Hang on to your crosses,
Just a heads up, folks, for your Monday morning coffee.
Three remarkable documentaries and one long-suffering cat this morning, and I hope it's a good one for you...
* Euthanasia (2006) - Where's Toonces, the Driving Cat when you need him? This sardonic 17-minute short from writer/director Adrian Grenier (of Entourage) isn't for all tastes, or audiences. Two teenage girls (Hannah Mets, Stella Maeve) dash out for a 15-minute joyride, savoring the freedom one of them having just acquired her driving license brings; distracted by futzing about with plugging in their music, the neophyte driver accidentally runs over the family cat -- and thereby hangs (literally) the tale/tail. Paul Mantel's animatronic cat puppetry manages to be realistic enough to be agonizing, cartoony enough to be funny, but cat-lovers will simply flee the theater, especially as the mayhem escalates. And oh, does it ever escalate.
The ditziness of the teens confronting this situation is sadly believable, but rest assured a couple of guys wouldn't have handled it much better (though they'd have likely just backed over the cat to put it out of its misery). The Official I Hate Cats Book indulged similar sadism for laughs, but thanks to Skip Morrow's cartooning skills there was a comfortable distance kept from the implicit sadism; a similar subject rendered this naturalistically is a tough act for some to stomach. Sick puppy that I am, I laughed, though. Four times. Score, Adrian!
* Iraq in Fragments (2006) - This didn't win the Academy Award it was nominated for (it was Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth's evening in the documentary field), but don't let that sway you for a moment. James Longley's intimate, three-part portrait of the current situation in Iraq lives up to its title, as we spend time with Sunni, Shiite and Kurd individuals, each in their own corner of their war-torn country. The view, however, is from the ground, sans polemics other than those manifest on the streets, in garages, in the city centers and mosques.
The first and third chapters are from the perspectives of children: a barely-literate Baghdad 11-year-old boy repeating 1st Grade for the fourth year in a row, fatherless (his father was imprisoned under Saddam's regime and disappeared) and under the casually brutal dominion of an employer the boy speaks highly of, but who berates and humiliates the lad; the final chapter focuses on the handsome son of an elder Kurdish shepherd and farmer intent on his studies, but the teenager is soon resigned to working as needed so that his father (who supports the US intervention, as it has improved the Kurds lot) doesn't have to -- and on the boy's best friend, who works in the nearby brick kiln. The second, central chapter presents a disorienting & harrowing snapshot of the southern Shiite region, rallying for elections even as devout Sadr followers enforce repressive Islamic law at gunpoint, seizing, blindfolding and imprisoning 'outlaws.'
Amid the turmoil, Longley captures glimpses of the Iraqi view of America, via street conversations, TV reports overheard in cafes, and the occasional onscreen conversation. "They took out Saddam, but brought in 100 new Saddams!" one man exclaims; the Kurdish farmer content to live out his remaining years praying in mosques notes, in a despairing but accurate parable, that "God is on the side of the winner," whoever or whatever that may be. Longley's meditative, poetic exploration of post-2003 Iraq through the faces, plight and eyes of its people is inherently fragmented, but the often breathtaking collision of an unexpected intimacy with the breadth of its scope cannot be overstated. A quiet intensity builds, rises, and never subsides, despite the relative placidity of the third chapter. The smoke from the brick kiln fires evoking those of the first chapter's burning buildings and ruins: the storm, it seems, will never end. Necessary viewing.
* Manhattan, Kansas (2006) - Filmmaker Tara Wray returns to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas for a cautious reunion with her mother -- and with a personal agenda. I think this is an excellent film, and emblematic of its current breed of documentary-as-self-therapy, and hence significant.
We're clearly amid a generational shift in documentaries, and thus far this kind of introspective, exploratory work has been reserved for only those with some measure of celebrity on either end of the generational lens: non-celebrity offspring dissecting relations with celebrity parent(s), or vice-versa (most often the former). Tara Wray has neither in her court, only her reckless, fearless determination to reunite and confront the troubled relationship with her estranged mother using the camera as her shield and her sword. Thus, the implicit compact with the audience most documentaries rely upon -- the illusory 'cloak of invisibility' the camera indulges, a voyeuristic window and scalpel -- is inherently denied: Tara makes it clear onscreen, in monologue to the viewer and dialogue with a therapist, what she is doing, why, and what she hopes to accomplish. The resulting intrusive intimacy essential to the whole of Manhattan, Kansas therefore serves a very different function from that usually reserved for documentaries: unlike, say, Ed Pincus's seminal Diaries (arguably, the wellspring of this entire genre), Tara is not so much observing her own life and that of her family as willfully using the camera as mediator, where no human mediation would likely function. Unlike An American Family (the second wellspring, the PBS docu-series about the Loud family that opened this can of worms for the masses), there's no pretense of clinical distance or objectivity; and unlike almost all others of its current breed (e.g., Tarnation, Tell Them Who You Are, Hand of God, 51 Birch Street, etc.), Tara is not trying to uncover or probe any secret aspect of her life or that of her mother. She's seeking to reconcile the visible, remembered life with her mother, seeking some common ground as an adult for the raw, loose ends of a difficult childhood and teenage relationship.
Unexpectedly, the path she sets upon proves to have a cumulative, positive impact for both Tara and her mother -- thus, the creative impetus that fueled this project, and Tara's unflinching decision to act upon that impetus and persevere, resulted in real, visible change in their lives, together and apart. This refutes the illusory passivity of the camera most documentaries are still dependent upon fostering. Could anyone but an amateur, working on her first film, have accomplished this?
The final edit crystallizes this process beautifully, retaining the key moments captured amid the days worth of footage shot (the visit to the geographic center of North America among them, though we don't realize that until the final act). If I had any doubts about the quality of this effort, the introspective passage in which Tara picks her way through the ruins of an abandoned high school gym while sorting out her own intentions put my fears to rest -- but not my ongoing dis-ease with the nature of the film itself. The discomfort this arouses is essential to the process as well as the intent and content of the film, though that unease may be too great for some.
These documentaries continue to revolve around seeing/showing/sharing that which we feel should not be seen/shown/shared, emotional terrain between estranged mother/daughter or son/father that formerly were privileged, private. There's no resolving this conundrum: at its best and its worst (e.g., reality television), the genre thrives upon, and is indeed built upon, transgressive intrusion into, and revelation of, that very real, personal space. If filmmaker and subject/parent invite, permit or tolerate the intrusion, what are we to do as viewers? Indulge, explore or retreat? The choice is as personal as the films.
This is an ideal companion feature to Shot in the Dark and 51 Birch Street, particularly Adrian Grenier's Shot in the Dark (see following review). They are perfect compliments, in terms of gender (mother/daughter, father/son), dynamic (present parent/absent parent), and filmmaker orientation (non-celebrity/celebrity), and both are first features, by young filmmakers based in NYC exploring their roots in mid-America with parents who'd embraced alternative lifestyles in the '70s -- there's much rich material to be explored here.
* Shot in the Dark (2002) - A pleasant surprise, indeed, and a neat piece of work all around. Director & actor Adrian Grenier and his pal Jon Mol construct this documentary around Adrian's search for his absent father, John, who he hasn't seen in 18 years. As they drive closer to the planned birthday reunion, intercut with interviews with Adrian's mother, family and circle of friends, questions over who his biological father might really be emerge, along with exploration of who his 'real' father was (Boris, who raised him with Adrian's mother, aggressively posits himself in that role), and what father/son relations can be, should be, and too often are.
What emerges also functions as concise autobiography, biography and a semi-parody of its genre (given the clever double coda, "Reunion: Scene One" and "Reunion: Scene Two"). It's all compulsively watchable thanks in part to Grenier's onscreen charisma and celebrity. Jon's candid rapport with Adrian keeps subject and context in perspective: when Adrian (and the film) somewhat romantically muses over the possibility of his having been a "love child" of two briefly 'in-love' hippy parents, Jon candidly says, "maybe it was just -- they met and boned." Maybe so. Nevertheless, the emotional and real-world ripples (entanglements, estrangements, self-exile, etc.) were and are quite real, and Grenier is unabashed about keeping himself, as the flesh-and-blood incarnation of that consequence, center stage. He remains in playful but genuine confrontation mode until he can sort out the reality of his birth and his parents's relationship. He laughs openly at the conceit of the film's concept and title ("...that's all I am -- all I am is a shot in the dark..."), but there is much that is sad and touching here, too, sans pretentions.
This is a fascinating companion piece to Tara Wray's Manhattan, Kansas; together, these offer a pretty remarkable portrait of the current culmination of this vein of autobiographical documentary genre. Both are at times too painfully self-introspective, too intimate; what's compelling, though, is how utterly discomforting either the complete presence (in Manhattan, Kansas) or absence (in Shot in the Dark) of the primary parent is to the now-adult child -- and to the audience/viewer. This is undeniably primal stuff Grenier and Wray are tapping at considerable risk and with considerable courage. There is no comfort zone, and that is clearly characteristic of this genre, and perhaps this generation of filmmakers. The contrast between father and son, mother and daughter relations is compelling, as is the contrast between non-celebrity (Tara) and celebrity (Adrian) in this milieu; one cannot help but wonder, for instance, if the on-camera reconciliation with the once-antagonistic stepmother in Shot in the Dark would have occurred sans Adrian's celebrity. In Manhattan, Kansas, that simply isn't a factor.
But the ever-present factor, of course, is the intrusion of the camera, the filmmaking process, in these streams of life and lives now preserved and shared on video -- and that, I dare say, is the meat of an amazing and increasingly necessary discussion.