Thursday, March 06, 2014

True/False 2014: Hindsight is 20/20

Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue in 20,000 Days on Earth

Long careers in the arts--particularly in arts that are thought of as "entertainment"--are hard to string together, so when someone manages to become an elder statesman in such a profession, there usually comes a time to look back and wonder at it all. Career retrospectives are popular entertainments unto themselves. Greatest hits compilations are sometimes a musician's best-selling album. Stadium shows are sometimes singalongs in which music that was once growling and transgressive has become comforting and safe. So few filmmakers make vital cinema into their later years that it's hardly worth it to count the ones who do. Some of them just hang up their hat and take up real estate or some more mundane business. Several films at this year's True/False look back at the lives of aging artists. There's a bitterness in these films, but also some measure of celebration. It can be a heady mix.

Nick Cave in 20,000 Days on Earth

Nick Cave is a punk rock survivor, whose interests have spread well beyond the confines of the music business into fiction and film. To hear him tell it, he's been cannibalizing his life and the lives of those in his orbit for decades now and he's intensely aware of this as a kind of abuse of their trust. 20,000 Days on Earth (2014, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard) is less a documentary than it is a hybrid autobiography. Cave co-wrote the film, though after the fact, after Forsyth and Pollard collected all of their footage. This is one of those films that erases the boundaries between filmmaker and subject matter, so it's inherently untrustworthy. This aspires to transcend the formalized elements of the rock doc, too. It's only intermittently successful at this.

The conceit of this movie is that it follows Cave through a day in his life as he visits, respectively, his therapist, the studio where he's recording his new album, and an archivist handling his documents. In between are meditations on the creative process, on relationships, on memory, on his own biography, on his regrets. Much of this is related in voice over narration that is as carefully constructed as song lyrics. Cave is a writer, after all, and he writes the hell out of this stuff. The best parts of the film are a series of car rides in which Cave has conversations from people from his past: actor Ray Winstone, ex-bandmate Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue. These have a haunted quality to them, as if Cave is exorcising ghosts. Bargeld uses the opportunity to clear the air about his departure from the band, which was apparently abrupt and without explanation. Kylie relates her impressions of Cave as a performer after his reputation preceded him. These scenes are innately cinematic constructions rather than documentary and they tie the film to genres of cinema. The way these scenes are shot recalls contemporary film noir, with a small dollop of horror.

Cave reminds me a good deal of a lot of writers I know. He collects the detritus of civilization and it forms the decor of his work spaces. He keeps a good deal of himself private, so in this respect this film is highly suspect. The point of view of his wife is absent, so we have no idea of what it's like to live with someone who is mining his intimate partnership for his art. I think Cave comes alive as an artist not when he's relating his point of view on the soundtrack, but rather when he's shown working in the studio. In one scene, his collaborator, Warren Ellis, tells him that he sounds like Lionel Ritchie, prompting him to start riffing on the name. It's a playful scene from an artist whose public persona is generally grim.

The structures this film uses to tell its story are clever. The scenes with the psychiatrist and archivists are unscripted, it seems, but they never the less serve a familiar function: filling in back story. The visit to the archivist lets the filmmakers insert archival material without seeming like they're inserting archival material. In spite of these dodges, the film still persists in assembling itself along the lines of a more conventional rock doc, where you get the early days and the photos from the artist's youth and finally the big concert at the end. Cave's big concert at the end takes place at the Sydney Opera House, so it gets points for grandiosity, too. I think if the aim was to subvert or avoid the tropes of the rock doc, this film fails. But that doesn't mean it's not interesting as cinema.

The filmmakers come to the director's chair from the art world and there's a keen visual sense throughout the film. I like how it occasionally focuses on objects in extreme close-up, which takes the edge of the essential vanity of the film. Even though I'm looking askance at the scenes with the archivist, the series of photographs from an early concert in which one of the Bad Seeds takes a piss on stage is hilarious. This is a film with gorgeous visual textures and a feel for unconventional images.  Even if it's more conventional a film than it aspires to be, it's never less than pleasurable to watch.

Alejandro Jodorowsky in Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013, directed by Frank Pavich) is another kind of backward gaze, one suffused with disappointment, anger, and regret. It's a chronicle of one of the great unmade movies, a version of Dune mounted, as the title of the film tells you, by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the visionary/lunatic director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky spent two years trying to mount his production. If he had managed to pull it off, he would have beat Star Wars to theaters by a year. Who knows how that would have affected the cinematic landscape? Even as an unmade movie, Jodorowsky's version of Dune acts like a rogue quantum black hole, passing through the solar system and disrupting the tidy orbits of the planets.

The story goes something like this: After the success (in Europe, anyway) of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky's producer, Michel Seydoux, asked him what he wanted to do next. Jodo immediately said, "Dune," in spite of never having read the book. They duly optioned the property and began assembling a team of collaborators, which Jodorowsky thought of as "spiritual warriors." Jodorowsky envisioned the film as a mind-altering experience, planning to ramp up the spiritual elements already present in the book itself. Jodorowsky was one of the first directors to recognize the talent lurking in science fiction art and comic book art, and among the artists he recruited to design his film were painters Chris Foss and H. R. Giger and the great comic book artist, Moebius. Jodorowsky intended to recruit Douglas Trumbull to do his special effects, but found the man too demanding and too much of a technician. He wanted "warriors." Instead, he hired Dan O'Bannon on the strength of his work on Dark Star. While constructing the entire film with production art and Moebius's storyboards, Jodo also went about recruiting on-screen talent, including David Carradine, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali.

The main pleasure of the film is listening to Jodorowsky describe how he seduced each of his collaborators in turn. Most of these stories are hilarious. O'Bannon--speaking in archival recordings--describes how Jodorowsky seduced him with powerful marijuana that caused him to hallucinate at the director's will, while Welles had no interest in the film until Jodorowsky hired Welles's favorite chef to cater the production. Jodorowsky is a hell of a raconteur, so it's not hard to envision him enscorcelling his talent. Most of the film consists of the director talking to the camera, with occasional input from his surviving collaborators and admirers. The connective tissue is provided by animated recreations of Moebius's storyboards and production art by Foss and Giger. At the end of its development, Dune was ready for cameras. It only wanted for money and a studio with faith in it. None stepped forward, alas.

H. R. Giger's Harkonnen art for Jodorowsky's Dune

As a film, Jodorowsky's Dune is not particularly adventurous--it's certainly not the film that Jodorowsky himself might have made, but then, what is? It manages to tell its story, though, and it makes a concise argument for the influence of this non-film that was never made by comparing the stuff in Jorodorowsky's big book of Dune to what wound up in other films afterward. Dune's influence on Alien should be obvious, given that Ridley Scott was one of Jodorowsky's successors on Dune. Scott had the wit to hire O'Bannon, Foss, Moebius, and Giger for his own film. He knew a good thing when he saw it.

You can see the bitterness in Jodorowsky when it comes to Dune. The shadow of Star Wars hangs over this film--Gary Kurtz, Star Wars' producer, is an onscreen interview in this film. The director is on record as blaming Star Wars for the failure of Dune. The gulf between the budgets of Dune and Star Wars is at least partly to blame for this. Indeed, the film's funniest scene comes from Jodorowsky's horror at David Lynch inheriting the project. "He can do it!" Jodorowsky says, a fact that depresses him. His gleeful schadenfreude at the artistic mess that Lynch put on the screen is hilarious.

I'm not really sure what to take away from this film. It's a lament for a lost film, sure, but it's also an indictment of the film industry and a portrait of its inherent myopia. It's a testament to how careers can be derailed, though in Jodorowsky's defense, he went on to make Santa Sangre and numerous graphic novels that feed off the pre-production work done by his "spiritual warriors." So his creative life didn't end, really. But it was another twenty-three years after Santa Sangre before Jodorowsky directed another film and as far as I know, it still doesn't have a distributor. I'll be interested to see if this prompts some enterprising mogul to buy the rights.

Looking back with regret is at the heart of A Thousand Suns (2013, directed by Mati Diop), which is possibly the most beautiful film I saw at this year's festival. A Thousand Suns catches up with Magaye Niang, who once starred in Touki Bouki, one of the seminal films in the flowering of African cinema during the 1970s. Niang makes his living as a cowherd these days, though he still thinks of himself as an important man, especially after a screening of Touki Bouki in an open-air cinema in the middle of Dakar where he's lionized by local film fans. His wife is having none of it, of course, because she sees Niang as a Peter Pan. He never grew up.

The second half of the film finds Niang's perception of reality merging with his memory of Touki Bouki. It slips, unannounced, out of the realm of documentary or even docu-drama and into a fantasy where Niang's lover from the film is in Alaska now. Niang dreams of meeting her again on a snowbound landscape where she comes to him as she was in the film, naked and willing. Like Nick Cave's passengers, this is a vision of a ghost. This film dissolves into a haunted meditation of love and loss. It's a lovely, sad film.

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