IDFA 2014

IDFA is the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam that is probably the biggest and most important doc fest of the year with over 300 films, a market of films for sale, web based docs on view and many side events.
This year was distinguised by a number of very intense, powerful films involving war and trauma from Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, about an eye doctor who confronts former death squad leaders and their families at no small amount of rish to himself, Drone, on the US drone war and a “pilot” who discusses it and the trauma he’s suffered, and Of Men and War, an amazingly personal story of Iraqi vets working out their trauma in a unique program based in Napa Valley. Their tales of horrific events they witnessed or perpetrated is about as harrowing as anything imaginable and their guilt, shame, anger and profound desire to heal is breathtakingly intense. It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen; I had a chance to do a Q&A with the director after the screening and he spoke movingly of the relationships he built with the men and of their struggles to regain their souls and honor their families. He made a previous film, De Guerre Lasses (Living Afterwords: Words of Women) about women and war in Bosnia, and this one looks at men as casualties of war. No U.S. distribution yet but watch for it. It won the Festival Award for Best Feature Length Documentary and will no doubt win more awards in the days ahead.


The Film Manifesto

I’ve written a little introduction to the film manifesto as a form that’s been with us from the days of early cinema. Individuals and groups, from the Lars van Trier to the Pope have taken the manifesto road, more or less, to champion their vision for the cinema.

This is the link to the brief introduction and that should also take you to a set of actual manifestos that are drawn from a new book that is an amazing compendium of manifestos from different times, countries, people and sexual/political orientations.

This is an onliine version of material that will also appear, in part, in the next issue of Film Quarterly. It helps inaugurate Film Quarterly’s entry into cyberspace.

Boyhood: Too Good to be True?

A few years ago, when Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, came out, it got rave reviews and I thought, “If everyone loves it, it is either far too middle of the road or far too heavily marketed.” I was wrong. It’s an amazing novel and that’s a separate post, but I learned my lesson: sometimes the vast majority of critics can be right about the same thing and Boyhood is another example.
The film amazes. I kept saying, wow, they’ve done a great job with make up and special effects, only to pinch myself and say, No, those changes are real. Does it matter? –About as much as the difference between documentary and fiction matters, which is probably less than we often think but enough to be important. Every fiction is a doc to some degree. It captures parts of the world and the life of actors at a given moment. Here the doc degree is quite great. But the maturation or aging isn’t the primary point: it’s how the characters all evolve over time and do so in something closer to real time than we have ever seen in a fiction before. We can each assess each character’s evolution, and I just want to note that Patricia Arquette’s may be the most challenging to assess. She doesn’t get the big moments with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) like Ethan Hawke, his largely absent dad does. Hawke opines about everything to this young boy becoming man, but Arquette keeps the family unit intact and above water, at the considerable expense of frequent moves, prioritizing her effort to become a professor, and surviving some very abusive men. Why is she not a fount of wisdom, however well-intentioned and misguided or self-serving (as Hawke’s often is)? Why is she the suffering, self-sacrificing but also self-advancing mom who doesn’t bond very well with her kids, and even less with her daughter than her son? Linklatter’s Delpy character in his paris trilogy always struck me as a bit strained and I feel a similar lack of deep connection here.
That said, this is a spectacular film. “Problems” with women characters–giving them the density and complexity of their male counterparts–is hardly unique to Linklatter and he does, to his great credit, not make Arquette one-dimensional by any means. It’s just the complexity to Hawke’s errant dad is more overt and engaging, and seems to be where Linklatter’s instinctive energy is most fully realized.
I suspect this will be a film we’ll a lot more about at Oscar time.

Life itself and Roger Ebert

Life Itself hits you hard. Although it has elements of a biography and covers Roger’s overall (and quite impressive) career that led him from being an extremely talented newspaper guy even before he got to college, the gut-wrenching part is his battle with cancer. We first see him in the hospital where his near perpetual smile seems utterly at odds with the devastation wrought by cancer. Without a jaw or a voice, Roger carries on, blogging, smiling, joking and being cared for by his wife, Chaz, a pillar of compassion.
Steve James, who made the film with Roger’s considerable cooperation, was a director of Hoop Dreams, one of the great longitudinal films about youth coming of age, centering on two aspiring high schoolers with dreams of professional basketball careers. Their dreams didn’t quite work out but they grew and matured all the same. Roger’s dream did come true. He became the outstanding journalist he always dreamed of becoming, as a film critic it turns out, when his early bent seemed in politics and sports. But he was an adept writer, graceful, to the point, and never demeaning to films or their makers. The latter is a rare quality. Some critics, like, to name one, Anthony Lane, at The New Yorker, seem to pride themselves on acting superior to the films they have to review, judging by the frequency with which they display their wit at the expense of the films they discuss. Roger did not like all films by any stretch–a touching moment is to hear his give a thumbs down to The Color of Money after becoming a good friend of Martin Scorsese, but not with cheap jabs at Scorsese or the film–but when he disliked a film he remained as passionately detached from personal attack or snide wisecracks as he was committed to the films he loved.
His spirit was generous. I knew him more from his TV show with Gene Siskel and thought the thing a bit lightweight. It wasn’t until later that I became better familiar with his written reviews and his considerable gift for getting to the essence of a given film, for better or worse.
Life Itself reminds us of what a career well made means to those who share it, of what a marriage relationship and family life can be at their best, and of what a life well lived feels like to those who can now, thanks to this film, behold it. Roger didn’t just exemplify the best of movie criticism, he exemplified what it’s like to live, and die, with grace and dignity.

Outback Noir: Australian Darkness in the Noon Day Sun

No doubt other, similar films exist but three Australian films set in the outback and made over the span of a decade suggest a persistent obsession with the darkness of the landscape, the nation (and its origins), and the pathologies that lurk in the hearts of men. We find little of the romanticism that masks the dark deeds behind the “winning” of the west in the United States. Instead, The Proposition, Swerve, and The Rover paint a picture of a harsh, unforgiving, uninviting, barren and even vile world that brings out the worst in those who wander through it. Settled life scarcely exists and when it does it is extremely precarious, most poignantly in the white picket fenced off house of Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his wife Martha (Emily Watson). The fence is purely symbolic and its violators pay it no heed.

We find few women as well. The femme fatale seems superfluous to the deranged damage men can inflict on each other and themselves. That there is such a character in Swerve is mainly a sign of the film’s loss of nerve: it falters and swings toward the American model, Red Rock West in particular as others have noted, when the male hearts of darkness are more than enough to prople the story forward (as they do brilliantly in the opening sequence).

The Proposition and The Rover are the stronger films of the three. Each pursues its premise with relentless energy and each, it turns out, features a superb performance by Guy Pearce. Hard, determined and utterly obsessed in The Rover, Pearce brings a demonic energy to these films that is lacking in the slightly softer personalities of Swerve.

All three suggest that the Mad Max, Road Warrior world of one generation has not exhausted efforts to fathom what kind of men inhabit the outback and how they can be tied to Australia’s origins as a penal colony and colonial like expansion at the expense of the Aboriginal population. That population is marginally present in The Propostion particularly as a base note of foreboding retrospectively cast back upon the past. It is a reminder of deeds done and their repercussions into a subsequently darker, bleaker present.

22 Jump Street Falls Flat

Praise piles up. That this film mocks its own silliness, refers to its generic conventions endlessly, has characters who act as if they’re in a sequel to a film they’ve already been in, has no one to really root for and no thematic density has become the ultimate compliment it seems. Critics seem to love a film that mocks its own limitations, deflates any high-minded expectations, and effortlessly does their job for them: a pan becomes a kudo and everyone’s happy.
22 does it all: which means it does nothing but does it with aplomb, irony and humor. And Jonah Hill gives some depth, or at least a superficial patina to his character while Channing Tatum struggles to fall into character, sputters through the comedy, comes alive when he has to dance spontaneously and, with his budding buddy romance with the jock star of the college football, injects a hip note of fluid sexuality into it all. Why praise this meatball mashup of lame jokes and plotless meanderings? It’s the New Paradigm, perhaps inspired by video games and text messaging, that eschews complexity, character development, narrative tautness, suspense, and thematic thoughtfulness. Things just pile up and we’re asked to be happy with the tottering heap of stuff that makes the pile. And this is all a Good Thing, at least if a number of critics, plus a very healthy box office, are the judge. Maybe in times of environmental decay, endless war, great wealth and plenty–but only for 1 or 2%, and rabid, hateful, fear-mongering politics as the new normal, this is the best escape Hollywood can offer and gratitude abounds.
I’ll just cast a negative vote into the pool and see if it floats. If there were some rich wit to it all, some dimensionality to characters, some density to the plot, and some reward for devoting two hours to this little heap of cliches, I’d lean a bit more toward praise, but for now, I’ll just point the thumb down and await further enlightenment for the devotees.

The Q&A and Two New Films

Q&As are a film festival staple. For good reason. They convert a run of the mill screening into an event, something special and often festive. But do they tell us anything we wouldn’t be able to get from the film? The safe answer is It depends, but it’s more interesting to look at a couple of recent examples from the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

    Child of God

is a feature directed by the ubiquitous James Franco from Cormac McCarthy’s distrubing book about a loner wild man in Tennessee who winds up cultivating a necrophiliac habit and a pile of bodies. The novel’s strength is in McCarthy’s amazing writing style. He is one of the great stylists of our time and, though this isn’t his best work, it is captivating for how he tells the morbid tale.
The film is another matter. Franco has a rather pedestrian but pretentious approach that never does find a visual equivalent for the writing style. It’s a good film but far from a great one.
We could get all this from the film itself. At the Q&A Franco was absent, itself perhaps a message about his over-extended attempt to do too many things too fast. But Scott Haze, the lead actor, who plays Lester Ballard, who, we might wonder, is or isn’t a child of god despite all his depravity, was. (IMDB, the website repository of film facts, tucks his acting credit under Franco’s and two others, perhaps based on pre-release information. Seeing him out of character was itself a relief since he inhabits the psyche of Ballard with haunting power. What he revealed, in addition to the many layers and months of preparation that he did, essentially on his own, was that Franco tends to a one take style, seldom repeating scenes, a trait that works to capture the emotional power of an actor like Hayes, but that also sacrifices some of the nuance and complexity that can come from revision, especially in terms of composition, mise en scene, lighting and so forth. An abundance of close ups of Hayes tends to erase some of the problem since Hayes is mesmerizing as Lester but a stream of close ups do not a great cinematic style make.
The other example was even more revealing.

    Stop the Pounding Heart

was a documentary by Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini that focused on two south Texas families, one given to bull riding and the other to goat farming. Sara Carlson, the teen age daughter of the goat farmers, spends her days working on the farm and sometimes visiting Colby, the son of the bull riding family. Hints of potential romance hover in the air but seem very unlikely. (And aren’t realized.) From the film it would be easy to characterize the Carlsons as a family with a largely absent father (he’s seldom seen) who, when present, presides over literal-minded readings of the Bible, scolds Sara for not setting fence posts as well as he can, and supervises rifle practices, including Sara’s use of a semi-automatic rifle; a fundamentalist mother who gives compelling lectures to her kids about women’s place supporting her man and the courage it takes to make oneself subordinate; and a bevy of some dozen children most of whom get little screen time lest the film become a TV series. The sight of one boy riding his bike with a Confederate flag and of a burning cross somewhere in the Texas night adds the suggestion that the family is not just of a rural, funadmentalist stripe but racist to boot.
Then we met the family. (This filmmaker was also absent.) It became quickly clear that they were the redneck, Bible thumping stereotypes the film almost makes them to be. In fairness, the film has a deliberate, ethnographic quality to it and does not sensationalize what it observes patiently. Sara, who at one point says she does not want to get married and would just “take pictures of her sisters’ fat little babies,” tells us that she was repeating feelings she had had 4 yers before the filming happened. She had moved on. The mother and father made it clear they were university graduates, with a lot more perspective and savy than what we see in the film, that they consciously chose farm life and making artisanal cheeses over the urban scramble, that they home schooled the kids not to indoctrinate them (though that does seem a byproduct at least) but to enrich, teaching the, for example, Latin. They lives between two major cities, close to suburbs, go to farmer’s markets weekly and are not the isolated hillbillies the film might have us believe.
The Q&As, in other words, were revelatory. The trust the x family had in the filmmaker seemed a bit more misplaced and their lives quite a bit more complex after the Q&A than before. Franco’s future as a director seemed a bit less certain after than before. Audience questions helped make these insights possible, more than opening questions by festival programmers, in fact. They were good examples of what some serious questions and honest answers can teach us about the films we see.

Documentary Nomads

A fascinating program for documentary filmmakers has emerged in Europe. Called DocNomads it involves stays in three cities over the course of a year: Lisbon, Budapest and Brussels. Students work with resident instructors and master class guests in each location and make films in each city, and sometimes in the countryside as well. The students come from all over Europe and beyond. In Budapest Tamas Almasi heads the program and I recently visited there to offer a week long master class on selected issues and concepts in documentary. I had students from Ecuador, Belarus, Serbia, England, France, Italy, Russia, Hungary, the United States, and ten other countries, if not more. They come with filmmaking skills and an undergrad degree behind them and are ready for the new challenges the course offers. Language is one of them. The course is offered in English but in every location most of the students do not speak the local language. This makes their production work challenging but far from impossible. They are a resourceful, inventive group, among the best I’ve worked with, and the program is a brillaint model for how to think outside the somewhat zenophilic boundaries of much documentary production.

It’s a program that deserves emulation.

True Detective

Along with Breaking Bad, True Detective is definitely one of the many impressive series gracing our soon to be defunct TVs (in terms of TV as a medium for banality and the ads that accompany it, and as a stand alone device).
Emily Nussbaum, a very solid TV reviewer at The New Yorker, panned it. I like her reviews and often find them a good guide to viewing, which could be either in the sense of if she likes it, I won’t, or vice versa, but not in this case.
Nussbaum finds if cliche ridden, especially in the cops as buddies, the women as eye candy, and the plot as predictable. Has she seen buddy movies that go all the way back to the 1920s, women as eye candy that go just as far back, or plots more subtly woven around slippages in time? (Emily definitely needs to see more movies.) She’s wrong on every count.
Nussbaum posits the British 5 part series, The Fall, as superior. Wrong again. The Fall opens with standard issue, cliche-ridden T&A shots of the star, Gillian Anderson, who can certainly reward such shots with visual pleasure, if that’s your sort of thing, but they are far more gratuitous than the early shots of a nude female victim of a demented killer that propels the two cops into a spiral of obsessions. The Fall follows that up with an underage baby sitter who goes through the Lolita thing without any nuance at all, and a high class brothel where the nude sex worker, who happens to be taking a shower in the other room but in plain view of the fortuitously placed camera, is there for no narrative purpose whatsoever but has a great body. The women in the bar where our two cops take shelter also has its array of attractive women but we do well to keep in mind that almost everything we see is told through flashbacks from these men’s points of view. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder would be an adage Nussbaum could have taken more to heart. Their pov is decidedly troubled, carefuly crafted (when they’re interogated by two cops some 17 years after the initial incident) and sometimes downright false.
These guys are just a bit unresolved when it comes to women. Far more than Gillian Anderson’s detective who’s got sex down cold. Ice cold. “Sweet nights” to her mean a one night stand that she initiates and terminates. This becomes an ideal because now, Man fucks woman, becomes Woman Fucks Man, and that, to her, is the feminist statement par excellence. Bravo, but it is but one way in which she, unlike Marty (woody Harrelson) or Rust (Mathew McConaughey) is a very off-putting, cold, one-dimensional character. That the editing creates numerous parallels between her and the psychotic serial killer is clearly no accident but it is not terribly insightful either and only posits a highly repressed but occasionally sex-hungry detective is not that different froma vicious, sadistic, psychotic killer. Support your local police just got another strike against it, but if there are any detectives just like Ms. Anderson’s character, I hope they will stand up.
Nussbaum also thinks The Fall is ahead of the game because we meet the killer early on and see much of his handiwork firsthand. This adds complexity. Wrong. Emily, please see Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer for complexity, or, for that matter, Psycho. What The Fall fails to deliver is any plausibilty to this nut job. He’s a grief counsellor (!), and has a happy (sort of) family, with two kids, but holds down as his night job, serial killing. Right. With no effort through the first half of the series to reconcile these insanely incongruous types, the killer becomes something of a pathetic joke, hard to believe in and impossible to identify with in any sense, unlike the socially inept Henry or the earnest and protective Norman. He just seems a mishmash of traits heaped together to get us to scratch our heads. And like Anderson’s detective, he seems almost incapable of talk that involves more than one subject and verb, preferably monosyllables, in any given utterance. If there’s a there there in either of them, the show does a great job of hiding it.
I digress. Nussbaum makes passing reference to visual style and acting but gthese qualities is the heart and soul of True Detective. McConaughey won an Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club and his portrayal here of a loner copy with a traumatic past is hardly inferior to his rodeo star cum AIDS victim portrayal. He mutters a lot of philosophical musings that Nussbaum, predictably dismisses. (When was the last time a mainstream critic took philosophic musings by a character in a film, let alone a TV series, seriously? They seem to get a mandatory innoculation against doing so prior to writing their first word.) But Rust’s musings are part and parcel of his character as a near celebate, ascetic, contemplative man who has lost his way and clings to the resolution of this series of horrific murders as his path to redemption. The musings make great sense and deserve serious attention but Nussbaum likes how Marty rolls his eyes at them in the early episodes and frets when he, and the show, seem to take Rust and his high-order thoughts more seriously. This means she, like Marty in the early going, fails to try to understand Rust and what troubles him and how these thoughts might be a defensive, and quite intelligible camouflage for the pain he holds within.
Nussbaum also thinks the Louisiana setting is a bit tired and cliched, but I respectfully disagree. Like Breaking Bad and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, which she and I both admire greatly (whew!), the show gives Louisiana a distinctive stamp. The aerial shots of the bayous and decrepit ruins of this countryside speak volumes to the kind of world that could harbor, for decades, a serial killer or killers in its midst. Like the opening sequence, seen in each episode, and disliked by Nussbaum, there is a density and fascination to the images that goes well beyond the usual location shot. And T. Bone Burnett’s haunting, mersmerizing music makes the opening sequence far more significant than the heroic cops and exposed female bottom that Nussbaum managed to see, to the exclusion of everything else.
True Detective deserves a place in the pantheon of great new TV series. It should stand the test of time far better than The Fall and far far better than msot of the “entertainment” that fills the dial, even as we speak, and this new marvel of TV innovation takes place before us.

The Oscar Boys of 2013

Cate Blanchett is a strong choice for Best Actress, but the Best Actor category is full of strong contenders who all deserve to win. But one stands out.
Bruce Dern: very solid as the cranky old man in Nebraska. He captures the idiosyncracies of someone who never was the brightest light in the room or the life of the party but still commands the love of his son and a mix of emotions from others. His quirkiness and selective memory keeps the picture from going off the rails into the nostalgic or maudlin but the picture leans heavily that way. Not one of Payne’s best efforts. The ironies are far less rich than in Election, Citizen Ruth or Sideways. Dern deserves praise but probably not an Oscar.
Christian Bale: a terrific job as the off-balance scamster in American Hustler. As we might expect, it’s hard to know when he’s scamming himself as well as others and his shrewd playing of others against each other is brilliant. Still, it’s probably not quite as brilliant as the actor I’m leaning toward.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: great role, great performance in a fine, wrenching film. Ejiofor does not play the over the top Avenger or the simmering-inside Rebel, but a dignified man who finds himself in a world where dignity is denied, relentlessly. His expressions of suppressed astonishment and frustrated yearnings makes the movie a true stand out. Would that it were on the global sex traffic in women, teens mainly, that is with us now, but long ago is a bit safer and more nobel as a statement about injustice and abuse. That slight edge of safety may be enough to tilt the Oscar into other hands.
Leonardo diCaprio: here we go again. Marty Scorsese on a delerious whirlwind tour of male misogyny, depravity and greed. DiCaprio captures it brilliantly but he also lights up, like a giant billboard, the repetitious nature of Scorsese’s obsessions. Goodfellas and Casino covered this perfectly and now we have a selfish, heedless huckster who takes Wall Street by storm, makes his millions and learns nothing. A film more about addiction than greed, though that is clearly one addiction, DiCaprio is caught in a paint by numnbers tale that demands little growth or change in his character. In fact, he seems like an addict who never hits bottom and that one-note quality will probably be enough to send the Oscar elsewhere.
Matthew McConaughey: An amazing job as the womnanizing, drug-addled rodeo hanger-on who sees the light and becomes a beacon for HIV infected others, like himself. Like Bale, McConaughey sacrifices his body for the role, losing a huge amount of weight but, more than Bale, pulls out all the stops on a ride to heaven, and hell. His range is breath-taking and we are not hampered by the need to scam the viewer as well as other characters that leaves key parts of the Bale character shrouded in mystery. Like Jared Leto, my choice for Best Supporting Actor, McConaughey takes huge risks and they all pay off. He demonstrates what great acting in a powerful film is all about.
He’s my choice for Oscar, but not necessarily the Academy’s. On that: Ejiofor is strong choice for liberal sentiment, DeCaprio for career sentiment, Dern for hanging in there sentiment, and Bale, for playing the guy everyone in Hollywood’s seen over and over–the scam artist. McConaughey is then a bit of long shot for sheer brilliance in acting. My guess is the Academy will go for Ejiofor and it’s clear all five of these guys deserve it. How about an arm or a leg each?
Final Note: Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey show what great actors can do in terms of adapting themselves to challenging roles. They have become what many thought, including me, Johnny Depp would become: an actor of amazing range and depth willing to do whatever it takes to bring a role alive. Depp has drifted into playing parodies of that idea but Bale and McConaughey show us what risk and reward are all about and on a grand scale. This point is not uniquely mine: the Huff Post had an article contrasting Depp’s descent with McConaughey’s rise on 1/3/14 but I just found it today. That, though, makes two of us wishing McConaughey further success and hoping Depp can pull himself out of the dreck.