Saturday, August 12, 2006

Film obsession

One thing I have not mentioned so far is that I am (increasingly) obsessed by and engrossed in the world of films - in particular, in the last few years I have begun to watch a huge amount of films after it occured to me one day that, quite simply, I could. In the vein then I recently went to Wellington for a couple of days to catch some of the offerings at the NZ film festival. I think I will offer my thoughts on all films I see right here from now on. You will see that I am not joking when I say I watch a lot of them.

First up was Thankyou for Smoking. Aaron Eckhart plays the slimiest most neo-con postmodern morally corrupt relativistic slimeball lobbyist. Rob Lowe plays a character almost as hateful as the one he plays in Wayne's World. I think he has worked out that people prefer to hate him rather than love him. Really it's nothing more than a dressed up anecdote as a whole but it works beacuse of what 'off Hollywood' is so good at - very snappy dialogue and slick production seamlessly combined. Ironic (as far as American stuff can be), amusing and current.

Next was 49 Up. A long running (42 years and counting) documentary serial, the first ever, and still most authentic, attempy at reality TV that has never failed to engross. If, like me, you love documentaries with substance (as opposed to most of the shite on History Channel, Animal Planet or Discovery) that are made with sophisticated production values and attempt to tackle subjects, such as what it means to be human, that require some thought and reflection, then this is not to be missed.

For me the real interest comes not mainly from the ample fodder for consumption of the minuteae of the subjects' lives but rather from the fleeting glimpses of their attempts to subvert and challenge the whole exercise. An oxbridge educated lawyer and his wife sit guardedly in front of the cameras and profess, in response to probing, that they are 'guarded about being guarded'. Reality TV fatigue takes on a whole new dimension when you have been visited by this type of inquisition every 7 years. The same couple ask 'what is the point...or value.. of such a programme?'. Originally the makers seem to have envisaged a sort of social experiment in televised reality, when the idea was new, taking the ideas behind mass observation a few steps further. There is huge value and much to learn for all concerned both watching and participating and each person may draw this out for themselves. One of the most striking challenges to the whole concept comes from a subject who expresses anger at the makers, making explicit the previously unstated fact that there are and have been disagreements between subjects and crew over the decades about how each person is presented and how their lives are examined and assessed. She tells the interviewer that 'you don't give me enough credit - you don't think I am clever as I am...and you always focus on what has happened rather than on what I want in life, where I want to go'. It is a point forcefully made and what she is getting at must resonate deeply with a reflective audience - the inherent bias in the production process and how ineffectual the concept of objectivity really is; the subjects as we see them are filtered through many layers of language, culturally determined perception and preconception, as well as the hidden individual values of those making the programmes. This subject, a woman without any higher academic education and with obvious strength and immense dignity, objects to the profound insults inherent in the production values, agendas and personalities to be found in the film crew.

What is the point of such a film? True social comment at its most poignant, powerful and irrefutable.

Factotum showcases what is possibly a career best performance from Matt Dillon (maybe Drugstore Cowboy is up there too). The trials and tribulations inherent in a life dedicated to alcoholism of the bar fly variety are explored in this film with many echoes of American Splendor. Henry Chinaski, the alter ego of beat poet Charles Bukowski, is bumbling through life led primarily along the path of least resistance to the next cold beer and whisky combo. If anyone embodies the concept of being happyily depressed it's this guy. If you read Ham on Rye you begin to understand how he got there in the first place. Even without that though the pleasure in the film comes from the brilliantly conveyed sense of what it means to be a true drifter in urban life's wilderness. Chinaski is totally surrendered to his addiction and never fights it. You begin to wonder whether, when done like this, the choice to remain an alcoholic is perhaps more noble than the other option of attempting to recover - and thus through this mechanism a deep level of compassion becomes available for exploration within the viewer.

Last of all was Into Great Silence. Carthusian monks in the most ascetic monastery in Europe are the suject of this nearly silent 3 hour meditation on what it might be like to live a lifetime in such a way. It is beautiful and profound to look at. The silence is at once delicate and robust, impossible to ignore for the first 2 hours. After this I became almost entranced as we watched one of the Brothers pray and meditate. He kneels for a few minutes over the bible as motes dance in the light streaming through the ancient, narrow glass, the wooden panels of his quarters in soft focus behind him. Then he stands and crosses himself. Then he kneels for a time once more....then stands...then, what? He kneels again. Each minute, incremental development on screen has become precious and fascinating. Things we are aware of only subliminally day to day become the very substance of being.

Perhaps the only concession to modernity in the monastery is that the prior apprently has email - it is preferable to the phone as it is silent. Nothing else has changed for perhaps a 1000 years. Remote, spiritual and unique and a perfect rebuttal of soundbite life.

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