Monday, May 13, 2013
It's pretty much the very last scene of the movie - a wandering documentary about two teenage boys, skateboarding, a girl and a whole lot of unknowns about everyone's future - as the high school choir rises up on the soundtrack and two best friends hug during grad ceremonies and wrestle each other to the ground. This rousing and wonderfully joyous moment showing the unrestrained glee of these two boys at simply being in each other's company, sums up nicely what those tight bonds mean at that age.
It's now available on DVD in a single set along with the most awesome Tchoupitoulas.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
Tucked into the North-West corner of the state and hugging the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a slow-paced town of about 13000 people (if you sift it out of its Quad Cities region). But aside from its intriguing name (taken from the shallow areas of the river where mussels could be found), what makes this Southern city so interesting and worthy of an entire documentary about it? Three reasons spring to mind...
The music...That swampy, bluesy, soulful music that pushes the rhythm section up front and then drags all of the vocalist's deep seated, long buried emotions out into the open. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding and The Staple Singers all cut seminal sides of music here and influenced countless others - many of whom later came to Muscle Shoals themselves (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, etc.). Duane Allman just about forced himself into the recording studio as a session guitarist and convinced Pickett to cover The Beatles "Hey Jude" - the results (a revelation to me in this film) becoming a template for The Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" (as tired as it has become from classic rock radio) has never sounded as fresh or alive than it did playing over the end credits of the film. It's said that the black artists from this area of Alabama used styles from country music while white musicians incorporated blues & gospel elements. The results lead directly to the Muscle Shoals sound - reason enough to encourage a melting pot of cultures - which permeates every corner of the film. The soundtrack is stupendous and sounded staggeringly great in the confines of the Bloor Theatre.
The place...The film gives you a great sense of where you are - the lush green along the river, rolling waves of tall grass, the open space and lack of tall buildings, the mud that looks like it'll never completely wash away - and feels like a separate character. When the musicians who grew up here talk about why they don't want to leave, you firmly and unreservedly believe them. For a film primarily about music and those who made it, it's quite beautiful and becomes a visual feast along with an aural one. I swear the theatre felt like there was a fresh country breeze wafting through it after the film ended. This helped to swirl up the dust and grime that had covered us while we visited the banks of the Tennessee.
The people...At least within the confines of the recording studios, there was a blindness to the colour of anyone's skin. Outside, it was more difficult to keep the white and black musicians and technicians together (if only because of segregation laws and the public's attitude towards the mixing of races), but inside the walls of the two main studios the film examines, there seemed to be little concern - the music was what mattered. Though oddly enough, Duane Allman actually found it more difficult to "blend in" at the time (late 60s) due to his hippie appearance. Fortunately, that led directly to him staying behind at lunch one day to work with Pickett. The majority of the story revolves around producer Rick Hall and his session musicians known as The Swampers (if that suddenly makes you think of the lyrics to "Sweet Home Alabama", well, there's a pretty good reason) - all of them white and all of them renowned for their ability to get right down into the heart of soul music. Hall has the most tortured story (losing his wife in a car accident and making several bad business decisions) and though his stubborn ways have dealt him several blows along the way, he's still got the chops behind the boards and can still push the singers to their best performances (he's famous for purposely antagonizing Etta James - dude had guts). The Swampers had left him and his studio (where they were essentially the house band) to form their own studio down the road a patch and had many successful years in the 70s and 80s helping to record mainstream, blues and soul artists. They too had a few major opportunities slip by them: The Rolling Stones recorded several tunes for Sticky Fingers there (including "Brown Sugar") and had fully intended to come back for Exile On Main Street, but Keith Richards wasn't allowed back in the country; Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded "Freebird" with them, but when The Swampers refused to edit it down to a 3 minute 45 second single, the record company pulled the band away. They did get to tour with Traffic though (an odd mix at first thought, but not after looking a bit closer) and are talked about with reverence during the film by Richards, Mick Jagger, Bono, Gregg Allman and a bevy of others.
All three of these reasons explain why the town of Muscle Shoals is so fascinating. And the film showing all three of these elements is easily one of my very favourite cinema going experiences so far this year.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
I'll be honest, I had scratched AJ Schnack's latest film Caucus off my list of potential "to-see" films shortly after I browsed through the Hot Docs 2013 schedule the first time. The promise of being a behind the scenes look at the Republican candidates during the 2011-12 Iowa Caucus filled me with a bit of dread. I have no love for any of the eight politicians the film tracks (and a healthy dose of disgust for some of them) and didn't particularly relish the thought of re-living the head-slapping moments that played out nightly on the news and The Daily Show. To be clear, that disdain isn't reserved completely for the right-wing (I have no need to revisit any of the electioneering of the Democrats either), but since the focus of the film was strictly on the first step towards nominating Obama's rival, I had very little interest.
Of course, I'm glad I reconsidered. The verite style of the film (ie. no narration, just footage that should "speak for itself") was a big reason, but Schnack himself as director was probably the biggest. He lobbied several years ago not just for higher quality cinematography in documentary feature filmmaking (which as far as I can tell has helped bring a more careful eye and strong aesthetic to the realm of docs), but a call to an overall broader view of the form. That alone gives him my attention. And if there's one theme that is becoming evident at this year's fest (due to its presence and absence in many of the films I've seen) it's the need to understand the position of those who differ strongly in ideology from you. I didn't expect to learn a great deal more about the political positions (ones which I typically disagree with - in particular the ones based on social issues) of these candidates, but hoped to garner some insight into the voter perceptions of what's "wrong" with their country.
This is where the film excels...Though it can be entertaining to watch the candidates work through a variety of awkward moments (Bachmann pimping her tent's petting zoo, Romney warning Big Bird to beware of commercials, Ron Paul struggling to close his van door) and even charming ones (Cain belting out a tune, Perry being distracted by basketball talk), hearing things straight from the populace has far greater meaning. Granted, the clips of Iowans commenting on speeches at the state fair and participating in the voting can occasionally be cringe inducing and frustrating - there are occasional thunderous bursts of ignorance wrapped in a lack of context and lack of awareness of the reality of life in 2012 (again, I expect there are numerous people on the "other" side that are equally clueless) - but there are also moments of very truthful and heartfelt concern. Particularly one from an elderly man, who at first seems like yet another "it's them dang furrenors!" crank, but ends with tears in his eyes that show a deeply held belief (though a spectacularly flawed one). One has to wonder how he came to hold these ideas and that's at least a start towards trying to understand. It's also around this time that the film starts to show a different side of one of the candidates...Only one of them was there to listen to this man, and only one of them actively tried to engage him in discussion while attempting to explain the complexity of the situation...And that was Rick Santorum.
The most incredible feat accomplished by Caucus is that it ended up making me root for a man whose ideology I find odious. I never want Rick Santorum to hold any kind of public office, but by the end of the movie you've at least gained, if not respect for him, at least a bit of respect for his methodology. He truly believes everything he says, shows real emotion, dives right into pressing the flesh with as many people as possible and gives just as much effort at answering a question from any random citizen as he does from reporters or moderators of debates. He visited every single one of the state's 99 counties by car with a small team and slowly, but surely, built good will. Granted, I probably wouldn't be on his side if I didn't know that his ultimate goal was out of reach, but support for him from the audience grew similarly to that of Iowans - and we were just as surprised with the end results.
What pleased me a great deal is that the film doesn't purposely look to put anyone in a bad position, but instead tries to show them as honestly as possible, record the events around them and garner spontaneous reactions. The lenses of the cameramen (including for a portion of the shoot, the great Ross Brothers - directors of Tchoupitoulas and 45365) have a sharp eye for small details, people's faces and markers of Iowa's landscape and culture. One of the finer examples of the strange inner workings of American democracy.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Director Marta Cunningham is glad I'm angry. The second showing of her fantastic documentary Valentine Road has just let out at Hot Docs and a few of us are milling about the lobby. She's more than willing to discuss the film, but even happier to gauge people's feelings and emotions after viewing it. Several of us mention the anger we feel at the sequence of events, the many points where warning signs were missed and the absolute failure of just about every adult in the film to do the right thing for the students in this particular school. She says that she hopes we hang on to that anger so that we can turn it into something positive - like taking action in regards to local issues or simply helping where we see fit.
Well, it's a few days later now and my anger has subsided somewhat - but not completely as it's still hanging in there. Via its nuanced look at the complicated interactions and issues that led to the 2008 murder of a 15 year-old boy in his classroom, Valentine Road ensures that the feelings will linger. You may remember the case - a Grade 8 boy in Oxnard California named Larry King asks another boy in his class (Brandon McInerney) to be his valentine. A few days later, he lies dying near his classroom computer after Brandon shoots him twice with a gun he brought from home. It's a horrible crime emanating from intolerance and lack of education, but it's far from the whole story. Cunningham begins to introduce us to the many people involved in this story - friends, family, teachers, girlfriends, half-brothers, cops, lawyers - and takes us through the tragic backgrounds of both the slain boy and the killer. The cast of characters continues to grow as the film moves beyond the incident, through its aftermath and ever so slowly towards the trial. 3 full years go by from the time of the murder to when the trial finally takes place and then stumbles to a mistrial. A plea bargain is finally reached, but no matter how you view the story there's bound to be something in it to get your back up.
So why the anger? The story is tragic enough as it stands: both boys left on their own at early ages with little support from any parents and only their own instincts regarding how to cope. Larry keeps his sexual orientation questions to himself and struggles until he finds a kind-hearted group home that lets him finally discover who he is. Brandon on the other hand is left at times hiding under a living room table while his Dad furthers his meth habit and winds up getting "mentored" by some of the worst possible people. While Larry begins to express himself at school via his girlish outfits, makeup and usage of feminine names for himself, Brandon responds in the only way he has ever been taught and exposed to: physical violence. But as the story spools out...We hear of the school's incompetence and reluctance to deal with any of the many moments which led to the shooting; we hear from Larry's horrendous Grade 7 teacher who by all accounts should be fired for what she says in the film; we hear some of the most incredulous victim-blaming I've ever come across by an "expert" for the defense; we hear from the prosecutors who are hell-bent to put 14 year-old Brandon away for life; we hear from the defense attorneys who are hell-bent to make sure he isn't; etc. Oh, and we get to hear from some of the jurors of that hung jury...Look, I'm a reasonable guy. I'm a person who sees a great deal of grey in between the black and white polar opposites of so many discussions that occur these days (at least, I like to think I am). I've only once previously exclaimed out loud my opinion during a theatrical showing about something someone on screen has just said. I can now count a second time. I admit to not adding anything of substance to the conversation when one of these horrid, smug, self-satisfied ladies of the jury offered her opinion, but the frustration had reached its limits.
I grant you that this may not sound like a fun time at the movies, but it's a vital film. It doesn't cause your anger to be directed solely at individual ideas, but at an entire way of thinking - or more accurately, at an epidemic of not thinking, inaction and apathy. Cunningham has a great feel for when to shift from one part of the story to another and from one character to another so that it helps to weave all the different strands together into one big ball of tragedy while also gaining remarkable honesty from those she puts on film. Additionally, she manages to give the viewer an extraordinary strong sense of place - her inserts of the neighbourhood, the focus on different parts of the school & people's homes and the framing of her subjects provides the needed context of the environment. It makes you feel like you know the place. It makes you feel like it could happen right in your own neighbourhood. And it makes me want to make sure it never does.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
This could be my shortest Blind Spot post ever...Though I enjoy short form experimental films, appreciate the different aspects of filmmaking that get teased out and respect the filmmakers a great deal, it is not an area in which I'm overly well-versed. I've seen a few other films from the two directors responsible for this post's films (Chris Marker and Stan Brakhage) along with a few things from Maya Deren, James Benning, Cocteau, Bunuel, etc., but my knowledge of their techniques, goals and intentions is somewhat limited. Having said that, especially after viewing both Marker's Sans Soleil and Brakhage's Dog Star Man, you don't necessarily have to have any background at all since these films are the perfect art form onto which you can map your own feelings and perspectives. Neither of these films has a clearly laid out narrative or real characters, so it enables you to soak in its variety of images (many of which almost seem random at times) and attempt to put your own personal spin on them.
Marker's Sans Soleil, for example, feels like a freeform wander through the world's different cultures (pausing longer with some, glancing off others) with a fascination in the activities and ways of life of its people. All the while, Marker (and his sometimes overly serious and pretentious female narrator) riffs on the meaning of memory and how it forgets, changes and shapes history ("We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten" and "History only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugar coated"). The film also plays extensively with Japanese culture by tying into the memory aspects of the film and replaying Japan's war history ("Small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life"). It also covers cats, an extraordinary ceremony to lay the souls of dolls to rest, more cats, sexual fetishes and a couple of additional cats (not to mention cat dolls placed into sex positions). The horrors of war are explored in a variety of different fashions as well, but focusing more on the concept of horror itself (the graphic death of a giraffe is a tough watch - you can see the life drain right out of it). If this seems somewhat random, well, it did for me too.
Brakhage's Dog Star Man initially comes across as an almost perfect example of what most people might expect "experimental" film to look like: random scraps of film picked up and assembled, but all of them are out of focus, scratched, flickering, damaged and scrambled. The opening of the film goes from black to a murky dark red and cloudy kind of liquid environment and then flashes of light pop in, blurred faces can be deciphered, cityscapes crop up, etched film frames are inserted and colour flies about the screen all while there is absolutely no sound at all. The entire 79 minute film (which includes a prelude followed by four parts) is completely silent and it's all a bit off-putting for sure, but there's also an odd sense of order to it all...The overlapping images (which seem to happen more and more as the film goes on) return to several themes: the sun and its flares, a moonscape, faces, body parts, the inside of a womb, a forest. Images are repeated (sun, moon, womb; sun, moon, womb; sun, moon, womb; etc.) and it's terribly disconcerting as you suddenly find yourself staring at yet another image of, well, something. It forces you numerous times to think "what exactly am I looking at?" which is both tiring and fascinating at the same time. The random coloured patterns on film frames (my favourite bits of his work - his short films that consist only of scratched and painted film frames are simply gorgeous) are matched with sun flares while dots and splotches are compared with craters on the moon. You begin to constantly re-evaluate what you're seeing, shifting your viewpoint and occasionally wondering if the DVD or film has frozen. Is that a shot of snow covered with little twigs or is that a negative of a woman's privates? Was that a breast or a mountain on the moon? It merges nature both large and small with human form and function and though it reminds you occasionally of Bunuel/Dali surrealism, it's far closer to a hallucinogenic trip. Sometimes a very bad one.
The riffing continues in Sans Soleil, as an edit jumps from horns among some petrified bull remains to a parade with people wearing bull masks with horns. The horror aspect is further explored while images of the Khmer Rouge flash on TV while you hear Brando from Apocalypse Now ramble on about "the horror, the horror...". Film and TV are often used as jumping off points for the film to tie two concepts together or to bounce between ideas. As the camera shows sleeping Japanese people on a ferry, we flip between them and a variety of horror film clips to give you a sense of what their nightmares might be like (there's an assumption built by the film that these horrible dreams stem directly from WWII). Further horror, sci-fi and samurai films are referenced via still frames within the frame of an old TV set to tie into the narrator stating "The more you watch Japanese television, the more you feel it's watching you". But the longest sequence using old media to help juggle new ideas is when the theme of memory is brought back for another go-round and the voice says "...that only one film was capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory - Hitchcock's Vertigo". We're not sure if it really is Marker who believes this or not (Marker doesn't take director credits for his films), but whoever owns that statement about Vertigo has seen the film 19 times and wonders how people can remember without putting things on film. From here, we walk through numerous locations in San Francisco that were used during that remarkable movie.
Dog Star Man plays with memory as well as it continues to juxtapose a man's journey across a snow covered mountain (with his dog) to what appears to be a baby's progress out of the womb. Part 3 plays out somewhat like a horror film as it quick cuts between human organs (both sexual and internal), the man's increasingly desperate attempts to continue his mountain crossing and the birth of the baby. Are these images that are flashing through the man's mind? Is the experience of birth such a traumatic event that it can be triggered as a memory later in life? Those are the kinds of thought processes you start experiencing as the film goes on. You become both curious as to what you'll see next and hopeful that it's almost over. The best moments are when Brakhage forces you to look at something in a different way through filters, light fading in and out, distortion, extreme close-ups, repeated frames or simply putting everything out of focus. Another of his tricks is to bring the lens of the camera through its full range of focus to change what image comes in clear. This is where, for me, experimental film becomes exciting - when it changes your perception as to what you've been viewing.
Both films have their moments of beauty and horror. While Sans Soleil mostly deals with presenting you natural scenes from around the world, Dog Star Man deals more in the beauty of chaos and randomness and the horror of unconscious associations. Marker's film specifically references film itself as a key to memory, but also touches on other aspects of its purpose (as he captures a wonderful look from an African woman in the marketplace, the narrator says "Frankly have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people - as they teach in film school - "not to look at the camera"?"). Brakhage does the same thing, but does it all via his images and splicing in every technique in the book. Both films have their ups and downs for me - moments of exasperation, boredom and admittedly confusion - but the fact that these films exist, and that they have attempted to push me to look at the world in a different way while also influencing countless other artists, is a great thing indeed.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
I'm a bit conflicted over my impressions of Freida Mock's newest documentary Anita, so let's see if I can work them out...
First of all, let me be clear about the subject of the film - Anita Hill is clearly an incredible person. Intelligent, funny, brave and interesting, 20 years ago she became a lightning rod around issues that few people enjoy discussing even today. And yet, there it was on the news back in 1991: an entire panel of old white men talking about sexual harassment, penis sizes and pubic hair during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. As women were finally breaking down some barriers by garnering greater positions within the U.S. government, Hill's grace under fire during her single 9 hour questioning session made her a role model for many women and brought more public attention and debate to the issues. Hill understood that harassment of any kind is primarily about control (perhaps being the youngest of 13 children helped her recognize this...) and she strongly felt that her prior experiences with Thomas' repeated sexual advances and inappropriate closed door insinuations was relevant to him being given a lifetime position on the Supreme Court bench. In other words, "Speak Truth To Power". The film documents a great deal of Hill's lengthy appearance at the hearings via old news footage and shows us the road she traveled afterwards up until her present day role as a speaker and professor of public and social policy. Though she never wanted to discuss her history specifically in the classroom, she's never shied away from it. "If I'm not public, it will be a sense of victory for them".
But the film let's both Anita and the audience down in the telling of all these events. There are fascinating sections of her story (the condescending questions of senators at the hearing, the 25000 letters of hate/support Hill has received, the effect she had on the rise of female politicians at the federal level, etc.), but it's told flatly, doesn't always provide as much context as it could have, and mostly sticks to archival footage and current talking head interviews. It's clear that Mock wanted to keep the focus on Hill, but as engaging as Hill is herself when speaking and discussing her family, career before/after the hearings and her hopes for the future, it sometimes feels similar to a 60 Minutes piece. That's not in and of itself bad, but it's disappointing. Particularly due to the excellent work Hill is currently doing with young women and the array of her peers that could have been pulled in for further positioning of her role in changing perceptions on harassment in the workplace. As I walked out, I mentioned to a friend that all the conversation I heard after the film was mostly about ideas Anita Hill had discussed in the extended Q&A (also attended by Mock) and not about the film.
But then again, people were talking. And isn't that what a good documentary should do? Get people to discuss the ideas and concepts that it covers and "start a conversation"? There are certainly numerous topics that could be launched from just about any point in the film - how her character became the issue when it was supposed to be about Thomas; how Hill's race was rarely raised, but Thomas' was; the fact that Democrats - though they weren't as aggressive towards Hill as the Arlen Specters and Alan Simpsons of the committee were - essentially fed her to the lions; how Oklahoma state politicians tried to get her fired from her law professor position and then attempted to get the entire law school at the University of Oklahoma closed; how she found very little support among black men who questioned why she would go after one of their own; etc. One of the strongest takeaways from the film is Hill's own statement about her approach to teaching law: it shouldn't be "just what law is, but what it can be". It speaks volumes about her.
But I can't help but return to Hill's own point about moving towards work environments that are free from any kind of harassment (and not simply dealing with it when it occurs). To do that, it means we need not only to teach the future leaders, but to teach our current ones and better understand current perceptions and ways of thinking. This is the biggest missed opportunity of the film - in its determination to make it only about Anita Hill (certainly a worthy endeavour), it doesn't dig into the reasons why men like Clarence Thomas think the way they do and why there are people to this day that don't believe a word of Hill's testimony (there were additional witnesses at the time who were ready to describe similar behaviour by Thomas). The landscape has changed in the last 20 years, but there is indeed still a ways to go. It's a shame that Mock's film won't really help get us there.
My opinion of Anita Hill has certainly grown though. Her continuing classy refusals to talk specifically about Thomas ("though I have my opinions") reinforce another of her statements that "Dignity and courage are much more effective tools". If only Justice Thomas understood this as well...
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Ryuichi Ichinokawa's wife doesn't know what he does for a living. And she doesn't really seem to care..."Without meaningful conversation, any relationship withers. I guess I just gave up on him. As long as we can pay the bills, I don't care what he's doing anymore." He is either out at work, uncommunicative on the computer at home (when she says the above quote to the filmmakers, he's right there in the same room on the computer and has no reaction) or sleeping. He thinks she has a negative attitude, stopped supporting him long ago and cares more about what her friends think than what he does. Short of his obsession with one day getting to Hawaii, they no longer have any ambition, hopes or dreams and assume the worst about each other. They are two very lonely people and Ryuichi wonders how much longer they will stay together after the kids have both gone off to school. So it may seem odd that the name of his company is "I Want To Cheer You Up Ltd".
Ryuichi's business provides the service of having himself or one of his extended team come and pose as a family member or friend for the client. Weddings tend to generate a lot of business as brides and grooms want to fill out their side of the aisle with additional people to show their worth (Ryuichi has even sat at an honoured guests table and even made a speech), but it seems like just about any situation might suddenly need a fake family member present. He's played the husband for a woman trying to get her Ex to provide for her kids and a father for a girl whose boyfriend wants to ensure he has the right blessings before they move in together (her real Dad would never approve) while also having a team of about 30 other people who can take on any role required. The need for all this fakery seems to stem from many people's concept of family honour and the need to represent a strong family and set of friends to others - which makes everything quite ironic when they use Ryuichi's service to create layers of new secrets and lies.
My initial interest in the film stemmed from it sounding like a real life version of the events in the Greek film ALPS (based around a team of people who take on the role of their clients' family members to re-enact scenes from their life). As interesting as that facet of the film is, it's actually a stronger match with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata - the story of a man who can't bear to tell his family he lost his job. Ryuichi is still very much a follower of the patriarchal society and is searching for his validation and respect through his customers since he doesn't appear to get it at home (he talks about how they used to celebrate Father's Day, but don't anymore...). He claims that he simply wants to make his clients happy and help steer their lives in the right direction - mostly due to the fact that he is deeply unhappy himself and doesn't see a way out. A fascinating look at one man's broken dreams and the broader implications of a culture that places importance on what other people think of you.
Sun, Apr 28 9:00 PM
Tue, Apr 30 1:00 PM
The ROM Theatre
Sun, May 5 1:00 PM