Review: Casting JonBenet (2017)

Similar in structure and purpose to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet presents the audience a pile of speculation regarding a mystery (in this case the murder of the titular child-pageant queen) to explore the nature of curiosity and psychological projection. Ascher’s approach abstracted his participants into conceptual objects, making them somewhat beyond judgement. Green, on the other hand, chooses to show her interview subjects, often speaking directly to the camera, and that lack of distance makes the condescension inherent in both projects unfortunately visible. It’s tough to watch Casting JonBenet and not feel like Green is begging us to laugh at these actors and their wild theories regarding the murder. In the early going, she edits the film for maximum comic impact and irony, which gives the eery impression that Green is exploiting her well-intentioned participants, rather than the murder itself, for our entertainment.

Fortunately, Green’s film gradually finds empathy for these people, ditching the sense of mockery for one of community. As the theories and personal projections pile up, the emotion takes centre stage. Perhaps this is part of Green’s point; that the human need for understanding is greater than any one foolish attempt. The last 10 minutes almost make up for the missteps, a startlingly powerful culmination of the film’s process, heartbreaking and intellectually satisfying in equal measure. Nevertheless, it’s a bumpy road to get to that rather humanistic finale, and one I don’t feel entirely comfortable condoning.

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Review: Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971)

Shot behind the scenes in high-contrast black and white film stock on the set of Jesus Franco’s Dracula film, Cuadecuc edits the filmmaking process – the funny faces, the tired Franco, the lights and the crew – into its own loose adaptation of the Stoker tale to haunting, provoking results. Director Pere Portabella mimics the look of a lost German silent film, making what could be an entirely humorous exercise – check out the crew spraying cobwebs onto Christopher Lee’s reclining body – into a disconcerting blurring of fiction and reality. Portabella reminds us of the power of storytelling by turning the process into the product, the performance into the truth.

When we are finally allowed sound for a brief moment at the end, it’s not someone calling “cut”, it’s Lee talking about what it means to become Dracula, his striking visage suddenly frightening in the low light – it’s almost as if he’s lying to us, a real vampire trying to convince us he’s an actor, not the other way around.

Review: 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979)

“I done some really antisocial things in my life. Like robbing, shooting at people, raping people. Maybe I killed someone, I don’t know. But as you get older, you get wiser.”

By turns hilarious and terrifying, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s profiles two gangs in late 70s New York City – The Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads – in their daily routines, crimes, and philosophies. Director Gary Weis finds tiny civilisations of paradoxes in these gangs, which may had started with a simple protective goal in mind, but ballooned into something unwieldy and, at times, tragic. Both gangs consist primarily of African-American and Puerto Rican members, but both use extensive Nazi imagery for their brands. They both propagate extensive tough guy images, but the intricately painted designs on their leather vests suggest a delicate care for themselves. They all relish chaos and destruction, but confess in interviews to fantasising of simpler lives.

While most of this consists of interviews, there is some indelible, crazy shit shown as well, including the almost banal burglary schemes that involve climbing into open windows and lowering down TVs with rope, or hiring kids to walk slowly on crutches in front of trucks so that the contents may be stolen.

It all has a strangely hopeful tone even as Weis captures an underlying pain to all of this. And, somehow, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s makes the seemingly cartoonish The Warriors look positively vérité. That doesn’t make me like Walter Hill’s movie any more, but it does make me laugh less at it.

Review: Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971)

Arguably more noble in its intentions than Jacopetti and Prosperi’s previous exercise in questionable ethics, Africa Addio, but so unbelievably, bafflingly misguided that, at the time of its release, both sane people and David Duke hated it. Somehow, Goodbye, Uncle Tom can’t even commit to being a vile, racist piece of trash, instead existing as a strangely broken example of Satan wanting to be God and failing.

The film opens with a helicopter descending upon a plantation filled with slaves, and we are quickly introduced to the premise: two documentarians travel back in time to document the horrors of slavery. This requires the character of the filmmakers to sit back and watch said horrors without doing anything, which is already a questionable idea. From this auspicious start, we become witness to an enormous production that subjects hundreds of actors of colour to the degradation and torture that was put upon the slaves of the time. Goodbye, Uncle Tom sits in the horror, relishes it, uses it as the very foundation of its being. If one believes that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s intentions were pure, one could argue that these sections are intended to break the viewer, make them understand the despicable terrors of slavery. Whatever they meant to say, it’s all for nought because not a single character of colour is given any characterisation beyond an inarticulate, de-individuated mass. Every white character, regardless of how negatively they are portrayed, are shown as articulate persons with actual personality. On top of everything, every goddamn thing, the brief stabs at narrative exploitation the filmmakers inject into the picture primarily involve sexual assault, such as the scene wherein one of the documentarians takes advantage of a virginal 13 year old slave who offers herself to him – FUCK.

JESUS.

And yet.

And yet,

There is undeniable artistic craft pumping through the veins of this racist trash. As I wrote in my review of Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi have an innate understanding of how to match image and sound to make a sort of magic, utilising Riz Ortolani’s gorgeous (if at most times disturbingly upbeat) score to mold this destitution into something resembling art. If these men were saints instead of monsters, they could have made a film to change the world.

But they’re monsters.

What this mess adds up to is a film that condemns the brutalisation and exploitation of a people while doing the very same thing. It is impossibly fascinating as a historical object, endlessly rewarding a thing to explore; but it’s also sickening, disturbing, and morally reprehensible.

I don’t know.

Review: Cameraperson (2016)

Riveting in spots, and, as an impressionistic portrait of a life through one’s interests and desires, it’s fantastic.

As a film about that and ethical questions in documentary filmmaking and mortality and cinematic language, it’s a bit scattered. Johnson is asking so much from the audience by letting us loose with no guiding voiceover. I spent much of the running trying to put the pieces together, attempting to unravel the relationship between the images – especially between those of her ageing mother and the ominous overtones her footage takes when pitted against some of the implied horrors Johnson shows in other places. By the end of the film, where it seems Johnson doesn’t quite know how to finish, I didn’t quite know where she stood in relation to basically anything. Whether that’s because I need another viewing to parse her intentions or because her intentions are too diverse and diffuse to cohere into something manageable is up for debate.

But I’m leaning towards the latter.

Review: Africa, Goodbye (1966)

Horrifically racist at worst, extremely patronising at its low best, Africa Addio is nonetheless continuously fascinating, a feat made possible by the fact that the directors, monsters though they may be, know how cinema works.

Africa Addio is set around the de-colonisation of Africa, and its thesis is essentially that the colonists left Africa too soon, and without the guidance of them, Africa has descended into chaos. What that simplifies to is that Africans are savages, and always have been. It’s disgusting, sometimes cartoonishly so (there’s a scene the narrator states that the Europeans taught the native population to desire homes, which is not even the craziest statement made through it all), but it’s disgusting with a clearly knowing eye. Getting outraged is all part of the filmmakers’ plan, getting you to gasp and choke in the theatre is what puts coin in their pockets. Hell, I sought this out for my expected outrage, which means, even all these years later, they still won.

In their ostensible attempts to show the continent as lost without colonists, the filmmakers shoot an incredible amount of amazing but terrible footage – minutes upon minutes of animal torture and poaching, civil wars and violent outbursts – shot with an eye for movement and maximum power. The cameramen get close to action, sometimes distressingly so, trying to get the best angle on their exploitative hell. There is a scene involving a pile of amputated hands, the camera lingering and cutting back to the image again and again, that made me sick. I cannot quite articulate how much pain it brought me to view sections of this film.

And yet, and yet, the directors are men of the cinema. They know how to assemble image and sound to create a rush, even if you feel bad for having that rush. The score is lush and prosperous, and the screen moves with rhythm and pace that often overcomes the episodic structure. It often comes close to approximating beauty in its own ugly way.

Appreciating a film like Africa Addio takes a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance. I acknowledge that it is morally reprehensible, and yet I find it utterly fascinating.

My approval comes bundled with a million caveats.

Review: Zoo (2007)

“I am talking to you, kind of in the same way you are staring at me. Mammal to mammal.”

I never thought I’d say this regarding a film about a man being fucked to death by a horse, but Robinson Devor’s Zoo is beautiful.

Devor, known primarily for his under-seen black comic masterpiece The Woman Chaser, shoots his documentary almost entirely as recreations, taking the technique popularised by Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue and pushing it to its limit. He shoots as if falling through a dream, the camera never stops floating, following, drifting. No one talks onscreen. Instead, voice-over fills the air, interacting with the gorgeous score to create a loose, hazy soundscape, never quite letting us settle into a sense of reality. And Devor structures the film to follow this trend, revolving around the main event again and again, getting closer each time from the past and the future, but never quite giving into the moment. We, the audience, are adrift, attempting to place the speaker of the scene, attempting to find a foothold in time, attempting to find comprehension in the actions of these men, these men who engage in carnal acts with animals.

That’s a lot to ask from an audience, especially regarding a subject as salacious as this. To a certain extent, it could be called pretentious, putting that much distance between the subject and form. If you don’t want to bridge that gap, I understand, I salute you, go on your merry way.

But if you give yourself to Zoo, if you try to cross that gap, try to find reality in the unreality, you may find yourself in the same boat with Devor. As much as he’s abstracted the narrative, Devor is trying to humanise these men. But it’s hard to humanise actions that so many cannot begin to comprehend. And so he keeps us at a permanent distance. We try and we try, but there will always be something ineffable – morals, psychology, shame, whatever – keeping us from connecting to this subject matter. But as long as we’re trying, perhaps we can catch a little of their minds. That moment when they’re staring into an animals eyes, searching for a common ground, searching for consent – and they rationalise their own desperation as recognition in the animal’s eyes. You have seen me, and you are with me, and I am trying, and you can understand.

In the end, all we’re left with the words of the woman who saved the horse from future engagements. “I think I’m close to understanding. But I don’t ever think I will really get there.” There’s pain in her voice, maybe even sympathy for these deviants. She’s trying to find herself in them.

But she can’t.

And, for the most part, neither can we.