Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Try to think of yourself as a producer.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

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 costumes 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? -- 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.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grey Gardens Revisited

There is an element of the hunt in documentary films, a delicious kind of trophy hunting at its lightest, but, at its heaviest, a predatory savaging of people and events that exposes the dark side of subjects and the exploitative nature of documentary film.

The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975) is a film portrait of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It’s a film about eccentrics and eccentricity, about marginal people whose living conditions reflect the condition of their lives.



Film lends itself exceptionally well to the substitution of one thing for another when two things regularly appear together. Over the course of the Maysles brothers' film, the Grey Gardens estate comes to stand for the lives of the Beales in the same way the American flag has come to stand for America and the White House for the President. If there were nothing more to Grey Gardens (1975) than that – and there is – it would still be an important work of art, because it’s a wonderful example of film as sympathetic magic. It gives us the illusion of power over the world by reducing complicated people and situations to a manageable size.

The genre the Maysles brothers chose to work in had rules, and they were accused from time to time of breaking them, of manipulating events, of straying outside the boundaries of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, particularly in the case of Gimme Shelter (1970), a sensational film that features the murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont.

Direct cinema captures real events as they happen, without interfering with them in any way. There is no direction in direct cinema, no “do this” or “do that again.” No questions. No staged scenes. Nature documentaries are perhaps the purest example of the form. The film makers witness horrific events, but never interfere. Cinéma vérité, another style of modern documentary, has some latitude. It’s more about truth than about reality, and, as long as the film conveys the truth, it may wander away from real events.

In the case of films like Grey Gardens (2009), a historical drama that HBO has run off and on since its triumph at the Emmies, neither the rules of direct cinema nor cinéma vérité apply. The intention of the producers is simply entertainment, and they're free to pick over the bones of the Maysles' kill any way they can.  HBO doesn't broadcast Grey Gardens as part of it's regular schedule anymore, but, in a move that harkens back to the days when movies were all glitz and glitter to brighten the lives of the little people, they put it up on HBO On Demand over the Christmas holidays.  "They were steeped in affluence and privilege," the HBO promo proclaims.  "Yet their lives in East Hampton became a riches-to-rags story that made national headlines."  There is a metaphor lurking around there somewhere.



A cottage industry has sprung up around Grey Gardens and the Beales since the Maysles first documented the squalor and decay of the Beales’ lives. Since Grey Gardens (1975) the documentary, we’ve had Grey Gardens the musical, Grey Gardens the book, Grey Gardens the web site and, finally, HBO's version of the Beales' story.  But I doubt HBO will have the last word.

Over the years, the Beales have attracted a cult following: people who know what it’s like to live on the fringe. But the audience for works based on the lives of the Edies is more general than a cult. It includes any of us who have ever slowed down to look at the scene of an accident. 

The story of the Edies coincides with the long, downhill slide of American society, the decay of the American dream, and the slow stratification of America into two cultures, one affluent and above ground, the other underground, it’s people trapped in poverty.  If it could happen to the Edies, it could happen to anyone.

American capitalism has always had two spurs to keep us moving up the steep hill of success. One boot prods us with the promise of fortune and fame, the other with the specter of disaster, with the threat of losing all we have suddenly or, like the Beales, gradually, as we get older. The Beales’ story is frightening and fascinating. It’s hard to look at it, but it’s harder to look away. 

The Maysles brothers had an eye for the wounded straggler, for the animal ready to die. Perhaps it’s because their subjects knew they were damaged that the Maysles brothers were able to stay above the people and events they filmed, to appear to be superior to their subjects, to have the upper hand. Their contemporary, D. A. Pennebaker, seemed more respectful, more deferential to his subjects – even, as in the case of the War Room (1993) when Pennebaker’s camera grovels at the feet of James Carville and Mary Matalin, obsequious.

Pennebaker had a knack for getting in on the beginning of things: Timothy Leary and the counterculture; Bob Dylan; Joplin and Hendricks at the Monterrey Pop Festival; and, finally, the Clintons. The Maysles brothers, Al and David, had a knack for being there at the end of things, the final acts, the death throes of the traveling salesman and the Counterculture, the unraveling of Camelot. 

By the time he filmed Grey Gardens (1975), Al Maysles was one of the best cinematographers in the world, and the Maysles brothers had mastered the art of manipulating subjects and situations. They had developed a gift for narrative unmatched in documentary film. No one tells a story the way the Maysles brothers do.



“Once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it,” Paul Brennan, the "Badger," tells the camera in Salesman (1968). Brennan suffers from too much awareness. He knows he’s a dead-ender in a dying profession. Negativity is the unpardonable sin of Brennan’s world, and Al Maysles patiently and carefully documents Brennan’s descent into negativity during Brennan’s last days as a bible salesman.

“We can get it together,” Mick Jagger tells the crowd at Altamont, just before a shot of what appears to be the Hell’s Angels killing a black fan who pulled a gun on them. Earlier in the concert, when Grace Slick, watching the Hell’s Angels beat her fans with pool cues, said: “People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line,” she was, at that spaced-out, sappy moment, more in touch with the direction of American society than the slightly confused Jagger who believed Altamont was going to set an example for America about how to behave at large gatherings.



The Maysles brothers persuaded Jagger and the Stones to let Al film them watching a rough cut of Gimme Shelter on a Steenbeck editing table, ostensibly to provide a gimmick to structure the film. The brothers’ real reason was to make the apparent knifing of a fan by the Angels the central point of the film. Without the knifing and the opportunity to make Jagger eat his words, the Maysles brothers would have had a mediocre, though beautifully photographed concert film, whose high points were scenes of Jagger expressing his androgynous sexuality and young Tina Turner fellating her microphone. The violence and the obvious naiveté of the Stones and Grace Slick gave the brothers a chance for something much bigger, a chance to take down the Stones, Slick and the Counterculture at the same time. Eerily, Jagger’s helicopter exit from the Altamont speedway foreshadowed America’s final exit from Saigon, and, by the end of Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s stare was as vacant as the barren landscape in the last shot of the film.

For big-game hunters like the Maysles brothers, who already had bagged the "Badger", the Stones, Grace Slick and the end of the Counterculture, two eccentric ladies in a run-down mansion were sitting ducks.