Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Film Club Reviews #4

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (2008)

Here at the film club we've endevoured to show good documentaries from the off. My club compadre, in particular, is an enthusiastic advocate for them. And while I nearly always enjoy them, I have to admit they don't float my boat as much as a truly great fictional movie does. I don't really know why. But as we're showing three documentaries this season, it's made me think about my response to them which is, not ambivalent exactly, but certainly not as openly moved and provoked by them as others seem to be. So why is this? Well, maybe it's this strange place they occupy between reality and artifice. The first film we showed this season was a case in point, Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

As enjoyable and amusing as it undoubtedly is I came away with these nagging questions. For starters, was it all an elaborate hoax? No, it's clear Anvil were an 80s metal band who fell by the wayside. Oh good, so it's all real then. Well, hmmm, is it though, or were the filmmakers, under the cover of this reality, playing fast and loose with events, manipulating them to make a better narrative arc? Were they exploiting these guys for comic effect, either by editing it that way or setting up semi-improvised scenes of deadpan farce?
And the question hovering over all others, if they were doing this, was that a bad thing? Didn't it result in a hugely enjoyable, uplifting film? Yes, it did. So what's the problem?
I don't know exactly, mysterious accusatory voice in my head. Maybe this vague sense of being manipulated stops me fully giving myself up to films like this. The documentary form asks you to take what you see at face value, that's the unspoken contract of the genre, telling it like it is. But the truth is subjective at the best of times and film is an artful construction, edited for effect.
But if it's not real then our emotions are being toyed with, right? In Anvil we're being asked to care about these people, their desperate last-chance attempts to make it big. Our response is naked, human, with no fictional safety net between us and it. Reacting like this is clearly more complicated than with the usual film experience.

Maybe that's a good thing, sure, but maybe in a culture hamstrung by human interest angles and you-too-can-achieve-your-dream cliches it invites us to indulge in the kind of easy emotional catharsis we haven't earned, disarmed under the guise of documentarian truth?
I mean, what is Anvil saying? That the human story behind any phenomena is more important than the quality of that phenomena? Persist long enough and almost anything becomes loveable? Do we admire Lips and Robb? Aren't they just heavy metal versions of the deluded losers on X Factor, hanging on like those Japanese soldiers on islands still convinced the war is going on? Is it admirable they continue to follow their dream? If you knew them would you be proud or embarassed?
We've clearly become a culture obsessed with 'reality', with true life stories, memoirs, reality TV. It's hardly a stretch to see the rise of the documentary as being part of this trend. It's like there's been some kind of collective failure of imagination in the world and a creative cowardice along with it.
Here's what I think: if you have a good story, fictionalise it. It's what truly creative people do, as opposed to what exibitionists do. Fiction allows the reader/viewer to identify, enter in to, become part of the experience. The memoir/documentary often encourages passive gawping. It's a one-way system with only room for the people involved. It's their story, not yours.
Maybe that's it. Either give me the banality of the truly real or the fully immersive artifice of fictional worlds where we can explore our fears, fantasies, ideas and so on rather than just being spectators at someone else's.
(The exception to all this was Man on Wire. A film where the thriller aspect was up front and part of the package. Real life had taken on the contours of a film and the documentary exploited that brilliantly. Plus, the tiny figure of a man on a wire thousands of feet in the air is an image so pregnant with awe and metaphor it's beyond manipulation, like something from a Greek myth).

Friday, September 25, 2009

They Call Them Moving Pictures

"We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move." - Jack Kerouac, On the Road

There's a scene in Murnau's silent classic Sunrise, that I love. I first saw it on the big screen, with a live musical score by the great 3epkano, during the Arts Festival a couple of years ago. I'd been out quite late the night before, just dragged myself shakily to this lunchtime performance, so was feeling a tad fragile, which may or may not have had a baring on my response.
It was the trolley scene that got me. Suddenly the film was doing something unexpected. The camera was still but the sense of movement was exhilerating. We were inside the trolley car with the husband and wife as it travelled from the country, the forest and lake, to the big city. (It's here one min into this clip).

Even if you've never seen the film before you know something is very wrong with this couple. She can't look at him. He can't speak to her. It's a hugely tranformational moment in their lives. Everything hangs in the balance. Everything she's known has just vanished before her eyes. How has it come to this? In the darkness of the trolley car, all the implications of what has just happened linger as it travels through the forest, by the lake and finally into the city.
It's a beautiful few minutes. The wife's bowed head, almost like she's dreaming everything behind her, the tram banking round corners, the sudden appearance of the man on the bike, the glimpses of buildings and signs, and then the thrilling almost out of control horse-drawn carriage suddenly pitching into view.
It's a film within a film moment, the movie-house darkness of the trolley acting as a conduit for these dream-images of movement (there's certainly something dream-like about the way the scenes seem perfectly natural and yet the speed of the journey from country to city doesn't seem right at all).

And it made me realise how much the medium exists to do this, move through actual space. Think of those bravura long shots at the beginning of Touch of Evil or Goodfellas. Why do we love these scenes so much? It's the sense of sustained difficulty, sure, but it's also the sense of sustained movement through streets and corridors, around obstacles and crowds, that fascinates us.
Think of Kubrick's steadicam prowling the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or better yet think of this scene from the documentary Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba).

It's an amazing scene, the camera becoming the soul of the dead man rising above the procession (that's how I see it anyway) but beyond that it's amazing simply as a how-did-they-do-that piece of movement, coming close to a definition of what cinema is in essense, the awe of captured movement, taking us straight back to the shock of the Lumiere brothers' brief film of an arriving train exploding nineteenth century notions of time and space.
In this digital age, this CGI age, we're in danger of forgetting this simple lesson, that we respond instinctively, in a purely human way, to seeing space and movement through the kino-eye. As the quote above suggests, it allows us to leave confusion and nonsense behind, watching a film perform its one noble function, to move.