Documentary Days – NZFF Days 3 & 4

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.

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