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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

This one could be a bit different from usual. I am not sure I have ever lifted the curtain, or gone behind the lid on the thinking behind this undertaking before, but I do think if you’re going to write about films in a long-form sort of way – as opposed to something along the lines of ‘This rocked! Totes amazeballs! 10/10!’, and so on – you really do need to embrace that. Even when it seems difficult to find anything particularly pertinent, insightful, or interesting to say about a movie I do try to ensure the review clocks in at no fewer than a thousand words; the only exception I can think of in recent years was the review for Victoria, and that was because writing a single sentence of more than 600 words seemed incredibly difficult at the time.

But this one could be shorter, because the film in question is one which it is difficult to talk about in any detail without spoiling it: the surprises and twists involved are not just a key part of the story, in a very real sense they are the story. So let’s have a go and see how far we get. I apologise for the slightly self-regarding tone of the review so far, but this is not at all inappropriate for Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which ends up being a bit self-regarding too. Unfortunately this is not a movie which appears to have landed a proper cinema release (despite the involvement of various heavyweight backers), instead getting one of those special ‘one night only’ screenings, accompanied by a live Q&A hosted by Louis Theroux (I strongly suspect those heavyweight backers may have called in a few favours). I’m not sure how successful this has been, as there were only about six people at the screening I attended. This strikes me as a shame, but then I suspect this is a film pitching for a limited audience, and one which will prove very difficult to market.

So, then: who is the Amazing Johnathan and why has Berman opted to do a documentary on him? Well, I just about knew who he was, but this owes more to my freakish mutant memory powers than anything else – John Szeles is a comedy magician, much more famous in the US than the UK (although I do recall him doing some TV shows over here in the early 1990s). To describe him as a kind of punk rock/heavy metal fusion of Penn and Teller and Tommy Cooper is not, perhaps, an especially helpful analogy, but on the other hand it does help bolster the word count. Various luminaries including Penn Jillette, Weird Al Yankovich and Carrot Top appear at the start of the film and talk about what an important and inspiring performer he was.

The starting point of the film is that, in 2014, Szeles effectively announced his retirement: he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (a heart condition) and the doctor had given him only a year to live. The documentary catches up with a still-very-much-with-us Johnathan, sitting around his rather substantial mansion with a somewhat long-suffering wife, reflecting on his situation, his past, and his future (such as it is). Then, Szeles decides he is going to go back on the road for one last tour, feeling that anything is better than just sitting around waiting for the inevitable. Obviously, this seems like a very risky venture, and Szeles’ wife is obviously very uneasy about it all – hanging over the whole venture is the memory of what happened to Tommy Cooper (a much-loved British magician and comedian who not only literally died on stage, but did so in the middle of a live TV broadcast – footage of which is included here).

And then something happens. This is the point at which the film starts to depart from the path it has seemed likely to stay on. I am, to be honest, really unsure as to how much detail to give about this. I should probably make it clear that the Amazing Johnathan does not die while being filmed, and (at the time of writing) still seems to be with us. Okay: what happens is this. What appears to be a second documentary crew turns up, also intent on making a film about Szeles’ comeback tour, this particular project apparently backed by the makers of Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. (Simon Chinn, producer of these films, also eventually becomes mixed up in it all.)

Needless to say this has a profound impact on Ben Berman, who has to confront the possibility of a project he has invested serious time and money in being squashed by big-name competitors. But then things get weirder and weirder, and strangely intimate and personal. The increasingly hapless Berman effectively becomes the lead character of his own film, which rather than a documentary about a terminally-ill magician transforms into an exploration of the reality of life as a documentary film-maker and a deconstruction of how these things get made. The director manages to fend off incipient paranoia in order to consider some serious questions – why are so many people so interested in making films about Szeles at this point? What is his own motivation for making this film? Just how does he anticipate his film will end?

There’s an entertaining detour when Berman genuinely starts to question what he’s found himself in the middle of, and even begins to wonder if the whole situation is actually some kind of an extraordinary slow-burning prank executed by Szeles himself, who is after all an illusionist with a very twisted sense of humour (a friend of Szeles’ takes Berman aside and quietly lets him know the magician has looked into the practicalities of faking his own death). By this time the film has come to resemble a confounding puzzle-box, or a mirrored labyrinth, and you do find yourself questioning everything you see on the screen. Could it be that the whole thing is in fact a scripted black comedy passing itself off as a documentary?

1000 words so far and I don’t think I have blown the gaffe too badly. I should also make clear that while the film may sound very self-regarding, it is thoroughly watchable and humane throughout – it is often very funny, too. In the end it offers a significant, if oblique, insight into what goes into the making of the brilliant documentaries we have seen so many of recently – the competition to find a good subject, the extent to which these are artificial narratives, and so on. (It goes without saying that getting people to question ‘facts’ presented to them by the media is an unqualified good, especially given the current state of the world.) I can see why a film with such niche concerns struggled to find even a limited cinema release, but it is still an intelligent and entertaining movie, well worth watching if documentaries are your thing.

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It is surely a coincidence that recent developments in British current affairs took place on the same day that temperatures in the country rose to something close to what you would expect to encounter in the proverbial fiery pits of the underworld. I was half-expecting to see news reports of fish falling from the sky, the Thames turning to blood, and horses eating each other, but these may not arrive until after the customary visit to see the Queen (yet to occur as I write). If nothing else it made for an appropriately hellish atmosphere in a poorly air-conditioned cinema as we sat and watched Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The Brink, as this film concerns the recent doings of Steve Bannon. It would of course be unfair to suggest that Bannon is the Devil; but, to paraphrase The West Wing, I would not be at all surprised to learn that he is the one who is sent out to buy the Devil’s cigarettes.

Who, you may possibly be asking, is Steve Bannon, and why does he deserve such opprobrium (even maybe odium)? Well, if you actually are wondering this, I sort of envy you. Where do you start with describing Bannon? Former US Navy officer, former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, sometime film producer and director (most likely nothing you have ever seen – if you’re lucky, anyway), at one point director of the closed-system experiment Biosphere 2, Bannon eventually rose to significance after founding the far-right news network Breitbart and becoming involved in the election campaign of Donald Trump.

Bannon ended up as Chief Strategist in the grotesque circus of the Trump White House, famously having all the chairs taken out of his office in order to create a more dynamic atmosphere about the place. This role ended after the Charlottesville protests and Trump’s response to them, and it is at this point, in the late summer of 2017, that the film opens, with Bannon having fallen from grace (if that word is even applicable in the context)

Most of it consists of Klayman quietly handing Bannon metaphorical rope as he goes about his self-appointed task as… what? It seems to be vague at the best of times. To begin with there is a sense of quiet optimism, with Bannon spinning things so that leaving the White House is really a positive step for him, as he can now go out and about as a roving envoy and cheerleader for the Trump administration without any of the fetters of actually being involved with it. Hopeful young Republicans seek him out in search of his endorsement, and he leaves his customary behind-the-scenes role to make various personal appearances.

Showing the same unerringly keen instincts that led him to back Trump, one of the first recipients of Bannon’s magic touch is Roy Moore, a far-right Alabama judge who was accused of sex crimes in the midst of his campaign to become a senator, resulting in the first Democrat being sent to Washington from the state in a quarter of century. There is then something of a tiff with Trump, after Bannon suggests some of the campaign’s meetings with Russians were unpatriotic.

And so Bannon clears off to Europe where a whole new menagerie of horrors await his attempts to organise a far-right populist movement there, as well, up to and including an appearance by Nigel Farage (here caught between his time with UKIP and his latest scheme). He hangs out with various wealthy white men who still manage to sincerely believe they are somehow rebels against the elite, is left reeling by an encounter with the notoriously tough political interviewer Susannah Reid (NB to foreign readers: this review contains irony), and hosts a series of dinners for people who are often described in the media as neo-fascists. Oddly enough, Klayman always seems to be being sent out of the room whenever Bannon meets up with one of the billionaires who finance his various activities.

Then it’s back to the USA, with Bannon cranking out another of his propaganda films (‘you say that as if propaganda’s a bad thing,’ he observes) in support of Trump ahead of the mid-term elections. It is hard not to detect some trace of Bannon wanting to achieve some kind of rapprochement with his former boss and get back into favour, for all that he declares on camera he’s not bothered about having a close personal relationship with the man. It goes on and on and on: smirking, dog-whistle politics and a wall-to-wall sense of entitlement. There is at least some schadenfreude to be had as Bannon grows increasingly embattled as the film goes on: he loses all patience with one particularly self-regarding underling and appoints his nephew (whose previous role has apparently been to make him snacks) as effective overseer of the entire European project, while another choice moment sees a frustrated Bannon literally banging his head against the furniture in mid-phone.

But on the whole this is thoroughly grim stuff. You can understand Klayman’s decision to step well back as an artist and let Bannon and his associates speak for themselves – they do as good a job of indicting themselves as any journalist could – but it is still pretty dispiriting and unpalatable. The film is, at best, a trip into a world of complete moral bankruptcy and deeply skewed perspectives. Practically the first thing you see in the film is Bannon enthusing over the efficiency of the design and engineering that went into the Birkenau extermination camp, not even seeming to consider that doing this might be considered a touch provocative by many people (he is repeatedly taken to task for using anti-Semitic tropes later in the film, especially with regard to George Soros). We also see him marvelling after his first encounter with a mainstream audience (as opposed to the Trump base he usually appears before). ‘They hate [Trump]!’ Bannon says, practically shaking his head in amazement. ‘Those aren’t even screaming liberals, they’re decent folks.’

On the whole this is documentary film-making stripped back to the barest of bones – the odd caption, and a very occasional intervention on-camera from Klayman herself, but most of the rest of it is Bannon talking – smooth, more than a bit self-regarding, a polished (perhaps glib) media performer. The cracks still show over the course of the movie. But why should someone who isn’t a right-wing acolyte subject themselves to ninety minutes of this stuff? If nothing else it is an important reminder of the forces of division at work in the world today, of exactly who these people are, what they represent and how they operate. You turn your back and look away from all this at your peril.

It is difficult to be particularly hopeful at the moment if you are not a right-wing nationalist of some stripe, and to be honest watching The Brink is unlikely engender much optimism. But it is a film of some importance for the same reason that it is important to watch the news and read the papers. Do we get much sense of who Steve Bannon really is as a man? Actually, I think we do, and for all that he comes across fairly amiably in the film, it is ultimately not that pretty. But it is the forces he represents and is attempting marshal that really matter, and which give the film a demand on the attention of anyone interested in the future of the world.

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The least predictable franchise in cinema history is back again, nearly eight years after the most recent instalment: yes, it’s yet another movie in the Apollo series, Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11. On-the-ball readers will no doubt recall the 1995 movie Apollo 13, which launched the whole undertaking, and was a rather successful disaster movie in the slick and mainstream idiom, and bonus points go to anyone who can further recall the 2011 offering Apollo 18, which was a bit of a departure, being a rather quirky found-footage horror movie. The new film pioneers another new genre by being not just a prequel but also a documentary.

Well, yes, it’s a feeble conceit, but I have to get these things started somehow. I have occasionally reflected on the fact that we have been treated to two films about troubled entries in the Apollo programme (including an entirely fictitious one), but the closest we’ve got to a film about the actual Apollo 11 mission has been last year’s First Man, a slightly different proposition in terms of its tone and focus. I suppose you could consider First Man to be the first of a whole bunch of films coming out to commemorate the first manned Moon landing – shortly to appear, for instance, is Armstrong, another documentary focusing on the man himself. Apollo 11 takes a more general look at this most seminal moment in human history.

But really, fifty years! I imagine there are grandparents living today who were not born the last time someone walked on the Moon. As this achievement slips ineluctably into the past, with still no concrete sign of the prospect of people travelling again beyond low Earth orbit, it is perhaps no wonder it increasingly acquires the status of myth – with all the associations that accompany this. As well as films about the Apollo landings, there have also been an increasing number of films about the faking of the Moon landings, documentaries, dramas, and even comedies. It has almost become a cliché to allude to Stanley Kubrick’s role in this, with the conspiracy literature on the subject reaching almost encyclopaedic quantities.

If nothing else, Apollo 11 should do something to counter all of this, by going back to the basics of this remarkable story. Todd Douglas Miller is credited as the director, but one has to wonder to what extent he actually directed this film, at least in the sense the word is conventionally understood. It contains no footage filmed after 1969, unless you count some very basic graphics used to illustrate the progress of the flight; there is no narration, no interviews recorded after the fact. The credits even take pains to make clear that the minimal music score included uses only instruments and technology that existed at the time depicted in the film. All Miller has really done is select and edit together pre-existing pieces of film.

And yet, and yet: this is to be too dismissive of a film which often borders on the mesmerising. There may be little truly new here, but Miller has assembled this fifty-year-old footage with great deftness and focus. There is no backstory, no legacy – except, perhaps, for some brief archive footage of President Kennedy inaugurating the lunar project – the film begins with Apollo 11’s Saturn V making its way to the launch pad, and concludes with the three astronauts making their safe return to Earth. In between is the mission itself, shown mostly through unseen, or at least unfamiliar film.

Apollo 11 has received glowing reviews, and I must confess to having been a little sceptical about whether they were entirely warranted – there is a tendency sometimes to praise a documentary simply because its subject matter is praiseworthy, rather than because the actual film-making craft involved is impressive. However, the sheer quality and variety of the images here is very-nearly jaw-dropping. I had no idea the mission was so comprehensively documented, though of course it makes sense that it was: it feels like whatever image Miller wanted to achieve a certain effect at a particular point in the story, he was able to find it somewhere in the NASA archives.

This is, of course, a historical document, but one of the striking things about it is the incidental detail revealing the vast social changes that have happened in the last fifty years: the massed ranks of NASA technicians at Mission Control are almost exclusively white guys of a certain age, in identikit white shirts and dark ties, while there’s not much more variety amongst the crowds gathering to watch the launch – although there are some pretty eye-catching hats on show amongst the spectators.

I hope I am not being too provocative if I suggest that everyone should be educated about Apollo and the rest of the manned space programme, both American and Soviet, simply because it is one of the most important things we have achieved as a species. As part of this, Apollo 11 is certainly a vital, impressive document. I do wonder, though, if the decision to make the film quite so spartan and un-spun was quite the best one. We learn a lot about what happened and who did it, but very little about the technical challenges involved and the characters of the people involved (although given Armstrong’s noted aloofness perhaps this latter element is quite appropriate). Another consequence of the format of the film is that if something didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t get mentioned – for example, moving around inside the lunar module in bulky spacesuits, Aldrin and Armstrong broke the switch that would fire the rockets to take them off the Moon, and the highly-trained astronauts were forced to resort to sticking a felt-tip pen into the control panel to make the circuits operate. It’s this kind of quirky human story which the film is almost completely lacking in.

Still, as I mentioned, there are a plethora of films and books on this particular topic, and at not much more than ninety minutes in length Apollo 11 can’t cover everything. What it does succeed in is making these events feel fresh and real again, the plethora of details and new perspectives bringing new life to a story which is well-worn for some of us. A great achievement, and arguably a very important film.

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Coming out of Us, and still digesting what we had just seen, Olinka and I cast a prospective eye over the posters advertising coming attractions. ‘Oh, I’ve seen that. That’s a good movie,’ she said, indicating a picture of a suited man, his head cropped from the frame, holding a large papier-mache fake head. It looked very much like this:

‘That’s not the Michael Fassbender film,’ I felt obliged to inform her. ‘That’s a documentary about the real guy.’

‘What real guy?’

‘Frank Sidebottom. Chris Sievey,’ I said. ‘He was a… a…’ Words failed me, as I imagine is not uncommon when trying to describe Frank Sidebottom’s act.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Olinka said, Frank Sidebottom’s limited degree of fame in his early-90s heyday not having penetrated the Moscow area, apparently.

Nevertheless, curiosity was piqued, and almost exactly a week later Con-Con and I were hanging around outside the Phoenix waiting for Olinka, who was as usual threatening to be late for the film. I noticed something startling coming down the street in our direction.

‘Oh my God,’ I said.

‘What?’ said Con-Con, looking about her in confusion.

‘Look over there. There’s a man in a Frank Sidebottom head coming this way.’

‘Where? Who?’ Con-Con said, peering vaguely the right way – for all of Con-Con’s many wonderful qualities, her eyesight is not much better than her sense of direction. ‘That’s just a man in a hoodie… oh… no it’s not… ooh, that’s creepy…’

I had some sympathy with this gut reaction. The cinema staff were not overly surprised to hear of this visitation, the Frank-lookalike having informed them he was coming. He had apparently been promised free popcorn if he did indeed actually turn up wearing the head, although the question of how he was actually going to eat it was still open. The fake head, when it arrived, was a slightly funny colour and somewhat squashed-looking, but it was still recognisably an avatar of Frank Sidebottom, and I imagine the people sitting behind its wearer were relieved when he took it off prior to the start of the film.

Normally this sort of thing going on before a low-budget documentary would be quite unusual, but as the film itself makes clear, slightly different standards apply in the world of Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom. The focus of the film, produced, directed, edited, and possibly catered by Steve Sullivan, is certainly on the former. Sievey was a dedicated fan of the Beatles (and, to judge from his artwork, the output of Gerry Anderson, Gene Roddenberry and Terry Nation) who from a young age decided to devote his life to music. Preferring to retain complete creative control rather than work within the industry, he was prolific but only marginally successful, fronting a new wave band called The Freshies who seem to have been genuinely unlucky not to get the big break they probably deserved.

The story so far is charmingly weird enough, told through a mixture of interviews and archive material (a taped demo of one of Sievey’s early songs is interrupted by his father, demanding to know when he’s going to wash the car), and documenting a genuinely idiosyncratic career – at one point The Freshies released a single for which the B-side was a ZX-81 program that produced a primitive video for the A-side, while a later incarnation of the band attempted to represent the UK in Eurovision with a song about aeroplane seatbelts.

Things get truly peculiar with the arrival of the Sidebottom phase of Sievey’s career: Frank Sidebottom was conceived as a comedic front enabling Sievey to effectively be his own support act, a freakish, guileless man-child who was The Freshies’ biggest fan. In the end, however, Frank’s own popularity ended up eclipsing that of his creator, and he ended up becoming more successful than The Freshies ever were.

There are many good things about this film, but one of the things it fails to communicate to the uninitiated is just what a deeply strange and disconcerting figure Frank Sidebottom arguably was when he initially rose to fame. Sievey’s name was never mentioned, and he never broke character or removed the head while performing. The vast majority of audiences had no idea who this was, or indeed what he was trying to achieve: Frank Sidebottom’s stage act included stand-up comedy, musical numbers, and (theoretically) ventriloquism. The writer Jon Ronson, a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band, probably gets closest to the truth when he suggests that Sievey was a performance artist, with Sidebottom a sort of animated surrealist installation, bridging the line between the deliberately-bad-for-comic-effect and the genuinely inept.

Frank Sidebottom’s career ran the gamut from Saturday morning kid’s TV (one archive clip shows an encounter between him and Andrea Arnold, later to transition from TV presenter to Oscar-winning film-maker) to playing the Reading Festival in front of a crowd of thousands of fans. But, the film suggests, not all was well inside the head. There is something potentially interesting here, with different interviewees presenting different ideas as to exactly what the relationship between Sievey and Frank actually was – was it just an act, a performance? Or was there something more complicated and psychologically troubled going on? The film is so affectionate towards Sievey – not surprisingly, given various members of his family were involved in making it – that it kind of skates over this issue, although it is strongly implied that Sievey grew to resent the popularity of Frank, considering him to be a limit on his other creative ambitions.

One of the things that the film does make absolutely clear is the ceaseless creativity which characterised Sievey throughout his life: music, comedy, art, animation, film-making, examples of all of them are on display. It seems like he never really stopped, regardless of whether the piece in question was intended for public consumption or not – Frank Sidebottom started his own football team in the early 1990s, and despite this being an amateur, Sunday-league side, Sievey produced match programmes packed with detail, jokes and art solely for his own amusement.

You have to admire and perhaps be just a tiny bit jealous of that kind of relentless creative fire – that’s how I feel, anyway. The film acknowledges that there was a darker side to Sievey’s life, with friends and family being candid about some of the troubles, particularly in his later years, but this is overall a film filled with love for its subject, expressed by some quite famous faces too – in addition to Ronson, there are contributions from Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble, Mark Radcliffe, John Cooper Clarke, John Thomson, and others, none of whom have a genuinely bad word to say about him.

Sievey’s greatest success as a performer was in his live shows, his chaotic, semi-improvised act never quite transferring to TV (the producers intended to insist on rehearsals, which were not really his thing), and I have to say I was always quite ambivalent towards Frank Sidebottom when he appeared on the box, finding him at least as weird as he was funny. The movie does a good job of proclaiming Sievey to be an overlooked creative genius and possible national treasure; it is touching, funny and very entertaining. Well worth checking out.

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Now here’s a movie Netflix is hosting that I can genuinely get enthusiastic about: Daniel J Clark’s Behind the Curve. At first glance it looks almost like this is going to be one of those self-made, slightly suspect ‘documentaries’ which turn up on YouTube and similar sites by the score, but in the end it turns out to be a polished and intelligent, not to mention highly entertaining film.

It’s understandable to be a little concerned, considering the subject of the film, which is – fasten your seatbelts, readers of a nervous disposition – the Flat Earth movement. The last few years have apparently seen a resurgence in the popularity of the belief that the world is not spherical but instead some form of plane, doubtless partly due to the internet and the way that social media allow people to exchange ideas and organise – a quick check of a leading search engine produces 586,000,000 results if you look for ‘flat earth’. (Personally, I’m much more taken with the various theories that particular cities and countries, for example Bielefeld in Germany, or the entirety of Finland, are entirely fictitious.) But is there something else going on here?

Although various astrophysicists and other scientists do contribute to the film, most prominently the physicist Hannalore Gerling-Dunsmore, most of Behind the Curve does not really engage in attempting to debunk the Flat Earthers, either because it’s such a silly idea it doesn’t warrant the effort (if you don’t believe in it), or because the documentary makers are shills for mainstream science and thus incapable of answering the Flat Earthers’ claims (if you’re one of the faithful). Instead it simply spends some time with prominent members of the FE community and allows them to, basically, dig their own holes.

What soon becomes clear is that there is, shall we say, an interesting mixture of different personalities within the FE movement, some of them more – and I am trying hard to be as non-judgemental in my treatment of this as the movie – crazed than others. One very prominent individual apparently refused to participate without receiving a large sum of money, the guarantee he would feature in 25-50% of the film, and the assurance the film would support his claim that a rival Flat Earther is actually a fictitious persona assumed by a movie executive working undercover. (The film-makers declined.) Another comes across as, well, simply obnoxious, haranguing NASA employees in coffee shops, and declaring his views to total strangers in the street. Perhaps it goes without saying that he also doesn’t believe in vaccination, or evolution, or the age of the Earth, and puts about the canard that NASA is actually the Hebrew word for deception.

Probably quite wisely, the film concentrates on two more affable Flat Earthers, mainly Mark Sargent, a ‘former digital pinball champion’ who has apparently become a legendary figure in the community. Sargent seems very sincere and a nice guy, but the thing he seems most keen on other than dismantling heliocentric cosmology is brazen self-publicity – he spends an appreciable chunk of the film in an ‘I AM MARK SARGENT’ T-shirt. To be fair, he also seems quite keen on fellow FE advocate Patricia Steere. Apart from the Flat Earth notion, she is also into cats, September 11th conspiracy theories, anti-vaxing, and Morrissey. Sadly for Mark, she doesn’t seem to be that into him, and one of the more poignant elements of the film is a succession of scenes in which Sargent looks longingly at Steere while she, completely oblivious, chats brightly to the camera.

Between them, Sargent and Steere provide a fascinating window into what it’s like in the Flat Earth community these days. For a movement claiming to espouse the one great truth which is hidden from the masses, they do seem to be very split-prone, and not really able to decide on the details of what it is that they actually believe – if Antarctica, rather than being a continent, is actually an ‘ice wall’ bounding a disc, what’s on the other side of the wall? No-one seems really certain. Sometimes things seem to get nasty – Sargent is, as mentioned, decried as an infiltrator, while Steere is accused of being a government agent tasked with guiding people astray – her name is PatriCIA STEERe, get it? There is a whole warren of rabbit holes here, that one could cheerfully spend a very long time scampering through.

I must be careful to review the film itself rather than the people in it, although the nature of Behind the Curve means that the film-makers don’t really need to do very much to inform and entertain; just pointing the camera at FE advocates and letting them explain their beliefs is sufficient. What soon becomes very clear is that the Flat Earth movement serves these people much as a traditional religion serves its adherents – whether it is true or provable is really secondary to the sense of significance and belonging that it gives them. This is quite touching, but there are also some very funny moments revolving around the various experiments carried out by Flat Earthers attempting to disprove the curvature of the Earth or its rotation. When one of these instead gives pretty good evidence that the world indeed rotates, strenuous mental gymnastics involving vaguely-defined ‘heavenly energies’ ensue to explain away the awkward results.

The film itself plays a pretty straight bat, though, as I said, and takes a humane and thoughtful approach on the whole, especially when it comes to discussing just why it is that the Flat Earth theory has gathered such support in recent years. Obviously, there are connections between Flat Earth and other conspiracy theories; there are also links between this idea and fundamentalist Christian conceptions of cosmology. The thing about the Flat Earth theory is that it is not easily disproved; every child is startled by the notion that people on the other side of the world are effectively upside-down – it sounds ridiculous, until you learn about gravity and centrifugal force, and so on. The film suggests that what we are seeing is a result of a failure in education, as much as anything else.

Experts discuss some of the psychological principles involved, such as confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect, but what it all appears to boil down to is that people feel a deep distrust of conventional authority and standard sources of information. It almost goes without saying that we are living through the era of ‘fake news’, alternative fact, and so on, and while the film barely mentions politics the resurgence of Flat Earth should not come as a surprise at a time when concepts such as consensus and objective fact are under attack. This is not just a case of a fringe group of charming kooks, but something which directly relates to how we as a society engage with problems such as climate change. Behind the Curve raises these issues clearly and thoughtfully, but also manages to be fascinating and entertaining portrait of its subjects. Well worth a look.

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And the Oscar for Least-Flattering Poster Depicting the Subject of a Documentary goes to… Betsy West and Julie Cohen for RBG! (Crowd goes wild.) If they make one movie about you under your real name, it’s normally a sign that you’ve arrived; if they do two, you really are becoming a significant figure in the world. So what are we to make of the fact that this is one of three films to feature the American lawyer and judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg to appear in British cinemas in a matter of weeks? (Soon to arrive is the conventional biopic On the Basis of Sex, with Felicity Jones as Ginsberg, while she also has a slightly weird cameo as a minifigure in Lego Movie 2 – probably more a comment on the weirdness of some recent Lego sets than anything else.) Certainly she is well-known enough for the ticketeer not to be too confused when I got a bit confused on the way in to this movie and ended up asking for tickets to The BFG.

I would suggest that there is no shame attached to not actually knowing who Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, certainly if you live outside the United States. The film sort of takes it for granted, naturally: for the last quarter-century or so, Ginsberg has sat on the Supreme Court of the USA. We don’t really have an equivalent body over here; the American Supreme Court is technically a legal body, but its decisions carry enormous political weight – it has been argued that of all the damage done decisions made by Trump, the most significant and enduring could be that he may get to nominate three or more extremely conservative judges to the Supreme Court, shifting the centre of gravity in contentious cases for a generation or more (Supreme Court Justice can be a job for life, if that’s how you want to roll).

There’s a thin line between a nicely upbeat, celebratory film portrait of someone, and an actual work of hagiography – with RBG it is often a near thing, but it basically ends up the former. After a brief montage establishing the importance of Ginsberg as a public figure, the film follows the usual route and goes back to look at her birth, circumstances while growing up, education, and so on. Ginsberg is well-known these days as a tiny, birdlike old lady, and one of the film’s revelations is that she was indeed something of a looker in her youth – Felicity Jones is actually a pretty good match for the justice as a young woman.

Ginsberg owes much of her celebrity to her role in fighting for gender equality in the American legal system – her grand-daughter (also a lawyer) observes that her own class at Harvard Law School was the first in history to have an equal balance of the genders: when RBG started there, she was one of nine women in a class of well over five hundred. Several of the cases are examined in detail, before the film moves on to cover the justice’s time on the appeals court and then finally as a Supreme Court Justice. This has been marked by Ginsberg’s rise as something of an iconic pop-culture figure, especially with the ‘Notorious RBG’ meme of recent years. 

Whatever you think of Ginsberg’s politics – and the film does make it clear that she is a divisive figure – there is something genuinely quite endearing about someone who has achieved this kind of status late in life (Ginsberg is 86 this year) having quite so much obvious fun with it. We are shown a speech in which Ginsberg says, absolutely straight-faced, that she feels the parallels with the Notorious B.I.G. are entirely appropriate ‘as we have such a lot in common’. She gets to participate in an opera, an art-form she is passionate about; the film-makers also show her some of Kate McKinnon’s typically off-the-leash impersonations of her on Saturday Night Live – Ginsberg finds them amusing but not remotely accurate, which if you ask me is pretty much the point.

It’s all cheery, inspirational stuff, as it was clearly intended to be – however, we have seen so many great documentaries in recent years that it takes something a bit special to really stand out as a piece of film-making, and RBG is not actually that movie. It follows the route-one formula pretty much throughout, and while it does open with voice-overs of various critics decrying her as an un-patriotic menace to American society, almost the most serious criticism that anyone makes in the body of the film is that Ginsberg is an awful cook.

Almost, but not quite: it touches on an incident in 2016, when Ginsberg was openly critical of Donald Trump during the last presidential election campaign. Various minor imps and under-demons from the right-wing media duly pop up to protest that this was grossly inappropriate coming from someone in Ginsberg’s position, and she did indeed apologise for making the intervention.

It seems like this may have had an influence on the making of this film, for while Ginsberg is frequently lauded within it as a principled voice for the progressive consensus and a defender of hard-won rights, an iconic dissenter, the documentary is curiously coy about what it is she is actually dissenting or defending against. There is no explicit criticism of Trump or any members of his circus. It’s taken for granted that the viewer is familiar with the resurgence of the American right, and also that they are probably opposed to it.

The film really needs more dissenting voices in order to feel balanced and reveal just why Ginsberg is the crucially necessary figure she still remains today. As it is, RBG is engaging and informative about someone who has clearly led an extraordinary life of public service, but it’s still an embedded part of the culture wars in America rather than any kind of objective record of them. As such, whether it’s worth watching is really a question of your own personal politics, or at least your willingness to have them challenged. This film is most likely just preaching to the choir, but it still does so with charm and energy.

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I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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