Thursday, July 29, 2010

Non-lollipop Docs.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. (2010) Jessica Oreck

The first great art-film of the year comes disguised as a documentary. Japan's insect-reverent culture is the topic at hand.
I told a friend I was going to see a film about the Japanese and their love of bugs, and he said, "Oh."

I am telling you, this is a killer documentary. I believe the word I used right after the screening was, "Sensuous."

Completely uninhibited and willing to take risks, by all practical accounts the film shouldn't work. The fact that it does is a testament to the filmmakers' obvious love of the form and a willingness in general to be completely sold out to the topic. We not only get to study the fascinating bugs of Japan, which are larger and more beautiful than any bug I've ever seen, but we study the people, too, and their fascination with the little critters. They marvel at these insects for their vitality, for the sounds they make, and for the way they teach in nature.

The fascination is rooted in the 6th century in early Shinto and now Buddhist philosophy. These beautiful beetles, fireflies and crickets are a part of animist nature. According to Japanese beliefs, where the natural and the spiritual are more closely related, the universe is alive and breathing, and willing to teach -- as long as we're willing to listen. They give us insight even into ourselves.

A soft-sounding feminine narrator explains how the firefly is the signature of burning love; how the dragonfly is a symbol of warrior power; how the sound of crickets is the song of night life; how a rhinoceros beetle resembles lightning from the horns on his head, he's a guardian of power or prestige.

But if it's about honor for the insects, it's also about honor for the creation of film. The whole movie is like a love story created for the eyes -- my heart was pounding with every frame. There are images here that are soaked in miniscule beauty -- like haiku, the small poetry that was invented for the insect microverse. But then we're taken out of the insect world on a journey that shows the Tokyo crowds, Japanese children at play, the history and tradition of the religion, and the ebb and flow of their cities -- the pulse and grind of daily life. We see what the people in the streets of Tokyo might look like from a dragonfly's point of view, and then we're back on a leaf, or in a spotlight, or in a pet Beetle's cage, back with that wonderful feminine voice that narrates more philosophical musings.

It is a poetic film that keeps our eyes fixed on the screen in excitement over nature. I almost lept to my feet in applause several times only a few minutes in.

80s retro synth-pop pokes in at various points, the electro-bop heightening the fun of the experience. It drifts between this and Thom Yorke-type electronica. The two styles blend in and out of each other, giving breaks between narration which make you light up like a firefly at the wondrous sound and imagery.

Restrepo. (2010)  Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

Restrepo, named for a fallen comrade, follows a year in the life of US soldiers in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. The Korengal Valley has actually been called one of the deadliest places in the world; Vanity Fair contributing editor Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington spent a year there being shot at and tracking soldiers, trying to understand this war. The intense footage of our men in the region, of which photos are posted here, is more damning than even the 91,000 documents leaked about the war this week. Visuals in general are more gripping and harder to push away than the printed words in classified papers.

This 2010 Sundance Documentary Winner reports in 93 minutes why the cries "unwinnable" indeed have merit. We see decent, good, scared young men, bleeding and fighting for what their country has told them is right. The country has since abandoned the region, pulling out after scrambling men there for years and leaving assorted dead Americans in its wake. We might at some point be inclined to ask, "What for?"

The valley is a symbol for a war that cannot be won. A war that only makes matters worse for future generations. The doc is a testament to the power of truth in image. I only hope that more people choose to see it, and that it burns in them what it cemented in me.

My friend Darrel took part in a roundtable discussion with the directors. There is excellent info there on the valley, the war and the film. Check out the film and interview, and protest in whatever way you can.

The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Equal parts historical documentary, love story, government conspiracy thriller, and biography -- with keen, compelling insight for a locked-in president with a stronghold on a going-nowhere war -- the Oscar nominated doc reveals an American hero who practically leaked an administration out of office and took the Viet Nam conflict by the balls. It makes you more excited than ever for places like Wikileaks.

Dan Ellsberg was an MIT professor with a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, also ex-military, working the "inside" during the early days of Viet Nam reporting directly to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The reports he made, combined with a split from his anti-war wife Patricia, brought great disillusionment to Ellsberg, who eventually photo-copied the 7,000 page report titled, "United States-Viet Nam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense," later known as the "Pentagon Papers," which were leaked to the New York Times and almost twenty other papers, damning four administrations leading up to Nixon and promting the president himself to job out "plumbers," the thieves responsible for Watergate and breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.

Ellsberg and his wife were (and are) incredibly media-saavy. Their interviews now are as rewarding as their courage on news shows from the early seventies. The couple form the two sides of the story; though they're interviewed separately and they tell it their own way, the story is unified when relayed and edited together.

The Nixon tapes are heavily incorporated in the story as well, showing a war-mongering man who brought us within a finger's touch of nuclear annihaltion. This was a scary, scary man in scary, scary times. He sounds as horrible as any criminal dictator you've ever read about in a trial. He sounds evil, and narcissistic, too -- a combination that can blow up a planet.

The doc is highly recommended for those of us old enough to remember events surrounding Nixon from when we were children, but young enough to not be aware of the details -- probably most of us under 40.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon. (2006)  David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

Functioning as the perfect second film in double-feature with The Most Dangerous Man in America, the doc zeroes in on the
rocker-cum-protester, who was also considered dangerous by the Nixon administration. He was even put on trial with young wife Ono in an effort to be deported for treason.

I've never really been all that much of a Beatles fan (I thought if you're a Doors fan you're not supposed to be), but the doc made me see John Lennon as more than a hippie, more than a talented musician, even more than an artist -- he was also an outspoken political activist and a defender of human rights. And he used his talents to showcase his thoughts. In particular, some of the performance art with Ono was simply genius. He knew he would get noticed, he knew something had to be said, he did it and went to trial because of it.

It's an inspirational film that makes you want to stand up for what's right -- and listen to more of Lennon's music in the process.

The Atom Smashers. (2009)  Clayton Brown and Monica Ross

The mystery behind the veil plays out in The Atom Smashers, which never received theatrical release. One of the better aspects of modern viewing is that good material will find its way to DVD whether created for theatrical run or released via television. This little doc, a PBS special, is available either through iTunes or Netflix, and it is well worth a look.

I have to admit I have a vested interest -- I grew up less than twenty miles from Fermilab, the mysterious atom smashing facility that it covers. People in the western suburbs of Chicago tend to think of this place as a little creepy. I've heard there have even been protests from those who think Fermilab is going to blow up the world (probably aging hippies who have run out of drugs).

I've been there once. I have a friend who works there in IT. I've asked him about the doc, but he didn't have much to say. He works there every day, perhaps it's too much to see the film as well.

Particle physicists at Fermilab operate and observe the collision of particles in a four mile-long particle accelerator (a very, very large and expensive microscope) called the Tevatron. The doc pits them racing against the LHC, a 15 mile-long accelerator being built in Switzerland, for the discovery of the theorized Higgs boson -- a particle which would actually explain matter. So we are looking at the microverse to figure out the universe, a similar idea to Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. But of course in that film we are dealing more in the realm of philosophy and man-and-insect relations. Here we are dealing with cold, hard facts. The scientific standard is empirical evidence.

But the goal in approach is somewhat the same. Here, it's a search in math analysis to understand the natural world. It's a fascinating concept which brings life to regular science, and the scientists are nearly religious in their passionate search to prove the theory.

It is an important documentary for its reminder of America's original strength found in scientific research, and how research is now politicized, cut back and underfunded (so we can continue an unjustified war). The U.S. was a world leader from the sputnik-era on, advancing science from the microscope to the military, from the bottom of the ocean to NASA. The idea of science still making an important contribution, a difference in the world, is now eroding in the face of recession and the fiscal budget.

But when politics funds your experiment, you've got to nod and hope for the funds to keep flowing. At the end of The Atom Smashers, the Higgs boson still hasn't been found. And Switzerland is now fully functional and in the race to be the first to find it. The funding goes up and down, back and forth. It gets taken away and handed back again. The politicians can't decide whether this is still important after twenty years of research.

You may not have thought of science as being "fun" in a while. The Atom Smashers takes a look at the daily lives of ordinary scientists, and for all their intelligence and over-scrutinized theories, there's a passion for their work that's great to watch. Definitely worth a look.

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