Monday, January 29, 2007

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism * Dusan Makavejev * 1971

This film is somewhat of a collage, defying category. Makavejev weaves together various elements, consisting of a documentary about psychoanalyst and founder of orgone energy Wilhelm Reich, a narrative film about two Yugoslavian women and their love affairs, one of whom courts a Russian ice skater who, after achieving his first massive orgasm, beheads her with the blade of his skate, a Soviet propaganda film about Stalin, and various shots of transvestites, protesters, artists and other 1970s New York weirdos. (The latter footage includes Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs marching around masturbating a toy rifle and artist Nancy Godfrey creating a cast of Screw magazine editor Jim Buckley’s erect penis.)

Prior to the screening of this film, I was entirely unfamiliar with both Reich and orgone energy, which, onscreen, involves people lying with their backs arched, hips gyrating, moaning and screaming out, “No, no, no!” or the occasional “Mama!”—in one scene, a whole room full of people engaging in such activities appears especially bizarre. Reich coined the term in reference to a “universal life energy” with healing and sexual powers that he claimed to have discovered in the 1930s. Unfortunately for him, his theories were wholly rejected by American psychologists, his books burned by the FDA.

The film’s underlying theme seems to explore the relationship between Communist and sexual politics, that if everyone were able or willing to release their orgone energy, much of the world’s political problems would be cured. However, this is a somewhat loosely laid out argument, the various components of the film not forming a clear-cut whole, but rather an insane hodgepodge. I was more engaged by the first half hour or so, when it appeared to simply be a straight documentary about Wilhelm Reich. Not to say that I disliked the rest of it, though I can’t say I’m certain as to what to make of it. The film was originally rated X, though I’d disagree with that evaluation—there are a number of sexually explicit scenes, but it isn’t exactly pornography. This did not, however, stop the middle-aged couple seated next to me from leaving in a huff mid-screening. Really, what did they think they were getting themselves into?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Movies watched, week of January 21-27, 2006

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney, 2002
Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, 2006
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, Dusan Makavejev, 1971

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Movies watched, week of January 14-20, 2007

The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro, 2006
The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir, 1939
City of Lost Children, Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995
An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim, 2006
Muppets Take Manhattan, Frank Oz, 1984

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hospital * Frederick Wiseman * 1970

Frederick Wiseman’s vast body of work spans three decades, an important compiling of documents concerning various American institutions—high schools, the army, hospitals, welfare, and so on—which, unfortunately, has rarely been seen by the public, as Wiseman’s documentaries are only available through his distributor, Zipporah Films. Thus, one has to be lucky enough to chance upon a PBS or film society screening in order to see them, as I did.

Wiseman’s 1970 film, Hospital, depicts a cross-sampling of the daily activities of the Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan. While each vignette is depressing in its own way, it doesn’t appear that the predicaments in which the patients find themselves have resulted from neglect on behalf of the individual hospital staff members, who, for the most part, seem to genuinely want to help the patients but are restricted by greater sociological and institutional factors. A doctor voices his official complaint concerning a woman who was improperly transferred from another hospital, her life put in jeopardy, which he has apparently done many times, though no improvement has been achieved. A group of nurses try to determine what to do about the baby who fell 15 feet out a window because no one was watching him, the matter further complicated by his family’s refusal to pick him up (one particularly concerned nurse wants to put him up for the night, while an older nurse whispers “you don’t want to get involved in something like this.”) A doctor struggles to convince a man who has sustained a head injury to receive further medical care, but he won’t listen to reason because there is no one at home to take care of his children. It’s clearly the system that’s at fault, i.e. inadequate health insurance, not enough available beds, a lack of communication, and all the other bureaucratic bullshit that is endemic to such institutions.

Wiseman takes a naturalistic approach to filmmaking, often referred to as “cinema verite,” avoiding the flashy accoutrements that other documentarians fall prone to. There is no voiceover narration, no music, just a string of scenes edited together to portray the scope of activities occurring inside a hospital—“pure voyeurism,” as it is described in The Boston Phoenix. This style is what I especially liked about the film; the jokes, and tragedies, come through in the editing.

Wiseman masterfully edits his films, weaving together a narrative, a story, out of the hours of footage that has been shot. In Hospital, there is a dramatic structure, though perhaps not a conventional one; there is no distinct rising action, denouement, or conclusion, and the only suspense occurs within each individual scene. The film ends with a shot of the hospital itself, slowly panning out to the highway running by it; we've been introduced to a small sampling of the characters within it, and now here is the main character, in a way a living organism in itself.

For me, the film's most memorable scene involves the young man who took a pill from some guy in the park and is given ipecac in an attempt to purge it from his system. He incessantly moans, “I don’t wanna die,” even as the doctor repeatedly assures him that he'll be fine, abruptly sitting up in bed and uttering phrases like, “I just feel so lost.” He eventually pukes up more than you'd imagine could fit in his stomach, very theatrically and exaggeratedly, spewing it all over the place. He then remarks that perhaps he should move back in with his parents in Minnesota, because he's studying art in New York but "you can't do anything with art." This scene generated a significant amount of laughter from the audience, though I found myself feeling a little guilty in doing so. But his look of intense confusion, his ridiculous actions, coupled with the doctor's patient yet deadpan demeanor“Nurse, give me 10 ccs of ipecac…better make it 20”are too amusing not to provoke such a reaction. Yet it somehow feels unsettling that we’re made to laugh at him, as, though his situation is not life-threatening, it’s probably a terrifying experience.

Many of Wiseman's films raise such ethical questions: is it acceptable to film people in these intimate situations? Are they in the right frame of mind to give consent? Are they pressured to give consent? I'm not sure that I can supply a definitive answer. In a 1998 interview in The Boston Phoenix, Wiseman stated, in reference to his interviewing style, "I try to be friendly, and I hope that I am friendly, but not phony. I try not to convey the impression that we are going to be friends for a long period of time."

One can speculate that the participants don't really understand what they are agreeing to, or that such films are exploitative. But (with noted exceptions) while their vulnerabilities are aired for generations of strangers, this documentation enables us to feel compassion for them, making us aware of a set of difficulties and struggles we might never have considered. On the whole, Wiseman's films supply an essential record of a largely overlooked history.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Movies watched, week of January 7-13, 2007

Hospital, Frederick Wiseman, 1970
Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, 1994

Monday, January 08, 2007

Movies watched, week of December 31, 2006-January 6, 2007

Rififi, Jules Dassin, 1955
Paper Clips, Elliot Berlin, 2004
Sir Drone, Raymond Pettibon, 1989
Big Deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli, 1958
Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, Kate Fix and Jason Summers, 2004

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sir Drone * Raymond Pettibon * 1989

In 1989, artist Raymond Pettibon shot four movies on home video equipment: Citizen Tania, Weatherman ‘69, The Book of Manson, and Sir Drone, a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of two nascent punk rockers in late 70s L.A. as they struggle to not be posers.

The quality of these films is cheap and low-grade, akin to that of the home movies my parents shot of my brother and me when we were kids. Sir Drone was filmed in two days, all the dialogue read from cue cards—which isn’t too surprising considering the quality of the acting. The cuts are particularly amusing, completely lacking in subtlety. In the middle of a scene, the sound will suddenly increase in volume, the lighting slightly altered—clearly somebody blew a line or started laughing and they had to stop taping for a second. Not to say that any of this is bad, as I often champion such DIY endeavors, preferring raw, “lo-fi” aesthetics to slick production. Moreover, this style complements the subject matter well, particularly in Sir Drone.

Duane and Jinx—played by Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, and artist and one-time member of Destroy All Monsters Mike Kelley, respectively—desperately want to start a punk band. They sit on the floor of their sparsely decorated apartment playing inept, discordant noise not unlike that of early Half Japanese (I have to hand it to them—it’s not easy to fake such musical incompetence, as the two actors are actually talented musicians). Jinx in particular doesn’t know how to play “real” chords, making them up instead, which never ceases to infuriate Duane, whose ideas of what a punk band should look and sound like are quite rigid. Jinx, while na├»ve and insecure and thus all too willing to follow Duane in his quest to embody this strict punk rock image, seems like the visionary of the two.

Duane is particularly concerned about Jinx’s long hippie hair, and is always running after him with a pair of scissors, tauntingly cutting the air. At one point he claims that Jinx won’t cut his hair because “his hippie mom won’t let him,” to which Jinx whines, “that’s not true!”, their banter akin to that of children squabbling. It is revealed, however, that not too long ago Duane was a hippie as well and is now embarrassed, urgently trying to cover up this fact. While waiting outside a Dils show, for example, he complains that they’re checking IDs; though he’s over 21, he doesn’t want to take his out because in the photo he has “hair down to here.”

The film, one might say, is about posers desperately trying not to be posers. In one scene Duane randomly yells out his window, “Hey, you poser!” When Jinx asks who he’s yelling at, his response is “Just some poser.” He then grabs a radio and holds it out the window, claiming he’s going to throw it at a hippie, but can’t bring himself to do it. He wants to act outrageous but doesn’t have the guts.

At a show, they run into Duane’s cousin, Vince. (“I’m not Vince anymore, Duane. Call me Gun.” “I’ll call you an asshole before I call you Gun.”) Apparently Vince is a punk now, and they invite him back to their apartment and later to sing in their band. Now all they need is a drummer to complete their quartet, so they audition various people who seem wholly unimpressed. When the particularly arrogant Bizz attempts to play along with the other three, he scoffs at Jinx’s guitar playing: “Man, my sister can play better than that!”

Things really start to go downhill when Jinx brings home a girl named Goo* and Duane gets a little jealous, tension heightening in the household. Jinx quits the band several times, despite the fact that he’s still playing music with them.

The auspicious moment arrives when Vomit, played by Raymond Pettibon, shows up looking for Bizz, and mentions that he has an open time slot at a gig he’s setting up. A drawn-out “harrowing” scene follows—I won’t ruin this part but it involves scissors.

The film ends on a cheerful note, the band playing as a four-piece with Goo on drums, the final shot a hand-drawn Pettibon flyer for an X/Germs/Dils/Punktones/Sir Drone show.

While the characters can be gratingly annoying, they’re also strangely endearing. The dialogue is brilliant and at times hilarious, my favorite line occurring when Vince holds up some Peter Frampton records and asks who they belong to. Duane, mortified, says, “all that shit belongs to Jinx,” who replies, “I play ‘em at 78, man!” Another great moment comes when the band is trying to come up with a name. The rejected suggestions include Neutron Bomb, The Glue Snifters, Acne Condom (“I like that one, but not for our band”), Gigantor in Bondage, Chairman of the Bored, The Men From Punkle, Revoltin’ Travolta, Summer Picnic Nightmare, and The Jacket Offs, among others.

On the surface, the film appears to be making fun of punks, though I think the theme is a little more complex than that. Like anything of its kind, the punk scene spawned more than a few Johnny-come-latelys who turned it into a parody of itself, and perhaps Pettibon was trying to portray these negative aspects. Or maybe he just wanted to tell the story of two young, insecure, awkward kids who want so badly to be punks that they forget to be themselves.

* I wonder if Goo is named for the Sonic Youth song “My Friend Goo,” the title character a girl who plays the drums and “looks through her hair like she doesn’t care.” The fact that Raymond Pettibon drew the cover art for Goo seems to reinforce this theory, though I can’t be certain.