The House I Live In (2012) is one of those docos where I just want to write a long list of all the lessons I learned whilst watching this film. That probably would not make for a very interesting review though.
The film takes a look at America’s so called ‘War on Drugs’, its (in)effectiveness and its victims. It examines the incredible rates of incarceration, the ruin that has been reaped on entire communities and the racial implications of the war, all the while having essentially no impact on drug use rates. It is plainly an issue that is of interest to a great many people, just take a look at the executive producers of this doco – Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons. The House I Live In mixes broad societal and historical beginnings of the War with personal, contemporary insights. In this regard, the film does a good job at capturing the scope of the issue. We spend time with dealers, cops, academics, judges, and grandmothers who have lost their family to drug use. There are also plenty of talking heads, amongst them creator of The Wire David Simon, who is an exceptionally perceptive voice on this issue. Frankly, when you consider the facts – the war has cost $1 trillion (!), drugs are more widely available than ever, levels of use are unchanged and America now jails more people than any other country on earth (5% of the world’s people, 25% of its prisoners) – it is difficult to comprehend why the War on Drugs continues, with little to no strategic change. Surely if the real issue was drug use, and after 45 years you still had not dented it, you would try something a little different. Unquestioned power is a strange thing though and perhaps drug use is not the real issue, or at least not all of it. This is why it is so important that films like this exist and are seen – to get people thinking about these issues and getting incredulous about them.
The House I Live In is not the most cinematic of documentaries in terms of style, but then again it does not need to be, the information presented does all that is required. The stories told though are cinematic. From the cowboy drug-busting cops to the heart-wrenching stories of the impact that this ill-advised war on drugs has on so many people’s lives, there is no way this film can be flat. No one is saying that drugs are all good and they cause no harm. But that does not mean everything done in the name of combating the issue is acceptable, indeed so much of it is not. David Simon sums up the plight of many communities perfectly when he says “what drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against them has.” It is ironic that the communities most afflicted by drugs fare the worst from the impacts of the supposed war. Ironic, but if you consider the history of these kinds of things, wholly unsurprising. The film does not propose twee, easy answers to what should be done, though it is adamant that the current approach should be canned. The answer they suggest though makes sense not just in terms of drug use, but from an improving society perspective – the enfranchisement of the poor. Can you imagine the opportunity that could be created if you pumped $1 trillion into that cause? Addiction is in many cases a symptom of unhappiness. Cure the unhappiness and you cure the addiction. It’s not just about unhappiness either, it is economic. The jobless poor will always turn to illegal ways to make money if that is the only option to provide for their family. I certainly would if I found myself in that kind of situation.
I feel like a bit of a knob saying that a film is ‘important’, but I think this one really is and I wholeheartedly encourage all of you to check it out. I am sure you will learn just as much as me. It feels like it should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the States and really, with murmurs surrounding drug laws continuing here in Aus, and no doubt in many more places too, the messages contained in this film contain relevance for many more people than just Americans. Be warned though, this is no staid analytical view. It is as devastating and enraging as it is informative.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
It is a golden period for cinematic documentaries, but it is hard to think of one that has been better received over the last five years than Searching for Sugar Man (2012). It is a hard film to write about and avoid spoilers, but I will attempt do so. However if the review seems to be skimping on details, then that is my excuse as to why. I will put it right up front here though. Pretty much everyone should rush out and see this film.
The film focuses on American singer songwriter Rodriguez. He was an undeniable talent and released a couple of albums in the early 70s. Rodriguez found very little success in the States and was more or less totally unknown in his home country. His music found an audience elsewhere though. I was aware of him, as I knew a couple of people who had his albums and were really into his tunes. But more notably, the singer became a massive star in apartheid South Africa. That huge South African following is the focus of the film. More specifically it is the story of how in the late 90s, a couple of big Rodriguez fans attempted to discover the story of whatever happened to their favourite singer and work out how he died. Rumours swirled of an on-stage suicide and similar macabre ends for the icon. That is about all I will say about the story that the film brings as I do not want to give too much away. The film is very much a product of the time in which the events were taking place. Nowadays, if you wanted to know what had happened to a singer you were into, you would just google it. But in the late 90s it was not necessarily as easy as that, and I think that is a cool notion. Fifteen years ago if you were really into something, you had to work a whole lot harder to indulge that passion, which had its benefits (don’t get me wrong, so does having everything just a click away).
The film is excellently shot and whilst it is not a doco that relies on pretty imagery to wow you, there is no doubting that the filmmakers wisely invested time in photographing it all as nicely as possible. Design is another example of the attention to detail, with sharp titles on screen and creative flourishes such as drawings to show the passage of time all adding a level of sheen to the film. The film mixes up its documentary techniques nicely too. There are standard, but interesting talking head interviews, with people such as the producers of his albums, and then the more cinematic focus on the quest to find out more about Rodriguez. Searching for Sugar Man also examines the broader notions around the success of the singer, especially why he had so much resonance for the inhabitants of South Africa during apartheid. His records were some of the most famous in the entire country and took on a very anti-establishment role for South Africans. The two albums he released, especially “Cold Fact”, inspired people to rise up, at the very least in their own minds. Rodriguez comes across as a great character in the interviews with those who worked with him. An almost ethereal presence who touched all of those around him, their recollections will make you feel something for the singer songwriter on a deep level.
Searching for Sugar Man is one hell of a documentary and deserves all of the hype it has gotten. Emotional, surreal and touching, this portrait of a most incredible man is pretty close to perfect as far as docos go. No doubt many of you have already seen it, but if not then get on it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Just like metal music, the horror film genre has always inspired a fierce cohort of rabidly devoted fans. That is probably the only way to explain the existence of Never Sleep Again (2010) and films like it. This doco is a four hour, exhaustive run through of the Elm Street films.
The behind the scenes film is in many respects a dying breed. There are more of them made than ever, but most are 10 minute snapshots designed for DVD/blu-ray extras rather than stand alone films in their own right. Never Sleep Again makes a few different attempts to separate itself from this middling medium, from the length, to the ‘claymation’ opening credits and interludes to the pretty comprehensive list of talking heads. As you would expect from the running time, the film is seriously in-depth. It starts with a short history of New Line Cinema before launching into a chronological treatment of all the films. Unfortunately the end does sort of peter out into a gushing praisefest of New Line and Robert Shaye. This is even more noticeable because one of the best aspects of the over three and a half hours that had preceded it is the frankness. Conflict and difference of opinion, especially between Shaye and Wes Craven are laid bare. And it is not in the scandalous gossipy kind of way. Rather it shows the different realities of being a producer who is trying to see his small, start-up studio stay afloat and a director totally focused in on the creative side of film.
Any film of this length or even of this type is going to have aspects that appeal to individual viewers more than others. The discussion in the film does at times degenerate into lengthy, giddy recounting of plot points, which I did not get much out of, perhaps because I have seen the films so recently. This is not the fault of the participants though, it is something that should have been tightened when editing all of the material down. It is when those involved get into analysis and discussing the creative process of generating ideas and bringing them to life that the film is a lot more interesting. A lot of the insight from Craven was really good here (including him ragging on the films he did not like), and I especially enjoyed him discussing the creative mindset that brought him back to the series with New Nightmare (1994). And yes there is a discussion of just how ‘gay’ the second entry into the series is. That was actually an interesting section as the writer was conscious of the subtext (well what was meant to be subtext) and the main character (strangely a male protagonist in a slasher) was an openly gay actor, but a vast majority of the homoerotic elements passed by those who were working on the film. The talking heads really are great and Englund is perhaps the best of the lot. He is clearly a very clever and insightful dude. As a film buff, to hear him tell how he based much of Krueger’s physical presence on a hybrid of Klaus Kinski and James Cagney, I absolutely love that shit. Other influences mentioned on the series of films (not just mentioned by Englund) include Hitchcock which sort of makes sense and Fred Astaire, which makes you ponder a little deeper.
As a film lover, it is great to see a series of films get such adoring treatment. There are great tidbits throughout (Peter Jackson drafted a script for an Elm St film!) and the insight into practical effects is such a contrast to the relative ease in which much CGI is made. In the end, if you are after a four hour doco about the Elm Street films, Never Sleep Again is going to leave you pretty satisfied. But it probably won’t convert you if that sounds like a terrible way to spend half a day.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
This brings an end to my Nightmare on Elm Street reviews. Below are links to all the other reviews I did of the canon films, in order of preference. You guys are obviously slasher film fans, because the Friday the 13th series won the poll I ran to see what franchise I would tackle next. Keep an eye out for the first of those reviews tomorrow.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
5. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
Errol Morris is a huge name in documentary filmmaking. Whilst I would not say he is one of my personal favourites (I like rather than love his films), there is no doubting the respect that he is held in and the quality of his work. With the cracking title of The Unknown Known, Morris’ next film takes a look at one of the more divisive figures of the last 15 or so years, Donald Rumsfeld. You have to wonder sometimes how Morris gets his subjects to be involved. Just look at the befuddled (and befuddling) Rummy Rumsfeld reading the first memo in the trailer. The trailer has definitely whet my appetite to check out more of this and how Rummy comes off. Docos on political figures are probably not for everyone, but are you guys interested in this?
It is nice for me that my final review for 2013, a year I intended to focus more on Aussie film, is indeed an Australian film. It is even nicer because Hunter: For the Record (2012) is a low budget independent music documentary that hopefully I can do a little to publicise.
However to simply refer to the film as a music doco is to do it a fair disservice. It is that, the film focuses on Robert Hunter, a pioneer of the pre-Triple J hip-hop scene in Australia and more specifically in Perth. I would consider myself to be a fairly big fan of Australian hip-hop, and I learnt a lot from the early parts of this film about the scene back in the early to mid 90s that I never knew about. After about half an hour of the film though, Hunter reveals that he has been diagnosed with cancer, and that is where the film really begins. It remains a portrait of hip-hop culture, but more importantly becomes a portrait of a man suffering from cancer. The film shows the physical and mental evolution of someone who is dying and who is well aware of that fact, at least for the most part. It is a massive credit to the filmmakers and all those who agreed to participate in the film that they never attempt to gloss over the man that Hunter truly was. It is refreshing to see a portrait of an artist who is not utterly perfect and gifted. Neither does the film stretch to manufacture him into some kind of tortured soul artist as is so often the case. Hunter was an artist like no other really. I have never seem someone who is such an incredible mix of bogan and refined artist. This is a guy who can write fantastic hip-hop songs about being a proud dole bludger, but also the most heart wrenching love song (in hip-hop form) to his father, that will bring a tear to your eye. I think that this tribute to Hunter from a couple of his crew, sums up a lot of him beautifully:
The filmmakers were blessed with a bevy of great material from the video diaries that Hunter began to make for himself and his young son after his cancer diagnosis. Beyond that though Hunter: For the Record has been really well put together by first time director Sam Bodhi Field. Some of the visual touches are nice, especially when a couple of tracks play with the lyrics popping up on the screen graphically. There is something distinctly poetic about the film. Not just from the rhymes of the music, but the film moves and ebbs in a way that for me is reminiscent of poetry. I think that Hunter imbues the film with so much of that as well. As well made as it is and as good as the interview participants involved are, without Robert Hunter telling so much of his story so beautifully, this is not half the film that it ends up being. There is a poetry that emerges from this complicated dude confronting his cancer diagnosis head on as he does and being so open in sharing his struggles. As Hunter’s life winds down, he comes to a place of very insightful awareness of his failings as a man and as a father. Not only that, he also evolves as an artist right to the end, seeing a growing refinement to his work especially lyrically, as his health declined.
I really can’t recommend this film to you enough. Not just for hip-hop fans, the film is a real portrait of life and what it is all about. Not an easy watch, I wept a number of times during this, my second viewing. But despite what it depicts, the life affirming nature of how Robert Hunter lived his last 12 months does give the film a hint of the uplifting.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
If you are keen to get your hands on the film, you can do so (DVD, Blu-ray & digital download) through the official website here.
Any list of the best cinema documentarians working today must surely include Frenchman Nicolas Philibert. From this Thursday at Arc Cinema, Canberrans will be treated to a limited season of his latest film La Maison de la radio (2013), in which Philibert takes a look at a day in the life of the French public radio station Radio France.
Philibert is an exponent of an extremely verite, fly on the wall documentary style. At no time at all during La Maison de la radio does he feel the need to get his Spurlock or Moore on and insert himself into proceedings. He does not even get a famous ring in to provide a voiceover. Rather, he just shows the goings on simply, confident that the inherent interest of what is being shown will coalesce into an equally interesting whole. Luckily for Philibert, in this case it works. This day in the life approach allows the film to simultaneously expose the sheer volume of information the station broadcasts each and every day whilst also restricting the film to a set timeframe which makes it relatable and digestible. The editing and multi-camera shooting allow Philibert to successfully convey the cacophony of an organisation of this size and scope. And what scope it is too, we see the recording of classical music, the live broadcast of a cycling race, in depth discussion of untranslatable Japanese concepts, the in-house garage and plenty more.
It is somewhat interesting that Philibert has an increasing reputation as a real auteur of doco cinema when his style is in so many ways so anti-auteur. Perhaps it is because he is so damn good at it. Specifically the construction of the film is what Philibert does so well, perhaps better than anyone else. There is quite an apt sequence in the film actually where an experienced producer is teaching a young employee the art of the news flash. She emphasises the detail of the content, the choice of items and their order. These are the technical aspects that Philibert does so well in La Maison de la radio and which make it such a success. Despite not having a ‘narrative’ as such, the film flows from one vignette to the next in some sort of logical sequence. The attention to the detail and minutiae of life in the organisation is painstaking and I don’t think there is a single sequence that did not hold my attention for the duration it was on screen. Everything is interesting for Philibert, but nothing is too interesting. He dwells in many places in this film but none for too long. He gets in, shows the audience something thought provoking, funny or informative and then gets out of there and moves on to the next sequence.
La Maison de la radio does not quite displace To Be and to Have as my favourite film of Philibert’s, but it is still an exceptionally rich and informative journey into a very specific world. If you are interested in seeing a master of his craft at work and a really cinematic doco, it is well worth checking out. It also contains the best potato peeling scene you will see onscreen this year.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Like it or loathe it, MMA is a sport that is exploding all over the world. The documentary Fightville (2011) takes a look at a side of the sport far removed from the bright lights and big money of the UFC.
The film takes a very focused approach, honing in on two fighters – Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback as well as their coach, UFC veteran Tim Credeur. The other most prominent character featured is that of local promoter Gil Guillory. I think this narrow focus of the film is its greatest strength. This is no history of the sport or state of the nation. Rather it is a glimpse of small time MMA and the kind of people who participate in it. Fightville does a really good job of capturing the journeys of those involved in a pretty short period of time. You get a sense of the background of the fighters, why they are involved, the desperation and desire that rests within them. It also shows the scope of people who fight MMA, from dudes who just love to punch face, those who do it because they need the money and they are good at it, all the way through to those who pray before the fight that no-one, their opponent included, is hurt. Many of the fighters are actually a combination of more than one of those things.
It is interesting to see the redemptive power of fighting for many of those involved in the sport. Particularly as on the surface to fight appears to be the opposite of redemptive. It seems to be about tearing down, not redeeming. But it is the training, the sweat and the sacrifice that are the redemptive aspects of it. Indeed many docos are about the redemptive power of something and Fightville is no different. The film is also really good at exploring the creativity that is inherent in jiu-jitsu and all of MMA more broadly. On that note it succeeds in bringing to life a different aspect of the sport that many people would not be familiar with. It is nice to see a documentary like this not take itself too seriously as this well made film exhibits a light touch the whole way through.
I can only really comment on the film from my perspective, which is that of a MMA fan, but Fightville is a really interesting and well made doco. I think it is one which will hold interest to those who are not fight fans as well, giving a glimpse of a really interesting aspect of this sport and more specifically the yearning and work of those who are trying to make their way in it.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012) is a documentary about one of the world’s pre-eminent performance artists. If that sounds truly boring, never fear, because the film is much more than that.
When I saw the film, I was expecting something pretty dry, despite the film getting uniformly positive reviews everywhere I read. The delightful thing about the film is that yes it is about performance art, but it is also about so much more. It is about the notion of legacy, boundaries, the psychology of art, physical limits, the monetisation of creativity and best of all, it is one of the most awesomely strange love stories I have seen for quite some time. The reflections on her working and personal relationship with her longtime partner Ulay are some of the most intriguing parts of the film. We are talking about a relationship that culminated in an artwork that saw them walking toward one another from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, an act that so changed them that it was the end of their relationship. There’s was a real love, ultimately combustible, but incredibly reflective. It is not often that you get to see the parties involved reflect on something that has burnt out in such a way and it is riveting stuff.
At the centre of everything wonderful the film is about is Marina Abramovic, an engaging and complicated artist. She is clearly a rather large deal in the contemporary art world, but you cannot help get the sense that she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder that this acknowledgement eluded her for so long. As well as chronicling her past, the film also shows the preparation and performance of Marina’s latest and most ambitious piece. At MOMA in New York, all day, every day for 3 months, Marina will sit in a chair and allow members of the public to sit and look at her from close up, their eyes meeting – a piece entitle ‘The Artist is Present’. It is an incredible feat of commitment, passion and physical strength, as you witness the toll that this has on her body. The most stunning aspect of the performance are the rabid crowds who come to see her perform and to sit in her presence. It is incredible to see the array of people who are moved to tears by the performance and there is something undeniably profound about what takes place. It was also incredible to see the level of preparation that goes into her piece. Detractors would scoff that anyone could just sit in a chair in an art gallery and that does not make it art. But not everyone (and perhaps no one else) could do the 6 months of preparation required to perfect such a piece and ensure that it has such an incredible effect on so many people. The entire performance is an incredible journey by Marina, there are definitely times that you feel she has bitten off more than she can chew, and it is great to see such an incredibly high quality artist deal with that fear. She refers to the performance as “her cross” and beautifully articulates the artistry and skill involved, stating “the hardest thing to do is close to nothing.”
Definitely not what I was expecting, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, is well worth checking out. Give it a shot even if the premise sounds about as enticing on nails on a chalkboard, I’d be willing to guarantee that the film surprises you in some way. Rare is the film that sees you actually engaging with an artwork, but I think that is one of the many things that this film achieves.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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As this blog has progressed, I have gradually expanded out from my original vision to review the 1001 Films to See Before You Die. But it is good to revisit the book, because it exposes me to so many fantastic and challenging films that I would never know about without it.
The Iranian documentary The House is Black (1963) is one such film. The film focuses on a leprosy colony in Iran, the poverty that causes the disease and especially the plight of those who inhabit the colony. It is not an easy film to watch, unflinchingly showing the physical deformities of these people that so markedly separate them from the rest of society. The humdrum and neglected nature of the existence many of them lead is also shown, a girl looking longingly out a window which seemingly traps her. Sentences her to a disconnected life. A man pacing up and down endlessly, humming to himself. Despite the subject matter though, there is a definite tenor of hope through much of the film. It opens with the quote that “there is no shortage of ugliness in the world” but then states that man is a “problem solver”, arguing that the only way to overcome ugliness in the treatment of those less fortunate in society is through humanity. There are many close-ups of the physical attributes of these lepers, which were confronting to me because I had not seen these kinds of bodies before. We also see various members of the community undertaking exercises in order to help combat the disease, including painful looking exercises to straighten out clenched hands. But all this focus on ‘deformed’ physicality is never used in an exploitative way. Rather these shots are a way in to life in the leper colony, as do the other shooting techniques such as some really nice use of montage. Contrasting a child with one of the older lepers for example.
The House is Black is not just an ethnographic piece or rallying cry for better treatment of lepers. The only film of poet Forugh Farrokhzad, it is a really artistic piece that is very clever in the way it weaves poetry as well as excerpts from the Old Testament and the Qur’an in with the images onscreen. Early we see the lepers giving thanks to God, specifically thanking him (through reading from a text, not sure which one) for the physical attributes provided to them and what these attributes allow them to do. The lyrics of the poem especially mirror the images being shown. The poem evolves throughout the film, giving a range of different perspectives on what the screen is showing. The lyrics talk of the physical form, reflect on the treatment of those less fortunate in society and for a brief period express a longing to escape, both from one’s personal situation and also from an uncaring universe. The sense of hope that I referred to earlier is also seen in the increasing instances of kids featuring as the film progresses. It is horrible to see children caught up in a situation such as this and to ponder what their lives must have been like. But the children in the film are a source of hope, a splash of laughter from a child playing is probably the highlight of the film. Farrokhzad obviously saw this hope too as she went on to adopt one of the children that she connectd with at the colony.
Conronting, but necessary to see, The House is Black is a wonderful documentary. Like many great piences of art, it shines a light on those who have been marginalised, forgotten or neglected by the society in which they exist. I urge you all to check it out whch you can do just here. The subtitles are occasionally white on a white background, but aside from that it is a reasonable quality copy.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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