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).


  1. ok, i agree that we are being sold one thing, and given another. and that we do have an obsession with 'reality' but i think we are all smart enough to know that at this stage, no such thing exists. I prefer to see these films as docu-drama. You can argue that a film like Man on Wire or Touching the Void are more honest because of their use of dramatic re-enactment, but it's all fiction at the end of the day. The onus is on the viewer to 'read' the film and 'passive gawping' is not confined to watching documentaries. Was Anvil entertaining and moving? Yes. Was it 'true' ? It doesn't really matter.

  2. i still think there's something essentially dishonest in selling something as an observed reality when you're shaping it to be more entertaining and emotionally satisfying in a way that fits the narratives we've been sold to believe in by movies and tv. if it's a docu-drama then label it as such, be up front about it. answer me this: take out the two men being asked back to the choir in Young@Heart and what kind of film would you have? entertaining still, but far more insubstantial. they're the emotional core of the film and they're there because of the film. they wouldn't have been asked back except the doc was being made. it's that question about anthropologists going in to observe gorillas without acknowledging that their presence changes the environment and so influences the behaviour of the gorillas.

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  4. Or to expand on the anthropology analogy there’s also Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (yes, i'm using quantum physics to argue against Anvil, a proud moment for intellectual debate) which is basically (very basically) that it's impossible to ever measure the exact nature of particles through experiment because the experiment itself effects the particle. Here’s an explanation from the BBC website:
    ‘To measure the position and velocity of any particle, you would first shine a light on it, then detect the reflection. Light is made up of packets of energy called photons…On subatomic scales, the photons that hit the subatomic particle will cause it to move significantly, so although the position has been measured accurately, the velocity of the particle will have been altered. By learning the position, you have rendered any information you previously had on the velocity useless. In other words, the observer affects the observed.’
    Hmmm, exactly. Heisenberg also discovered wave-particle duality, where something can be both a point in space and a continuous wave, in other words, two contradictory things at the same time. Kind of like the docu-drama. Or to put that phrase another way, real-fiction, or another way again, pretend-reality. doesn't sound so good that way.

  5. OK Diane Fosey I think you need to get over this. I understand that going back to Socrates,the pursuit of truth is something we all take seriously, but you aint gonna find it in any kind of film, doc or fiction. Talking about gorillas and using H.U.P. is spurious to say the least.
    Nxt rant please.

  6. it's not spurious. it's an analogy. 'the observer affects the observed' is very relevant to documentaries that revolve around the lives of real people.
    anyway, all i was trying to do with this was pinpoint some kind of unease i couldn't at first articulate. i realise now that it wasn't with documentaries as such but with being emotionally manipulated in general, which can, of course, happen in any form of film, but is more insidious when it's in a form that's supposed to be 'real', because we're more open and exposed to accept it on face value. Anvil's happy ever after Japan-gig ending, for instance, is a lie that undercuts the whole premise of the film. why couldn't we accept their dogged pursuit of what they love as an end in of itself, an example of noble failure? maybe because we're so used to being sold fake uplift we can't deal with its absence, we can't, as they say, handle the truth!
    anyway, i didn't mean this to come across as a rant, i'm not anti-documentaries at all. i just wasn't sure at first what my problem was and wrongly tarred the whole genre with the same brush. end of. lets move on.