Sunday June 16th 2013
For what’s best described as a long weekend, I’ve been lording it about at Sheffield Doc/Fest — a haven for documentary lovers and fans of linguistic contraction alike in Britain’s third most populous city. I’ve seen half a dozen documentaries during my stay, and spent a similar amount of time ruminating (as is my wont) on the nature of documentary as a medium. There’s something very revealing about immersing yourself so fully in one area of filmmaking; free from the distractions of comedy, drama and psychosexual arthouse thriller, the strengths and weaknesses of documentary are brought into sharp relief. Not to mention the civil war that rages on in the discipline between form and function.
The Big Melt sits at the more experimental end of the medium. Comprised entirely of BFI archive footage of the steel industry and its surrounding communities, the film is non-narrative and features no voiceover, telling its story through the alchemic blend of film and music alone. The music in question comes courtesy of a wildly engaging score performed live at the festival by Jarvis Cocker, other members of Pulp and scores of guest musicians, including a full-scale marching band. Employing compositions as diverse as the Human League’s Being Boiled and John Cameron’s score from Kes, the live performance was impossible to take your eyes off, which didn’t bode well for the often mundane footage it was soundtracking. So uneven was the balance between audio and video that The Independent later reviewed the night in its gig section. It was hard to shake the feeling that form had steamrollered function out of all significance.
Located on the opposite end of the spectrum, Blackfish is a decidedly straightforward exposé doc about the mean ol’ suits at SeaWorld and their insistence on keeping cute ickle killer whales hostage in the gaudily surreal amphitheatres of torture and commerce that they operate up and down the American coast. With its emotionally-prescribing soundtrack and Michael Moore-style ironic repurposing of corporate branding, the film appears to have been spat out of the same auto-outrage documentary generator that gave us The Cove and Bully. It makes a clear point and tells its story in plain terms, but without a style of its own, feels as incomplete as its Cocker-fronted antithesis.
One film that at least attempts a balance between form and function is Particle Fever, most likely the definitive documentary on the Large Hadron Collider. The film was bestowed the poisoned chalice of being edited by Walter Murch, whose work here — brisk, stimulating and informative — brings the lengthy search for the Higgs particle to life, but highlights just how little material he had to work with. Often the footage he’s tasked with assembling is incomplete, inadequate or entirely out of focus, forcing him to substitute certain sections with (admittedly spectacular) animated sequences. As a whole, the film works well stylistically and as a piece of storytelling, but it seems to do so in spite of itself.
Not present at Doc/Fest but hopefully a better indication of documentary’s future is Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, perhaps the most organic, transformative meeting of form and function I’ve seen this year. A hugely rewarding insight into a deeply personal chapter in Polley’s own family history, the film’s narrative odyssey is perfectly mirrored in its experimental style, which refuses to fully reveal itself until the closing moments. It’s everything documentary can and should be.
Perhaps it’s not fair to ask every spare killer whale exposé to live up to such standards, when I don’t expect The Purge to live up to The Shining (on the other hand, maybe I should). But spending a weekend exclusively in the company of documentary does make you wonder why anyone lucky enough to be working in the field would ignore the myriad possibilities it presents.
Friday June 14th 2013
Like so many key figures in the campaign for freedom of speech, Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot rarely say anything of much interest. Of the many potent political sentiments in their separation-of-church-and-state anthem A Punk Prayer, my favourite goes ‘Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist’. The chorus refrain, meanwhile, offers ‘shit, shit, it’s godshit’, repeated ad infinitum with a ferocity that briefly suggests insight.
This, of course, is what makes the band so fascinating. The freedom of speech debate that raged after A Punk Prayer was performed guerilla-style in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior last year was far more interesting than those often provoked by more ‘important’ works of art, because it challenged us to consider the issue of censorship away from the issue of quality, as well we should. After all, we can all agree that Howl is an important work of literature and deserves to be available to all, but what’s that conviction worth if we don’t afford a similar dignity to The Human Centipede II?
So while the members of Pussy Riot might not have much more to say on the separation of church and state than your common-or-garden sixth form poet, the fight for their right to have their say is a vital, global issue.
A new documentary about the band — Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which had its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Wednesday night — takes its formal cues from the band’s music. Just as they rely on the familiar mechanics of punk to underpin their political agenda, Pozdorovkin recycles stylistic techniques he’s seen in other documentaries to shore up inconsistencies in his material. Just as Pussy Riot incessantly namecheck feminism, the Church and Vladimir Putin in their lyrics so that you definitely know what they’re talking about, he uses gritty on-screen titles and hackneyed news footage to remind you every few minutes just how important the story he’s telling really is. Deep down, for all the surrounding hype and column inches, you get the sense that neither has much to say at all.
The documentary does boast enviable access to the band and the court case that followed their Cathedral performance, but reveals little more than the order of events, which have already been succinctly detailed in forms that take considerably less than 86 minutes to process. Prosecution was the making of Pussy Riot, transforming their fairly lame brand of agit prop into an international talking point. If Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer continues to garner polite applause from liberal festival audiences, it risks missing the point entirely.
Monday May 27th 2013
There’s not a year goes by without a controversy surrounding ‘real sex’ hitting the Cannes Film Festival, where ‘real sex’ here means actual, factual sexual activity between two actors rather than the vague implicit fumbling we’re used to seeing on the big screen. In no other area of life would this warrant mention (“Did you hear about that new couple Dan and Sophie? They have real sex!”) but in cinema, even fifty years after filmmakers began experimenting with the technique, ‘real sex’ remains a taboo.
No other aspect of human nature, however violent or perverse, provokes the reaction in filmmakers that sex does. No other behaviour sends camera operators so quickly above the shoulder; no other behaviour sends editors so promptly to their B-roll material. As an audience, we’ve grown so accustomed to this prudishness that we now expect it, and find ourselves shocked when it’s flouted. Imagine for a second if the same squeamishness was applied to some other activity — if eating could only be depicted in a series of wink-wink, nudge-nudge shots of bread boards, table cloths and cutlery drawers.
This year, it was the turn of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake to arouse more than just the interests of festivalgoers with the promise of a fleeting glimpse of sexual activity. As the herd queued patiently almost two hours before the movie’s scheduled start time, they whispered amongst themselves about the rumoured transgressions. They referred euphemistically to the movie as ‘that gay porn film’, proving yet again that straight people seem incapable of imagining what gay pornography actually looks like. (Spoiler alert: not a lot like Stranger by the Lake.)
As it turned out, the film contained all of ten seconds of explicit sexual material: one brief shot of a hand bringing a penis to orgasm, and another of a penis sliding in and out of a mouth. Impressively, the audience managed to refrain from any kind of audible gasping at such sights, but nonetheless both moments dramatically interrupted the film’s narrative flow — not because of their content, but due to the mechanics of their inclusion.
For whatever reason (Diffidence? Inability to perform? Unsightly genitalia?) the film’s lead actors were replaced with body doubles for these shots, leaving a sharp divide between the graphic, disembodied close-ups and the carefully blocked wide angles in which the stars actually appeared. By trying to make the film more authentic, Guiraudie inadvertently rendered Stranger by the Lake considerably faker, so clear was it that stunt cocks were playing their part in the action.
Worse, the deliberate isolation of such money shots — both here and in other ‘real sex’ films like Antichrist and The Idiots — is quickly refashioning the male erection as the sole signifier of bona fide sexual intercourse. The cinematic whitewashing of erections on screen for so many years has created a fascination with engorgement, and ensured that an erect penis is now the lone distinguishing characteristic of ‘real sex’.
This year’s Palme d’Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s beautiful La vie d’Adele, contains considerably more ‘real sex’ than Stranger by the Lake does, and without the distraction of stunt doubles. Yet I’ve not seen a single review refer to such scenes as ‘real sex’, nor did I hear the phrase excitedly whispered in the film’s queue. Perhaps that’s because the unsimulated activity in Kechiche’s film is between two women, and — in the language of cinema — is therefore intrinsically ‘unreal’, lacking as it does any kind of phallic contribution.
With the ‘real sex’ trend now beset with just as many silly compromises as traditional Hollywood fucking, it seems that yet another change of approach is required. Lars von Trier is shooting each of the sex scenes in Nymphomaniac twice, once with his A-list cast faking it and once with porn performers going the distance. The two will later be grafted together digitally. That might seem extreme, but for now it could be the only way to shoot convincing sex scenes and still attract acting talent of a higher calibre than, say, James Deen.
(Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Canyons yet, he may well be Brando.)
Ultimately, it feels like we’re talking about a question of morals. If Chloë Sevigny makes an artistic commitment to The Brown Bunny and gets called a prostitute for her trouble, why should we expect other actors to follow her lead? What’s needed is a more pragmatic approach to sexuality on screen, on the part of filmmakers and filmgoers alike. For now, we get the cinematic sex we deserve.
Sunday May 26th 2013
Alexander Payne truly is the Benjamin Button of American indie filmmakers, rapidly declining in maturity as the years (and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars) pile up. A decade and a half ago, he was capable of Election. Now, aged 52, the best he can manage is Nebraska, a tangle of film school clichés, rampant condescension and woe-is-me, middle-aged-white-guy-problems so juvenile it would blot even a first-time filmmaker’s copybook.
Chief amongst the film’s miscalculations is the casting of SNL alumnus Will Forte in a lead role. According to Wikipedia, Casey Affleck, Paul Rudd and Bryan Cranston all auditioned for the part at one time or another, but — for reasons beyond human understanding — Payne plumped for MacGruber.
Forte has always been anathema to me. With each throwaway supporting role (in wank like The Watch, Rock of Ages and That’s My Boy) he seems to bring with him a sort of ‘comedy malice’ that instantly finds its way beneath my skin. Nonetheless he finds consistent favour with a whole mess of talented individuals, who seem more than happy to saddle their otherwise fine creations with his presence. (I dare you not to cringe as he systematically destroys the last ounce of audience goodwill towards Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.) Whatever Forte’s schtick is, it’s lost on me.
In Nebraska, he spares us the routine, instead reining things in to play a reticent electronics salesman eager to do right by his elderly father. The underwhelming result is somehow even more irritating than his pantomime act. Simple lines are delivered with somersault inflections, while his facial expressions do their best to contradict every word that escapes his mouth. And yet, the party line in Cannes earlier this week was that Forte and co-star Bruce Dern were beyond reproach, so my misgivings are clearly far from universal.
I can only assume that I must have some kind of profound beef with Forte, lodged deep within my subconscious. If you can help me undo this prejudice, please get in touch via the usual address.