Sunday, May 30, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop. (2010) Banksy

It's hard to believe this entire production isn't a huge elaborate prank. In mentioning this to a friend I've been told there are critics referring to the film as a "prankumentary." I love how these descriptions creep out of nowhere and suddenly shove themselves into public consciousness.

Having personally followed Banksy for a few years, my walls automatically go up when considering authenticity in his daring stunts. It's not that I don't enjoy him, or the many stunts he's pulled off over the years -- I downright love the mysterious Brit, and think his stunts are off-the-charts ingenious. I love him like I love Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. I guess I love performance art and eccentric activism in general. These kinds of artists are so outlandish in their work that it inspires laughter at the absurdity of their schtick.

I spent a lot of time laughing during my screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop. It is truly a remarkable, laughable, mysterious, and completely absurd film. But when it's laid on as thick as it is here, you've got to wonder whether you're dealing with the real deal, or a street artist's version of Spinal Tap.

You walk into the film thinking it's going to be all about Banksy. And depending on how you want to interpret it, it could be that, I guess. But the story itself tries to convince us it's actually about Thierry Guetta, AKA "Mr. Brainwash" (MBW) -- a name itself which still sounds quite like a Banksy invention, considering the 500 copies of Paris Hilton's CD he repackaged and snuck into record stores around England.

Banksy, if anything, has always been a challenge and confrontation to a good brainwashing.

Guetta, a somewhat well-off clothing store owner, one day stumbled upon a video camera and instantly became hooked. The camera never left his hands -- he was addicted to taping everything he saw. He never looked at the results of his videography, he was only compelled to tape. He taped everything within reach of his camera's gaze: family, friends, clients, himself, until --

Somehow Guetta stumbled upon the mystery of street art, these vandalizers who go out at night and create works that are something greater than your ordinary run-of-the-mill vandalism. Over time he got to know a few of these art obsessed folk and obtained permission to tape them in their work. Artists like Shepard Fairey and Space Invader were some of the first he followed around, continually taping their spray paint or stencil art on L.A. buildings and trains. He also learned how to watch out for the cops. He travelled wherever he could to catch them in action. But the one person he couldn't meet -- that one artist who proved so mysterious and elusive -- was the one artist he really wanted to get to know. Eventually they met.

Guetta traveled the globe taping Banky's exploits. They went to the Gaza strip together and decorated the dividing wall. They went to Disneyland, where Guetta was the only one caught and was interrogated for hours by the Mickey patrol. He taped the L.A. exhibition in which Brad Pitt and countless stars showed up to finally get a glimpse of Banksy's "serious" work on display, and a giant pink elephant in the room. Guetta began to get so much footage of Banksy and others like him, it was suggested he edit together his tapes for a real film. "Editing" was a foreign word in the Guetta video vocabulary.

That the film Guetta put together was horrible is really not much of a surprise. It gave Banksy a reason to step in and use the footage to create a video work of his own, and what happens from this point is very much like Lars von Trier's pushing of Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions. A drama asserts itself and the film becomes less about the art, or the "obstruction," and more about the man behind it -- in this case, Thierry Guetta. (Whereas in The Five Obstructions the film becomes high praise and admiration for Leth, here Guetta becomes the stain, so to speak, on the "integrity" of street art.)

Guetta stops taping and becomes a graffiti artist himself, relying on the knowledge of all he's learned in taping street art and the ability to outsource "his" creations to other artists. He has huge success in the range of millions of dollars when he puts on an exhibition in L.A.

Two things at this point give us pause to consider:

1. Who is now taping the events at Guetta's hugely successful exhibition? and
2. Is it possible the exhibition took place exactly as presented in the film?... Is Guetta real, and are his exploits as presented in the film exactly how things took place? Or is he an actor, a friend of Banksy's, who has gone out of his way to Punk us all?

Roger Ebert believes the story as presented is true. In his review he reveals an article in the L.A. Weekly from June 2008 which shows that MBW's showcase really did take place. He says: "Common sense dictates that no one would rent a CBS studio and fill it with hundreds of art works in order to produce a hoax indie documentary. Nor would they cast Guetta, indubitably a real person, as himself. Right? Right?"

And that is exactly where I differ from Ebert. Notice Ebert had to ask "Right?" twice. Even he isn't certain.

When all is said and done, a crafty point is made about the integrity of art itself -- a hilarious notion, since we began the film talking about a cast of characters who are simply obsessed with defacing public property. And hype in the media push the integrity question to fruition when quite a few of these characters make a lot of money for their work. So we have artists who originally made a "pure" statement, avoiding the police in the process, artists who don't care about the money or the fame but do it simply for the glory of the craft, making their greatest statement yet by becoming rich off the media-ized and brainwashed masses.

Which once again begs even a few more questions: What is art? What is it worth and why is it worth what it's worth to you? And when you pay millions for a Banksy or a Guetta, are you as dumb as the duped people who bought the Paris Hilton CD?

The icing on the cake is that Guetta, as Ebert points out, did have success, and he may or may not have even been real. The events that went into his exhibition, where it looked like he wasn't even the true creator of any of the art sold, are all very hard to believe. So not only can the masses be "brainwashed" into buying a Guetta in the first place -- they may have even been brainwashed about his true existence in general.

Even trying to figure all this out is convincing me this is my favorite film of the year so far.

It's a mystery that will remain for quite some time, but with the release of the film there will be a lot more attention given to the anonymity and mystery of Mr. Banksy.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Shock Doctrine. (2009)
Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom

The director collaborators of The Road to Guantanamo have teamed up again in a documentary review of Naomi Klein's controversial 2008 novel by the same name.

This is the third Winterbottom I've seen this week -- I dug my heels into A Mighty Heart and watched The Road to Guantanamo again to prepare myself for the visual feast always presented in his awesome use of the screen. A quote about Winterbottom in this month's
Film Comment refers to him as, "one of the least categorizable in contemporary cinema, a baffling proposition for auteur critics," and I couldn't agree with this description more. Later in the year when The Killer Inside Me and Summer in Genoa come out, followed quickly next year by The Promised Land, we may well remember this as his most prolific directorial moment, a time that showcased his ability to produce every kind of film imaginable. (That is, if we haven't already come to that conclusion, as I probably already have.)

The Shock Doctrine is a mesmerizing work of pulsating, relentless imagery saturated in brain-burning theories grounded in (what seems like) natural fact. The narrative drives forward in visual display like a rocket at warp speed. In that way it reminded me of Chris Marker's Grin Without a Cat, the standard setting film of the documentary form, where if you blink and think, you just might sink. There's so much to consider; you've got to keep your head in the ball game in order to keep up with the overflow of ideas.

It's essentially a retelling of the many theories in the book. Writer/conspiracist Klein is captured in the film as a featured speaker at her many appearances -- from the University of Chicago, where a lot of her theories began in the 1950s, to conferences she's toured world-round. A few of her speaking events even looked like they were held in churches.

The theory can be very convoluted when broken down and picked apart in every minute detail, but essentially it is this: disasters create opportunity for power-over economics in ways that would otherwise be unthinkable. Some are planned, others are simply acts of nature that can be jumped on (Katrina, for instance) and corporately owned.

"Shocks" to the cultural narrative cause us to quickly forget who we are, our collective story, where we come from, our purpose and communal goals. Shocks lead entire cultures and nations into survival mode, and in the process opportunities arise for governments and economists to intervene. When deregulation in post-shock stress creates unrestrained capitalism, a handful of people gain billions of dollars while millions, perhaps billions of others, are left behind. The country one is left behind in may determine how "poor" he or she actually feels. The poorest of the poor nations know they are poor, and in those places there is fierce anger at the powers-that-be. In countries like America and England, well, most of us don't really feel all that poor, do we?

The premise basically holds that free markets are not won through a demand for freedom or justice, but they're brought on by corporate authoritarian and (sometimes subtle) economic rule. The first examples given are in Chile and Argentina, from the late sixties into the seventies; into the UK under Thatcher in the late 70s and through the 80s; and the Bush administration of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. There are strange coincidences in every situation that show manufactured economic collapse that creates a shock to the system, letting multi-national corporations take advantage of societies, leaving damage in their wake while they gobble up any leftover wealth.

In that aspect, the film is closest related to The End of Poverty?, an excellent recent documentary that describes the last 500 years of "military" or "disaster" capitalism. But The Shock Doctrine holds to the last fifty or sixty years and delves into details there.

Some of the info you find is unsurprising if you're a reader or watcher of a multitude of contemporary doc, but here it is well said and somewhat easily grasped. But the film itself is tight -- sometimes too tight. I'd need to see it quite a few more times before being able to go into further detail than this very general, brief overview. I do have the book saved at the local library.

If you run across it, I'd like to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I'll be reading Ms. Klein's book.

Bottom line: Seems conspiratorial but certainly within reason -- and unsurprising even in its shock. Winterbottom's visual aesthetic is greatly on display, his stirring images worth the price of admission to anything he decides to touch.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Persona Lyrics

New lyrics to be printed upon completion of the next recording.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lourdes. (2009) Jessica Hausner

I hadn't made the connection of what a great follow-up Lourdes would be to my recent musings on In Your Hands, but having had the chance to see the two around the same time was wonderful, albeit accidental, timing. Both films deal with the miraculous, and both deal with believing and unbelieving women who grapple with uncertain, but perhaps heavenly, events. Both also deal with hands that are evidence of God's touch. In Your Hands has two sets of hands representing evidence of the miraculous, given to the world. In Lourdes, a set of hands is the first thing we notice -- very much like the fingers on the hands in Dreyer's reputable last scene of Ordet -- that are a sign of a blessing received.

Wheelchair-bound Christine has already made several trips in pilgrimage seeking healing from the multiple sclerosis which has paralyzed her from the neck down. Her latest trip is to the commune Lourdes, which is "famous for the Marian apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes that are reported to have occurred in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous."

Millions trek to this region every year in hope of a touch of power from beyond, a physical miracle of healing to take place in their lives. Lourdes functions for the Catholic the same as Benny Hinn to the evangelical, albeit quieter and filled with awe and respect, escaping the circus-like spectacle that surrounds Hinn's approach.

A miracle does take place in Christine's life, but one that is open to interpretation by those surrounding her in the story, and the viewer of the film itself. Felt tension between science and religion directs her toward Catholic authorities and doctors who want to fully diagnose the authenticity of the miracle. The viewer tries to digest it, too, but options are certainly narrowed by the end. Is this act caused by a cruel, sadistic God who likes to play jokes on those in need, or are science and nature more unfair than we ever really want to admit?

The color and framing, and the juxtaposition between darkness and light make the film wonderful in the theater setting. The Bergmanesque feel of God in human relations creates formal shifts in perspective, like the spider in Through a Glass Darkly. The idea that we're aiming at a perspective, maybe even a handful of perspectives, rather than a truth, causes us to view from a side of the brain that favors open-ended hope over our cravings for concrete resolution. That is the film's greatest strength -- but it's also the film's hardest aspect. We long to see Christine healed and living as a "normal" human being, but we're left with questions about what healing actually is, and who is worthy of it, and why.

I am somwhat perplexed by this film, and that may be some of the point.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jafar Panahi on Hunger Strike

Prominent Iranian film director, Jafar Panahi, has gone on a hunger strike since Sunday, 16 May 2010, to protest abuse and ill-treatment as well as continuous threats against his family members.
Story Here.

If you haven't signed the petition protesting his arrest, you can still do so Here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lord, Save Us from Your Followers. (2008)
Dan Merchant

Having seen one too many documentaries either directed at angry Christians like Fred Phelps in Fall From Grace, or rightfully lambasting (fundie) Christians like those in Jesus Camp, or even grappling to understand them in films like Hell House and For the Bible Tells Me So, I approached Lord, Save Us from Your Followers with a bit of fear and trepidation. Having a great love for, at the very least, the idea of Jesus, but a healthy fear of some Christians in general, to the point of having no decent answer when asked, "Are you a Christian?" ("Gee, well, um, I guess it depends on your definition of the word Christian..."), I saw the title and thought to myself: Approach With Caution. This could make you angry for days, weeks, months.

The trailer helped a bit. The main character, Dan Merchant, is a natural who is well suited in the role of "interviewer-is-the-star," like the comical documentarian Michael Moore with humor and all. And the humor here is undeniably funny, which is a great lift to some of these tonally hard-edged topics. But Merchant differs from Moore in that he doesn't go for the cynic schtick. Often Merchant comes off like a Christian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) -- a bit more on the sensitive side, but still with an important message and a wonderful sense of timing and humor.

The other thing that sold me about the trailer was the cast of folks Merchant either interviewed or tracked down footage to include: Bono, George Bush, Tony Campolo, Stephen Colbert, Ann Coulter, James Dobson, Al Franken, Bill Maher, Rick Warren, John Perkins, Ron Luce, and Tony the Beat Poet are just a few of the names you might recognize -- the latter being one of the central characters in Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz," an insightful "nonreligious Christian spirituality" book which is inspiration for the most memorable, almost tear-jerking scenes toward the end of the film.

So yes, I did finally see it, even against my own instincts and worries, and I'm happy to report I did. This inspiring work is now easily one of my favorites by a Christian documentary filmmaker.

The odds are if you already like Donald Miller and Tony the Beat Poet and Bono (and who doesn't like Bono?), you're going to like the film. But it's somewhat obvious Merchant desires more than that crowd to see his film, and if you've never heard of Miller or Tony the Beat Poet (although everyone has heard of Bono), you might be the intended target audience. I have my doubts whether it will get much further than those who already know Miller and Tony the Beat Poet and actually reach its intended target audience, but I certainly hope many outside that small circle of Christians will stumble across this gem of a doc.

Merchant dons a white suit made of bumper stickers galore and walks around America like a breathing gospel slogan of displayed cliches. I have always hated these bumper stickers which incite religious wars at traffic lights. You know the ones I mean. The Ichthus fish on one car's bumper, and on the bumper next door the same fish sprouting feet. The next has the fish with "Truth" written inside, while the next has "Evolution" and its little legs poking out. I can't stand any of them, I don't like the battle-like concept, and I don't like turning concepts that take a lifetime of consideration into a few-word slogan that may speak a thousand different things to a thousand different people.

I rather like the Grand Rapids bumper sticker that reads, "Love Wins," and thought it was a milestone achievement in the Christian bumper phenomenon -- until I saw a car with the same white words against the same black background that read, "Jesus Wins."

In bumper sticker wars, no one wins.

And that is some of the point Merchant is after, even as he parades around in his bumper sticker outfit, asking questions about which sticker people like best. Some of his point is that there is no useful conversation between the different stances seen on all these bumpers. It's very much an argument in which everyone is shouting at the same time, akin to political TV and the intermingling of Christianity and politics, and the hot air and ego-infused matches you often find on those shows. On those, there is often a call (from "Christians" to non-Christians) for morality (which I still don't get at all), preached as a greater message than the call that Merchant (and I) think is much more important -- to love everyone, everywhere, regardless of their morality -- but especially the poor and those who have no ability to voice their concerns for themselves.

There's a conversation that's happening among many Christians right now in which we've realized how dead our words have actually become, especially when we park three cars and a boat in the driveway of our three-decker heated and air conditioned houses, with two refrigerators and two ovens and eight different toilets inside. American consumerism and individualism have made Christians no different than their neighbors, and I wonder whether the surge to make everyone moral is only a way to make Christians feel better (superior) as they rot in their own conformity.

The conversation seems to be taking place among people that have realized how far off track the American version of Christianity -- or rather, the American version(s) of Christianity -- have gone. And it really is a conversation. It's about love before judgmentalism, and listening before blurting out. It's about building bridges rather than launching bombs, and opening a hand to share with your neighbor rather than using it to make a fist. Blessing the earth and finding the goodness in it rather than building up wealth and isolating and arguing over who is right and who is wrong.

So Merchant, in the guise of bumper sticker man, sets out to walk all over America, simply to talk with different folks about the Christian faith, and he uses his bumper sticker outfit to launch the conversation. He doesn't want to shout or use a bullhorn to whip or scare people, and he disdains the power of an attack or having to prove how right he is in his thinking. Because, after all -- no one really knows who is right in their thinking until they are dead and buried six feet under. (And at that point if the atheists are right, well, no one will ever know.)

He takes to the streets and talks to the general public like Leno on his late show. He also talks to all sorts of famous thinkers. He finds several conflicting viewpoints and compares and contrasts how a gospel about love could have been turned into an argument, both among Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians. And while the debates and the bull horns and the abrasive nature of some Christians will still no doubt continue, Merchant's message is an alternative way to avoid the heated debate and correctly work out one's faith in the world: It's through humility, a cleaning of your own house according to the Scripture, before worrying about someone else's sin life (especially those who wouldn't even know what that is). There's redemption both between you and God and also you and your neighbor when admitting your own wrong nature and making amends for your wrong -- through demonstrating love in sewing goodness, and joining hands with those who will also sew, whether they come from the same faith standpoint or not.

Finding the beauty in all, and locating the good instead of the differences is one way we begin starting the conversation. Living a life of inclusiveness and letting God worry about the rest might be the first great fundamental with which to launch this dialogue.

Merchant is an example of a character that can do this, but he cites and references other examples, too: particularly Bono, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and Tony the Beat Poet.

When we finally get to Tony and his story about the original confessional booth built years ago with a group of college friends, and we eventually see Merchant in Portland doing the same thing at a gay festival, it's a moment on which you can hang a faith that locates growth and beauty and holiness. I don't want to give it away if you haven't read "Blue Like Jazz," -- if you have read it, you already know what I'm talking about -- but what happens between Merchant and the many festival gays who walk into his booth is a blow-your-socks-off, mind-rocketing moment. What happened in that confessional between the most different of people completely drills me. It's something I want to attempt someday.

That is, right after I travel to Topeka, pick up my bull horn, and picket against a Fred Phelps Sunday morning service. :)

This is a hopeful and uplifting documentary about a way we might repent of a faith that we find in cultural retreat. It's not about looking cool or having the right sound system or the right services that caters to the so-called needs of the "right crowd," and it's certainly not about trying to out-shout the person you disagree with.

It really is about love. And believe it or not, love wins.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005). Cristi Puiu

Let's get something immediately out of the way. The Death of Mister Lazarescu is not a comedy. It's not "black Romanian comedy" or satire, it isn't a spoof or a "hospicom," or any hybrid of the comedy genre. There was no intended emphasis on humor (for evidence, please see the director's interview in the DVD extras). Those reading comedy into it, "black" or otherwise, apparently come to the film with such a fixed and deep-rooted world view that they can't imagine post-communist rubble or the lack of compassion therein.

There are moments of absurdity. The same absurdity I saw in so many instances traveling in Russia, Estonia, Poland and Albania. The kind of absurdity where you wonder how those in control come into that power without the ability to think for themselves. It's a kind of Reductio ad absurdum which hangs over post-communist mindsets in want of a governing power to wisely -- or otherwise -- instruct them.

Absurdity in and of itself does not automatically equate comedy. I do not and cannot understand how one makes that jump, and I certainly don't understand the willingness of the distributors in the poster above to promote the film as such.

Glad we got that out of the way.

So what is The Death of Mister Lazarescu, if it's not, as its promoters claim, 2005's "Most acclaimed comedy of the year?"

It's about the value and dignity of an old man's life simply as a human being. Lazarescu has made a lifetime of wrong choices, the greatest of which is the alcohol he's shot down his throat for years. The story is also about his good and caring neighbors in a wrong and twisted system -- those who care to help him, and later, those who can't be bothered.

The film is comprised mostly as a series of set pieces over one long night, which, unfortunately for Lazarescu, is the night of his rapid decline. He is suffering, with stomach problems and headaches. He is throwing up blood and falling asleep drunk. He is dying, and the events of this night will show his last.

As he rapidly loses control of his faculties, dying slowly in front of many different people, we find that he's closest to the people he's been in closest proximity to for years -- his neighbors and the people right across the hall -- and he's only another ER drunk to unsympathetic, power-tripping doctors, and specialists, and their staff.

When you see the film you tend to only remember the last two hours (and it's a long film at 150 minutes, but it flies by when you're in the middle of it). You remember the endless parade of paramedics and receptionists, nurses and medical assistants, doctors, specialists and surgeons. They've all had a long night already. A multiple-car traffic accident has brought in a huge number of victims. By the time Lazarescu shows up, they're already too tired to deal with him, and maybe too tired to care.

After all, they can't always be this calloused -- right?

But when you see it, make sure to pay attention to the tight proximal communion of the neighbors in the first forty minutes. See how they know each other by name, and even their kids' names, and which kid belongs to which neighbor. See how they lend to their neighbors in need, or how they offer food and their help in Lazarescu's hard-fought night. They might be pushy at times, but they're neighbors and they know it, and when push comes to shove they care for one another.

Later, contrast this tight proximal communion with authoritatively distant and dictator-like doctors and staff wrapped in political bureaucracy rather than a commitment to the dedication of care. You'll see that the doctors who have written Lazarescu off are like rich and powerful tyrants passing over the poverty of their people. You'll see a different kind of absurdum adding up. You'll see a new kind of communism, wrapped in the guise of "optimal health care."

It's a one of a kind film, simple as it's been described here but profound in ways that make you think. I couldn't get it out my mind all day after seeing it for the first time last night.

Dressed up very much like the dogme I just reviewed Here, I'll once again call it, "No bells, no whistles," just fantastic, straight-faced (albeit absurdist) reality. In that sense it reminds me of the other films from the Romanian New Wave that I've loved: 12:08 East of Bucharest4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and The Other Irene.

In an age of "right to healthcare" issues and the state of human rights issues across the globe, The Death of Mister Lazarescu remains a perfect tale to probe and ponder, a story we should glean from when we think of our neighbors.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Forbrydelser. (2004) Annette K. Olesen

Crystal clear themes of the miraculous and the mundane are lived and grappled with in Annette K. Olesen's dogme certified film from six years ago.

I went looking for Forbrydelser, or In Your Hands, after seeing Trine Dyrholm in DeUsynlige, and remembering her from Festen years ago. The poster above calls it the best Danish film since Festen, and while that shows a lack of a knowledge of many great Danish films over that ten year period, I can somewhat sympathize with that understanding.

I simply loved Forbrydelser. It stands out with Festen and The King is Alive and Italian for Beginners and Open Hearts as one of the better films in the dogme movement -- the kind of film Lars von Trier was looking for when he launched the movement years ago.

And I make no bones about the fact that this is easily my favorite movement in film history.

The story revolves around a fresh-out-of-theology school priestess Anna (wonderfully played by Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), who takes a chaplain position in a local women's prison. There she meets a cast of characters -- junkies, prostitutes, prodigal moms and murderers -- and shines with every ounce of God's compassion and endless love for them all.

It isn't easy, though. When she meets cold, calloused prisoner Kate (Dyrholm, perfect as always), who while addicted to drugs brought about the death of her child, judgmentalism creeps in. With a simple glance Kate tells Anna she is pregnant. Anna and her man have been trying for years; doctors have told them it's just not going to happen. Against her man's feelings, Anna buys a pregnancy test which results in another trip to the doctor. Child murderer Kate let her in on a secret even her body hadn't shared with her yet: she's with child, and is surprised with joy even as she ponders how a child murderer could have known.

She begins to resent the sin-stained prophetess Kate.

Kate shows other signs of miraculous ability, too. There's something transcendent -- perhaps even healing -- in the simple touch of her hands. Though she doesn't even know how to pray, Kate has obviously had an encounter with something from beyond that's left others in hope of a blessing.

While Anna's child grows inside her and we learn that something may be wrong in this pregnancy, Kate's friendships in the prison blossom, causing friction with those at odds with her blessing. Anna's doctor makes her aware that abortion may be the only right alternative, as Kate is pushed into holding back her blessed touch from the women. The two women and how they understand a higher power are somehow linked, and yet both of them avoid each other at first. In persuading Anna to seek out Kate's touch, one of the prisoners tells her: "You're in the same business." But now Anna struggles with a God who won't fully develop her child, and whether it's right to take the life that's now in her hands.

The most interesting aspect for me was in the last few minutes. There is a subtle crescendo, a quiet climax, in which something happens -- a rather bad event -- in which every single character can take their own form of the blame. Guilt is heaped on everyone involved, a guilt Anna has relentlessly already preached against in her teachings: Responsibility is taken for your sin, and guilt should fall by the wayside. It's a great irony at this point, as a final guilt fixes itself on all involved with even more ferocity than the priestess-wrestling-with-abortion issue.

Forbrydelser is the 34th certified dogme film, created for the celebration of dogme's tenth anniversary. Like all good dogmes, it compares class and envy, agnosticism against religiosity, restraint against emotional fervor, and mystery gets the final word. No background music, no special effects, no bells, no whistles, no frills. This is dogme, it's somewhat quiet but as fictitiously real as it gets.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Only When I Dance. (2009) Beadie Finzi

I did not expect a film about ballet to touch me like it did. In fact, when I heard it was about a male dancer, I must admit that my bias kicked in hard. There's no way I wanted to watch, well, whatever I thought this was.

Later, as the tears streamed down my face, I confronted my biases once again.

I'm glad that I'm sometimes wrong. I can't even think of how many times a film looked rotten -- and often I'm right when I get in a certain zone -- but sometimes my zone is crushed, the crushing widening my scope. My prejudicial leanings get realligned -- reinterpreted. Film and friends have always been guides that help me find more good in the world.

Only When I Dance is a heartwarming documentary released via Film Movement this month about kids in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, taking ballet as a serious study and aiming to dance themselves out of poverty. Think of the street kids from Bus 174 (another excellent Brazilian documentary) escaping their thug-like existence and street-wise surroundings by tapping into classical dance, and you're close. But the kids in Only When I Dance are dancing not only for themselves, but for the betterment of their families. If they can get into competitions and win outside of Brazil, not only will they help their families escape the daily grind of the favelas of Rio, but they'll have a shot at the expressive career of their dreams.

And their competitive dances are so lovely, especially the teenage Irlan, whose second dance in Switzerland was off the charts frenetic and wild. He explained the dance and the original rebel artist it was dedicated to, and then took the stage and just let loose with this furious interpretive dance -- it completely shook the audience. It shook me, too, and I'm guessing when you see it, it will shake you as well. It's a film moment you'll remember.

There's great back story here about the lengths the parents go to in getting their kids noticed in a field that is internationally intensely hard to break into. These are parents that dig in deep and take out loans, putting their money where their mouth is -- all with no guarantees, only the hopes and dreams of their child.

But these are no ordinary kids, either. It almost feels right for parents to go into debt for their dreams. These diligent teenagers give all for their craft -- seldom eating and sleeping and skipping Friday night dates to rehearse instead. We root for them from the get-go, because they're inspiring, hard workers from the start.

I did not expect to fall in love with this marvelous film from Brazil, but like so many of our favorite documentaries from the years, it shines because of the energetic and beautiful people in it, capturing them in a crucial moment in life.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ruling Against Crude

Only three days ago I wrote about the documentary Crude and its heavy impact on me personally.

Today, the New York times has reported that a Federal Judge in Manhattan has ruled in favor of Chevron's lawsuit against Crude's director, Joe Berlinger. The filmmaker must turn over 600 hours of footage to Chevron, because the footage will be helpful to them in their continued desire to push their responsibility, and the Ecuadorian lawsuit, aside.

Story here in the NY Times, and here in the Associated Press.

Basically, Chevron is proving to me, as if I hadn't already learned, that American law is dead. That if you live in America and have money, you can influence whoever you want and get away with anything you desire. This is our world, folks. And these are the people who will curse it for their gain.

I had a heavier reaction when my friend first shared the articles with me here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Antichrist. (2009) Lars von Trier

Today Criterion announced its DVD releasing of Antichrist, Von Trier's most stunning and horrific film to date, a misunderstood masterpiece, a vile meditation on daily depression and belief in a life without God. I've always loved my initial reaction when I caught it on the big screen last fall -- I'm re-posting it here for those who occasionally check out Filmsweep.

Before I re-post, I will say one thing -- Criterion or not, I feel sorry for you if you weren't able to catch Antichrist in a theater, where it is fully wrapped in the largest of darkness, aiming to pierce the soul with its light.

Some of this initial reaction is a bit rambling -- I wrote it out very late at night the same night I first saw it -- but it's truly excited, and that's why I love it.


No one should be able to claim that they "like" this film. No one should be willing to walk out of a theater and talk to friends about how awesome it was, how much they enjoyed the experience. And besides, for most that typically have their minds up before they leave the row they were sitting in, and are actually able to string sentences together like, "Awesome," or "District 9 was so much cooler, dude," or whatever, Antichrist will quickly fade from their short term memory like a one-night stand.

I cannot possibly think about the new LVT experience in anything but a mulling-it-over, wrestling-it-to-death, and absolutely-sure-I-will-change-my-mind-about-some-ideas-as-new-ideas-come-up sense. There's just no way to string a proper thought together after one sitting -- I mean, check it out: even uberFILMGOD EBERT had to see it twice before writing a proper review. So as I attempt to write a few thoughts out after my first screening, I know that many of these will be shaped and molded over time. And I'm fine with that.

Some words, then. Just words.









And I think that final word "Hopeless" is a great way for me to begin rambling.

[A friend of mine] found a quote five years ago in which LVT was thinking of making a film that asked the question, "What if Satan, not God, created the world?" And years later, in the midst of severe depression, I'm sure the idea opened up for LVT in ways unimaginable upon the idea's inception.

But even more important than what was going on in Lars' head while he created this work is the original idea itself. What if Satan, not God, created the world? Or better yet, what would a world look like in which God were not a part of the creating process and was perhaps even absent completely?

Everything that people of faith love (well, love wouldn't be a part of this world either, but anyway) about their understanding of the way the universe operates is automatically called into question. Things like hope, peace, serenity, justice, integrity, honesty, blessing, sacrifice, Sabbath -- none of these things can exist in a world created by the one who will only tear up, seek out, and kill. Were the author of chaos, befuddlement, theft and destruction the actual creator of a world in which humans lived, everything that we understand would be turned upside down.

SEX. It isn't for pleasure for another, nor is it for propagation. In fact in a world so full of sorrow, the only use of it might be for self-gratification, a basic pleasure for oneself to escape pain.

Where did She's child even come from? The story certainly doesn't tell us she gave birth to him. The story only shows us that He and She are in charge of him. And there is a lot of grief at his death. He seems to get over this the easiest. Hey, the kid is dead, now how can I heal She. But there is no healing in this world. And for all the grief She displays, is it because of the actual loss of her child, or is She perhaps full of grief because She couldn't love the child anyway? Perhaps she even feels guilt (her eyes were open to his fall in the latter portion of the story) that the child could not be loved, was never cared for, and was never considered a blessing. The deer that walks away in the woods, with its half-born fully dead offspring still hanging from its womb seems to allude to the fact that here, in this world, birth is not a blessing. The ejaculation of blood instead of semen can actually represent that He had more than a wound, but that in a world created by Satan, the Creation isn't even given the right to re-create.

COMPANIONSHIP in this world is turned into a study of the other, in He's case, to make her healthy and well so that He can go back to having what He needed. Is there ever an attempt at fulfillment through love? Is there really a chance for companionship in this dark and seedy environment?

NATURE. The place that we go to get away from it all, to relieve ourselves of the hustle and bustle, a place to pray, maybe fish, take a Sabbatical, be at one with creation. In the new world nature is subverted to be the constant, unchanging enemy. The snow foreshadows the death of a baby. The acorns keep you awake at night. The winds howl at your thoughts, the ground burns at your feet. The animals aren't even at peace and speak of the reign of chaos. Human nature is even diminished to only feelings of grief, torment, anger, despair. Nature, both that of the world and the world inside you, is something to try best to avoid. Because it is not warm, inviting, showing the greater parts of a good creator. Nature is your enemy, from the outside and within.

EDEN, the place where the story actually begins. The place where She festers her resentment toward He, for not being there, for not helping her in her quest for her dream -- her thesis. Later when the couple retreats to Eden, a place they believe they might go to find resolution and healing, and maybe even comfort in each other amidst this tragedy, they find their plans again thwarted. The beginning of their story offers as little hope as any other part of their psychological development.

ENLIGHTENMENT cannot be found. She originally retreated to Eden to complete a thesis on the centuries of (what appeared to be religious) hatred toward women. (Love how LVT throws in the misogyny element here, perhaps to throw his detractors off a bit.) She is studying some of the first recorded 17th century misogynists and trying to come to terms with the systems and worldviews and cultures that have carried off these hateful crimes. She is looking to learn and explain; she is seeking enlightenment. Instead she comes away from her studies baffled and confused. In a daze at one point she tells Him, "They got what they deserved." Enlightenment or any means at finding a Truth cannot exist in this oppressive, lying world.

THE TRINITY. Of course in this world created and run by Satan, a Trinity of animal beggars is going to try to attain a balance, a recapitulation of all things. But here it doesn't work that way. No sacrifice ("When the three beggars arrive, someone has to die.") is going to restore anything beautiful, for here there is nothing beautiful to be restored to. When the sacrifice is finally made (and at this point I'd like to interject that I never saw THAT coming), there is no change that will take place here. The trinity will be destined to wander. He will most likely be ready to join the dead.

Oh, and here's the craziest thought of all --

NOURISHMENT. Is there an earlier time in the film when we see anyone eating anything? Because at the end, when the sacrifice has been made and nothing has changed, He stops for some berries in the forest. What would typically strengthen his body only brings him instant death. He joins those who have been lying down. They all walk on together. One could guess that only Hell awaits.

The film brought me to prayer last night, as many great works of art do. I prayed for Von Trier and his depression, that someday he will see the world in a different, more beautiful, more hope-filled light. I also thanked God for the world He has made -- when you get a chance to see what it might be like without his authoring, it brings a breath of fresh air when you chance to see the real thing.

A few final thoughts...

The way it was shot was absolutely mesmerizing. Seriously, Von Trier has outdone himself in the cinematography department. Yes, it is artsy. And yes, with the euphonious female lead in the operatic score at the beginning and end, and the slow-mo black and white montage, Antichrist comes off as not only non-mainstream but maybe even anti-mainstream. But man, if you can just sit and soak in it, the images that slide off the screen and into your eye sockets and heart are just sultry. I have no problem admitting this is his most beautiful looking film to date.

The shots of the woods around Eden were other-worldly. Much of the film had a soft-focus, eerie feel to it, and Lars enjoys going into blurring moments to pull out lingering images. But the woods were altogether different. The visual effect may have been a filter combined with other transposed woodland images. Whatever it was, it was both disorienting and enlightening. My heart skipped with those shots of the wind in the woods.

And let's briefly talk about the sex stuff, because there's been a lot of hubbub regarding this issue, and I've got to say that I don't get it. The penetration shot? Artistically beautiful as opposed to pornographic. The masturbating of the penis? After the log in the groin (loudest, and most respectable "Ooooh" in the film), more sick than a turn-on. Even the female masturbation scene, which I may concede was a lot less necessary, was less erotic and more ominous. Over all of this nakedness and sex stuff was a foreboding psychology that all was not well in this Devil-created system -- rendering most actions, sex included, no fun indeed. Think of the morgue in Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. What we were seeing had a deeper, more penetrating (no pun intended, sorry) meaning, than simply the idea of ogling flesh.

Speaking of ogling flesh, one fun part of the experience for [the friend I saw it with] and myself -- except for the fun I had watching [him] squirm at times -- was watching the couple making out in front of us during the closing credits! Just WHAT THE HECK was THAT?!

Oh, and speaking of the closing credits, I've got to say I don't understand the nod to Tarkovsky. While I liked the film, and I can see that LVT borrows from a wealth of great directors, Bergman and Tarkovsky included, why the nod here? Why now? And isn't it true that there was once a time when Von Trier tried to take a script or something to Tarkovsky only to get laughed at? Or am I getting that story wrong.

You might think me a masochist, but I can't wait to see Antichrist again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Non-lollipop Docs.

Crude Impact. (2006)  James Jandak Wood

Crude. (2009)  Joe Berlinger

I've been working on that essay I threatened to write a while back in which I promised to lay down an understanding of why I put so much more emphasis on film, particularly global film, as an art relaying truth more than any other medium. More powerful than music by itself (although in heavy competition with Arcade Fire or U2 live), more meaningful than the pure image of old-school painting, and easier to sort out than contemporary media -- particularly the Internet and the nightly news -- or politics and politicians in general --film aspires to conquer wrong belief patterns and change the way you look at the world and its presentation of reality. In our age of post-information, when knowledge is googled and wiki'd in the blink of an eye, when what you see is what you get, whether the reality is mere perspective or absolute, the greatest need in junk-space culture is deciphering truth with a small "t". This is one of the reasons film as a visual and informative medium, and the knowledge of the filmmakers themselves, carries a weight that I value as most relevant.

It's no surprise, then, that documentaries have become as striking and strong as anything in the world of Holly-Would. Docs for the new age are the artistic expression of an informed individual trying to relay a message they feel isn't brought to the public, for whatever the reasons. It's baffling how awesome some of these docs have become -- fun to watch, yes, but more importantly, the easiest point of entry into a solid perspective on a truth, perhaps even a good perspective on history and current culture. When knowledge and information build like bricks and mortar in the visual arena, and repeatedly pile up with reasoned logic, eventually a sound wall stands, one that's worth examining with unusual trust. It's at this point that one might be able to say, "I'm fairly certain that this is a Truth."

Such is the case with two extraordinary documentaries I felt I had to tear into after the mind blowing encounter I had with Collapse. I needed to hear more about the ideas presented there. The Michael Ruppert "conspiracy-fact" interviews in Collapse rang with sound logic in my ears -- even the more simple of the ideas, like: you can't replace a source in nature, and if the source is sucked dry, where do you go? Ruppert's state-of-conscious meanderings brought both fear and understanding, but also a sense that the forming itch that's always been at the back of my brain was finally encountering a reality about the world. His monologues, broken as they were, simply made sense, and I felt like Neo in The Matrix, finally accepting the world behind the visual scenes.

I had to search out more.

The multi-award winning Crude Impact functions rather like an overview of the whole peak-oil situation. It shares a history of oil, and the global impact of capitalizing on and consuming it beyond the world's means. It is scary in that once again, as with Ruppert, it shows us that there's a lot more to oil than the stuff that goes in your car(s). That would be enough to suck the world dry on its own. But add to that all the nylon in our clothing, plastic in every form, the lids on McDonald's paper cups, toothbrushes, toothpaste, the gallons of oil that every car tire is made from, all of the lining and paint in your car and in your home, and food production and distribution -- Crude Impact's first basic point is that we do not currently, and perhaps won't be able to, live without the stuff. And it ain't just about transportation.

The oil that was predicted to peak in the fifties finally did in the US in the seventies, and while the film doesn't specifically go into this, it's not hard to remember back to the mid-seventies (I would have been five, but even I can remember the long lines at the gas station). That was the peak Carter dealt with. The oil that's caused the recent crisis of rocketing prices at the gas station is now the global peak of oil. We originally solved our problems by draining other countries for our need. Global peak-oil is of utmost importance to a great many people, people who are a lot more intelligent and know a great deal more about this than I.

There have already been citizens killed by militias -- a peaceful African leader against Big Oil in his country was publically hanged when a US company leaned heavily in attempt to continue their plundering. Citizens in protest in these countries have had to deal with waste, devastation of their land, petrol in their drinking water and cancer in their children's body and bones. Crude Impact documents the details of the beginnings of a war, wherein richer nations are able to use all forms of legalese and lawyer speak in order to invade smaller, poorer countries, steal their riches and leave them in a state of confusion, with neighbors and family members dying left and right. The focus of the film is unbelievably powerful, leaving me to wonder why we've had so much news on the current oil spill in New Orleans but we don't hear even a smidgen of the stories of ruined lands and nations in our oil-lust wake.

Oh, yeah -- I nearly forgot -- New Orleans is actually in the U.S., so we should really, really care about the spill down there.

(And I do. But I find the media's coverage, when we never hear the other stories, completely odd.)

While Crude Impact is more of an overview of a corporate capitalist and seemingly evil situation that happens all over the world and all the time, last year's Crude, directed by Joe Berlinger, targets a specific event in Ecuador, in oil's war against the Amazon. It digs into every crack, every detail it can bring out regarding a lawsuit of over 30,000 Ecuadorians vs. Texaco, now Chevron.

Sometimes you just need one example, one dramatic case of the hardship and strife vs. the Faceless powers and their numerous lawyers to more effectively drive the reality home. This is where Crude forcefully demonstrates why it took home so many film awards last year.

The story centers on the loss of land in the Amazon and how it has affected the Secoya and Cofán people, an indigenous people native to northeast Ecuador, to the point where they have filed a lawsuit, their only and final defense. The lawsuit was originally delayed in the U.S., through lawyer wrangling red tape, until it was moved to Ecuador nine years later. The case continues to this day -- somehow, and this is the hardest part for me to get, the Ecuadorians won billions in the lawsuit, but the case was reversed and the money never turned in. The case has now gone on for something like 15 years.

The Secoya speak of a time before the white man came, a time of crystal clear waters, life-blood to the people and their land. They talk of life in a jungle that was loaded with animals, a sort of paradise that was their home. Over years of abuse and decay, not only are their homes in total ruin, but they are suffering from various unknown diseases, much in the form of cancer that has eaten away at even their children.

A billion gallons of toxic water has been dumped into the rivers they used for fishing. The waters are contaminated and must be boiled before even applying to the skin. The land is ravaged with pits that are the crude that was left behind. Some villagers even live in homes built directly on top of an oil pit.

The tribe faces extinction, poisoned by a home that once sustained them. In an age of frivolous lawsuits, it would seem certain this should be addressed in court. Faceless Chevron brings out its spokespeople, doctors, scientists, lawyers, security, politicians and share-holders who counter that the problem is 0% their fault. They look like "experts" who lay claim to any of the fine print of all law books; they look like finger-pointers who constantly shift blame at anyone other than themselves.

Most of the time all these "experts" just come off looking like pale-faced, dead-eyed liars.

And even with all these faces, you never see a real face of Chevron. You've got to wonder who these people are or where they rest at night. You've got to wonder if Ruppert's apocalypse is wrapped up in the anti-Christ position of capitalist pigs.

Both films are informative in ways you have to see to understand. How can my words further demonstrate the pictures of a torn up rain forest? How can I further demonstrate with words the babies plagued with boils? If you'd like to see two films that will make you seriously stop and think, perhaps even propel you off the couch and into action -- the docs on oil are a good place to start.

When We Were Kings. (1996)  Leon Gast

In film news outside of oil, I had the great experience of taking in a few other brain-filled documentaries. When We Were Kings, the 1997 Oscar Winner on the Zaire championship boxing match between George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali, is the perfect follow-up to Michael Mann's Ali, in which Will Smith gives an incredible performance as the legend himself. While Ali needs some extra editing (I have a problem with Mann's films in this way in general), it does function as the perfect lead-in to When We Were Kings, providing insightful background to a doc that has historical significance. Both films remind me that Ali was a wonderful childhood hero, one that I don't flinch from as an adult.

Secrecy. (2008)  Peter Galison and Robb Moss

Finally, Secrecy, from 2008, while not the most outrageous of the lot is still a slow-burner that gets the brain in motion and sits and sticks in your craw. The doc considers all the pros and cons of government intelligence and the need for secrecy dating all the way back to WWII and the creation of the CIA during the Cold War, but it doesn't take an immediate stand on one side or the other -- whether the secrets the press puts in print are fair play, or whether treason is sometimes committed in the art of investigative journalism. The film would have functioned better had it actually taken a stand, it could have added a tad of tension where it definitely needed some in places. As is, it's well done and informative, but flat, like an old-school PBS doc where monotone thinkers go on ad nauseam and opine about their beliefs on the topic. It's not that I don't recommend it as a good doc, because I do -- it's just not very exciting filmmaking, but might be great material for a college class.