Sunday, November 8, 2015

What the camera likes

Reality saves the fiction film
It was without intention that this blog moves from Good Kill to The Good Lie (2014), but here is another issue-based film in which deflection and dissembling may be the key to survival.

In the one and only film course I ever took, the instructor had us read large portions of Siegfied Kracauer's Theory of Film.  Kracauer was not a working film critic, but a philosopher and sometime historian.  He conceived an idea that because film recorded the reflection of light taking place in front of its lens, that a natural photo-chemical process place took place during the process of film-making, that the medium was drawn towards true events -- sports, dancing, even porngraphy.  Because cinema was most cinematic when it heeded the dictates of the real world.

I'm not sure how digital filmmaking affects this theory.  The electrons don't care much about how the 1s and 0s arrange themselves -- they are agnostic about content, and it seems to me that artificial manipulation is not a lesser method of arranging electrons than exposing a photo-sensor to light, other than permitting a bit more of chance in the latter.  But that does not seem to me to be "better" only different.

Nonetheless, there is still something about Kracauer's idea that still tickles our brain, no matter how the images got there.  We are curious about the integrity of what we are seeing and audiences at Q&As want to know if a stunt was really done, if the star did it, did those animals really do that thing, did those children really say that or was that written for them?  We can't help asking, "is it real?"

Coupled with that phenomenon is the fact that there are stories in which the stakes are so high, the importance of truth and precision is so great, that it is almost insulting to build fictional narrative on such a sensitive base.  Such might be the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Screenwriter Margaret Nagle did, as one would expect, exhaustive research on this difficult complex structure.  But then she did the unexpected -- she did not base her story on a true story. Nor did she get some brilliant actors to portray the Lost Boys.

Nagle made up a composite story and she cast actors who were 15 years too old for the roles.  They were too old because they were some of the real Lost Boys of 2000.  They are the film's entire raison d'etre and your reason to see the film.  Yes, it has some canny storytelling and good performances from Reese Witherspoon (in a supporting role she clearly took in order to assist with the financing of the film) and the rest of the American company, but the reason the film works at all is the simple and real presence of Arnold Oceang, Emmanuel Jal, and in this clip, Ger Duany, to bring the breath of real life to what could have been a mere "liberals feeling good about doing good" exercise.



There is a lot more that could be said about the film, but what fascinated me was the indissoluble lump of documentary truth in the middle of what is otherwise a "lies like truth" story.  These three and the other Sudanese Lost Children appearing truly save the film from itself.  From them, the film takes a sense of quiet decency instead of the passionate sermons one might expect, given the subject matter.

Me and Earl And The Dying Girl (2015) would seem to have no documentary impulse whatsoever. At its surface it seems like a Cody Diablo script written for Wes Anderson to direct.  It starts with both feet firmly planted in the Land of Twee.  It happens that I like Twee, especially when we are talking about self-conscious young people, who tend to label and categorize the components of their lives as a way of handling the inherent ambivalence and confusion of it all.

The 2.40 ratio used to show the distance and awkwardness of this relationship.
And although the artifices are dialed down as the story becomes more serious and the relationship between the two principal characters becomes more real, it still is at heart a "made-up" story.  Nonetheless, reality helps anchor this movie and makes it work more profoundly than it would otherwise.  No, not the "reality" of facing down death at a young age, nor of realizing that as a teenager, you are often more mature than the adults around you (Connie Britton, Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon all do excellent if mannered turns as the neurotic adults in the story).  No, it is the "reality" of actors really performing together in a real space and in real time, without the benefit of camerawork and editing.

It comes about two-thirds of the way through the film -- deep enough into their relationship for geeky Greg to feel free to scold Rachel for starting to give in to death.  The camera is set in a low corner with what looks like between a 10 and 20mm lens, as in the picture above.  Rachel is large in the foreground, still, listening.  Greg is farther from the camera, small, impotent, almost squeaking out his protest against Rachel's gathering indifference to the fate she is headed toward.  She neither dismisses him nor agrees with him, but her quiet ratchets up his frustration.  The scene must run six or seven minutes without a cut, a testament to the writing, to the confidence of the direction and to the skill of these very young actors to pull off this sequence which is on the one hand theatrical in concept and on the other, documentary in effect, due to its eschewing all but a few of the tools in the kit of the narrative filmmaker.  The result has an ascetic quality in a movie which begins in a rather antic mode.

I seem to find myself in a death-ridden mode in my films this week.  There is an odd resonance to events in my own life, but let us leave that aside.  The Farewell Party (2015) is packed with the kind of eccentric yet everyday old people that leaves one surprised the film comes from Israel and not the BBC. The story is simple to the point of being rudimentary, and in structure, it takes a turn to the left, another turn to the left, a turn to the right and home again, home again, jiggety jig. You know, your typical assisted-suicide comedy. Astute filmgoers will have no trouble staying ahead of its slim narrative.
For now the folks of THE FAREWELL PARTY are full of life.

But Farewell Party is not really about death or even about life.  It is about that awful moment that most couples put off and put off until they can't -- the recognition that no matter how close they are, no matter how much two people become one thing, there will be a cruel and merciless parting. That is probably the reason those of us without religious faith still hope for some sphere of existence beyond this one -- the wish for a reunion, somewhere, sometime.

Yes, love outlives death, but still exacts its price, and we must honor its power by making sure we have a good leave-taking.  Of the three suicides in the film, the first is devoutly-wished by the spouse who sees her partner's suffering.  The second is by an old woman who has no partner and no one to answer to but herself.  The third is not suffering pain, and to the eye looks healthy; but she is already leaving the earth by stages and decides she'd rather do it at once.

What makes a film which is paradoxically light-hearted in the face of these terrible questions so powerful is the real presence of these no-longer-young actors.  Sure, they probably have years to go before these questions come up, but not as many as you and I have.  And the simple quiet good sense of these characters makes everything less silly yet more entertaining. Would that we would all go on from this place in such good company as the cast of The Farewell Party.  Without old people, this movie would be offensive.  Would them, a story about the best way to die counts as a good time.

I forgot to mention there are some big walloping belly-laughs in this movie.  Don't be afraid to show it to Grandma and Grandpa.  It will probably bother them less than you.

In the end, whatever you think you can do for the dying, it is inadequate.  And that is OK.  You might as well have a good laugh when you're forced to sit in Death's front parlor.

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