Tag Archives: Documentary

CAPSULE: CANIBA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

FEATURING: Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa

PLOT: Confessed cannibal Issei Sagawa monologues to the camera, his face often out of focus, and talks to his caretaker brother, who is revealed to be almost as deranged.

Still from Caniba (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Caniba would make a list of the most disturbing movies ever made—easily. It’s subject is a weirdo par excellence—in fact, he may be the world’s strangest living monster—and the film takes an experimental, offbeat approach to depicting him. Yet everything shown here is tragically real, and the effect goes beyond “weird” into “despairing.”

COMMENTS: Issei Sagawa, an intelligent but shy Japanese man studying French in Paris, killed and ate a female classmate in 1981. He spent five years in a mental institution in France and then was deported to Japan where, due to quirks of the judicial system, he was freed. Since then he has lived a marginalized existence, making a meager living off his infamy. He is now weakened by a stroke and holed up in a dingy apartment, cared for by his brother.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Harvard-based anthropologist filmmakers, chose to follow up their arthouse hit Leviathan (an uncontroversial documentary about commercial fishermen in the North Atlantic) with this perverted provocation about Sagawa. Most of the movie is out-of-focus shots of the ailing cannibal, closeups of his twisted, trembling hands or his blank face as he delivers halting, unhinged monologues (“I know I’m crazy,” he confesses). When he talks at all, he speaks as if he’s in a trance, gathering the strength to push out each phrase, about five or six words per minute, with long pauses in between. We also meet his caretaker brother Jun, who eventually reveals some shocking fetishes of his own—leading one to wonder whether there is a genetic curse on the Sagawa clan, or whether Jun was driven mad by knowledge of his brother’s crimes. Old black-and-white home movies of the two show what look like happy, normal children.  Back in the present, we have a very odd pixilated porn sequence starring Sagawa, inserted without any context, followed by a tour through the manga he drew celebrating his crime. Jun is both fascinated and disturbed by the graphic drawings of the girl’s corpse and his brother’s erection when faced with it. “I can’t stomach this anymore,” he says, but continues turning the pages. Issei, distant as always, seems embarrassed, if anything, reluctant to answer the questions his brother poses. For the final scene, they bring in a prostitute (or groupie?) dressed as a sexy nurse to read the cannibal a bedtime story about zombies, then take the invalid demon out for a wheelchair stroll around the neighborhood. The end.

I am glad someone documented these two twisted specimens of humanity with minimal editorializing, but the result is no fun whatsoever, and offers no insight to their pathologies, making it a very difficult watch on multiple levels. It’s of interest to sick thrill seekers and serious students of abnormal psychology. You should know this movie exists. God help you if you watch it. There is no guarantee it will get a commercial release. The film seems destined to remain forever underground, where it probably belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weirdo documentary…  strange and unpleasant…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

Must See

“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

“THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight (2005), Reagan (2011) and The House I Live In (2012). His latest, The King, focuses on as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:

“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–

Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.

Chuck D in The King (2017)Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), (a Continue reading “THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ari Folman

PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.

Still from Waltz with Bashir (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1)The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000. The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
  • Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
  • Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
  • Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.

Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir

COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Continue reading 339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

References   [ + ]

1. The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000.

ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

In hindsight, F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.”

Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction to Welles’ sharply directed radio dramatization of  H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is impossible to fathom now; in the era before internet, cable, and television, Welles broadcast of a faked Martian invasion of New Jersey caused a nationwide panic. Believing it was the end of the world as we know it, the masses rioted and looted. In the resulting exodus, traffic was jammed in neighboring cities. Hundreds—if not thousands—died. Those of weak hearts dropped dead. The rivers beneath bridges were flowing with the bodies of suicides. Orson Welles immediately became a household name.

Only, those reports were predominantly fake as well. The station did not have a sizable audience. Few were actually listening to the broadcast, let alone fooled by it. There were a scant number of purported deaths, with the highest estimates ranging from five to twenty. However, that was enough for Welles and company to shrewdly feed the press until it escalated into a glorious myth. Thank God we’ve evolved past that now… well, until a certain political faker last year spewed, without a shred of evidence, “I saw thousands of Muslims [replacing Martians] cheering in New Jersey on 911” and his sycophants went “ooh” and “ahh” to the cheap parlor trick.

Unlike politicians, Welles called himself out in F For Fake, as he did thirty-five years prior when he manufactured a public apology for the unintentional catastrophe caused by manufactured Martians. To the world at large, Welles’ apology only confirmed the epic scale of that 1938 disaster.

Although Welles was nearly fired from RKO over the radio broadcast, such trickery deserved a reward. Welles eventually got it when the studio gave him carte blanche for the production of Citizen Kane (1941). If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this little movie about a newspaper magnate and charlatan that caused an epic backlash, but a few critics seemed to like it somewhat.

Still from F for Fake (1973)Like that infamous Martian debacle, a baroque cult grew around  F For Fake and for years, but with poor distribution, it was more discussed than seen. Fortunately, the 2005 Criterion Collection release remedied that. Welles himself guides us through an innovative and entertaining Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)