“If I met someone like him, I’d run a mile.” Shustak (Stuart Page, 2008)

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Unfortunately, by the time this comes to print, the DocNZ festival will have just concluded in Wellington, and will be on its way to Christchurch. Though it is a bit late to plug the festival, it’s still worth noting the programme operates as a useful guide for seeking out some great documentaries. One of the films I was able to see was Shustak, a film about the Jewish American photographer Larence Shustak, a larger than life character who relocated to New Zealand in the Seventies. Shustak is a loving, yet honest eulogy, obviously made with great care by Shustak’s friend Stuart Page. 

 

Shustak is a difficult man to like, this is largely due to some of the less than fond memories related by some of his children who only ever refer to him as “Larry”. Despite this, humanity emerges in his photographs and in the accounts of his friends and students here in New Zealand. Shustak’s devotion to photography and his rolling stone gathers no moss credo make him a irrepressible character, who was undoubtedly magnetic, and influential to those who surrounded him. Page has succeeded in garnering good interviews from his subjects, as well as mixing the talking heads with candid home video footage of Shustak, and interviews with the man himself.

 

A problem with documentaries about artists is the temporal nature of film means we are often not accorded enough time to spend with the works themselves. The problem extends further when attempting to cover an artist’s lifetime in a mere ninety minutes. This is not a failing of Pages film but rather a failing of the brevity of feature length documentaries. A retort to this is that it offers the viewer an opportunity to then seek out the artist’s work themselves, and in Shustak’s case this is something I am compelled to do. 

 

This documentary is typical of why Creative New Zealand funding is a good thing. Through their help Page is able to make a tribute to a man many New Zealanders would otherwise never hear of. Whether documentaries chronicle our nations defining moments, or offer smaller portraits of artists like Shustak, the more we produce the better, because in my opinion New Zealanders are pretty good at making them.

 

“This movie is for me.” JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)

JCVD

JCVD stands for, yes, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Let me state first and foremost this is the best film I have seen starring Van Damme, although my last points of reference are Double Team with Dennis Rodman, and the abominable Knock Off which boasted the worst theme song I have ever heard. Yet, for as long as I have known Van Damme, he has really only made that kind of film. So it is absurd that a film which literally bears his initials in the title, isn’t really a Jean-Claude Van Damme film at all.

In JCVD Van Damme is ostensibly playing himself, an action hero whose stardom is on the wane. After a fantastic opening, which is the only ‘action’ sequence in the film, we cut to Van Damme in a difficult custody battle. Struggling to find the funds to pay for a lawyer, Van Damme stumbles upon a post office robbery, where rather than playing the hero he is forced to play the role of the hostage.

JCVD has met quite a lot of acclaim with many critics finding the irony of the whole thing very clever. The film constantly breaks the fourth wall, and is centred around our knowledge of Van Damme’s films and the self awareness of his stardom. For all its cleverness however, I can certainly imagine this film is going to be appallingly marketed on DVD. JCVD will leave most action film fans saying “What the hell is this?” well before Van Damme launches into his extended soliloquy, which is both the films centrepiece and most interesting scene. 

This said, the films intentions are good. Van Damme displays more bravery in this film than in any of his others. He allows himself to be made fun of and emasculated, as he finds himself in a situation he is unable to fight his way out of (perhaps an allegory on stardom itself). Most impressive, besides Van Damme’s willingness to lay himself bare, is his actual performance which is really quite good. 

Scanning his future projects however, I notice that Van Damme is shooting yet another of the terrible Universal Soldier franchise. If by some extraordinary sequence of events Mr Van Damme himself is reading this, I urge him to shed his futuristic army attire and to walk off set, because he is better than that and with JCVD he proves it.

“You don’t know Fela?” The Visitor (Tom McCarthy, 2007)

The Visitor

There will always be a place in American cinema for a small story that is well told. In 2003 Tom McCarthy gave us this with the exceptional The Station Agent. After a five year hiatus from directing, and a stint acting in The Wire its great to see McCarthy return with a sophomore film that in many ways exceeds his first, and quietly has a lot more to say. 

 

The Visitor follows Walter Vale, a jaded academic who has been teaching the same economics course every year since the death of his wife. When Walter is forced to travel to New York for a conference on a paper he didn’t even write, his life is drastically altered when he discovers two illegal immigrants living in his apartment. 

 

What could be mistaken for a film about a middle aged man learning how to live again is really much more. Both a beautifully acted drama about friendship and chance,  as well as a political dissertation on immigration, The Visitor is a film which builds slowly to become greatly affecting. Its not until the inevitable happens that you realise how attached to the characters you have become. Particularly Richard Jenkin’s stunningly underplayed performance as Walter which deserved it’s recent Oscar nomination. Haaz Sleiman also provides a great turn as the irrepressibly likeable Tarek.

 

McCarthy further cements his status as a writer-director with obvious ability. The Visitor is a master-class in conventional cinematic language. McCarthy uses ellipsis and scene transitions with great skill to propel the narrative. While the plot is simple, it is so effectively told, and has enough comedic elements that it is never boring, conversely many of the events carry a latent intensity. Refreshingly, the film gives us an honest view of the sad reality of immigration in post 9-11 America, and never digresses from the truth to please audience expectations. Down to the moving last frame, The Visitor is a rock solid film from a filmmaker who is only getting better. 

 

“It’s Impossible, that’s sure. So let’s start working.” Man On Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

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Man on Wire is the incredible story of Philippe Petit’s lifelong dream to erect a high-wire between the twin towers and walk across. At multiple times through the film Petit declares he believes the towers were made for him to fulfil this dream. If anything, this story was made for a documentary, it is without hyperbole absolutely extraordinary that this ever happened. Taking place in 1974, it is almost equally insane that a documentary has taken this long to be made. Winning the Oscar for best documentary last week Man on Wire makes me feel comfortable in exclaiming a very tired cliché; you really must see it to believe it.

 

Petit’s dream unfolds more in the vein of a heist film than a documentary. Trust the French to have such an audacious idea but then have the gall to actually follow it through. Thus, the real centre of the narrative are the extraordinary logistics of illegally gaining access to the top of the twin towers and erecting the wire itself. More often than not it is the preparation and execution of installing the wire that seems more implausible than the actual act of walking across it. Of course Petit didn’t do this by himself and his accomplices provide an interesting group dynamic, complete with love affairs and distrust. 

 

Director James Marsh deftly mixes Petit’s excited accounts with those of his companions as well as utilising well conceived dramatisations and footage from the time. Incredibly while there is a wealth of footage of preparation and practice no one appeared to think of filming the actual event. Thankfully someone had a still camera, and the montage of images assembled, playing over an overused Eric Satie piece, still defy comprehension. 

 

Sensibly, there are no references to 9/11. Of course it is always at the back of our minds, yet Man on Wire operates like a swan song, it is the self contained story of an event of fantastic dreams and staggering beauty that happened there. Petit’s exquisite act gives us something to offset the usual despair associated with the towers while also proving nothing is impossible. There I go again, employing another cliché, however its difficult to articulate myself having just witnessed something I truly did believe to be unthinkable. 

“…I’m still here…” The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

The Wrestler

The Wrestler follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a famous professional wrestler whose 80s golden days are well behind him. Inside the ring, he still holds on to the glory of his past, though his audiences have dwindled. Outside the ring, Randy is a mess. He can’t pay his rent, his estranged daughter doesn’t want to know him, and his love interest is a stripper who still considers him a ‘customer’.

Mickey Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler gives me a glimpse of where the wrestlers of my childhood may be. Not entirely washed up, but certainly struggling to live in the shadow of their former glory. The same can describe Rourke, an actor who never quite faded into obscurity, and like Randy still maintains devoted fans. I am one of those fans, who always hoped Rourke had a comeback performance like this in him. Rourke easily rises to the top turnbuckle in what is undoubtedly the role of his career.

The Wrestler is by far the most straightforward film Darren Aronofsky has made, opting for a pseudo documentary style, rather than the effects and hyper stylistic flurries that defined his previous work. There are still trademarks here, a long sequence of Randy walking to work as though he’s walking to the ring is one of the few stylistic scene breaks that disrupt the film’s realism. Conversely, Aronofsky has a field day with the most excruciating segment, a no holds barred match between The Ram and a staple-gun toting yokel. For a ‘fake’ sport, it is almost too real to watch.

At it’s heart, The Wrestler is about how people choose to escape the disappointment of real life in the excitement of an alternative. Randy can lose in reality but he can never lose in the ring. The only person not escaping in The Wrestler is Rourke himself, we are constantly watching him coming to terms with the reality of his own faded stardom. In the battle royal for the Oscar, my money was on The Ram, yet like wrestling I suspect it was a fixed match in Sean Penn’s favour. Regardless, just as Randy belongs in the ring, Mickey belongs on the screen, and its great to see him back better than ever

“This is not art, this is life!” Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1986)

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The film society I attend every Monday has been screening a minor retrospective of the films of Ross McElwee over the past few weeks. First, we saw the hilarious Charleen, McElwee’s ode to his irrepressible poetry teacher. Next, the simple, yet extraordinarily layered Backyard, which is both a wonderful portrait of McElwee’s southern life and a complex parable on race relations. This week, we saw a film that absolutely cemented my belief that Ross McElwee is extraordinary. Sherman’s March might just be the best documentary film I have ever seen.

Originally setting out to make a documentary about General Sherman’s march through the south during the American Civil War, McElwee becomes at a loss when his girlfriend breaks up with him. Unsure whether to continue with the documentary he decides to continue filming his life during this period eventually following Sherman’s trail, encountering a number of women a long the way. Narrating the film McElwee ponders his own life, his search for a companion, his dreams of nuclear apocalypse and a strange kinship with Sherman himself. Oh yeah, and Burt Reynolds becomes his nemesis. 

Trying to explain what McElwee does is like trying to explain how he does it: impossible. Only Ross McElwee could set out to make a film about Sherman’s march and end up making a film about his relationships with a series of increasingly strange women. Equally entertaining are sub-plots involving Burt Reynolds (and his look-a-like) and nuclear apocalypse. With the camera constantly attached to his shoulder McElwee documents a crucial time in his life, narrating it as he goes along. The outcome is astonishing, perhaps the only film I’ve ever seen that made me feel like I really knew the filmmaker.

McElwee’s remarkable talent is in making his subjects completely unselfconscious in front of the camera. How he does this is a mystery, but the results are staggering. The people that know Ross know he comes with the camera, and everyone he meets on the way only know the Ross McElwee behind the camera. But it is almost wrong to say that McElwee is behind the camera, in many ways it is quite simply an extension of himself. We are simultaneously aware of it, and conscious of how it is a part of Ross. At one point Charleen (who makes a welcome reappearance) tells Ross to turn off his camera during a date, aptly telling him “This is not art, this is life!”

Of course eventually McElwee arrives at a point where he is unsure about the separation between his life and his art. When he does reach this conclusion it is poignant and beautifully handled. McElwee’s films are stunningly objective considering they are literally subjective. McElwee never judges, he just shows people as they are, with all their complexities (this includes himself). I know I have made some very strong praise of this film but it really needs to be seen. At two and a half hours it is long, and some may not take to its form, but Ross is too hard to deny. Sherman’s March makes you feel like he is talking to you, and what you are watching is a privileged glimpse at his life. I can’t wait for the follow up Time Indefinite.