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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

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 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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Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker is another one of those documentaries taking advantage of the lull in mainstream releases which regularly happens around this time of year. Greenfield herself is not one of those directors who is constantly popping up in the corner of the frame or butting in on the soundtrack, on this occasion at least. She is quite content to let her subject dominate the film. Her subject is also quite content to dominate the film, for she is Imelda Trinidad Romualdez Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and poster girl for obscene corruption and bad-taste excess.

The film first finds Mrs Marcos cruising around Manila in her usual stately fashion. When the car stops at a junction, a breathless cry of ‘It’s Imelda!’ goes up amongst the street children hanging around there, for they know they have had a stroke of luck. A forest of small open hands fills the window of Mrs Marcos’ car, and she serenely scatters money in their direction. ‘For the children! For the children!’ declares Mrs Marcos, as a number of short adults attempt to muscle in on her beneficience. ‘Those who have received money, move along!’ barks a stern voice out of frame. It is an edifying spectacle.

Mrs Marcos continues her progress, reflecting on the fact that, actually, being First Lady of the Philippines wasn’t all that much fun at the time. ‘The presidential palace, it was a very uncomfortable place to live,’ she recalls, sadly. She does not appear to notice that, even as she is speaking, the car is passing compatriots of hers who are living in bins and under bits of cardboard, which are possibly even less comfortable residences than the presidential palace (as well as presenting far fewer opportunities for lucrative graft).

She eventually arrives at a clinic for children suffering from cancer. Prior to this point, Mrs Marcos’ eyes have resembled two chips of coal shot into a side of ham, but now she wells up with emotion and responds in the empathetic and humble way that only someone with her common touch can. ‘Quick,’ she whispers to an aide, ‘give me some money to hand out.’ All across the city, poor families scrimp and save to get their youngest started on full-strength cigarettes just so they can be in the cancer ward the next time Mrs Marcos makes a visit.

The film is only a few minutes old but already questions are piling up like diamante slingbacks in Mrs Marcos’ famous shoe collection. Is all this just being staged for the camera? Has Imelda Marcos really got no idea of just how she is coming across? Is it possible for anyone to have such little grasp of reality? The director is smart enough to recognise this, but also to realise that the best response is to just let Mrs Marcos speak. All duly becomes clear.

A former beauty queen who became the wife of the Filipino president and sometime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it is clear that Mrs Marcos took to politics like a particularly resplendent duck to water. One of her roles was to travel the world as a sort of proxy president (a slide-show of horrors ensues, showing her meetings with Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Prince Charles and a pre-politics Donald Trump), although the exact reason for this is disputed. One school of thought has it that Marcos himself was afraid that if he left the country he would instantly be overthrown, so he sent the wife instead. Another suggests that her foreign missions were basically a pretext for Ferdy to get her out of the way so he could sleep around with other women.

Nevertheless, Mrs Marcos still regards herself as mother of her nation (possibly the world), bringer of world peace, ender of the cold war, and so on. Brain-meltingly tasteless artworks scattered around the Marcos home commemorate her various achievements, although not her role in embezzling hundreds of billions of dollars from the Filipino people. In a way she is an ideal subject for this kind of film: she is perfectly happy to talk at length about her life, and seemingly almost completely oblivious to her own public image or the impression she is making. All Lauren Greenfield needs to do is occasionally intercut a contribution from another interviewee with more of a grip on reality (which is to say, any kind of grip on reality). One of the topics the film keeps returning to is Mrs Marcos’ typically unhinged scheme to start a safari park in the Philippines, complete with imported zebras and giraffes. ‘We found a place with no people and put the animals there,’ she informs the audience, solemnly. On comes a villager to relate how she and her family were forcibly uprooted to make way for this particular folie de grandeur. ‘I hate giraffes,’ adds the woman, sadly.

Initially it all seems like a black comedy mixed up with a reminder of the perverse politics of the cold war period – a time when many US policy makers subscribed to the palpably foolish idea that the only way to preserve democracy was by propping up dictators. Inevitably, though, it all came crashing down, although Mrs Marcos seems assured of her innocence: ‘I was too kind to him,’ she says of Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader who was assassinated, while later, we finally get a reference to that famous shoe collection – ‘When they searched my closet, they did not find skeletons, only beautiful shoes,’ she smirks.

It’s a half-decent line, and Mrs Marcos seems quite happy to trade on her shoe-loving reputation, but it neglects the fact that there are genuine skeletons in the closet where her family is concerned. The way in which the film shifts gear and tone to incorporate testimonies from some of those who were incarcerated, tortured and abused during the eight-year period of martial law instituted by Marcos is impressively done, but is part of a more general change as the film continues.

You might consider Imelda Marcos to be a grotesque joke from history, her family irretrievably disgraced. You would be wrong. This movie is called The Kingmaker for a reason, for it increasingly concerns Mrs Marcos’ attempts to get her son Bongbong into power, not least so he can restore the family reputation. Bongbong is running for vice-president of the Philippines, but the family history seems to be causing him a few issues. If I were the president of the Philippines, this would probably be a source of relief, for I would really not want my heartbeat to be the one keeping a Marcos from genuine power. However, the actual president is a man called Duterte, another of those populist strongmen the world is currently plagued by, and it transpires some of those Marcos billions played a part in getting him elected. By the end of the film, it is clear there are forces in play who are not about to let a simple thing like democracy stand between Bongbong and his rightful place.

It is a sombre, ominous conclusion, and turns what at one point felt like a somewhat gonzo piece of historical biography, with inconvenient facts pinging off Imelda Marcos’ gargantuan self-regard like pea-shooter pellets off a zeppelin, into a genuinely disturbing cautionary tale. God knows that we in the west have no right to criticise citizens of other countries for being conned by grotesque egotists whose sense of entitlement is matched only by their flexible attitude to the truth, but if a mob like the Marcos family can make a comeback then we really are in trouble as a species. However, that’s hardly Lauren Greenfield’s fault: she has made an outstanding documentary, funny, powerful, moving, infuriating and disturbing. This is possibly a very important film: it is a shame most people will be barely aware of it.

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One thing I have noticed in recent years is that early to mid December has quietly become a very good time to find a decent documentary at the local cinema, often enjoying a wider release than you might expect. When you think about it, the reason for this is obvious: hardly anybody wants their movie to only be on release for a single week (this does happen, but only when a movie tanks fairly spectacularly), but at the same time everyone in the industry is fully cognisant of the fact that come the end of the month, the Mouse House will have exerted its usual leverage and the latest stellar conflict movie will be playing seventeen times a day, filling up nearly every screen in town. So nobody wants to release their movies the week before such a major release, opening up a gap in the schedule which documentary makers happily fill.

Of course, it isn’t always a terribly big gap, which is why Max Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is only showing once a day, usually at lunchtimes, in Oxford’s leading purveyor of snack foods and occasional screener of the odd film. Normally I am slightly relieved to find myself the sole punter at the showing of a movie – it means the standard of behaviour in the auditorium has a better chance of being acceptable, if nothing else – but on this occasion I was just a little saddened to find myself the only person present, if only because it indicated that not enough people near where I live love Fiddler on the Roof.

I mean, it seems very straightforward to me – if you have a functional soul and set of emotions, and you don’t love Fiddler on the Roof, then it basically means you must not be familiar with it yet. It’s that sort of show. As the title might suggest, the makers of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles are on more or less the same page as me (the fact that one of the contributors to the film has previously produced a book called Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof further suggests that people’s minds tend to run along the same sorts of lines when it comes to thinking up names for these things). They are here to first and foremost celebrate the show, not critique it.

I wrote about the 1971 movie version of Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. The show is one of the great musicals, massively and enduringly popular – one of the many fascinating factoids the documentary serves up is that, since it originally opened in 1964, there has been at least one performance of the show somewhere in the world every single day.  It concerns the various travails of Tevye, a Jewish milkman blessed with more daughters than he really knows what to do with, living in a shtetl in Russia at some point near the start of the 20th century. There’s a bit more to it than just being a musical about anti-Semitic prejudice, but this is still a fundamental element of this beautiful, bittersweet show.

The documentary, naturally, assumes the audience will already be familiar with this, and focuses on the story behind the story. It initially looks like there’s been some kind of miscommunication, as the film opens with a series of aerial shots of Manhattan, which inevitably put one in mind of how the movie of West Side Story begins. Before things get too confusing, the camera closes in on the roof of one apartment building, upon which sits – you guessed it – a man with a violin. Soon enough he is picking out the opening phrases of the show’s score. Whether you think opening a film about Fiddler on the Roof with a sequence with an actual fiddler on an actual roof is witty or cheesy is probably a question of personal taste, but it’s a reasonable opening for a film which ends up digressing down some unexpected byways over the course of its 97 minutes.

One of the things that does become apparent is that Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story have a good deal in common – obviously, both are products of the New York musical theatre culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and both were originally directed by Jerome Robbins. Any documentary about his work basically says the same thing about Robbins: he was a difficult, conflicted man, and yes, he was brilliant, but yes, he could also be horrible to everyone around him. This film doesn’t really have much time to dig deeper than that, mainly because it has so many other things it wants to cover.

To be honest, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles has so much on its to-do list it ends up feeling a bit rushed and disjointed. There’s the story of how the original production reached the stage, then a little bit on the making of the movie, and it touches on a few other distinguished revivals and productions too. Actors reflect on what the show means to them. There is some insight into the life of Sholem Aleichem, writer of the original stories, and the historical setting of the piece. The film’s credentials as a piece of emancipatory feminist theatre are discussed. And so on, and so on.

It doesn’t feel like there’s any real structure, just a grab-bag of material – if they had to raid the show’s lyrics for a title, ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ would have been equally appropriate – but the film stays very watchable simply because the interviewees are engaging, the stories they tell are enlightening and funny, and the film-makers have found some fascinating clips to include: in addition to bits of performances from various productions (from Broadway, the Chichester Festival Theatre, Tokyo – in Japanese – and a university show in Thailand, amongst others), they find the Temptations doing a very funky cover of ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, a hardcore punk version of the same song by the band Yidcore, Topol and Danny Kaye singing together in Hebrew on US TV in the 1960s, and home video of Lin-Manuel Miranda leading a production number from the show at his own wedding reception. (This has done more to make me understand why he has become such a big star than any of his other movies or performances, but it does leave one with the impression that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of those people who believes they are always on stage, even when they are not actually on stage.)

You do get a very strong sense of just how universal the appeal of this show is, along with its capacity to grab and move an audience. (Personally I think that, in terms of the movies at least, West Side Story has a tiny edge when it comes to the brilliance of the songs and staging, but Fiddler on the Roof is the one that will really break your heart.) What’s also notable is that it’s impossible to change the setting and context of the story in more than the most superficial of ways – it may look very weird to see a Japanese actor in a fake beard and a prayer shawl biddy-biddy-bumming away on stage, but this most widely-loved of shows is also intensely specific. The film does not address this apparent contradiction, but this is probably quite a wise thing to do – the paradox of how the personal becomes the universal is one of the mysteries of great art, and isn’t something you can quickly or easily explore.

Any second-order film of this kind is basically setting itself a challenge: a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof is never going to be as satisfying to watch as Fiddler on the Roof itself, so if you’re interested in Fiddler on the Roof, why not just go direct to the source? You should certainly watch Fiddler on the Roof before you see this movie. Then again, you should watch Fiddler on the Roof even if you have no plans to see this movie. (I think a theme develops.) The documentary is very engaging, though, and warm, and offers enough information and insight to be more than worthwhile viewing. I did come out of it wanting to watch the movie again, though. And the full Japanese stage show. And the Chichester production. And if Lin-Manuel Miranda ever gets married again, I would quite like an invitation to the reception. One of the things the show suggests is that a man can always dream (daidle deedle daidle daidle dum).

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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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