At the New Zealand International Film Festival, outrage set the tone.
It’s hard to believe that a year has come and gone since the 2009 New Zealand International Film Festival, and that once again I’m attempting to make sense of 17 days of unrestrained cinephilia. It’s also disconcerting to realise that the 2010 festival marked the thirty-first time I committed to two weeks of near-religious devotion to flickering images. Eek! So, where to begin? Why not at the end: which, as it turned out, was all about new beginnings. The late inclusion of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void meant that the single screening of this new film by one of the most wannabe would-be l’enfants terrible du cinéma promised to end the festival on a polarising note. I’m not sure that it did. Most people I spoke to afterwards thought it was silly at best, puerile at worst. Frankly, it’s hard to disagree, but while it probably won’t be included among my top picks this year, Enter the Void wasn’t all bad. The Kubrickesque touches were fun, and despite taking an exceedingly long time to come (no pun intended), the final transcendent moments closed the festival on a note that spoke not only of the inevitable end of all things, but an optimistic, perhaps even naïve anticipation of renewal.
The thing is, if one can get passed the sophomoric excess of Noe’s films, one may find ideas and (dare I say, necessary) provocations worthy of one’s attention. In my view (and I could be wrong), at the heart of Noe’s work (even this thumpingly overemphatic ‘ultimate-trip’) lies the bruised soul of a disillusioned idealist. There is anger and disgust at the core of his films, tempered (only just) by a yearning for purity, honesty, and philosophic hope. It seems to me that Noe aspires to create thought-provoking, genuinely challenging, truthful cinema, even at his most inflammatory. He may not be in the same league as Pasolini, but the spirit is there. However, if the last word of the festival had to go to a provocateur, it’s a shame it didn’t go to Bruno Dumont. His much-anticipated (by me at least) Hadewijch has been a no-show two years in a row. Grr.
Still, we had a fair share of provocation this year, most notably grunge-poet Harmony Korine’s faux-found-footage poke in the eye, Trash Humpers. There were moments when it seemed that Korine was daring viewers to leave—a goodly number obliged. Trash Humpers provoked more walkouts of any film I attended this year. Hopefully those who stayed were meaningfully stirred, although if the comments I overheard are any indication, the style of the film is likely to hold more interest for some than its political or philosophic content, which is a pity given that Trash Humpers is veritably bursting at the seams with socio-political anger and disgust.
In this respect, Korine’s film shares something of the philosophic intent found in the work of Ulrich Seidl, Sharunas Bartas, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, David Lynch, and bad-boy auteurs such as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe. It’s easy to miss (or dismiss) the underlying rage the fuels the work of these filmmakers by accusations of misanthropy or didacticism. The ‘sermonising’ that Haneke is often accused of doesn’t alter the fact that his films are sincere reflections on Western moral paralysis. Trash Humpers is no different, although Korine’s approach is decidedly less rarefied, and a million miles away from Haneke’s ‘glacial reserve’.
There is considerably more seriousness of intent to Trash Humpers than its wilfully slapdash and self-consciously confrontational surfaces suggest. Cinephiles may spot the influence of early Werner Herzog, such as Even Dwarfs Start Small and (especially) the implicit horror of Land of Silence and Darkness, which Korine uses to comment on societal deafness, blindness, and mute apathy. There are echoes of South Park, Beavis and Butthead, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, A Clockwork Orange, the music of The Residents, and the stick-figure animations of Phil Mulloy. Like these, Trash Humpers reflects the pornographic misanthropy of social and economic plunder, and the resulting psychosocial corrosion. Neon crosses advertise business as usual in God’s many and varied hiding places, while the distant hum of long-haul trucks grinding inexorably along the veins of the country provides a low background drone, like an ominous chord sounding from a broken organ in the church of mammon.
It goes without saying that Trash Humpers stands in stark contrast to the specious tropes of mainstream commercial cinema. Where ‘movies’ lull us into reassuring slumber, Korine’s new film attempts to shake us awake. An artist with considerable intelligence and passion, Korine is obviously concerned about the state of the world, firstly and most pertinently as an American disturbed by the expansionist policies and internal despair of his own country, but also as a global citizen coming to terms with unprecedented avarice. Indeed, if one thing characterised the festival for me this year, it was the stunned and incredulous response to the greatest act of larceny the world has known. The global economic crisis (a term that implicates everyone in the financial collapse, thereby justifying the fact that the world’s most vulnerable will again shoulder the burden of the unregulated actions of a relative handful of venal individuals and corporations) was the subject of Charles Ferguson’s exceptional Inside Job. This film set the tone of the festival for me, to the extent that the innocent mention of Lehman Brothers in Frederick Wiseman’s La Dance was enough to send ripples of unintended meaning throughout Wiseman’s film, and nearly every other film in the festival.
Watching Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s insightful documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America (a film about the politicisation of Daniel Ellsberg, a one-time aide to Robert McNamara whose acts of conscience contributed to the end of the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon’s contemptuous presidency), I was reminded that well-chosen documentaries have long been indispensable festival fare. I’ll never forget the impact of Allan Francovich’s On Company Business back in 1981, a dense three-hour exposé on the activities of the CIA that played no small part in shaking me out of my slumber. At that time, one could reasonably expect such films to reappear on television, but such hopes vanished by the late-80s. Today, even with the Internet and the excellent Maori TV, the festival remains an important platform for films that foster awareness, understanding, and engagement with the world. Alas, interest in films with political content seems to have withered. Francovich’s lengthy study attracted a sizeable audience to the Civic 30 years ago, whereas the turnout for Inside Job was curiously thin. Could it be that I was one of the very few Aucklanders who didn’t already know all there is to know about the events that led to the banking collapse? I guess so.
Perhaps people chose not to see the film because they already knew (as I did) that this was yet another documentary about white-collar greed. We all know that when it comes to money, greed goes with the territory. Some of us might even envy those sharp enough to work the system and come out a winner, even if it is tinged with mendacity; haven’t we all bent the truth to serve our own ends once or twice? Even if those guys went too far (we might think to ourselves), the powers-that-be won’t allow the financial system to collapse, will they? Anyway, doesn’t the film clash with that French comedy?
Yes, well, those guys certainly did go too far. Indeed, it was a surprise to discover that the scam involved sums in the region of 600 trillion dollars, a lot when you consider that the global GDP is only 54 trillion. Despite the fact that deregulation of the financial sector is responsible for the meltdown, there are many (some among us) who are still convinced by such ideologies. What’s more, despite the magnitude of the crisis, no one has yet been held accountable, and many of those who sanctioned the scam are now advising Barack Obama—at his request!
In terms of bank robberies, there has never been one quite like it. As the title suggests, the film is in some respects the ultimate heist movie, and like all good post-modern heist movies, the master criminals get away. The layers of collusion, corrupted ethics, and outright conflicts of interest are mapped out with great precision, as are the principles of ‘derivatives’ and ‘credit default swaps’, a system where corporations made huge profits by insuring themselves against the inevitable failure of their own financial products. Inside Job is slickly made, and mercifully free of the irritating Errol Morris style of audience-engagement employed in Collapse. I can’t say whether director Chris Smith succeeded in his intention of getting the audience inside the head of Michael Ruppert, whose ideas and predictions about peak oil and the slippery slope he warns we are on are the basis of his film. Ruppert is such a curious figure it’s hard to tell if Smith is even sympathetic towards him. Did Smith set out to portray Ruppert as a socially estranged blow-hard with conspiracist tendencies? It’s hard to say, and in any event it hardly matters because Ruppert manages to convey his ideas regardless, some of which are hard to argue against. But he is an unsettling presence, and the sense of danger beneath the surface of the man nearly undermines his entire argument. There’s little to recommend Collapse on an aesthetic or formal level, unless you’re studying film as a manipulative medium, although it might make an interesting double bill with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
The same can’t be said about Frederick Wiseman’s masterful La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, although throughout his extraordinary career he has been at the centre of numerous debates about cine-veracity and manipulation. Wiseman is the first to admit that cinema is indeed a manipulative medium, and that filmmaking is essentially a succession of subjective choices that colour and shape the eventual meaning of the final work. He regards his films as ‘elaborations of personal experience’ rather than ‘ideologically objective portraits’, and takes his ethical obligation to the people and events he films seriously, insisting on unstaged and uninfluenced actions (inasmuch as such a thing is possible). Like most of his work, La Danse is resolutely unsentimental. Wiseman carefully retains a necessary and respectful observational detachment from his subject. His rejection of self-reflexivity and preference for distanciation and ‘narrative without story’ has attracted hefty criticism at times, but cinematic trends have caught up with his long-take, anti-interventionist, commentary-free aesthetic. By sticking to his craftsman-like convictions, Wiseman has emerged as key figure in contemporary cinema.
La Danse is not typical of Wiseman’s cinema in that his subject matter usually takes the form of sociological struggles within dysfunctional bureaucracies and institutions, where failure and wasted effort invariably prevail. And yet, La Danse sits perfectly within his oeuvre, except that here the struggle is scaled down to an individual level. The daily struggle between the will and the body can be read as a metaphor that goes beyond the confines of the Paris Ballet and every dancer’s battle against their own physical, emotional, spiritual, and practical limitations. The implication is that every dancer, you and I included, will eventually be betrayed by their body.
Although La Danse is dominated by rehearsals and occasional performances, Wiseman’s camera periodically pokes around various nooks and crannies in and around the Paris Opera building. He visits the costume department, pans across the rooftops of Paris, follows artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre into meetings, observes cleaners, spends time with a beekeeper on the roof, and wanders through the silent bowels of the building where small fish swim about with perfect natural grace. The stint with the beekeeper is more than a snippet of information about other activities in the building. Lefèvre and the beekeeper and have much in common, and the activity in the hive mirrors the effort and industry that goes into creating the cultural honey below. These brief side-glances may not seem to carry much metaphoric value at first, but over the course of the film, they offer a subtle commentary on the interconnectedness of all things.
There’s nothing accidental about the inclusion early in the film of the Jean Cocteau quote, “It’s up to the audience to figure it out”. Wiseman’s visual language has always presupposed the perceptive involvement of the viewer, encouraging reflection, discussion, and the possibility (at least) of action. La Danse effectively questions how arts communities manage to stay afloat in the current climate. As mentioned earlier, when Lehman Brothers were referred to in a scene about corporate sponsorship, a collective scoff sounded throughout the theatre. The irony of arts institutions courting white-collar gangsters in order to survive—offering them privileges in return for relative crumbs (money stolen from people like themselves or their families) while these bastards pursue activities that may yet threaten the Ballet’s existence—was too potent to shrug off. What should have been a wry detail haunted me for the rest of the festival.