Showing posts with label 9 Docs Project. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 9 Docs Project. Show all posts

Sep 7, 2012

Surfwise: Documentary #6

From the road trippin' to the beaches to the philosophical nature of creating your own version of utopia, Surfwise (2007) is a fascinating documentary about the Paskowitz family - and some surfing too.

Like the other documentaries that I've written about as part of this 9 Docs Project, I picked up this movie when the Movie Gallery went out of business.  When you have nothing to go on except the cover of the movie you're setting yourself up to be surprised, and Surfwise did that in a great way.

On the surface it seemed like just a story about a family of surfing hippies, but in actuality it's about the conflict between total freedom and social responsibility.  More specifically, it's about parenting.  The Paskowitz family lived for experiences, but in an effort to be truly free from the makeup of everyday society they (as in the parents) made some clear sacrifices on the part of their children.  

While watching this movie I just kept thinking about how much fun it looked, but how I'd come to despise the reality of constantly being stuck in a motor home for those long drives with 11 people.  As you might expect, a lot of the kids felt the same way.  The entire experience is essentially a way of life dictated by the father.  His lessons are earnest and steeped in self-fulfillment through dedication and passion, but at the same time you're left to continually question the disconnect.  I empathized with the kids, but felt like Dad was taking the easy way out under the banner of 'if I can't have it my way it's not worth doing'.  

Obviously no one wants to be a slave to a job or live a life without enjoyment, but in some capacity you have to ask yourself what you are contributing to society - even in some small way.  We can't be in it just for ourselves - or can we?  There's not a right or wrong answer here exactly, which ultimately leaves you asking more questions.

Surfwise was fascinating, entertaining, and a great looking documentary.  I was really impressed with how much this one got me thinking about so many of my own views in contrast to theirs. Whether you agree with how they did things or not, the truth is you can't deny that they got a great story out of it all.  Check it out.  8/10  

Mar 9, 2011

Overnight: Documentary #5

Thrillingly entertaining, bold, harsh, and a remarkable character study, Overnight is a documentary about ego and success in Hollywood.  The film chronicles the overnight success of Troy Duffy, a young musician and screenwriter at the time, who destroyed a golden deal with Miramax resulting from his own arrogance, attitude, and self-destructive behaviour.

As the tagline of the film reads 'there's more than one way to shoot yourself'.

I've seen numerous documentaries about Hollywood and celebrities, but I've never seen one that captured the rise and fall of an individual so intimately.  We're treated to home video after home video of Duffy celebrating with his friends, taking conference calls, having heated debates about his script, reacting to feedback, and so on.  As an outsider your perspective shifts from viewing a talented guy who just happens to be cocky about his success, to viewing a talented guy who really has no clue about how out of touch he is with those around him.

Duffy's persona is that of a spoiled film student who got an easy A, and that's because the deal he was offered was a dream come true.  Miramax bought his script for The Boondock Saints for $300,000, gave him the opportunity to direct the picture with a $15 million dollar budget, allowed his band to release the soundtrack for the film, and Harvey Weinstein even said he'd buy the bar that Duffy worked at.  Troy Duffy essentially won the filmmaker lottery. 

It's the classic tale of money changing the man (or at least revealling more of who he really is) but Duffy does start off with profound ambitions to simply make great movies.  He's passionate, talented, driven, and he wants to take his friends along for the ride.  He's entitled to some celebratory gloating, and really, who wouldn't be pumped? 

It's when the euphoria starts to fade that he doesn't seem to realize how alienating his arrogance becomes.  Here's a guy who bought entirely into the hype of himself and figured it was enough to build a career on.  He starts burning his bridges, but still talks as though he has everyone by the balls. If you watch his friends throughout the film you can just read the levels of disbelief on their faces.

The politics and maze of Hollywood production is fascinating to me, and it's incredible to see such extreme sides of the spectrum.  Duffy deserves what he has coming to him and there's an element of joy in seeing him get his comeuppance - although he has no shortage of people to blame when things start to go sour.  

Overnight combines the candid and blunt conversations that put you right at the source of the chaos, while also having broad enough coverage of the experience to contextualize the arch of the story.  There's no doubt about Troy Duffy when the camera's pointed in his direction, and although the realities that come to light about his personality are unfortunate, they're also responsible for turning a deal gone wrong into a classic slice of documentary filmmaking.

This doc was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. 9/10

Dec 18, 2010

Tarnation: Documentary #4

The amazing thing about film is that it can literally play with your emotions. Specifically in the case of documentary, someones version of the truth can irritate and annoy you, their perspective can conflict with your own, and even their style can be challenging to grasp and understand. I felt a mixture of all these things in trying to appreciate Jonathan Caouette's very personal film, Tarnation (2003).

Based on the premise alone I felt Caouette's documentary was intriguing. With a tagline like 'your greatest creation is the life you lead' and a documentary assembled from two decades of home video, answering machine messages, photographs, personal confessions, and scraps of pop culture, the setup is made to be epic. Our subject is Caouette himself and his relationship with his schizophrenic mother.

Right off the bat we're treated to intense and challenging cuts, filters, and mashups. It felt like something I might have put together when I was 13 and just discovering editing software - I wanted to use every filter available, not caring if they conflicted. This styling is bold in the case of Tarnation, and it set the tone of what was to come.

Caouette loves to see himself on camera, and this quickly became another obstacle for me when trying to understand the message of the film. We're treated to long staring sessions, which add to the avant-garde nature of the documentary. The mental condition of his mother, and the complicated nature of their relationship can be argued as the reasoning for this approach, but even at its weakest it's constantly bordering on masturbational cinema. I was always questioning why do you want me to know this?

I'm still not entirely sure of what Caouette wants us to take away from his experience (outside of admiration for his situation) and how that meshes with my interpretation of it. Jonathan Caouette is so dramatic and even in his early home video clips he's so eager to play to the camera that it sabotages his live efforts to be sincere when the moment itself seems genuine. His sexuality as a gay man and his troubled childhood begin to feel more and more focused on clamouring for some intangible acceptance than it does about revealing a deeper meaning regarding the state of his mother.

Let there be no mistake, the film is about Caouette. And this wouldn't have bothered me if the story wasn't sidelined by attention seeking gimmicks.

The story, as patched and ambitious as it is, ultimately fails to give us a broad enough context to actually appreciate and empathize with the subjects for very long. The entire project ends up feeling like a film school experiment where pieces were just thrown in to see how someone else might interpret them. And yet despite all these things, Tarnation was a documentary that I found myself thinking about a lot.

Only because of it's challenging nature and because of my film school background did I feel the need to try and confront the elements of the film that bothered me, but in the light of the mainstream I can see a lot of people simply turning it off because of how different and uncomfortable it is. The essence of great film making is not about how enigmatic it can be or how many meanings can be pulled from the final product, but instead about how effective its construction is in getting the viewer to appreciate, understand, and hopefully inherit the emotions and information you're trying to convey.

Tarnation is simply too overproduced and glorified to leave you feeling that you're witnessing a reality. The narrative is played out too abstractly to let the viewer settle with a clear thought, and after the first half an hour I felt I could have used a break already.  As troubling as Caouette's childhood and upbringing are painted - the momentum of the project is lost on self-indulgence and a significance that never feels completely justified - however, bonus points are awarded for being unlike anything else I've seen recently. 5.5/10

Oct 26, 2010

Sketches of Frank Gehry: Documentary #3

Creating something is one of the boldest forms of expression. It leaves something to be discussed, critiqued, and interpreted. It also takes guts to do.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005) is a documentary about the famed modern architect from a very open and relaxed perspective. From structures like the popular Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the film is successful at diving into Gehry's design and creative processes, his achievements, and the humour that often surrounds creating buildings that make people stare. It's not a history lesson or lecture. There's actually something quite poetic in hearing Gehry and Pollack's open discussions about the form, lines, and overall impressions of the designs.

Why did you do this? Why is this shaped like that? Director Sydney Pollack injects himself into the documentary with his casual questioning, and seems essential for bringing up the every-man opinion.

As a creative guy myself I'm always fascinated by the process that other artists go through. Artist seems to be the right description of Gehry. The way he sketches, bends paper for his models, and works his ideas through seems very tactile. In fact, he admits that he's not very good with a computer.

Personally I find Gehry's buildings to be really engaging (especially) against a backdrop of squares and cubes. That's the beauty of this documentary to me. Architecture has always seemed like so much math, and it is, but Sketches of Frank Gehry pulls the art to the surface - mixing form and function as they say. We're given a chance to explore urban space for the emotion it conveys, for the whimsical and expressive way that shape can change our perception, and ultimately shown how exciting and challenging it is to literally be out of the box.

Having seen this documentary prior to purchasing it for my 9 Docs Project, I can say that I was just as inspired the second time around. This film isn't meant to be hard hitting or confrontational. Instead it's exploratory and pensive, showing how one man has decided to challenge convention. Matched with some beautiful images of Frank Gehry's buildings, I found it easy to get swept up in the creative chaos. 8/10

Sketches of Frank Gehry Trailer

Aug 17, 2010

American Teen: Documentary #2

I imagine every generation of teenagers has believed they've had it harder than their parents did. It's par for the course when the smallest things seem life changing, when your social life feels pressurized, when you don't know what you want, and when your experiencing one first after another. Thus is the conflict within an Indiana high school in American Teen (2008).

The film kicks off on the first day of the school year where we're introduced to a cast of characters who initially seem painfully cliche. From the jock to the outsider to the princess - it's clear from the get-go that we're going to be in for a lot of angst. Still, there's something redeeming and unexpected about the approach.

Whether you're a teenager or not it's easy to get swept up in the drama. I remember the stress of trying to figure out where I wanted to go university, the torture of high school politics, and the arrogance and
stubbornness that seemed to make daily life more complicated than it needed to be. American Teen isn't about hard hitting facts or specific problems, instead it's a fly-on-the-wall documentary about that awkward, raw, and emotional teenage experience as told by distinct (and suggestively average) cliques.

We're witness to the daily problems of each kid, who really have a lot more in common than any of them are willing to recognize. A highlight of the film is the unexpected romance between the high school pretty boy and the artsy chick with aspirations to go to the big city - a match up that is initially portrayed as never-in-a-million-years. Moments like this help to capture a slice of that feeling you had when you first realized that the world was bigger than you gave it credit for. Seeing each student grow out of their role (however marginal) is what gives this experiment and documentary some weight.

American Teen was filmed over an entire school year, which is impressive in itself, but it's almost a requirement just to escape the day-to-day gossip. At times the documentary feels too superficial, too focused on playing up forced drama, and I couldn't help but think that in the moment the subjects had to know the cameras were there capturing what they were doing. This is most obvious when a high school prank causes 'the princess' to lose her student council position. Who would actually do this knowing that it would be permanently showcased in a mainstream documentary?

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, American Teen's director, Nanette Burstein, was also an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary (feature length) for her 1999 film, On the Ropes which she co-directed with Brett Morgen.

In the same way the Hills or other MTV shows have failed at documenting 'actual' reality, American Teen walks a very fine line. I'm not convinced that everything we were shown was entirely truthful, but it's convenient. We want to see the artsy girl leave town, we want the jock to get his scholarship, we want the outsider to gain a bit more confidence, etc. and
by showing this that youthful optimism is further emphasized and resonant. In this circumstance, I think that's crucial.

Being a teenager isn't easy, but as we get older it becomes almost comic in comparison to the responsibilites of our day to day lives. American Teen embodies a spectrum of 'frustrations' to show how real life and growing up begins to overshadow the soap opera, how there is a lot to figure out, and how before you know it you're out on your own. It would be interesting to see a follow up in a decade to see what's become of everyone. And, I guess that's the point of what I'm saying - it's fun to watch potential.

Aug 11, 2010

Radiant City: Documentary #1

Radiant City (2006) is a film about suburbia, urban sprawl, and the mindset of those who call 'the burbs' home (aka the bulk of the North American population). It's meant to be a slice of life, but there's something else going on here.

What I liked about Radiant City was how it brought my attention to the realistic concern of how long we can continue to grow like this - or view growth as simply a matter of construction. The conservationist movement is becoming more prevalent each year, and yet we continue to build cookie-cutter neighbourhoods farther and farther away from actual services. Our society is so dependent on owning a vehicle now that navigating our cities has become less about interaction and more about forming lines.

I was intrigued by the argument that our new idea of community is conflicted with our desire for privacy. Fenced sub-divisions, private transportation, individual cubicles; these cliches of post-modern living have been the subject of debate for decades, but there's a hint of something here that should've been explored in greater detail.

Radiant City, unfortunately, isn't saying enough. Instead of really diving into the stories behind potential alternatives, or possibilities for refurbishment and smart growth, the film dwindles in its final chapter relying on a gimmick to try and prove a separate point. I can understand the logic behind why the filmmakers decided to go this way, but I can't help but feel it only serves to undermine the points that the rest of the film is based on. It's like they didn't have faith that people really cared about the truth behind something most of us could relate to? The facts become lost in a foggy epilogue that derails the argument for the sake of forced poeticism.

Yes the suburbs are big, yes they're wasteful, and yes there are interesting stories as to why we live this way. I wish this documentary was more like the trailer I watched after seeing the film though instead of simply stereotyping the suburban experience as the pursuit of a fantasy - there's more to it than that. People also just need places to live.

While I wouldn't recommend Radiant City based on its merit as an informative documentary, it would still make a great film school lesson in that it offers a lot of material for debate on the choices the filmmakers made in constructing their argument - see the IMDB forum for spoilers on why this is.

In the end the film makes light of suburbia, as it should, to point out that there are perks when living in the sprawl. However, Radiant City ultimately falters on providing a perspective with enough focus to pin-point actual urban development solutions and simply doesn't trust itself enough to be genuine with subject matter this abundantly revealing and available.

Aug 9, 2010

9 Documentaries Project

Over the last weekend I found myself browsing the well picked over crop of clearance DVDs in a local video store that's going out of business. The store was practically empty, both in product and people, but with everything 85% off I was completely willing to explore the haphazard displays and take the risk of buying a few duds.

Of all the sections remaining it was the documentaries that looked the most promising - practically untouched. Sure, most kids aren't clamouring for the 'special interest' shelf - a label that only emphasizes the hodge-podge of titles that end up there - but on this rare circumstance where everything-must-go I jumped at the opportunity to pick up some radically different perspectives in documentary form.

I quickly recognized the creative potential and challenge of subjecting myself to a series of largely unheard of titles for the sake of writing new material on my blog. I ended up getting 9 documentaries for under $14. Of these films I've only seen one before, and for the sake of the project I can now guarantee that there will be at least one film I like. Expect to hear about surfing, wine, suburbia, and even bestiality . . . I can't say I'm surprised that all of the titles were still there.

Whether these documentaries will be any good is hard to say, but I'm intrigued by the truths presented by these (largely) low-budget slices of life. Be sure to continue to check back for updates as the series of posts (and documentary titles) are revealed. A couple of years out of film school and it seems I'm going back.