01/07/14 Film Essay # , , , ,

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)
Director: Nicholas D. Wrathall
Stars: William F. Buckley, Thomas Gore, Christopher Hitchens


“We are the United States of amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” The title of the documentary is of Gore Vidal’s making…only he claims to have forgotten he said it.

If Gore Vidal is a raconteur, United States of Amnesia is a provocateur. Nicholas Withrall’s intellectually compelling documentary of Gore Vidal rummages through the picturesque life of a man who popped up in many of America’s most fascinating venues and generates a need to get into a conversation.  Gore’s wicked wit and political punditry are legend and here, now, posthumously via film, he continues to demand discourse.  In an age when films are often viewed alone or with a sole partner, United States of Amnesia makes you want to reach out and get someone to watch it so you can talk about the man, what he said and what’s going on in America.

The film opens at Gore Vidal’s gravestone with him commenting on the people he knows underground.  The witty double entendre is, no doubt, on purpose.  He talks as he always did, directly to his listeners in one memorable quote after another, challenging us to think for ourselves about the country in which we live. A man of contradictions and very much alive in his 80’s, he’s droll and entertaining.  He lived in Italy and wrote books about the United States; he was sexually flamboyant and monogamously committed to Howard Austen; he loved attention and sought solitude; he was an aristocrat identified with the populous.

Throughout the film, printed quotes of Gore Vidal appear like captions in a silent film so we read his words aloud in our minds, adding our own emotional charge.  Here are a few of his quotes on politics, sex, writing and life choices:

Politics — “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he has been bought ten times over.”

Sex —  “… I never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television.”

Writing — “A writer must always tell his truth, the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away.”

Life Choices — “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.“

Gore-isms —   “I am a born-again atheist.”

“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.”

Let conversation begin. Pick one of his subjects or one of your own.

Beside the Grave

Gore Vidal’s documentary begins with him at his gravestone, his birth year already engraved. His death date – July 31, 2012 – is added later as the film ends. Asked what he’d like to leave as his legacy, he answered, “I couldn’t care less.”  The implication seems to be that it’s up to the living to carry on.  And yet, as the credits roll at the end of the film, he appears one more time to say what he calls the four most beautiful words in the English language,  “I told you so.”  Ironic and apt, he continues in his film afterlife to be a man of contradictions.  The point of a life lived fully to a bittersweet end is made by the documentary bookending its beginning and end in the cemetery with Gore standing by, leaning on his cane.  Gore repeatedly denied fear of death and he certainly made the most of his span from birth to grave. By speaking beside his grave, pointing his cane in the directions of others he’s known in life, he makes us take note that a human life is confined and stretched between dates of birth and death.

Where he lived and what he wrote about

In the early years, he lived everywhere and nowhere.  Private schools and parents who were never home, summers in the Senate reading to his blind grandfather.  He rejected Harvard, embraced Hollywood behind the camera as a screenwriter and in front of the camera on television as a celebrity intellectual before he left the whole she-bang and bought a villa high on the cliffs of Ravello, Italy. His serious writing about U.S. politics was done from his perch with an Olympian view for forty years.  He claimed that whenever he wanted to know what was going on with the U.S., he looked into his own black heart – or so he said, implying he knew the faults of his country first hand.  His walls are lined with books.  He contradicted his reputation as gadfly flitting from party to party with one of being a recluse.  Many said he was shy.  But most invited him as the guest who made a party a real party.  His history, his friends and family, what he reveals and what he doesn’t leaves you guessing.  Gore Vidal sticks to the political, avoids the personal.

Sexuality and Privacy

A man, who today would be out as gay, labeled his sex life private, promiscuous and immaterial to political ambition.  He had a life partner for more than fifty years and 1000 sexual encounters. He ran for office twice, once in the 60’s and once in the 80’s when his quick wit and cool manner lifted audiences away from inquiry about his sexuality to matters of greater concern.  He believed a friend was a higher accomplishment than a sexual partner.  Being gay comes up and gets dropped as an irrelevant subject next to his insights into politics and support from famous people.  Eleanor Roosevelt wrote him letters of recommendation when he ran for office even after the New York Times stopped reviewing his books after The City and the Pillar dealt openly with homosexuality.  He romps through Wrathall’s documentary quite like he did life. Never a dull moment and always something to talk about.


Was he really so psychologically ignorant that he didn’t recognize that his disdain for his mother was the bedrock of his greatest talent?  Where did he think that viper’s instinct for hypocrisy came from?  “She hated witnesses.  She was always hiding something.” Yet Gore, when asked if there was one thing he would change in his life, said “Yes, my mother.”  His keen instinct fueled his writing and his punditry, piercing illusions built on any sleight-of-hand grandeur.  He felled the attempts of politicians to cover up mistakes and failures with aplomb, trusting his readers and listeners to be more active with truth than lies. Even John F. Kennedy, an early friend and political ally, was analyzed as a poor president and left him determined to be even more wary of charm.  And yet as revelatory as his less than flattering conclusions of the Kennedy presidency were, he hesitated to criticize the spirit that defined the man.  Spirit trumped fact in Gore Vidal’s words as it did in his life.

Joie De Vivre

Novelist, critic, prophet, idealist, essayist, aristocrat, bisexual, genius, controversial, politician, critic, promiscuous, pundit, pirate, genius, historian. Gore Vidal excelled at them all…and makes you want a list of your own just as long – and as furiously, factually personal.  As you consider the friends with whom you’re talking about this film, you can’t quite help wanting to give each other encouragement to get on with adding to your own list. His own writing still vies for popularity with the gossip published about him.  Gore Vidal loved writing.  He wrote 22 novels (e.g. Lincoln), numerous movies (e.g. Ben Hur) and plays (e.g. The Best Man) as well as essays, which makes his comment that he never worked a day of his life provocatively personal and further fodder for conversation.


Most importantly, Gore Vidal raises awareness of a U.S. political shift from Republic to Empire, a country invading other countries for dubious reasons.  The documentary marks the growth of militarism, stage by stage from WWII to present day, reminding us that we did not have a conscripted army before Truman nor an industrial-military complex at the heart of U.S. peacetime economics before Vietnam.  His popular book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a probing critique of U.S. reasons for going to war, developed a counter narrative of American politics. American journalist, Robert Scheer, states that Vidal became tougher in his criticism of the U.S. in his last years and recommends United States of Amnesia to any and all students of history; perhaps students with inquiring minds of all ages.

Present History

With Iraq exploding in June, 2014, United States of Amnesia is a timely film. Gore Vidal may have died in 2012 but his voice didn’t. Now dead, his voice is heard via film urging us to remember recent, nay, present history in Iraq and not fall victim to the convenience of amnesia. “War on terror is a slogan”, not a plan, he cuts and thrusts, demanding discourse.  United States of Amnesia appears at a critical moment to stimulate conversation about war and about how to respond to conflicts in other countries. We need to remember, think about and use our history to be smart about what we do next.  We’ve personally observed what we need to remember in Iraq; our memories are relevant.

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15/04/14 Film Essay # , , , ,

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
Director: Frank Pavich
Stars: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger


To see Jodorowsky’s Dune is to enter a magical world of cosmological possibility.

Theoretically, the film is a documentary about the making of a famous movie that never got made.  In actuality, it’s a tribute to the human spirit…especially the human spirit at the age of 85 as created by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky’s life story carries the flair of a tale from The Arabian Nights.

When Michel Seydoux asked Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970’s, “If you could make any film you wanted to make, what would it be?” it was as if the Genie leapt from Aladdin’s Lamp, asking, “If I were to grant you one wish, what would it be?”

Intuitively – admitting he’d not read the novel that pops from his mouth –Jodorowsky named Frank Herbert’s complex, sophisticated and internationally acclaimed science fiction book, Dune.

Elaborating, Jodorowsky explains.  “I choose to live a life creating my soul.” He might well have added, “I want to become a spice planet feeding dreams to the peoples of the cosmos everywhere.”


(This is the poster for the film never made.)

When life gets larger than fiction, a documentary is born.

It’s not news that Jodorosky never got to make Dune.  It’s probably not even news that Jodorowsky’s Dune influenced more in failure than it might have in success.  One science fiction film after another lifted ideas from its extensive story-boarded illustrations.  What is news is that Jodorowsky’s life shines forth brighter than ever 35 years after he took up the Genie’s offer and left his film forever in the collective mind to imagine.  On screen himself, he’s a talking myth, expanding reality with an inspired vision of possibility for old age as he ages.

When Jodorowsky set out to make Dune, he said he was not making a picture.  He was making a prophet, a film that would change the minds of young and old.  He saw film as an impactful, dynamic force that could change the way people think, bring them into a more meaningful and generous connection with one another. In his own words, he explains how he intended the film to open his own ego, to spirit him to another level of consciousness. He loved – and still does love — being ambitious.

To accomplish his mission, he needed what he called “spiritual warriors”, artists of superb talent who would bring his fantastical vision of Dune to life for all to see.

And so he began, approaching carefully selected artists with an unusual, dream-come-true offer.    In various ways, he made the invitation.  “Come with me, do what you do best and follow your imagination further than you’ve gone before – without restraint.  Together we will bring forth a film that will change people’s lives.”

As he’s interviewed in the documentary, Jodorowsky recounts each journey he took to engage each artist who joined him.  It’s a fun trip, not for the feint of heart. Jodorowsky is a man who never met an obstacle he didn’t like. When he couldn’t feel the spirit behind the talent, he simply left the room.

Many of Jodorowsky’s dream team are very young, all very talented and many very famous. Each is visually recognizable by their art on paper, on the stage or the big screen.

There’s Dan O’Bannon – American screenwriter and special effects designer (Dark Star), Chris Foss – English illustrator of sci-fi book covers, Jean “Moebius” Giraud – French cartoonist and H.R. Giger, Swiss painter and graphic artist (Aliens).

Jodorowsky’s Dune cast included such luminous figures as Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali. Also, Pink Floyd and the French Group Magma.

Incredibly, with great anecdotes for each negotiation, they all say ‘yes’.

The man is a master negotiator.  Close listening to the stories of how he brought each artist to say ‘yes’ provide an education.  O’Bannon moved to Paris with barely a dime in his pocket.  Dali insisted on $100,000 a minute – even after Jodorowsky cast his girl friend!  One colorful story, told in a tone of true wonder, recounts Mick Jagger meeting his eye across a crowded room and how ‘yes’ was made via a smile of recognition and a handclasp.

Director Frank Pavich skillfully and delightfully reveals Jodorowsky’s soul making endeavor with Dune and his certainty that dreams pursued exist in real life whether or not they ever materialize.  The years between Hollywood’s rejection of Dune and Jodorowsky’s renewed dedication to filmmaking at 84 reveal a man who never stopped creating.  There may be no connection between Jodorwsky’s desire to create soul in himself and his pick of a sci-fi novel that celebrates spice as the secret ingredient that drives ambitious heights of creative achievement but I’d like to believe there is.

For all those who want to receive the boon of an elder hero, a hero who did not get to bring his prophet to the big screen but who embodies, in his late years, his own spice-inspired ending to Herbert’s Dune, see Jodorowsky’s Dune.

When Jodorowsky says “To me, the picture, I did it”, his psycho-magical self leaps personally from the screen to cultural psyche to make his point.


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15/02/14 Film Essay # , ,

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)
Director: Teller
Writers: Penn Jillette, Teller
Stars: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull


17th Century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer is famous for painting like an angel with light. He was a phenomenon, unique in his day with a painting technique cloaked in mystery to our day.  Three hundred and fifty years later, we walk into a movie theater and wait confidently to be carried away by an invisible wizard lighting our way in the dark.  We expect nuances of color so real, details so explicit and illusions so compelling that the line between our imaginations and what’s up on the big screen disappears.  Faux light is at least as real as the light of dawn or evening or in-between.  So, it’s easy to understand that a 21st century man could get damn curious about how a man in the 17th century pulled it off.

It’s Tim Jenison’s curiosity, hidden out of sight from even his best friends, that comes to light in the Penn and Teller documentary, Tim’s Vermeer. If the noted mythologist, Joseph Campbell were alive, he’d be proud.  Tim Jenison is definitely a man who takes heed of Campbell’s famous call to action, “Follow your bliss”.  Tim sets out to paint Vermeer’s masterpiece, “The Music Lesson”, and using a camera obscura device in tandem with a small mirror to project and paint images, he does what he believes Vermeer discovered mid-1600’s.  He committed his time and a lot of hard work to replicate paints, furniture for an actual room like the one Vermeer painted in and the equipment he believes Vermeer used.

Tim is no painter but he is an inventor of tools of light that give us sensations of vibrancy.  He founded NewTek, a company that makes affordable desktop video-production tools. With deep pockets and enterprising friends, he set off on a quest for the secret behind Vermeer’s masterpieces.  He proceeded from hypothesis to “Aha” to experimentation, even getting one of his ideas in the bathtub.  He still has the water-splotched sketches of what he was guessing.  And mistakes, like fabled inventors before him, figured well in his pursuit of how things might have worked for Vermeer.

There’s an old saying that genius is in the details.  Never has there been a greater truth.  As Tim’s story unfolds, his journey of discovery and accomplishment is a fascinating revelation of detail and a tour de force.  And, it would appear, Vermeer got there first.  It’s very likely that Vermeer discovered the secret to reproducing light on a canvas as seen in the world around him by capturing it as a camera would, pinpoint by pinpoint.  By watching Tim reproduce the effort to reproduce one painting of Vermeer is enough to suggest that Vermeer lived in some enthralled state of being.  The work is too demanding for an ordinary soul.

When Tim shows David Hockney how he paints as Vermeer might have with a mirror while he matches colors, Hockney welcomes his research.   As a master artist in his own right who’s recently been painting on an iPad and written a controversial book about the use of optic machines in painting, Hockney shares Tim’s hypothesis that artists use optical tools. Later, when Tim is looking for evidence that he’s on the right track, he makes good use of Hockney saying, “All paintings are documents.” A detail of Vermeer’s painting keeps Tim going when he’s in doubt.

When a seasoned mind and technology meet, sparks fly. What Tim seems to have discovered is that Vermeer invented a technique to further his vision and give us a wonder for the ages.  The critics of this documentary seem to exemplify an occupational hazard, attacking Tim’s quest as belittling Vermeer as some sort of technician.  Far from the source of creativity, they just don’t get it.  Hockney lauds artistic genius and applauds Vermeer with absolutely no disclaimer for any mechanical device involved.  But it’s Tim, waxing eloquent about Vermeer’s effect on him after he sees the original of his copy in Buckingham Palace, who makes us realize there’s no substitute for the real thing.  Would that we could all see it!

In the hands of Penn and Teller, the making of Tim’s Vermeer is delightful, endlessly interesting and inspirational.  The documentary shows what’s possible when an idea is pursued with a big heart and lots of focused energy until the only thing left to do is shed tears of joy and praise the genius of humankind!

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15/11/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

Salinger (2013)

Salinger (2013)
Director: Shane Salerno
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Judd Apatow


As I walked out of the theater after seeing Shane Salerno’s documentary, Salinger, I wondered.  Why am I interested in J.D. Salinger?  Have I been wondering why the famous author stopped publishing in 1965 and retreated from the limelight to Cornish, his home in the woods of New Hampshire?  Have I been waiting all this while for an answer to that question?  Not really.  But that’s the theme of Salinger and while the film’s review of his life revived my interest in Salinger, I found more of a satisfying answer to my question in my own ruminations.  To borrow the opening phrase from The Catcher in The Rye, “If you really want to hear about it…”, I’ll go into it.

In set-up scenes before the film title appears for Shane Salerno’s documentary on J.D. Salinger, a reporter readies himself to take a paparazzi-type photo, on the sly, with a telephoto lens, of J.D. Salinger picking up his mail. Once the reporter gets his photo, the single word Salinger comes up in gold, on a blood-red background. The gold-glyph lettering on red brought up an association for me with C.G. Jung’s revered The Red Book, promising inner images from the most important years of Salinger’s life.  However, far from revelatory, Salerno’s film reads more like a tabloid searching for psychological pathology than for numinous beginnings of genius.

Salerno’s film is factually grounded in his carefully researched book, Salinger, co-written with David Shields and contains a great deal of archival material.  However, its paparazzi set up is apt.  That initial invasion of Salinger’s privacy leads to a cinematic scrutiny of Salinger’s life, looking for indications of why he left publishing and public life in 1965. The film delves into notes, letters and photos from Salinger’s private life, interviewing people who knew him and taking excerpts from second-hand interviews about him. It even uses re-enactment scenes with a look-alike actor to further the film’s impressionistic interpretation of Salinger as a quasi-fugitive.

Now I’m as curious as the next person about the author of The Catcher In the Rye, a book that was a must-read when I was a teenager. I wanted to know more about Salinger, the man who wrote a signature book of the 20th century and validated my desire for individuality while feeling pressured for conventionality. But I’d never heard Salinger referred to as “Jerry”.  Somehow, the familiarity jarred my image of the visionary writer who is practically a subtitle to his famous book – and a member of the Glass family, the iconic American family who appears transparent but isn’t.  All sorts of disturbances are out of sight.

Salinger was a man who was always protective of his privacy and who, by his own declaration, preferred being known through his writing.  I wanted to know more about the voice that’s lasted, a mind that continues to captivate me even as I re-read The Catcher in The Rye fifty-some years later. In his writing, he praises the delicacy of innocence and holds it in high regard as a source of the will to live.  By implication, woven into the fabric of his stories, innocence is a quality to be protected above all others.  Children don’t know they have it until they begin to lose it.  Adults in Salinger’s world are often oblivious to its critical nature and don’t even know what is and isn’t tainted by phoniness.

Like Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger caught a wave of consciousness sweeping across America and crystallized it in The Catcher in the Rye. We loved him for it — he shared forbidden thoughts, speaking directly to us as if he knew we wanted to know. Salerno is a dedicated archivist and I learned things about Salinger that made me appreciate him more than ever before. Vivid footage of WWII interspersed with photos of Salinger in uniform brought home the reality of his presence during a wrenching time in America. He was there, for real, and came home to complete a novel about a disillusioned youth that would soon catch on like wildfire. His way of talking caught a wave breaking in the 1950s, the last years of a reasonable, predictable world in which an ideal of authority reigned.

Salerno’s film takes its time exploring Salinger as a drop out, forgetting to take him seriously as writer who captured the heart of America’s rebellious youth with a story of boy trying to protect himself. Searching for answers as to why Salinger turned down the public life of a celebrated author, Salerno’s film speculates that dropping out of prep school set the stage for Salinger to see society as up to no good. It cites early romantic and literary rejection as wounding him beyond repair, leaving him an emotional cripple and more than a little crazy. And then, with help from some startling WWII footage, Salerno substantiates war as unnerving and, by association, posits its force as breaking Salinger’s spirit and mind, forever leaving him too sensitive for ordinary social interaction. Sadly, Salerno’s insistent focus on psychological pathology denies Salinger consideration of being a writer living by his own truth.

Reclusiveness and sexual relationships with young women hardly qualify as pathology amongst artists.  And then, as the film itself explains, Salinger was well known in his hometown in New Hampshire, kept up longtime friendships with army buddies, sought out romantic liaisons and, most importantly, continued to write. As for his inclination to seek out young women, just think about Picasso — and keep listing famous men who romance women who are decades younger than themselves. Salinger himself referred to the artistic importance of his infatuation with a teenager in a personal letter to the girl in question, Esme.  He stated emphatically that he couldn’t have written his short story, “For Esme – with love and squalor,” without her.

Salinger forgets the author’s famous message of distrust in The Catcher in the Rye. It acknowledges Salinger’s identification with Holden Caulfield and then forgets to consider what Holden would’ve done in Salinger’s shoes when society came knocking. The film prefers to play with the theme of pathology, comparing Salinger to Howard Hughes and joining critics in seeing him as a wounded man who never grew up.  Rather than focusing on Salinger as a serious writer wanting freedom, the film pumps up the wattage on his refusal to be a public figure.   The irony may be that Salinger became fully himself right under the nose of a public hungry for his hide.

Why not take Salinger at his word? I think it would have been fascinating to delve into his written words seeking a rationale to explain forty years of silence. It’s not even hard to speculate why he wouldn’t  drop out of a society that, as he’d made clear in one of the most famous books of the 20th century, doesn’t accept individuals for who they are. To his way of thinking, society co-opts the creativity of individuals for its own ends. Does it take more than his own philosophy to understand his rebellion and angst?  How about a reference to the fact that neither Tennessee Williams nor Truman Capote ever wrote another serious work after succumbing to the wiles of fame? And what of Norman Mailer, another 20th century icon, who arguably lost his footing as the shredding public winds had their way with him?

Salinger began Holden Caulfield stories before he went to war. The film explains that Salinger kept several chapters tucked inside his jacket on D-Day for protection, and it (somehow) worked. After two years in the trenches, Salinger’s got off the front lines and into intelligence gathering – and, by his own words, into digging foxholes to cowardly depths.  Though he was always in terrible danger, his need to survive in order to get his message out to the world gets short shrift in the film.

Isn’t it more interesting, and equally credible, that Salinger – like Holden – sized up the oppressive weight of a disapproving, judgmental and popularizing public and thought better of growing up on its terms? After William Shawn, the New Yorker editor he regarded as a soul brother, used almost an entire issue to publish the story, Hapworth 16, 1924, in 1965, the critics panned his story.  At first, Salinger pursued publication as a novella – and then changed his mind. Deciding not to publish was the last of his interface with the public. Even so, he never stopped writing.   

Why not wonder if Salinger, the man who found a touchstone of rationale for rebellion against society in millions of people, believed the authenticity of his voice wouldn’t survive mass marketing? Would he want to offer the heart and soul of his developing perspectives on war and intimate relations with women to a society he thought inhospitable, hypocritical? It’s public knowledge that he regarded society as hostile to values he held dear — innocence, authenticity and creativity. His refusal to be a dancing bear for society may be better explained by looking within Salinger’s own stories.

Now I can give you the answer I found to my question.  The writer is the J.D. Salinger I’m interested in. I’m interested in the J.D. Salinger who may have been walking his talk, rebelling against a society that thinks it has a better idea for young minds than the ones they have for themselves, the society that idolizes their bodies and their youth but throws them away in war and tampers indiscriminately with their exuberance.  I’m re-reading his old books for clues of what Salinger was protecting.  And I await the books of his later years – the ones Salerno cites at the end of the documentary that may be published between 2015 and 2020 – to see what emerges from Salinger’s reclusiveness. This American icon may have been tapping a chord submerged in our collective psyche.

In seeming testimony to the veracity of my curiosity, I recently read in the New York Times (October 13, 2013) about 82 year-old Janet K. Ruttenberg, a painter who’s refused to sell a single painting and never exhibited her work until now. Seventeen of her paintings are on view at the Museum of the City of New York in a show called “Picturing Central Park.” Her comment when asked about her decision to ignore the art market and paint only for herself? “I’m just not interested. I’m interested in working. It’s like cracking a code.”

Or perhaps the words of singer-songwriter David Byrne capture a few notes of the Salinger chord: “If the 1% Stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m Out of Here.” As marketing has replaced incubation, artists may long for the days when they were ignored until they blossomed.  Byrne talks about his early days with his band, Talking Heads, when exploration without the embarrassment of public scrutiny was critical to their development of a musical identity.

From a younger source, my grandson True deliberates blogging even as he posts his first blog, a self-inflicted publishing option for Millennial generation writers. He channels what could be an inner Salinger-esque voice debating the pros and cons of writing for a waiting audience, a critical audience, an audience with the audaciousness of a society that judges value by popular success. For any serious writer, especially a young one, feeding a hungry public dragon poses a distraction. As True says, “Actually writing is one thing, but straining to display it is another altogether, especially when it consists of the musings of a good-for-nothing twenty-something.” And I hear Salinger’s chord twanging.

Only the writer knows when ripening has occurred. Without knowing whether readers await, the writer chooses the moment to come forward.

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15/05/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Chimpanzee (2011)

Chimpanzee (2011)
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Writers: Mark LinfieldAlastair FothergillDon Hahn
Stars: Tim Allen


From deep in the dense rain forest of Africa’s Ivory Coast comes a new hero brought to a theater near you by way of Disneynature’s “Planet Earth” state of the art documentary filmmaking. If you like a surprising turn of events to be a real surprise then see Chimpanzee first and read my essay about the film second. That’s my spoiler alert. On the other hand, if early disclosure that Chimpanzee contains an emerging archetype in our society makes you more eager to see the film, read on.

Disney would like us to focus on Oscar, the abandoned and adorable chimp who, like so many heroes before him, loses his mother and – somehow – survives to bring us a new day. But I’m wagering the hero who’s going to capture your attention and bring the vision for a new day is Freddy, the lead alpha male chimpanzee. As we dig for the values and fearless will to meet unprecedented global challenges, we can look to Freddy who, in his prime and at the height of his power, cracks the hero world wide open. In Chimpanzee Freddy successfully leads, provides and protects successfully by wits and strength of masculinity as startling as the times we face. He’s sending us all a fresh superhero imago tied securely to the force of our planet’s evolving nature.

Chimpanzee treats its audience to more wonders of a rain forest than its chimp inhabitants. The rain forest is illuminated as an ever-moving symbol of transformation by stunning time-lapse photography that brings the entire terrain alive. Vines climb trees as eagerly as monkeys. Drops of rain explode tiny fungi. Furled leaves open driven by unseen forces. As close as the camera zooms in to capture fingernails grooming and clawed ants scrambling over one another, it goes panoramic. We hang high in the sky mid-air over treetops rendered into an undulating carpet of green as far as the eye can see. And now and then, hinting at sacred places beyond reach, the highflying camera penetrates the canopy to reveal cascading waterfalls. For nature lovers, the wildly lush cinematography of Chimpanzee might just be enough adventure.

Even the close encounters with chimpanzee life in the jungle could be enough. Chimps are fascinating. Natural born actors, the camera loves them and gives their every gesture extra cinematic oomph. I watched a chimp methodically crack a tough nut with a stone and then felt myself waiting to watch it all over again. The next time, I watched more closely, noticing the dip in the log where the chimp placed the nut and seeing how a rock works as a hammer and a wooden log doesn’t. But both logs and rocks break, get stolen by other chimps and still the pounding goes on. To eat hundreds of nuts a day takes a lot of skill and a lot of determination. Whether the chimps are making a bed of branches in a tree, stuffing their mouths with figs, berries and fruit or ambushing a monkey for lunch, we’re watching the strategic mind of apes at work. Are they planning?

But just in case awe inspiring images of nature and close encounters with chimps isn’t enough, Chimpanzee lifts a conflict between one tribe of apes and another to the level of human drama. Freddy’s tribe occupies a sweet spot in the forest where a stand of coula nut trees keep them healthy and well nourished. But, not far away by chimp miles, another tribe hovers in a nearby valley, positing an ever-looming threat to Freddy’s peace. They’re a large strong band of apes led by a leader named Scar for an eye that’s been semi-blinded in battle. Even watching these big guys push through the brush in front of the camera lens is a little too close for comfort. Larger, hungrier, and more aggressive, they raid Freddy’s camp on occasion for food and attempt territory take-over. And, on one occasion, Oscar’s mother is wounded and disappears. And while Oscar does seem like a special chimp, always a little more acrobatic and insistent, he’s barely three years old, not old enough to survive on his own.

But we get to watch him try. Oscar hunts everywhere for his mother. He tries going it alone. He tries another mother and gets a big toothy snarl for his effort. His friends shun him. He’s getting very skinny because he can’t crack a nut, can’t share in honey finds or get the ants out of their hole. And so he tries something very brave. He follows Freddy around and eats whatever drops from Freddy’s paw. He mimics Freddy. There’s an unmistakable bonding moment during which Oscar ‘apes’ eating a fruit just like Freddy does, pushing a huge glob back out of his mouth on cue in an equally disgusting manner. And for whatever unfathomable reason, Freddy yields to Oscar’s appeal, allowing Oscar to pad around after him. Then Freddy lets Oscar get closer. He teaches him things. He shows Oscar how to break a nut and how to eat ants on a stick. Then, wonders of all wonders, Freddy gives Oscar the first nut he breaks and lets him take a chewed bean from his own mouth – just like a mother would. And then, in a highly atypical accommodation for a male ape, Freddy allows Oscar to hitch a ride on his back as only a mother would allow.

I have to admit. This highly unusual sight of a baby chimp cuddled up in the arms of a hulking adult male chimpanzee who loosely resembles the film legend, King Kong, raised my suspicion of its verite. But I had been inspired to see Chimpanzee by Jane Goodall who appeared on the Daily Show to promote the film. She explained that the camera crew had come to the Ivory Coast for other documentary film reasons and then, by chance, caught the story of Freddy adopting Oscar. Goodall’s interview made it legit. It was real footage, not staged or photo-shopped.

Once Freddy tends to Oscar, it’s clear that the little guy will survive but will the tribe? Freddy has neglected his duties as sentinel and leader of his pack to tend to Oscar. Scar’s tribe circles for an attack, sizing up the relaxed guard. Then, as if receiving an invisible – or mythic – call to action, Freddy turns away from Oscar and returns to a key act of his leadership. Grooming. He grooms – literally, symbolically and actually – his male mates for battle. Scar and his mob attack Freddy’s tribe in full force and we get to watch! It is truly something to see these huge figures battling while swinging and climbing with an agility of flight through thick trees and brush. Next, with full confidence, Freddy takes the lead and goes head-to-head with Scar for dominance. Whether the younger male apes of his tribe wonder or not, we wonder. Has the emergence of a maternal side diminished Freddy’s skill and superiority?

But we have little to worry about. Freddy might as well have ripped open his shirt and donned a cape. He’s already a hero who possesses the strength of character of a leader, upholds positive values in his community and exhibits a fierce determination to protect those values. Now, his tribe depends on his innovative spirit and good judgment to be more than ordinary, to be extraordinary. Without hesitation he leaps into battle. And Freddy’s relationship-building abilities pay off. His team backs him up. As he runs Scar into the bush, he thumps a tree like a drum, loudly sending the winning signal and settling the dispute about territory between these two tribes for some time to come.

And so I ask. When the dust settles…or the rain falls…what must we conclude? How has Freddy’s feeding, nurturing and mentoring of Oscar added to our cultural notion of the hero? We know hero imagery is always on the change depending on the imagination we need to face the enemy. Can we add nurturing qualities to the realm of fantastic powers that will enhance our abilities to protect ourselves against future threats? We do have some tough nuts to crack on the horizon.

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17/04/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

Theater of War (2008)

Theater of War (2008)
Director: John W. Walter
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner


An odd, but ‘must see’ film, Theater of War is a work of art about the staging of an extraordinary work of art, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children, and the amazing odyssey of the man who created it. The woman, Mother Courage, in Brecht’s play, is both prophetic character and mythic symbol of a detached determination to overcome fear in wartime that ignores deadly consequences. In Walter’s cinematic documentary, the play becomes a character in its own right, immersing its viewers in the magical transport of theater. We watch Brecht’s play turn war into a timeless event that one must resist, to which one must never capitulate.

I read that Brecht went to great trouble to develop techniques of staging to minimize audience emotional identification in order to maximize intellectual condemnation of war. He failed. I, as his many audiences since 1939, was swept into identifying with Mother Courage. He also prevailed. No one can walk away from this film justifying war. As fertile ground as war proves to be for making money, it’s never just another way of doing business. Brecht makes the cost explicit. We lose our children. And so I recommend you take a couple hours, rent Theater of War and see Tony Kushner stage the production of Brecht’s play for The Public Theater in New York City, 2006, with notables, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

But, be prepared for odd. Odd because there are so many elements spliced in with so many other elements without labels for clarification that time, place and character are elusive. This documentary covers a lot of ground, putting up scenes from Brecht’s play and filming backstage preparations as well as exhibiting historical war photos and mapping Brecht’s exile. In the midst of portraying the captivating work of actors – in particular, Streep immersing herself in the characterization of Mother Courage and attempting to avoid being her very entertaining self when she sings – rather dull professorial classroom lectures appear. In recurrent classes, the eyes of students are struck with black rectangles to prevent recognition as if they might be accused of participation in an illicit activity. Brecht’s life after leaving Germany did go around the world to Los Angeles and into HUAC hearings where he was questioned about being a communist but, as students, identification wouldn’t make them associated with Brecht’s life’s complications. However, Theater of War never strays from its purpose to look closely, not away from the message in Brecht’s play about adverse consequences of profits tied to war.

Therefore, ‘must see’. Where you will be drawn in, I can’t say. For me, it was Mother Courage. Personally and archetypally, I identified with the courage that Mother Courage – a tinker by trade – musters to protect her children in hostile circumstances only to discover that succeeding at business diverts her attention from her children and leaves them vulnerable. In other words, even the highly applauded, deeply held virtue of courage blinds its possessor when taken to an extreme. Not bravery, nor honesty, nor kindness averts harm. Looking at the fate of Mother Courage’s children, it isn’t difficult to reflect on a woman’s fear that a son will grow up to be a hero only to – or way too easily – fall victim to sweeping powers beyond his control. Mother Courage’s daughter gives up her own life to save other children. Another son, named Swiss Cheese as if to symbolize holes in his wits, throws away the cash box that would save him. Not all children have what it takes to survive in a world that survives by war.

Brecht’s messages are strong, important to our times when the future of children is much at stake. I’m in favor of emotional identification. It makes choice personal. It brings the large down to small where I can use Brecht to validate my own decision to work part-time while my children were growing up. At a time when money and time were ridiculously at odds, I often felt like a fool. I am one of many welcome benefactors of Brecht’s resistance, avoiding conscription into the army, escaping Germany while Nazi terror increased and writing for his life…and mine. His work reaffirms my belief that even a virtue taken to an extreme wreaks havoc, brings down its possessor and necessitates opposition. I especially like Brecht’s cautionary dramatization of the importance of reflection on virtue, his provocation to examine anything we label ‘good, great, wonderful’ because it requires being contrary to convention. To see hope in opposition is as important as the courage it takes but I believe, in moderation, we must. Real wisdom embraces uncertainty.

And Theater of War is a good ‘look see’ — well done, entertaining and engaging.

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14/12/11 Film Essay # , , ,

Catfish (2010)

Catfish (2010)
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost


IF you’re nervous about the future of internet relationships

SEE Catfish for a romp with creative minds at work

BECAUSE fake takes on new meaning when multiples become norm

Three young men – two filmmakers and a photographer – catch the progression of an internet exchange en vivo, live on film beginning when the photographer receives an email from an eight-year-girl who asks his permission to send him a painting she’s made of one of his photographs that appeared in her local newspaper. The photographer, that would be Nev. The girl, Abby. The painting was quite good. It captured his curiosity and he agreed to friend her on Facebook.

The tale is a plot worth following but a more fascinating aspect is the way the film opens up a world where reality is caught and lost numerous times, challenging the characters and viewers to keep up with the truth. When the three men sense a cyberspace ruse being perpetrated on Nev, they opt to document it with ‘catch and release’ filming. They film a piece and throw it back to see what happens next. They know they’re not dealing with the truth but the truth they think they’re dealing with turns out not to be true either.

Just how many truths are there? On the other end of Nev’s line – be it online, cell phone line or a line of b.s. – is a storyteller with a fifth dimension. That would be the eight-year-old’s mother, Angela. Angela is a middle-aged wife and mother who lives in a remote region of northern Michigan with an atypical, albeit good-guy husband, two severely handicapped step-sons, their eight- year-old daughter and a computer. Master manipulator of cyberspace, Angela emotionally entangles Nev by turning her eight-year-old daughter into a believable child prodigy who sells her paintings for thousands of dollars and invents, out of whole cloth, a beautiful, flirty nineteen-year-old daughter of many talents who falls in love with Nev as only a smitten teen can.

At first, Nev goes a little weak in the brain from the idea that such a beauty would want him. He falls in love. As he takes the bait, the camera catches him enthralled and then sobered as he realizes she is – in fact – too good to be true. After Nev and his filmmaking buddies discover he’s being had, they agree to a ‘nothing like getting even’ plan. The young men set off in a car for Michigan to embarrass the nineteen-year-old who could not possibly be the beauty, the singer or the seductress she makes herself out to be. But the expose turns out to be a soulful look behind the curtain of Oz.

There’s no there there. Just a small house in the middle of nowhere with a family making do. Angela lives firmly in two worlds, fact and fantasy, making the best of one and creating stunning performance art out of the other. Cover blown, she slowly emerges from her lies as a hardworking woman with a deep heart, an unstoppable imagination and quite a gift with a paintbrush. As the three young men grapple with Angela’s unraveling story, their revenge fades and their hearts open. What they discover behind their expectations sets them back on their heels and we see a breadth and warmth of character in these three young men that is inspirational in our times.

No one gets hurt. But which is more real – fact or fantasy? Whichever we choose, this film makes the point that our reality is constantly shifting, morphing before our eyes with no bottom line and more characters active in every exchange than meets the eye. No wonder the reaching out, the suspension of disbelief. Beneath all the deception lies a buried truth, a deep desire to feel connected.

Why Catfish as a title? Might a catfish have anything to do with determining what reality we’re swimming in? At the end of the documentary, the good-guy husband of the storyteller adds a helpful two cents:

“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

In other words, Nev ‘nipped the fins’ of Angela, a highly creative woman hiding out in an upstairs bedroom across a sea of wireless space into public view as a rarely seen and even more rarely appreciated ‘everywoman’ wife and mother devoted to her family.

The identity of the storyteller – itself, herself, himself – still isn’t completely known at the end of the film. Could Nev and his two buddies have made the whole thing up?

As the film ends we nip at Catfish, question its veracity. And if we turn the Catfish quest for truth on ourselves, we’ll keep “guessing and thinking” about the line between truth and fantasy. A teenage girl once said to me, “I think I’m getting this life thing. You just make it up as you go along.” What else could I say but “Uh huh” with an empathetic, quizzical smile and wonder how many identities she was going to explore in the next fifty years.

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