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.