Every year gives us documentaries that society deems we should see, and many of them are good, or, at the least, polished. Perhaps too good and too polished. Man on Wire was visually beautiful crackerjack entertainment that played as a complete gloss on an egomaniac. Young@Heart was undeniably poignant, but it also has a sentimental pity-the-elderly undercurrent that struck me as somewhat condescending. Werner Herzog’s docs are typically glorious but are as much about him as anything else. Errol Morris and Michael Moore make unmissable documentaries, important, theoretically rabble-rousing documentaries (they’d be rabble-rousing if anyone, sadly, seemed to give a damn), but their talents and their showmanship sometimes inspire distrust. These important directors are nearly too sure of themselves considering the troublesome waters with which they choose to swim. The point is that a direct artlessness—while less of a conventionally cinematic accomplishment (and considerably less pleasant to watch)—might be valuable in opening up the sorts of conversations that most documentaries clearly strive to open.
Bob Ray’s two docs, Hell on Wheels and Total Badass, are artless—but that proclamation of artlessness is meant partially as a compliment. The films are ineptly made. You can see boom mikes at various points, and the cameras have a habit of dropping and wiggling and doodling as they would in the films of a particularly promising third-grader. The material isn’t shaped, as scenes are frequently redundant of information we’ve already learned. Informational text is clumsily inserted at various times, and the writing of that text is obvious. Yet, both films offer a little bit of the truth that can be found in raw, unprocessed material.
Hell on Wheels concerns the formation of the first all-girl roller derby in Austin in the early 2000s, an act that would eventually inspire dozens of similar organizations across the country. The premise suggests an uplifting true story of girl power, and, to an extent, Hell on Wheels is just that. But Ray lingers on details that cannier directors would glide over in an effort to approximate a fictional sports film. Much of Hell on Wheels is compromised of footage of bickering between the four captains of the initial teams and the remainder of the players. The captains took charge, picking up primitive on-the-fly lessons in corporate organization in order to get the derby going. The captains elected themselves as leaders of their fledgling company, bequeathing themselves the power they (understandably) felt they earned; while the players (understandably) felt exploited and cheated of a business they paid dues to support—and, in their eyes, invested in.
These arguments could have a rebellious, chic, sexy, reality-TV charge; following these mostly pierced, mostly tattooed, sometimes-lithe wannabe hellcats as they try to forge a refuge from the laws of others. But Ray doesn’t have that calculation, or, I assume, the resources. Ray works cheap and to the point, and so the camera remains mostly still in these meetings for large passages of time. We’re uncomfortable, and we’re more-than-sometimes bored. We feel that we’ve been trapped in a PTA meeting. But an irony is achieved of the sort that one normally first encounters in a school reading of Lord of the Flies. These girls become the kind of perceived-to-be-uncaring “Me! Me! Me!” company they sought to escape, because that devolution of individuality is probably unavoidable if one hopes to coral a large amount of people into one direction, regardless of the nature of that direction. These girls contend with a lesson that might have slipped through a slicker film’s cracks: That all accomplishments might have a root in dictatorship and egomania. But I don’t wish to portray Hell on Wheels entirely as some crude art-savant cave painting. The images of the girls in play are occasionally lyrical. That lyricism, in the context of these women trying like Hell not to fall apart, is casually beautiful and even a little heartbreaking.
Total Badass is harder, much harder, to like than Hell on Wheels. The technique is even cruder, as Ray frequently turns his camera over to his subject, Chad Holt, who seems to be coked up, drunk, stoned, and ranting most of the time. Holt is a Don Quixote of a contemporary, very typical sort: He plays the role of the tortured artist for the buzz and the self-delusional glory all the while failing to produce the actual art. He’s a little-bit-of-everything kind of guy. Holt’s an Austin local who writes and publishes his own magazines (sometimes), performs in a number of bands (sometimes), sells weed (all the time), and launches into tirades that are meant to be profoundly ugly glimpses of the turmoil of the inner soul (all the time). Holt’s days are spent mostly on the above pursuits as well as on his, one presumes, frequent legal troubles, which, at the time of this film, mostly concern an incident of hawking counterfeit wrist bands at South by Southwest—which I admittedly found to be kind of ingenious.
I also admit that I nearly gave up on Total Badass at the 30-minute mark. It wasn’t because of the profanity, which is beyond considerable (this film has to set some sort of record for the use of “fuck,” especially for a 90-minute film); it wasn’t because of the misogyny; or because I thought that Chad was an exceptionally unexceptional douchebag. No, the potential deal-breaker was my perception that Ray—like any number of amateurish promoters for shitty bands—was glorifying Chad as some sort of everyman who fights conventionality and keeps it real. Judgment is an ugly indulgence, but Holt is—at least as presented here—an intolerably self-absorbed human being. Let’s just use the word: He struck me as a loser.
As the film continues though, it becomes obvious that Ray isn’t glorifying Holt. Ray isn’t editorializing in one direction or the other, and this eventually uncovers an honesty. Classic portraits of the troubled—whether it be a song by the Rolling Stones or a book by Charles Bukowski—have one central problem unavoidable in the work of talented men: The brilliance of the artist dilutes the hopelessness of losing. A song by the Stones is still a song by the Rolling Stones, just as a passage of a man puking on his girlfriend’s pussy is still a passage written by Charles Bukowski. Holt’s life is cleansed through no such filter of brilliance, and so the loser story remains—stunningly—without the glory that comes from the ability to create art from low existences. It’s this inability to create or redeem that Chad himself doesn’t comprehend. In his eyes, he’s an artist. Ray has made an unpleasant, partially pornographic film that most people will detest, and I can confess that I will never watch it again—though I’m in danger of making it sound worse than it is. But Total Badass, intentionally or not, has accomplished something. I can honestly say that I want to see another film by Bob Ray. I want to sort through the wreckage, the purposeful from the happy accidental.
Bob Ray’s Hell on Wheels and Total Badass will play at the reRun Gastropub Theater from November 19 – 25.
Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva
Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.
Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.
There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.
An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.
Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.
To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.
Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:
People, actual fucking people, are watching scene after scene like this and are saying “bruuuh! best. movie. of. the. year”?
This is objectively bad. Someone with no idea about editing will notice it. My brain is on fire thinking that this is an OSCAR NOMINATED MOVIE! FUCK! pic.twitter.com/QVDCxe2iaf
— Pramit Chatterjee 🌈 (@pramitheus) January 26, 2019
Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)
We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: BlacKkKlansman
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman