Monday, March 04, 2013

True/False 2013, Day Two: Crashing and Burning

One of the difficulties anyone who writes about True/False has is the practice of "Secret Screenings." These are films that, for one reason or another, cannot be publicized. Often, they are contracted to debut at other festivals. Sometimes, they are films that aren't quite ready for prime time for some other reason. Either way, the festival asks that attendees not write about or tweet or discuss these films on social media, and I'll honor that. The Secret Screenings are sometimes a crapshoot, anyway. This is the part of the fest with the highest likelihood of me not liking the movie, and, in truth, that has happened to me at every T/F I've attended where I saw Secret Screenings. I don't feel bad about not being able to write about these movies because contrary to what people often think about film writers, I don't actually enjoy slagging movies. I want the movies I see to be good. I want small films, especially, to succeed. Of course, many of them aren't good and don't succeed. The flip side of the Secret Screenings is when I hit a real gem of a movie. That happens, too, and I'd love to write about these and champion them. This is the dilemma I'm facing this weekend, unfortunately. If I had any brains at all, I'd skip the Secret Screenings all together and focus on movies I can actually write about.

In any event, Friday's viewings were a mixed bag.

The premise of Sleepless Nights (2013, directed by Eliane Raheb), a film about the insufficiency of reconciliations in places like Lebanon, is compelling enough. The main foci of this film are Abbas, a former head of security during the Lebanese civil war who ordered the deaths of countless hundreds of people in the name of far-right Christianist factions (backed, it so happens, by Israel), and Maryam, the mother of a radical son who disappeared in a firefight 27 years earlier. Abass is likely a person who can provide her with clues as to whether her son is living or dead. He is not inclined to give those clues, even as he seeks a kind of public reconciliation. He's a man to whom secrecy is an ingrained habit. How much of his contrition is a desire to be publicly exonerated for the things he's done? He seems eager to work with a truth commission even as he is not forthcoming about any kinds of secrets to which he is privy. Maryam, for her part, rages at it all. Some of the confrontations between the two have an uncomfortable rawness, as the audience is privy to both of them at their lowest. The movie manages to find a measure of closure, in spite of itself, though it's a quiet, unsettling kind of closure.

I'm less sanguine about the form this movie takes. This is a film in which the filmmaker is overt and intrusive. Indeed, director Elaine Raheb is on screen often as a character unto herself, so there's a reflexive nature to this, as if the filmmakers are puncturing the nature of documentary. This process begins in the opening shot, in which Raheb cleans the lens of the camera. This tips her hand early: this is more about how documentaries obscure rather than illuminate, which is fine in and of itself, but some of the filmmaking choices seem inclined to turn the film into an art object. The monologue delivered by Abbas in the middle of an art installation mourning the missing, for instance, and one of the confrontations between Maryam and Abbas in a gallery of photographs of the missing both seem arch and unsubtle. Other parts of the film are impressionistic. Some of this is through practical necessity: some of the people to whom the filmmakers are speaking refused to appear on camera, so the filmmakers compensate with splintered footage that hides the absence. In other places, the film appears to fragment its images for the sake of style. It veers into outright surrealism late, when Abbas is shown acting as a clown during a therapy session. The filmmakers think this is important enough to title this section of the film, "The Clown," but I found it digressive and mannered, a quality that it transfers to the overall film itself. It tends to recast Abass's participation in the reconciliation process as a farce, though that's admittedly the point. These kinds of arty excrescences are an encumbrance on a film that is probably too long.

The film is on firmer ground when it follows Maryam. This material is less stylized and more confrontational. Watching Maryam bristle at the idea that a therapist has any insight into what she needs or how she feels is bracing. Watching her repeatedly demand answers becomes talismanic. The final shot of the movie wisely focuses on Maryam, and communicates her pain without embellishment. This image, more than anything else in the film, drives home the notion that reconciliation without justice is no reconciliation at all.

My favorite films at any given True/False are usually short films. The shorts program I attended on my second day was collectively titled "Boys and their Toys," a collection of films examining masculinity and technology in varying measures.

"Century" (directed by Kevin Jerome Everson) was a big hit among the screening committee. This seven minute film consists of one long take of a wrecking crane destroying a Buick Century, first with the crane claw itself and then with a big metal wrecking disc. This is a kind of apotheosis of the cinema's obsession with crashed cars and it revels in mindless destruction. It's funny.

"I Kill" (directed by David White) starts with the shocking image of a man shooting livestock with a rifle. This is abrupt and shocking right off the bat. The subject of this film is a man whose job it is to put down cows, sheep, and pigs in preparation for butchery. He makes the case for his job, which he believes is nobler and more humane than the methods used in factory farming or, indeed, to end the lives of human beings. The livestock he kills are put down in their own environment, abruptly. It's a hard, hard, bloody film to watch, even if you have a clear eye for whence the meat on your plate comes.

"The Roper" (directed by Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands) follows Domingue Kendrick, an African American rodeo rider as he ropes calves. This film is presents the image of a black man as western hero, and contrasts this with the image of the hip hop stereotype of men from his generation by putting his entourage on horseback. Kendrick is like most high-level athletes: he's dedicated to his sport and has an infectious optimism that is exaggerated by by pairing it with a musical track culled from Spaghetti Westerns. It's a fun short.

"The Near Future" (directed by Sophie Goyette) is a dreamy meditation on life and death from the point of view of a commercial small airplane pilot, whose worldview is informed by his daily acquaintance with the smallness of things depending on one's point of view. A philosophical film that occasionally veers into the very specific nuts and bolts of aviation, which grounds it, if you'll pardon the phrase, in practical reality and makes the film's point of view resonate more than it might have otherwise.

"Oblivion" (directed by Emily Kai Bock) functions as a critique of masculinity through the simple expedient of putting the waifish musician, Grimes, in a series of hypermasculine sports settings, including a locker room, a football stadium, and an extreme motocross event. The ethereal vocals are a striking contrast to the displays of testosterone-fueled pursuits surrounding her.

"The Whistle" (directed by Grzegorz Zariczny) follows a naive Polish football referee at a crisis point in his life. (And by "football," I'm talking about the world's game rather than the American one). He's just getting serious with his girlfriend, and he's getting to a point where he needs to think more seriously about a job, but he spends his days officiating matches among ballers who don't respect him. It's a poignant character sketch, somewhat stolen by our hero's cat. Cats do that, sometimes. They're shameless camera whores.

"Da Vinci" (directed by Yuri Ancarani) looks at modern robotic surgery from a macro point of view, usually inside the patient. This is a startling shift of viewpoints that recasts the surgical documentary as a kind of science fiction. We live in a science fiction world, so it's not out of character with reality. This has a strong sense of the contrast between the biological and the technological, even as its human characters seem to be placed in an autoclave, robots themselves. If Kubrick and Cronenberg had ever chosen to collaborate, the result might look like this.

The Crash Reel (2013, directed by Lucy Walker) is another kind of critique of masculinity. It's a sobering look at extreme sports through the eyes of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who was arguably the best freestyle snowboarder in the world before a horrifying accident on the half-pipe put him into a month-long coma in 2009 and left him with the lingering effects of traumatic brain injury.

This is simultaneously a portrait of hyper-competitive athletes at the highest levels--Pearce was a shoe-in for the Olympics--of dude-bro culture, and of the dark side of sports as a public spectacle. Traumatic brain injury is possibly the issue that will kill sports like the ones that populate the X-Games, to say nothing of the NFL, where an entire class of ex-players is suing the league over their cavalier treatment of concussions.

The saddest part of Pearce's story is that it's not even the most extreme example of a career derailed by brain injury. The film tangentially touches on many other athletes who have suffered such injuries, including a couple who were killed by them. Even snowboarding's poster boy, Shaun White, admits on camera to having suffered at least nine concussions during his career. Will this wreck his life? Possibly. There's no real coming back from the kind of injury Pearce suffered, much to his continuing frustration. This is completely at odds with his almost pathological need to compete. The combination of that inborn competitiveness and the way brain injuries short-circuit impulse control is a recipe for disaster, and the film generates a kind of existential terror when it shows Pearce getting back on the board and trying to compete. He just can't help himself. He can never trust that urge ever again and watching his family deal with his attempts to mount a comeback are heartbreaking. Fortunately, Pearce comes to the realization that he'll never be able to compete at a high level ever again. It takes the fun out of it for him.

The contrast between what happened to Pearce and the footage of crashes from the various extreme sports is damning. The threat of the crash is as much a part of the visual appeal as the amazing feats these athletes attempt. There are surely viewers who, like many fans of NASCAR, are there for the crashes. There's a real sense of bread and circuses here, with the various sports expanding the scope and the risk of their games as time goes on. The film notes that the half-pipe of Kevin's event used to be eight or nine feet tall. These days, it's twenty-two feet tall, so when snowboarders air it out, they are often up to forty feet off the ground. Spectacular, sure. But, man, when that goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong. The main virtue of this film is that it shows the human wreckage that follows away from the slope and away from the camera. It's a necessary dismantling of the spectacle.

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