Coming soon – very delayed details and photos of our trip to Mexico City in March 2017!
Coming soon – very delayed details and photos of our trip to Mexico City in March 2017!
Sightseers is the most classic example of deadpan, British black comedy involving light-hearted bloodshed you ever will see. The story follows a young couple as they roadtrip up the Yorkshire coast in a caravan to see all sorts of kooky national landmarks (a tram museum, a pencil factory, etc.). Girlfriend Tina is a dowdy 30-something who lives with her dog-obsessed mother in their kitschy, crochet-filled flat, while her boyfriend Chris is a good-natured bear of a fellow with a big ginger beard. Despite her mother’s conspicuous disapproval they stock up their caravan and head out on the road together, gently snarking at each other over trivialities and rocking the caravan with their boisterous lovemaking. That is, until they meet an unrepentant serial litterer and Chris backs over him with their trailer. Thus begins their descent into darkness as they journey up the coastline, killing off douchebags as they go. There’s the pompous couple in the caravan park that belittle their fashion choices, a holier-than-thou cross-country walker who insists they pick up their doggy doodoo, an unsuspecting runner along the road, the bride-to-be that runs awry of Tina when she hooks up with Chris during a bachelorette party… all of them succumb to the rapidly unraveling mental states of the two travelers. They kill out of frustration, anger, boredom, and possessiveness, and their newly-minted relationship begins to suffer and disintegrate in the process.
The wonderful thing about Sightseers is that it attempts to be something a little bit more than just a black comedy (or rather, perhaps it succeeds at doing this precisely because it’s a black comedy). You can enjoy the film on the surface of its absurdity, but its complicated characters ask you to invest a little bit more than the average. Its characters are likeable, awkward, lonely, and slightly bizarre, perfectly depicted through their tastes for things like giant souvenir pencils and hot pink, hand-crocheted crotchless panty sets. Chris channels a deeply repressed, frustrated “writer” with absolutely no ideas, while Tina just wants the simple things in life (her teacup-sized puppy and a partner that isn’t her oppressive mother). While Chris finds himself killing out a of rapidly-developing state of uncontrollable rage and frustration, Tina finds herself gaining confidence by harnessing an anger she didn’t even know she had. It asks all sorts of fun questions, like “How much is too much?” and “Just how far will you go for someone you love?” and “Can you ever truly act without some hint of selfish motivation?” But if there’s just one thing to take away from this film, it’s this: it truly is the quiet ones you need to be afraid of!
*The movie was also preceded by the hilariously dark short film Bear, a preview of which can be seen below. The full version is currently only being shown at film festivals, but it’s so surprising that I don’t want to ruin the ending for you! I’ll post it here as soon as the full version is available online*
An alternative for those who enjoy 90s horror movies, government conspiracy thrillers, Joss Whedon or a combination of the above (I’m looking at you, Tim!), The Cabin In The Woods is the flick for you. It’s an ode to classic genre conventions that finds five friends (the jock, the blonde, the stoner, the geek, and the improbably hot virgin) taking a weekend trip to a remote cabin in the woods. Things start to go downhill almost immediately, and it’s a typical bloodbath from there. A hilarious, surprisingly smart, hugely entertaining and inventive bloodbath.
Writers Josh Whedon (the brains behind visionary series like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity, and Dollhouse) and Drew Goddard flip the horror genre on its head by harnessing every convention in the book. The over-used “cabin-in-the-woods” cliche suddenly finds itself bookended within the context of a top-secret, multinational military science experiment whose purpose isn’t revealed in full until the very end. Of course there are all the typical paradigms you expect to find in horror movies (supernatural elements, killers out for vengeance, allegories about sex, consumerism, voyuerism etc.), but it’s also wonderfully nuanced and un-self-conscious. Each of the stereotypical characters embodies more than you would have expected — the virgin isn’t actually a virgin, for example — and it takes a playful approach to all of those horror movie cliches we’re all so used to. At the same time, the film’s set about 30 IQ points higher than it needs to be. (It has a lot to say about the entertainment industry, man’s appetite for violence and our age-old relationship with the supernatural, for example). It even has some playful commentary on the demonization of cannabis! If that’s not enough to convince you, the cast also involves Chris Hemsworth (Thor), the Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins, half the cast from Dollhouse, and SIGOURNEY FUCKING WEAVER. Enough said.
Day Seven started with a combined showing of two hour-long documentary portraits of United States death row inmates James Barnes and Linda Carty. Death Row: Barnes/Carty is a continuation of Herzog’s larger series of documentaries exploring capital punishment in the United States (the first of which, Into The Abyss, I wrote about almost a week ago). James Barnes, an inmate currently awaiting a date for his death sentence in Florida, was convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of his wife. In prison he converted to Islam however, and confessed to another murder (a horrific, infamous “burning bed” murder committed in 1988) during the holy month of Ramadan. A sociopath with a long history of arson and animal abuse, Barnes comes across as smart, articulate, and direct – apparently repentant, but not to be trusted. Equally as remarkable is Herzog’s second interview with Lisa Carty, who conned three men into helping her burglarize a house by promising them drugs (while actually intending to murder the pregnant female resident and surgically remove the baby from inside her womb). Carty, who was an informant for the DEA at the times, proclaims her innocence to this day despite the overwhelming evidence against her (including caches of baby clothes and other paraphernalia found inside her home).
The thing I appreciated most about Herzog’s Death Row portraits were that they accomplished (at least for me) what Into The Abyss did not – they actually placed the issue of capital punishment in context. Herzog begins the series with a brief overview of the capital punishment system in the United States, including the number of states that currently allow it, and openly admits he does not support the killing of convicted criminals. However, he successfully avoids making the film(s) into propaganda. Instead, he unflinchingly presents the facts of each case. Herzog approaches each of his subjects with empathy and curiosity but doesn’t shy away from acknowledging their actions and asking hard questions. As he tells each inmate before their interview, “I don’t have to like you. But I do respect you as a human being.” He’s wary of the inmates using the series as a platform, and avoids making judgments about guilt, innocence, or responsibility. With Barnes and Carty in particular, Herzog confronts unique obstacles – Barnes hints that he was responsible for additional murders and admits two of them on camera (perhaps in an attempt to extend his sentence while his claims are investigated), and a closer inspection of Carty’s shoddy original legal defense raises big questions about her sentence.
Because Herzog tries so hard to tell a story and allow viewers to make up their own minds, it takes a bit more mental energy to look beyond the individual situation and connect it to a bigger picture. But the series does raise a lot of interesting questions nonetheless. Is the death penalty based on a desire for retribution, deterrence, or punishment? Are we willing to allow (and pay for) perpetrators of such horrific crimes to continue to live? How far will a person like Barnes, for example, go to preserve or prolong their life? Is he truly remorseful or repentant (and if not, does it really matter)? If the legal system has the potential to fail, for example in the case of Linda Carty, is the death penalty still an acceptable sentence? And why are human beings (and Americans, in particular) so obsessed with adhering to the system, the arranged procedure? How is it possible for people to turn off their emotional and psychological connection to other human beings simply because they’re “following the rules?” It’s worth thinking about.
Die Wand (The Wall) was the final film of the night – a German flick about a woman who suddenly finds herself cut off from the world by an invisible, impenetrable wall. It’s a very German film – brooding, dreary, melancholy, with a dash of apocalysm. The not-entirely-likeable protagonist/narrator recounts her story in the form of a “report” spanning the first several years of her imprisonment, and the movie follows her as she encounters and eventually learns to live within her isolation. Her despondent, fatalistic melancholia eventually begins to grate on one’s nerves, but I suppose it’s understandable considering her circumstances (not that she was any more likeable before the wall incident happened). Hers is also the only human aspect of the film – equally as as important are her animal companions and the daunting, colossal wilderness in which she lives. The assortment of animals that progessively show up on her doorstep — a dog, a cat, a cow, and their improbable offspring (because somehow the cat and cow were pregnant) — only make things worse when her love for them is rewarded with their deaths. This is not one of those films with a happy, redemptive ending.
For many of the above reasons I found it a frustrating movie to watch, but it was still a beautiful examination of all sorts of universal issues – the way humans respond to trauma, the alien and destructive presence of man, the cruel vicissitudes of fate. The directors successfully avoid making it a ‘survival and redemption in the face of insurmountable odds’ kind of story. While the film’s protagonist goes through the full Kübler-Ross spectrum (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) in her own pessimistic way, she never really finds a state of peace and unwillingly clings to life despite herself. The cruelty of her situation – the fact that she can see the outside world, complete with villagers frozen in their tracks, for example – is palpable, but it is interesting that the emotional walls she appears to have at the beginning of the film are manifested outwardly midway through. There’s also the question of whether the outside world has been destroyed and she’s been miraculously preserved (as she seems to think) or whether she’s the ghost trapped inside an invisible territory, doomed to travel within an endless wilderness. There’s also a sense of ‘freedom in imprisonment’ – when she is first exploring the extent of her prison the protagonist dreams about the wall trapping her inside her own cottage, and she’s relieved to find she can walk outside her own door in the morning. The idea that people can feel gratitude even when oppressed is interesting. Of course there’s the whole ‘human compulsion to live’ angle, as well. I’m sure there are even more angles that I haven’t done justice too! It’s the kind of film I find ultimately frustrating because I wholely dislike the protagonist, but the cinematography and storyline are so fascinating that I like it despite myself. Maybe you will too.
Day 6 began with New Zealand’s Best 2012, a compilation of six short films by young Kiwi directors. Narrowed down from more than 100 submissions, they ranged in subject matter from world travel to the thought process of a man falling 43,000 feet through the air. Many of the shorts dealt with social issues, particularly racism, poverty, and drug abuse. All of them were memorable and moving. 43,000 Feet starred a stats professor (I’m lookin’ at you, dad!) whose fall from the sky was mercifully lacking in “big meaningful messages” but did have a sweet, quirky, sad quality that in some ways reminded me of the movie Stranger Than Fiction. Night Shift took an unflinching look at a tired, reserved airport worker whose distant attitude is explained by the all-consuming spectre of depression, poverty, and homelessness. Lambs took a boy’s-eye view of the issues faced by Maori youth (particularly those created by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse), and Milk and Honey re-lived the Dawn Raids perpetrated on suspected overstayers in Auckland during the 1970s. These last two films were particularly moving since they dealt with unresolved, homegrown issuess – racism and poverty are pervasive in New Zealand, and the population (particularly Pacific Islanders) continues to struggle with issues of drug, alcohol, and domestic abuse. (I’ll write a blog post on this particular topic later.)
My favorite two movies of the night had less to do with social issues though, and more to do with issues of ‘home.’ Ellen Is Leaving followed a cool young hipster 20-something as she prepared to leave behind everything – including her long-term boyfriend – for an international backpacking trip. There’s not much dialogue, but it’s a poignant look at what we do to care of those we love – even when we’re leaving them behind. If that film was about leaving home, then Home was about arriving. Forsaking speech for imagery, the movie followed the journey of a house as it moved from one location to another, to be transformed from an abandoned shell to a family home. Much of camera work was done from inside the house as it trundled along the road, as if the structure itself had eyes and was watching the world go by. Doors open and shut of their own accords, perhaps the remainders of homesick ghosts, and sunlight pours in through the windows to create space and shadow. It had an absolutely beautiful, poignant, funny, unique point of view, and said far more with imagery than any of the other films accomplished with scripting. Is home the building you live in, or the homeland it’s connected to, or the people who’re in it? And does a home miss you as much as you miss it?
L’exercice de l’État (The Minister) ended the night with a far more jarring, fast-paced French political feature. The film opens with Transport Minister Bertrand Saint-Jean being jarred from a Kubrick-esque erotic dream à la Eyes Wide Shut to attend to the urgency of a late-night bus accident, and the film doesn’t slow down from there. Accompanied by his prim Tina-Fey-lookalike press secretary, the Minister dashes around dealing with unending political crises, the constant drain on his attention from all angles and manner of technological devices, and the subtleties of political backstabbing whilst simultaneously attempting to maintain some sort of professional honor. It’s a fast-paced, whiplashing of a film that certainly does its best to show the unraveling of a character caught up in the political machine.
Unfortunately the film moves so fast and has so many layers of intrigue that I could only follow the most basic parts of the plot – characters whip through with such breakneck speed that you have only a brief moment to discern that they’re important before they disappear again. Plus I could barely understand all of the layers of the French political system – Prime Minister, President, Minister, Secretary… er what? Perhaps it would be more meaningful to those with a deeper understanding of European politics. It’s rather overwhelming. Having said that, the film is a lacerating experience of the all-consuming, soul-destroying grind of high public office. It explores the the aspects of the political system we’re all familiar with: mind-boggling bureaucracy, debilitating political dramatism, the self-serving political egoists versus the slowly worn down honorable ones. Plus it’s set in the modern world of disintegrating economic systems and ever-increasing unemployment. Lots of messages about privatization vs. nationalization, honor vs. power, the individual vs. the collective machine. AND some weird metaphor-filled artistic sequences that seem to have absolutely no connection to the rest of the film. An opportunistic film snob’s paradise! But well made and worth watching anyway :)
I started the fifth day of the festival with the documentary-meets-true-crime-thriller The Imposter. The movie tells the true story of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French Algerian con artist obsessed with passing himself off as children. This pathology came to a head when he successfully stole the identity of a 16 year old American boy, Nicholas Barclay, who’d been missing from his hometown in Texas for 4 years. Though he obviously had the physique and coloring of a full-grown Spaniard, Bourdin managed to convince Spanish authorities, international agencies, the FBI, and even Barclay’s own family that he was the older version of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired youth. He successfully convinced authorities that he had been kidnapped from his hometown in Texas by an international child sex ring with ties to high-ranking military and political officials, and was given an American passport and allowed to be brought ‘home’ by his newly-adopted family. He even attended high school and spoke openly to the media about his story!
(WARNING: You probably shouldn’t read past this point if you actually want to see the film – and believe me, you do – so you should probably skip down to the final paragraph and ignore this part. Just FYI.) Eventually doubts began to surface about his identity, but when the FBI informed the family and requested DNA samples they were met with an unprecedented amount of resistance. Questions begin to surface about whether the family knew they were harboring an imposter, and if so, what that meant about their knowledge (or possible involvement with) Nicholas’s disappearance. Suddenly the film takes a 180 degree turn, and the family are no longer simple victims but possible co-conspirators.
The most incredible thing about The Imposter is that it reads like a movie script, but the story is entirely true. Bourdin’s deception is impressive in itself, but I don’t think even a screenwriter could have concocted such a karmic connection between two groups of potential con artists. The directors manage to successfully meld together two genres by interspersing interviews with family members, FBI agents, international officials, and Bourdin himself with creative (and creepy) re-enactments. The creepiest part of the story is that it is shaped and narrated by Bourdin himself, who looks directly into the camera and tells his story with such honesty and eloquence that you’ll be taken aback. Despite his thoroughly disturbing pathology, Bourdin comes across as a normal, smart, calm individual with a deep understanding of the human mind. He doesn’t feel creepy, or give off the strange vibes that often warn us when someone isn’t quite what they seem. The Barclay family is equally as eloquent despite being from small-town Texas, and its members are strangely calm about the events that changed their lives. All of this adds to the feeling that something’s not quite right in the state of Denmark (or, in this case, Texas). A unique, creepy, fascinating, surreal film experience with all sorts of questions about perception and the power of belief. Definitely worth seeing.
I spent the second half of my night with Bernie, a comical yet sweet mock-documentary about a small-town Texas undertaker with a heart of gold and a big secret. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, a real-life character with an enormous personality who found himself one of the most popular men in Carthage, Texas (population 6,700) thanks to his mile-wide smile, unfailing generosity, and good ‘ole Christian niceness. The movie follows him as he spends his days earnestly participating in the community — directing (and acting in) in the local musical theater troupe, leading the church as head choir boy, advising yokels on their tax deductions (and filing them on their behalf), making curtains for old ladies, founding regional art festivals, and overseeing the all-important Christmas nativity show — all on top of his duties organizing local funeral services. And there’s no ulterior motive here: Bernie is, as the locals describe him, one of the sweetest men you’ll ever meet. And then there’s local octogenarian Margorie Nugent, the “meanest woman in Texas” who’d “rip you a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, double-wide trailer asshole” and had her nose so high “she’d drown in a rainstorm.” When Bernie goes to comfort her after the death of her husband, a relationship begins that starts with Marjorie lavishing him with gifts and first-class trips – even making him the heir to her estate – and ends with her becoming increasingly more controlling and jealous of his time and attention. Feeling trapped and desperate, Bernie one day finds himself shooting Mrs. Nugent four times in the back – and then sobbing desperately as he comes to his senses. So he stuffs her in the freezer underneath the flounder and chicken pot pies and goes about using her money to buy children’s playgrounds and fund church renovations while convincing everyone she was in a nursing home. For nine months.
The best part about the film is that the most bizarre aspects are the most true. Bernie Tiede is actually serving life in a Texas state prison for murdering Mrs. Nugent. The trial lawyers really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. They really did find Marjorie Nugent in her freezer, on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken pot pies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. And they really did have to wait two days to do the autopsy because it took her that long to thaw. But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the case was the fact that they moved the trial to an entirely different county – not because the case was so notorious, but because they felt the jury wouldn’t convict him because he was so well liked!
True, it’s a comedic, quasi-documentarial view of a murderer/murderee relationship. But darn if it isn’t a good one! The director utilized real townspeople in his interviews, and their reactions and memories are palpably real and always hilarious. Shirley MacLaine plays a stellar Mrs. Nugent (I mean duh, she’s Shirley MacLaine!), Matthew McConaughey does his best as an out-for-blood DA Danny Buck, and Jack Black definitely scores the role of his career in playing Bernie. His Tiede is a closeted (probably) gay man with a heart of gold and more energy than anyone should ever be entitled to, whose attention to Marjorie is good-natured and puppy-dog earnest. Jack can’t totally manage to hide his personality, but insofar as he can disappear into any role he manages to do a stellar job with this one – in fact, the extra ‘oomph’ he gives Bernie only adds to his character. It’s a comedy with a healthy dash of reality and lots of larger-than-life Texas characters. And it might even make you think about some bigger issues, too.
My third and fourth days at the NZFF were all documentary-themed. (Then again, most of my days at the festival are because, well, I ♥ documentaries.) The best part about the past two days, though, was that my chosen subjects ranged from capital punishment to abstract art to French burlesque dancers. All in a day’s work!
The one and only film I saw on the third day of the festival was Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, the first in a series of documentaries (all of which are being screened at the festival) in which he explores the issue of capital punishment in the United States. Into the Abyss focuses on one case in particular, the story of two men convicted for a car-theft-turned-triple-homicide in Texas when they were both only 18 years old. Herzog managed to interview one of the men just days before his death by lethal injection, and expands his story through interviews with his wife, co-conspirator, their victim(s) families and, in the most gripping part of the film, actual crime scene video from the original police investigation. It paints a picture of small-town Texas life, complete with individuals haunted by drug, alcohol, physical, and mental abuse, and takes an unflinching approach to putting the condemned in the full context of their crimes. The viewer cannot doubt that these men committed three carefully calculated (and unnecessary) murders simply because they were too lazy to think of another alternative. Perhaps it’s the comparison of those deaths – putting them side by side with the deaths of their perpetrators – that makes the biggest statement.
To be honest, I’m still not sure how I felt about the movie (if it can even be called that). Herzog is one of the world’s most respected documentarians, and I was excited to see his approach to such a hotly-debated issue. I was ultimately disappointed in his approach however, perhaps because I was expecting something more sweeping. Despite his open admission that he strongly opposes the death penalty, Herzog avoids making the film into something that supports a particular position. This is something I appreciated, since I tend to be wary of films that focus all of their energy on one side of a debate. But I was also expecting the film to explore capital punishment through a bigger lens. Perhaps that’s my fault. Instead, Herzog attempts to humanize the issue by focusing on a single case and the individuals involved – their emotions, their thoughts, their memories. He allows each person to express themselves without making a judgment on guilt or innocence, and he doesn’t attempt to dull the horror of what was truly a horrific crime. Despite this, I ultimately found myself disappointed in Herzog’s final product because I wanted to learn more about the men facing state-sanctioned murder themselves. Their memorable interview footage (particularly with the condemned, Michael Perry), feels lost among the interviews with random townspeople and incarceration officers. I wanted a particular perspective, the thoughts of those condemned to die, and instead found a film that tried to incorporate every possible perspective in a relatively tiny space. In the end, the accused had very little to say, perhaps because they had little to say to begin with. Or perhaps it’s because this was not truly Herzog’s main concern. It’s still a film worth seeing.
I started the fourth day of the festival with a film on a topic at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from capital punishment: modern art (that is, depending on how you look at it!). Gerhard Richter Painting watches the artist as he works on a series of large abstracts, using a paintbrush loaded with pigment, a step ladder, and later a squeegee to create huge canvases full of increasingly-layered color and nuance. The film-maker, Corinna Belz, focuses on ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, preferring to use the camera as a way to explore Richter’s creative process rather than interviewing him extensively. The rather quiet artist seems to prefer this as well, though he does express discomfort at being ‘watched’ during work. (“I walk differently,” he says.) While Belz incorporates historical footage of the artist as a young man to provide some context, the focus of the film is explained in its title: it’s a window into Richter’s creative process rather than a retrospective of his (very long, and very distinguished) career. It’s a lovely, quiet, evocative experience of the artist and his creative space.
Not only was it an introduction to Richter’s work, for me it was also a film that brought up questions about art in itself. In a previous post I wrote about my desire to ‘understand’ art forms like dance and abstract painting, and the frustration of feeling an inability to express my understanding. Richter shares the same views, explaining that he literally uses two minds – one for thinking and one for painting – because art is meant to express that which language cannot. He feels his work, reacting instinctively to whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘finished.’ This too feels like a little confirmation for me (someone who tends to appreciate modern art for its feeling rather than its particular meaning). While certainly not alone in this regard, it also made me reconsider why his (and modern art in general) is considered ‘good art.’ At the beginning of each painting, Richter literally stands on a ladder and slaps paint around a canvas like a five year old. He drags a brush through the colors in what seems a totally absurd way, to the extent that you find yourself wondering why anyone cares about this person’s work. (Can you imagine a master of the classical Renaissance reacting to this?!) But Richter does it with such intention and conviction that it feels acceptable. And then he takes a giant squeegee to it, and the five-year-old’s painting project suddenly turns into something with texture and depth. Each swipe changes the painting into something new, and Richter himself keeps them constantly evolving. He’s seen spending weeks on a single composition only to whitewash over it, much to the dismay of the viewer. Even those on the other end of the camera begin to feel his painting and relate to it emotionally. In its last sequence, the film revolves around a room of previously-colorful paintings now whitewashed and reduced to shades of gray, and you’re left wondering whether they’ve become monochrome or are simply a step to something else. They prefer not to answer, much like their creator.
The most absurd of my three documentary experiences CRAZY HORSE, a film that takes an inside view of Paris’s most notorious avant-garde burlesque house. Like Belz and Herzog’s, this is not your typical documentary (not only because of its subject matter): the film involves almost no speaking, and doesn’t incorporate a single interview. Instead it’s classical cinéma-vérité, a backstage pass to the intensive preparation process involved in the creation of a new show, Désirs. Viewers simply watch as new pieces are choreographed and rehearsed, dancers talk about mundane topics like how cold they are (no, really?!), and costume designers and creative producers bicker with one another about deadlines and management techniques. It’s a nudity-riffic exploration of erotic dancing, with special emphasis on grand spectacle and erotic artistry. That pretty much sums it up!
In all seriousness though, Le Crazy prides itself on being the “best nude dancing show in the world,” and the exacting standards it places on its classically-trained dancers are surprising. While the focus of its show is on eroticism, its Bob Fosse meets Cirque du Soleil meets old-fashioned burlesque choreography makes it decidedly more interesting than the average strip club. Some of its sequences are hilariously absurd – like the ‘sexy cosmonaut in space’ routine – while others are transfixing in their artistry. The dancers contort their bodies in absolutely inhuman and beautiful ways, moving like highly-trained acrobats or synchronized swimmers in precisely-choreographed numbers while they’re lit by polka dots and stripes, hidden behind colored blocks to reveal only their shadows, dressed as British soldiers and leopards, placed on top of mirrors, or hung from the ceiling on ropes and moved around the stage on rotating centerpieces. Behind all this spectacle is the show’s director and choreographer, insisting on the sanctity of his art and the creative process. They discuss the meaning of eroticism amongst themselves (“seduction, suggestion, imagination and frustration, without offering oneself”), and maintain their pseudo-intellectual focus on the beauty of the female form. One artistic director expresses it by saying, “When a woman is over 25 her beauty is something she earns and constructs.” It’s not the most groundbreaking documentary ever made, but it is a full frontal, visually interesting, unexpectedly funny and nuanced view of a unique Paris fixture.
The second day of my New Zealand International Film Festival adventure was exactly how I imagined it to be. By that, I mean that it included two completely different yet equally as compelling film experiences – one at a documentary about legendary modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones (A Good Man), and the other a French period costume drama about the final days of Marie Antoinette (Farewell, My Queen). Prepare yourselves!
I have less to say about Farewell, My Queen partly because 1) this is a long post and 2) I actually have less to say, so I’ll just get it out of the way first. The movie is a sumptuous, dark take on the last days of Marie Antoinette and the terror that grips the household of Versailles as the French Revolution begins in earnest. Diane Kruger plays a frivolous, easily distracted, and vaguely lesbian Marie Antoinette (who knew she spoke fluent French?!), but the storyline rotates around the character of Sidonie Laborde, a sullen, haughty, and calculating maid who serves as the Queen’s Reader. She spends her days moving back and forth between the household staff and the nobility, separated from the peasants outside the castle walls but simultaneously divided from the aristocracy. It’s a typical period costume drama with all of the extravagant detail you’d expect from a movie about the infamous queen, but the director(s) do attempt to make it a little more interesting by adding a twist of sexual deviance, brooding jealousies, and impending disaster. Kruger’s Antoinette has a doomed lesbian relationship with her close friend the Duchess of Polignac, and Sidonie is likewise infatuated with the queen, which provides for the main conflict of the movie (except for, of course, the spectre of the howling mobs and M.A.’s impending decapitation). I couldn’t help feeling that the movie struggled to say something relevant, and I was a bit disappointed with the ending, but for those looking for a beautifully executed, dark twist on a costume drama that doesn’t demand much mental energy – this is it!
In contrast to Farewell, My Queen, A Good Man is a decidedly more realistic film. Originally produced for the television series American Masters (for those familiar with PBS), the documentary follows famous African-American dance choreographer Bill T. Jones as he develops his latest work: a dance performance for Lincoln’s bicentennial celebration that explores the question, “Was Lincoln a good man?” Before talking about the documentary though, I have to explain that in many ways I feel like modern dance is a foreign language to me. More than foreign: alien. While I am deeply drawn to modern art – both visual and movement-based – I am often left with a deep sense of inadequacy in my inability to ‘understand it.’ I want to be able to translate the message, the meaning of each minute movement, the purpose behind the work, but I rarely feel adequately equipped to decipher it. I know that in many ways dance and art is an ‘alien’ language precisely because it attempts to express that which cannot be adequately expressed through words. It defies one’s attempts to explain it. I also tend to think that modern artforms are meant to evoke emotion as much as they’re meant to trasmit a precise message, so perhaps searching for ‘meaning’ is not exactly the correct way to approach it. Despite these feelings, I’m often frustrated by the gap between the performer/creator and the audience. Dancers (and visual artists) are lucky in their opportunity to immerse themselves completely in their work – to spend months developing a deep understanding of each movement and its meaning (for the choreographer, for themselves, and for the audience), or to dedicate hours of thought to each minute detail. For someone not versed in the specialized, often superior language of “art,” it can be frustrating to attempt grasping the same meaning in a comparatively brief experience of their work.
Having said that, Hercules/Quinn’s documentary doesn’t require the viewer to have anything more than an intellectual curiosity and an interest in human expression. Bill T. Jones wants to ask “Was Lincoln a good man?,” but the work, its goals, and its questions are left to evolve until the very last second before the work’s inaugural performance. As the documentary develops, Jones’ work moves beyond an exploration of Lincoln’s persona to asking questions about love, liberty, justice, equality, and the American Dream. It asks whether heroes are something we can believe in. Is there such a thing as a ‘great man?’ What does our cynicism mean, and how have we developed since Lincoln’s time? How do we relate to one another, and how can Jones say something relevant about Lincoln – through dance, no less! – that hasn’t already been said in the 15,000 books published on the man since his death?
The demands that Jones places on his dancers throughout the 2-year creation process is equal to the amount of pressure he places on himself, and in this way the film is also an exploration of Jones himself. While he continually points out that the focus should be on the work and less on his involvement, I appreciated the documentary for the same reason I do all documentaries: they satisfy a deep sense of empathy, compassion, and curiosity about the lives of other people. Bill is a fiercely intellectual, articulate, and passionate man who is haunted by a sense of inadequacy that drives him to continually improve his work. His presence is inspiring, volatile and prone to violent outbursts (very similar to Mrs. Witten, for those of you who knew me in the Sounds of South days!), but he’s also a deeply thoughtful and intellectual man who inspires the love and complete trust of his collaborators. In this way the film is not only an exploration of great men from the perspective of history, but also a rumination on the greatness of Jones himself. The idolization of his creative genius is paralleled by the glow of Honest Abe’s mythology, and I left the film asking, “Can we idolize great men while accepting their fallibility?” I certainly hope so. What do you think?
I’m giving you all fair warning about this before I bombard the blogosphere with gratuitous updates: there’s a film festival in Wellington. (Actually, it’s a film festival all over New Zealand, but that’s not important.) The important thing is that I have tickets. To a lot of films. A LOT. Like, two movies a day for two weeks a lot. And because I love film, and my family loves film, and I’m going to be watching far too many films to keep track of, and because you should probably watch most (if not all) of these films too, I’m going to write about them! So I’m giving you fair warning – if you don’t want to read about really interesting, moving, beautiful films for the next 17 days, you should probably skip this blog for the next couple of weeks. If not: welcome!
The cause of my cinema-themed obsession for the next two weeks is the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival. That means 17 days of non-stop films at nine different locations around Wellington and 11 cities nationwide. More than 170 films are being showcased, representing the best of this year’s cinema as well as classics from the past like Mantrap, The Shining, Bonjour Tristesse, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Screenings are happening throughout the city from 10:30am to 10:30pm every day, and the genres represented range from documentaries to costume dramas to thrillers, and from animation shorts to comedies to children’s films. To put it simply, there’s a huge variety of choice and far too little time to see it all. I’m in Heaven.
The film that opened this year’s festival (and which I saw tonight) was Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury and Cinematography Awards at Sundance and also took the Camera d’Or for Best First Film at Cannes in May. The Director of the NZFF introduced the film as “a magnificent, turbulent beginning to this year’s festival,” and it’s not hard to see why. Even with a seat on the most extreme edge of the very first row in the theater, my appreciation of the film was not even remotely dulled. It was absolutely surreal, beautiful, aggressive, anarchic, and magical in a way I’ve never experienced before.
The film is shot and narrated from the perspective of Hushpuppy, a young girl living with her alcoholic father in a squalid shanty community on the lush islands just outside the levees that failed New Orleans. It follows her as she navigates life in “the bathtub” – the name the residents have adopted for their settlement – and grapples with realities of the world around her. As Amy Taubin from Film Comment describes it, “the film is not so much magic realism as a realistic depiction of a child’s imagination grappling with the beauties and mortal dangers of the natural world and with the humans who nurture it.” The cinematography is breathtaking, and the execution of the film is flawless in its ability to transport you to an alien (yet fully believable) universe where hard-drinking social outcasts practice voodoo, live with pigs and light their ovens with blowtorches. The film’s perspective on the hurricane that decimated New Orleans is fully unique, as is the approach of its director.
But, like the recent version of Where The Wild Things Are, it’s not always an easy film to watch. It’s surreal, adult, uncensored, and deeply moving despite its young protagonist. It explores issues of ‘normalcy’, community, authority, youth, and maturity with an unsentimental eye, and still manages to maintain a childlike appreciation of life’s beauty and dignity. The gravity of its star – only 6 years old when the movie was shot – is equally as astounding. It made a deep, memorable impression in only an hour and a half, and I fully recommend it to my fellow cinephiles. I don’t know if it’s possible, but if it’s any indication of the films I can expect to see over the next 17 days you and I, dear reader, are in for a real feast :)
One of the most frustrating (and yet strangely endearing) quirks about New Zealand is the utter lack of cell phone service. People in the United States love to grumble when they happen to drive into the countryside and lose service for half an hour – in the technology-soaked Land of the Free, it’s mind-boggling to imagine living in a place where cell phones don’t function. But in Kiwi Land, it’s simply a fact of life. Almost everywhere you go, it’s almost guaranteed that you will lose your signal. In fact, unless you live in a city, you’re pretty much better off assuming you won’t have service at all.
Even though major phone companies like Vodafone and Telecom control the airwaves here, they still haven’t managed to solve the problems posed by mountainous terrain. In fact, during my first five months in the country, I had zero cell phone reception at any of the hosts I stayed with. They didn’t live in particularly isolated areas, but they still relied on their land lines to connect them to the outside world. Hello, 1995!
As someone who grew up in the cell phone generation, it was quite an adjustment to revert back to home telephone service. It was also quite unnerving to imagine being disconnected from the world in case of emergency (which I experienced firsthand when my car broke down on a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere). I didn’t really have anyone to call, and I wasn’t expecting text messages or phone updates, but I still felt a little nervous that I couldn’t call someone “just in case.” I definitely had my share of nervous moments, traversing empty landscapes with the hope that I wouldn’t fall and break my leg or run out of gasoline in my car without being able to call for help.
But despite the nervous fear that came with losing my perceived connection to the world, it was exactly the remedy I needed. I came to New Zealand searching for change. I was looking for a way to distill my life into its most essential elements, and find the space to improve on all the deficiencies I’d accrued over the years. Instead of relying on my modern gadgets I got the benefit of relying on my common sense in a sticky situation. I also got to remember what it’s like not to bully yourself for not being popular enough when no one texts or calls you for days (or weeks) on end. The lack of cell phone coverage probably even benefited my body, thanks to the removal of all that constant cell phone radiation! While I’m grateful to have my beloved cell phone permanently attached to my side again now that I’m in Wellington, it was nice to learn that sometimes going back in time is exactly what you need.
Firefly, I speak of breath, that fine
bead. How we effervesce.
Hush darling full-of-air, convenor,
sad captor, your bones and mine
are seashells shot
through with a tender jelly.
A rabbit in your look as I break
the brine, my flukes a black book
a mast in your mind
cross of the drowned.
I groan with fathoms.
You glimpse of ray.
the volume of a lagoon.
– Hinemoana Baker, “What the Whale Said“