I don’t watch as many films as I used to. Nowadays, in this fast-moving information age, I feel strange about setting aside a whole 90 – 150 minute block for passive consumption when I could be checking the ReTweets, posting sweet shots to Instragram, chatting up my homies on WhatsApp and compulsively scrolling ever downwards on my Facebook news feed. Still, I occasionally make time for a viewing. Here are brief reviews of a few I have seen recently.
I suggested this picture for a stay-in Saturday night, and spent the first half-hour or so sort of cowering on the couch, wondering what I had dragged my friends into. The film makes very little sense at first, following Monsieur Oscar as he prepares for and executes costumed pieces of performance art around Paris. The film continues to make no sense, but the “appointments” – strange vignettes with no apparent audience or purpose – have a pleasantly surreal tone about them. They are not sappy or life affirming, neither are they too deadly serious.
In my favorite episode, Oscar transforms into a rumpled, exhausted-looking man and picks his daughter up from a party in a shabby old car. In the course of their drive she tearfully confesses that she hid in the bathroom instead of dancing with boys. Rather than comforting his daughter, Oscar and proceeds to methodically tear her down, comparing her unfavorably to one of her friends and making her feel small and wretched. Oscar then drops her off at her mother’s with a final barrage of crushing words. I pumped my fist under my blanket. No sappy family redempto-dramas here!
The film feeds the audience just enough plot semblance to hold the film in one piece. Denis Levant is superb in his chameleonic role. After a while I stopped worrying about story structure and just enjoyed all the weird surprises. I enjoyed the movie’s mean streak – the way it raised the stakes time and again, manipulating the audience with the familiar elements of film drama, only to blow away the often deadly results for another adventure.
Primer is a favorite film of mine. I was shocked to find out that it was created for about $7000. As a former cubicle-prisoner-turned-auteur-film-director, Shane Carruth represents a certain strand of outsider art that is very appealing to myself and countless other aspiring late-bloomers. Primer was written like an engineer’s film, obsessed with minute detail and consequence. Upstream Color is a radically different enterprise.
I want to say that Carruth’s pendulum swung too far on this one. Upstream Color is beautiful visually and very adept in its framing and shot selection. The editing is hypnotic and the soundtrack (by Carruth) is germane and un-manipulative (this is VERY refreshing in the dread reign of Hans Zimmer). Upstream Color is redolent of other impressionist hits like Requiem for a Dream, Kundun, and Koyaanisqatsi. HOWEVER, Carruth has made what is essentially a character-driven film, and he has left the thing pretty much without a discernable storyline, without a sense of time and place, and with very little in the way of character interaction and dialogue.
It’s pretty clear that Carruth set out to make a very subjective, personal, emotional film – one in which certain sensory cues take the place of the vulgar, brutish tools of exposition and action. The audience will be born along by the sublime, taking direction from the gorgeous play of light and dark in the frame, from the facial expressions of the characters as they go about their isolated actions. Unfortunately movies just don’t work that way. We want to know what’s going on! Upstream Color is just too inaccessible. I felt the same frustrated confusion at the end of the film as I did when I finished Mulholland Drive and Kafka on the Shore.
Why is that guy recording those sounds? What’s so special about those pigs? Why are they hiding in the bathtub? Why did the woman cut her hair short? Why are there so few people in the film? On the one hand, I look at Color and see something I might have tried to make, something pure and unsullied by the vicissitudes of big money and focus-testing, unencumbered by three-act structure and Hollywood moments. On the other hand I see something cryptic and incomplete, something that my friends and family would glad-hand me about because they have no idea what any of the pretty pictures meant.
But that doesn’t mean I would change Upstream Color. I want Shane Carruth to keep fighting. The end credits reveal that he essentially made most of the film himself, with some help from family and friends. Upstream Color is probably a necessary step, something Carruth needed to get out of his system before he can strike the right balance. I will not be the one to shit on his heartfelt work and say he made a mistake.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that recruiting and arming large regimented bodies of young men, training them to kill without hesitation, and conditioning them to respond unquestioningly to orders has led to wonderful things. Who can forget the fifty years of peace in the Aryan Republic? The “Plentitude Reign” of the Khmer Rouge? Who can deny the shining edifices of prosperity erected during the “Dear Leader Renaissance” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?
And the wonderfulness continues in Restrepo, a film following the generous works and harmonious progress made by a platoon of US Army soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
The film is unique in that it only interviews the soldiers who were in the valley during the fifteen-month deployment. There are no interviews with military higher-ups, politicians or family members. There are no context-setting clips. There is only raw footage, which, curiously, is decidedly un-raw. When I read the ratings box, I saw that Restrepo was rated R for language and descriptions of violence. Huh? I thought this was a war film! Restrepo is a war film indeed, but despite the copious amount of firefights in the film, the audience never sees anyone actually get shot.
The entire experience is covered in a thick fog of war. In one of the extended interviews, one of the soldiers says that the deployment was like fighting ghosts. The platoon almost never see who they are shooting at, or who is shooting at them.
Also documented is the wildly unsuccessful hearts-and-minds campaign that the soldiers undertake. The platoon call in airstrikes that injure children, act like tough mean cops in town looking for suspected Taliban, and butcher a man’s cow. It’s pretty easy to tell that the wrinkled and browned village elders are not enthusiastic about the Army’s plan to create jobs in the valley through road construction.
In fact, the entire film reeks of futility. The platoon’s greatest accomplishment is building O.P. (Outpost) Restrepo, some 800 meters further into the valley than “The Kop” (a previously established outpost). There the men get shot at from mountainsides, shoot back, and call in airstrikes. During the fifteen months a few soldiers are killed (including the medic Restrepo), and the deaths hit the rest of the platoon extremely hard.
The DVD case says that due to the style of filmmaking, viewers can draw their own conclusions. I have a few. Firstly, that rural Afghanistan is not exactly clamoring to be catapulted into the 21st century. Also, that the war in Afghanistan was and is a big, dumb, expensive waste. The soldiers in the film seem mostly to have been had, been took, led astray, run amok – given an addictive drug called “combat” and left to deal with the traumas and symptoms of withdrawal later in life. They barely even seem to know or care about the non-combat details of the situation for which their lives are on the line. They are reduced (but proudly!) to tools, machinery, unquestioning grunts who use their loyalty to their brothers in arms as motivation to ultimately unwarranted acts of sanctioned homicide.
Moreover, killing fanatical Taliban and harming civilians in the process does not seem to be advancing US interests. While the soldiers do have a unique chance to strike a blow for women’s rights, changing a repressive, religious culture like Afghanistan’s is not going to happen at the end of an M-16. I found the whole situation completely and transparently absurd.
I think my anti-war is showing. You don’t have to believe me. One could watch Restrepo and be impressed by the determination and sacrifice of these young men. Junger and Hetherington have done a fine job getting us the raw footage.
The Littlest Rebel
My first reaction when encountering this film was “Wait, Shirley Temple wasn’t in Gone with the Wind, was she?” My second reaction was “Ahh, so this is the Hollywood slavery mythmaking that 12 Years a Slave set out to redress.” The film is filled with some of the most shameful non-racism racism that I’ve ever seen. That is, everything about slavery is painted with the rosiest brush imaginable. The slaves LOVE their Massa Cary, a confederate officer. However, when the Union Army arrives and begins looking looking for him, tense but delightful hijinks begin. There are scenes of the slaves cursing the Yankees and anxiously waiting for Massa Cary’s return. There’s a scene in which Shirley Temple dons blackface to fool those mean Yankees, and of course, a dancin’ duet with Uncle Billy (played by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), the kindly and wise house nigger (I use the word here because that’s the way they would have said it back then!).
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The film even goes out of its way to ridicule an especially bucolic young field nigger, James Henry (played by William Best, who was billed as “Sleep n’ Eat” in five of his Hollywood film appearances). When James repeats a rumor that the Union is fighting on the slaves’ behalf, he is chastised in classic hush-up-that-fool-talk fashion by Uncle Billy. James Henry proceeds to dig a pit-trap for the Union soldiers, only to fall haplessly into it later in a moment of unbridled buffoonery.
I didn’t watch the end of the movie. Apparently Abraham Lincoln gets involved. I somehow doubt he frees Cary’s slaves. Perhaps someone will produce a documentary entitled Shirley Temple and Bojangles: A Racist Friendship.
Half-Watched Documentaries on PBS
I sometimes like to put PBS on in the background when I’m writing. The primetime programming is often filled with exquisite documentaries, travel shows, dramas and more. I get a number of variations on the channel, so I can flip around and pick the most interesting thing. Sometimes I think I am going to write, but end up just watching instead, because the content is just TOO GODDANGED EDIFYING.
With the caveat that I did not always devote my full attention to the films, here are a few of my recent favorites.
Follows the journey of Socheata Poeuv, a Cambodian-American woman to find out her parents’ real story. I actually missed the early parts, but came in as she was mediating an incongruous recounting of events from her father, Nin Poeuv, and a former Khmer Rouge official. It was clear how much remembering those dark days hurt both men. The Khmer Rouge man tries to explain away the forced marriages that were taking place, while Nin gives a more frank and painful perspective.
The scene where Socheata and Nin visit Socheata’s birthplace – once a refugee camp in Thailand, now a forest grove – nearly broke my heart (The film’s website likely knew its power – they have made the clip available for streaming). I saw a lot of my father in Nin’s unassuming manner, his nobility and sense of quiet sacrifice.
I often wonder if I am completely selfish and callous. I’m no good with kids, I don’t volunteer, and I only think about myself. A trip with the Peace Corps or a similar jaunt is meant to cure these indulgences. Nothing makes the process more clear than Blood Brother, a film about Rocky Braat, who left America in his late twenties to volunteer at an AIDS orphanage in India.
Now Rocky did not come from a position of fancy-college self-contentment. The film makes it clear he had little keeping him in America. What is fascinating is the wholehearted and selfless way in which Rocky embraces the children of the orphanage, who all have AIDS. They are climbing all over him throughout the whole film. They come to him with their cuts and bruises. “Oh god don’t get the blood on you!” I wanted to yell, displaying much of the intolerance cloaked in caution that many of the unenlightened in the film display. Even the filmmaker, Rocky’s close friend, is initially uncomfortable around the children. Rocky’s agape shames him, as it shamed me.
But the film isn’t all about shame. It’s about love, and death. The children’s health is always on the razor’s edge, and Rocky seems to take each death personally. Late in the film Rocky tends to a child who falls gravely ill. I won’t ruin it by trying to describe it. See if you can find the film.
This film follows young Chinese people on their quest for education and the Chinese version of the American Dream, which as it turns out, is badly translated and made out of cheap plastic! Haw haw. But seriously, the film is pretty heartbreaking. Wan Chao, a yuppie-to-be who graduates college and says all the assertive things at the job fairs… still gets the runaround. He ends up doing Excel at a big corporation, is slow at it, and gets fired. He can barely pay the rent and suffers humiliation and uncertainty at every turn. The scene of him weeping in the stairwell made all the awful anxieties of my yuppie days come rushing back to me.
Wang Pan, who scores badly on her college entrance test, becomes a kind of pariah. Her mother however, is a dynamic, amazing woman. She has one semi-functional hand and a stump, yet we see her lifting heavy cinderblocks, doing all the cooking, canvassing the rural neighborhood for a fundraiser (she handles her embarrassment with such grace). Near the end of the film, she sings a completely devastating song about how her injury (her hands were damaged by a pig when she was a baby) cost her any opportunity at education and self-advancement.
Another fascinating character to watch is Wang Zhenxiang. A self-admitted flim-flam artist for a private university, he spends half of his screen time giving talks to audiences promoting the Hongbo school, and the other half telling the filmmaker how it’s a complete scam. There is a weird glee to his confessions. We see him skipping town after a talk, admitting that he is struggling with deep guilt over swindling so many poor families.
A retrospective on the life and work of Rowland Scherman, whose photographic genius and Forrest Gump-like presence at every culturally significant event between 1960 and 1970 have made him an underappreciated titan of American art and journalism.
Follows aged architecture dynamo I.M. Pei as he undertakes a five-year project to design and build a museum in his home city of Suzhou.