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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

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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It almost feels like the Golden Age of Documentaries we were living through a few years ago has ended – I do seem to recall that I was going to see something like Blackfish, The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man, or Project Nim pretty much on a weekly basis at one point, but of course the memory cheats and it was more like one more-or-less unmissably brilliant documentary every few months. Still, that’s one every few months, as opposed to the one or two a year that currently snags my attention. Is there a deeper significance to this? Well, having given serious and lengthy thought to this, my main conclusion is: I don’t know.

Seeing a good documentary film does have its own special pleasures, of course, not least because most of these films are more interesting and surprising than mainstream narrative cinema. The stories have to have some kind of surprising quality to them, simply because they wouldn’t be noteworthy enough to have a film made about them otherwise. The ‘it has to be true because no-one would make up something so unbelievable’ quality is there in full effect in Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle.

In 1980, a young man from New York named Robert Shafran drove up to college for the first time; understandably a little nervous, he was startled by the warmth of the reception he received from the other students there – handshakes, hugs, and kisses. The reason for this soon became apparent – another student, who had attended the college the previous year, was Shafran’s exact double. It turned out that Shafran and the other boy, Eddie Galland, had both been adopted and shared the same birthday. In a state of excitement and disbelief, Shafran drove to Galland’s house and the two brothers were reunited for the first time since they were babies.

But the story got even more amazing. The tale of the long-lost twin brothers naturally attracted a lot of media attention in the New York area, and some of it reached the family of David Kellman, another nineteen-year-old boy who bore an astonishing resemblance to Shafran and Galland. Naturally, he made himself known to the families of the other two boys (‘Oh my God, they’re coming out of the woodwork’ was the response of one family member).

The three boys were indeed triplets (actually the three surviving members of a group of quads, the fourth of whom died in infancy, but the film skips over this), and when they came together the bond between them was obvious to everyone around. Minor celebrity in the New York area beckoned, with various magazine covers, chat show appearances, and so on (the triplets actually have walk-on parts in Desperately Seeking Susan, where they get to ogle Madonna for a moment). It seems like a charming and delightful story of a family coming back together through the most unlikely of circumstances.

However, it is not long before the film begins to touch on much darker issues, and the many unexplained questions surrounding the story. The main one being: why were none of the adoptive families told that their new sons were part of a group of triplets who were being raised separately? Who made the decision to separate them, and why? And were all the remarkable coincidences and parallels in their upbringings really just coincidence, or was there a more calculating influence at work?

Distribution duties for Three Identical Strangers are being handled by Dogwoof, who specialise in this sort of thing: this is the same company who were in charge of the UK releases of several of the other documentaries which have most impressed me in recent years, particularly Blackfish and Life, Animated. And so, even though these films are made independently of each other, it’s not much of a surprise that they share a good many features in common: none of them have a narrator as such, telling the story wholly through the testimony of the people involved and using archive footage, and using an arresting human interest story to explore wider issues.

And all that is true of this film, too. It does very much feel as if this has been crafted as a narrative in its own right, with the story presented in a way guaranteed to achieve maximum impact. Initially it is all about the shock and incredulity of everyone surrounding the triplets as they first became aware of each other, and the cheery craziness that ensued, with only the fact that only two of them are contributing their parts of the story to suggest that this story will eventually go to some very dark places. The volta, when it comes, is startling, and takes the film into places which almost lead it to resemble an episode of The X Files for a while: shadowy political bodies lurk on the fringes of the story, unethical scientific experiments are described by cheerfully unrepentant researchers, and so on.

It is, by any metric, a remarkable and moving story, and the film’s handling of it is mostly very good – everyone involved gets their chance to put their side of it across, even if in a few cases this means some of the contributors are given plenty of rope and invited to fashion their own noose. On the other hand, you could probably argue that this narrative is just a bit too orchestrated – it’s not quite as bad as Sonita, in which the documentary film-makers basically became a part of their own story, but it almost bears comparison with the way in which the makers of Searching for Sugar Man presented the story in a highly selective way so it would have maximum impact on the audience. In the case, the fact that (prior to their reunion) one of the triplets was briefly implicated in a murder (no charges were brought) is held back until it suits the film’s thesis, to which it is relevant; there are other examples.

I suppose it comes down to whether you think that documentary film-making is about crafting a narrative for the greatest possible effect on the audience, or simply trying to present the facts as objectively as possible. Certainly I think there is a case to be made for both approaches, and a balance to be struck. Three Identical Strangers works very well from both points of view – where I think it starts to struggle a bit is when it attempts to address more abstract issues concerning the competing influences of nature and nurture. This is quite philosophical territory and none of the film’s contributors really have much to offer that you could honestly call profound. It’s certainly less compelling than the story of the triplets and the truth about their lives. Nevertheless, this is another very accomplished documentary which is as involving and surprising as the best studio thriller; well worth a look.

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We have apparently lived through some sort of mini-Golden Age of the Documentary Feature – don’t tell me you missed it! – with films like Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim, Man on Wire, and The Imposter all drawing serious attention from audiences not usually noted for their interest in non-fictitious times. Given this embarrassment of riches, it’s not really surprising that the odd really interesting film managed to sneak through without getting the profile it possibly deserved.

I’m thinking at the moment of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which came out in 2012. On reflection, perhaps it’s understandable that this is a film with more niche appeal – most of the ones mentioned at the top of the review were based around taking a fascinating but little-known true story and bringing it to life for a new audience. Room 237 is not this kind of film. This is a film for, let’s be honest, movie nerds, and people who are interested in movie nerdery.

 

There have been lots of good movies made about the making of other movies, some semi-fictional, some not. Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (in which Jack Nicholson moves himself and his family into an isolated hotel for the winter and comes down with the hammiest case of writer’s block in movie history). It is not, however, a film about the making of The Shining. It is a film in which various obscure movie nerds give their opinions as to what was going through Stanley Kubrick’s head when he was making The Shining.

Now, I have to be honest and admit the following: I’ve only ever seen The Shining once, over twenty years ago, and it’s one of those films I came away from wondering what all the fuss was about – it was curious, engaging, obviously made by someone with a very particular storytelling sensibility – but it wasn’t, you know, particularly frightening, which is surely the sine qua non of any self-respecting horror film (which, being based on an early Stephen King novel, this surely is).

Not knowing The Shining particularly well makes watching Room 237 (the title is drawn from a key location in the story) a rather curious experience. I have no particularly strongly-held beliefs about what this film is secretly about. I am not even sure I subscribe to the view that it even contains a secret message of any kind. However, Room 237 is populated by people who are absolutely certain that beneath its tale of psychological breakdown and (possibly) malevolent spectres, Kubrick had a very particular message that he wanted to send to the audience. The really weird thing is that none of them can agree on what it is.

One contributor is utterly convinced that the film is an allegory for the near-genocide of Native Americans by colonists to America (evidence: dialogue about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, the presence of Native American art throughout the film, a particular brand of tinned good being prominently featured). Then along comes someone else and reveals it is actually about the Nazi holocaust (evidence: Nicholson uses a certain brand of typewriter, a particular number is a motif in the script, and there is a suggestive dissolve between two scenes at one point). But it turns out they’re both wrong, because here comes a third commentator who reveals the whole story has some kind of connection of the legend of the Minotaur (evidence: a poster sort of looks a bit like a minotaur, there’s a couple of mazes in the story, and Nicholson looks a bit like a bull at one point).

Possibly the best-known thesis given an airing here is that of Jay Weidner, who argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded admission of his role in the faking of the Apollo moon landings (for which 2001: A Space Odyssey was basically the cover story). Like all his colleagues, Weidner is obviously sincere and obviously completely certain that what he is saying is true: the message is coded into almost every significant element of the movie, and also some things that are apparently insignificant (the pattern of the hotel carpet is apparently a dead giveaway). All the changes between the novel of The Shining and the film (which apparently ticked off author Stephen King so royally) are there solely to facilitate the film’s secret message.

The rabbit hole starts to yawn wide. It’s clear that Weidner not only thinks that the faked Apollo moon landings are connected to The Shining – he thinks that in a very crucial sense, it’s impossible to make sense of and really understand the film unless you approach it with this in mind. Which, of course, can’t be the case, because it is also obviously about the Holocaust, genocide, the legend of the Minotaur, and various other things.

At least these theories are based on a relatively conventional viewing of the movie. One person featured in Room 237 has gone to the trouble of carefully watching the movie and making maps of the hotel, in the process discovering that, architecturally, the place can’t exist – there are windows where no window can possibly be, for instance, and rooms overlap with each other. Was this a creative choice by Kubrick to indicate the Overlook somehow exists beyond conventional space? Or just dud continuity? Someone else has actually spent time watching two versions of The Shining playing simultaneously, one of them backwards, and discovered various apparently significant consonances. Does he honestly believe Kubrick did this intentionally, in the expectation anyone would watch the film this way?

Sometimes there really is an intentional subtext to a movie that can be uncovered by looking at it a little more closely: to choose a very obvious example, the original Dawn of the Dead works on two levels, as a brilliantly-accomplished action-horror movie and as a darkly funny satire on consumerism. But if you look too closely at a movie, there’s a danger you start to see things that just aren’t intentional. Not every prop and piece of set dressing is intended to send a message to the canny viewer. The fact that so many people have spent so many hours examining The Shining and come away with such widely disparate conclusions is surely proof that there can’t be one correct interpretation of the film. Their beliefs tell us little about Kubrick or his film, but a lot about them.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Most of Room 237 is composed of extracts from The Shining (some scenes are repeated multiple times), along with clips from other Kubrick movies and a few others (Capricorn One makes a not entirely surprising appearance, for example, as does An American Werewolf in London), and you do come away with a fuller appreciation of Kubrick’s visual sense, if nothing else. The man made very beautiful, occasionally very enigmatic films. Room 237 is about obsession, but it’s also about loving movies – even if it is just a bit too much. A curious but very engaging film.

 

 

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It has been somewhat slim pickings this week, as we are currently suspended between tentpole releases in an odd sort of cinematic dead zone, especially if heart-warming family entertainments about CGI bears are not the kind of thing that oscillates your coracle. Still, there’s nothing wrong with looking a little further afield than normal, and so while awaiting the doubtless unique results of Zach Snyder and Joss Whedon’s directorial collaboration, I thought it might be nice to check out a low-budget movie about the private school system in the Republic of Ireland. Rock ‘n’ roll!

schlife

The film in question is Neasa Ní Chianáin’s School Life (aka, apparently, In Loco Parentis) from last year, an observational documentary recording a year in the life of the students and staff at Headfort, a boarding school for children between three and thirteen located in Kells, about an hour outside Dublin (it says here). A fairly unusual school, then: the student body is multinational, containing kids from as far afield as Tanzania and South Korea, and the curriculum seems a little eccentric, too.

Over the course of the film we see various small moments from the year – the school Olympics (some nations are rather better represented than others), the development of the school band, the school production of Hamlet being thrown into jeopardy when the actor playing the Ghost turns out to be having First Communion on the day of the performance, and so on. No-one seems to pay the cameras very much attention, and the events shown in the film are clearly quite unforced, consistently warm, and often very funny – the school band’s assault on Teenage Kicks turns out to be one of the unexpected comedy highlights of the year.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the stars of the film turn out to be John and Amanda Leyden, two of the teachers who have spent virtually their entire careers at Headfort: John teaches Latin, but also apparently metaphysics and applied rock and roll. A man with apparently infinite resources of sarcastic curmudgeonry and almost indescribable hair, John comes out of the film as a deeply endearing figure, which would probably really annoy him. He certainly provides many of the film’s best lines – ‘Don’t like the sound of that. Sounds like children,’ he mutters, as his rest is disturbed by the sound of his charges approaching. ‘Well, that wasn’t entirely awful,’ is his idea of glowing praise, while he also hits upon an innovative solution to handing out prizes at the end of a class quiz: ‘I have decided to give a cream egg to the children who I like,’ he announces. He sounds, and probably looks, like a figure from some lost age of boarding-school nightmares – or possibly the teacher from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall video, but what’s immediately apparent in the film is his utter dedication to his work and his students. He has, after all, spent 46 years at this school.

The same is true for Amanda, who teaches English and is also in charge of the school play. She is a rather more maternal and approachable personality, but once again you never for a moment doubt that her work is the absolute centre of her life. Amanda and John are not particularly expressive, either towards each other or their pupils, but in both cases their devotion is clear. They don’t appear to have grown particularly rich in monetary terms, and indeed their home is chaotically shabby, but you are still left with the overwhelming impression who have managed to find the sweet spot of life.

The same could also be said of Headfort’s headmaster, Dermot Dix. Dix is a former Headfort pupil himself, apparently (not to mention a former pupil of the Leydens) and his own reputation from his time at the school is well-known amongst the pupils. I know I run the risk of repeating myself when I say that he seems equally dedicated to getting the children off to the best start in life, but it’s true (even if his lessons in ethical thinking appear to go off at some odd tangents – one scene showing discussion on gay marriage concludes with a pupil  deciding that ‘sometimes it’s better to be gay than single’).

Of course, if you are the cynical type, you might well conclude that all this really is is a massive commercial for what is, essentially, an extremely exclusive private school. Sure, the kids get a marvellous, nurturing education from superb teachers, but this is predicated on the fact that their parents are paying up to around €18,000 per school year for the privilege. Tedious old lefty that I am, as a rule I object to the fact that the quality of a child’s education should depend on their parents’ income, and so there’s a sense in which Headfort represents many things which I don’t believe should have a place in a modern, civilised society. And yet looking at the place, I can’t help but agree that the world is better for having schools like Headfort in it.

This is one of those observational documentaries that appears deceptively artless: there are no captions as such, no voice-over, no interviews as such with the principles. It doesn’t appear to be making a case or arguing a point of any kind, it just seems to be presenting an honest picture of a very nice place.

Nevertheless, questions inevitably arise as you watch it: shouldn’t all schools be like this one? What does it say about our society that education often seems to be less than a priority? Isn’t the education of children one of the most important jobs in any society?

More personally, the film seems to be more widely about life in general. I don’t tend to go on about it much hereabouts, but I am a teacher of sorts, although in my case I generally stick to working with people in their late teens and early adulthood. Watching School Life made me think that I might be in the wrong game, though, and that it’s with the younger children that you can really make a difference. I don’t know.  I do know that seeing John Leyden almost felt like looking at a vision of the future – I do enjoy a bit of dark sarcasm in the classroom, though I draw the line at buying cream eggs for anyone. Unspoken in the film are John and Amanda’s feelings as they contemplate their looming retirement, and what they will do next: it’s clear that this is something they approach with some reluctance.

Again, I sympathise (though in my case the crisis point is still hopefully many years away). But I imagine most people would – this is such a humane film, that it will surely evoke that same humanity in a viewer. Is it about the Irish private education system? No, not really. Of course, it’s about one very unusual school, but it also does that weird thing of not being about anything, and yet at the same being about absolutely everything. But none the worse for that, of course.

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