Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ashes in the Wind

The Wind Rizes (Kaze tachinu) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli

It's a given that Hayao Miyazaki's new film, The Wind Rises (2013) is beautifully made. Studio Ghibli is synonymous with beautiful animation, and this film is not different. Technical virtuosity can only take you so far, though, and putting a human dimension in to his films has long been a hallmark of Miyazaki's films. He does that here, too. Miyazaki has flirted with politics in the past, as well. The environmentalism in Nausicaa and that same environmentalism mated with a critique of capitalism in Princess Mononoke are examples of this. The Wind Rises is mostly set between the World Wars as Taisho-era Japan gives way to Imperial Japan and fascism, and yet, this film about a modest aeronautic engineer seems to willfully ignore the politics its story suggests. Oh, it touches on them--it can't help it--but there's no strong statement, no critique. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the film's central horror, not the calamity of World War II. This seems odd to me, given that its hero designs the famed Japanese Zero. He's complicit in the disaster, but the film not only doesn't deal with this fact, it seems completely indifferent to it. This seems, I dunno, misguided and naive at the very least. If I view it in a less benign mood, it seems revisionist, sanitizing, and profoundly dangerous.

Friday, March 21, 2014

True/False 2014: Brought to Light


One of the instructions given to screeners for True/False is to treat documentaries as "cinema." Does a given film play well as a movie? There are documentaries by the scores that fail at this very specific function, whether from a misguided view of documentary as journalism or from a simple inability to string together a coherent narrative that will hold an audience's attention for seventy five minutes. The ones that succeed at this, though, sometimes succeed big. Some footage is inherently cinematic, for want of a better word.

My own corollary to this is: "trust your b-roll." Film after film fails to make the leap to "cinema" from a simple desire to explain too much, whether with intrusive textual elements or an over-reliance on talking heads. It's a cliche to say that a storyteller should show rather than tell, but it's true. I mean, you can get away with a movie that's interviews and archive footage, but that is often dependent on who you're interviewing and what they're talking about. Last year, True/False showed The Gatekeepers, which is a stark example of what I mean by this: it's a film that's cinematically dull. It's almost all talking heads. It's who those talking heads are that makes it compelling (in that film, it was the last six heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service). That film became an Oscar nominee, though it lost the award to Searching for Sugar Man, a film that fails as a document but succeeds as feel-good entertainment. It's a double edged sword.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

True/False 2014: But Is It Art?

Tim's Vermeer

Every year, several of the films at True/False are designated as "secret screenings." These are often films that are contracted to premiere at other film festivals or which are only conditionally finished. Regardless, one of the codicils of watching these screenings is that you don't talk about them in public afterward. In other words, they're embargoed. I tried to avoid the Secret Screenings this year because one of my motivations for attending True/False is to blog about it. Still, I did see at least one of them, and it's vexing. This film forms a natural double feature with Penn and Teller's film, Tim's Vermeer. The writer in me wants desperately to link the two films, because both of them take a look at what constitutes art. You can't always get what you want, as a couple of wise men once said, and I don't want to rock the boat.

Friday, March 07, 2014

True/False 2014: Merchants of Some Death

The Notorious Mr. Bout

I saw a confluence of films surrounding the problem of violence and culpability for violence this year. There are always a steady stream of these kinds of movies at True/False. The world is always going to hell in a handbasket somewhere on the planet; that's manna for documentary filmmakers. Filmmakers aren't the only opportunists out there, though, and sometimes filmmakers cross paths with those other opportunists.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

True/False 2014: Hindsight is 20/20

Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue in 20,000 Days on Earth

Long careers in the arts--particularly in arts that are thought of as "entertainment"--are hard to string together, so when someone manages to become an elder statesman in such a profession, there usually comes a time to look back and wonder at it all. Career retrospectives are popular entertainments unto themselves. Greatest hits compilations are sometimes a musician's best-selling album. Stadium shows are sometimes singalongs in which music that was once growling and transgressive has become comforting and safe. So few filmmakers make vital cinema into their later years that it's hardly worth it to count the ones who do. Some of them just hang up their hat and take up real estate or some more mundane business. Several films at this year's True/False look back at the lives of aging artists. There's a bitterness in these films, but also some measure of celebration. It can be a heady mix.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

True/False 2014: The Higgs Boson Blues

The Large Hadron Collider Atlas Detector in Particle Fever

I don't know if it was by design--it probably wasn't--but one of the first line-ups of films at this year's True/False put Particle Fever right before 20,000 Days on Earth. Particle Fever documents the starting of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the largest science experiments ever mounted by human beings. One of the primary aims of the Large Hadron Collider was to verify the existence of the Higgs Boson, the keystone of the current Standard Theory of how the universe works. 20,000 Days on Earth follows musician Nick Cave as he composes his last album, Push the Sky Away, including a song called "The Higgs Boson Blues." If it wasn't planned, it's a classic case of synchronicity. Really, there's no guarantee that the audiences for these film would be substantially made up of the same people, so why plan something like that?

Be that as it may...

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

True/False 2014: Lizzy Borden Had An Ax

Happy Valley

There's an old Harlan Ellison story called "Hitler Painted Roses" that postulates a woman who burns in hell for a murder she didn't commit. In his notes on the story, Ellison suggests that the idea was inspired by Lizzy Borden, who everyone knows "gave her mother forty whacks," and all that. The only problem with this is that Lizzy Borden didn't do it. She was knocked out on laudanum at the time. She was acquitted after the jury deliberated for a mere forty minutes. Facts don't really matter here, though, because what everybody knows about Lizzy Borden comes from a children's rhyme that went viral. Surely, Ellison surmised, Lizzy Borden burns in hell to this very day and never mind that she was innocent.

Several of the films at True/False this year address public perception of real-life criminals, taking what "everybody knows," and turning it inside out. Human beings are messy creatures, after all, neither angel or devil but some mixture of the two. Unfortunately, we are all profound mysteries to each other, a fact that these movies confront head on.