Inside Out Festival, 2010. Movies Reviewed: Leo’s Room, The OWLs, Brotherhood, Oy Vey My Son is Gay, Joan Rivers, a Piece of Work, Undertow
Today I’m going to take a look at some of the movies playing at this year’s Inside Out festival, Toronto’s LGBT Film and Video Festival.
Inside Out is good and friendly film festival, with a wide, and extremely varied itinerary, ranging from Ryan Trecartin’s excellent art videos, to movies and documentaries including a very good selection of first-run foreign films, from France, Scandinavia, Israel, Latin America, Korea and, of course, the US. They deal with themes like aging, coming out, secrecy, discrimination, violence, tolerance, and of course, love and sex.
“Leo’s Room”, a gentle, low-key drama from Uruguay (Directed by Enrique Buchichio), is a coming-of -age story about a graduate student, Leo. Leo breaks up with his girlfriend to try to pursue something he’s not getting from her. Something one character says is all men think about, even though it only totals about ten minutes of their life each year: he was referring to the orgasm. Leo turns to the internet to secretly meet other men, whom he takes home to his small, dingy unpainted room. He makes his new friend sneak out past his couch potato pothead roommate, lest he suspect what was going on. But when he runs into a childhood crush in a supermarket, Caro, a sad but pretty woman, he finds a new friend. His life is still full of bleached-out faded colours and enclosed spaces. Caro ends up bedridden for an unknown reason, while Leo doesn’t want to leave his own room and face the world. Will they ever be able to voice their troubles and free themselves?
“Leo’s Room” (set in a rarely-seen, urban Uruguay), is a nice, if simple, look at how a man and a woman in a non-sexual relationship can help one another rid themselves of their secrets.
In the Danish dramatic thriller “Brotherhood” (Directed by Nicolo Donato) Lars starts going to clandestine meetings of a political group, partly to spite his liberal parents. He quickly rises up in the organization – it’s a neo-nazi, white supremacist party – and proves his mettle by attacking and beating up a Muslim refugee. In order to become a member for life of the sinister group, Lars is sent to a country house where Jimmy, a longtime Nazi skinhead, will instruct him in the ways of the order: Masculinity, worship of nature, extreme nationalism and so-called racial purity. All couched in the highly-charged homo-erotic atmosphere of male bonding. But the two men — Jimmy with giant swastikas and the number 88 (code for Heil Hitler) tattooed all over his body; and upper-class, rebellious Lars – take the step from homo-eroticism to homo sex. They become lovers. This complicates things. Even more so when Lars discovers that his new friends don’t just beat up immigrants, but also gay men. “Hey– that’s not fair…!”
This is a troubling, difficult movie; it’s hard to sympathize with members of a repugnant group who enthusiastically study Hitlerian theory and put it to work in thuggish attacks on innocent strangers, just to further their political causes… but I think it does manage to show this unlikely, doomed-from-the-start relationship as a compassionate one in the oddest of places. A very problematic movie to reconcile, morally, but an emotional one, none the less.
The OWLs (Directed by Cheryl Dunye of the Parliament Collective) is an extremely low budget (12 thousand dollars!) look at the lives of a group of aging women living together in a sprawling home in southwestern US. These OWLs – meaning Older Wiser Lesbians – were involved in an incident at a pool party where a young woman, Cricket, was killed. Their relationships are grouping and regrouping, they’re trying to sell the house and move on, and they’re terrified that someone might find the body. But their already tenuous equilibrium is upset with the arrival at their door of Skye, a much younger, muscular, masculine and aggressive woman. Skye dismisses their politics, their relationships, their beliefs, and inserts herself between couples. An even bigger shock is when the actors step out of their roles and discuss politics, identity, collaboration, sexuality, gender and the changing attitudes of younger lesbians.
At first I was put off by this meta-movie spoiling the storyline, but by the end their discussions are even more interesting than the plot, and somehow (not sure why) they provided both the content and the glue to hold this unusual collaborative movie together.
Oy Vey, My Son is Gay (Directed by Evgeny Afineefsky) is a comedy about the Hirsches, a middle-aged Jewish couple, (played by Lainie Kazan and Saul Rubinek) who are looking for a bride for their unmarried son, Nelson, a real estate agent. But, as the title says, he’s gay (they don’t know it) and is living with Angelo, an interior decorator. Shirley, the mother, is led to believe that he’s going out with a female porn star (played by Carmen Electra) and that Angelo is just there to tastefully decorate his apartment.
I was all set for a gay re-take of the old-school screwball comedy– you know, where there are lots of mistaken identities, witty dialogue, sharp-tongued innuendo, and all the characters running around trying to make sense of all the confusion. Well, it’s a little bit screwball, but mainly lame movie-of-the-week about parents struggling trying to understand and accept their gay son.
But, ¡ay, caramba! Mama mia! Was this ever a bad comedy. Painfully bad. Oy vey is right. The witty repartee, the mistaken identities, the disguises – they were all sparse indeed. No double entendres in this movie – you’re lucky to find a single entendre… There are some OK parts – especially the few times when Saul Rubinek and Lainie Kazan get into some energetic discussions, and stop walking through their lines – but they’re counterbalanced by awful, unfunny scenes. Like the father trying to get the porn star to date his son, to turn him straight again, but ends up making a glacially slow pass at her instead, and falls onto her, on a sofa with his bum sticking up in the air. And then stays like for two minutes.
I seriously think the movie needed a laugh track, to fill in the enormous gaps between punchlines; at least I’d know when it was supposed to be funny.
One movie that actually is funny is “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg), a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host. When I say she’s famous, I mean I’d heard of her name, but never actually seen her perform as a stand-up comic, anywhere, even on TV. The documentary follows her career as a funny woman, when female comics were few and far between, and her catch line was: “My name is Joan Rivers – and I put out!”
Now, I’ve been told she’s been using the same one-liners for half a century, but my ears were virgin territory. So her jokes were funny, and still just offensive enough to surprise a laugh out of the listener. Equally shocking were candid scenes of her face without makeup: puffed, sewn, reconstructed and botoxed. I was like – Wow! Who’s that ventriloquist dummy, (and what happened to that smooth-cheeked blond woman who was there a minute ago)?
But you can see she’s still on the ball as a comedian by the way she deftly handles an angry heckler who objected to her Helen Keller jokes.
Miguel, the fisherman, starts the movie by welcoming his new son, even as he “offers” a villager’s dead body to the harsh waters. The villagers believe if that’s not done, his soul will never rest. But macho Miguel is also having a love affair with Sebastien, a rich, gay Columbian painter (played by Manolo Cardona). They secretly meet in an abandoned building on the beach. But after a fight he disappears into the waves… and then comes back as a ghost. His dead body was never offered, so his corporeal self remains there but visible only to Miguel. He is elated – he can spend time with his lover without any threat to his machismo. But things soon go awry. His relationship is exposed. He must choose between his loves – his wife and son, his fellow villagers, and the memory of his male lover. Undertow is a great movie, beautifully shot.
Heroes, Anti-heroes, and their followers. Films Reviewed: The Trotsky, Ryan Trecartin, Leslie, My Name is Evil, MacGruber.
Today I’m going to look at movies with different kinds of heroes, or anti-heroes, and the movements that some of them inspire. The hero or heroine might be misguided, but if their aims are true (in movies) good will surely triumph.
Jay Baruchel plays a boy, Leon, in anglo, West Montreal who, although from a rich family himself, is upset by, and wants to overthrow the entire capitalist system. When he unsuccessfully tries to organize his father’s factory workers into a union, for the first time he is placed into the public school system. Once there, though oddly dated in his speech and behavior and clothing, he gradually gets a following: his apathetic classmates who want change in the system. Sorta. When they’re not smoking or texting or gossiping.
Oh – and did I mention he actually believes he’s the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, and that he’ll meet an older woman named Alexandra who will fall in love with him? Yeah, Leon’s a bit nutty, with his little round glasses, scrunched up forehead and gesticulating arms.
The movie takes a cute look at Old Left politics in a modern-day Montreal setting, seen through the eyes of a misunderstood, neurotic kid, who, though he espouses century-old slogans, is media savvy enough to call up reporters in his fights against the school board. He wants to gain supporters to achieve his goal of organizing his fellow students. Will Leon’s goal be realized? As a vanguard leader of the proletariat can he organize them to shake off the chains of inequality by overthrowing the land-owning bourgeoisie, and their running dog lackeys (personified by his school principal — Colm Feore — and his Miss Grundy)? Hmmm… Or is this movie more like a season finale to a Degrassi episode? No – it’s better than that.
A simple premise, with a well-written, dense plot, good Canadian cast (Genevieve Bujold, Saul Rubinek), and lots of visual references — spanning Maoism, black panthers, the Spanish civil war, Che Guevera, bolshevism, anarchism, The Battleship Potemkin, and Vietnam war resisters. It’s a good, cute, low budget movie with a very Canadian feel.
Any Ever; and In Short
Various art videos by Ryan Treacartin
OK, I have to admit, the first time I saw a Ryan Trecartin video, an hour long monstrosity of jarring flash editing with self-centred teenagers shrieking like characters from “Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel”, I have to admit, I haven’t been that pissed off at a so-called work of art in a long time. Who can watch this crap? Who wants to see people in grotesque make up and fright wigs randomly shouting nonsense in distorted voices, while tired, corporate logos drift endlessly across a laptop screen. Incomprehensibly bland video titles, jarring cuts and zooms, post-structuralist posturing… It’s insulting! Bleaaaagh!
Then something happened.
It started to look… pretty. It started to look nice. Some of the words started to be funny. Some even made sense. I began to love the sound of breaking glass.
Then I went to the Power Plant, where his one-man show, Any Ever, is now finishing its run. Seen projected on huge screens, in small rooms, with comfortable chairs and beds and earphones provided, where you can walk in and out, it all becomes pleasant, hypnotic, hilarious… fun.
I started watching his stuff on youtube.What is this? What’s going on? It’s weird… it’s… it’s.. Gay. It’s ghey. (It is gay). But it’s not the “gay” you see on TV sitcoms. Nothing so safe.
Picture a whole field of gay, in say, southern Manitoba, that have these little purple flowers. And each purple flower has a little stamen in it. And they pick them, and pile them all together, and crush them, and boil them, and distill them, and refine that into a potent substance — a gay reduction. Where you can detect a single drop a mile away.
Well, Ryan Trecartin has jugs of this in his storage room, and he splashes it on everything, saturating it. His work is drenched in gay, dripping with it. It’s overwhelming. It’s the gayest art, the gayest videos on the face of the earth. And his films are amazing.
It turns out, the lines aren’t random at all – they’re composed. The editing, the costumes, even the hiring of Mickey Mouse club audition rejects who vent on camera in annoyingly arch voices… all planned. And those strangely recurring images of twelve year old girls, the Avon ladies, the post-mastectomy yoga enthusiasts… some of these people are him, Ryan, in a wig, in make up, crying.
And the stuff that made me angry, because there were no real stories? There are stories in most of his videos. Epic stories.
Anyway, it’s not all comfortable stuff, not the kind of thing you can sit through for too long, but in small doses, it’s a heady experience.
And on Saturday, May 22, he’s showing some of is earlier work– as part of the Inside Out Festival, Toronto’s LGBT film and video festival, and in collaboration with Power Plant and Pleasure Dome — “In Short”, in person.
“Leslie, My Name is Evil”, (Directed by Reginald Harkema), is about a boy, Perry, a born again Christian, who is placed on the jury for the trial of Charles Manson and his female followers, where he has to figure out if his passion for the beautiful, accused murderess Leslie is real, or if he’s being fooled by her seductive ways.
In a crucial early scene, Perry and his girlfriend look through a Chick publications comic book. (Ever seen those weird fundamentalist comic book pamphlets where the ordinary people – led astray by marijuana, sexuality, abortion, devil worship, the Pope, rock and roll – are saved from the pool of fire when they accept Jesus into their heart?)
After Perry sees the comic, Leslie and Perry (played by Canadian actors Kristen Hager and Gregory Smith) find themselves sucked into a meta-world, a dreamy vortex, where the evil forces of Charles Manson fight against the light of God beaming out from the born-again contingent. This little comic book sets the tone for a large part of the movie, a chunk of the plot filtered through a Chick comic motif. All of the cultural extremes of the sixties — moralistic sermons mixed with pop culture, surreal dreams with news footage and newspaper headlines, a fundamentalist view of politics vs the nihilistic evil of Charles Manson’s death cult – are seen by Perry (and the audience) deep inside his head.
At times this movie resembles William Klein’s pop art film Mr Freedom (from 1969), with its bold images. And I loved the psychedelic, rock soundtrack. The thing is, sometimes “Leslie, my name is Evil” — with its highly stylized scenes, scripted dialogue, and intentionally artificial, almost camp acting — feels more like a live play than a movie. It doesn’t always hold together: the movie feels a bit disjointed, and the acting is inconsistent, sometimes realistic and moving, other times just silly.
Lines like: “What kind of pinko commie nonsense is that!” and “Don’t fret Dorothy, God will protect us” were too much for me. (But could this just be the comic book swirling in Perry’s head…?)
This made it harder to sympathize with the main characters, or, especially, to believe that the young women were really mesmerized by a svengali figure like Charles Manson – he just didn’t seem as hypnotic and compelling as he’s supposed to be. But the bold, pop-art feel and the great soundtrack helps the movie hold together its complicated, original take on the Manson Girls.
MacGruber is a new movie based on a repeated 15-second-long skit from Saturday Night Live, where MacGruber, Vickie, and a third person, watch the hero MacGruber fail to defuse a bomb and they all blow up. “MACGRUUU-BER!” In the movie version, (which takes about 5,895 seconds longer to get to the final punchline) he’s known as a ridiculously accomplished hero, and the only one who can defeat Val Kilmer’s villainous character, Dieter von Cunth, from using his nuclear weapon.
Anyway, the plot, such as it is, isn’t very important. Neither are the lines. Just the characters and the premise. The real question is: Can a single, ten-second gag survive an hour and a half long movie? No, it can’t.
So they added a few more jokes, about MacGruber tearing out people’s throats and sticking pieces of celery up his bum. Hyuk, hyuk, hyuk!
Ok I laughed at some of it. And a few parts were really funny (like MacGruber in bed with his girlfriend). It wasn’t exactly boring, just pretty stupid. Like Saturday Night Live has always been. Don’t mess with the proven formula: find a mildly funny premise or punchline, drag that joke out into an eight-minute scene, then repeat it over and over and over again, season after season. That’s Saturday Night Live.
Will Forte as MacGruber, works well with Kristen Wiig as Vickie St Elmo, and Ryan Philippe as the special guest star. If you like SNL, you might just like this movie. But do you really want to watch a whole movie based on a so-so joke?
There’s a particular type of documentary I saw at this year’s Hotdocs (The Canadian International Documentary Festival), that I call a jaw-dropper.
Some movies, well most movies, including most documentaries, are entertaining but forgettable. But a few are really good — informative, telling about a new phenomenon or hot topic. Something you may have heard about, it’s knocking around somewhere in a corner of your brain, but you’ve actually never seen it on TV or in a movie – not with that degree of closeness. The kind of movie that takes a bite out of you, chews you up, and then spits you out again at the end. They leave you with your head shaking or your stomach churning or your brain exploding.
One really shocking movie — “Secrets of the Tribe” (directed by Jose Padilha) left a bitter taste in my mouth about an entire field: anthropology.
The Yanomami are a large group of indigenous people in the Amazon in the area between Brazil and Venezuela. Because they had been virtually without any contact with the outside world (ie European culture) until fairly recently, the anthropologists considered it an ideal case where they could study traditional practices, beliefs, sexuality, war, violence, language… the whole thing. And by getting there before they’ve been changed by so-called civilization, they can record and preserve a culture that might soon disappear. One of the leading anthropologists there, and one who made his reputation on it, is the controversial Napoleon Chagnon, the US-based French academic. Many other anthropologists in the 60’s and 70’s flooded into the region, to see this virgin, untouched civilization. The thing is, anthropologists are people too. And they touched the Yanomami.
This case, and all its ramifications, led to a real split within the anthropological establishment (which was exposed a while back, in an expose by Patrick Tierney). The movie brings the academic warfare to the screen, in all its disgustingness.
The accusations range from ideology, to crimes, to awful unethical practices, to eeeeeeeeeuuuggghh noooo!
Chagnon introduces weapons and technology that villages can use against each other, and gleefully records the casualties of this “warlike” people. It’s all about who kills the most, who gets the most wives, who has the most babies. He advances his theory that biology is what determines culture, a sort of a neo-darwinist take on civilization.
As if controversial theories weren’t enough, the movie turns into a combination documentary and late night episode of TMZ, with sordid talk of one anthropologists taking a teenaged Yanomami girl as a bride and another who slept with teenaged boys. Then it gets even more mind blowing.
It turns out Chagnon was paid by the US government Atomic Energy Commission to collect data on the Yanomami to be used as a control population. Through this data, the US government could compare mutation levels with the people affected by American bomb tests in the Marshall islands (in the South Pacific), or the population that survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And then… there were the measles epidemics spreading through the amazon killing people. In this case, they decide to do something that could save the Yanomami if they get them the vaccine before the infection reached there. But the guides they take with them may be from infected villages. In addition, they were taking secret blood samples from the Yanomami – for research purposes — that had nothing to do with the vaccinations.
Anyway, each scene is more horrific and sick-making than the one before, including the vicious academic infighting and backstabbing going on… yikes!
Secrets of the Tribe is a devastating expose of the entire profession.
Another revealing movie is “Gasland” (directed by Josh Fox). It’s a gut puncher. The idea that all of this environmental destruction is going on all around us… is unbelievable.
I always thought natural gas was the clean one, the good energy. the one that won’t leave huge pits of tar sludge behind it, won’t lead to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico creeping slowly toward the Louisiana coastline wiping out all those birds, all those shrimp. It won’t lead to collapses in the coal mines, it won’t kill everything in site, it’s clean, pure, ozone-friendly. C’mon its “natural gas”, it’s natural gas. It’s like… organic!
Um… it’s not.
Josh Fox lives in a beautiful home in rural Pennsylvania, the home he grew up in, with bubbling brooks and twirting birds, and lush green trees all around. Like most of his neighbours, he gets a letter from energy giant asking him to allow them to poke around for some natural gas below the surface of his land. And for that he’d get a nice juicy cheque! Sounds pretty sweet. But he notices something… unusual going all around his county.
The gas company is using a technique called hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking”. (What the frack is that?) It means they’re drilling down into the ground, then far below, they’re sending horizontal pipes to set off explosions using unknown chemicals, underground, to free the pools of gas.
This is going on all over the place, in maybe 31 states. The problem is that if you set off explosions all over the place, underground, it does release the gas, and that gas interferes with the water supply.
What does that mean in real terms? Josh gets in his car with a handheld camera and starts driving around the country talking to people with those cute little gas pods on their land or nearby. And he keeps finding noxious fumes, disgusting sewage, and a horrible mixing of the gas – and the chemicals used in the fracking — with their water supply. The gas companies say, no! no!, it’s fine, don’t worry, be happy, but the people all show Josh Fox what this means: they turn on their sink, and hold up a lighter to the water – their tap water… is on fire!
Anyway, this is a fun, well made, Michael Moore-style documentary about how the big energy companies are screwing the little guy, and how deregulation has eliminated the safeguards that ensure clean air and clean water.
I would have preferred they weren’t jiggling the camera quite so much – I got a bit carsick watching this movie – but, aside from that, this is a great documentary.
“12th and Delaware” is a unique movie about a topic that’s been talked to death. Abortion. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, (who directed the movie “Jesus Camp”), found an abortion clinic in Florida, that’s at one corner of a street, with an anti-abortion center, a Crisis Pregancy Clinic parked right across the street. The two sides are not friends, to say the least. You get your old ladies screaming at anyone going into the abortion clinic and waving little plastic babies at them. (They have pink ones and brown ones, depending on whom they’re showing them to). They go right up to the closed blind windows and taunt them through glass. The anti-abortion side leaves photos and signs on the grass in front of the abortion clinic to scare people away.
So… big deal, right? I’ve seen all this before. And, actually I didn’t want to see any more about it. But…
These filmmakers take it inside the clinics, both of them, at the same time. So the camera teams have been allowed free access to talk with the people inside the centres on both sides of the street, show them talking to the women, and talk frankly to the camera about what’s going on.
Basically, a lot of the people going into the right-to-life place called a pregnancy crisis clinic think they’re going into an abortion clinic. They’re both at the corner of 12th and Delaware. These pregnancy crisis centres are positioned all across the US, many of them placed in exactly the same way – right across the street from the abortion clinics. The woman in the white coat is not an abortion doctor, she’s an anti-abortion counselor. But she doesn’t tell them that. (A lot of them figure it out eventually.)
It’s almost like a race. There’s a priest – a Stephen Colbert doppelganger – who explains it’s a battle, a battle between darkness and light. Then there are the doctors on the other side of the street who are mainly just pissed off at the crazies: “Why don’t they just leave us alone – we don’t bother them…” They peek through their venetian blinds and look at the security cameras to see if the protesters are getting close enough to the clinic that they can call the cops on them. The doctors literally have to disguise themselves as they drive into the clinic. There’s even a really scary stalker dude following the doctors on the street to track down where they pick up patients.
Amazingly, they get all of this on camera, sharply shot. It’s a real eye-opener. And shot with both sides of the chasm allowed to openly express their views to the camera. Not a topic I’m fond of hearing about, but “12th and Delaware” shows it all in an entirel new way.
Unusual Characters: Documentaries reviewed: And Everything is Going Fine, The Story of Furious Pete, The Canal Street Madam, Inventing Dr Nakamats, Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya
Today I’m going to look at a particular form of documentary that’s at this year’s Hotdocs, and talk about some of the movies screening there.
Right now, and through the weekend, Hotdocs Festival in Toronto is showing over a hundred new documentaries. There are history documentaries, there are social issues, there are global disasters, there are political movements, current affairs, competition, true crime, and personal triumphs. This year, Hotdocs has brought in not just the filmmakers, but a number of documentary subjects themselves – the people the movies are about.
These days, everyone downtown is looking funny at everyone else: is that woman in a movie? I think he’s sort of famous! On Sunday, I chatted with a pair of Teletubbies in Yorkville. Still not sure whether they were there as part of a movie or if they just liked dressing in fuzzy yellow and red costumes. I guess I’ll never know. The festival is full of unusual documentaries with all sorts of unique, off-beat characters. Here are a few I liked.
And Everything is Going Fine
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Spalding Gray was a fantastic storyteller and monologist who used his own life and encounters as the raw materials for his talks. He would sit at a plain wooden desk, with some papers in front of him – stage props, he never looked at them — maybe a glass of water, and just talk to the audience in a brilliant, multifaceted monologue.
His stories were really captivating, hilarious, always surprising, and all about himself. He talked about sex, about his mother’s suicide, about psychiatry, sex, war, travel, more sex, acting, performing, his wife, and death. He committed suicide a few years ago, and Stephen Soderbergh has put together footage from some of his past shows, TV appearances, and interviews. “And Everything is Going Fine”, gives a partial biography of Spalding Gray’s life, told in his own words, by him.
It’s a great collection of his past works, seamlessly stitched together into a single script. My only criticism is that Soderbergh skewed the focus of Spalding Gray’s talks into a sort of a living epitaph, as if his words were a clear prediction of his eventual, inevitable suicide. I don’t think it was predestined at all… it just, sadly, happened. And I hope his narrative won’t be recast in the public memory as the guy who killed himself. But I do recommend this movie, both for people who have seen him, and those who have never heard of him.
The Story of Furious Pete, Directed by George Tsioutsioulis is about Peter Czerwinski, a Canadian competitive eater, who at a much earlier age, was hospitalized for anorexia. So, a guy who used to barely eat at all, is now a buff body-builder who scoops up chunks of food in official competitions and chows down, like a vicious velociraptor, at whatever is put in front of him. Schnitzels, steak, obscenely massive sandwiches, everything, that is, except the legendary Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest in Coney Island. We follow him traveling around North America competing as a pro eater, his hair died red and white to look like the Canadian flag.
As a movie, it’s half fun to watch, half disgusting. The parts about his personal life don’t come through as clearly as the competition scenes, which are truly remarkable examples of high-speed zombie-style gorging. Sometimes the documentary feels borderline infomercial, with that “exciting” pounding sports TV music, and the flashing chrome fonts it uses. I guess that’s to make it look like a sports show. Maybe it is a sports show… And there are lots of product placements and logos for the companies that sponsor him, so the tone is noticeably different from most of the films at hotdocs. But it still kept me interested, and rooting for him to win as he stuffs barbecued ribs into his bulging cheeks. He even appeared live, at the screening, in an impromptu orgy of competitive watermelon gluttony, the latest chapter in the ongoing Story of Furious Pete.
But in 2004, after a year of wiretapping, the FBI holds a major raid, throwing Jeanette, her mom, and her daughter in jail. Three generations in the same profession. The courts close down her livelihood. The people working there go to jail, the well heeled clients split without charge.
This movie shows Jeanette’s gradual change from a rich madam to a politically active sex trade worker, who isn’t ashamed, isn’t afraid, and is willing to stand up for her rights. The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, including consensual paid sex. She says she has now moved from “politricking” to politicking. Though the movie sometimes drifts into reality show-style confessionals, it is a moving, respectful, and fascinating profile of Jeanette’s public persona and her private family life.
“Inventing Dr Nakamats”, directed by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Schroder shows an eccentric Japanese man who holds the patent to over 3000 devices. Dr Nakamatsu has a number of theories he lives by. He keeps track of every meal he eats (one meal a day at 8 pm sharp), to follow the nutrients. He’s driven by efficiency – how many minutes will something take, how much, how many, how long. He has determined that the best new ideas happen underwater, so of course he invents a waterproof pen and paper so he can write an idea down in the swimming pool as soon as he thinks of it. You get to see him sniffing a camera – he believes you can judge a new camera by its smell.
The filmmaker follows him around for a month recording everything leading up to his 80th birthday, when he plans to release his latest invention, a push-up bra. He comes across as egotistical and tyrannical – he castigates a hotel toady for refusing to name a room after him – but his off-beat creativity, combined with prolific scientific brilliance and brazen self-promotion show a unique guy. This movie is a lot of fun.
I have my own encounter with Dr Nakamatsu a few days ago at a lecture. I see him sitting at a table with his wife. I go over to acknowledge his work. He says “Latin America”? I say no, I’m Canadian. He explains. He is heading for the Latin America documentary reception, as am I. How many minutes? he wants to know. I don’t know… 10-15 minutes? OK, he says, let’s go, where’s your car? My car? No I’m taking the subway, right across the street.
Mood change. Dr Nalamatsu dismisses me. They’ll be going without me.
Later, at the party, we meet again. How many minutes did it take me? His method, by taxi, was faster. We are near a tray of tortilla chips and salsa. What is that? he wants to know, ever the nutritional scientist. I explain. But he wants the ingredients. Um corn… Oil? Salt? And that, he says, pointing to the dip. Tomatoes, onions, pepper, spices… pause. Dr Nakamatsu deliberates. Dr Nakamatsu photographs the tray. Then… he nods his approval. Chips and salsa will constitute his once-a-day meal. And in his head, he’s probably inventing a new, better, Japanese taco chip. All’s well with the world.
Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Directed by Eric Liebman and Jonathan Schell.
His name is Desert, but you can call him Dez. Dez lives in Sedona, Arizona with Maya. They hold big spiritual meetings. Baba Dez (who attended the screening) – an old-school surfer-dude-looking guy, with long hair and a yoga physique – is a tantric, polyamorous shaman. Tantric as in tantric yoga, tantric sex; polyamorous meaning he has sex with various women other than his lover; and shamanistic, meaning… well that was never quite clear, but I think it’s about him playing a wooden flute on the side of a hill. Maya dumps him cause he’s too polyamorous for her tastes. He spends most of the movie trying to get her back.
Dez says we all have yin and yang, a lingam and yoni, deep inside of us. And the key is to find the union of your masculine and feminine sides, (not the bullies and the victims, the good masculine and feminine), in order to find inner calm and sexual satisfaction.
He helps one woman find her orgasm by saying “OM” just as she reaches nirvana. He’s a “hands-on” kinda guy…
Dez is frequently nekkid, (as are many of the people in this movie) so you get to see a lot of him. Whatever his tantric beliefs are, at his consciousness raising ashrams Dez is always quick to spot the prettiest women and to try to make contact with them. Dez, Dez, Dez… you dirty dog. We know what you’re all about.
We see him impressing women in Hawaii by showing them a giant, all-natural, lava rock vagina inside a cave (sort of like the Virgin Mary appearing on a tortilla). Aw, Dez…
Then, just when you think nothing will surprise you, in another scene, he’s kneeling beside a woman he’s saying something spiritual to. She’s lying naked on her back, and he’s – wait a minute, is that his…? It appears that Dez has gingerly displayed his junk across her thigh.
Anyway, this is a movie like none you’ve ever seen (hopefully), sort of soft-core tantric porn, but it’s also a really good documentary, and very entertaining. And you know what? The people in the movie all seem happy with what’s going on, so who can argue with that? Even though nothing Dez says makes any sense.
Out of the Picture. Movies Reviewed: Babies, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Hotdocs, The Secret in their Eyes
Writers might put a lot of themselves in their scripts or novels but they rarely intrude into the plot. Directors too. You don’t show up in a movie. So Alfred Hitchcock used to appear for a second or two in most of his movies, as sort of a wink to attentive audiences, but that was his limit. Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, had a tendency for awhile to almost ruin his movies by barging in and taking a role. Usually his terrible over-acting would bring his movies to an abrupt halt, until his scenes are over.
But then there’s documentaries.
With documentaries, every director always makes the big decision – whether to appear in (or narrate) the movie, or to stay out of the picture.
People like Fred Wiseman, (who directed great, disturbing documentaries like Titticut Follies) goes to great lengths to keep himself out of the picture. Then there are filmmakers like Errol Morris (whose "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara", 2003, is playing at Hotdocs) who speak to the person being interviewed, but only speak from behind the camera. Others, like Nick Broomfield, are more likely to appear or speak. In his documentaries on Aileen Wuornos, a sex trade worker on the highways of Florida, and a serial killer, he ended up actually testifying at her trial. So he wasn’t just visible in his documentary, he was part of the documentary.
Then you get a filmmaker’s memoirs. "Tarnation" (2003, directed by Jonathan Caouette), also playing at Hotdocs, uses self-shot footage from the director’s boyhood to illustrate his mother’s decline. Doctors were using repeated shock treatment to "cure" her. Finally, there are documentaries like "Super-Size Me" (2004, Morgan Spurlock) where the filmmaker is the movie. So, each director has to decide where to place themselves on that scale.
Starting today is the annual Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto. It’s a huge festival, with lots of interesting movies – and always a few clunkers too. They always play way more documentaries than anyone can catch, usually going all day until late at night, on 6 or 7 screens at a time.
Tonight — opening night — they’re showing two movies that will be getting wide releases in May and June.
One is Babies. Are Babies going to be the new penguins? This documentary, by French director Thomas Balmes, shows us the first year – and the first word, the first step – of four babies, in Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. It’s very low-key and understated but beautifully looking. You watch the babies down on the floor or the ground, from their level, as they see things for the first time – do they play with it? Eat it? Pet it? Their first interactions with other kids, animals and pets are revelations.
It shows it all, without comment or interference, both the highly supervised, constantly- watched life of the two urban babies, and the much freer – looking rural or nomadic ones.
No narration, no talking heads, virtually no words on the screen at all. It’s not a cutesie 90-second youtube joke, it’s a loving look at learning, discovery, growth. I really liked it.
I also enjoyed Rush, Beyond the Lighted Stage, a look at the young lives, (captured on old videos, home movies and snapshots), and the musical careers of the three members of Rush – Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. It has their fans — the famous metal, rock and pop stars waxing eloquent about Rush’s music and technique — and their die-hard concert fans just loving every minute. I’m not a fan of Rush, never was, never bought a single tune, but I still got off on the soundtrack – it was great — amazing how many songs I knew, without knowing I knew them. (Now – do I have to rethink my hatred of progressive metal?) The scenes in suburban 70’s Toronto, the stage performances in what Geddy Lee refers to as their Robe period, and recent footage of a mammoth concert in Brazil are also priceless.
This year Hot Docs is showcasing many of the films of a personal favourite director of mine, Kim Longinotto, in an outstanding achievement retrospective. Over the past 35 years, she has made a series of personal and intimate portrayals of the marginalized, the hidden, the struggling people outside of the mainstream, people who you normally don’t get to see, but once you do, you want to know more about them. One of the populations she has delved into is the women of Japan. She took the old stereotypes – passive, silent, domestic – and turned them on their head. She filmed Japanese heroines, superstars, aggressive, assertive women, with so-called masculine personalities, working and living in unique environments.
Shinjuku Boys shows the staff of a conversation bar in Kabuki-cho where rich women pay to talk to sympathetic male hosts. But of a certain type: all the male employees are cross-dressing women or female-to-male transsexuals, who live as men. She follows their lives and relationships at work, and at home.
In another film, Gaea, she looks at a league of Japanese, female pro-wrestlers and their fans.
Some documentaries fall into the category of promotion – they’re there to show off a new book, movie, music group – sort of a long TV commercial. Others are there to exploit the people for the titillation of the audience – a movie freak-show. Kim Longinotto avoids both of these traps in her sympathetic, intimate, respectful, and (sometimes awestruck) portrayals of unknown female pioneers living among us.
She takes pains to keep herself off camera.
“El Secreto de Sus Ojos” (The Secret in their Eyes) directed by Juan Jose Campanella, based on the novel with the same name, is an Argentinian suspense/mystery movie that won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It takes place in Buenos Aires.
Benjamin Esposito is retired after a legal career, and decides to write a novel, based on events around a murder that happened decades earlier. As he writes, he thinks back to a particular case of murder, and his circumstances back then.
Esposito, a straight shooter, works in a law office with his alcoholic buddy Sandoval, and his boss, Irene Hastings, a beautiful, upper-class, Ivy-league lawyer. He is forced to take on a grizzly, pro-bono case, about Morales, a newlywed who was raped and killed in her own bedroom. But once he’s on the case, and sees how deeply the death is affecting her widower, he decides to solve the crime and catch the killer.
But he gets caught up in the corrupt world of Peronist government, and experiences a series of disheartening setbacks. At the same time, Irene, whom he is in love with, is engaged to a richer, younger engineer.
As the mystery gets closer to being solved, the tension and suspense level rises, leading to some very unexpected plot twists.
The movie itself was fairly slow-moving, but kept me interested. You follow the characters through softly-lit indoor Buenos Aires, the law offices, the bars, and cafes, and the high-doored bookshelved apartments.
Right in the middle of the movie are a couple of spectacular scenes, including an amazing long shot taken from the air over a stadium, and somehow zooming into a conversation in a huge crowd. It was so technically “wow” compared to the rest of the movie’s pace, it almost seemed out of place. But that’s a backhanded compliment.
The main character, Esposito, has to decide whether to step back and let things happen, to stay out of the picture; or to dive in headfirst to change the outcome in his search for justice.
I’m intentionally trying not to give anything away, because, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the movie depends on the fascinating plot and characters that are revealed as it goes along. It also has great, theatrical acting, (especially Ricardo Darin); a slow start but building dramatically, and… very little violence on the screen.