Monday, April 21, 2014

Tribeca Film: Art and Craft

Hollywood has made me come to expect movies about art forgers to be all intrigue, romance, and fast paced, nail biting excitement. Art and Craft is a documentary about an art forger that is pretty much the opposite of these expectations. Mark Landis lives in a small apartment he once occupied with his now deceased mother. He obsessively takes in tv (and alcohol). He goes to doctors appointments to check in on his wavering mental health. He paints and draws. He dresses up like a priest and nonchalantly donates his forgeries of minor masterpieces to small, unsuspecting museums. There is no money changing hands. No fireworks. I guess there are mild aliases and a costume, but a priest's collar isn't all that much of a costume. At most there is a small time museum worker who has become consumed by bringing the dastardly forger to justice. But his ire is more sad than thrilling, he loses his job and even his very, very young daughter is wary of his obsession. Landis' motivations are unclear (or nonexistent?) but it seems that he enjoys, and is good at, making art and that by gifting these works he is able to have a controlled, positive human interaction- like a blip of a rehearsed tv spot- that his reclusive tendencies can manage.

Art and Craft follows around this man and his lonely existence while quietly & constantly balancing looming issues such as mental illness, responsibility, justice, humanism, societal structure, and more but, where it becomes most interesting, is the ways it looks at our current value system of creativity. The art world continues to prop up "vital" visual art, often distilling it in terms of money & rarity, the importance of a work is increasingly based on market analysis instead of skill.  Hazy artspeak runs rampant as a means to justify what makes an artist worthwhile,  the elusive (and unquantifiable) aura nearly a thing of the past. What makes art good or bad? How do we choose to canonize particular artists? If Landis' work is passing as the work of well regarded painters then why isn't he a well regarded painter? Who decides artist's place on the continuum of "fine art" and "crafty art." The questions that Art and Craft raise are, of course, rhetorical mirroring the mild manner of the subject and shying away from any real stance on anything, it is an exploration not an expose. 

On the fringes of the art world Landis continues to make his well executed classics even after widespread knowledge of his innocuous deceit, while also gaining critical acclaim for his contemporary "performance" art of lies...he is an artist unknowingly confronting the art market and making people look twice at what their eyes and brain believe and feel. What will Landis be remembered for and why? Will he be another creative casualty? Will he ever make a living from his uncanny abilities? Art and Craft is a thoughtful film about the nature of truth and beauty and, like Landis, it is a muted, soft spoken creation that will leave you riddled with questions.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribeca Film Review: Ne Me Quitte Pas

WARNING: I am gonna get cheesy up in this post. And maybe even a little flowery/philosophical...I warned you! When a movie is over I like it to be like that silence at the end of a piece of live music. (You were warned bros!) A perceptible pause between the resonating note and the joyous clapping following it. The feeling always reminds me of a Wallace Stevens line from his poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird "I do not know which to prefer,/The beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes,/The blackbird whistling/ Or just after." With film, the endnote is something that can almost border on sculptural, combining image, sound, and word in a balance that holds all of the senses in the air for a brief moment before the credits roll. It is the kind of contemplative inhale that only entrancing, complex films can achieve. The final scene of Ne Me Quitte Pas manifests this exact feeling, one of goosebumps & wonder, pure joy & unfathomable sadness.

Marcel and Bob are friends. Maybe drunks. Definitely drunks. Both accepting or dismissing this fact depending on the time of day. Or the leaving of a wife. Or the estrangement of a son. There is a solace in each other, not of a warm, hugging kind but more of a harsh, cold, survivalist kind, the feeling that if one of them lets go they both might sink to the bottom (the films title translating to Don't Leave Me). They push through life toying with death, validating and dismissing both, with a heartbreaking realism and burning edges of dark laughter. The funny scenes so morose that laughing never seems to be the appropriate reaction. Laughing feels wrong. Crying too feels wrong. Despite this cloud of uneasiness that Marcel and Bob create the film does not simply settle in this mood, it refuses to rely on the woozy charms of the drunken. Instead, an exquisite, progressive storytelling turns these two tragic alcoholics into something far greater than themselves.

The use of french pop songs against a visually stunning Belgian countryside, a controlled contemporary documentary with a neo-realism feel. The camera disappears into the shadows of Marcel & Bob's lives, capturing an intimacy, a loneliness, a desire that cameras rarely have access to. Other times, the camera observes from a non-judgemental distance, just safe enough. An open-ness (probably made easier thanks to extreme lubrication!) breaks down the subjects into the contradicting, flawed humans we all are, tightly grabbing the attention (and the subconscious) of the entire audience. All of these elements were then edited with a skill that rivals the French New Wave: a stark cut able to tell even more than an image. The filmmakers, Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koeverden, somehow built up the world of Ne Me Quitte Pas instead of simply recording it. It is a new form of artful documentary, a precise storytelling vision that, in my opinion, has challenged the idea of the documentary.

Today I was reading a piece in the NYTimes Magazine about a writer who has accidentally became the leader of a cultural environmental movement. The movement isn't exactly nihilistic but it does think that saving the planet from environmental collapse isn't possible and that we need to move our thinking towards a post-catastrophy way of life (a similar concept to this other thing I was just reading about the Netherlands approach to climate change, they have accepted rising waters and are adapting instead of fortifying, dams be damned perhaps? Pun. womp womp). The movement's "leader," Paul Kingsnorth, is quoted as saying in a previous article, " 'Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle. It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?' "  He is right. "Hope" is almost always invoked in the name of bleakness, an attempted comfort in the face of something that needs to be overcome, changed, an uncertainty, a desire. When trying to write about the way Ne Me Quitte Pas acts as a film, as a documentary, I kept dancing around the word "hope." When you watch Marcel and Bob they almost seem ambivalent towards life and death. They are living, thinking, emotional beings but the decisions they continue to make contradict this fact. One hopes that they will either improve their conditions or, frankly, not, giving into an end that they are both well aware of. When this film was over, the last shot a simple breath taking image that one must experience to understand, I felt that moment of extreme, weighted silence in which I had to remind myself to inhale. It is not just a hope for Marcel and Bob. It is a hope for everything.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

L.A. Rail

Dear Internet, I'm back on the grid after a few days of being off of it! Part of being off of it was being in L.A.  Dear L.A., I want to move to you.

Love, Donna K. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Doc Trendz

My brain has been thinking WAY TOO MUCH about documentary film. It might be because I went to True/False this year and gorged on the best of the best. Or because I watched 60? 70? docs on fest screening committees this year. Whatever the reason,  I've been starting and stopping blog posts about the most random aspects of the contemporary documentary for months, never reaching enough of a point to hit the publish button... So I decided to compile a bunch of fleeting ideas that have been chugging around in the strange part of my brain that continues to process the onslaught of budding independent filmmakers and the real world stories they choose to portray. My dreams are totally weird lately.

1. Docs and the narrative tradition. Documentary subjects have many story conventions built in and in this world where nearly everyone can, and is, making movies, the doc is tending towards better independent cinema storytelling. Many good, first time directors see some of the daunting aspects of making an entire fictionalized universe on a low budget and, instead of making really shitty sets (or worse, filming in their friend's house that is too small for any shot to make any sense) or hiring low grade actors from hell, they are taking the access to new technology and turning to the real world to learn the ropes. I'm not saying docs are easier to make by any means but I am saying that they are a great way to learn about how to craft a film and a great way to potentially be noticed (primary ex. Zachary Heinzerling).

2. Hollywood chimera? Woah, woah woah. What the hell was that? I watched a film that was a fact/fiction hybrid doc whose fictions played like a straight up Hollywood movie. The blurring of fact and fiction on film continues to be a popular genre, it takes a real intelligence to augment reality in a way that can add depth, social commentary, or even just art, to a real life subject. But what happens if this augmentation is codified? What if the addition to the fiction is a set of expectations we already have as an audience? To me what it did was diminish the strength of the reality in the film by saying "This is only important if I add swelling strings. And famous people for no reason. And an overdramatic, actor-ly quality to the real life subject. And 'make it better' using only really obvious, boring tropes." Shit was weird. Is this the beginning of Hollywood/mainstream chimeric cinema or did biopics just become something else?

3. Artful archives. FINALLY! YAY! Besides digital cinema making documentaries easier to produce, another thing it is doing is making vintage footage more readily available and challenging the pretty dry conventions we've come to know when it comes to combining historical document with contemporary documentaries: no longer do we have to see the still photograph (seriously that Darger doc almost killed me with its two or three photographs)!!! The director of Black Power Mixtape & Concerning Violence and filmmakers like Jonathan Caouette (his Tarnation made largely thanks to the early days of another tech revolution-home VHS, word is that he's currently working on a documentary about Marianne Faithful! Can't wait! Love him!) produce reflections of a visual past, mirroring concerns of the present in a completely new form that, based on film fest submissions, is going to continue to sky rocket. For me it isn't the awesomeness that is being made now with the digitization of archival image that is exciting, it is the future potential for this idea: the constant recordings of today's world will be the next historical documentary director's medium. Expect lots of movies about cats doing whacky stuff.

Pic from Nanook

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Film Review/World Premier: The Address by Ken Burns

Have I mentioned this already? Ken Burns lives across a bridge from me? I see him nearly once a month? There is even a mural of him, and other notable New Hampshire residents, in the local discount/expired food store? Yeah. You heard me. Dented can emporium has a Ken Burns mural. I preface the post with this reminder because I actually got to see a film's world premier this evening in the middle of the stately green mountains of Vermont, in the odd beauty of a gorgeous renovated Greco-Deco theater (the same one I saw bats flying in last week!), brimming with an eager audience. And this fact makes no sense without knowing that one of the Godfathers of modern documentary is a staple at my local coffee shop. [Full Disclosure: I did a wee bit of volunteer transcription work for this film sometime last year but had no clue what it was for! Also, it was very hard.]

The Address is set to premier on PBS in mid-April and this one has some kind of ineffable spark that I can only hope translates to the tv sets of viewers like you! The film follows the students of The Greenwood School, a small educational haven in the nearby progressive village of Putney- a town so advanced it recently became completely town-owned solar.  Greenwood School is a private boarding school for Learning Disabled (LD) adolescent boys. LD children are often a marginalized group whose population continues to boom, The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that there are currently 2.4million students with LDs, and despite the growing number the American educational infrastructure seems to remain unchanged. As The Address states early on in the film, The Greenwood School approaches LD students by looking at their strengths, not their weaknesses, and it uses those strengths to build not only their education but also as a foundation to build their lives upon. But the film was not just simply a heartfelt portrait of these inspiring, unique children and the committed community surrounding them. The title of the film references Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Each year the students of The Greenwood School set out to memorize this piece of American humanitarian history, a task that is as difficult as it is satisfying for these children, yet the importance of the exercise does not end there. Brief glimpses of Civil War history are interspersed throughout The Address contextualizing the significance of the speech and creating a silent yet omnipresent metaphor. By placing this historically weighted speech within the context of this forward thinking school the film takes on a much, much larger meaning: human struggle & need takes many forms and as humans we must create solutions in the name of dignity, respect and, most importantly, love.

This film felt like a departure from much of Burns' other work, a mood that I think was aided in the liveliness of the students but also the communal efforts of a very talented group of younger filmmakers within Burns' Florentine Films studio who spearheaded much of the project. The typical Burns' tenderness was present but the storytelling moved beyond the simple talking head or barrage of facts & panning of archival photos, the story was elevated into some kind of new digitally (I think it was digital?) floating cinema verite that was able to move about the subjects, freeing them in a sense. This physical un-grounding of the film gave it a buoyancy that propelled the importance of the film forward while still remaining true to the factual & emotional past that Burns' work is known for.

In the post film Q&A Burns made mention of the oral tradition of storytelling, of the loss of language based memory gone with the digital world uprising. He referred to our memories as our hard drives. He seemed wary of living in a world that is increasingly losing its human connection. With The Address, and also his recent iPad app & the larger Learn The Address project associated with this film, Burns has found a way to use technology as a vehicle instead of as a hindrance, to take the narrative tradition inherent in documentary filmmaking and use it to create a connection to eachother, to our collective past, and towards the collective well being of our future. And yes, I wept.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Den: Horror Movies are Killing It

Horror movies are the most innovative genre of fiction film. Production costs of these films can remain pretty low, emotion, tension, fake blood, and terror aren't exactly costly, but it takes a real master to piece together these hugely important elements into something worthy enough to be called cinema. The director has to be able to tell a story (of sorts) through sheer craft. They have to build suspense. They have to push the limits of every tool they have. After watching The Den a few weeks ago I continue to stand by the intensely progressive filmmaking of such a transgressive genre!

The Den was released in theaters and on VOD at the same time, another relatively new experiment happening in the post-theater world. It even had a spot on price point online too, $7, more than a rental but less than a multiplex ticket. I love horror movies and don't live in a city where I can just hop outside and see a brand spanking new slasher movie any time I please, why wouldn't I watch this? I watched The Den on my computer. In the dark. At night. It scared the sh*t out of me. Like really, really did. To the point where I was pausing it because, I dunno, maybe I need some water? Maybe I should make sure the door is locked? Maybe there are lots of things that need to be done at 11pm BESIDES watch this freakishly tense film alone in my bed? And the reason it scared me was completely unexpected and utterly groundbreaking: it used this new way of watching movies against me.

The Den was one of the first films I have ever seen that was designed to be watched at home on your laptop in bed, just as I was doing. Yes, things like Paranormal Activity 4 and a handful of short films I've seen recently fall into this category too but The Den has done it best as nearly all of the deathly horror of the film takes place on the protagonist's computer screen. Elizabeth, the film's hot protagonist (and true to Horror form we see her in her underwear for no reason at least once) is writing a thesis on internet chatting culture specifically on the site"The Den," sort of like Chatroulett's fake bastard cousin. Yeah, this is far fetched, but whatever. As she begins her "study" she comes across something that might be a murder and then her whole real world begins to collapse in on itself as it merges with that of an alternate underbelly of internet existence brought on by a torturing hacker, or is it hackers?

Images of Elizabeth's computer screen flashed across my desktop (seriously even making me wonder why my screen was frozen at one point, yes I am lame old), log-ins, e-mails, chats, once the camera even a shaky cell phone-ish first person shot that made me feel like an awful intruder in someone's home as they fold laundry and watched bad tv. The film used the new way we are watching films as a resourceful, mood setting tool that raised tons of questions both on & offscreen. Who is in control (hi NSA!)? Who is it that is taking over the computer screen, MY computer screen? Where am I in terms of the film? Am I now implicated in her plight, paying to see her running around to her possible death? Or am I like the sick surveillance cameras in Elizabeth's room, a creepy voyeur watching her game of cat & mouse? Or am I Elizabeth- ohmygod is someone watching me on my computer ready to pounce at any moment for pure entertainment alone? EEPS! Even if the acting is spotty & the plot full of holes, the questions brought up by The Den elevate it into something else besides a B Movie.

Once again a horror movie has shocked me by looking at a new facet of cinema, playing with the expectations of the medium, and producing something unprecedented... and scary as hell. Like other boundary pushing horror films (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity) and directors for whom this gory genre acts as a portfolio/springboard (Raimi, Peter Jackson), The Den presents a new vision of the state of film and technology. I am not telling you the ending of the movie, this is one that I recommend you watch on your computer. With the light off. Or on. Full disclosure: I turned the lights on.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Boston Underground Film Fest March 26th-30th 2014!!!

A series of fortunate and unfortunate events have kept me from attending my first ever BUFF, the Boston Underground Film Festival. I am sad. But I am also poor. So the not going is necessary and the paying gig I am replacing my trip with is also necessary. (Film writer for hire. Right here folks. Get your film writer for hire! Or programming. I want to do more programming...anyway...) But, I like to think that my press-passed butt not being in a seat is freeing it up for some other splatter lover, or another giallo freak, or someone who refuses to watch anything but obscure Japanese sci-fi, whose movie poster collection is a beautiful, papery, yellowing wonder cultivated from the early days of internet auctions, or maybe even the total creep stranger who invited me to his house to watch Salo that time...shudder... In preparation of attending BUFF I made a list of my top three films that I was hoping to see which I will share with you film thirsty folks below! Big love to all those at BUFF...I feel like that's not fitting...big nightmares to all you BUFFers? Better.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

When I read the description of this film I was like "I bet the blood is going to be some shade of wildly unnatural, fetishistic red that doesn't exist anywhere in nature." And I have a feeling it wouldn't have disappointed. The sparkling black full bodysuit topped with luscious blonde wig, the squeaky pink-leather gloves that seem fashionably poised to stab, sharply pointed gemstone rings that appear to be skin tearing accessories, and the booming pounces of blaring soundtrack (Morricone? YES! PS Morricone is doing live shows? This summer? Mouth Agape!) all in this brief trailer alone, is a legend of Freudian symbols that can only play out the fine, gushing line between sex & death.


Starry Eyes

The trailer for this one begins with a textured, haunting, layered scream that is almost a redefinition of the sound. An extremely gaunt, pale, wet eyed girl, her clothes hanging off of her sticklike frame, is the one doing the howling, her figure then shown running towards, or is it away from?, some sort of ineffable, intangible goal or evil. Starry Eyes is a horrific meditation on what we desire and how far we are willing to let those desires devour us, a film that, perhaps, turns in on itself as it questions the nature of fame or famine.

Blue Ruin

Revenge movies are one of the most complex subgenres of horror. Revenge implies that a wrong was committed and someone wants to even the scales, an eye for an eye, quite often literally, in a lot of these movies. There is an inherent confusion of audience identity: who do we side with? Who is "the bad guy?" Whose wrong is wronger? This twisting of logic & emotion is why I love revenge movies. And, truthfully, why I tend to think of them as a real American artform. When the first still of Blue Ruin surfaced awhile back, a musty, bearded man, wide eyed, sitting in a simultaneously rusting & inexplicably bright blue car, the presence of blood just out of reach, his face scared but somehow filled with resolve- all of this conveyed in one simple still frame- I knew that Blue Ruin was something I must see and something that has the potential to be a terrifying, suspenseful, artful new horror classic. This one comes out April 25th, in theaters & on VOD. I cannot wait.