Snowden the fiction film

We’ve had Citizenfour, the documentary film, and now Oliver Stone gives us the true story as a dramatic fiction.  Laura Poitras is there, as a character, filming Snowden in Hong Kong, and it is from this scene that we flashback over his life.  That concept works well; between his own recollections and what Laura draws out (which is everything of interest about his transition from gung ho CIA operative to whistle blower; the Guardian reporter and Glenn Greenwald are only interested in The Big Story, not in Snowden’s story), we get a well developed portrait of what it takes to induce repugnance and indignation in someone who wants to serve his country.

As far as I can make out, the only real justification for the surveillance is that the enema is everywhere, security is paramount, and secrecy is vital to security, hence spying on everyone all the time. That’s what Snowden’s CIA mentor tells us and it feels like a half-baked half-truth; in  other words, as Stone tells it the whole program is a fantasmatic effort to find needles in haystacks that could be better spent pursuing specific leads and launching counter-offensives.  There is no discussion of how to promote democracy or how to build democratic institutions  among our middle east “allies,” or how to rely on “good” Muslims to help feret out the bad, etc.  There is a “hide inside the fortress” mentality to the CIA and NSA that makes effective action almost inconceivable.

All in all, an excellent complement to Poitras’s portrait of Snowden and a film with more suspense than I would have imagined.


Modern Wonders and Distant Talks

Do you ever wonder where “here” is when we say an online talk is “here”? I gave a talk in Zuruch at Do It Again, a terrific conference on Reenactment in Documentary and that was “there,” in Zurich, but now it’s “here,” but it didn’t happen “here” and yet it does. Maybe that counts as a reenactment or at least as a repetition, but it’s not purely a repetition since it’s from a singular point of view, not a filmmaker’s, maybe, but the Conference’s, which chose where to place the cameras, what lenses to use, and when to cut, and so on so that this is in a way a reenacting of a talk from a distinct pov, even it is close to the zero degree style made famous by our French theorist friends.

The link to it is here: The website for the conference is and the direct link to my talk is

You may enjoy the linkage in the talk between thumb sucking and reenactments.

Science, Fraud and Documentary

Tribeca film fest plans to show an anti-science, fact-denying hoax that actually costs lives. VAXXED, akin to Dinesh DeSousa’s OBAMA 2016, denies scientific evidence, established fact, makes fraudulent claims, and is utterly indifferent to the truth. It claims vaccines cause autism and the Festival wants us to think this is a “controversy” rather than a fraud. The Festival has it on its program.
Maybe the FACT of climate warming is a controversy in need of a good forum like Tribeca when the issue is what to do about it.
What to do about this film is to protest, boycott, and warn others. Children’s lives are at stake. The unvaccinated can and do die of preventable diseases and they allow those diseases to persist and spread. The film’s claims are wrong. It’s main “champion” is a doctor who lost his license for his failure to abide by the scientific method and promoted bogus research as true. Tribeca’s failed to do the least bit of fact-checking and seems eager only to draw a crowd, no matter how misguided the message.
This Festival is heading for the recycling center, which is where the wayward and deluded go now that, in this election year, all the handbaskets to hell are overflowing.
Let Tribeca know those of us in documentary film study do NOT support hoaxes, lies and frauds masquerading as “controversy” and exploiting documentary conventions to do it.

2 Knock Out Films

So what are they?  Where to Invade Next and Room.  One doc one fiction and both tremendous.

Michael Moore has taken his boat ride to Cuba with 9/11 rescuers who couldn’t get adequate medical care in their own country and find what they need in Cuba, from Sicko, and made that gesture into a film. Did you know Italian workers can get 8 weeks of paid vacation time/year, 5 months of maternity leave, paid, and a 13th month of salary routinely? Did you know that half of the members of corporate Boards of Directors have to come from the workers in Germany? Or that Finland is far ahead of the U.S. in achieving educational goals by spending less time in school, requiring little or no homework, having no standardized testing, and relying on innate curiosity to drive students to learn?

How about Norway’s prisons, even for murderers, where prisoners have apartments with their own keys and freedom of movement as they learn how to become responsible member of society? Or Slovenia’s free university education for anyone, including foreign students? (It’s just one of dozens of countries to do so.) Or the gourmet meals Moore enjoyed in France, 3 or 4 courses, with scallop appetizers and fantastic main courses, followed by cheese and desert, not at a restaurant, but at a middle school? Or the Constitutional right to equity that women enjoy in Tunisia but not in the U.S.?

The list goes on. Moore has gone to numerous countries, not to expose their corruption and failures but what they do right. And they do a lot that we don’t even know about, even though in many cases, the idea first came from here. Penchants for insularity and attitudes of superiority have cost us dearly. Presidential candidates lie about our greatness when most of the industrial world, and beyond, is doing better than we are with such basic issues as health, education and welfare. The film is a genuine eye opener and could easily form the platform base for Hillary or Bernie, if they were brave enough to say we can actually learn from people different from ourselves.

Room is a different kettle of fish. A young woman and her five year old son have been confined to a single room for seven years when the film begins. We learn she’s been abducted and help captive, that her son has no clue what the rest of the world is like. It is, in fact, only the pretend world he sees on TV, and the view from the too high to reach skylight is like the Reality that Plato’s prisoners fail to turn around to see.  But they are not duped by illusions; they are held captive by a pervert.

The film’s power resides in 1) the fact that much of it is told from the pov of the five year old boy who is just beginning to grasp what lies beyond his room, 2) the incredible performance by Brie Larson as the fiercely protective mother of a son whose father is not to be spoken of, trusted, or believed for a moment, and 3) from the totally not fairy tale aftermath to freedom when Joy and Jack, the captives, must contend with friends and family and media that cannot comprehend or accept what these two brave souls have gone through. The film packs a visceral punch far beyond that of most films. It hits at our wounds from childhood and how we are all trapped inside the rooms and stories we are given and create. It forces us to ask how hard are we willing to struggle to escape, what price we are willing to pay, with what risk to body and soul? It’s no wonder Larson is up for an Oscar and very likely to win, but even more, this is a film up for consideration as one of the most painful, probing, disturbing, and emotionally powerful films of recent years.  It operates in a zone far beyond the formulaic dimensions of the otherwise truly best films of the year, Spotlight,  The Big Short and Revenant. And, perhaps because of that, it’s not an Oscar nominee, but it is one  of the most memorable films I’ve seen in quite some time.

The Big Short: Documentary Fiction

The Big Short is as close to a documentary as a mainstream fiction film can be. We know how feature films often borrow documentary devices to add a touch of realism to their appeal. Dr. Strangelove used hand held cameras for the scenes when the military tries to retake the army base that Jack the Ripper has cordoned off so he can protect his precious bodily fluids from Soviet poisoning, for example, but seldom has an entire fiction film relied so heavily on the documentary tradition to tell its story. Not only is The Big Short based on real people and real events, as historical narratives often are, it utilizes the direct to camera voice of authority as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), one of the instigators of the strategy at the heart of the film of betting against the ever-rising price of bundled mortgages, confides to us about what he and others are up to. It utilizes cut aways to real life people who were part and parcel of the debacle from Hank Paulsen, intoning how solid it all is as it begins to crumble, to Lance Armstrong, as a metaphorical example of lying and deception at work in every field of American life. It turns to tongue in cheek “experts” to explain the exotic CDOs and other derivates that fueled the bubble, experts like Anthony Bourdain who compares the bundling of mortgages into various tranches to making a fish stew from left overs.
The film has plenty of laughs, painful though they are, when we see, for example, the burly tattooed husband who hangs on to his rented house in an abandoned Florida development, hoping the landlord will finally pay the mortgage, only to have the two Wall Street investigators, working for the fantastic Steve Carell, jump away from a snapping alligator (metaphor anyone?), and for the tattooed guy to be in the background of a much later shot packing up and moving out, done in by other people’s greed.
Our government, from President Obama on down–and it’s way way down once we get to the financial team that ignored,stone walled,and ultimately bailed out the corrupt bad guys who took as much as they could as dishonestly as they could–never looked so depraved and bereft of either awareness of the consequences of short term actions or of basic decency. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins and it has an amazing corrosive effect on the souls of those who pursue it. The Greed of Wall Street displays epic proportions, with the aid of a financial team in Washington under Bush and Obama, pushing to make banking as much a wild west game show as any other “free and open” market. The men, and they are all men, who stand up against it and bet against it, profiting from the folly no one else could see, are our heroes here. Not particularly ethical or principled heroes but a darn sight more heroic in their determination to call a bubble a bubble than the Big Boy Pied Pipers and the legion of Wall Street lemmings who followed them over the cliff. As Vennett tells us at the end, 100s went to jail, major penalties were imposed–oops, no; just kidding! He had it right. It could all happen again and neither Wall Street or our government seems to give a good gosh darn.

Once There Was Job, Now There Is Jobs

Alex Gibney’s doc on Steve Jobs set a high standard and Danny Boyle’s fictional take, Steve Jobs, is way, way below that mark. The screenplay is idiotic, to use one of the less jargony words in critical parlance: it’s three acts, all the same. 1 and 2 are product launches that fail and 3 is the iMac, Jobs’ first real big success since the Apple II, which he hates, despite the fact that it keeps Apple afloat, apparently because he had little to do with it, not that he has much to do with any other product other than being an abusive perfectionist that everyone tolerates for entirely unclear reasons.
The dialogue is fast, smart and unbelievable. Characters snap at each other as if they just have to wait long enough for the other person to speak before they can race ahead to their next piece of prepared monologue. No one seems to actually listen to anyone. It’s all pre-scripted and scenes are like a run through, which is what the 20 minutues before the launch motif of this baldly 3 act film actually is. Kate Winslett hustles people in and out of Jobs’ Presence, citing how many minutes of the count down to Launch remain, and offering some words of seldom heard wisdom to Jobs. Characters then parade in and have their little confrontations, from a nearly deranged wife and needy daughter whom Jobs treats like dirt he’s never seen before and doesn’t want to see again, to colleagues who all try to get him to see his feet of clay in one way or another, to no avail. Jobs steams ahead on his fully scripted and totally predetermined course. Sorkin could not have written a flatter more annoying character if he were dealing with the Hell’s Angels or ISIS.
Of course there is a hint of redemption at the end: the iMac will be a huge hit, and we all know that success is all that counts. Plus, plus Steve Jobs shows a litttle tenderness to his now teenage daughter, after blowing up that someone else stepped in to pay her tuition to Harvard, as if he never would have failed to do so (despite the fact that he just did exactly that). Many liberties seem to be taken with his personaal life and many dubious parts of his business practices never appear–that’s what’s convenient about the 3 launch structure; Sorkin and Boyle can just throw the same characters in front of him three times and overlook anything they want to overlook. It’s a biopic without the bio; it’s a stage play without the climax; it’s a dog that can go back into the kennel and stay there. Unlike Gibney’s doc and unlike the great granddaddy of the biopic, Citizen Kane, Steve Jobs has no bark, no bite and very little of anything to chew on at all. What price success is as old a question as capitalist greed, if not human nature, but Sorkin and Boyle have nothing new to say, not this time around.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Alex Gibney’s on a tear. He’s one of the few documentary filmmakers who is releasing more films than most folks can keep up with, including Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown; We Steal Secrets, on Julian Assange; Sinatra; Going Clear, on Scientology, and The Armstrong Lie. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which Gibney narrates, seeks to answer a simple question: why was a man who was as much a terror as a genius, as much a heartless cad as a savior, as much a ruthless busnessman as a tech guru mourned by millions who never met him?
The film follows what is a familiar Gibney tack, dating back to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: successful men are given their due but their feet of clay are thoroughly exposed as well. Hubris radiates from their very being, or as Job’s first long term partner and mother of his first child, Lisa, notes, he was one of those rare individuals who achieves enlightment through his ego rather than despite or beyond it. He never exhibited empathy toward others, and even tried, in slanderous fashion, to deny the paternity of his first child, until DNA evidence made his lies impossible to sustain. (There is an echo here of Lance Armstrong’s vehement denials of drug use until the test evidence became too overwhelming to deny but it is just one of many lies Jobs spins in the course of the film.)
But, we say, all is forgiven: Steve Jobs singlehandedly gave us the iPod, iPad and, most radiantly of all, the iPhone! His product announcements were major media events and he was, without doubt, The Man in the machine, expressing the wonder and awe we all feel at the magic that digital technology can work.
So why the vast wave of mourning?
Gibney doesn’t answer the question so much as use it as a pretext to explore Jobs’ contradictions, the thing he also does with Elliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, the Enron guys, scientology and Julian Assange. He is our best documentarian when it comes to setting black and white contradictions side by side so that icons and heroes remain so, but with a new found sense of their flawed, sometimes fatally flawed human nature.
And Jobs? Wasn’t he the charismatic face of an entire industry? Other names, from Melissa Mayer to Bill Gates, make the news but none have the charisma of Jobs, who was not only a highly savy geek (and what he didn’t know Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and early casuality of Jobs’ callous ways, did), he was also a born salesman. He gave gadgets a human face. He made us not just want but need them.
This moves into terrain Gibney fails to explore: fetishism, commodity fetishism, to be exact. We overvalue an object because, as Marx explained and as advertisters have known ever since, we fail to see the real human labor that went into it and behold it, instead, as a magical talisman of great power or beauty that arrives from nowhere, or in the hands of a god as a wonderous offering. The fetish stands apart and possesses an aura we come to worship or at least experience with awe. And when we want to associate this with a human face–there it is: not the buxom model standing next to the latest sports car, but Steve Jobs, the man in the machine.
In that sense, the mourning for Jobs was mourning for a dead god, a figure who did not so much produce the magic as stand as its iconic face. That this face was Janus-like is not surprising. How can a commodity be both a thing of beauty and the result of mass pollution, grossly underpaid and overworked employees in foreign lands, suicides and despair? How can a thing earn our deep admiration and also be the source of egregious profit ($300 per iPhone, eg!) that, following the logic of the market place, is not even taxed because it’s tucked into overseas accounts? How can Jobs be a guru and a genius but also a man who lies, deceives and intimidates to get his way?
Is he not an emblem for the contradictions of capitalism itself, a system that uses the fetish object as a distraction from the wreckage that lies behind the marketplace? And as the only such emblem in the enire IT sector, it is little wonder that his passing was profoundly mourned. We are left with the image of an dark, secretive industry of anonymous but revered drones that Jobs himself helped create in the famous Super Bowl ad of the 1984 world we will never need to experience as long as there is a cute little Apple to overthrow the authoritarian IBM’s of the world. But Jobs’s Apple became IBM and in doing so, demonstrated, when we pull back the veil his company has done so much to maintain, the contradictions of a system he never even attempted to alter even as he added a potent new domain to its rule. In that sense, Jobs was more machine than man, but that is what fetishism urges us not to see.

Letters to Afar: Peter Forgacs’ New Installation

The Opening

To say that this installation, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is amazing is to scratch the surface.

Made up of 13 screens, all large–some on scrims that let the image pass through 3 or 4 layers of cloth before finally fading into nothingness, sone on screens, some on the museum walls, some in horizontal diptyches, some in vertical ones, some with vocal accompaniment, some without–the images are both pedestrian and astounding. Shot by visitors to Poland in the 1920s and 30s, and intended as home movies, they are far from the usual cute pictures only of interest to the family they capture. The visitors are returning. They are Jewish-Polish immigrants who became Jewish-American success stories, men who could afford a camara and even, sometimes, a cameraman. They are returning to their places of origin and the extended families that dot the Polish landscape. From Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw to dozens of shtetls, they shot images of the life and people they have left and need to remember.

Their images create an archive of a lost world, though the archive itself persists at YIVO in New York city. Forgacs went through the vast inventory of home movies and selected about 6 hours of footage to organize into the installation. Most screens or clusters of screens feature footage from a single location: a major city or shtetl. People go about their daily lives; people look at the camera and often pose for it; people live their middle European lives in the period between wars as if it will go on forever. There is immense vitality and joie de vivre in what they do and how they represent themselves. Forgacs has skillfully given us a sense of a culture that possesses enormous strength, diversity, confidence and zest.

How could it disappear? How much diabolical work had to go into making that happen? This installation makes clear that no small effort would suffice. It would have to be a genuine catastrophe, a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Such an event is nowhere to be seen in the installation but it lives in our memories and hearts and when those memories of what will happen next confronts this testament to what went before, the result is dumbfounding. Beauty and joy hover near the wings of a maelstrom that is soon to descend. We can only rejoice at this reclaimed world and mourn its horrific passing.

a Forgacs triptych with 3 viewers

Oscars: Lost, Lost, Lost

What’s become of Oscar? It all began as a way to buy off discontent by handing out awards for good filmmaking, and behavior, in the 1920s when union activism, to some extent Communist led, threatened the autocratic iron hand of the studio bosses. Now it’s little more than smoke and mirrors, a parody of its own co-optive origins. The super-baroque set this year set a new low in garish overkill, with enough Oscar statuettes, most of them Robocop size, to suggest a deep rooted sense of panic and insecurity about the significance of this unsexed little sourvenir and all the fuss over it.
The Academy hived many technical awards off to a separate event some time ago and needs to do the same with most of the below the line awards for costume design, sound editing, and so on. Over an hour went to awards that no one remembers and few care about, despite their genuine value to film production.
The songs, designed to support dramatic films, are usually too insipid to stand on their own and to convert them into cornerstones of kitschy spectacle becomes a pathetic case of desperation. The glitzed p production numbers can’t compare to MTV videos or even to the Super Bowl at half time; they’re knock offs, highlighting songs meant to lend emotional support to a film, not steal the show. Would anyone deeply miss them? Why not have musicians who performed in nominated films do a different number, one where they can show their stuff, and Please, Please, no more Sound of Music-like resurrections of the long dead!
How about a host who’s just an MC rather than a more often than not failed prime mover whose jokes are pathetic, if not distasteful, and whose sense of genuine respect and appreciation for the achievements of others seldom on display? How about Colbert or Daily Show-like sketches that poke some real fun at all this pretense? How about some behind the scenes, candid footage of the actors, actresses and directors who are the heart and soul of the awards rather than clip after clip of films many viewers have aready seen? Where does Clint go to workout? Does he have a spotter for bench presses and what flavor smoothy does he drink after? How does Julianne Moore interact with her kids? Does she drive them to school? What do they talk about? What’s J.K. Simmons like when he’s listening to music or heaading to the beach? What does Inarritu think of Kim Kardashian or Tatum Channing? How did Steve Carrell transform himself into “coach” or “Eagle” for his role in Foxcatcher? What did he do after wrapping for a day? Would’nt little clips like those give us something a lot more fun to see than clips from movies that are no better than the trailers we’ve seen a dozen times before?
And there’s always the fasion show side to it, something in the midst of sliding from runway try outs to Why are you staring at me? I’m an actress not a pin up type resistance to the very thing wearing these extraordinary gowns invites? Let’s see the women really go to town on the feeding frenzy voyeurism and turn up in jeans, designer jeans of course, accessorized by Jean Paul Gaultier in his max leather mode. And tell it like it is: You may think I am trying to draw attention to myself and my fabulous looks but I’m really here as an artist to celebrate great achievements in motion picture making, just like everyone else, so let’s go on with humdrum lives and hand out some Oscars.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour has gotten rid of the kitschy quality of her earlier music video “Tehrangeles,” and shifted into the somewhat but not entirely campy universe of Jodorovsky, Lynch, Waters and other great explorers of the highly unlikely, extremely unnatural and totally engaging. Bad City, where “a girl” prowls the ink blot streets at night, deciding fates and seeking something she seems unable to name, stands for Tehran and Los Angeles both, it seems, and serves them equally well. No higher authorities, no police, no social justice intrudes on this world of petty crime, addiction, longing and loneliness. No social order of any distinction prevails. The handful of souls not yet consigned to the true underworld pass their days in desperate and predatory relationships that circle around overlapping needs they can act out but not identify. A desolate gully lies strewn with bodies, detritus from our vampire’s forays it would appear, though no one notices and no one cares about these festering souls at all.
Arash attends his needy, whining, drug addled dad, bails him out of money problems but creates his own, only to have the girl resolve them for him, with a bite from the apple, drug dealer Saeed’s adam’s apple, that is. Their paths run parallel for quite a while as she acts like a campier version of the Man with No Nmae or the Pale Rider, meting out an imperfect justice and longing for something never artciulated that becomes embodied in that moment when she and Arash finally encounter each other. An exquisite scene of the two of them, in one long take, holding, hugging, gazing and loving in her apartment as a pop song plays on her turn table (is it a relic or are we in the 1950s?: Arash’s classic and beloved Ford convertible reinforces the puzzle without resolving it). The girl is clearly a doppleganger in some sense, the darkness within one might say, melodramatically, and that sense gains vivid visualization in her mimicking the walk and gestures of those she encounters on the street. It deepens when she and Arash, dressed up as Dracula for a party, first meet, and crystalizes when he realizes, seeing the cat he captured and cared for now in her apartment after the violent death by teeth bite of his father, that she has done what half of him wished for: freedom from the father who no longer is one.
Amirpour clearly has seen a lot of films and is deeply immersed in popular culture; the mix provides the thrill of it all for some yet can also distract others from the tautness of the narrative obsessions and the elegance of their visual expression. What arrives next from Ms. Amirpour can’t be predicted though I strongly suspect it will be more surprise than repetition.