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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

I am not a Dr Who fan. I feel it is important to establish that right from the start, just to avoid any confusion on this point. The reason I mention this is that it might appear, from some angles, that anyone going to see a film about Dr Who must necessarily be a Dr Who fan. I just want to nip that notion in the bud. The beauty of a great documentary is that it can create interest in the most esoteric and unpromising topics, and make you care about something you were previously unaware of or indifferent to. This is in principle as true of a documentary about Dr Who as one dealing with the topic of making perfect sushi or people squabbling over dinosaur remains.

That said, Matthew Jacobs and Vanessa Yuille’s Doctor Who Am I is not really a Dr Who documentary as one examining the subculture, and what an uncharitable observer might describe as the pathology, of Dr Who fans. (Of which I am not one.) Several things immediately spring to mind at this point: firstly, Doctor Who Am I is a borderline awful title for a film, presumably the result of the need to signpost the topic of the movie without risking a writ from the rights holders to the Dr Who TV show. (Even so, it must be right up against the border of being actionable.) Secondly, not everyone is as interested in obscure documentary topics as I am, meaning that the potential audience for a film like this is – well, it’s not so much a niche product as one aimed at a hairline fissure.

Matthew Jacobs, who produced, directed, and features throughout the film, is a faintly controversial figure in the realms of Dr Who fandom, as he was the screenwriter on the American Dr Who TV movie which was broadcast in the early summer of 1996. (The film introduces him as a ‘mid-level screenwriter’ which strikes me as just a tad charitable given all his work with any kind of prominence dates back to the 1990s.) The opprobium Jacobs has attracted for this has, as the film opens, led him to steer clear of the Dr Who convention circuit for many years, but now he has decided to do a round of appearances at gatherings in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Long Island, in the hope (he claims) of resolving his problematic relationship with the programme and its followers.

You will, perhaps, have noted that the film’s interest in Dr Who fans does not extend beyond the borders of the continental United States, but this did not prevent many of their UK counterparts turning up to the screening of Doctor Who Am I. I got the strange sense of intruding on a private party just by being in the auditorium: the Dr Who fans were cheerfully calling back and forth across the theatre to each other and knowledgably discussing the quality of the TV movie (‘Not the worst thing ever in the history of Dr Who,’ which is a valid opinion but still probably depends on your terms of reference) and the ramifications of the fact that, technically, Disney now co-own at least a small sliver of the programme (the TV movie was produced by Fox, which is now a Mouse subsidiary). It is a strange feeling to be the only non-Dr Who fan at a gathering like this, and I almost regretted not staying at home with the co-spousal unit instead – we had postponed our viewing part one of the Jon Pertwee story The Curse of Peladon, the 297th instalment of the series, due to my being out that evening (just  because I’m not a Dr Who fan doesn’t mean that I never watch an episode).

Jacobs believes the failure of the Dr Who TV movie to spawn a smash-hit long-running series on an American network is mainly down to two things: the fact that Dr Who, portrayed by Paul McGann on this occasion, engages in a spot of tonsil-hockey with the leading lady (Daphne Ashbrook), something unprecedented in the annals of the programme, and also the innovative notion that Dr Who, rather than being a pure-blooded member of the Prydonian Chapter of the Time Lords of Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous (I’m not a fan, but I have picked up the odd bit of Dr Who-related trivia), is in fact half-human. It is these things which have apparently brought the wrath of fandom down on his head: Dr Who fans do care deeply about the canon, the greater story, of the series – they write erudite and closely-argued theses trying to address and resolve obscure points of continuity, such as what the planets in the show’s version of the solar system are, or at what point in time the Silurian civilisation introduced in Malcolm Hulke’s 1970 script Doctor Who and the Silurians was dominant on Earth. On the other hand, it is striking that the notion of Dr Who’s half-humanity has been firmly and flatly rejected by both fans and the makers of the series (if that’s still a meaningful distinction): it’s never even mentioned any more.

This is arguably a bit glib (the failure of the TV movie, such as it was, was much more the result of other factors, such as it being broadcast opposite the hugely popular Roseanne on another network, not to mention Dr Who‘s lack of profile in the United States), but there was potential here for a film exploring just why Dr Who fans (just to reiterate, I’m not one) are so passionately, earnestly devoted to it. Parts of the film are anthropologically fascinating: Jacobs meets people who have named their children after the stars of the programme, a man who has the autographs of nearly all the living lead actors tattooed onto his body, someone who talks about their ‘Whovianship’ like it’s some kind of religious vocation. One interviewee is casually knitting a Tom Baker-style scarf while talking to the camera (the original scarf was produced by a lady named Begonia Pope, while on-screen the 1975 episode The Ark in Space reveals it was a gift from Nostradamus’ wife, a ‘witty little knitter’); around his neck is a medallion shaped like the TARDIS key introduced in Jon Pertwee’s final season and also prominent in the American movie. These people inescapably come across as… well, one mustn’t judge, especially if one isn’t a member of this particular group. (Though I did find myself gouging my fingernails into the palms of my hands at several points during the movie: I couldn’t honestly tell you why.)

The problem is that this look at fandom is very superficial – not much more than a gawp, although someone does make the fairly obvious suggestion that Dr Who fandom is a form of surrogate religion for its most dedicated members. This may be a universal truth not limited to the American fanbase – while one contributor to the documentary, ‘TARDIS Tara’ (a herpetologist who tours the convention circuit with a collapsible nine-foot Police Box), displays absolute bafflement at how different US and UK fans are: ‘Hardly anyone was dressing up, they weren’t even wearing T-shirts’, the occasional cry of ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ or hiss of ‘Incorrect!’ was heard at my screening when Jacobs said something particularly objectionable or got his facts wrong. But it’s not particularly deep.

Matthew Jacobs seems rather conflicted about the whole thing anyway. Near the start of the documentary he more or less admits that he’s just hitting the convention circuit to make some easy money, and one almost gets the sense that he’s making the film as a fig-leaf, an attempt to justify what may actually be an entirely mercenary undertaking. His attitude to the fans he meets is often ambivalent – in one unguarded moment he refers to fans in general as ‘screwed up’, although he quickly tries to walk this back. The film soon stops being about Jacobs trying to reconnect with fandom, or indeed discover anything insightful about the fans, and becomes a sort of audio-visual form of free-association. Jacobs hooks up again with Philip Segal, moving spirit behind the TV movie (these days impressario behind TV shows like Ice Road Truckers) and the two share an amiable grouse about stick-in-the-mud fans, talks to various other luminaries associated with the movie (mainly McGann and Ashbrook, though Eric Roberts briefly appears), and reflects on his own life.

The fact that Jacobs’ own father appeared in Dr Who as an actor in the four 1966 episodes now known as The Gunfighters allows the film to stay nominally on-topic even while it becomes more focused on its subject’s childhood, which does not appear to have been a very happy one. One can’t help wondering if the young Matthew Jacobs was really as much of a fan of the show as is implied here, or if this is just another case of the movie reaching. He certainly comes across as jinxed when it comes to Dr Who – the suggestion is that his own visit to the set of the show back in the William Hartnell period coincided with some traumatic personal experiences, just as his stint as a writer on the TV movie eventually turned out to be a poisoned chalice.

Perhaps mindful of its primary audience (not me; I’m not a Dr Who fan, after all), Jacobs and Yuille manage to wrangle the movie to the point where he seems to experience some form of catharsis and reconnect with the fan within; although on the basis of the rest of the film, Jacob’s inner fan probably ended up getting tapped for cash or patronised before the end of production. But it doesn’t feel like there’s a journey going on here – at least, not one single journey, just two or three vague ambles. Frankly, it’s a little bit chaotic in the way it switches from topic to topic, never really addressing any of them satisfactorily.

Then again, if the movie does make one thing clear it’s that for actual, proper Dr Who fans (I’m not one), unconditional affection and appreciation is everything (well, that and adherence to canon), which means that a lot of people will probably really like Doctor Who Am I. Anyone engaging their critical faculties, on the other hand, may conclude the film is the product of questionable motives, mostly functions only on a superficial level, and is badly lacking in focus. If you only watch one documentary about the pathology of fanatically dedicated American Dr Who fans this year, then… well, you could be in trouble.

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I have a certain grammatical inclination – I’d say it was an interest but it’s really more of a complex – and it struck me just the other day that there are lots of films with titles that are just made up of nouns, and quite a few with titles where the only thing you’ll find are verbs. Apart from the occasional quirky exception, though, these tend to be films with reasonably short titles. With a longer title, you’re really heading into the realm of the sentence, with all the associated baggage that comes with that – articles, conjunctions, maybe even punctuation. And prepositions, of course – if you want to do a movie with a long name, you’re probably looking at most of these things.

And so the first thing that struck me about Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, is just how unwieldy a title that is (I’ll be referring to it simply as Hallelujah from this point on, hope that’s okay). I mean, it kind of does the job of telling you what the movie is about, but does it trip off the tongue? I put it to you that it does not.

Still, being clumsily on-the-nose is a bit like underestimating the intelligence of the average viewer, it’s not a brilliant thing to do but it’s not going to cost you money, either – the last documentary about Leonard Cohen went for a much more oblique title, to the point where it wasn’t immediately clear who and what it was about. It’s a hard life in the documentary business sometimes, especially as people seem to be running out of things to make films about – this is the second Cohen documentary in three years, while 2022 has also seen two films about the same pair of married French vulcanologists. (The Amazing Johnathan Documentary from a few years back kind of addressed this issue, also obliquely. (I think we’re going to be using the word ‘oblique’ a lot today.))

So this Leonard Cohen guy must be pretty famous if everyone keeps making documentaries about him! Constant reader, I take nothing for granted – I’m sure you’re extremely well versed (and indeed chorused) in everything from Death of a Ladies Man to You Want It Darker, but there may be people happening by here who aren’t, so: Leonard Cohen, scion of a wealthy Canadian family, first rose to fame in the sixties as a novelist, poet, and eventually singer, and probably one of the most unlikely people ever to become a massive influence on pop music.

This film’s way of carving out a niche in the somewhat crowded Leonard Cohenomentary market (there have been many, some dating back to the mid sixties – also an appearance in Miami Vice as a French crime lord, which I bet you didn’t know about, but on the other hand Bruce Forsyth was once in an episode of Magnum and no-one ever mentions that, either) is to present itself more as a kind of biography of one of Cohen’s songs, for which a certain amount of biographical detail on the singer himself is required. Which song? Well, as you will know if you’ve been paying attention, it’s Hallelujah, the inescapable blues-gospel-spiritual-rock song which has become as much of a standard as any other of the last forty years.

To be honest, Cohen is such an interesting figure – erudite, thoughtful, charismatic, witty – that this particular bit of framing probably wasn’t necessary, and the story of the first twenty years or so of his music career (pre-Hallelujah) is engaging in its own right, touching on classic themes of struggles against adversity and to retain artistic integrity. Is there a sense in which you are waiting for the moment where Cohen sits down and thinks, ‘You know what, it’d be a good idea to write a song about…’? Well, maybe, but only very mildly.

You will have noted that I just skipped over the whole question of what Hallelujah is actually about: so does the film, and key contributor John Lissauer (who arranged the original version of the song) reveals he never asked Cohen this question either. You’d expect it to be about something, given it took Cohen seven years to write it, producing somewhere in the region of 160 verses in the process – but perhaps the obliqueness of the song, the ambiguity of it and the contradiction it embodies (it’s a very downbeat song to be named after what’s traditionally a cry of joy) are partly why it has acquired such a status in modern culture – you can project anything onto the song, interpret it however you like, deploy it in any situation, and it will always somehow feel appropriate.

Once Cohen has finally written and recorded the song, the singer himself yields the focus of the film to his creation for a while, as it considers its long, inexorable rise, mainly due to it being covered by other people – Bob Dylan, John Cale, and especially Jeff Buckley (who may owe his particular influence – many people still think it’s a Jeff Buckley song – to the fact his was the first version in general circulation by someone who could sing in the conventional sense of the word). Then came the unlikely springboard presented by the song’s presence on the soundtrack of the first Shrek movie, endless versions done by TV talent show hopefuls, and so on.

This, as you have probably guessed, is not a movie for anyone who doesn’t like Hallelujah. Even if you’re only mildly ambivalent about it, this may not be the movie for you, as watching it will involve listening to about forty different performances of just this one song (not all in full, but even so). There are obviously many different Cohen renditions, of the original Old Testament version, the later ‘secular’ version, and finally a kind of ‘fusion’ version, but also covers by John Cale, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, people off The X Factor, someone singing it to her husband at their wedding (yes, this is a bit of an ‘eep’ moment), and so on.

(One striking omission (from the film as released, anyway) is the version done by Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, on the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election. Close scrutiny of the credits reveals that both McKinnon and the SNL writers are thanked for their participation, so I guess they either ended up on the cutting room floor, or – hopefully – as a DVD extra.)

The structure of the film is helped by the fact that Cohen himself essentially dropped out of sight for six years in the 1990s, just as the song was becoming known, spending the time in a Zen monastery in California (I’m tempted to add ‘as you do’). The image of him finally returning to society, suitcase in hand, only to discover one of his songs has become so ubiquitous in his absence, is an almost irresistible one, but not much dwelt on by the movie – the directors seem more interested in the fact that Cohen was forced to go back out on tour after his business manager ran away with all his money (I think this may be the kind of thing that happens if you spend six years in a Zen monastery, to be honest). Still, the film ends with the singer at peace, or at least as close to it as someone like Leonard Cohen ever gets, and presumably living very well off the royalties of a song which is so widely beloved.

Do you have to be particularly interested in Leonard Cohen or this song to enjoy the documentary? I don’t think so – though that would certainly not hurt. It’s a curious tale of slow-burning triumph, both for the song and its creator – there aren’t really any formal innovations or oddities here, just a straightforward telling of the story. But it’s a good enough story and much more than a good enough song to be a very engaging and satisfying watch.

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More prime counter-programming material comes along in the form of Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, another example of just why many people keep going on about how we are currently living through the Golden Age of Feature Documentaries. This film was probably a particularly appealing project, as it’s made up almost exclusively of thirty-year-old archive footage, which just needed editing together (and perhaps having a few captions and animated sequences added).

We have the French scientist couple of Maurice and Katia Krafft to thank for all the film, by the way. The Kraffts were celebrities, sort of, in the world of vulcanology, and were never happier than when scrambling up the slopes of an erupting caldera or dodging lava bombs at close range. In addition to doing some genuinely valuable scientific research – the holy grail they ended up devoting their career to was trying to identify the ‘trigger point’ at which point a volcano became actively energetic and troublesome, information which would make evacuations and the saving of lives much easier – the couple managed to make a living filming and photographing volcanic events at extremely close range.

The film is up-front about the fact that their research led them to a fatal encounter with a pyroclastic flow on the slopes of Mount Unzen in June 1991, which you might expect would bring the mood down a bit. The general tone remains poetic, with a definite subtext of isn’t-nature-incredible?, although this is fighting for space a tiny bit with what-a-powerfully-romantic-story-this-is!

Frankly, despite some heavy lifting from the title and a breathy, slightly pretentious voice-over from Miranda July (no-one else does breathy and pretentious quite as well), the notion of the film as an account of the Kraffts’ love story never quite works. The material just isn’t there – there’s plenty of footage of Maurice cautiously making his way towards a crater, stopping only when his shoes spontaneously combust, but very little of the duo not being professional vulcanologists together. Even the script admits that no-one’s quite sure how the Kraffts first met each other, and suggests that – in any case – this was always a marriage with three participants: Maurice, Katia, and whichever deadly geological event they were up close and personal with at that particular moment.

They don’t appear to have been a particularly demonstrative couple, anyway – when they do talk about their relationship on camera, it’s in rather joshing terms. Katia says she is quite happy to follow Maurice up the side of a cone, mainly because he weighs twice as much and so anywhere that doesn’t collapse under his weight must be safe for her. Maurice comes back with a gag about how there are so few vulcanologists living together in the world. Why? They are constantly erupting at each other!

The jokes may not always sparkle but the footage shot by the Kraffts is truly breath-taking stuff, the natural world at its most terrifying and extreme. You only have to visit a place where the water boils on its way out of the ground to appreciate the almost mystical allure of this kind of site, but to build your life around visiting such immensely hazardous places is another matter entirely. At one point Maurice expresses a wish that he could eat rocks, which would mean that he never had to return to civilisation.

It seems like the Kraffts did their best to stay out in the wild anyway, funding their travels by selling photos and films of their work, as well as attempting serious scientific research. The film features a roll-call of all the volcanos they visited in the course of a two-decade career: Etna, Stromboli, Anak-Krakatau, Mount St Helens, and many more. The stunning images are probably the best reason for going to see this movie, although some of the most striking are not the work of the Kraffts – the pictures of the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980 are genuinely astonishing, but the couple were at home in France at the time. Not being there in person apparently left Maurice in the mood to commit a massacre, even though a close friend died in the eruption.

It may not have been Dosa’s intention, but rather than a moving account of the relationship of two people united by their love of geophysics and near-death experiences, Fire of Love more often seems to be about the rather peculiar psychopathology of people who do this sort of thing. The film does make clear that the Kraffts did important scientific research on their various trips, but there does seem to have been a certain amount of legend-building going on to. The documentary points out the various ways in which the Kraffts’ own films seem to have been rather artfully assembled, while Maurice seems to have enjoyed the idea of being a legendary daredevil at least as much as a respected scientist. The film sees him repeatedly talking about his plan to float down a river of lava in a metal canoe lined with asbestos blocks – this Quixotic, if not outright demented scheme never came to pass, though the film does include another almost-unbelievable exploit in which he and an assistant ended up adrift in a lake of sulphuric acid for three hours, with only a second-hand rubber dinghy between him and a fate probably best not contemplated (‘Of course it was a second-hand dinghy, we weren’t stupid,’ says Maurice on the soundtrack).

In the end Maurice comes across as an engaging and charismatic fellow, though probably not someone you’d want to get stuck in a lift with. Katia is quieter, indulgent towards her husband, more aware of the ramifications of their work, perhaps. But the fact that Maurice at least was engaged in creating a public persona, and that the film is almost exclusively made up of their own material, means that any glimpses of who they really were as people are fleeting and slightly suspect. I had a much stronger emotional response to the footage of eruptions and the power of nature than I did to the human story – the film doesn’t fit comfortably on the peg where the title and voice-over are trying to hang it. But the Kraffts’ work speaks for itself, given half a chance.

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No movie this year is likely to have a more impressive or gorgeous soundtrack than Guiseppe Tornatore’s Ennio. The title itself is a dead giveaway as to the reason why: this is a documentary about the life and career of Ennio Morricone, the – and here one must pause for a moment to express regret that the language has become so debased, and some words so overused – legendary musician and composer. (The Italian title of the movie is Ennio – The Master.) Morricone departed from this frame of existence in 2020, a fact the film does not acknowledge despite it being completed after this happened. But on the other hand it does suggest that Morricone’s music will always be with us, and so to what extent can we really say that he has gone?

There is a good deal of gushing about Morricone’s work before the film is over, but this is not just a puff piece or a hagiography – it’s a film which strives to take both itself and its subject seriously. Given the sumptuous treasures of Morricone’s back catalogue, the film opens with the somewhat bold choice of no music whatsoever, just a ticking metronome. This plays over film of the 90-odd Morricone going about his daily fitness regime with great seriousness. (Exercise the Ennio Way was never released as a workout DVD, but I don’t think this is a great loss to the sum total of human culture.)

Various contributors say nice things about Morricone and it soon becomes clear that this documentary is not going to be indulging in any great formal innovations or stylistic surprises. We learn about Morricone’s childhood in occupied Rome, and his relationship with his father, who insisted he learn to play the trumpet. This led to studies at a conservatoire by day, and jazz trumpeting by night, and so on. By the early 1960s he was in enormous demand as an arranger of material in the Italian pop industry, which eventually led to a commission to write a film score – and ultimately a series of collaborations with his old school friend Sergio Leone, resulting in a series of movies which would change the face of cinema forever.

I would happily have turned up to the cinema just to listen to a selection of Morricone’s greatest hits for two and a half hours – this film is not afraid to go into some detail – and so it was a little disappointing that few of his most celebrated compositions get played at length. But I suppose being able to listen to Ecstasy of Gold whenever you like is one of the things that justifies the existence of the internet, and the documentary is not just here to remind you of things you probably already know about.

I’ve seen at least one documentary on the topic of film composition in general which suggested that the distinctive thing about Morricone’s work is not that he was particularly interested in innovation, but had a mastery of melody unparallelled even amongst other famous film composers. Ennio rather implies that all of this is actually complete balderdash, as it takes pains to give proper credit to Morricone’s other career as a composer of what he called ‘absolute’ music, music for its own sake, much of it highly experimental and avant garde (pieces where tape recorders and typewriters are instruments, and so on). It’s suggested that Morricone was rather dismissive of melodic music, which is a huge surprise given this is the man who wrote (for example) Gabriel’s Oboe.

Then again, one of the themes that recurs again and again throughout the film is Morricone’s own ambivalence about devoting so much of his energy to film music – one contemporary, who chose to work solely as a classical composer and musician, recalls how Morricone referred to to him as a purist, but to himself as a traitor. There are several moments when directors recall offending Morricone by expecting him simply to repeat or debase himself and his craft, usually drawing a fiery response as a result.

However, the film also chronicles Morricone’s ascent from simple movie composer to internationally revered artist, and in the process it touches upon all the things you might expect – his work on the Eastwood-Leone spaghetti westerns, culminating in his titanic score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and then eventually moving on to the extraordinary period in the 1980s where he provided scores for Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables in the space of a few years. The creation of the score for The Mission is covered in particular detail, a section which concludes with an especially irascible Morricone complaining that the eventual winner of the Oscar for Best Score (Morricone’s lack of success at the Academy Awards does seem like one of those bizarre historical anomalies) should not in fact have been eligible for the category.

Of course, Morricone worked almost until the end of his life, and – rather charmingly – eventually received a competitive Oscar nearly ten years after being given an honorary lifetime achievement award. It’s on this note that the film chooses to conclude, mentioning in passing the abiding popularity and influence of Morricone’s music.

As I say, it’s a serious piece of work, seeking to inform as much as entertain – there’s a lot of relatively technical music theory mentioned in passing. On the other hand, one thing which happens over and over again is Morricone (and others) attempting to talk about music, finding that the human voice fails them, and resorting to going dee-de-dah-de-tumpty-tump as an expression of what they’re trying to say, which is oddly endearing. Music does seem to spill out of Morricone throughout the film; one contributor suggests that his work constitutes prima facie evidence for the existence of God, the kind of assertion which might give one pause if it were said about almost anyone else.

Needless to say, the film is not short of people willing to come on and sing the Maestro’s praises, including film directors and musicians of all stripes. One almost gets the sense that Tornatore was simply collecting big-name contributors, some of whom just come on for a few seconds. It would certainly have been interesting to hear more from John Williams (surely the only person to seriously challenge Morricone for the title of most celebrated movie composer of all time) and Hans Zimmer (one of the dominant figures in the genre these days), but the film chooses quantity over depth.

At over two and a half hours, this is a substantial piece of work, and the sheer seriousness and comprehensiveness of it may also make it challenging for some viewers (as noted, it’s not just the well-known tunes, but more obscure phases of Morricone’s career and some of his avant garde work). But it comes back again and again to the fact that Ennio Morricone spent decades making some of the most beautiful art of the twentieth century. Much of it is there in the documentary, which makes it a wonderful reminder as well as an impressive guide to the great man’s career. Worth watching for anyone interested in music, or cinema as an art form.

 

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One of this week’s attempts at Bond counter-programming was The Alpinist, a documentary by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen – this is one of those films which is obscure to the point of not even having a Wikipedia page (a fairly arbitrary metric I admit), which perhaps indicates just how deep some cinemas are having to dig at the moment. Mortimer, who narrates the movie and occasionally pops up on screen, is described as a ‘veteran filmmaker’, although much of his CV comprises seven entries in the Reel Rock franchise and two First Ascent films.

Yes, we are back in the world of climbing and the Bergfilme, which is apparently experiencing something of a moment of coolness right now. I imagine that serious climbers, who are active, outdoorsy people, are not one of the demographics most likely to have a loyalty card from a major multiplex chain (or even community arts centre) and so most of the audience for climbing movies like this one is made up of somewhat sedentary types (yes, I put my hand up) looking for some vicarious vertigo.

Then again, either I am wrong or there are more of us than I would have thought, as the last climbing movie I saw, Free Solo, was playing to a packed house when I watched it. To say that The Alpinist is stuck in the shadow of Free Solo is an oversimplification, but it does have a definite sense of…

Well, you know, I get the feeling there’s a sense of one-upmanship between serious climbers (the new film touches on a ‘speed record’ rivalry between two of them) and in a similar way, rather than stick with familiar territory, Mortimer and his team seem to have been motivated by a desire to find a new and unusual subject, obscure even within the climbing world. They settled on a French-Canadian climber named Marc-Andre Leclerc, who – when they first came across him – was completing startling ascents with a minimum of publicity or social media attention. The film documents their initial meetings with Leclerc and his formative climbing years in the Canadian town of Squamish, touches on Leclerc’s history, and then gets down to what the audience is really here for, footage of Leclerc dangling above a terminally long drop, held there only by one and a half fingernails and what resembles an obscure cooking utensil. There’s a not entirely pleasant sensation that appears at these points and gasps are common in the auditorium.

Then again, this is what Alpine climbing is all about – climbing with a minimum of support, a minimum of people and a minimum of fuss. It is, to the average person, an insanely dangerous hobby – but as Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest solo, points out, the threat of death is an essential part of the climbing experience. The film dwells on this at some length, which eventually turns out to be significant.

Even Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, and a man whose brain does not feel fear in the same way as (most likely) yours or mine, pops up and says that some of what Leclerc is doing is ‘crazy’. The film does an excellent job of indicating the differences between Honnold and Leclerc – Honnold seems competitive, driven, hyper-focused, while Leclerc comes across as a more laid-back, almost Candide-like figure – albeit one with a past including a heroic intake of mind-altering drugs.

Documentary films these days often seem to go off on odd tangents and this one has its moment when the film crew discover that the subject of their film is a man who isn’t all that keen on actually being filmed – for Leclerc, climbing solo means just that, and having a camera crew around spoils the purity of the moment for him. He keeps clearing off to the other side of the world to climb up something without telling Mortimer where he’s gone; at one point there’s a scene consisting of the slightly exasperated film crew pointing the camera at Mortimer’s phone, through which the star of their project has finally decided to get in touch with them.

It’s a funny interlude, which is followed by Leclerc’s attempt to climb Torre Egger in Patagonia in winter (Mortimer and his team are not allowed to accompany him, but another climber is permitted to film part of the attempt). More epic scenery and defiance of death ensues.

But then, however, what has been a competent and occasionally slightly oddball documentary takes a very different turn, and whether this counts as a spoiler or not I don’t know. Technically, in standard movie terms, it certainly does; realistically, probably not. Anyway, spoilers, if spoilers they be, coming up.

The film stresses the extreme danger of free solo climbing, and run the roll call of people whose attempts to find the limits of climbing possibility extracted the heaviest price from them. What happened while the film was in its initial period of post-production was that Marc-Andre Leclerc joined their number.

Documentaries about living subjects are fairly common; so are retrospectives looking back on the life of someone who has passed on. The defining feature of The Alpinist is that Mortimer started off making the former, only to find himself, fairly late in the process, doing the latter instead. The results are very odd – the film does nothing to tip the uninitiated off about how events are going to unfold; it has no eulogistic, retrospective quality to it for the majority of its running time. Footage of Leclerc’s memorial gathering and poignant contributions from his girlfriend both appear, but it’s almost like they’ve been added to the end of a pre-existing film.

Perhaps this is intentional, because I presume it does do something to replicate the sense of shock that all involved must have felt at the time that the grim news came in (having done some of my pre-film research I sort of suspected how it was going to turn out). Or perhaps the film-makers simply couldn’t go back and rework the movie in the light of what had happened. Either way there’s still something very odd about the change in tone that occurs in the final section of the film.

This is a technically accomplished movie with some incredible imagery, both of the landscape and of the people setting themselves against it; not quite as focused or successful as Free Solo, but still impressive. However, what will stay with me is not any of those things, but the jarring reminder of what is at stake, which the film puts across in the most immediate and visceral way. Most of the film is beautiful and philosophical; the end of it is raw and unsteady. The transition between the two happens off-screen, of course, but in a very real sense it is what this film is about. I’m not sure how accomplished as a movie The Alpinist ends up as a result, but it is certainly a powerful and memorable film.

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Someone recommended Paul Solet’s documentary Tread to me last week, very enthusiastically: as it turns out, the film is available for free on t’internet (which must annoy Amazon Prime and Netflix US, both of which seem to have shelled out for the rights to it). The film concerns a curious incident in recent American history – it’s one of those things which was briefly very prominent in the news, before something bigger came along and eclipsed it (in this case, the death of Ronnie Reagan). I don’t remember the story myself, but did become aware of it later for slightly odd reasons (I plead the Fifth Amendment, except to say that I’m a member of some quite oddball Facebook groups).

The film concerns the last decade and a half or so in the life of Marv Heemeyer, an ex-military man who started a car repair business in the small town of Granby, Colorado. Various of Heemeyer’s friends and his former lover paint a generous picture of a hard-working man with a gift for welding, whose real passion was snowmobiling, and who organised his life so he could do the things he enjoyed.

Then – or so the film initially suggests – Heemeyer, an outsider in Granby, ran afoul of the town’s ‘good ol’ boy’ network, comprising several prominent local families, the mayor, the editor of the local newspaper, and so on. Heemeyer bought some land one of these people wanted, as a result of which they conspired to bankrupt him and see him run out of town. Being the kind of man he was, Heemeyer fought it every step of the way, but the level of corruption he encountered made his ultimate defeat inevitable.

Or so the film initially suggests. One of the impressive things about Tread is the way that, having established all this, it then smartly switches to let Heemeyer’s so-called persecutors have their say and give their side of what has turned into a rather compelling story of small-town politics and strong personalities at war with one another. Heemeyer’s account, which initially seemed reasonably coherent, suddenly seems to be shot through with improbabilities and other problems. The people he set himself against were not saints – this becomes very clear before the end – but neither does there really seem to have been a conspiracy against him.

Quite what happened to Marv Heemeyer is the question at the heart of the film, to which the only answer comes from tapes recorded by the man himself: he was sitting in his hot tub, he recalls, when he suddenly became convinced he had been appointed as the agent of divine retribution against the corrupt cowards running Granby.

At this point you would normally expect the story to involve a high-powered rifle, a rampage, and a stand-off with police marksmen – and while all these things do feature, there is another element, and the one which has earned Heemeyer a certain kind of grim celebrity in extremist libertarian circles. When he ‘became unreasonable’ (as he put it), he was sitting at the controls of a heavily modified Komatsu bulldozer, which he had spent months converting into a mobile fortress.

I suppose one of the issues when setting out to produce a feature-length documentary is how you make it properly cinematic and engaging for the audience; I suspect there’s always a danger of everything becoming quite dry and talking-heady. The Marv Heemeyer story is such a gift as source material for a film of any kind that I’m surprised it hasn’t been more heavily exploited in the US before (elements of the story, although notably not the bit with the bulldozer, formed the basis of Andrey Zyagintsev’s acclaimed 2014 film Leviathan, although this was also apparently inspired by the Book of Job). The bulldozer rampage is the bit you turn up to Tread for, and the film indeed starts with news footage of the actual events of that day; a more elaborate reconstruction of part of Heemeyer’s odyssey of destruction features in the closing section of the film.

Most of the film, however, is concerned with the events of the preceding decade or so, going into detail regarding Heemeyer’s character and grievances, and the perspectives of others involved in the story. As I’ve already suggested, this proves to be unexpectedly engrossing stuff, not least because of the almost Rashomon-like quality of the story – there is, obviously, only one set of facts, but Heemeyer’s apologists and the members of his hit list tell quite different versions of what happened.

Despite the fact that some of Heemeyer’s opponents hardly come across well – one of them expresses regret that the ‘killdozer’ was broken up and melted down, believing a museum devoted to the rampage could have been very lucrative – one is still inclined to conclude that Heemeyer was a man who, for whatever reason, simply lost it and cast loose from the anchor of reason. He may have been adopted as a totemic figure by extremist political groups, but there seems to have been very little about his actions that was motivated by a political belief – if anything, there is an almost religious zeal to the voice on the tapes, a man in exterminating angel mode.

It’s the audio tapes of Heemeyer’s own voice which are the most striking thing about Tread, the man’s own testament concerning what he was doing and why, and an extraordinary portrait of a man who was still functioning extremely cogently – planning in great detail, carrying out skilled and demanding technical tasks single-handed – while still apparently convinced he was carrying out God’s will by planning to demolish large portions of a small town with heavy machinery. It does seem incredible that nobody noticed what he was up to – Heemeyer himself took this as a sign that his actions had been divinely sanctioned – but then even after the fact the story seems incredible.

The rampage itself, when the film reaches it, is described with clarity and some decent reconstructions; it’s everything you could hope for from a modestly-budgeted documentary film. However, it’s the material leading up to this which really makes the story come to life and the result is an excellent documentary about strikingly bizarre and ultimately tragic events: a great example of insightful and effective storytelling, and well worth a look.

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It seems like that one of the perks that comes with your Successful Film Director badge is the opportunity to occasionally make a documentary about anything you like, more often than not a niche personal interest of some sort: James Cameron has done a couple about deep-sea exploration, Peter Jackson seems to have an interest in military history (particularly aviation), Shane Meadows did one about his favourite band, and so on. You can see why these sorts of projects get the green light: documentary features are usually a tricky sell and putting the name of someone popular on them helps to offset that.

Edgar Wright is the latest to have a go and the subject of his film is effectively given away by the title, The Sparks Brothers – the fact that this is a title which the siblings in question supposedly loathe gives you a reasonably good sense as to the general tenor of the piece, which is playfully deadpan and carefully absurd.

These may sound like odd choices for a documentary, but then this is a documentary about the rock band/pop group/synth duo/trio Sparks, or more specifically the Mael brothers, who have been the core of the enterprise for half a century now. Movies celebrating groups or bands or individual artists like this one usually start with a section where a selection of celebrity admirers come on and try to explain just how wonderful, accomplished, pleasing to the eye and generally deserving the subjects are. It perhaps says something about the essential nature of Sparks that even their most passionate devotees, given this opportunity for fulsome praise, still end up describing the duo as ‘an anomaly’, and offering thoughts such as ‘they would make good Muppets’ and that they look less like a band than people on day release from some kind of institution.

This seems rather unfair to younger brother Russell, who is the vocalist and front man for the band, and seems an engaging and personable chap, but may well be a fair description of elder Mael Ron, whose angular, threatening, slightly predatory stage presence – coupled to a dress sense which is interesting, to say the least – is one of the things the band is most famous for. There’s a famous, probably apocryphal story about John Lennon seeing Sparks’ first Top of the Pops appearance and phoning up Ringo Starr to tell him he’d just seen Marc Bolan performing a song with Hitler.

That song was This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, the 1974 single which is probably the only thing a lot of people can remember about Sparks. This was certainly the case for me: I was only vaguely aware of them beyond this one record, and was entirely in the dark about the twenty-plus albums and hundreds of songs they’ve recorded in a half-century career.

Happily, Wright and his film are here to provide some illumination into the Sparks opus, and do so at potentially exhausting length: there’s some background on the siblings (they are native Californians, hence the line that Sparks is ‘the best British band ever to come out of America’), including – courtesy of what must have been some ferocious research – footage of them as teenagers in the audience of a Beatles gig. Then the film covers the coming together of their first band Halfnelson, later renamed Sparks in a slightly perplexing marketing exercise.

From then on, every album is discussed, along with the brothers’ various peregrinations, reinventions, changes of style, and other projects. It is such an odd story – at one point they were going to make a film with Jacques Tati, at another they spent literally years working on an adaptation of a Japanese manga to be directed by a young Tim Burton – and essentially that of two men driven to follow their muse rather than any kind of commercial instinct. Former Sparks drummer (and, apparently, long-time TNG extra) Christi Haydon is reduced to tears as she recalls the brothers’ longest period in the commercial wilderness (in the late 80s and early 90s) and the fact that they continued to write and produce music on a virtually daily basis throughout this period.

One question the film doesn’t directly address is that of how a band can be so prolific and massively influential and yet remain so little known. (Wright makes the reasonable suggestion that every synth-pop duo with a flamboyant singer and a rather less demonstrative keyboard player are basically ripping off Sparks’ act, albeit usually with less wit.) The closest it comes is the suggestion that the whole essence of Sparks is an exercise in irony and the deconstruction of cliché – it’s usually impossible to tell whether the brothers are taking something deadly seriously or quietly sending it up; they may in fact be doing both at the same time. Their single Music You Can Dance To is an arch parody of vacuous commercial dance-pop, but at the same time it’s a banging example of the form at its best. Other songs reveal the same dry sense of humour or a willingness to completely tear up the usual norms of pop music – the lyrics to My Baby’s Taking Me Home are basically just the title, repeated seventy or eighty times in a row.

Wright manages to suffuse the movie with the same kind of deadpan artiness, including animated sequences and a droll section where Ron and Russell enact various metaphors – the suggestion that Sparks push the envelope of conventional pop music is accompanied by a clip of them pushing an envelope back and forth, and so on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are exceptionally good value as interviewees, in a film which is not short on people willing to come on camera and sing their praises – various musicians, actors, writers and fans all turn up.

The Sparks legend is largely based on the duo retaining an aura of mystique, which the film duly respects – we learn virtually nothing about their private or personal lives, beyond the fact that Russell once had a brief entanglement with Jane Wiedlin and that Ron has a large collection of snow-globes. Even so, the brothers appear at one point and admit their concerns on this front, attempting to remystify themselves by sharing some rather dubious Sparks facts – Russell is apparently a NASCAR driver in his spare time, while Ron writes spy thrillers under the pseudonym John le Carre (a joke which seems a bit tasteless now but wasn’t at the time of filming).

Two hours and twenty minutes is a long duration for this kind of film, but it trips along very enjoyably: as ever, you almost wish they stopped to play some of the songs in full. (Still, I suppose we have the internet for this sort of thing now.) It really succeeds as a funny, engaging and warm film, and also as a documentary. I went to see it on the strength of the trailer and Edgar Wright’s track record, really knowing very little about the band, and I came out actually loving them a bit. Consider me a convert.

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Who knows where anything starts anymore? Back in the old days, I went round to a friend’s house to discuss a plan to get a freaky art thing underway, which turned into the pair of us scribbling away independently. Being a good host, my friend invited me to choose some music to put on. Paralysed as usual by the prospect of making a revealing choice in a social context, I opted for the last CD I had bought, a live album recorded at a reunion concert. My friend nodded and smiled. ‘Play X-Ray Spex,’ he commanded his virtual assistant. We sat in thoughtful silence for a minute or so while Oh Bondage! Up Yours! racketed out of his speakers. ‘Stop playing X-Ray Spex,’ were the next words in the room…

Fifteen or sixteen years earlier I had been in the early stages of one of my infrequent but inevitably ill-advised excursions into online dating (or ‘the donkey ride to hell’ as I have come to refer to it) and we were at the getting-to-know-you stage in proceedings. Things were going reasonably well until I admitted to having been spending a lot of time listening to Germfree Adolescents, the 1978 debut album by (a pattern develops) X-Ray Spex. I would say it’s usually difficult to communicate unconstrained hilarity via an email, but my correspondent had no difficulty doing so. ‘I can’t believe anyone still listens to X-Ray Spex,’ came the response. Suffice to say things did not proceed very far…

…I suppose the root cause of all this, really, was the experience of having to study very intensively for my university finals back in the mid-1990s, not least because I’d spent the bulk of the preceding three years messing about in the film and media studies section of the library rather than doing much work on my own subject. This involved repeatedly listening to The Best Punk Rock Album in the World… Ever!, with the benefit of hindsight a slightly embarrassing and certainly inauthentic artefact which redeemed itself by being stuffed with banging tunes from bands I’d barely been aware of. As well as an almost Pavlovian conditioned response to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer (the track I would unfailingly listen to immediately before an exam), it also left me with an abiding fondness for the band with the saxophones and the shouting.

Nevertheless, as you can see, most peoples’ reaction to X-Ray Spex is that they are weird and/or a novelty band (‘novelty’ in this case having the same pejorative connotation as in ‘novelty record’). So it goes, I expect. Or maybe not, for if the cinemas were open at the moment, I expect that one or two of them would be showing Paul Sng and Celeste Bell’s documentary Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, about the life of the prime mover behind the band.

The title is ironic, or at the very least tongue-in-cheek, for there is very little about the life of Poly Styrene (real name Marianne Elliott-Said) that was entirely conventional: born in the late 1950s, of mixed English and Somali heritage, she always seems to have been one of life’s questing spirits. Perhaps the most predictable part of her story is her attendance at a Sex Pistols gig in 1976, which inspired her to have a go herself, hiring a band and changing her name. (There are variations on this story featuring New Order, Morrissey and many other musicians and bands.)

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the trajectory that followed was broadly speaking quite predictable: success, media interest, too much too young, personal and psychological problems, an unfavourably reviewed solo album, and then retreat from the music industry into a Hare Krishna community, from which she intermittently emerged until her untimely death in 2012.

There is, obviously, a great deal of potential material here, all mixed up with the social and cultural history of the UK. At first listen most of the songs on Germfree Adolescents sound the same – snarling guitars, frantic saxophones and Poly Styrene yowling over the top of it all – but the lyrics deal with topics of personal identity, feminism, the environment, and much more. One of the paradoxical things about the film is that while it reinforces Poly Styrene’s status as a punk icon, it also suggests the punk rock movement was a really a collection of disparate individuals, misfits who only really had in common the fact that they didn’t fit in anywhere else.

The general tone of the film arises from the fact that it is directed by and prominently features Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene’s daughter. Bell narrates the film, appearing on-screen throughout, and the piece is framed as her looking back on her mother’s life and significance. This gives it an undeniable resonance and impact, even if it does threaten to turn the film into a meditation on the extent to which it is possible to really know another person – for all the archive footage and material the documentary includes (Ruth Negga narrates some of Poly Styrene’s diaries), you inevitable come away realising you’re just getting tiny glimpses into what was really an extraordinary life.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have the measured thoughtfulness of Who is Poly Styrene?, a contemporary documentary made at the height of her success and popularity – the best moment of which comes when a journalist asks the singer how she sees her music developing in the future. ‘Who knows, maybe it’ll turn into the sound of a hoover,’ comes the chirpy reply. Nor is it really surprising that the film skates very lightly over some aspects of Poly Styrene’s life that might give a less positive image of her: there is a reference to her ‘cruelly sacking’ Lora Logic, the saxophonist responsible for much of the classic X-Ray Spex sound, but no elucidation of just what occurred (in one of the great karmic ironies, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic both ended up living in the same Hare Krishna community in later life).

Then again, this is standard operating procedure for most musical bio-documentaries, which are after all largely pitching to fans of their subject, who may be turned off by a warts-and-all approach. For the most part this is still a colourful and satisfying look at someone who is perhaps too little remembered these days. It doesn’t have the depth or detachment that makes for a really great documentary, but it’s still a thought-provoking and illuminating film.

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Lots of positive press in the media this week about Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, which – obviously – is the perfect way of starting a review of something completely different. Well, mostly different. (The wildlife documentary genre has diversified a bit in recent years.) One of the most vivid TV memories of my youth was watching Attenborough’s Life on Earth in 1979, the show which really began his ascension to the position of global icon which he now occupies. This was not inevitable, however: the American networks which helped to fund that first series were a bit uneasy about the fact it was fronted by a then-obscure British TV executive and suggested that, for the US transmission, Attenborough’s on-screen appearances be cut back to an absolute minimum and his inimitable voice-over be replaced by those of someone more familiar to the good people of Boise, Idaho – Robert Redford, maybe? Attenborough checked the contract and refused. Nevertheless, the influence of the US backers on the blockbuster series persists, and has – if you ask me – become rather more pernicious.

The first few big Attenborough series had all the big images and breathtaking photography you would expect – but coupled to this you actually learned something, about ecology, animal behaviour, deep time and how evolution functions. The world being as it is, you won’t hear much talk about evolution in the new, blockbuster shows. Lots of beautiful images, stirring music, and powerful narratives about animal lives – but actual science? Not so much of that. The emotional response has supplanted the intellectual.

It’s a trend fully on display in Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary My Octopus Teacher, available on that big old market-leader streaming site. Now, you might just possibly be drawn in to watching this film by the thought that it is about some wealthy eccentric who hires another person to teach his collection of cephalopods something. (Is this the time or place to get into that knotty ‘what is the correct plural for octopus?’ question? Apparently, it’s octopuses, but I’m not expecting it to come up that much.) There’s actually some potential there – another good title gone to waste. Or it could be about someone who is educated by an octopus, which likewise invites the potential viewer to engage in some productive speculation.

(Foster is the one at the bottom.)

Well, it turns out to be the latter, sort of, but I do suspect most people will conclude the title of the film is a bit of a chiz. It concerns the activities of one Craig Foster (apparently some sort of documentary film-maker, m’lud, and also the producer of this film), who seems like an intelligent and intense fellow, though perhaps not a man one would wish to be trapped in a lift with. The story as the film tells it – and the only voice you will hear throughout the film is Foster’s – is that Foster was having some kind of existential crisis, many years ago, when he decided to start swimming every day in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. It was during his daily briny sojourn that he first made the acquaintance of, um, a little octopus. (At the time of writing this film’s Wikipedia page lists the cast as ‘Craig Foster’ and ‘Little Octopus’.)

Foster says he was gripped by a sudden idea: what if he spent time every day swimming with Little Octopus and really got to know her and the kelp forest? Which is what he obviously did, as it’s the subject of the film. The documentary goes on to recount the growing bond between Foster and Little Octopus, their increasing fascination with each other, Foster’s grief and trauma when Little Octopus is partially-eaten by a pyjama shark (not as cute as it sounds), his joy at her recovery, and his gradual acceptance that the two of them are just not destined to be together. (I think there’s scope here for a companion piece – maybe The Man with the Octopus Teacher’s Wife – in which Mrs Foster’s feelings about her husband’s activities are made clear.) 

At least, that’s what we’re told. Recently, though, the issue of just how extensively the narrative of this sort of documentary film has been massaged has become a live one, and it seems to me that there’s something fishy about this octopus. The whole thing is framed as Foster looking back on his time with Little Octopus and her impact on his life – and vice versa, I suppose – and yet it is accompanied by suspiciously high-quality footage of the events he’s talking about. Was he filming it all at the time? If so, who’s doing all the second-unit stuff showing him swimming around? Are we actually seeing reconstructions of what happened, using a different octopus? If so, does the octopus know it’s just participating in a reconstruction? It seems unlikely.

Frankly, it all comes across as a bit one-sided, too, and would be greatly improved by some input from Little Octopus herself, giving her side of the story. ‘I was just overwhelmed by my feelings for her,’ confesses Foster at one point. Was this a reciprocal situation, or was he just the latest in a long line of men to have their heads turned by a much younger and impressively flexible female? Sadly the technology is not there yet for Little Octopus to make a proper contribution concerning how she felt about this whole situation.

(One of the odder things I’ve been involved in recently was a protracted and slightly combative discussion over the philosophical issues involved in translating communications between human beings and intelligent cephalopods – we weren’t even talking about that film in which Amy Adams teaches alien squid to speak English rather badly – particularly when it comes to proper nouns. But it has been that sort of year overall, I suppose.)

In short, I found the whole thing to be rather suspect simply on a conceptual level, but then it’s pretty clear that the film is not intended to be especially rigorous when it comes to objective fact. The nature of cephalopod cognition and the possible inner lives of octopuses is a fascinating topic, on which books have been written, but it’s one which is barely touched on here – although Foster does mention that one of the differences between Little Octopus and him is that her brain is largely distributed throughout her body – this film is only really educational in a ‘look at these wonders of nature!’ sort of way. The real focus of the thing is on Foster talking about Little Octopus in a brazenly anthropomorphic way, often accompanied by stirring violin or piano music. As previously mentioned, the whole film is intended to work on a sentimental rather than an intellectual level.

If you were to design a documentary intended to leave me cold, I think you would find it hard to do a better job than My Octopus Teacher – although I must confess to deriving a sort of pleasure from shouting at the screen, which I did on a regular basis throughout. The camerawork and images of the sea life in the kelp forest are, needless to say, very beautiful to look at – but most of the rest of it is borderline irritating. It might actually be a bit less annoying if they released an alternative version with all of Craig Foster’s pieces to camera edited out, along with his voice-over. It would be nice to look at and still emotionally fairly stirring, I expect, and the most egregiously questionable bits would be excised, so I think that might be a great improvement for everyone.

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As anyone who’s dug through the archives of the blog will know, a lot of my earliest reviews were written for the online newspaper of a very early social media/open-source collaborative encyclopedia website, and I still do a piece for them every week. Usually this is a topical review, which has obviously been tricky for the last couple of months, but at least this frees me up somewhat to contribute to the themed issues the paper occasionally runs. They recently did an ornithological number, which I treated with due respect by submitting an update of my 2012 review of The Giant Claw, and I have just been informed they’re following this up with a bug-themed issue, and would appreciate something appropriate.

Well, as you know, if I have a genuine passion in my life, it is science fiction, and there does seem to be an implicit link between insects on film and the SF genre. You can start the line with Them!, and then trace a path through the years, taking in such treats as Tarantula! (not actually about an insect, of course, but as we shall see taxonomic precision is not the strong suit of arthropod-related cinema), The Deadly Mantis, The Fly and its sequels,  and so on, down through Phase IV and on to the present day (personally I’ve always felt that Aliens in particular owes a huge debt to Them!). This doesn’t even touch on the Japanese contribution to the tradition – how can one not mention Mothra? (There are also the giant caterpillars which appear in Rodan and, much later, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus.) It’s actually a lot harder to think of insect-related movies which aren’t SF – the only ones I can think of are The Naked Jungle and The Swarm, in which Charlton Heston and Michael Caine contend with large numbers of our exoskeletal friends.

Still, the sheer number of bug movies in the SF-horror vein suggests there has always been money to be made here. This may explain the nature (no pun intended) of the distinctly odd movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, made in 1971 and directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green. The Hellstrom Chronicle was advertised in the style of those SF-horror projects, on the strength of its various baleful pronouncements on the future of the human race, which seems to me to be rather disingenous considering it is actually a wildlife documentary (albeit one including brief clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle). Nevertheless, the film was a financial success and won an Oscar and a BAFTA, so it clearly didn’t do anyone any harm.

After some striking opening footage representing the formation of the Earth and the origins of life itself, and then some nice footage of carnivorous plants doing their thing, we meet the radical scientist Dr Nils Hellstrom himself. Hellstrom has a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an MS (Master of Science), and is WF (wholly fictitious). He is played by Lawrence Pressman, who basically hosts and narrates the entire movie. Hellstrom is, by his own admission, a fanatic, a heretic, and a lunatic, and has fallen out of favour with the scientific establishment due to his unpopular Big Idea: this is that, in the ongoing struggle between the human race and the insect world, there can only be one victor, and it’s not going to be the big soft pink fleshy things.

The rest of the movie is basically Hellstrom trying to convince the audience that we’re all doomed, and supporting his argument with various pieces of state-of-the-art footage of insects in their everyday lives. We are treated to segments showing battles between red and black harvester ants, more ants attacking a termite colony, the curious sex lives of spiders, a startling sequence showing what it’s like to be inside a plane flying through a locust swarm, driver ants on the march, and so on.

The photography still looks good even nearly fifty years on, with many striking images; no doubt it seemed even more impressive back in the early seventies. It is quite fascinating and absorbing, even before one considers the contributions made by Hellstrom himself. These add a lot to the tone of the movie and the impression it leaves, but viewed objectively they are frankly a bit of a mixed bag. Hellstrom’s thesis was apparently synthesised from the work of a range of contemporary entomologists, approved by two advisors from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and then turned into a script by David Seltzer (later to have a decent career as a writer-director, most notably as scriptwriter of both versions of The Omen). I’m guessing the advisors didn’t get a look at the final script, or if they did their notes were ignored.

There are some interesting philosophical ideas here: insects have no capacity for intelligence or abstract reasoning, but – argues Hellstrom – this also means they are incapable of stupidity or irrationality. Their lack of individuality likewise gives them a competitive advantage. (And so on: there are some ecological ideas here too.) But on the other hand, you can imagine the advisors seething every time Hellstrom refers to the entire class of insects (eight million species, more or less) as a single creature, analogous to humans (one species – extant, anyway).

In the end, though, one kind of gets the impression that Dr Hellstrom and his theories are basically here to provide a bit of colour and atmosphere to link together bits of (very impressive) footage showing insects and their cousins up close. And this they do successfully. I suppose it’s always a question of how you find an audience for this kind of film, which isn’t typical cinema fare – twenty-five years later, a European movie called Microcosmos was released, which took a much more lyrical-pastoral approach to the same sort of material, largely eschewed narration, and once again did very well for itself.

The Hellstrom Chronicle turned out to have a curious afterlife as well – apart from winning various big documentary awards, it also inspired an actual SF novel by Frank Herbert: Hellstrom’s Hive, portraying a human society run along the same lines as a nest of social insects and its conflict with ‘wild’ humanity. Perhaps more significant, though, is the way the film presents wildlife footage with a strong element of narrative, including the use of incidental music to heighten the drama and impact of what is being shown. I’ve no idea if this was an innovation of the film, or something which was widespread in nature films at the time. Certainly, The Hellstrom Chronicle does this well, and the technique has become ubiquitous in wildlife documentary series today: one of the reasons I’ve more or less stopped watching this sort of programme is that any kind of scientific or educational underpinning has been dropped in favour of simple spectacle, very often sentimental. But it would be excessively harsh to hold The Hellstrom Chronicle responsible for this. This is obviously quite an odd movie, and in some ways it feels quite dated now, but the quality of the microphotography and Pressman’s well-pitched performance keep it engaging even today.

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