Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

The tide of popular culture turns amazingly fast. The rise of one myth flows in over the ebb of another, wiping out all traces of the receding myth, until that myth returns to lap even farther up the beach than before. So it goes with pop culture versions of the fall of man. They keep coming back.

In the Fifties, the French writer Romain Gary raised the issue of mankind's survival in The Roots of Heaven.  Gary's protagonist is Morel, an ordinary French dentist who goes over to the elephants in French Equatorial Africa. Morel is a misanthrope, but Gary, it turns out, is not. The ending of the novel is a tribute to the human spirit. The Fifties were the time of the beat generation, of cool, of jazz, grass, the Korean War, the rise and fall of McCarthy, the presidency of Eisenhower, the post-war boom, the poetry of Patchen and Ginsberg, the death of Robert Capa, the fall of Dien Bien Phu and Brown v. Board of Education.

Just seven years later, Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, contemplated the extinction of mankind and the rise of the ape as the torchbearer of civilization throughout the universe. The Sixties were the time of the hippies, the Cold War ascendent, the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, the Civil Rights movement, acid and acid rock, the Vietnam War, the fall of Lyndon Johnson and the rise of Nixon. Alan Ginsberg lived to see Chicago cops riot against the sons and daughters of America's middle class who had tuned in, turned on, dropped out and come back swinging against the war and the draft. I was just back from Germany where I had put in my two years as a medic at an Army hospital, getting high and shooting up Thorazine to improve my tan, so I passed on Chicago myself, but I did show my younger brother how to curl up into a ball to protect his nuts when the cops started beating him. I sent him off to Chicago with a bright red bandana to cover his nose and mouth when the tear gas began to fly.

Boulle's Planet of the Apes didn't speculate about the causes of the rise of the apes as the dominant species in the far reaches of the galaxy, or about the extinction of man and the rise of the apes on our own planet. Boulle simply presented the success of ape culture and the failure of mankind as a fact. For some unknown reason, man was just not good enough.

When Twentieth Century Fox produced the film version of Boulle's book, they apparently thought they owed the viewer an explanation. The plot of Planet of the Apes (1968) hangs on a malfunctioning starship that plunges back to Earth instead of landing on a planet at the far end of the galaxy, and on a nuclear war that wipes out the human race, letting apes take over the planet while the starship and its astronauts are gone.

In Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the human race is wiped out -- probably -- by a virus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody takes seriously the idea that man will be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust.  And we're not worried about rogue computers turning on the human race anymore.  The peril now is biological.  In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a virus that makes apes smart enough to talk and to break out of an ape jail in San Francisco is deadly to humans and highly contagious to boot. Good thing for the apes, of course, since, without the intervention of the virus they would have had one good day of beating up on the cops before the bombs started to fall.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox

The idea that apes can beat up cops is as silly as the notion that hippies can beat up cops. It's just more Hollywood eyewash in the style of the Na'vi beating down the guns and machines of corporate America to liberate Pandora in Fox's Avatar (2009). But there is a strong odor of misanthropy and self-hatred about the idea that resonates with establishement critics like David Denby of The New Yorker.

Here's Denby, waxing poetic over scenes of apes, invading a research facility. "When the apes, like water bursting through a dam, pour through the building's glass walls at different levels," Denby exults, "the image is a pop epiphany of freedom."

Something like ice breaking up and cascading down a raging river as a metaphor for revolution, I suppose.

The high water mark is definitely creeping up the sand.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Toadsuck Ferry



My friend, Ron Weiss, got a job in Arkansas, helping the Arkansas Educational TV station in Conway set up a news and documentary unit. He split his salary with me so we could make some films together. We helped the station pick the equipment and we were supposed to teach a couple of local people how to make documentaries. I don't remember if we got around to that or not.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Noir



I woke up early and went down to the Corner Bakery for a cup of coffee. I sat at the window, next to a table of Russians. I couldn't understand a word they were saying.

I was watching the raindrops race each other down the window, the big ones gobbling up the little ones that got in their way, and thinking about Raymond Chandler and The Long Goodbye, a Chandler book I'd been reading the night before, when it hit me that The Long Goodbye is Chandler's most personal and autobiographical novel.

They say Chandler's agent was disappointed by The Long Goodbye. He thought the Phillip Marlowe character had gone soft. Personally, I think Marlowe comes across as more bitter and cynical than he is in Chandler's earlier work, and more political, more angry at the rich people who shaped the West Coast.

Some people say: When you dream, everything in the dream is you. I've never looked at novels and films that way, but maybe I should.

Chandler died in 1959. He developed pneumonia after a binge.

The chronology that accompanies The Library of America's Chandler (Stories and Early Novels), ends with: "1959 ... Returns alone to La Jolla where he intended to live. Drinks heavily, develops pneumonia, and is hospitalized on March 23. Dies in Scripps Clinic at 3:50 P.M. on March 26. Buried on March 30 at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego."

Robert Altman made a film version of The Long Goodbye in 1973. In a send-up of the detective genre, Altman cast Elliot Gould as a mumbling, bumbling Marlowe who talks to his cat.

The thing about noir in books and films is there is never enough rain for me.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The West Virginia Mine Wars

The Republicans in Congress are trying to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities out of the federal budget, essentially eliminating all federal support for the arts, including support for documentary films. That's just one more way to stifle independent voices.

At a time when protests -- both non-violent and violent -- are sweeping the Middle East and Africa, and American unions -- supported by college students -- are struggling to fight off Republican attacks on the remnants of the labor movement, let's recall the kind of documentaries public money has helped produce.

Even the Heavens Weep: The West Virginia Mine Wars (1985), directed and edited by Danny L. McGuire, was produced by WPBY-TV and the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority with money from The Humanities Foundation of West Virginia and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's a simple documentary -- narration, still photos and interviews -- that recreates the beginning of the labor movement in America, and the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It packs a surprising wallop.

In 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners -- many of them WWI vets -- marched up Blair Mountain to get at the coal mines and company towns on the other side of the mountain, triggering the bloodiest fight between labor and capital in America's history. The mine owners defended their mines and shanty towns with 3,000 hired thugs -- armed with rifles, machine guns and a small cannon -- dug in at the top of Blair Mountain, and hired private planes to bomb the miners with explosives and tear gas. Finally, Warren G. Harding sent federal troops to Blair Mountain to disarm both sides. Until the documentary was made in 1985, Blair Mountain had dropped out of American history.


Even the Heavens Weep, WV Educational Broadcasting Authority

Even the Heavens Weep is an important historical document, pulled together from archival photos and news clippings, framed by a good script. The photographs of the working conditions in coal mines before the unions and of the living conditions in the "company towns" at the West Virginia mines are, at the same time, a grim reminder of the past, and a horrifying glimpse into what the future of workers might look like in America, Inc.

Even the Heavens Weep is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, West Virginia. For anyone interested in the labor movement and in understanding what that movement was originally about -- whether or not you know who John L. Lewis and Mother Jones are or where the name "redneck" came from -- it's more than worth the effort to get it.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the mine owners’ determination to smother the nascent union movement early in the 20th Century and corporate government’s determination to finish off the vestiges of the union movement now.

But it’s even harder not to see the differences. The early unions had the energy of youth and the excitement of their discovery of solidarity and brotherhood on their side, and the course of history was in their favor, even if it took ten more years, the Great Depression and the New Deal to establish the unions. (By the time Roosevelt threw the weight of the federal government behind the unions, every working man and woman in American would be hurting from the economic collapse that followed the drastic consolidation of wealth into hands of a few, privileged Americans that touched off the Great Depression.)

Nowadays, the union movement is on the wane. Fighting to protect public employee unions feels almost like fighting to protect an endangered species. Many Americans are hurting, and, in fact, will never work again. But there are too many Americans who are not hurting this time. The country and the economy is too big for 10,000 marchers to make a difference, even if they were armed — is that even conceivable anymore — and could find somebody to march against. It feels like the only thing left to document is the end of the labor movement in America. And maybe we won’t even bother to do that.

Films like Even the Heavens Weep don't cost a lot of money to make, but they do take time and dedication. And it takes backing to get the kind of interviews with historians McGuire uses to pull the archival footage and photos together. Without the mantle of the CPB, the NEA or the NEH, particularly for young film makers, getting access to credible sources can be extremely difficult --almost impossible -- to do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

mise-en-scènes: Most Of The Web's Are A Mess

We're all McLuhanistas now.

We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web, for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the world wide web, television, film, photography, music, radio, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its content.

The web started out where the media that preceded it ended up, as a mass distribution network. The content of the web, a photograph or a film, for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it collides, lickety-split, at random, with other data, but the photo or film is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic," by breaking them down and putting them together again as screenplays and films. (Or, for that matter, the way film, created for televison, is made "episodic.")

There is no art form yet the object of which is the creation of exciting web collisions, juxtapositions or chains of hyperlinks. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine what the medium that may someday subsume the web will look like -- unless it is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that imagines the ephemeral events of the web and real life as, essentially, one and the same -- much less, what the "art" of that medium might be.

Generally, art is degraded as it makes its way through the media food chain. Novel to film to cable television to YouTube snippet, inserted into an article about an article, is a downhill trip. But only the last stage of that journey, the web, was designed from the get-go to abstract, distill, decontextualize and repackage -- usually without adding value -- to transmit, or, when not simply transmitting, to transform, by reducing content to pap. When it is not just moving content from one point to another, the world wide web has managed, on purpose, to dumb down its content --print, film, television and the other media -- to an extent previously unimagined. Even more than television, the web is -- with a few notable exceptions  -- a vast graveyard where ideas and creative energy go to die.

The history of television is instructive.  Film has been kinder to books than television -- the medium the web resembles most -- has been to films. In some ways, television has advanced the art of film. Certainly, the extended time of series like The Sopranos, Rome, and Angels in America have given audiences more time with the characters and mise-en-scènes of those films than movie-going audiences ordinarily get. And mise-en-scène -- a stage term applied to film by the French critic André Bazin that refers to everything about a film except its script -- takes time to appreciate. It's mise-en-scène that makes it necessary to actually see a film before we can talk about it as film. But, at the same time that television gives audiences an extended look at the mise-en-scènes of some films, it alters the film experience by degrading a film's mise-en-scène, making it smaller, flatter and more frontal, an effect that favors montage over extended scenes whose blocking and cinematography develop the illusion of depth on the screen and recreate the real world.

Television was not conceived as a distribution medium for films any more than film was conceived as a distribution medium for books. Films may end up -- along with made for TV movies -- feeding the practically insatiable maw of cable television -- just as novels may end up as films -- but television itself was envisioned, like radio before it, as a live medium. That aspect of television is in decline, too.

The fact that television news and opinion has degenerated until even raw video of breaking events is edited, explained and commented on in search of memorable and persuasive phrases, designed to lead viewers to preconceived points of view, is not the result of television's intention, so much as it is the result of the corruption of television's original intention to reveal, inform and transport.

The web, on the other hand, has adhered to its original intention. It remains as it began, a network of people, separated in space, each identified by a unique address on the web, coalescing into temporary communities around points of common interest where data is exchanged. Some of that data is information. It actually adds to the representation of something. Most of it is redundant, simply repeating something already known, and a lot of it is noise, data that adds to the representation of nothing.

Apart from the content they pass back and forth, the world wide web and the sites on it, are not very interesting. Most sites lack the kind of structure that narrative gives to novels, plays, films and television. (Even so-called reality television is structured by formulaic plots that include some element of suspense.)

The web has not found a way to adapt content -- to transform a subject -- without copying it on the one hand, or destroying it on the other. Even when sites manage a sort of transient narrative, usually around some great and scandalous event -- a favorite of muckraking sites and tabloids -- their mise-en-scènes are, frankly, a mess. They quickly turn into echo chambers, some of the most boring sites on the web. But, I might add, some of the most popular and profitable, too.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Gasland (2010) Dick Cheney's Legacy

Every race has a dark horse, running at long odds. In this year's race for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, the dark horse may be GasLand (2010), a film by Josh Fox that takes on almost everyone in the Oil and Gas Industry, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Halliburton over the use of "fracking" -- hydraulic fracturing -- to extract natural gas from vast deposits all over the United States.

GasLand (2010) HBO Documentary Films Low Resolution Fair Use Video

While he was Vice President, Dick Cheney forced a bill through Congress that exempts fracking from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act. The drillers don't have to tell the public what's in the fracking liquid they mix with water and shoot into gas deposits where it can seep into the water supply or return to the surface, either to evaporate or to be carried off and dumped.

Fox makes the case that fracking injects dangerous chemicals deep underground to break up rock and shale, releasing vast quantities of natural gas, while polluting the water supplies of homes and towns near the wells, which, if natural gas drilling proceeds as planned, will be just about every home and town in America. The industry denies the charge that fracking poisons the environment and the people and animals who depend on the environment for clean water.

Formally, GasLand is about as simple as documentary film gets. Maybe a Ken Burns special, cobbled together from old photos, with voice over and dramatic music, requires less of the film maker, but not much less. The subject of GasLand is Fox and his quest for information about what fracking is and what it is doing to people and the environment. We tag along, learning as we go. The form will be familiar to anyone who has seen Supersize Me (2004), Religulous (2008), or any of Michael Moore's films. GasLand adheres closely to the form. We take a road trip, talk to people who have had their water poisoned by the frackers, see some drinking water catching fire right out of the tap, animals losing their fur, sick people describing their symptoms, big names in the oil and gas industry, including Boone Pickens, refusing to be interviewed, politicians ducking and obfuscating.

Fox has a personal stake in the issue. He owns 14 acres of unspoiled land in Pennsylvania -- his boyhood home -- that the gas industry is trying to lease for $100,000. Fox doesn't try to make the industry's offer into a will he lease or won't he lease cliff hanger. We find out he won't early in the film. The element of suspense in GasLand is situational. The issue of fracking is far from settled. Legislation to undo Cheney's exemption of natural gas drilling from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act is still working its way through Congress, and Pennsylvania and New York are struggling with the problem of how to protect their water supplies from the frackers. All of that counts in GasLand's favor. Timeliness is a plus for documentaries.

Fox is immensely likable. His rap is pleasant, his voice easy on the ears. Strangely enough -- and maybe it's the landscape he's traveling through -- he reminds me of Don Johnson in A Boy And His Dog (1975). That Fox is able to conjure up an apocalyptic premonition of the future, using video of natural gas drillers at work in people's backyards and tap water catching fire, is a sign of his considerable talent.

Nevertheless, GasLand is a dark horse in the Oscar sweepstakes, because it's ahead of its time. To work as exposé, it has to make fracking relevant and build some outrage against the natural gas industry. Two of its competitors, Inside Job (2010) and Restrepo (2010) just have to tap into the outrage over the global financial meltdown and the war in Afghanistan that already exists.

GasLand is available on YouTube here.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Everybody Wins

Whether or not Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary, British artist Banksy's light-hearted romp through the world of underground street art is shaping up as a win for Banksy, for his fellow street artists, and even for the collectors who, according to Banksy, bought $1 million worth of kitsch, conceived and produced with Banksy's help by the documentary film maker turned street artist: Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. "Mr. Brainwash." If the ebay value of the work the L.A. art geeks bought at Mr. Brainwash's massive 2008 Life Is Beautiful show is rising and falling with his fame, the geeks should be in better shape now than they were before Banksy released his chronicle of MBW's rise to stardom. MBW himself has made out quite well. In addition to the cash from his 2008 show, he landed a Madonna CD cover -- thereby meeting the minimum requirement for consideration as a serious graphic artist -- and he treated himself to a NYC show last year. But the biggest winner of all is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' mysterious "demopol", the nominating system that filled the Academy's hand in the category of Best Documentary by including Banksy's comedy among the five contenders.


Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Trailer banksyfilms

As the voting draws to a close, Academy members can choose from a list of documentaries that includes exposés of the global financial system and the natural gas industry, a film portrait of a rifle platoon on the ground in Afghanistan, and, remarkably, two documentaries about artists and the impact art has on people's lives. One of them is Waste Land (2010), Lucy Walker's sensitive study of Brazilian-born artist Vik Munoz and the catadores who separate recyclables from garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in the world. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is the other one. It is, at the same time, an entertaining recollection and an "exposé" of the art scene. Lucy Walker had to walk a thin line between portraying her subjects and exploiting them. Banksy never had that problem. He just had to have fun.

Exploitation and expropriation is the main -- if not the only -- point to street art, formerly known as graffiti. The streets are the canvas, and, in Banksyland at night, they belong to art and to artists in search of a perfect wall. Exit Through The Gift Shop puts Banksy's permanent mark on street art and the L.A. art scene. It's a clever expropriation of underground street art and the artists who make it, especially Mr. Brainwash, who set out to document Banksy and got documented himself. The streets and street art belong to whomever can control them, and, in Exit Through the Gift Shop at least, Banksy is in full control.

Artists synthesize experience. The successful ones also manage to create self-sustaining systems in which the sale of their work fuels the creation of more work until the balance tips in their favor and they are making enough money to expand the scope of their work. They become a brand. Banksy, of course, is there. He's able to sustain his own work, run an art factory, finance the work of other artists, and move out into new forms. And, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Banksy has a flair for film.

Exit Through The Gift Shop is the most personal of the documentaries up for an Academy Award this year. It's cinema verité that is exceptionally well done, and it neatly demonstrates the power of narrative to structure time and to entertain.

Banksy has the conventions of the exposé film down pat: the hooded sweatshirt, the pixilated faces, the voice-over that ties fragments of film together. He understands the use of foreshadowing as well as he understands what Tom Wolfe called "le monde", the insular little world of art makers, art dealers and art collectors. The first time we meet Mr. Brainwash, he's pawning off cheap clothes with unusual stitching as expensive designer clothes. The last time we see him, he's just sold a million bucks worth of art that's as questionable, from Banksy's point of view, as the money Banksy forged -- with Princess Di's face in place of the Queen's -- but was afraid to distribute. There is no law against the sale of bad art. As Wolfe famously noticed, le monde is very small, and collectors have always been driven to get in on the ground floor, running the risk of buying bargain basement clothes at designer prices, or near art -- the equivalent of the peripheral junk you pick up when you exit a museum through the gift shop.

But it is the brilliance of his editing, the way he alters reality by juxtaposing events, sequencing and resequencing time and space to sculpt a reality that never was or could be in the so-called real world, that finally sets Banksy apart. Somehow, from fragments of experience, recorded on hundreds of tapes, Banksy pulls together a complete narrative that, really, could not be any other narrative and still fit together so well. What's real and what isn't? Does it matter? I doubt there are two viewers anywhere who would agree on how much of Banksy's documentary is "made up" to provide continuity and context, or just to make a point. (Personally, I doubt Mr. Brainwash's grilling at the hands of Disneyland security after Banksy -- in one of the film's funniest scenes -- inserts a life-size, blow-up doll, wearing a black hood and orange Gitmo jumpsuit, into the Disney landscape. But I enjoy the Disneyland footage anyway.)

If Exit Through The Gift Shop -- and Banksy's work in general -- has a weakness, it's that his work is political. Banksy has a message. It's a cool message, but a message nevertheless, and Banksy has to lock it down. He can't leave room for the viewer to miss the point. He can't chance the kind of complexity that would make his art polyreferential, the kind of work that points to a multitude of things at once. Maybe that kind of work -- work that empowers the viewer to participate more in making the art -- would require Banksy to give up more control of his turf than he's willing to do right now.

And, finally, there is this.  The Life Is Beautiful show's success is all the more remarkable, because it occurs in 2008 when the American economy was already in free fall and the fault line, separating rich America and poor America -- a fissure conservatives had been hammering on since Reagan -- finally split, sending the two Americas drifting apart, though not so far apart that the poor Americans can't still see rich America and the American dream sailing away, forever out of reach.  Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences be able to ignore that coincidence and judge Banksy's work on its artistic merits alone?

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Waste Land (2010) Everybody Has To Serve Somebody

Lucy Walker took some risks when she made Waste Land (2010). There were physical risks -- dengue fever and kidnapping -- and there were artistic risks, too, hazards in the landscape that could have tripped up an emerging talent, seriously damaging her reputation as a film maker. She had to make her way carefully, avoiding sentimentality on the one hand, cynicism and exploitation on the other. She played with scale, filming the landscape from a great distance, so that the catadores, working the garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho landfill, looked like ants, until, gradually, as she approached them, coming closer and closer, they were revealed as beautiful people. (But that could have gone the other way. Had she slipped, she might have filmed interesting patterns, moving across a colorful landscape, that, on close inspection, turned out to be grostesque. Walker had to trust her cinematographers -- Dudu Miranda, Heloisa Passos and Aaron Phillips -- and they delivered.)

Walker tried, unsuccessfully I think, to contrast the poverty of the catadores with the conspicuous wealth of Rio's south zone. Ironically, in a film that makes a point of the enormous gap, separating rich Brazilians from the poor catadores who dig through their waste for recyclables, the only rich people in the film are the artists and the collectors they serve. Waste Land starts out promisingly enough, with shots of Carnaval and a short montage that follows the custumes and other garbage from Carnaval as it's loaded into garbage trucks and hauled off to the landfill. But after that, to contrast rich and poor, Walker uses the artists, auctioneers and art collectors who move Vik Muniz's images of the catadores through le monde. That narrows the field considerably. (But don't you worry, Reader. Charles Ferguson's Inside Job (2010), another Oscar contender, has enough rich people to go around.)

In a blog she wrote while she was making the film, Walker distances herself from le monde. She says Muniz describes Rio as St. Tropez, surrounded by Mogadishu. The "garbage-clad open sewer" favela her catadores live in is the worst in town. The landfill is the place where "posh rubbish from the south zone mixes with the cheap trash from the favelas."
"Evenings we return to the south zone, she writes. I sulk as I head to a delicious dinner in a bulletproof car, I'd rather be with the catadores than these billionaires moaning about the price of contemporary art. These are the people who are going to buy the art work that Vik is making in the garbage at our charity auction at Phillips. And these are the people whose garbage will be part of the piece. We're going to trace all these comings-and-goings of things."
Does she? Well, not quite, but if you've been around le monde a little, you can fill in the blanks. I remember wandering around the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston one afternoon and coming across a cocktail party in the sculpture garden. I asked the guard, a tall woman in a dark, blue suit: "What are they celebrating?" "Being so rich, I guess," she said.

All right. There always has been tension between artists and the patrons they serve. Why go to the dinner parties? Better yet, why not go and take a camera along? Even a little Flip would do. Or, best of all, why not broaden the scope of the film and give us a look at the life-style of the fat cats who live in the south zone? All of them, not just the collectors of art.

Walker does step in a hole now and then.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, she comes through the Jardim Gramacho landfill and the making of Waste Land with her artistic limbs, her integrity, and her reputation intact. Lucy Walker is an increasingly important talent, and Waste Land is a timely and engrossing film.

Early in Waste Land, while Walker's crew is filming the catadores who separate recyclables from the garbage at Jardim Gramacho, a catador, noticing the cameras, calls out: "They're filming Animal Planet!" Walker includes the remark in the film to confront the issue of exploitation head on, but the catador could not have been more wrong. Nature films are pure direct cinema. Lions maul a baby elephant. The film makers don't interfere. They record the kill and move on. Walker is up to something else.

In a statement about Waste Land, Walker tells us documentary film makers can't help interfering with their subjects. "Your presence is changing everything," she says, "there's no mistaking it. And you have a responsibility." Walker tells us Waste Land, like all of her work, is about getting to know people who you do not normally meet in your life. She aims, she says, to create an opportunity for the audience to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. That's actually a pretty limited goal. In fact, she has done much more.

Walker and her collaborator, photographer Vik Muniz, have made a genuinely anti-Fascist film.

It is the intention of Fascist art, architecture and film to reduce individual human beings to insignificance, to make them feel small. (Visit the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., or watch Leni Riefenstahl's Fascist documentary Triumph Of The Will and you'll see what I mean.) Walker and Muniz have the opposite in mind. The footage of Vik Muniz, flying into Rio to make portraits of the catadores out of the recyclables they collect at Jardim Gramacho, is strikingly similar to Riefenstahl's footage of Adolf Hitler, flying into Nuremberg for the 1934 Nazi Party Congress. (The similarity could be a coincidence, but Walker is a student of film as well as a maker of films, and my guess is that she -- on some level -- made that connection.) The intention of the Riefenstahl film is the glorification of Hitler and the Fascist Third Reich, while the intention of Waste Land is homage to the little "guy," to the working poor. If anything is glorified in Waste Land, it is humanity.

Vik Muniz wanted to find out if he could change the lives of a group of people, using the same materials they dealt with every day. Muniz showed the catadores at Jardim Gramacho how to get big bucks for their recyclables by repackaging them as art. He put together a social experiment, and Waste Land documents that experiment. Unfortunately, the Pictures of Garbage (2008) series doesn't come through in the film. The process Muniz uses to create the work is complex and abstract. He photographs catadores, posing as figures in well-known works of art, La Mort de Marat, for example, then projects a giant image of the photographs on the floor. The catadores use recyclables to realize paintings -- collages really -- from the projected images, and Muniz photographs the catadores' "paintings" to make the final work of art. There are seven of them in the Pictures of Garbage series.

Tiao as Marat Muniz Studios

(Oddly enough, "Pictures of Garbage" -- as a title -- is most interesting in English, where it picks up some real complexity from the play on the word "garbage." The pictures are of people, not garbage. And the materials used to paint them aren't garbage either. They're recyclables. The recyclables are used to outline and shade -- you might say they are where the people are not -- so the people seem to emerge from the materials, from what Muniz calls: the "garbage." All of that nuance appears to be lost in Portugese. I checked around, and I hear Brazilians never use the word lixo to refer to people. Muniz is lucky to be working in the U.S.A., a mean country that has the idioms it needs to adequately express it's meanness.)

It doesn't matter. The Pictures of Garbage series isn't about art anyway. It's about action.

And, if Muniz's images don't come through, Walker's do. And, for me, they deliver what Walker promised, an opportunity to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. Walker makes that connection in an exceptionally filmic way. I want to show you a segment of the film. It's a little long, but for anyone who wants to understand what direct cinema can be in the hands of a gifted film maker, it's worth seeing.

The situation is this. When Walker started filming Waste Land, she met a catador, Valter dos Santos, riding his bicycle, and, Walker says, right then she knew she had a film. She describes Valter as the landfill's elder statesman, recycling guru and resident bard. He's been working at Jardim Gramacho for 26 years. "It's not bad to be poor," Valter teaches. "It's bad to be rich at the height of fame with your morals a dirty shame."

Vik Muniz doesn't make a portrait of Valter, and, while Vik and young Tiao dos Santos, the charismatic president of the pickers coop, are out on the art circuit, Valter is back at the landfill. Take a look.

Waste Land by Lucy Walker Almega Projects and O2 Films

That's how documentary film makers synthesize experience and make emotionally moving films. It's how a film maker like Lucy Walker can "just tell it like it is" and still take sides. (Walker dedicated Waste Land to Valter dos Santos.)

Look. We need more artists like Lucy Walker and Vik Muniz, artists who have the power to remind us of who we were, back when we had a sense of community.

And -- at the risk of sounding too nationalistic -- we need American film makers to give us a James Agee, Walker Evans look at America -- and, yes, a Lucy Walker look at America -- and at the sore -- to borrow a phrase from Agee -- the hard, flat, incurable sore of poverty that is spreading across America.

We need American film makers to point the steady, unafraid lenses of their cameras at the real face of America, and we need to have faith that something magnificent can come from the simple act of seeing one another as we really are.

After watching Waste Land, I realize that I have chosen not to see, too often I have chosen not to even look. I have chosen not to look, because, if I looked, I might have seen, and, seeing, I might have had to do something. I have chosen not to look, just as you, Reader, and you, Mr. President, and you Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen have chosen not to look. But my eyes are wide open now. Are yours? And don't you dare pretend that you're not reading this. -- Flame Off

Next week, Inside Job (2010).

This has been a good year for documentary film. The five documentaries the Academy's mysterious nominating system picked are so good that I honestly can't say which one I'd vote for. Fortunately, I don't have to vote. The Academy, in its infinite wisdom, has not given me a vote, just as the universe has not given the ostrich the power of flight.

Restrepo (2010)


View Larger Map

As you zoom in, the arrow points to the opening of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley at the Pech River, northwest of Asadabad, near the Pakistan border.  The Korengal valley is the location of what has been, arguably, the most documented engagement between U.S. forces and the local Taliban and their allied foreign fighters in Afghanistan.  The fight for control of the Korengal Valley has been recorded in award-winning photographs, a long article in the New York Times Magazine, and, of particular interest, in Restrepo, a direct cinema film by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that's available for sale or rental as a DVD and as streaming video from Netflix and Amazon.  The film won an award at Sundance last year, and it's been nominated for an Academy Award.  There is not a lot of direct cinema around anymore, and this one deals with a serious subject, with life and death decisions.  On top of that, it must have been an exceptionally hard film to make. 

The Hetherington-Junger documentary illustrates the difference between documentary film on the one hand and photographs and print on the other for practioners of the art and for viewers of documentary films as well.  The challenges the film makers face in Restrepo are the same challenges direct cinema and cinéma vérité film makers always face:  telling a story without narration, tying episodes together seamlessly, slapping on enough detail to make the film come to life and give viewers a sense of being there.  In addition, they had to stay alive.












OP Restrepo as it appears in the film.  Whoever shot this scene is outside the outpost, exposed to enemy fire. (Update: Tim Hetherington was killed by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, 4/20/2011.)

The efforts of the film makers and the film's subjects, the professional soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company, are exceptional, but, as film, Restrepo is not exceptional.  As document, it fills some gaps that photography and print can't fill, and, for a few minutes, it achieves brilliance, but it relies too much on photography, print and a viewer's personal memories to fill the gaps in its incarnation as a 90-minute feature film.  I suspect there is an exceptional 30-minute film buried in Restrepo, but, if it's there, Junger and Hetherington didn't find it.

The experience of art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience, and fragmented videos like Restrepo require viewers to participate to an unusual extent.  The more we know about combat, the more gaps we can fill and the more complete and convincing Restrepo seems, especially as we recall the film a couple of days later, after the images have sunk in.

Restrepo was brought to my attention by a Marine who thought it captured the essence of combat better than any film he'd seen.  He and I are both aware of the movie's many shortcomings, its lack of a central theme beyond the notion that war is hell, its episodic and elliptical nature, the absence of a point-of-view that reveals what the GIs are shooting at -- we see bombs, rockets and mortars going off in the valley, but most of the time the soldiers could be firing their own weapons into thin air for all we know -- but, for him, the personalities of the soldiers make the film worthwhile.  For me, it's the greasy grill in the snack bar, the cramped bunks, the mysterious spotting device that looks like it was covered up to keep us from seeing what it is.  More cerebral than my Marine friend, I admire the idea of OP Restrepo, the gesture, while he admires the spirit of the men who manned the post.

For others, the appeal of Restrepo may lie in the irony of viewing a film about combat in the Korengal Valley, knowing that American troops withdrew from that valley in April of 2010, after entering it 5 years earlier specifically to pick a fight with the Taliban and the foreign fighters there.  America did not stay the course in the Korengal Valley.  Some might say the soldiers and Marines who died there died in vain.  And some might say that the valley is a metaphor for America's war in Afghanistan, a war that is sure to end in some kind of stalemate, with neither the United Nations nor the Taliban winning a clearcut victory.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley off and on during 2007 and 2008.  Other reporters were there at the same time, notably, Elizabeth Rubin.  Her story for the New York Times Magazine, Battle Company Is Out There, with photos by Lynsey Addario,  fills most of Restrepo's gaps.  Indeed, Restrepo works best for me when I think of it as video that illustrates Rubin's article.

Restrepo The Movie, a web site devoted to promoting the film and Junger's book version of the fight for the Korengal Valley, War, has photos of the 2nd Platoon, video interviews, some outcuts from the film and some Hetherington pictures.  A little blog at the site has an entry that reminds us that Juan Restrepo was a real person who died in combat and is remembered and mourned by his family.

Reading the Rubin article and spending some time at the Restrepo web site before you watch the film -- or reading Rubin and visiting the film's web site, then viewing the film again if you've already seen it -- may add to the depth of your viewing experience.  It's something I'd recommend you do.

The web site tells us that Restrepo is "an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you."  And, describing their film -- in all modesty I suppose, --- the directors themselves assure us that: "This is reality."

But the reality is that Junger and Hetherington's cameras do leave the valley.  They go to Italy with Battle Company when the company redeploys, and the film makers take the soldiers of Battle Company into a studio and interview them there.  Ironically, those interviews, those remembrances of combat, provide the glue that holds the video fragments Junger and Hetherington recorded on the ground in Afghanistan together.  And it is the interviews that come just before some fragments of video shot in the middle of operation Rock Avalanche, a six-day fight around the village of Yaka China, that -- for a few minutes -- lift Restrepo to the level of brilliant documentary. 

Like Junger's documentary book, A Perfect Storm, Junger and Hetherington's Restrepo is about death, even to the extent that, if nobody had been killed during the year they spent making the film, it's doubtful Restrepo would have been distributed.   But American soldiers did die in the Korengal Valley that year, and, as he did in A Perfect Storm, although he does not attend their deaths, Junger recreates their dying.  To be sure, Junger does not presume to tell us how it feels to die in combat the way he told us how it feels to drown in A Perfect Storm.  We learn from the soldiers that "Doc" Restrepo, the medic for whom outpost Restrepo and the film are named, was wounded soon after he arrived in the valley and bled to death in a medevac helicopter on the way to a field hospital.  We're not there when Restrepo dies.  But when another soldier, Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, is killed, we're as close to the action and to the emotions of his comrades as it's possible to get without being there.

There is something uncomfortable -- disrespectful maybe --about deconstructing a film that shows an American soldier dying in a war that is, for some of us, morally, strategically and even tactically ambiguous.  After five years of fighting for the valley, the battleground turned out to be of no strategic value. The tactic of seizing the high ground and setting up an outpost -- OP Restrepo -- to draw the enemy in did not work.  The attack on the outpost never came, and Battle Company's CO, Dan Kearney, was forced to take his soldiers down the valley to engage the Taliban in Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle that is the climax of the film and the low point of Battle Company's deployment in the Korangel Valley.

Veteran combat photographers used to advise rookies to use fast film, a fast shutter, stop down, focus at 10 meters and shoot anything that moves.  That works to illustrate a story, but to tell a story with pictures, especially one that unfolds over months of fighting, much of it at night, needs a better plan.

Elizabeth Rubin says she went to Afghanistan with a question:  Why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes?   After a few days, that question sparked others.  Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign?  Why were more American troops being killed every year?

Those questions led Rubin to focus her article on the life and death decisions being made every day in the Korengal Valley and on the man making most of them:  Dan Kearney, the lord of the Korengal Valley.  She follows Kearney through a fire fight that ends with him killing a woman and a child when he destroys a house with armor-piercing missiles, and on into Operation Rock Avalanche, a mission Rubin says many thought insane.  It's during Rock Avalanche that Rubin's rendition of the battle for the Korengal Valley syncs up with Junger's and Hetherington's in her account of the action that cost Staff Sergeant Rougle his life.

I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood. The shot to his arm had hit an artery. Rice was shot in the stomach. A soldier was using the heating chemicals from a Meal Ready to Eat to warm Vandenberge and keep him from going into shock.


Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him. Someone had already covered him with a blanket. Only the soles of his boots were visible.


“There’s nothing you could do,” Piosa said, grabbing Clinard’s shoulder. “You got to be the man now. You can do it. I need you to get down to Rice and Vandenberge and get them to the medevac.” Clinard wiped his face, seemed to snap to and headed off through the trees.

It may be that some day someone like Sebastian Junger or Elizabeth Rubin will write a book, and the electronic version of that book will include hyperlinks to video clips that illustrate the author's prose.  The words and images and sounds will all come together in the same work  -- a new kind of art that combines the best of narrative, video, photography and sound.

Or maybe we'll have to keep pulling that kind of work together ourselves, creating cathedrals of our own imagining like my recollection of Restrepo, with chapels by Rubin and Junger, stained glass windows by Hetherington and Addario, statues of Restrepo, Rougle, Kearney and Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, clips from YouTube put up there by GIs -- and, high up on a back roof, a little gargoyle fashioned from these thoughts.

Restrepo is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Madison Avenue

Madison Avenue hacks have been ripping off talented artists since the early days of advertising, but the rip offs seem to get worse every year.

The people producing ads these days don't have the art historical references to understand the work they're ripping off. Their knock offs aren't just unoriginal. They're bad.

The latest example is an AT&T rip off of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The producer probably saw an article about Christo and Jeanne-Claude somewhere -- though I doubt he or she ever actually saw a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project -- and figured it would be a good idea to make a visual pun on the word "cover" by showing buildings and other landmarks being draped in colored cloth.



This pretentious commercial, the latest in AT&T's ongoing "coverage" war with Verizon, is a good example of how mangled art turns up in advertising, and it could have some unintended consequences for AT&T. That's what they get. As every school child knows, you're not supposed to "touch the art." If AT&T rethinks anything, they should rethink this ad, before Verizon jumps on it with an ad that takes the wraps off.

I see people working in an office with big windows and a fantastic view. Some of them are talking on their cell phones. Suddenly, their windows are covered by falling drapes, the room gets dark and the cell phones stop working. We see AT&T covering buildings, cities, a beach. Everything stops until Verizon starts tearing down the drapes, uncovering buildings, rolling up the fabric covering the beach. The cell phones start working again.

Here's a real Christo and Jeanne-Claude project from the Sixties. A study for a wrapped beach in Australia.



If the ad person who produced the AT&T ad had actually experienced a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project, he or she might have realized that wrapping an object confines it, hides it, interferes with it, shuts it up and closes it in. Something wrapped is limited by the wrapping. It's the unwrapping that's the significant event.



Christo's Valley Curtain at Rifle Gap, Colorado. The size and shape of the "waves" are based on Coast Guard research and designed to evoke feelings of dread.

AT&T has had to remake their commercial and add a disclaimer, saying that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have nothing to do with AT&T. One more obnoxious commercial like this one and I'll join them.

Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling

Kathyrn Bigelow is about to become the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director.

Whether she deserves the Best Director prize -- and I happen to think she does -- is beside the point.  Ms. Bigelow will come away with the Oscar for Best Director as a consolation prize, because the Academy can't afford to admit that The Hurt Locker was the best picture of the year.

The Hurt Locker is up against Hollywood's real glass ceiling:  the industry's profit margin.

Can Hollywood acknowledge that a low-budget movie that has grossed less than $20 million is a better film than the box office event Avatar that has grossed over $1 billion and is on its way to becoming one of the most profitable films of all time?  Can the industry tell moviegoers:  Thanks for the bucks, but the 3D spectacle you blew your money on last Christmas wasn't a great movie after all?

The face-off between The Hurt Locker and Avatar has been billed as woman against man, ex-wife against ex-husband, blockbuster against art house breakout.  But, in the most basic sense, the confrontation looming at the Academy Awards is about whether movies can come to grips with the human condition instead of trying to escape from it.

Can we afford to make movies that synthesize real experience, to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists, or can we only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world?

Rejecting The Hurt Locker will be a clear statement that Hollywood doesn't have the heart to take on the real world.  In the head-to-head match-up between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, there is no question that The Hurt Locker is the better film.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event, designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release has been accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. It’s probably the first of many 3D blockbusters Hollywood will crank out over the next couple of years, and, in that sense at least, it represents the future of the industry.

Unfortunately, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills. Worst of all, the film consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them.  In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves.  Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.

There is more real meaning in any single scene of The Hurt Locker than there is in all of Avatar.

Ms. Bigelow's film conveys both the incredible pressure American troops in Iraq have been under to make instant life-and-death decisions and the limits of high-tech to take the pressure off of them.  As she develops the film's premise that war is addictive, it doesn't take us long to discover it's not just Sgt. James who's addicted to war, it's America itself that's addicted as well.  In James' case, it's an addiction that craves the unmediated experience of danger.  He disarms bombs with his own hands.  But it's an addiction that's tempered by James' and his team's regard for human life.

Ms. Bigelow's GIs are reluctant killers who risk their own lives to save the lives of others.  Somehow, as we watch James' teammate, Specialist Eldridge, struggle to engage the enemy, Ms. Bigelow leads us to the realization that we are all Specialists now.

Critics of the Iraq occupation will find no cheap shots at America or the American military in The Hurt Locker.  Ms. Bigelow invites us to see the war from the point of view of our best kind of soldier -- one whose job is to save lives, not take them.

That one of them is unable to find his way home, that by the end of the film all he wants is another moonwalk down a deserted Baghdad street in search of another bomb,  says something important, though disturbing, about what it means to be a human being -- or a nation -- at war.


Nevertheless, Hollywood will split the Oscars between Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Cameron.  Ms. Bigelow will win the Best Director Oscar, but the Best Picture award will go to Avatar.  That's the bottom line.

The Hurt Locker May Have A Chance After All


(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Just when I thought Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker didn't have a chance to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the AP reports that some pesky Palestinians have decided to get into the act. Palestinian protesters at Bilin have painted themselves blue and posed as characters from Avatar.  Apparently, the demonstrators equate their fight at Bilin to the Na'vi's fight against intergalactic corporatism in Cameron's film.

With the Best Director Oscar already in the bag for Bigelow, Cameron now finds his Best Picture Oscar in jeopardy. Hollywood needs 3D, but do they need it enough to associate themselves with a film that's been picked up on by those controversial Palestinians?

Could be a sweep for Bigelow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The 3D Bubble

After single-handedly creating a 3D bubble with Avatar, James Cameron is trying to fill it. Since Avatar was released last year, the universe of available 3D screens has doubled internationally. That's a lot of seats to fill.

So Cameron's Avatar, already the highest grossing movie of all time, is being re-released today.

The marketing angle for the re-release, aimed at filling some of those seats in the over-built world of 3D theaters, is nine -- yes, nine -- previously unseen minutes of film, picked up from the cutting room floor.

Avatar fans will see their beloved Na'vis mourn the death of a fallen warrior in a "big, emotional scene" that Cameron claims is the best CG he's done. (Like Jesus, Cameron has saved his best wine for last.)

We're also promised a "rousing action-adventure, pulse-pounding" hunting sequence.

Following the re-release today, an extended Avatar DVD will be released in November that includes the new footage, plus an "alternate reality version" of the film that is 16 minutes longer than the original.

Cameron says it will be a long time before there is an Avatar sequel -- if we're lucky, it will be a very long time -- but, apparently, Cameron will be able to find plenty of scraps to keep Avatar fans on the hook during the long wait.

The success of Avatar is a sign of the times. It tells us more about ourselves and the world we live in now than about whether Avatar is a particularly good film, or even a particularly entertaining one.

Escapist movies do well in hard times. And the times these days are hard enough to require exceptionally escapist movies. Avatar fills the bill. More than anything else, it's a movie about escaping from the reality of the human condition.

Sadly, it's not a good movie to boot. In fact, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills.

Worst of all, Avatar consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them. In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves. Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.

Maybe the times are too hard for films that synthesize real experience. Maybe Hollywood can't afford to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists. Maybe the market will only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event. It was designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release was accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. The industry is betting it will be the first of many 3D blockbusters that will be cranked out over the next couple of years. The theaters and seats are waiting. And Cameron has set the bar low enough that Avatar might represent the future of the industry.

That's a pity, because Cameron has done much better in the past. In Avatar, the 3D technology Cameron pursued so faithfully and so completely was just frittered away.

In his best film, T2, Cameron resolved the age-old conflict between human beings and machines by uniting the best of humans and the best of machines in Schwarzenegger's cyborg.

In T2's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the caldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron uses a series of close-ups to create a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of the cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.


But, in Avatar, Cameron rejects humanity to pursue a comic book vision of nature in revolt against man and his efforts to subdue it.

To his credit, Cameron has always sided with men and women who oppose the cynical exploitation of people and nature by corporations. But that's a theme he developed far more successfully years ago in Aliens (1986) and in The Abyss (1989), although Cameron's efforts along those lines never approached the movie Avatar rips off most blatantly, Roland Joffe's moving and historically accurate film, The Mission (1986).

Cameron's reprise of The Mission is pure escapism that offers his audience the temporary and vicarious thrill of watching alien natives defeat well-armed corporate mercenaries.

Ultimately, films exist as memories. I saw Avatar twice when it was first released, once in digital 3D and once in IMAX 3D. I don't vividly remember a single image from the film.

Maybe that's the key to a successful re-release. If you don't remember a film at all, it makes sense to see it again. In the inside out, upside down world of pop culture, the most forgettable films will have the longest lives. Viewers will watch them again and again, as though they're seeing them for the very first time.

Jonah Hex

It's easy to be dismissive of Jonah Hex, Jimmy Hayward's box office flop.



The film grossed a meager 5 million bucks the weekend it opened, far behind Toy Story 3, and was universally panned by reviewers -- and not without good reason.

The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2.  But, watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.

Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovitch seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Humbolt, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.

Megan Fox is billed as a star, but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.

Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out.  Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.



Tallulah Black and El Diablo

Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.

The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex.  And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie.  Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films. 
Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book.  Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 90 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.

But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?

Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film.  If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.



The real Jonah Hex

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fall Of 2007

The 83rd Academy Award nominations for documentary film were announced last week.  Collectively, this year's nominees documented the global financial meltdown, fracking for natural gas, edgy street art, dumpster diving on a massive scale, and war on the ground in Afghanistan. 

More than other genres, documentary films tend to be political and, sometimes, combative.  Their intent is to document something, and it's hard, if not impossible, to separate the importance of what they document from the skill with which they document it.  One suspects that Restrepo, an important film that's not particularly well made, is the odds on favorite this year, especially because the first living GI to win the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War fought in the combat operation Restrepo documents.  (I jotted down some thoughts about Restrepo earlier this year.)  But it's entirely possible that the Academy will decide that the global financial crisis or what natural gas producers are doing to the environment outweighs the war in Afghanistan, or even that the artistry of Waste Land or Exit Through The Gift Shop deserves the Best Documentary award.  The Academy often surprises me.  Last year, when I commented on Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling, I was convinced the Academy would hand Kathryn Bigelow the Best Director Oscar, but wouldn't -- couldn't afford to, really -- give the Best Picture award to The Hurt Locker in the face of Avatar's overwhelming box office and the massive build-out in 3D venues that was going on all over the world.  The Academy proved me wrong.  They showed me they did "have the heart to take on the real world."  (Unless, of course, it was those pesky Palestinians who did Avatar in by painting themselves blue in Bil'in -- a case of bad timing for James Cameron.)

Documentary films about current events and living people are very much about timing.  In the Sixties, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame ran an hour and was considered gutsy journalism.  Fifty years later, a CBS follow-up on migrant farm workers merited only 5 minutes of air time. 

The September Issue (2009), directed by R.J. Cutler and filmed by Robert Richman, is a documentary film that illustrates the importance of -- and the surreal nature of -- timing.  The film is a portrait of Anna Wintour, Vogue's U.S. editor-in-chief, and Grace Coddington, her creative director, shot in the context of the roll-out of Vogue's collossal September 2007 Fall fashion issue.

 Vogue Cover, September 2007                      
  Low Resolution Fair Use Image                    

The September Issue is an examination of power and manipulation, and, especially, of power in the hands of a competent and confident woman.  Most film portraits of women executives show embattled women, under fire and hanging on by their fingernails.  In 2007, Anna Wintour was firmly entrenched and riding the wave of a booming economy and fashion industry.  The sub-text of The September Issue is an examination of a successful collaboration, of the way editors and artists work in the real world, and of the way auteurs like Wintour and Coddington make signature art out of the work of creative people.  And it is, finally, a comment on relevance, satisfaction, and the underlying insecurity that saps joy from even the most successful celebrities.

Formally, The September Issue is an example of cinema verité in its simplest, least challenging form. It mixes more or less coherent shots of live action with interviews. The problem with that approach is that it turns the film into a contest of sorts. The film maker tries to get at the truth, the subjects of the film try to hide it — or, at least, to slant the truth. Interviews are like testimony, the characters tell you what they want you to know.


Not surprisingly, the live action scenes tell us more about Anna Wintour than she tells us about herself. Her center stage seat at shows and the nervous fawning of the designers she visits deliver a convincing picture of her position atop the world of design in 2007.

The September Issue was filmed in 2007, just before the beginning of the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession.  If the world's business cycle were depicted as a giant rollercoaster, the lift sweeping up to dizzying heights, the first drop plunging down at the steepest angle the human body can tolerate without blacking out, Anna Wintour and Vogue were, in September of 2007, poised on the brink of the fall.  The September issue of Vogue, essentially an extravagantly produced catalog of designer clothes and accessories, ran 840 pages.  The issue has become a collector's item, selling on ebay for as much as $500 a copy.  In 2007, it was a celebration of the fashion industry, a self-congratulatory revel in wealth reminiscent of Versailles with one important difference:  the world of fashion and the incomes that sustain it have barely taken a hit from what has been, for the ordinary men and women who used to pick up Vogue on their way out of the supermarket, a devastating recession.  To be sure, Vogue's advertising revenues are down from 2007, when one of Vogue's advertisers, Burton Tansky of Neiman Marcus implored Anna Wintour to pressure the designers she had under her thumb to deliver their creations faster.  (If you want to see how a powerful man on the verge of a rant can be reined in by a beautiful woman, watch Wintour's pat on the hand settle Tansky down.)  But the drop in ad revenue may be more a reflection of a general feeling of discontent in an industry whose players were personally bilked by money managers than a reflection of specific worries about the global demand for designer clothes or the bang for the buck of advertising dollars.  After all, weren't most of those ads in the September issue a display of plumage, a demonstration of the wealth and importance of the advertiser?

Last night, ploughing through a copy of Vogue's September issue I brought home from my public library, I was struck by the fact that I had to wade through 313 pages of ads before I encountered the first snippet of text pretending not to be advertising.

Then, in a typical pop culture collision,  I found a Rebecca Johnson profile of Michelle Obama, complete with gorgeous photographs by Annie Leibovitz, sandwiched between Grace Coddington fashion spread and a charming essay about life at the top of the New York scene in a Greenwich Village townhouse whose decor, according to the article, was inspired by the Barbara Streisand remake of A Star Is Born.

Vogue    September 2007, pp 774,775                         
Photograph:  Michelle Obama by Annie Liebovitz 
 Low Resolution Fair Use Image                                 

Was Hillary Clinton just not fashionable enough for her party's elite?  Is Michelle Obama as perfect as the Vogue interview and Liebovitz photographs make her seem?    Or were the images of Michelle Obama manipulated like the images of the models in the Coddington photoshoots with their interchangeable heads, bodies and air-brushed skin, photoshopped to perfection?  Did Vogue prepare the small town Iowa battleground for an Obama victory?  Did a media empire help bring down Hillary Clinton because she was no longer chic, no longer the face of the future toward which fashion -- at least in the mind of Anna Wintour -- must incline.  I suppose that's a stretch, more the stuff of fiction than of some documentary that might have been made.  But I think it's self-evident that the Obamas' style is rather neatly tuned to the style of Conde Naste publications like Vogue, The New Yorker and Wired.

Of course, there are no scenes of the Michelle Obama interview in Cutler and Richman's documentary film.  Successful politicians learned as far back as the Kennedy era to keep documentary film makers at a distance.

The people who get scrutinized in The September Issue are Wintour and Coddington, and the element of suspense that holds the film together -- even documentaries require some kind of glue -- is Grace Coddington's struggle to get her art, intact, into the issue, even though it is often at odds with Wintour's vision.   In the end, Grace gets most of her work in -- at one point she observes that she nearly has the entire issue to herself -- because she can do what artists do:  synthesize experience.  Everything is grist for Coddington's mill and her imagination, even the documentary film makers themselves.  Before the film is over, she has Richman jumping -- if not through hoops -- at least up and down.

Coddington may be the resident genius at Vogue, but she doesn't get the cover.  For that job, Wintour brings in Italian photographer Mario Testino.  And, to my eye, it is Testino, not Coddington, who, in a homage to Fellini, manages to produce the only images that are distinguishable from and rise above the pages and pages of ads.

Vogue  September 2007  Photograph by Mario Testino
  Low Resolution Fair Use Image                                         
                                 
The real winner in The September Issue is, of course, Anna Wintour.  After living for four years with the rumor -- or the fact -- that she was the inspiration for the The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue gave Wintour an opportunity of create her own image.  She comes across as determined and opinionated, without seeming abusive, a far cry from the editor in The Devil Wears Prada.  If anything, Wintour manages, as improbable as it seems, to portray herself as quite vulnerable.  She appears to have gotten what she wanted from the film.


The September Issue  A&E IndieFilms and Actual Reality Pictures

Not that I'm completely surprised.

Maybe it was the faint scent of expensive perfume still lingering on the pages of my library copy of Vogue or maybe I overdosed on the images of beautiful women, but, watching The September Issue and Anna Wintour, I suddenly remembered filming an interview with Lady Bird Johnson -- a woman I had not thought of as particularly attractive -- at her television station in Austin.  After the interview, I rode down in an elevator with her, and I was shocked to find myself suddenly overwhelmed by her perfume, her dark red lipstick, perfect make-up and luxuriant fur coat, her obvious wealth and power.  Maybe it was pheromones.  I could barely breathe, and, when we got off of the elevator, my hands were shaking and I was feeling weak in the knees.

The September Issue is available from Amazon and Netflix.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Legacy Of Fred W. Friendly And Edward R. Murrow



In 1960, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow teamed up to make Harvest of Shame.  The film was Murrow's last television documentary before he left CBS to head up John F. Kennedy's United States Information Agency and the Voice of America.  Ironically, as a U.S.I.A bureaucrat, Murrow tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a B.B.C. broadcast of Harvest of Shame.

Harvest of Shame documented the living conditions of American migrant farm workers, and recorded the prevailing attitude of big business, lobbiests and government officials toward the farm workers and their living conditions.

Edward R. Murrow has had many imitators, but none of them has managed to channel Murrow's combination of serious journalism and real concern for people who were unable to manage in any way the oppressive political and economic culture that impinged on their lives.

Harvest of Shame is one of television's most respected documentaries, not because it was especially effective, but because of its intention and style.

Harvest of Shame originally aired just after Thanksgiving Day in November 1960. A follow-up report by CBS last year -- a 5 minute segment, compared to the 50 minutes of the original -- found that the migrants' pauper wages were a little better and the workers were mostly poor Hispanics now instead of poor blacks and whites, but the working conditions and daily lives of migrant farm workers have not much changed.

Harvest of Shame gave a face to the faceless, advocated for the powerless, and created a lasting example of how television documentaries -- and journalism in general -- can engage important issues without bias or polemics, with compassion instead of passion, and with respect for its subjects.

The shots of workers, voicing their frustration about trying to make a living at the bottom of the American economy, and the shots of a corporate lobbiest, reducing and explaining away the tragedy of people permanently abandoned to poverty, could, in these times of massive, permanent unemployment and under-employment -- especially of the undereducated and people over 50 -- be filmed today. We only lack the film makers, journalists, and the subjects who -- like the migrant farm workers of the 60's -- convincingly demonstrate the flaws in American society, the disjunction between our basic values and the way we allow some of our fellow Americans to live.

Harvest of Shame, for the most part, let's the workers and bureaucrats speak for themselves, admittedly in the context of Murrow's narration. But the film manages to balance Murrow's narration with the true faces and voices of the workers, captured by David Lowe, in a way that never overpowers the workers and their story. Typically, Murrow closed the show with a comment that conveys his belief that words — and reason — matter, that it is possible to talk about occasions for anger, without histrionics and without acting anger out.



Are there real barriers to producing documentaries like Harvest of Shame these days? In many ways, they should be easier to do. The cost of video equipment is more affordable than it's ever been, and venues like YouTube let documentary film makers "self publish." The problem, if there is one, lies in finding subjects.

Harvest of Shame can be purchased on DVD at Amazon, or, with a leading commercial, be viewed for free at YouTube or CBS News.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

He had it all.  Biomimicry, a gas gun that made a wierd sound, a big, fast car, called the Black Beauty, an Asian sidekick and The Flight Of The Bumblebee.  I listened to The Hornet on the radio; read the comic books; watched the movie serial on Saturdays.  Van Williams played the Hornet and Bruce Lee played Kato on TV.  There's a great scene of Lee taking a Green Hornet set apart in the Bruce Lee bio-pic: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.  So, I had high expectations for The Green Hornet (2011), the Seth Rogen and Jay Chou movie directed by Michel Gondry that opened this weekend.

But, once you get past the twist that the movie is a comedy based on a premise that would have made a good Saturday Night Live skit, there's not much there, unless you think it's fun to play Name That Team and come up with interesting duos that Rogen and Chou remind you of.  I figure Aykroyd and Belushi or Aykroyd and Murray or Aykroyd and just about anyone. 

Rogen was one of the Hornet's writers, and he's probably a better writer than a comedian.  Some of the gags and one-liners in The Green Hornet are laugh-out-loud funny.  But be sure to see the 3D version.  I imagine the film would be incredibly boring in 2D, mainly because The Green Hornet lacks an interesting villian.  Making a fun, comic rendition of a comic book is at least as good an idea as making an exceptionally dark one, but comedy or no, comic book heroes and comic book movies need interesting villains, and The Green Hornet's Chudnofsky falls flat on his face. 

Cameron Diaz is adequate in the Girl Friday role.  Her face is the only image from The Green Hornet that sticks in my memory.  It's as if she's the first real person I've seen in 3D.  Tom Wilkinson does a brilliant turn as the Hornet's dad.

Hollywood badly needs to come up with a new superhero worthy of sequels and prequels, and some blockbuster films to fill the 3D bubble created by Avatar.  The Green Hornet doesn't seem likely to fill either bill.