Thursday, July 15, 2010

Louie Psihoyos - The Cove (2009)

It took me some time to get around to watching this widely-hailed documentary, because I thought the scenes showing dolphin slaughter would be awful – and they were. Despite, or because of, this shocking footage, this is a work which deserves the plaudits which were heaped on it. The story begins with Ric O’Barry, a fascinating character whose relationship with dolphins began in the 1960s when he was the trainer for the dolphins who performed in Flipper. His moment of revelation came soon after the filming finished, when the dolphins were returned to aquariums where, like any creature in captivity, they were deeply unhappy – to the point that one committed suicide by choosing to stop breathing in his arms. The day afterwards, he was arrested for trying to free a dolphin.

But apart from the biography of a man who feels responsible for the dolphin mania which has resulted in the widespread capturing and use of dolphins for human amusement, and the concomitant deaths of captive or unwanted dolphins, this is a taut documentary in which the tension continually ratchets up, as the participants head to the Japanese town of Taiji and the secret cove of the title, a highly-secured zone forbidden to all but the local fishermen, where the slaughter of dolphins captured by batteries of sound (in another memorable moment, O’Barry says that he hears the banging of the metal poles in his dreams) is carried out. Using hi-tech equipment (from military-grade thermal goggles to cameras disguised as rocks) and low cunning, in constant danger from the local fishermen and the Japanese authorities, the team finally manage to film the slaughter in order to bring it to the attention of the world.

The slaughter of dolphins per se is not the only issue which this film explores – paths which lead away from this locus include fisheries and overfishing, mercury poisoning as a result of water pollution and public policy, dolphin awareness and questions of animal consciousness, whaling as an activity, and Japanese history and the relationship to the West, questions of tradition and ethics, and the cynical plutocracy of international influence. In opening out into such a broad spectrum, the film reminded me of another excellent documentary dealing with marine life – Sharkwater. Some accusations of racism or cultural prejudice toward the Japanese have been made toward the film, and there is perhaps an implication of enlightened Westerners journeying into the dangerous Orient in order to mitigate their barbaric practices, but on the balance I would say this charge is unwarranted – as the work itself demonstrates, most Japanese people are unaware of the slaughter and the dietary danger that it poses to them themselves.

Having said that, I was disappointed that in all of these complexities the question – which is raised by a Japanese advocate of dolphin slaughter – of why these Westerners find it acceptable to kill cows, but not dolphins, is not addressed. It may be the emotional attachment that Westerners have to dolphins as smart and cute animals (premised on Flipper and its inheritance) which make us want to keep dolphins in captivity, but it is these same traits which allow outrage over dolphin slaughter in non-Western countries while our own practices remain unexamined (I’m sure that footage of an industrial slaughterhouse would be equally disturbing and difficult to capture – though it is out there to some extent in works such as Meet Your Meat). I would suggest that, in order to get to the bottom of the relationship between humans and dolphins, so dysfunctional not only for dolphins but also for humans, a broader critique is needed of human relationships with non-human animals and ‘the animal’ more generally.

Nonetheless, this is a well-made, shocking and compelling documentary, one which is only now being screened in Japan itself, and one which makes up part of an increasing movement drawing attention to animal issues (we might also think, for example, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely-read Eating Animals) both from ethical and (somewhat more closely related to human self-interest and thus more likely to spur action) from environmental perspectives.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Matteo Garrone - Gomorra (2008)

This sleek and brutal film, like Roberto Saviano’s book on which it is based, is a work of docu-fiction, but it is only a light transposition of the everyday reality for Neapolitans and their ongoing relationship with the Camorra (while the Sicilian Mafia/Cosa Nostra are the best known, they are not the only Italian criminal organisation; others include the aforementioned, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita). The film traces a number of different individuals through their generally tragic trajectories through the poorer echelons of Neapolitan society (though while much of the ‘action on the ground’ happens on the streets, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Camorra and other similar organizations exist at every level, including the highest, of Italian politics and commerce - in this film this is evident for the world of high fashion in particular, though in a way which can also be considered representative).

In this world of scummy, decaying concrete high-rise projects (Italian criminal organizations have a lengthy history with the construction industry, and concrete in particular), the Camorra are so deeply implicated at all levels of society that the attempt to remain disentangled, or worse, to disentangle oneself, may be impossible, except at the price of one’s life (not to mention the lives of one's family and friends). Rampant poverty and the standard social and economic alienation of urban underclasses only contribute to these patterns. While we are fairly familiar with this kind of narrative from films such as City of God or La Haine and television series like The Wire, it remains shocking to see the scabrous underbelly of an affluent European society revealed when the rest of us are more used to the Tuscany of tourist dreams and the Italian self-image as bella gente (although in Italy the social and racial tensions, sense of doomed inevitability, and corruption which permeate the society depicted here are equally apparent, and equally repellent, in politics and the media). The film itself is both violent and viscerally beautiful, a treat for aficionados of post-industrial decay and tawdry glamour, and anyone who has visited Naples will recognize, if not the scenery, the atmosphere greasy with fear, history and opportunity.

Italian criminal organisations in themselves are a fascinating subject – some of the books that I’d recommend on the topic include Peter Robb’s Midnight In Sicily, Toby Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy and John Dickie’s indispensible Cosa Nostra, as well as the moving documentary Excellent Cadavers (based on the book of the same name), telling the story of heroic anti-Mafia judges and martyrs Giovanni Falcone & Paolo Borsellino - and I’m about to embark on David Lane’s Into The Heart of the Mafia – and they are important not only as interesting histories in their own right, but in any attempt to understand contemporary and historical Italy – not to mention all countries of Italian immigration, but in particular the USA and various South American nations.

The representation of the Mafia in documentary and fiction itself is worth considering, with all its connections with dietrologia (‘behind-ology,’ the Italian obsession with conspiracies and ulterior motivations for action, one which is hardly surprising given the history of moments and organizations such as the Calvi case, the P2 ‘shadow government,’ and the murderous intrigues of Rightist and Leftist terrorist groups during the anni di piombo, the ‘years of lead’). This sense of shadowy manipulation from behind the scenes is reflected in the Italian giallo (and, perhaps, deflected in the love for the Manichaean Western) – but there have also been (rare) Italian cultural figures (such as Dario Fo) who have more openly addressed the issue - in particular the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia in works such as Il Giorno della Civetta ('Day of the Owl') and Il Contesto (published in English as 'Equal Danger'), which give a sense of the Borgesian, truth-defying mazes within mazes which are encountered when one delves into this subject. But the semi-fictionalised presentation given here - in the emerging Italian tradition of the Unidentified Narrative Object - is a novelty; one, however, which does not impede the seriousness of the topic at hand (Saviano himself has been subject to serious death threats and has been granted a permanent police escort).

Like the film itself, the present Italian situation can be seen as a tragedy garbed in beautiful raiments - particularly while a corrupt and well-connected Berlusconi continues to prosecute his war against the judiciary, the meaningful Left, and the independent media.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Six-Six-Sixties: the number of the angel?

God Help The Girl - God Help the Girl (2009)
The Magic Theatre - London Town (2010)
The School - Loveless Unbeliever (2010)

While 1960s pop of the kind pioneered by Phil Spector with African American girl groups brought to England’s shores the brash and brassy Lulus, Cilla Blacks and Sandie Shaws, to my mind it was at its finest in the more melancholy fragility of a (vastly underrated) Twinkle or a Marianne Faithfull. But this isn’t to say that these two tendencies can’t be profitably combined.

I’ve recently become enamoured of a number of groups doing just that – the revival of the English brand of sweet orchestral 60s girl-group pop. Revivalism, as I may have written before, is a double-edged sword – on the one hand, I might prefer to listen to something more original (whatever that might be), but, on the other, given that historical material is ultimately limited (even if the quest to unearth entire genres is more than a lifetime’s work), why not enjoy yesterday’s sound today? And if it’s done well, a self-consciousness and quality control can be brought to styles which may have been somewhat lacking in that regard during their heyday – a latterday perfection of the essence of the sound, so to speak.

The first of these is God Help the Girl’s self-titled album, essentially a side-project for Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. But while I’m a big fan of The Boy With The Arab Strap (which itself is deeply indebted to Nick Drake’s 60s masterpiece Bryter Layter), I haven’t been particularly taken with the rest of Belle & Sebastian’s work, or with their performance as a live band. This album, however, while certainly not without its flaws, crystallizes some of my favourite aspects of their work – the gorgeous melodies, sense of vulnerability and a barely perceptible edge of darker melancholy. When I first listened to the album I thought that it was all a little too much the same, with no standouts except the title track (a perfect pop tune which remains by far the finest moment) but the other tracks reveal themselves more gradually as the plot unfurls – the story, which is outlined in the accompanying booklet, is a ‘musical film’ which Murdoch plans to shoot in 2011, though there is no clear narrative arc that I can ascertain. Catherine Ireton’s vocals are gorgeous, smooth but by no means devoid of personality (compare her version of Funny Little Frog to Murdoch’s own from 2006’s The Life Pursuit), and bring a freshness to the music itself – so, while the album suffers from flaws including Murdoch’s tendency to insert himself vocally a little too much into a project which is ostensibly not Belle & Sebastian, as well as a lyrical habit of straying into an irritating faux-naivete which is not always held as well in check as it could be, this is nonetheless a work which is undemanding and pleasurable in the best possible sense.

The concept album theme continues with The Magic Theatre’s London Town, a fascinating album of chamber pop which owes its existence to a strange story of market capitalism, the music industry and the struggling artist. When Ooberman, the previous band of Magic Theatre duo Dan Popplewell & Sophie Churney, failed to sell enough copies to pay their wages, despite support from John Peel and other indie luminaries, the band split up and Popplewell found another way (of the very few remaining) to make a living from music creation: library music. Ultimately, this became a career, and one in which he could explore new musical directions (hence the involvement of the Slovak Radio Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on this album); but at the same time, the pop sensibility began feeding back into his work, until he was writing library pieces which were also backing tracks for the London Town album songs.

From these extraordinary beginnings comes a narrative, according to their website, is “a time-travel love story set in 1968 and 1888, where the young 60s hero falls through a hole in time in The Magic Theatre in the Old Victorian Steam fair, to find his one true love in 1880’s London.” Even if the music is entirely different, I can’t help being reminded of Momus’ awe-inspiring track London 1888 – one which strikes the same lugubrious note as the conclusion of this story (which, however, is by no means so throughout, but rather follows a quartet of seasonal moods). While the band suggest that the sounds are chosen from the 19th century as well as the 60s, it is undoubtedly the second which predominate. Standouts include the hooky opener, Steamroller, and the subdued rush of the title track.

The pick of this endearing litter, however, is without a doubt The School’s addictive and flawlessly realized Loveless Unbeliever. Packed with bittersweet, upbeat 60s-influenced indie pop gems, and without the nagging twee ingenuousness which haunts God Help the Girl, there’s little to say about this album but to praise it. A point of reference might be Saint Etienne’s Good Humor (my personal favourite of SE’s work – and indeed the album is produced by Ian Catt of both SE and the Field Mice), but here we are in more straightforward territory genre-wise, and in a milieu which is much less enamoured of the atmospheric panoramas of American leisure. The lyrics, dealing with themes of love’s vicissitudes, are completely appropriate while never clichéd or unintelligent. Highlights include Let It Slip, Valentine and the 50s-bop Hoping and Praying. As The Essex might say, ‘they’ve got everything.’

All of these albums work with a joy/melancholy musical dynamic which I must confess is one of my favourite registers, and all recapture – or create – a nostalgic 1960s England of kitchen-sink dramas and funfairs, bright skies and sudden showers, one which thus far has existed mainly in the imagination of Morrissey, but which is certainly worth a (re)visit.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sydney Film Festival 2010: In Brief

For me, the unquestionable pick of the festival was:

Raoul Peck – Moloch Tropical
It was, on the one hand, a youthful obsession with voodoo (come on, we've all been there), and, on the other, a passion for Graham Greene's underrated novel of Haiti, The Comedians which first got me interested in Haiti. This film is a fascinating dissection of the final days of a fictional Haitian dictator, an amalgam of the Duvalier authoritarians and latter-day ‘democrats,’ by a director who himself was briefly Minister for Culture under Aristide. In some ways, Downfall can be seen as a predecessor but this is by far the better film, set in a gorgeous mountain eyrie sitting not-so-comfortably above the palace torture chambers, and the slums of the Haitian people. A deeply thought-provoking meditation, both scathing and compassionate, on human weakness, political idealism, gender, race, violence and cruelty, and international politics as theatre and as cynical praxis.

And further, in order of impressiveness:

Sean Byrne - The Loved Ones
Fantastic and original Australian prom-night torture-porn. The horror which is only latently concealed in the ubiquitous pinkificated gender consumerism of the present childhood milieu is made manifest – and you’ll never hear Kasey Chambers’ Not Pretty Enough in quite the same way again.

Sylvain Chomet – The Illusionist
An unexpectedly bittersweet tale from the maker of The Triplets of Belville, based on an unfilmed screenplay by Jacques Tati, with perhaps the most gorgeous animation I’ve ever seen, and a surprising storyline, looking at the travails of a down-at-heel illusionist in the age of vaudeville, which beguiles you into thinking that it’s one kind of narrative before gently twisting into another.

Daniel Monzon – Cell 211
A taut, intense and brutal Spanish prison drama with some nasty twists. Reminiscent of the finest moments of Oz.

Sascha Bader – Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae
A documentary on an unjustly neglected era of Jamaican music, sandwiched between the better-known ska and roots reggae, this film takes as its central premise a rocksteady reunion concert featuring various luminaries of the era, including Dawn Penn, Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Stranger Cole, an irresistible eccentric who serves as narrator. Every fan will have some favourite rocksteady moments which are left out (for me, where is the Techniques’ Queen Majesty?) but overall, a joyful and overdue celebration of an important moment in musical history and in the development of a globally influential Jamaican music scene, placed in the context of a particular moment in the development of historical, political and racial consciousness.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
An interesting failure – the use of Lynchian devices of fantasy weirdness mixed with domestic normality and hints of darkness to tell a tale based on Thai legend, mythology and religion. Particularly impressive was a central set-piece of stills from a repressive future (one wonders whether this was subversive political commentary), but ultimately an unrealised mélange whose triumph at Cannes is inexplicable.

James Rasin – Beautiful Darling
An ultimately tragic homage to Candy Darling – a dark fable of the unfulfilling nature of a life as an artwork and the cruel vagaries of Warhol’s Factory – but as a documentary, this work was itself equally unfulfilling inasmuch as the reason for the fascination Darling seems to have held for her contemporaries is never quite apparent in the film’s material.

Todd Solondz – Life During Wartime
A not-quite-worthy sequel to the stunning Happiness – some fantastic lines and domestic grotesque set pieces, with impressive performances by Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams in particular – but a confection which is ultimately light and unsatisfactory in comparison to its predecessor.

Ben C. Lucas – Wasted On The Young
A high-school film which looks at the timely issue of the dark side of the Australian obsession with sporting heroism and its golden boys, along with the ramifications of a crime reminiscent of the reagic and horrific Leigh Leigh case (later filmed as Blackrock) – but one which, despite some beautiful camerawork and an interesting and innovative incorporation of digital technology (one which the film industry in general ahs been behind the times in adopting) fails to move and descends to the level of troublesome gender politics in a rape-revenge story in which the female remains a fantasy object motivating male action stemming from pure love or pure lust, rather than a complete human being.

Patrick Hughes – Red Hill
A seemingly promising premise – an Australian Western/slasher genre pic set in small-town Victorian high country and starring Ryan Kwanten. But a promise which goes unrealised – despite the heavy-handed race politics twist, a film with a menacing indigenous killer who remains silent throughout? Really? No, really? Can anyone see the problem with that?