Thursday, February 28, 2019

True/False 2019 Day One: Moonshots and Provocations

Apollo 11 (2019)

I thought last year's True/False Film Festival was an off year, in spite of crowd-pleasers like Three Identical Strangers and Won't You Be My Neighbor in the line-up. I mean, I had a good time and I saw some really good films, but I've gotten jaded in the last few years. I've been expecting something to knock me on my ass the way something like The Look of Silence or Stories We Tell did, and it hasn't been happening. Those kinds of films are once in a generation films, I suppose. It's entirely possible that I just hit the lows last year and the other films were amazing, but you never know. The first two films I saw at this year's festival are reason enough to think this year will be better. In fact, it's probably already better.

My festival opened with Apollo 11 (2019, directed by Todd Douglas Miller), which is a straightforward retelling of mankind's first moon-landing in 1969. The selling point of this film is that a bunch of its footage has been mined from NASA's vaults and has never been seen by the general public before. If you're keeping track, this was also the selling point of In the Shadow of the Moon, which played this festival twelve years ago. That film, like this one, featured footage shot by the astronauts themselves, but the family resemblance ends there. That film was a slick, polished retrospective of the Apollo missions that relied on conventional documentary practices like interviews with surviving astronauts and expository graphics and so on. This new film is austere by contrast. The closest it comes to a talking head is the contemporaneous news monologues delivered by Walter Cronkite at the time of the mission. Beyond that, it mostly lets the footage do the talking. Given that the Apollo missions were one of the most thoroughly documented undertakings in human history, boiling it down to the bare essentials of its narrative is an impressive accomplishment. This film is hugely entertaining.

It's a mark of how effectively the filmmakers have arranged their various elements--footage not just of the astronauts, but of the crowds gathered to watch the launch, of technicians doing last-minute trouble-shooting of the rocket, of mission control doing their jobs--that it sets a deep narrative hook that by rights shouldn't exist. The outcome of the mission is a matter of historical record, after all. A friend of mine calls this sort of thing "competence porn," and I think there might be something to that. The astronauts themselves are inscrutable in this film, but that's Neil Armstrong all over. The candid shots of the ground crews, however, show a wide range of personalities going about their business in a pressure cooker while the whole world watched. The overall effect is a "you are there" feeling that this is unfolding in real time even though it's eight days compressed into an hour and a half. The persistent use of clocks and countdowns to mark the length of rocket burns and ignition sequences creates a surprising level of suspense.

There are overtones, too, of a halcyon past in which America as an idea of itself was at its very best, that we once dreamt big dreams and went out to make them real, with the fact that America hasn't attempted anything so ambitious in a very long time, preferring to spend its national treasure on wars instead. The footage of Kennedy's challenge to congress, pointedly at the end of the film, is a rebuke to a nation that has long been on course to becoming the Portugal of the 20th Century, first to explore the world, then retreating from that. I know this is naive, that it's a myth, and that America still does things on this scale once in a while. I watched this film a week after weeping over the last message from a robot on Mars going dark, after all.

Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary (2019)

My second film was drastically different from my first. It is my hope that Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary (2019, directed by Ben Berman) retains that title going forward as an extra layer of metacinema in a film that tears down notions that documentaries are a reliable account of reality. If you see the film, you'll understand why the title is apropos.

I hesitate to even describe the plot of this film, because it's something that should blindside the audience for best results. The basic premise of the film is that it follows the last days of comedian/magician John Szeles, one of the hot young turks of magic in the eighties and nineties who deconstructed magic for effect. Think Penn and Teller on meth and you get the idea, or look up his act on YouTube. He played all the shows back in the day. In 2014, he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and given just a year to live. Three years later, still alive, he embarks on a "farewell" tour with the added attraction that he might just die on stage. Documenting this is Ben Berman, who is a central character in his own movie. His relationship with Szeles is complicated, to say the least. After a first act that seems like a conventional celebrity doc, in which personages like Penn Gillette, Carrot Top, Weird Al Yankovich, Criss Angel, and others all testify to The Amazing Jonathan's influence and awesomeness, an obstacle appears in front of the filmmakers and the reality of the film completely jumps the rails. Never to return.

This is as much a film about making a documentary as it is a celebrity biography. The Amazing Jonathan himself provokes the filmmakers in ways that might make Andy Kaufmann envious, until the relationship between the director and the subject itself becomes the subject of the film. Most docs have a relationship between the filmmakers and the subject even if most films leave that fact unstated. This is overtly the subject of this film. The problem with this is that Berman by himself isn't a particularly compelling subject matter and focusing the film on himself is an act of narcissism.

The film is structured like a comedy. It has an antic, almost Monty Python-ish approach to its assembly and the beats of the film's various acts are calculated to elicit laughs or discomfort in equal measure. Certainly, it's the only film I've ever seen where a producer's credit is surgically placed to get a laugh. In spite of this, the film remains a meditation on death throughout. In another film this might be a downer. In this film the gallows humor is background radiation. The ambiguity of the facts on screen tends to undercut this somewhat.

In the Q&A session after the film, Berman confronted one of the questions from the audience with the fact that no one should trust ANY documentary, and especially not this one. He's right, of course, and this particular festival has been interested in films in the liminal spaces between truth and fiction since its founding. It's in the name of the festival, for Pete's sake. But even so, there's still the lingering impression that the audience has been had somehow, that this is a long con. It leaves a sour taste.

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