Thursday, February 26, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling

It can be tough selling people on physical fitness. It isn’t that we don’t know exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle—we know, we know. The problem is that we know it’s a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, and yet still we don’t embrace it. How do you sell something that is free and good for people, but requires some form of effort, however simple? Imagine if the only currency accepted by grocery stores were push-ups done on the spot. My friend, half the human race would starve to death and the other half would be ripped and smug about it.

I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling approaches this problem of promoting fitness with admirable cheekiness. Directors Wolf Koening and Georges Dufaux use a mixture of interviews and staged footage to construct a likeable comic essay that hides its public-service message behind irreverence. This documentary is undoubtedly good for you, but its little touches of sardonic humour make it go down like a chocolate shake.

“Our civilization is being swamped by a tidal wave of unprecedented luxury and ease,” we are warned by the narrator, and the film explores a variety of fitness cultures combating this tidal wave, ranging from wrestling to bodybuilding to Yoga. The film is modestly informative, but it seems less like a hard documentary than a light essay on the topic of physical fitness, using that subject as an excuse for exercises in humour and style, like any good essayist would do. Often, the humour resides in the film’s wry juxtapositions. For instance, when a man running a gym declares that “life is a tough thing” and we must be physically fit to meet its demands, the film illustrates this statement by showing a man running across a street. Only the strong will survive (jaywalking)?

Of all of the interview subjects, the people involved with “passive exercise” are most open to ridicule. The camera lingers on the overweight butts strapped into the vibrating machines, the flab jiggling hypnotically, as a way of suggesting the questionable merit of this process (or else simply indulging a rather particular fetish). The man running the facility makes grandiose statements about the fall of the Roman empire, but when one of the employees tries to explain how the machines work, she continually stumbles over the laboured sales pitch. If our society is collapsing because of obesity, you think they could at least memorize the salient points of our salvation.

The film drives its point home with the purely illustrative scene that follows: a man at a driving range uses an automatic ball drop, which promptly breaks down and starts overrunning his tee with too many balls. As the narrator dryly notes, mechanical or physical means may not be enough to solve the fitness problem. From this point, the film moves in to the realm of Yoga, which opens up questions of spiritual fulfillment in the quest for health while allowing the filmmakers plenty of opportunity to gawk at the impressive flexibility of the instructor.

The overall tone of I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling, as I noted earlier, is comic and light. Even as they convey the urgency of physical fitness by declaring “every time a machine robs us of the work a muscle used to do, we get a minute fraction weaker,” they self-mockingly illustrate the point with ominous images of automatic doors opening. This sort of technique—footage that deflates the grand claims of the narrator or interview subjects—might make it seem as if the filmmakers were subverting their ostensible goal of promoting fitness, but in fact it’s just the opposite. With subtle humourous pokes at various fitness subcultures, the film aligns its sympathies with the out-of-shape audience member skeptical at the sight of middle-aged men flashing their taints at the camera as they sprawl on a wrestling mat, all while the coach raves excitedly about the concept of “pep” and declares the nation would be better if it had more wrestlers in it.

Who wouldn’t be a little wary of the most gonzo elements of any subculture? Sure, I want to be healthy too, but does that really require strapping myself to some sort of torture device called a “Miracle Machine”? Forget about slimming thighs—the miracle is that it’s even legal. So the film indulges our skepticism and allows us a mild sense of superiority—or at least until the end, when it turns around and starts laughing at us. In one of the film’s best transitions, we cut from a calisthenics class to a man in his home, lying prone on his couch as he watches that same class on his television. The following parade of indolent men watching television is meant to stand in for us, the sluggish audience members who have been amusing ourselves with the eccentricities of the healthy living types while we slump in our chairs, passively contributing to the downfall of our entire society by preferring to laugh at passive-exercise devices instead of doing Yoga. Who’s laughing now, you lazy jerk?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Ostensibly a documentary about the iconic punk-poet singer, Steven Sebring’s film is really more of a video scrapbook, interspersing snippets of live performances with biographical reminisces from Patti Smith and low-key vignettes. Some might suggest this documentary is rambling and self-indulgent at times, but so what? It’s also filled with moments of offhand beauty and bolstered by undeniable charisma, not unlike a performance from Smith herself. If the film begins to take on the same strengths and weaknesses of its subject, I consider that a sign of its effectiveness as a portrait.

The more the film conforms to the peculiarities of Smith's personality, the more it becomes a welcome alternative to the usual banalities of the rock documentary. The starfucking clichés of the genre are neglected for the warm domesticity of Smith showing us her mother’s collection of porcelain cows. Sure, it would have been nice to have a bit more live footage (Smith remains an entrancing performer even after all of these years), but not at the cost of the cows. The fact that Sebring is willing to take such detours leads to more compelling results than the typical rock-doc strategy of letting famous people wax bland about the subject (try the relatively recent Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten for a particularly sad example of a film that succumbs to this vile impulse by letting the likes of Bono and John Cusack pointlessly gush about the Clash). Even when Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe show up backstage at one of Smith's concerts, the film feels no need to bother them for a quote. Of course, this wouldn’t be a rock doc without Flea in it—I swear, he seems to be in every single one of these things—but his presence is confined to trading stories with Smith about urinating in bottles while on the road. He has a good story, but hers is better.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Picture of Light

Peter Mettler documents his experience of going to Churchill, Manitoba, to film the northern lights, and the thinness of this premise leaves the director struggling to lend the images some philosophical weight. Still, I admire Mettler, who has distinguished himself as a reliably excellent cinematographer (notably in the recent documentary Manufactured Landscapes) and a questing documentary director in his own right (such as in his opus, Gambling, Gods, and LSD), but he often fumbles when trying to explain the significance of his undeniably gorgeous imagery. He offers some fine footage of this snow-shrouded northern town, and he certainly stumbles onto some memorable moments, such as a bored local shooting a hole in the wall of a hotel room in order to watch a snowdrift form inside. But as an essay film, this pales in comparison to the work of a real master of the form like Chris Marker. Mettler’s narration feels like meditation in search of enlightenment, his ideas spinning out when confronted by this icy, empty landscape. He struggles to connect the northern lights with the cinematic process itself, but sadly can’t pull the metaphor into focus, leaving us with some beautiful footage of the northern lights and little more. However, the images are still strong enough to make the film worthwhile, and they will likely spur the audience to thoughts of equal or greater profundity than Mettler’s own.

Friday, February 20, 2009

They Live

Wake up, it’s a new America, same as the old America, and if the economic downturn doesn’t kill you then the skull-faced aliens disguised as humans surely will. A scattershot 1988 John Carpenter film starring (the formerly rowdy, now reformed) Roddy Piper, They Live is ridiculous, but in a rather appealing devil-may-care way. The paranoid style in science fiction rarely yields much more than vague existential anxieties (case in point: The Matrix), but They Live is kept grounded with some working-class grit—it’s not self-centered and whiny, it’s angry and ass kicking. And if unsubtle political critiques aren’t your game, you might at least go for the camp pleasures of a prime piece of 1980s low-budget action-movie craziness. Besides, with conformist messages hidden everywhere, who better to navigate this mirror maze of deceitful media than a former professional wrestler? (Richard Kelly perhaps understood this when he cast the Rock in Southland Tales; arguably, it’s the only thing he understood in that movie.) The ludicrously protracted back-alley parody of a wrestling match could be a knowing wink towards Piper’s old career or simply mockery of same, but it’s surely some sort of classic of bad judgment either way. Admittedly, Piper doesn’t always seem to be in on the joke, but that only makes it funnier, right?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Lonely Boy

A documentary about Paul Anka might sound unappealing to anyone but the most devoted fans of the man, but Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig’s 1962 short Lonely Boy is actually a small gem of a film. Far from being star-struck, Lonely Boy is skeptical of the young teen idol in particular and pop stardom in general, offering a slyly sardonic vision of celebrity and media.

The film largely avoids those stylistic aspects of documentaries that create barriers between the audience and the content, such as narration and musical scores, opting instead for a direct style based on handheld cameras and informal interaction between filmmaker and subject. In one of the film’s only voiceovers (save for when it announces the names of interview subjects or locales), we are told that Lonely Boy will present “a candid look at Paul Anka from both sides of the footlights.” This might sound like a thesis, but it’s also a literal description of the film’s style. The directors capture some memorable backstage moments, like a late Anka rushing to prepare himself, but some of the most impressive footage is filmed at the singer’s feet during concert. While the singer towers above the camera in these shots, the real source of fascination resides in the faces of the girls in the audience, which the filmmakers linger over, catching these awestruck teens in various stages of intense, spastic emotion.

In what is the film’s most distinctive quality, the directors continually draw attention to their presence without overpowering the real subject of the film. At one point, a photographer asks if he is in the way of their camera, and Anka interjects that he should just pretend the film cameras aren’t even there (as the singer leaves the room, we catch a glimpse of the cameraman in a mirror). For the benefit of the filmmakers, a club owner offers to have his wait staff walk around the background of a shot to create a better sense of action and excitement. And in one of the film’s funniest moments, the club owner gives Anka a kiss on the cheek after receiving presents from the singer, which prompts the directors to ask for the two to restage the kiss for the camera using the excuse that they didn’t get a good shot the first time.

Although obviously more playful than self-important, this sort of meta-documentary strategy could still backfire quite easily, except that it fits quite naturally with the film’s view of the popstar as a manufactured spectacle. Whether crying as a teen idol croons his latest hit or watching a NFB documentary online, the audience wants to believe that it is witnessing something genuine—that it is seeing something actually happening and being invited to share in that true moment. And while authenticity may be the currency of pop culture, it’s also the foundation of documentary, which means there’s a surprising harmony between subject and style in Lonely Boy. As a medium, film’s best trick has always been that it can use the real world to construct an unreal one. The great seduction of all film is that it provides photographic evidence of a dream.

Paul Anka, as the film suggests, is attempting a similar trick of his own by transforming himself from a goofy looking, overweight teenager into a handsome, lusted-after idol. While fans gush about his sweetness and sincerity, the few personal glimpses we have of Anka in the film reveal him to be ruthlessly focused on creating an image that can be sold. With shocking bluntness, the then-19-year-old singer declares that his appeal is sixty percent emotion and—feigning embarrassment at his own crudeness before pronouncing the word—sex. His manager is even more to the point, opining over Anka’s features (“He has a great mouth”) and acknowledging that the young man has already had a nose job. This sort of candidness is startling—if no less manufactured than Anka, present-day popstars are certainly more guarded about the matter—but this lack of discretion only shows how new the phenomenon was at the time.

Obviously, there’s something mad at work here, and the filmmakers—incredibly—hold a bemused, often curious stance, even as Anka’s manager declares the singer will go on to be the biggest star the world has ever seen and girls in the audience mouth the words “I love you” with fervent desperation. One girl, waiting outside a concert hall for an autograph, looks as if she might faint just at the mere sight of Anka—she leans on someone's shoulder, mouth agape as if she is struggling to breath. Which begs the question I am left with after watching the film, and one which the filmmakers wisely do not attempt to answer: what does all of this passionate, sincere emotion mean when it is provoked by a persona so calculated and false? Can the honesty of the audience redeem the dishonesty of the performer?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Strange Invaders

Continuing with the space theme I began last week with Universe, I thought I would highlight another NFB film dealing with the awe-inspiring, breath-taking, and deeply malicious cosmos—Cordell Barker's animated short Strange Invaders.

Barker's chief claim to fame is The Cat Came Back, one of those NFB shorts that infiltrate the Canadian consciousness by virtue of repeated airings on CBC. I assumed it was pointless to highlight that film since it's possibly the most recognized film on the entire NFB site. However, I still encourage people to revisit it, especially if they haven't seen it since childhood. My own dim youthful recollections just couldn't do justice to the film's superb timing or stranger jokes, which very likely flew right over my immature head (like the brilliantly bizarre gag in which the frantic protagonist comes across a cow tied up on the railroad tracks like a damsel in distress from an old silent-movie serial). Instead, I want to bring some attention to Cordell Barker's other great NFB short.

Strange Invaders is in many ways a prime example of NFB animation—the drawing is idiosyncratic and fluid, the tone droll and whimsical. But Barker balances some rather dark humour with a deeply felt theme (he apparently referred to the film as "semi-autobiographical," and for all of its fantasy trappings the film does seem strongly rooted in the realities of parenthood). The film focuses on Roger and Doris, a married couple whose wish for a child is answered when a baby-like alien crashes into their living room. At first overjoyed, they soon discover that the alien is a terror of a child, wreaking havoc with their lives and ravaging their home.

For a sample of Barker's masterful sense of comic timing, just look at the scene where Roger and Doris come across the alien after it has eaten three of their goldfish. It lies faces down on the floor with the skeletons of the fish scattered around it. A single goldfish swims around the nearly empty bowl. After the couple leave, the alien tilts its head towards the bowl. Ever so slightly, the fish begins to spin faster. The film is steeped in these sort of sly touches, hiding smaller gags within the more manic comedic set-ups.

Any new parents will fear what a baby will do to their lives, and this witty little film builds a brilliant farce out of that anxiety. Even though it ultimately reconciles itself to parenthood, the film dives deep into almost every possible worry associated with a new child—strained marriage, sleepless nights, damaged home, terrorized pets. Consider this the ideal short program to play before David Lynch's Eraserhead. The alien's excruciating squawking of "Peanut!"—the single word it knows how to speak—is perhaps not as painful as the wretched mewling noise of Lynch's mutant baby, but both strike the same nerve with deadly precision. Don't miss this one.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Universe

For those who are unaware, the National Film Board of Canada has just begun to offer free streaming video of its vast film library on its website. Considering that the NFB is a government organization and thus publicly financed, it only makes sense that these films should be made available to the public.

Now, some might scoff at this and ask, "Who cares? Canadian movies are just [boring/lame/about curling/etc]." Well, first of all, dammit, I care, and so should you. In the English-speaking part of Canada, people instinctively recoil at the merest mention of Canadian cinema. And while I understand that the NFB has peddled some mighty bland film in its time, it also possesses a treasure trove of invaluable documentaries, whimsical and/or innovative animated shorts, and even the occasional fiction film of merit. There is some fantastic stuff to be found in this archive, and more is being added each month.

Of course, an archive this large is naturally intimidating, so I've decided to offer up a weekly discovery from the website that I consider worthy of attention. And this week, I'll kick things off with a real strange gem of an educational film, which, according to the website, influenced 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps it did, but don't be expecting any explanations about giant floating space fetuses here.

Enough preamble! It's time for us to explore the vast (and decidedly fatal) Universe.

Older educational films rarely hold much interest for viewers beyond providing fodder for wisecracks about outdated ideas and cheap production values (just think of all those episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 padded out with hokey old short films about public speaking and poultry farming). Or, more importantly—who wants to watch a modern educational film for fun, never mind one that's 50 years old?

What a nice surprise then to find out that Universe, a 1957 short film about its eponymous subject, is in fact a beautiful piece of filmmaking. As directed by Roman Kroitor and Colin Low, the film is filled with striking shots—the careful, geometric compositions of the observatory machinery, evocative images of city streets where the sun looms so large that it seems the Earth is about to crash into it. The film opens with a vertiginous overhead shot of a bustling street while timpani drums pound out an ominous rhythm—it feels not like the beginning of an educational short, but rather the start of a paranoid sci-fi film of the "they walk among us" vein. Are these pod people we're watching? Why is the film making this all seem so sinister?

However, this is mere prologue to the staggering images of the cosmos that dominate the film. Propelled by a score that ranges from unnerving to downright threatening, the film casts the universe as a giant playground of death and wonder. Jupiter is announced by a swell in the score that makes it seem like Darth Vader has entered the scene. And note the language: the film does not say that the planet "has" 12 moons—no, instead, Jupiter "rules" its 12 moons, like some brooding, foul-tempered tyrant.

The film's most endearing trait, however, must be its tendency to define heavenly bodies in terms of how they will kill us. Mars, we are told, "has no oxygen, and no creatures like men could live here" (note that this leaves the door open for creatures unlike men—presumably a concession to the powerful Saucer People lobby of the 1950s). A man couldn't live for two minutes on the Moon, but as the narrator explains in full Shatnerian style, "his body would lie unchanged through thousands of years...for nothing grows...and nothing decays."

Of course, we know not to trust Jupiter—apparently the villain of our galaxy, to judge by the film's tone—but just for good measure, we are warned that its atmosphere is filled with poisonous gases and its gravity is so strong it can crush us beyond recognition. And finally, after a breathless description of the sun's awesome and terrible power, this blunt coda: "Too near or too far from this furnance—instant death for men." Yes, it's tough out there for poor, feeble, weak man, especially with everything in space designed to kill him.

But all of this is conveyed with the utmost imagination and skill. The images are unique and mesmerizing (watch for the silvery gossamer strands of the comet's vapour trail), and the score is quite dynamic, more fitting for an old Star Trek episode than an educational short. Providing information about the planets feels like a secondary concern to the filmmakers. Instead, the film seems designed to depict the universe as an exciting—and terrifying, death-mongering—place. Removed from any educational context, Universe feels like a brilliant, imaginative short film portraying nothing less than the existential howl of a lonely species surrounded by an infinity that possesses no purpose other than to swallow up our meagre, finite existences in an endless night that will never bear any trace of our passing oh my god I'm going to scream now oh god I don't want Jupiter to get me mommy I'm afraid—

(Phew. Sorry about that. Whenever I start writing about infinity I forget how to end sentences.)

My point is that this is a film well worth watching for its own merits as an example of skillful, beautiful filmmaking, regardless of how well the information contained within it has aged. Even as it casts the whole universe as this dreadful, giant mousetrap, the film still stirs the imagination with the beauty of space. If I had encountered this film at a more impressionable age, I might have grown up to be an astronomer—or maybe just some mad scientist who planned to blow up Jupiter.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Class

As a corrective to those films that sanctify the relationship between student and teacher as some sort of holy bond, The Class will likely come as a relief with its view of flawed people struggling in an imperfect institution. Set in an ethnically diverse school in Paris, Laurent Cantet’s film focuses on a single French class taught by an energetic young teacher named Francois Marin, as played by Francois Begaudeau, who co-wrote the film based on his own memoir of his teaching experiences. This does somewhat blur the line between fiction and reality, but keep in mind that the film is about Mr. Marin, not Mr. Begaudeau.

Cantet only adds to this confusion by employing—for lack of a better description—a stereotypically “realist” style to capture improvised exchanges and stray details in the classroom. The conversations in the first half of the film are loose and unforced, and rarely seem contrived to serve any other purpose than illustrating the natural back-and-forth of the classroom. There is little of anything resembling a plot at this point of the film. We simply observe the relationship between Francois and his students, which might sound tedious to some, but given the immediacy of Cantet’s camera, the experience is as immersive as sitting in a desk in the room itself.

Students give the teacher a hard time for using the name Bill in an example, rather than one that reflects their own ethnic heritages. Francois butts heads with a sullen young girl named Khoumba who was better behaved during the previous school year. Students argue that it is useless to learn one of the more formal French tenses because people don’t actually use it in everyday speech; Francois retorts that they can decide it is useless once they master it. The relationship between Francois and his students is strikingly casual—he chides the students, teases them, and they respond with attitude and even belligerence, however mild.

It never crosses a line until Francois loses his temper and tells two girls they are “behaving like skanks,” which prompts a heated exchange with Souleymane, a struggling student with a long history of discipline problems at the school. The boy tries to walk out of class while others block his way, and in the ensuing confusion his bag hits Khoumba in the face, cutting her and leaving her bloody. The second half of the film falls into somewhat more conventional territory, with the teachers debating what to do with Souleymane and Francois trying to reassert his authority over the class after diminishing his stature with his angry outburst.

Francois pushes against the traditional image of a teacher—he wants to be informal with the students to encourage them to open up about their own selves, and he struggles to find ways to avoid the role of stern, punishing pedant—but he also helplessly, even unknowingly, falls into that role all the same. At times, he mouths hoariest clichés of bluffing pedagogical authority—unwisely arguing with the students about his use of the word “skanks,” he says that there are things he can say that they cannot, and when Souleymane is angry, Francois’ strongest rejoinder is that you are not supposed to talk disrespectfully to a teacher. When pushed, he can’t help but hide behind the feeble authority of being a teacher that he is supposedly undermining with his often-casual class atmosphere. Even as he talks of “rewinding the movie” on Souleymane, he admits he cannot see a way to avoid the same sad result.

The film never really comes to terms with this tension in Francois’ position, and it’s hard not to suspect that the film’s opinion of Francois is more positive than its actual portrayal of the man, who seems at best a failed idealist forced to submit to the cold pragmatism of the existing system, and at worst, a petty man unable to account for his own failings. Perhaps because the film is drawn from Begaudeau’s experiences and co-written by the man himself, it errs on the side of sympathy rather than criticism.

The final scene shows the students and teachers playing a year-end soccer game. They are all in good spirits, laughing, and completely removed from the deadlock of the classroom, rather neatly skipping any question of the ethics Francois’ behaviour for something that feels vaguely, and rather suspiciously, utopian—an image of students and teachers in harmony at last. But inside the classroom, “between the walls” as the film’s French title says, these people cannot help but succumb to the antagonism of their roles. I think that is what makes the final shot of the empty classroom so eerie—will it be any different once a new group of people fills those spaces? Or will this drama simply replay next year with different leads?