Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2016

Four documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

Apart from their subject matter, the four documentaries of recent vintage and under review below would be of great interest to anybody who has ever made a film—or more accurately a video—using a digital camcorder and editing software like IMovie. You find yourself thinking about the creative process as the film unwinds, asking yourself how the director, cameraperson and editor cobbled together the raw material into a finished product. Of course, given the largely unprofitable business of documentary filmmaking, it is a stretch to think of such films as commodities in contrast to the crapola of the week featured in full-page ads in the NY Times.

“Amy” is about the late Amy Winehouse, a self-styled jazz/blues singer who died of alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011 just short of her 28th birthday. The film begins with a 1998 home movie of the fourteen-year-old Winehouse singing at a birthday party for a friend named Lauren Gilbert, something likely done with a Super 8 camera given its fuzziness. As the film progresses, we see scene after scene made with ordinary digital camcorders as Winehouse and her friends “perform” in various locations in England and at posh resorts where the sadly self-destructive singer sought to run away from the ghosts that haunted her. If there is one thing clear about this footage, it is that Winehouse liked being the focus of attention even if she at the very same time was trying to escape being Amy Winehouse. In some ways, the steadily advancing toll that tobacco, drugs, alcohol, depression and bulimia were taking on her were reminiscent of “found video” horror movies like “Blair Witch Chronicles” that featured people the same age as Winehouse. The monsters of such movies were a lot less scary than the demons that lurked inside her psyche.

In addition to the home movies, “Amy” relies heavily on TV interviews with Winehouse as she exchanges banter with various personalities. Conducted in 2004, one of the most interesting of them is with Jonathan Ross, a BBC talk show host who tells her that she is “common”. He can get away with this because he immediately tells her that he is “common” himself. She laughs it off, telling Ross that she has resisted attempts by the record company executives to pressure her into being more “polished”. With her tattoos and tawdry dress, she looked all the world like a streetwalker. One gets the impression that for performers like Lady Ga Ga, the image is carefully cultivated but for Winehouse it was entirely natural even if it went hand in hand with a simmering masochism.

For those who followed her career, the film will prove gripping. For someone like myself, it was fascinating in a morbid way, akin to watching a roadside accident with body parts strewn everywhere. She had the same kind of unquenchable appetite for mind-altering substances as John Belushi or Janis Joplin that no degree of adulation from her fans or being in the spotlight could displace. In fact, it was the very celebrity that probably led to her self-destruction. The grind of being in the public eye–the tours, the pressure to be number one–combined with a depression that was omnipresent from an early age would kill anybody. It is a miracle that this fragile wraith made it to the age of 27.

“Amy” is available on Amazon streaming. It is not exactly Unrepentant Marxist fare but worth a peek.

“Meru” is an amazing documentary on its own terms, telling the story of attempts by three professional rock climbers to scale a peak that rises from the ground at a near 90-degree angle just like the letter L. What makes it even more noteworthy is that it was filmed by the men themselves as they struggled toward the top of the summit that is called the “Shark’s Fin”.

Unlike climbing Mount Everest, there are no plateaus that can serve as an overnight campsite. When you ascend Meru, your campsite is a tent suspended from the side of the mountain as if you were on your way to the top of the WTC. Indeed, the three climbers were in their own way bigger daredevils than Philippe Petit. As I was watching the film, I scratched my head trying to figure out how a long shot of the men inching their way up Meru could have been made. Was a helicopter accompanying them?

My strong recommendation is to watch the film without such foreknowledge. It will enhance your pleasure (but keep in mind that it will be the pleasure of a roller coaster ride.) Afterwards I strongly urge you to read an interview with the climbers at Filmmaker Magazine. If you’ve ever had a camcorder in your hands, you’ll marvel all the more so at what went into this work:

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Ozturk: The type of Himalayan climbing on Meru is very different from that of an Everest ascent. On Everest you have Sherpa support to help carry equipment up the mountain. Our biggest challenge on Meru was weight, because we had to carry everything we needed ourselves. We counted every ounce we brought up on the mountain. This included sleeping bags for conditions that were -20 degrees at night, so we were forced to strip down to absolute essentials for camera gear. While we wanted to roll camera constantly we only had a few batteries that needed to be conserved for crucial moments. Just getting the camera on with a working battery with no fog or ice on the lens took significant effort up there!

“Meru” is now available on Amazon streaming.

J.P. Sniadecki is a filmmaker and anthropologist affiliated with the oddly named Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University that is described on the department’s website:

The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) is an experimental laboratory at Harvard University that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography.  It uses analog and digital media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world.  Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.  Most works produced in the SEL take as their subject the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence.

“The Iron Ministry” is a documentary suffused with the social and artistic mission of the lab. It is the sixth in a series ofSniadecki films about China that use a cinéma vérité technique to allow ordinary Chinese to freely discuss their hopes and frustrations, in this instance passengers on its railway system who Sniadecki filmed over a three-year period. Like the train in “Snowpiercer”, the trains are class-divided. Armed with a modest camcorder and a crew of one, he engaged in small talk with the working class passengers and allowed them to riff on a variety of topics, including what it is like to be a Muslim in China (these were Han ethnically, not the Uighurs of Turkic origin.) One man says that if the pollution and economic situation get bad enough, he will leave the country. Another group passes hard liquor around using a bottle cap—a female member being three sheets to the wind and quite funny.

When Sniadecki attempted to film in the first-class section of the trains, he was blocked at the door.

This interview with the director at Sinosphere suggests that his was as much of a voyage into the unknown as that of the three rock climbers. His observation that the film was about filmmaking itself is most astute.

Q: Why did you make a film about Chinese trains?

A: Like most of my films, the impetus comes from my own life and daily experience. Ever since my first long-distance train journey in 1999, China’s railways were my primary classroom for learning Mandarin and, like the vast majority of Chinese people, the primary means to get around.

Before I even considered the longstanding relationship between trains, cinema and modernity, I knew countless films could be made from the encounters and experiences of rail travel. But it wasn’t until I was living in Beijing from 2010 to 2013 that I began to film on trains.

At the time, I would often travel to visit friends, to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation on Chinese independent documentaries and to make my own films, such as “People’s Park” (2012) and “Yumen” (2013). I had a compact manual camcorder that quickly became an extension of my body. I was taking different lines and different classes and different trains — from old collectivist-era trains to high-speed bullet trains — and I gradually realized that I was in fact making a film, or the film, that I had imagined over a decade earlier.

I started to film on every train ride, and even took a few trains precisely for the purpose of filming, such as the train to Tibet and the train through Wenzhou, where the tragic accident of July 2011 [a train crash that killed 40 people] happened. But the majority of the filming was conducted on trains I was taking for personal reasons, for my dissertation research, or for my own filmmaking. Instead of wanting to tell one person’s story or investigate some social issue, I let the filming process guide the project, so the film is at once diaristic and ethnographic, a film about China’s railways and a film about filmmaking itself.

“The Iron Ministry” can be purchased for under 30 dollars as a DVD from Icarus Film, a leading edge distributor of fine cinema, including many that would be of interest to the political malcontent.

Finally, we come to “Hitchcock/Truffaut” that can also obviously be described as a film about filmmaking. In 1962 Francois Truffaut sat down with Alfred Hitchcock to conduct interviews that were intended to make the case for him as an auteur rather than a mere entertainer despite the reputation one might glean from his weekly TV show that was wildly popular with young people like me. Not only did I live for that show (and others in that vein like “Twilight Zone” and “Gunsmoke”) but the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine that I looked forward to even more than Mad Magazine.

The film consists mainly of clips from a wide range of the Hitchcock oeuvre with the voiceover of the director telling Truffaut what his goal was in each key scene. This is about as good as it gets in film theory and worth all the idiotic film school classes in UCLA, NYU and Columbia put together (trust me, I’ve been in one of them.)

So compelling was the discussion between the two master directors that I ordered the book based on the interviews that is still in print and will likely be so until a nuclear war destroys life on earth—maybe even afterwards. This will give you a flavor for the kind of exchanges that took place—utterly mind-bending:

F.T. I’ve always enjoyed the way you make dramatic use of your protagonists’ professions. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, James Stewart plays a doctor, and he behaves like one throughout the whole picture. His line of work is. deliberately blended into the action. For instance, before telling Doris Day that their child has been kidnaped, he makes her take a sedative. It’s a nice detail. But let’s get back to The Secret Agent. In their book about you, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer point out an innovation in this picture that reappears time and again in your later work: the villain is attractive, distinguished, has good manners; he’s actually very appealing.

A.H. Certainly. The introduction of the villain is always something of a problem, and this is especially true in melodrama because, even by definition, melodrama is passé and it has to be brought up to date. That’s why in North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.

If there’s any problem with the film, it is that among the high-powered directors who comment on the interviews throughout the film, there is almost an exclusive emphasis on camera angles, etc. They even speak of “storytelling” in a dismissive manner, finding Hitchcock’s use of a light inside a glass of milk carried by Jimmy Stewart as he climbs some stairs far more interesting than what made Hitchcock’s films so memorable—their suspense. Indeed, one of the superstar directors was David Fincher who has about much understanding of storytelling as I do about gravity waves and black holes.

“Hitchcock/Truffaut” is not yet available as DVD or streaming. Look for it in the usual places over the course of 2016 but don’t waste your time with Netflix that has gone down the drain faster than a speeding bullet.


1 Comment »

  1. Insightful review of ‘Amy’. I think that Blake guy can be added as a big ingredient to the heartrendingly sad mix. The music is missed, which for most people is the basis of the tragic loss of Amy Winehouse. And this documentary has lots of rare recordings and alternative takes.

    Comment by DD — February 13, 2016 @ 12:12 am

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