Thursday, April 17, 2008

Movies watched, March 9-22, 2008

Story of a Junkie, Lech Kowalski, 1987

Documentary filmmaker Lech Kowalski (of such punk movies as D.O.A. and Hey Is Dee Dee Home) chronicles the day-to-day activities of John Spaceley, a.k.a. Gringo, an eye patch-wearing junkie living on the Lower East Side in the early 80s. Cloaked in perpetual darkness, teeming with graffiti, and populated by junkies, thieves, and freaks, the film accentuates the real Mad Max qualities that New York once possessed (particularly in the scene in which our eye patched hero is skateboarding down a dark, gloom-laden street with a motorcycle gang in tow). In this way, much of it feels less like a documentary than a B-grade Escape from New York.

The film does include straight documentary footage, but much of it falls into murkier territory. One could call it a quasi-documentary, as all of the people portrayed are real “street characters,” as Kowalski describes them in the DVD commentary, filmed in real locations and circumstances—basically, Kowalski would bring these people together, put them in situations that they would often find themselves in anyway, and let the camera roll. It’s authentic, yet not quite—essentially set-up only in that the participants were aware of the camera’s presence. A few scenes were, admittedly, outright stagings—the murder scene, for instance—based on real events that Kowalski witnessed and recreated for the film. Spaceley was never in on this though, so as to capture his true reactions to his surroundings—in the aforementioned murder scene, as soon as the shot is fired Spaceley takes off down the street, genuinely terrified.

As one might imagine considering the subject matter, the film is often disturbingly graphic. One witnesses people shooting up, suffering through withdrawal (with the inevitable profuse vomiting), and flagrantly sharing needles at shooting galleries, a particularly uncomfortable moment knowing that many of these people will later die of AIDS as a result of these activities.

The film is shot in a pre-gentrified Lower East Side and Soho, when they were vastly different from the chic locales they’ve become today. Yet they’re still vaguely recognizable—the funny thing about Manhattan is that despite all the development, how much these neighborhoods have changed in the past 20 years, there are still elements of the past preserved “like a seasoning” (as Luc Sante writes in his essay “My Lost City”), so that if you were to squint you could almost imagine Spaceley hustling on the corner, crouched over a comic book, or uncertainly making his way down the street in his snazzy white boots.

Not a Photograph, Jeffrey Iwanicki, 2006

“What happens when the most influential band you never heard reunites after 19 years?” This documentary about Boston’s legendary Mission of Burma attempts to answer that question, but unfortunately I’m far less interested in what they’re doing now than in what they were doing then. Not that I haven’t appreciated the newfound chance to see one of my favorite bands play—and for a bunch of 40 year olds, they monumentally surpass most of their contemporary competition. (I especially enjoyed their rendition of the Dicks’ “Hate the Police” onstage in Austin. Granted, I’d just seen the newly reunited Dicks play it too, but it was nonetheless cool.) And perhaps that’s the issue: I was there for the reuniting. I wanted the film to show me what I wasn’t there for: the history, the context, the early live footage, and so on. Not a Photograph does allocate a brief chronicling of the band’s beginnings and significant musical legacy, but not in enough detail for me.

Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982

An aging German film star meets a sports writer, who, after a brief affair with the unstable actress, becomes suspicious of her doctor and self-proclaimed “best friend,” believing her to be keeping Voss pumped full of
morphine in order to slowly deplete her assets. The film uncannily captures the look and feel of an old film, despite its being released in 1982, evoking a kind of German Sunset Boulevard.


Minority Report, Steven Spielberg, 2002

While this movie is enjoyable as a suspenseful, futuristic thriller, there’s too much of Steven Spielberg in there to transcend beyond pure entertainment. It’s too slick, and maudlin at times, failing to capture the paranoid, druggy atmosphere of a Philip K. Dick story.


The Elephant Man, David Lynch, 1980

While The Elephant Man is one of David Lynch’s more conventionally plotted films, there are elements of his distinctive style present, such as a slow, nightmarish montage of marching elephants superimposed over women’s faces. This sequence seems to depict the explanation of how the Elephant Man came to be, according to Bytes, the sideshow man: “Consider the fate of this creature's poor mother, struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant.”

The film is more or less faithful to the story of the Elephant Man, though the events of his life are represented somewhat out of order, with perhaps a few embellishments. John Merrick (whose name, apparently, was actually Joseph) suffered not from any elephant attacks, as Bytes would have one believe, but from Proteus syndrome, a disorder that causes skin overgrowth and atypical bone development, often accompanied by massive tumors. In short, he was severely disfigured, the growths on his head so enormous that he could not sleep lying down for fear of breaking his neck (more on this in a moment). Despite his ailment’s being of a physical nature, many presumed him to be mentally deficient as well, perhaps simply because they did not want to imagine the horror of a normal, intelligent man trapped inside such a grotesquely malformed body. (“Pray to God he’s an idiot,” as Dr. Treves says, following Merrick’s first exposure to the medical community.)

Unfortunately, he is far from an idiot. As the film’s quintessential anguished line goes, “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” Beneath the misshapen fa├žade, Merrick is a sensitive, refined, and loving son, with a love of poetry and theater, and a talent for drawing (he builds a cathedral made of cards based on the spire he sees from his window, using his imagination to supply the rest—the card cathedral can be see on display at the Royal London Hospital Museum).

Merrick died at 27 in his sleep when his neck was dislocated, due to the weight of his massive head. Merrick was well aware of the risk he was taking by sleeping on his back, but he did it anyway, his desire to be normal was so intense. (According to Wikipedia, Merrick had expressed the desire to visit a hospital for the blind so he could find a woman who could not see him, who could love him for who he was.) And thus was the plight of the Elephant Man—people tried to abuse him and exploit him, while others wanted to gape at the spectacle of his hideousness, but few truly cared for him.

Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck, 2007

I really can’t figure out what people saw in this “critically acclaimed” movie. I found it to be a rather predictable thriller, plagued by unlistenable Bahston accents, and implementing every silly plot effect (for instance, blocking out sound and then letting it back in for maximum effect) that you’ve seen countless times before. Boring.

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