to start the translation. His character, Jack, sits in a limo directly across from his fellow-driver pal, Clyde (John Ortiz), who is cheerily chatting him up about a reggae song that plays on the radio in Jack’s car and about future plans with a girl he wants to set Jack up with. Both men’s faces are shot in close-ups, leaving us uncertain of their location and proximity. The scene ends with a cut to a wide shot of Clyde driving off while Jack sits in his car, in the stark winter cold of an even starker lot overlooking towering Manhattan. It is only now when we become aware that Jack is a limo driver, and that this story will have him face a challenge.
That challenge is Connie (Amy Ryan), who finds Jack as much of a source of nervous attraction as he finds her. They are introduced at the apartment of Clyde and his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who works with Connie at a phone solicitation business. Connie is just as awkward as Jack, but more vulnerable to the ravages of the city; she is attacked on the subway to work one day, and spends some time in a hospital bed recovering from bloody facial wounds. It is at this point that Jack takes the opportunity to win her over, bringing her a stuffed Koala in the hospital and offering to make dinner for her soon. “Nobody’s ever cooked for me!” a drugged-out Connie exclaims. But Jack will. Since he doesn’t know how to cook, he starts taking cooking lessons with a friend of Lucy’s. And since Connie expressed her desire to go boating in the summer, he has also started taking swimming lessons with Clyde.
By this point, Hoffman is on surer footing. He directs a fine scene in a swimming pool, and never loses the sense that he knows his character backwards and forwards (he previously performed this role on stage). Yet, like Jack, Hoffman is too anxious to prove himself; in this case, to prove himself worthy of filmmaking. Hoffman inserts a variety of extended montages without realizing that they aren’t advancing the story per-se. One montage features Jack on a bridge, imagining that he is swimming, as the water of the swimming pool is superimposed on to his bundled-up body. It must have sounded symbolic, but it reeks of art-house kitsch.  Scenes like these aren’t helped by the watery, droning music of the band Grizzly Bear, which feels inessential to the film.
(John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Jack Goes Boating/dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman Overture Films, 2010)
            What is most intriguing about Jack Goes Boating is not its use of cinema, but simply—surprise—its use of characters. Ironically, Jack and Connie are not the most interesting people in the film. Both seem to have been damaged by unclear experiences in their pasts. Both have let sensitivity get the better of them in life, and both are sexually frustrated.  But while Jack’s courtship of Connie provides some sweet and funny moments, it’s never in doubt that they’ll get together. The truly fascinating people in this story are Clyde and Lucy. Starting at the end of one early scene, after Jack and Connie leave their apartment, Lucy abruptly walks in to another room. We know this is a marriage in trouble from this point on, and the way Ortiz and Vega play these bitter, dysfunctional, yet highly compassionate people provides some of the most splendid acting the movies have seen this year.  Glaudini surely felt the importance of these two characters, too, because the wisest touch he adds to his screenplay (I cannot speak for the play) is the light suggestion that Clyde may be the real protagonist of this drama.
            As for Hoffman, his own performance, and his sixth sense for fine actors, make this film more watchable than most plays, but more trying than most films. In the end, it feels as though he tried too hard with his camera; couldn’t he see that letting the theatre in the story take over could actually provide the surest cinema? The great Elia Kazan knew this fact; his films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront are works that translate the enclosed, exaggerated nature of the theater in to claustrophobic, fearsome pieces of moving imagery. Jack Goes Boating approaches the cinematic Kazan in its best moments; it settles for lazy visual experimentation in its worst. Cinema is the child parent Theater might never come to terms with. Maybe the relationship can be expressed in the lovely close-up of Clyde that is the second-to-last shot of the film; something gained for one side, something lost for the side that enabled it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Catfish


(Megan Faccio in Catfish/dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, Rogue Pictures)
          Catfish manages to state what we already know about the Internet in the ugliest, most uncomfortable way possible. It gives us a glimpse of what has always been true about certain people; the fizzled-out, wayward truth that is only made worse by social networking sites. This is a unique achievement considering that this film does not need to be a film at all, and the characters in it did not have to go to all this trouble to confirm our most dismal suspicions.
            The film really gets weird right from the get-go, after Nev Schulman, a New York-based photographer who had a picture of a dancer published in The New York Sun, begins a Facebook friendship with a young girl from Michigan—eight year old Abby—who has sent him an extraordinary painting of his photograph. The Beach Boy’s ‘Good Vibrations,’ as rendered by a chorus of children plays over the frantic imagery of Facebook. The voices of these children—singing a lightly suggestive pop song—add a perverse dimension to the inherent strangeness of a 24-year old talking to an eight year old online. Yet what is more astonishing is that it seems, initially, to be all good and then some. Nev begins talking to Abby’s mother Angela, on both Facebook and the phone, and soon is introduced to Angela’s stunningly beautiful daughter Meg, with whom he begins an online romance that soon crosses the limits of mere flirtation. Abby paints more of Nev’s photographs, each one indicating that she is a child prodigy. Megan is a farm girl who records him songs whenever he wants her to. All of it is captured on camera by Nev’s brother, Ariel, and their friend, Henry Joost.
            That all this elaborate shadiness is fully engaged, even enabled, by Nev is an indicator that he, Ariel and Henry had an idea of what they were getting in to all along. It also raises questions about Nev’s own grasp of ethics. So it does not come as much of a surprise when, less than halfway through the film, the legitimacy of some of the claims this family is making come in to question.
            It is at this point when Catfish morphs in to a detective story. This is not its final transformation, but it is the high point of the film. Nev and his friends are amateur detectives, but that’s all they need to be; the Internet will do most of the research for them. It is just when their findings yield a situation that any normal person would walk away from then and there, that the three of them decide to stop by Ishpema, Michigan, where the family resides. Their journey yields a final twist that is far from unbelievable, yet still very weird. But prospective viewers should not think this twist will bring the film in to horror film territory, complete with a homicidal maniac, rapist, or any situation where Nev’s life is put in danger. In its final act, the film simply enters an entirely new investigation, one which, unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to truly probe. The amateur detectives turn in to non-investigative journalists. They are so wowed by their discoveries that they miss what their discoveries imply about our modern society. Once it is all over, it feels as though Catfish could have easily been a literary work; part-memoir, part journalism, rather than a film.
(Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman and Nev Schulman in Catfish)
           In any case, Catfish is an almost too clever film. Although Joost and Schulman do their best to find poetry in online imagery, it all looks like neat editing. Although they appear to have shot the film on two different digital formats, there is nothing particularly cinematic about the movie. Despite this, there are images from Catfish that will depress any Internet user (read: modern man) for some time. Although the film’s legitimacy has come in to question—some claim that this is not a documentary at all—this is a moot point, because Catfish  adheres to documentary standards in the truest sense. The point of documentaries, from the time Robert Flaherty visited the Eskimos, has not been to capture authentic, un-staged action, but to cover a real phenomena in a social setting (i.e, internet networks) and its real outcome (i.e, the final third of this film) and let us decide on whether this a tragedy, comedy or drama for the real world. Catfish doesn’t follow through as well as it should. The best it does is hold a mirror up to the three self-absorbed hipsters who got involved in such a mess, thereby holding a mirror up to the rest of us e-weirdos. When we log online, we all become demented. That is its real world tragedy. But who is it that acted more demented in this story? Was it Henry and his friends? Or was it--- ?