[Click here to read the second dispatch.]
“Thanks to our incredible volunteers, who are getting drunker as the day goes on but still doing an incredible job.” That intro—I forget for which film—was right on both parts: the 600 strong volunteers of True/False surely make a lot of things possible, even if they were all drinking (one of the big venues has a full bar) to while away the tedium of passing out queue tickets. (Special points for inventiveness to the man who stayed in character as Captain Jack Sparrow. He had the swaying walk down and everything.)
But, arguably, the main thing that makes True/False so unspeakably awesome is that they do not care about premieres. At all. Without a doubt, the premiere culture is one of the worst aspects of any festival that can’t get any good ones but still wants their red carpet moment. It’s always some kind of damn mediocre ensemble drama starring Glenn Close or someone, and it always fades into oblivion, and it’s pernicious.
The True/False guys—by which I mean festival heads David Wilson and Paul Sturtz—clearly don’t care about any of this, which is fantastic. (What’s even better is that the Secret Screenings—an idiocy necessary to preserve the “premiere status” of terrific films—are really, really good. The one I saw has the potential to be one of the Films Of The Year. I hope more people pay attention when it’s officially “premiered” or whatever. You get the feeling even if they had premiere status, they wouldn’t abuse it.) What they’ve constructed is a micro-festival that offers a strong personal voice and an argument (roughly, form matters just as much as the polemic, and your righteousness alone will not save you). This is a micro-fest done right.
OK. Let’s wrap up these films.
Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010)
You probably know all about this Sundance-hyped triumph of of embedded documentary filmmaking—15 months with an army troop in one of the deadliest parts of Afghanistan—so let’s cut to the important stuff. With its oft-chaotic camerawork, disconnected series of events and (for the most part) rejection of music, Restrepo refuses and upends pretty much every single representation of warfare that’s preceded it, narrative or documentary. (Even Kristian Fraga’s Severe Clear—the best Iraq doc I’ve seen—can’t resist the consolations of the occasional rousing montage, interjection of news footage or explanatory map.) Restrepo only gives you two elements to work with: on-the-ground and after the-fact interviews, which—among other things—precludes any cheap, potentially manipulative suspense about who’s going to die. It rewrites the war narrative entirely without giving you facile “background” that won’t add up to much anyway.
The word about Restrepo post-Sundance was that this is some of the most harrowing, intense war footage you’ll ever see, which is both true and misleading. With the exception of an opening IUD blast right in front of a tank, nothing comes from nowhere and the film errs on the side of discretion when it comes to blood and death: The worst incident is described solely through interviews, even though you just know they have the footage. Elsewhere, there’s missiles whizzing over mountains and sniper fights on the hills; this sounds familiar, but trust me, it’s anything but. What’s harrowing is how unfamiliar it is. “Oh,” I thought, “so this is happening.
What I like about Restrepo is its unerring dedication to staying solely within the grunts’ perspective. From opening explosion to the ludicrous final Dropkick Murphys song, there’s nothing here that gives you the Big Picture or any kind of counter-balance. This is a good thing. Compare with, say, this moronic rant about how The Hurt Lockers’ shallow-focus visuals restrict “our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq.” That’s not thinking: that’s knowing the “right” answer before you even start watching. (DOWN WITH THE WAR, THE TROOPS ARE MARTYRS etc. etc.) What Restrepo does is keep the camera running and let you decide. You think these guys are heroes and an inspiration? The evidence is there. You think something’s gone horribly wrong and they’re being led down a pointlessly destructive path? The evidence is there too. For all the visceral kicks, there’s an odd quality of detachment hanging around Restrepo that turns out to be its biggest asset; it’s a visceral ink blot.
Familia (Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits, 2010)
This is about as smart and air-tight as narrative verite filmmaking gets. Wiström and Herskovits have apparently now made three documentaries about one desperately impoverished Peruvian family over the last thirty years; with the exception of one brief snatch of black-and-white footage from the past, though, Familia is resonant and stands on its own. The story’s been pared down to near Dardennes-level intensity: Instead of talking about issues of economic disenfranchisement and the way menial jobs have been redistributed by globalization, it just shows you what’s happening. And so we join a family as the mother is preparing to travel to Spain: There are drunken farewell parties, relationships frayed among multiple generations, and one small boy quietly lost in the middle of it. (The subjective sound usage here is terrific: There’s a moment where the boy is in elementary school and zoning out, and the sound fades in and out accordingly.) After half-an-hour or so of gray Peruvian reality, the sudden cut to two women lounging in bikinis by hotel poolside tells you more about economic disparity in an instant than any lecture ever could. (Compare it, for example, with the moment in Five Easy Pieces when Jack Nicholson arrives at his family’s house and it’s like the color palette of the entire world has changed thanks solely to class and money.)
I don’t have very much to say about Familia: It’s a compact epic that speaks for itself. I will say that for its craft and verisimilitude, it could be pre-sold as a narrative film and I don’t think anyone would blink. That’s a compliment.
It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)
Yes, as in that infamous Phil Spector song, only in this case the abusive guy is America and the rest of the world is getting punched. Though I learned a lot from Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares, I had trouble following him to the conclusion—that because Al Qaeda doesn’t exist as the organized entity the American government portrayed it as, therefore it’s not a threat to be fought (really?)—and didn’t really understand why so many people I respect respect Curtis as much for his formal chops as his formidable intellect.
It Felt Like A Kiss clarifies a lot; it’s pure vidiocy fun, though intellectually I can’t really run with it. What Curtis basically does is rifle through the years 1957-70 (roughly) and assemble a particular story about how those years portrayed themselves and what they meant. The genius opening appropriates poor Doris Day, waking up after a date with Rock Hudson and remembering something; the end brings us back to her, suggesting that what Doris dreamt was one long national nightmare she couldn’t bring herself to articulate on screen. This is clever and witty; in between, what Doris dreams is familiar but lively. Lee Harvey Oswald, C.I.A. agent Saddam Hussein, Lou Reed, Spector: all the people you’d expect to be here are. This is the historical montage as counter-myth—a familiar one, but invigorating all the same. The music is also terrific, and I’d like the Damon Albarn songs within right now. But a revolutionary counter-history? Not really, just a more formally fun Howard Zinn.