Documentary

The Pearl Button/El botón de nácar (Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile, 2015)

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the pearl button

A film that finds continuities between the genocide of indigenous peoples in Chile and the murder of dissidents by the Pinochet regime, that finds a connection between the stars and the oceans, and that reflects personally and poetically on some of the very grandest of grand narratives. I’m not surprised Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button has received mixed reviews. But I don’t think it deserves them; gorgeous imagery of water poetically montaged together; a narrative in which the different strands merge like streams that flow and separate dialectically and sometimes roars with moments of violence that would shock the heavens– Guzmán really wants to show you all the steps involved in killing and getting rid of dissidents before dumping them on the sea by helicopter — before merging into the same ocean and finding shared humanity. A symbolic but historically grounded pearl button is what connects different stories of colonisation, slavery, displacement and genocide: beauty and horror sublimely presented to the audience. Part of the pleasure of watching films like this is as an encounter with other modes of seeing, conveying and understanding; some of the assumptions in the film — it has a slight mystical dimension–might be in tension with our own. But surely it’s in encountering such differences, in feeling them and thinking them through, that one learns and grows. The Martin Gusinde photographs of the extinct Selk’nam people, and the way Guzmán presents them, are on their own worth the price of admission. I thought it a beautiful film.

david gusnam

José Arroyo

327 Cuadernos: Los diarios de Ricardo Piglia (Andrés di Tella, Argentina, 2015)

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327 Cuadernos is a beautiful and complex work on biography and on the intersection of memory and history, both individual, as a reconstitution of fragments of the self; and collective, as a shared social history; one that simultaneously examines the intersection of expression and re-presentation whilst keeping in play the various ways in which they differ: very moving.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 13.57.31.pngAndrés di Tella, one of Latin America’s foremost documentary essayist, arrives in Princeton to find writer Ricardo Piglia, a colleague at the University and someone he’s interviewed before many years ago, packing up to return to Buenos Aires after having worked in the U.S. for many years. Piglia’s kept a diary since the age of 16, when politics –the aftermath of the coup against Perón in ‘55 – meant his father, a lifelong Perón supporter, moved the whole family from Adrogué, a suburb of Buenos Aires, to the relative safety of Mar de Plata. His father defended Perón in ’55 and was in prison for a year as a result. “It’s really tough when you’re a kid and your old man is taken away by the cops. That’s really ugly: a strange feeling. But anyway, that’s how it was”.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 16.40.29.png‘’’55 was the year of sorrow; ’56 was prison and ’57 was even worse” says Piglia, “the trip (to Mar de Plata) was like an exile. Since then, where I live has never really mattered.” In the film, the old writer’s return to Buenos Aires is rhymed, accompanied, contradicted, by that first exile that would turn the displaced and disturbed teenager into the writer of these 327 notebooks; though, interestingly, the images that accompany the latter will be reconstructed, re-imagined and even re-imaged ones. Thus, like we see in the rest of the film, the self, the past, history and society are all both documented and, via acts of interpretation, also to a degree imagined; they offer no immediate or clear access; they’re always mediated, often by more than one element or source.

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“There’s nothing more ridiculous that the aspiration of recording one’s own life,” says Piglia, “It automatically turns you into a clown.” But something propelled him into keeping a diary, one that would eventually sprawl across the eponymous 327 notebooks, and he believes the displacement and the diary that ensued as a result was transformative and might have been what turned him into a writer. The film begins with the exposition of a point of origin – that ‘exile’ to the provinces of the film’s protagonist — in which the subject at the film’s present – the return to Buenos Aires from another type of exile in America –- may be found, whilst at the same time acknowledging the narrational and fictional dimensions of such a search. “The art of narration is the relationship the narrator has with the story’s narratives’, says Piglia, ‘that’s what defines the tone”.

Initially, Di Tella announces the film’s project as ‘‘To keep a diary of the reading of a diary”. But who and what does a diary document? The problems begin at the beginning: “I have the impression I’ve led two lives. The one written in the notebooks and the one fixed in my memories. Sometimes when I re-read it, it’s hard to recognise what I’ve lived. There are episodes set down there that I’d completely forgotten. They exist in the diary but not in my memory. Yet at the same time, certain events that endure in my memory with the vividness of a photograph are absent as if I’d never experienced them.”

Thus begins a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history, how the self is narrated to oneself but also to others, socially. Di Tella consciously delineates a series of methodological problems: How does one film the diary of a writer? What’s a film’s present tense? Who is the narrator and who and what is being narrated? What is the connection between documentary and fiction.

“I can’t even make out my own writing,” says Piglia, “The diary allows you to integrate what happens with a certain documentary style … but (uses) the genre and its tricks to make fiction, an imperceptible fiction. There’s a con there: there’s fiction, and then there’s my real life, my experience; and in between there’s an area of experimentation in which I experiment also with possible lives, you know”.

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Piglia’s diaries are not just what’s written in them but also the doodles and sketches they contain – Evita, for example, figures — what falls out of them when opened — pictures of Brecht, an airline ticket from a trip to Cuba, newspaper clippings — ‘Demons Reluctant to be Exorcised– etc; and also what they convey: what does a ranking of boxers reveal about Piglia?

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“There’s always a propensity to lists,’ he says, “I think one makes lists in order not to think, right? To rid one’s head of ideas.” He sees another list: love, meaning of life, politics, days of soccer, theatre, movies, literature. “It’s another list but more internal, see? The meaning of life! Isn’t that marvellous. And here it is, side by side with boxing!”

Until the filming, Piglia’s never re-read his diaries. He started to type them up at various times but failed to follow through. Now, as he tries going over them once more, problems arise: ‘It’s hard going back over your own life. It’s not easy’. Moreover, he sometimes can’t make out his writing, often doesn’t remember the events described and eventually declares: ‘ ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like anything I’m reading. That could be the title of the film.’

Half-way through the film, Piglia develops a serious illness which the film doesn’t reveal but which we now know to be Lou Gherig’s desease. Thus the film has to change tak. Piglia now needs help writing and an assistant is found for him. The scratching sound of the pen that has accompanied most of the film until now gives way to the tapping on a keyboard and it’s as if the change in sounds leads to a change in tone.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 13.40.50.pngThe illness leads to a series of interrogations on the nature of the project and thus of the intersections of biograpy/autobiography/ fiction: Autobiography could be a collage (of other autobiographies); the project could re-focus on what wasn’t written down but is still remembered; memory comes to us as splinters, flashes, full of light, perfect, unconnected; that’s how it should be written, affirms Piglia. He experiments with putting diaries in third person; he talks about himself as if he were someone else. “A writer’s diary is also a laboratory. Not so much experiences but rather experiments”. He re-writes, makes changes. Literature, he says, is the place in which someone else always does the talking. He thinks on the connection between his fiction and his diaries:

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 16.53.02.png“It’s as if in my novels there’s always this anchor. Hooked to something that actually happened. Sometimes found in diaries.” He fantasises about publishing the diaries under the name of one of his fictional characters, Emilio Renzi (which is how the first volume has since been published). Sometimes, he just dreams of setting match to paper, burning them all and be done with.

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García Lorca filmed by Amorim

De Piglia’s illness becomes more serious and Di Tella is unable to film for two months. What to do? Di Tella does as Enrique Amorim did in the 30s and films Piglia’s friends, tries to talk about him through filming them: Roberto Jacoby, Tata Cedrón, Germán Garcia, Gerardo Gandini. Gandini like possibly Horacio Quiroga in Amorim’s filming, dies unexpectedly shortly after these images were filmed. Even as the film tries to bring Piglia to life through various means and in various guises, death haunts this project.

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327 Notebooks is a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history. The times when one feels part of a historical event, when a historical event intersects with one’s personal life, changes it and one is tossed about by the waves of change and feels part of history are few. For Piglia, “’55 was a moment were history enters life”, so was the coup of ’66 and the death of Che Guevara: “It rained a lot that day…I have an image of myself crossing the street flooded with rain with the awareness that Che was dead.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 16.34.41.pngThe film uses found footage gathered from a private archive of Super 8 films, as well as the leftovers of 16mm footage shot for news reports (what was broadcast has been lost; but the trims survive). Thus Piglia reading of events he lived but can’t remember is interspersed with historical events (people waving their white handkerchiefs as a symbol that Cristo Vence! (Christ Wins!), Peron’s wife giving an emotional speech from the presidential balcony, the debates around whether the photographs of Che Guevara’s corpse are authentic), some home movies, other people’s memories but with the people now dead or scattered away so that they can’t re-invoke them; someone’s else’s home movies standing in for a social memory, something akin to what one might have experienced.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 14.23.04.pngAs the film unfolds this interlayering of history, the social, the personal, the personal as history, events unremembered, memories unrecorded, all these partial but interacting layerings of aspects, of parts we sometimes reconstitute into a whole and call the self, becomes more deliberately metaphoric, thus we’re asked to interpret the meaning of a polar flight with huskies being pushed onto a plain, or at the end of the film, a horse tamer, bronco-ing through the horse’s every attempt to throw him.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 16.56.01.png            In voice-over Di Tella recounts how according to Piglia: “in the diaries an unknown man appears, unknown even to him, an intimate character who only exists in the pages of the notebooks; someone darker, more violent, sentimental, vulnerable. It’s not the same man his friends know.” The man that appears to us in the film is probably also different to the man that appears in the diaries, or the person who unfolds and changes through history and who write them in the process of changing who that self, those various selves, was in the very process of transformation, of perhaps altering into someone else. It’s a great film that manages to convey all of this whilst interrogating the various grounds of each step of the representation itself. And the found footage also gives it a touch of the poet, those powerful images that evoke a social history one recognises but can’t quite pin down into a singular meaning. Very beautiful.

 

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“Sometimes, one doesn’t film enough of what one wants and one thinks of it as a lack’ said di Télla after the screening, whereas those absences can sometimes become strengths”

Seen at EICTV in the presence of the director and available to view at as a VOD rental on Vimeo at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/327cuadernos

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José Arroyo

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/ UK, 2012)

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Two fans set out in search for the mysterious Rodriguez, American pop icon of a generation in South Africa but practically unknown in the US. Who is he and what happened to him? Searching for Sugar Man is a movie to moisten the eye of every cynic; if you’re a musician, involved with a musician, or merely bonking one occasionally, you’ll find this film particularly compelling. In a quiet way, it also articulates issues of class and race in America that more mainstream fare flees from. A superb documentary.

 

José Arroyo

Marlene Dietrich: Twilight of an Angel (Dominique Leeb, France, 20013)

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Marlene Dietrich: It’s her legs that made her fortune; her face that became an indelible and iconic image of cinema, of glamour and even of modernity; but it is in her voice we find the full range of her personality. The Twilight of an Angel offers fascinating insights into  how Dietrich lived in her last years, how bullying and needy and vulnerable and romantic she was. How she dared to be herself, still.

The film — more a one hour documentary made for television — contains interviews with the sharp-voiced and certain Maria Riva, Marlene’s much-loved daughter, as well as rare and revealing sound footage of Dietrich speaking to her butler or assistant — seemingly a lovely gay man — who evidently took care of her in her last days. Twilight of an Angel ends emotionally with her funeral in Berlin. The last song, ‘I’m Leaving a Suitcase in Berlin/ Einen Koffer in Berlin,’ is just beautiful.

 

José Arroyo

Ballroom Dancer (Christian Holten Bonke and Andreas Koefoed, Denmark, 2011)

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Viacheslav ‘Slavik’ Kryklyvyy and Joanna Leunis once won the World Championships in ballroom dancing in the ‘Latin American’ category. But that was ten years ago. Their partnership’s since broken up; he subsequently retired; she’s continued garnering ballroom glory. As the film begins, Slavik announces a comeback with his new on and off-stage partner, Anna Melnikova. Slavik is sof-spoken and very charismatic, very focused, very controlling and a bit volatile. He’s in competition with his former dance partner and feels he’s got no option but to win. But his new partner is a beautiful woman with lots of other options. The film is a good portrait of Slavik, of the world of ballroom dancing and is also insightful into the power dynamics of any relationship. An entertaining film with some lovely dance sequences.

 

José Arroyo

Chris & Don: A Love Story (Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007)

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 Chris & Don: A Love Story (Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007) explores the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is a film everyone who sees it will have a lot to say about: the thirty-year difference in age; the enormous gap in social class; the equally wide gap in artistic achievement.

Both Isherwood and Bachardy were seminal figures in the Gay Liberation Movement of my youth and I felt I knew quite a bit about them: Isherwood, the left-wing, upper-class, pacifist, pal of Auden, the author of Goodbye Berlin, Isherwood and His Kind, I Am A Camera and A Single Man; Bachardy, the fashionable portraitist of Souther California’s most modish,  famous and talented; both at the very the centre of a group of artists that included Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Hockney  and so famous for their salons that George Cukor  set the beginning of Rich and Famous at a party in their Santa Monica house; an out gay couple when there were no others and iconic for having the courage to be so.

However, I had never heard Don Bachardy’s voice and I was startled by it here. Why does a California native speak like an aristocratic Englishman?: that tone, that accent, that manner. A Queen is free to choose who s/he wants to be but the choice made is not without significance. He’s clearly submerged himself into his idea of Isherwood; his ideal way of being is that which Isherwood represented to him.  Love, self-hatred, snobbery, fandom (and Bachardy liked to insert himself in the pictures of the movie stars he so worshipped) surely all played a role in such a choice.  The film offers so much to think about and say, with perhaps very little that is good or enhances one’s appreciation of what they once represented.I at first found myself a little judgmental but then concluded that we each imagine and try to construct a way of being and a way of loving. Theirs worked much better than most.

Isherwood looks hale, avuncular, kind and patient throughout. Bachardy looks like a very young underage boy in the earliest of the gorgeous fifties colour footage we get to see, someone trying too hard to look young in the later footage, later still, someone whose subsumed their very being into that of another; when we see him talking to his brother, it’s like people from two worlds speaking across different cultures and bridging that gap with love, care  and affection.

In letters and notes, Isherwood paints himself as an old pack horse; Bachardy is the mewling cat; they obviously loved each other very much; and like all gay couples then, invented what it meant to have a loving relationship for themselves. Isherwood’s Diaries, exhausting in their precision, perfection, and constancy are nonetheless very good at evoking this developing relationship in social contexts long gone and sometimes hard for us to imagine. What the film has to offer that one can’t get from the Diaries is the home movies. They show a lost world of sea voyages to glamorous European capitals. Their colours alone, the product of now disappeared film stock, evoke a lost word. They also afford the sight of the home in which so much took place, friendly but not usually open to guests like us, and of course the voices.

Isherwood/Bachardy  meant a lot at a time when even a firmly shut closet door didn’t keep out the ill-wind of homophobia and it took guts to be out much less proud: few ventured to be open about gay relationships. There was always something touching about a couple’s desperate search for domesticity of the most basic and complacent kind being branded the worst kind of outlaws by society and all its structures of control, like insisting on living out an idea of sharing food when they’re sending drones out to bomb someone for making an omelette.

The fact that their relationship was seen to be so long-lasting was held up as a role model and somehow validating of gay relationships. They helped change the focus of the discussion from sex to love. The truth is always more complex than any attempt to represent it. I’m sure Isherwood/Bachardy will remain significant — Cabaret will go on ensuring that the writer of its original source material will be remembered; A Single Man might also add gloss to the shine of his reputation; Isherwood will carry on being one of the most celebrated of 20th-Century writers; the couple will carry on  signifying, albeit perhaps differently, they will continue to mean a lot to future generations of gay men; they will continue to discomfort; and this film certainly adds to our knowledge.

 

Bette Davis  —  shown here fat in the fifties in one of those photographs Bachardy used to insert himself in and get celebrities to autograph later — once said that old age isn’t for sissies. But my lasting image of this film is that of an old sissy,colour-co-ordinated from tip to toe, riding out to the Farmer’s marker with a crew film behind him,  and enjoying every moment of it and of where his life had brought him to;  being brave about a lot of things, not least acknowledging his wants; and living them out with a few tears, panache and a great deal of love.

Available to see on Sky Arts

José Arroyo

The Class of ‘92 (Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner, UK, 2013)

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The Class of 92

For the few who might not know, The Class of ’92 was a group of kids who loved football, were recruited by Manchester United at an early age, rose up the ranks of the youth teams, and finally made the first team. In 1992, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville won the FA Youth Cup. Paul Scholes was an FA Youth Cup finalist in 1993 and Phil Neville, Gary’s brother, captained the team to the FA Youth Cup in 1995. Collectively they’re referred to in this film as the Class of ’92 that went on to win the Double (FA Cup and the League Title) in 1996 and the Treble (the double plus the Champions League ) in 1999. The central narrative is to prove how wrong Alan Hansen was when he asserted that ‘You can’t win anything  with kids’ and to show what good friends these kids were and continue to be.

 

The film is an unabashed exercise in nostalgia and mythmaking. Tony Blair appears to praise the achievements of the players but also to big up the Blair Years in which those achievements took place. Danny Boyle who know a thing or two about legends, iconicity and the mobilizing of imagery into myth-making, speaks here about what Man U meant to his family and what the success of the club meant to the city. Mani of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream waxes nostalgic about Manchester in those times and lyrical about the players’ achievements. It’s like mixing Louis VIX’s search for ‘la gloire’ with some ‘I was born in a schack’ US narrative of success brought about by will and work and discipline.

 

As a movie, it’s not much. As an analysis, it’s pretty basic – we don’t understand anything any better than we did at the beginning of the film. Plus I’m pretty sick of all the bloody nostalgia for the ‘Hacienda’ days which to me is just old men kidding themselves that their youth was better than anybody else’s. However, it’s a very enjoyable watch for football fans. These icons speak to each other like the friends they are and seem human and knowable in their interactions.  Moreover, we get to see some of the great moments in football of the last two decades and get the perspective of those who created them. Cantona, who’s now acting in movies, appears in order to praise. Zinédine Zidane, more glamorous and charismatic than all the rest of them put together, also pops up to eulogize. As a movie, it’s something one might have expected Sky Sports to quickly paste up for endless replay. But it must be said that the reason these types of films re-play is because we simply can’t get enough of them.

 

Zidane on Paul Scholes
Zidane on Paul Scholes

José Arroyo

Lubitsch in Berlin Part I: Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (Robert Fischer, Germany, 2006) Masters of Cinema Series

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Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood is everything one could hope for in a documentary on a great film directors. First and foremost it shows us excerpts from films (Der Stolz der Firma, Schupalast Pinkus, Meyer aus Berlin) that one had a vague knowledge of but had never seen and makes one long to see them. Lubitsch’s Berlin films are prodigious in number – between 1913 and 1922 he acted in at least 30 films and directed over forty — amongst them extraordinary achievements in film art that deserve to be better know. Some can now be seen in the Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set currently distributed as part of the ‘Masters of Cinema’ series and which includes Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood as one of the discs. Fischer’s film on Lubitsch is succeeds in making us learn about Lubitsch’s early career as a whole as well as demonstrating the what, where, when and some of the how of some of his greatest films in this period. It leaves us eager to seek them out or to be once more charmed by their riches. If you have a Lubitsch addiction, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin will stoke it.

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The film’s objective is to restore Lubitsch’s German work to its rightful place in the Lubitsch oeuvre and to argue that that place is an important one. In order to do so, the film draws on the riches of film museums, the ones in Munich and Berlin are particularly well represented, not least through the expertise of their former directors, respectively Enno Patalas and Hans Helmut Prinzler. The use of a wide array of archival resources enable us to see Berlin at the beginning of the 20th Century, fabulous film posters, images taken on the sets of various production, what film studios were like at the time of the First World War, etc.; and we also get to hear the voices of legends like Henny Porten, Dietrich’s idol when a teenager and the great German star of the era, or Jörg Jannings reading the writings of his father Emil on Lubitsch. These words and voices — soft, romantic, hyper-emotional — evoke an era of filmmaking, an attitude to it, and even a whole tradition of German Romanticism that’s as rich as anything we get to see.

 

Tom Tykwer next to a statue of Lubitsch
Tom Tykwer next to a statue of Lubitsch

The film uses talking-head interviews to narrate Lubitsch’s story in Berlin but also to illustrate, contextualize and learn to appreciate that which we’ve seen. Thus, interspersed with clips from the films, archival footage and a whole array of images from a variety of sources, the film also deploys the knowledge and insights of some of the most celebrated writers on Lubitsch and his time in Berlin (Michael Hanisch, Jan-Christopher Horak); some of the most famous German filmmakers of the time in which the film was made (Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run, Wolfgang Becker of Goodbye, Lenin, Dani Levy, Go for Zucker!); and members of Lubitsch’s own family: his daughter Nicola, his granddaughter Amand Goodpaster, and the smart and trenchant voice of his niece, Evy Bettleheim-Bentley.

Did the Berlin Lubitsch suspect the Hollywood career that awaited him? Ali Hubert draws out the prospect.
Did the Berlin Lubitsch suspect the Hollywood career that awaited him? Ali Hubert draws out the prospect.

 

Nicola Lubitsch was invited back to Berlin to help celebrate her father’s centenary in 1992 and her discovery of the Berlin culture of her father’s era and of his very great and unique contributions to it becomes the film’s central narrative and the viewers’ jouney. It’s as is if in telling us of her experience, in finding out new things about her father, his world and his art, she also helps us to discover and begins to set a context in which to appreciate this particular world and these particular works, guiding the viewer familiar only with the American Lubitsch into these silent treasures and the social, cultural and political contexts that helped create them. One couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Lubitch’s  pre-Hollywood life, career and work.

 ****

Lubitsch's daughter Nicola kissing a statue of her father.
Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola kissing a statue of her father.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Life After Pi (Directed and Edited by Scott Leberecht, 2013)

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On the 12th of February 2013, Variety ran a headline: ‘Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy reveals vfx biz crisis’. Life After Pi documents how how this came to be; how one of the most successful and stable vfx company, one that been running successfully for twenty-five years, intelligently managed and mobile enough to take advantage of every tax break, went bankrupt.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 09.42.16Globalisation had had an effect on the personal lives of vfx worker. Many former employees of Rhythm and Hue here talk about the impossibility of having homes and families when workers have to move from city to city or country to country as film financing chases tax incentives and tax breaks. Workers also consider themselves artist and companies find it easy to exploit the fact that they love what they do: living in hotel rooms and working hundred-hour weeks near the end of production are shown to be common. But unsocial working conditions are not what led to bankruptcy.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 08.59.03The problem is the business model. Unlike live-action shooting which is paid for by the hour, vfx are paid by the job; if they’re hired to do 500 shots, that’s what they get paid for and that’s what they’ve got to provide. It’s a fixed price for the job. Except that the job itself is not fixed. What happens is that directors sometimes change their mind about what’s to be in the shot, they want the rain moving left or right, and the VFX company has to absorb the cost. In live action, for example, because money is time and the clock is ticking, it would be a major crisis if, after having shot for a week, the director comes in and says, I don’t like the set, strike it and build me another one. But that is exactly what vfx people are routinely asked to do. They have to scrap the work done, start a new job, and absorb the costs of that change themselves. Hollywood is still run on an oligopolistic model. The players might have changed but not as much as we might think. It’s now Sony rather than MGM but still figuring Paramount, Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox. The rules of the game are still set by the majors. And the game is fixed: VFX companies and their workers always lose.

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All of this came to a head during the academy awards in 2013. There were 500 people outside protesting a business model that invariably led vfx companies to go bust. Rhythm and Hues, having just filed for bankruptcy, was nominated for Academy Awards for Life of Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman. Pi won. But Bill Westenhofer, who went up to collect the award, was prevented from finishing his speech after only 45 seconds by the Jaws music being played louder than he could speak. His colleagues refer to it in the film as being sharked or being jaws-ed off the stage. To add insult to injury, neither Claudio Miranda, the Director of Photography for Pi nor Ang Lee, the film’s director, thanked the VFX people when they collected their award. ‘75% of that movie is our work. Without us there is no work’, says an irate VFX worker.

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Life after Pi demonstrates how this galvanized protest. Supporters on Twitter and on Facebook changed their profile picture to a green square demonstrating how, without their contributions as artists, colourists, designers, much of most movies would be just that. A green screen.

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A very illuminating look at what goes into the making of a film today, how films gets made and the crucial importance of vfx within this particular mode of filmmaking. You can see it on You Tube here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lcB9u-9mVE#t=1761

José Arroyo

First Position (Bess Kargman, USA, 2011)

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FirstPosition

 

I love documentaries on ballet. I like seeing the toil, the boredom, the grind of constant effort, the blistered feet, the pain, the process. I find it interesting that all of this is in the service of the unnatural, of getting one’s body to contort in ways it wasn’t designed to, and thus do things that we call ‘marvelous’ because they’re not natural, they’re not ordinary. I somehow find it moving that all these years of grinding out the practice, of sweat and hurt are mobilized into the creation of an ideal of beauty that is both precise and evanescent, that disappears the moment it’s achieved, so fleeting that if you blink you’ve missed it.

There’s something interesting too about the composition of the cast in these films. Ballet is international so ballet films always feature characters from different countries interacting with each other; yet the action or story tends to have particular settings, be it a ballet school in Paris or London, so these characters’ are often seen as adapting to the culture of their school or company.

This documentaries follows six young dancers of various ages as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a contest that could determine their future as dancers, thus the culture of home, of comfort and feeling, is usually placed in contrast with the culture of work and achievement. The stories I found most interesting were those of two mixed race siblings (mother Japanese, father Australian) whose mother is determined to have them realise her dream. The girl wants to be a dancer but does the boy? The mother has the potential to be the stage mother from hell but will she be?

The other story I found very moving was of Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16 year old from Columbia training in NYC because Columbia has no ballet culture. He’s got a girlfriend. They eat with their legs stretched out in a semi-split, stretching each other’s legs as they do so and sometimes tapping endearments on each others’ toes with arched feet. His whole family’s well-being seems to be riding on his future as a dancer.

Lastly, there’s Michaela Deprince, a black girl from Sierra Leone adopted by a very loving and supportive white American couple. She saw her biological parents and teachers hacked to death before her eyes as a three-year old. She was almost not adopted because she had white skin blotches all over her neck. Seeing her, one senses a desperate striving to find in ballet the control and beauty not afforded by life. But ballet has historically not been very welcoming to black dancers. Will Michaela succeed? A lovely and moving film.

José Arroyo

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/ Ireland, 2012)

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A  clever and funny film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology  basically amounts to an illustrated lecture on ideology taking excerpts from a wide variety of films (The Sound of Music, The Searchers, They Live, If, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick, also two from Forman, Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) as case studies with which to illustrate aspects of Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on the subject.

The readings of the films are always entertaining but unsubstantiated and he could easily have said the exact opposite had he chosen to —  he offers no proof either way. One can imagine him adding to the ‘perversity’ of it all by saying something completely different about the films and being just as funny, just as provoking and just as clear on his own thinking; the choice of films is amusing but so personal and idiosyncratic as to seem ad-hoc.

The exposition of the thinking, however, is always stimulating and almost too Cartesian, beginning with a central idea, breaking it down, juxtaposing it with its opposite and then guiding one through a dialectic that sees no contradiction in bringing together desire and historical materialism, the self and the social, the unconscious, the repressed and the other invisible forces that act on us, materially, such as forces and relations of production, and us once more, this time via the social, through the circulation of value in commodity culture.

And why would Žižek of all people seek, much less find, such contradiction? As far back as 1989, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek was already writing that, ‘there is a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud – more precisely between their analysis of commodity and of dreams.(p. 11).’ They’re both attempting to make manifest what is otherwise invisible and which not only act on us but in effect create the us we think we are. Movies are almost an embodiment of such issues and concerns: the dream commodity, the viewing machine that commodifies our dreams, the dreams that commodify our desires.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology has a really interesting exposition of how the first part of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ has been used as a unifying anthem throughout the political spectrum, internationally, and across the twentieth century. At the end of the film, there’s an equal interesting speculation on the notion that ‘without God, everything is permitted’. Žižek claims that the debate prompted by the notion was begun by Sartre in the 40s (in Existentialism is a Humanism) as a central question on Existentialism from a misquoting of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. One can understand why Existentialism with its focus on individual responsibility in relation to ethical action would have to address the issues that religion had previously provided a framework for. However, Andrei I. Volkov disputes that Sartre misquoted Dostoyevsky and makes a very persuasive argument that Dostoevsky did in fact say what Sartre attributed to him  though it shouldn’t be taken as an axiom or even as a hypothesis.

The point here is not to discuss Sartre or Dostoyevsky but merely to note that Žižek is not to be relied upon for facts and rigour. However, as a polemicist, he reigns supreme and the film is funny and thought-provoking.  The way he looks, all crumpled up, as if he fell asleep in his clothes last night and has just awoken, and with huge black circles under his eyes, like he’s read so much his mind is a whirl of almost coherent ideas, is funny; as is the emphatic harshness with which that low and somewhat raspy voice of his enunciates.

I’m also glad that ideology as a concept is once again being discussed after all these years of postmodernist emphasis on the partial, the instertitial, the liminal etc.all of which have a narrower focus and whose purpose is of course decimating grand narratives. He shows how those grand narratives nonetheless persist and affect. He doesn’t do a good job of explaining it all and it’s more the work of a provocateur than a thinker. But I liked the provocation very much.

As an added treat, the film places him within the setting of those movies he discusses, Travis Bickle’s bedroom from Taxi Driver say or the military barrack from Full Metal Jacket, which is a way of setting him in the midst of the desires those films enflamed and the ideas they propagated and is a stroke of genius. Another excellent byproduct of the film is that it makes you want to see the films he’s discussing, some of them again, some for the first time (in my case I’m now desperate to see Seconds, the early Forman films and They Live). So all in all, it’s funny, it makes you think, and it makes you want to see more movies — a successful use of 2 and  a 1/2 hours for me.

José Arroyo

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American Vagabond (Susanna Helke and Mary Morgan, Denmark/Finland/ USA, 2013)

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A feature documentary about a young man, James Temple, barely 18, life made impossible by his family for being gay, who runs away to San Francisco in the hope of finding a gay paradise. Instead he finds hunger, homelessness, and a desperate if short-lived descent into prostitution. The America we see in all kinds of films today is no longer that of the ‘American Dream’. You have to be brave in this America but that’s because it’s no longer free and it’s no longer just. What’s wrong with a family who prefers to see their child hungry, cold, homeless, abused and sold so that they can uphold their ‘Christian’ principles? What’s wrong with a country that puts a nice teenage boy in jail for three years and permanently stains him as a pedophile because he slept with another teenage boy who was under two years younger? What’s worse is that once the boy is put in jail, that family becomes his main source of support. One comes out of this film in a rage against that family, that system of injustice, this shocking, new and barbaric America. Russia is brutalising its gay youth officially; America no less efficiently for being unofficial. In ‘The Swimmers’ a short story written for The Saturday Evening Post ( 19th of October 1929),  F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, ‘France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea…was a willingness of the heart.’ This makes one ask where is that willingness of the heart now in America? Or has that heart withered so  its only willingness is for hurting its young, its poor and its weak? The film is crude, unsophisticated and lacks texture: but it sure does the job.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th, 2013

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One Mile Away (Penny Woodcock, UK, 2012)

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I really hated One Mile Away. At the Q&A session after the film, Penny Woodcock, the director, said something like, ‘I wanted to show how there are invisible lines that you or I might not see but that are real to other people living in the same neighbourhood. To them, a street is a barrier and a danger and they could get killed if they cross it. And the problem is not just in Birmingham, but London, Liverpool and internationally. And it’s not just an issue of race; in Liverpool it could be white gangs’. She went on, but really, that’s not how the film comes across. One Mile Away is about the rivalry, one so long-standing no one seems to remember how it started, between the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, two gangs whose postcodes – B21 and B6, are just one mile apart.

The film shows Birmingham as a sort of cross between a British Hell’s Kitchen and a banana republic, with everything ugly, dangerous, lawless; which I think outrageous if one compares crime statistics or criminal justice systems. Also, the film is exploitative: very charismatic leads show up on camera really because they want to be rap stars, they do their little number in exchange for telling something about their lives. And they don’t tell us very much, one cliché after another about not having a father, and being poor, and the system being racist; but then again, I’m not sure they’ll get very much in exchange either.

The film offers very little analysis. Is there so much drugs and crime in that particular community compared to other ethnic or racial communities and if so why? Is the system unfair to them in comparison to Pakistanis or Poles or members of other ethnic or racial communities? Are there internal problems these communities should be addressing? The film avoids these issues. Its treatment of the police I found particularly disgraceful: as if there weren’t people behind those masks.

I so wanted to like it; it’s a rare film dealing with Birmingham ; but it’s a foreigner’s view of the local; actually a patronizing foreigner’s view of the local; a London ‘artiste’ visits the ‘jungles’ of Aston and Handsworth and, heart bleeding, condescends to objectify and vilify the police only to conclude that really everything would be less ugly and dangerous if people would only talk to each other. The film has already won all kinds of awards, more for its subject matter and its good intentions than for its achievements as cinema I should think. Be that as it may, I didn’t’ find it worth my time and I suspect Birmingham City Council will not be thanking the director.

José Arroyo