Begotten: film explores Christian and pagan myths of fertility in cycle of birth, death and rebirth

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Begotten” (1989)

A remarkable student film that explores Christian and pre-Christian creation / fertility / life cycle myths, “Begotten” was inspired by a near-death experience director E Elias Merhige had after a car accident at the age of nineteen. For a 72-minute film, “Begotten” has a straightforward plot: a suffering god, alone in a derelict building, sacrifices himself and from his remains emerges an earth goddess who impregnates herself with his semen. She gives birth to a son and abandons him. He is soon found by ragged nomads: the son dispenses largesse to them and they gladly take it. They torture and burn him and leave him for dead. The mother returns for the son and starts taking him away but the nomads return and overpower them both.

With regard to plot, the film is very slow and often repetitive and viewers must decide for themselves what the motives of the nomads might be. Why would they want to kill something that helps them, does them no harm and even offers no resistance when they beat it? Logic and rationality would have no place here. It’s only at the very end of the film that everything that’s gone before starts to make sense. Death is required for the cycle of life to renew itself. This lesson must be learned again and again and so perhaps that’s why the film labours over the initial suicide scene, the birth of the son and a later scene of sexual violation. The film is deeply immersive and viewers who are prepared to take the mickey when it comes to plot and character development will find themselves transported to another realm altogether, especially if watching the film late at night.

The outstanding feature of “Begotten” is its cinematography and look of the film. For a moment early on I thought this might be similar to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film “Vampyr” in look (Dreyer used bleached film-stock to achieve a bright and unnatural psychedelic effect). Merhige’s treatment of the film to produce something that looks so aged as to resemble an archaeological artefact breathtakingly original: he photographed his work on 16-mm B&W reversal film and then rephotographed it frame by frame on B&W negatives through density filters (Phil Hall, “Begotten Not Forgotten” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.12/streetcred.html?pg=14). The flickering twilight result has mysterious two-dimensional shadows and much shadow play, looks incredibly abstract in style and partakes of a strong sinister Expressionist poetry in its scenes of full-moon night-sky and needle-like birch trees.

In addition to the deliberately aged look of the film-stock, Merhige uses slow-motion tracking and movements in several scenes to bring out the weird, unearthly aspects of the plot and the cast of characters. In some scenes, images may be layered over one another and animation might have been used. Scenes tend to look very staged with characters not usually facing one another and repetition and slow movements suggest a ritualistic aspect to sections of the plot. A mix of scenes filmed from far away and close-up with some tracking and panning of the camera is usual: the close-ups can be very in-yer-face – that early scene in which the goddess impregnates herself will sure blow away a lot of male viewers!

Dialogue is non-existent which also enhances the Expressionist tone of “Begotten”; instead what we get is an eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of a black metal / ambient / musique concrete soundscape, of night crickets, a tinny guitar rumble, grunting, found sounds and other ambient noises relevant to the scenes against which they appear. The lack of dialogue helps to turn its main characters into symbols or stereotypes and makes the film representative of various creation myths that revolve around gods giving of or being forced to give up their material being for the benefit of humankind: I think of how Aztec gods had to sacrifice their blood to get the sun going across the sky, of Osiris being cut up by Set and being put back together again by his wife Isis, and of Lemminkainen’s mother having to drag her son’s dismembered body from a river and singing him back to life in the Finnish epic “Kalevala”. In Greek mythology, Gaia castrates Uranus to allow their children room on Earth; later, one of these children, Kronos, swallows his children to avoid being usurped by one of them but the youngest child, Zeus, escapes Kronos’s appetite and ends up overthrowing his father anyway. Zeus himself swallows his first wife Metis to thwart a prophecy about Metis’s first-born child overthrowing Zeus if it were a boy. Needless to say, the first-born turned out to be a girl.

Pain, suffering and death occurring over and over yet the life-force continually resurrecting and reasserting itself is a major theme: no matter how depressing “Begotten” gets, no matter how dreadful the violence or ghoulish and unthinking the ragged nomads are, there’s always hope of new life, a new beginning, at the end. Perhaps it’s this aspect of the film that gives it its unique flavour and force. Film lovers must see “Begotten” at least once for its intense vision, beauty and imagination.

 

 

Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria: an ingenious look at how a country’s history is made, remade and reinterpreted

David Blair, “Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria” (2010)

After finishing “WAX or the Discovery of Television among the Bees”, director David Blair set about picking up some of the themes of that film to work into a new project which was originally tentatively titled “Jews in Space” and which would trace the wanderings of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel to Japan. “Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria” forms a bridge between “WAX …” and “The Lost Tribes”, the latter of which also forms a major theme of the short. Half-documentary / half-drama, “Finding …” traces the journey of an unseen narrator from Austria and Berlin to Shinkyo aka Hsinking in the Japanese territory of Manchuria some time during the 1930s or early 1940s, to find a famous telepathic cinema. There the narrator finds that a lost movie “The Lost Tribes” was made there to be screened and experienced telepathically. In case viewers don’t quite get the point, the narrator goes into some detail about how the human brain will process the information received while its owner views and experiences the lost movie (should it ever be found) with its unique sights and sounds. The narrator is eventually informed by his gracious hosts that he has come to fulfill his destiny to create the finest and most important of the telepathic films – “The Lost Tribes” itself!

Mixing live action, computer-generated and traditional animation forms and archival footage, this is quite a convincing and witty film that calls into question accepted notions of what is historical truth and where fact ends and conjecture and rumour begin. Contrary to what people are usually taught at school, history is revealed as never fixed or static but instead is constantly re-evaluated and reconstructed by each succeeding generation of people. New questions are asked, new connections made or discovered and a new aspect of the history of and knowledge about a territory comes into being to embellish the current narrative of the subject.

The film is calm in tone and Blair’s voice is measured and detached without sounding soporific throughout. In most scenes small groups of silent frog people (created by frog people who in turn were created by movie-talkers) dance in individual or group formations in odd places around the screen. The pace travels at a steady-to-fast clip. Cleverly put together with sharp edits that jump from one piece of footage to a cartoon-style animation piece to visual computer-based graphics, the film looks completely authentic with many cartoons styled in ways popular in the ’30s – ’40s period. Some delicately beautiful layered juxtapositions of exotic Manchu writing over diagrams and illustrations catch the viewer’s eye. The music soundtrack is a whimsical mix of popular Chinese and Western tunes of the same period played on traditional Chinese stringed instruments. Another whimsical feature is the way the title credits are put together: capital letters fall slowly into their correct order as little frog people skip and cavort in circular group dances. Strange white tapeworm things rotate on the screen and the viewer meets two strange groups of triplets, the all-male Toyoshis and the all-female Amepures.

Not so ambitious or complicated as “WAX …”, this is a neat little breather that should keep keen viewers occupied long enough (but please, Mr Blair, not too long!) until “The Lost Tribes” is released.

(The film can be found at the Waxweb site http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/wax/.)

Zoetrope: Kafka short story inspires a film about how science, industry, bureaucracy and politics oppress a victim

Charlie Deaux, “Zoetrope” (1999)

Based on my favourite Franz Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony”, this is a stunning-looking short piece about a man’s last hours in prison. The title refers to a toy that first appears out of smoke and which could actually be the spaceship in which the plot proceeds; after the first few minutes in which we are introduced to the unnamed protagonist (Michael Bradley), we catch glimpses of the zoetrope’s monstrous outlines popping in and out of the rest of the short. Our man is held in a prison for reasons unknown; we learn he has suffered incarceration for a long time, is clearly deranged as a result and continues to suffer humiliation and torture from his jailers of whom the main one (Nigel Bonfield) taunts him with portentous mumbo-jumbo philosophy. The chief jailer counts down slowly to the prisoner’s final punishment: the question is whether the prisoner will willingly submit to his torturers or try to escape once and for all.

The acting ranges from minimal to slightly campy as Bradley either paces his cell madly and desperately or freezes in periodic cataleptic trances and as Bonfield prowls his stage around a tattooing machine, all the while purring his threats. The film’s technical chops are its highlight: filmed in sharp B&W film-stock, it has a definite steampunk style with images of a watch’s internal operations regularly flashing up on screen. Live action and animation are blended together to give a strong sense of the victim’s desperation and fear. Editing ranges from slow to super-fast and in-between these extremes; after the halfway point, the editing becomes frenetic and lovely if minimal images flash up and down repeatedly while your mind struggles to register their presence. Hundreds of clear objects zip past your eyes until your orbs hurt but unfortunately blinking is no option, else you’ll miss a lot of very beautiful and poetic imagery.

The film’s look is crisp and the art direction and cinematography are done well. Although the victim is naked, his nudity is shown tastefully with judicious use of contrasting light and shadow. The haunting and sparse atmospheric industrial-style music, created by Brian Williams of the British one-man dark ambient band Lustmord, suits the film’s oppressive style and theme perfectly.

It’s clear that science, politics, red tape and industry have combined to destroy Bradley’s man with no pangs of conscience; that’s ultimately its horrible premise. Bradley is left with no chance of escape from a ground-level Hell. Once the shocking climax has spent itself, Bonfield turns his attention onto another prospective death-row victim. Perhaps this is the real horror of “Zoetrope”: the prisoner’s dilemma turns out to be one of many such tortures Bonfield’s jailer visits on various similar victims as he chooses. What kind of monstrous society could have given birth to such an institution in which prisoners on death row for no good reason are selected at random to be tortured and driven relentlessly to madness and existential pain before dying?

As for the “In the Penal Colony” inspiration, it’s used very sparingly though chillingly. I must admit to not feeling altogether happy about the way it was used; I did feel “Zoetrope”, good as it is, could have been even better if it had drawn on more of the themes of the original short story and its perverted black humour. I am surprised not many film-makers have taken up this short story as an inspiration for a film. As of this time of writing I had heard that a young Iranian director Narges Kalhor, the daughter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political advisor, had made a film based on the story and I am keen to see it if and when it becomes available.

Zoo: film teeters gingerly around its subject and suffers for that

Robinson Devor, “Zoo” (2007)

Based on the case of a Boeing employee who died from a perforated colon while being anally penetrated by a horse in Enumclaw, a town in rural Washington state, “Zoo” (the term is short for zoophilia, the sexual love of animals) is a brave attempt to address a highly controversial and polarising issue in a dispassionate way that neither condemns nor sympathises with the people involved in bestiality. The film recreates the events leading up to the man’s death and its aftermath in a way that’s part documentary / part drama with re-enactments of scenes and emphasising a soft, dream-like mood with delicately muted, wafting music. Director Devor uses four narrators, talking to an unseen listener, to retell the events from the point of view of the people who knew the man, referred to in the film as “Mr Hands”, and this approach thrusts (um) the viewer right into the twilight world of zoophiles: how they found each other through Internet contacts, how they organised their tryst and their reactions when the man was injured and when their secret activites became known to the outside world.

The film has the air of a noir mystery: the majority of scenes are filmed in shadow, at night or in dark colours with blue being predominant. The story unfolds slowly and elliptically and anyone who is unaware in advance as to what the film is about may be puzzled at the indirect way “Zoo” tiptoes around the subject until near half-way when a news report drops its headline in deadpan style. The pace is very steady, perhaps too steady and slow, and the film often dwells on several still camera shots which look deliberately staged as if for static display purposes. Close-ups and landscapes often look very abstract with washes of blue across a background; an orchard looks like a misty fairyland beneath a light coating of rain. The mood is even and quite blank until a scene in which police investigators viewing a DVD recording appears; the police react with horror and shock watching the act of buggery and only then do viewers feel something creepy crawl up their spines.

For all its delicacy, “Zoo” gives the impression of something much bigger than its subject matter struggling to make itself seen and heard: the zoophiles give the impression of wanting companionship, a sense of belonging, a need to share something special that gives meaning to their lives, and thinking they have found it. They seek a utopia in which everyone is equal and no-one is judged by how much money s/he earns or how educated s/he is. The places in rural Washington where many of them live look impoverished and some zoophiles may well be drifters or marginalised people barely managing to make a living and survive. (Difficult to tell as many scenes are recreations of actual events with actors playing the zoophiles.) If the film had directly addressed the need of the zoophiles for meaning, for companionship, it might have been able to gain more co-operation from the people involved; as it is, the level of co-operation it got is very restricted. The dead man’s family refused to be interviewed for the film which is a pity as the wife and child might have presented him as more well-rounded than he appears in “Zoo”.

The film also suffers from subjectivity and could have done with a more objective view of its subject. Interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists on zoophilia and perhaps other conditions such as lycanthropy (identifying oneself as an animal rather than as a human) might have shed light on why some people are sexually attracted to animals and to some kinds of animals in particular. The goals of the project would still be met: the issue would not be sensationalised and viewers might come away with a greater understanding of zoophilia and other bizarre philias. Instead the film can only concentrate on the horse-trainer, Jenny Edwards, who took charge of the horses after the incident became public: she admits that after having followed the case in its detail and ordering a horse gelded (gee, why punish the horse for that? – it’s reminiscent of what people did in mediaeval times, when animals involved in bestiality were put on trial and given the same sentence as the perpetators), that she’s “on the edge” of understanding the zoophiles’ obsession. It appears also that the director and film-crew were as much in the dark as Edwards was while making the film; even after its completion, the film-makers still were scratching their heads trying to make sense of what they’d done. Not a good portent for a film.

Yes, zoophilia is a difficult subject to talk about, let alone film, without making it look disgusting, degraded or ridiculous and pathetic. “Zoo” tries hard not to take one side or the other but with a subject like this, the attempt to be “balanced” is a tough act indeed to pull off. Some viewers will be irate that the film advocates no position at all, as if it’s the film-makers’ duty to tell them what they must believe. I think though that to achieve the “balance” that “Zoo” strives for, the film-makers should have pulled back from their subjects and taken a more generalised view of the issue of zoophilia; the police officers, the courts, psychologists and medical staff who dealt with the dead man and his friends should have been consulted for their opinions about zoophilia.

Until Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) agrees to make a film version of “Equus” – he has already done the stage play – “Zoo” remains the only film to seriously tackle a difficult subject minefield.

A portrait of cultural fascism through one individual’s exploitation in “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story”

Todd Haynes, “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)

Using Barbie and Ken dolls to play the main characters in miniature sets specially made for this film might seem a pretty perverse way of paying homage to a beloved singer but the ploy turns out to be the master-stroke in Haynes’s loose retelling of Karen Carpenter, singer / drummer of 1970s melodic pop duo the Carpenters. The film is more than a reverent tribute to the singer: it also sneaks in a documentary on the exploitation of women and their bodies to sell a particular product or message and how the music industry co-opts artists into creating a world of bland, unseeing innocence to mask and blot out political reality and dirty tricks. Anorexia nervosa, the disease that killed Karen Carpenter (hereafter referred to as KC), is briefly revealed as a cultural phenomenon in which the physical human body becomes a battleground of control between its owner and those attempting to control the owner herself. The use of dolls to play KC, her family members and other support characters becomes a logical part of the film’s narrative: as KC’s body and talents were used by others to project their ambitions and desires through, so children’s dolls like Barbie become projections for mostly adult fantasies and desires and attempts to teach and direct children into socially appropriate play activities. In contemporary Western culture, the Barbie doll’s body has also become a site for speculation by experts in various fields ranging from health to advertising to child-rearing, often in the context as talking-heads yapping to journalists employed in the commercial media. It becomes impossible to treat Barbie as just another plastic toy.

Haynes picks particular episodes in KC’s life to illustrate the hold that anorexia nervosa had over her; he’s not particular about the exact dates when she commenced her performing career and the onset of the disease. There is in fact no chronology: the narrative plays as one flashback drama and the general direction is straightforward and concentrates almost entirely on KC’s condition. A quick look at her Wikipedia entry shows she began dieting not long after starting to play music seriously in her mid-teens but the two may not be necessarily connected. The characters in the film are very exaggerated and one-sided for effect: KC’s parents are portrayed as ambitious and controlling and Richard as obsessed with fame and sucess, abusive and violent. The film suggests that Richard might be gay but does not mention he was addicted to Quaaludes which originally were prescribed for sleeping problems. The agent at the record label that signs up the duo is Mephistophelean-creepy as he extends his hand (rendered almost claw-like) to KC to clinch the deal.

KC herself tends to be a helpless victim of other people’s manoeuvrings and any resistance on her part is answered by disturbing scenes of spanking. As KC wastes away, the doll takes on a more withered look with abraded plastic skin and her arms and legs erode and drop away.

The film has a home-made, almost shambolic look: captions bleed into images and there are many shots of black-and-white Vietnam War newsreel interspersed into the narrative to ground the biography into its historical context and make clear the suggestion that bands like the Carpenters were part of a culture propaganda offensive on the part of the music industry to inoculate the US public against the country’s extreme violence overseas. The Carpenters’ music including their most popular hits is played throughout the film (Haynes did not get copyright permission to include any music and I doubt he would have got it anyway, given the film’s subject matter) and the soundtrack becomes an ironic counterpoint and comment on parts of the narrative and the film’s agenda: it adds pathos to the pain that KC might have felt while singing the songs. One thing not mentioned in the film which Haynes could have emphasised is KC’s drumming skills; she was regarded by many musicians as a very talented percussionist but this regard didn’t translate into mainstream recognition and offers of work.

There are some live-action passages but they are restricted to actual film clips of the Carpenters and other light pop performers of the 1970s and interviews of women who talk about the influence (or not) of the Carpenters on their lives. It might have been interesting for Haynes to have taken a brief detour and surveyed what happened to some of these singers and musicians as of 1987. Did they manage to survive the 1970s and continue into the next decade with sanity and health intact? Were they still shilling for the corporate music industry or had they all been swept away by new music trends like punk, new wave, ska, reggae and industrial?

The film makes no claim to be balanced or unbiased: it is sympathetic to KC’s plight but is also a screed against the exploitation of women, their bodies and talent for profit and corporate propaganda purposes. Perhaps it could have gone deeper into the influence of the corporate music industry and media generally on popular culture and how corporate values shape thinking and the direction of cultural values but the film looks very low-budget and so is restricted in what it can cover.

The American Dream (by The Provocateur Network): informative if biased documentary on money and American banking

Tad Lumpkin and Harold Uhl / The Provocateur Network “The American Dream” (2010?)

This is a well-made animated documentary that tries to explain how the American people have been misinformed and exploited by agencies of the US government to support the current financial system and the banking industry’s control of it. Everyday man Pile rejoices in having bought a beautiful McMansion house only for his bank manager to foreclose on it because Pile can barely afford the hefty monthly mortgage payments. Desperate to get his house and dog back, Pile is visited by an old childhood friend Hartman who takes him on a voyage through time and space to show Pile how money and banks originated in response to human needs for the exchange of goods and services, and how debt became part of early financial systems. They find out how Pile’s bank gets its money from the Federal Reserve Bank through the Federal government which then taxes the public through income taxes to pay back the Federal Reserve with interest. Hartman then shows how through the ages banks and financiers profited from lending money to governments to pay for expensive wars. They stop off in Revolutionary America to see how Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued over the merits of having a central bank (Jefferson was against, Hamilton was for). Viewers also discover when and how the US Federal Reserve Bank was established in 1913 after several previous attempts to establish a central bank failed. Owned and operated by private interests, the Federal Reserve took over the power to print money from the US government. Interestingly the film pauses for a moment in 1963 when then US President John F Kennedy signed Executive Order 11,110 to regain US government control of creating money instead of giving that power away; six months later, Kennedy was dead in Dallas and his successor Lyndon B Johnson put the order aside. Since then, successive US governments have ignored Executive Order 11,110 and have continued to borrow money from the Federal Reserve and to pay that money back with interest with US taxpayer monies.

In explaining the basics of the US financial system and how it rips off the American public at a level that most people, even school-children can understand, “… Dream” glosses over many details in an effort to keep things simple and on track to its ultimate message which is that Americans must reclaim their money and the power to print it back from the banks that operate the Federal Reserve. The “elite” that controls the Federal Reserve is portrayed as “the Red Shield” (the Rothschilds); according to Wikipedia, the Federal Reserve’s structure and leadership are complex and involve a Board of Governors chosen by the US government and many member banks throughout the country so the organisation ends up being a mix of private and public owners. A notable flaw in the film is one where the US Mint produces dollars (it actually produces coin). If viewers are interested in finding out more about the history of banking in the United States since 1776, and in particular about how the banking and finance industry came to have such a stranglehold on the nation’s economic direction, they should go to the film’s website www.americandreamfilm.com which has details about some of the real-life characters Pile and Hartman see in the film and which also suggests what people can do to protest against the conduct of banks and how to rein in their rapacity.

The style of cartooning is based on that of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “South Park” with less crudely drawn bug-eyed characters moving more freely than Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman. The film’s pace is fast and very focussed which can be a bit inconvenient for some viewers with no prior knowledge of banking and finance trying to digest the information thrown at them. Fractional reserve banking is covered in a big rush without much explanation. The plot builds up to a suitably dramatic climax where Hartman leads an army of everyday folks like Pile against the banks and Hank Paulson tries to inveigle him into changing sides.

Yes it’s quite a biased film but “… Dream” at least attempts to explain to a general audience how the current financial system in the United States is structured and how debt and inflation are incorporated into it. Several myths and misconceptions about how banks operate and how money is created are met head-on and demolished. My main complaint is that the film falls into a good-versus-bad plot stereotype with no suggestion of what alternatives exist to replace the present debt-based fiat money system. The film does not differentiate between commercial banks (the banks that lend for business purposes and provide savings, cheque, credit and fixed-term deposit accounts) and investment banks; a little information about these types of banks and how they were kept separate by the Glass-Steagall Act from 1933 to 1999 would have been helpful so that viewers can see that having banks is still beneficial and that regulating banks’ activities for the benefit of the real economy (that is, an economy focussed on producing and supplying goods and related services) is necessary.

For US audiences, the film is worth watching as many times as is needed to understand the concepts spelled out and families with children will find it helpful in gaining a basic understanding of how debt operates and how banks try to rope in more people into borrowing on credit. The film will be of limited benefit to overseas audiences but its explanation of the role that debt and inflation play in financial systems is still relevant. Funnily, I found out about this film on the same day I read on CommonDreams.org that Citibank in New York tried to get several customers arrested by police for daring to close their bank acounts!

Tabloid: entertaining portrait of an eccentric obsessive doesn’t delve deeply into media culture and social values

Errol Morris, “Tabloid” (2010)

Errol Morris’s documentaries fall into two camps: a serious one (“Fog of War”) and one of portraits of eccentric individuals dominated by their obsessions who often don’t realise they’ve transgressed the invisible boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. The focus of Morris’s scrutiny is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 became obsessed with a young man she met in Utah; the man, Kirk Anderson, began training as a missionary with the Church of Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ aka Mormons to escape her attentions and the Church sent him to England. McKinney pursued and kidnapped Anderson with the help of two men and imprisoned him in a cottage in southwestern England. The incident aroused (ahem) much interest throughout the UK with its combination of conservative religion and its strict morality as regards sexual relations, kidnapping and sexual bondage. McKinney was arrested and charged but managed to jump bail and escape back to the US. Although she and one of her accomplices were later arrested by the FBI, the English courts did not request her extradition and sentenced her in absentia to jail for a year. Two tabloid UK newspapers competed for sales with opposed views of McKinney’s antics and background based on information and material obtained in often shady ways.

McKinney is an entertaining and garrulous interviewee, bright and open to a fault. Her apparently guileless manner may well hide a calculating and shrewd mind intent on getting what she wants no matter what it takes or what obstacles are in her way. Morris’ Interrotron technique of interviewing subjects, in which McKinney looks into the camera which projects her face’s image onto a two-way mirror positioned in front of the lens of the camera facing Morris, and vice versa for Morris (he looks into his camera that projects his image to the mirror positioned in front of McKinney’s camera), ensures that viewers are hit with the full force of McKinney’s bubbling and sometimes overpowering personality but it also means that Morris himself ends up too close to his subject to be able to show a more objective view of her personality and character and the wider meaning of the 1977 kidnapping and the UK tabloid press’s involvement. At times Morris appears willing to be swept along by McKinney’s version of what happened and her insistence that Anderson was being brainwashed by a cult but the veteran interviewer never presses or challenges her opinion and prejudices.

Morris also interviews a former Mormon missionary who perhaps is the most objective and sane person in the whole film, and two journalists from the rival tabloids that salivated over McKinney and Anderson, each recounting the newspapers’ wildly differing versions of the incident and of McKinney’s character and defending their stories and research. Viewers see some of the conflicting opinions and views of two people in the British media towards the story: one is amused and nonplussed, the other is cynical and predatory. Unfortunately the two most significant male characters in the whole saga, Kirk Anderson and Keith Joseph May, are absent from the documentary: Anderson refused to be interviewed and May had already died, so any pretence at “balance” is precluded.

The film’s presentation milks the whole incident for laughs with insertions of tabloid-style title cards that introduce the interviewees and give something of the flavour of the news coverage of the time. Cartoons and cartoon montages help give a light-hearted and racy feel to the film. Towards the end, after the abduction and its consequences become history, the film slows down with the coverage of an unrelated incident that also attracted news attention: in 2008, when her pet dog died, McKinney had it cloned into a litter of puppies by researchers in South Korea.

Though the film is entertaining and sympathetic towards its subject, it missed an opportunity to examine McKinney’s upbringing in some detail, in particular the expectations and stereotypes she grew up with and absorbed which fed her beliefs about romantic love and marriage and encouraged her obsession with Anderson. In the end, these notions undid McKinney and derailed her life: she resolved never to love another man and became reclusive. That an obviously intelligent and resourceful woman with great drive and energy who lived for romance, marriage and a brood of many children gave up her dream completely is a tragedy that the film glosses over. Morris’s attempt at investigating the media hysteria and celebrity worship surrounding McKinney’s abduction of Anderson amounts to very little and says nothing about the kind of media culture that existed in the UK then and the social values that supported it. Perhaps Morris isn’t the best person to examine and appreciate the kind of society the UK was at the time. The best that “Tabloid” does is to show that the truth about the incident remains elusive and that people’s memories of it can be wildly different for many reasons, of which self-preservation is the primary one.

 

A Ninja Pays Half my Rent: fun and hilarious student film about finding the perfect partner … and being the perfect partner

Stephen K Tsuchida, “A Ninja Pays Half my Rent” (2002)

Hilarious student short about finding the perfect room-mate (which could be extended to include the perfect tenant, the perfect boarder, the perfect spouse, whatever), this has punchy gags timed and edited well and the silliness is cleverly turned into fun and not a little sympathy for its hapless and hopeless main character. Barry (Timm Sharp) has to find a new room-mate after his pal (Anthony Liebetrau) tragically dies at breakfast: the poor sod pokes his grapefruit and a stream of juice hits his eye and penetrates and burns his brain through the optic nerve. A ninja (Shin Koyamada) answers Barry’s ad and the usual problems of getting used to each other’s dirty habits, schedules and other eccentricities, and working out who puts out the rubbish on rubbish nights and who will buy the milk and groceries follow. The two guys amicably settle into a routine but it’s not long before Barry is tangled up in a personal feud that can only end tragically.

The story is ingeniously constructed in a way that the full details of Barry’s recruiting process happen off-screen and only the more amusing aspects of Barry and the ninja living together are highlighted: everything we see occurred in the distant past and Barry is relating the events to his jogging partner (Steve Yager). The plot only goes into the present tense close to the end when Barry gets home and starts talking about lunch. The beauty of the flashback approach to Barry’s narration is that viewers see what Barry never notices: a conflict between his ninja flatmate and the ninja’s enemy (Tsuchida himself). Close-ups of the actors and of Sharp in particular demonstrate character and parody the ninja lifestyle stereotype.

The pace is generally quick though it drags a little through one skit in which Barry asks for the syrup while the ninja is deep in contemplation over his pancakes. This particular skit shows excellent editing, clever alternation of close-ups and framing of the dining-room scene, and panning in the shot where Barry repeats his request and suddenly finds the syrup right beside him though the ninja has not appeared to move but is instead communing with the pancake. Another memorable skit, and one that introduces a new tension and direction into the short, is where the ninja flatmate takes up his duel while Barry is engrossed in watching a nature documentary. The shot where Barry continues to watch TV, oblivious to the activity on the back couch behind him, is sure to become a classic for film students and audiences alike for its careful set-up and the perfect framing.

The climax is quick, tragic and comic as well: Barry finds himself in demand as the perfect flatmate among the (unseen) ninja community in his town (he’s not very bright and never notices anything much unless it’s an issue of personal hygiene) and it looks like he won’t want for future room-mates. It seems that to find the perfect room-mate, you have to be a perfect room-mate too.

Everything works well thanks to Tsuchida’s almost ninja-like approach to filming his baby: the clean and precise editing; the neat settings with their sharp lines; close-ups of Sharp’s face that capture every shade of expression; the contrast between Sharp’s likeable if clueless Barry and Koyamada’s wary and vigilant ninja, which the short plays up for comic effect; and the minimal script which quietly and artfully builds on its skits, along with the soft tinkling piano soundtrack that plays throughout the film, have something of the Zen Buddhist philosophy that initially informed the practice of ninjutsu in Japan.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)