‘Cutie and the Boxer’ Hits Theaters Today

The fraught, often paradoxical relationship between love and art is brought into focus in Cutie and the Boxer (T/F 2013), opening today at NYC’s Lincoln Center and L.A.’s Nuart Theater before hitting cinemas nationwide. This impressive documentary debut by director Zachary Heinzerling is a clear-headed and compassionate observation of the private life of artist couple Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out Heinzerling’s chats with Karen Kemmerle at Tribeca and Hillary Weston at BlackBook where he explains his process and the interaction of the Shinoharas’ art and his own.

Cutie led to one of the best moments from this year’s Fest. Following the Sunday screening at the historic Missouri Theater, Ushio Shinohara gave a live demonstration of his “action art” to a cheering crowd in an adjacent parking lot.

photo by Roxana Pop

You can check out Ushio’s website for examples of his finished pieces. To catch Cutie and the Boxer, visit a theater on the list below.


Posted August 16, 2013

Campfire Stories: Jarred Alterman on the Making of ‘Dear Valued Guests’

Campfire Stories has become an indispensable part True/False. Every year, eight filmmakers take part in this intimate little gathering. They munch on smores and share stories about that one great scene that for whatever reason just didn’t make their film.

The 2013 edition, held in the cozy Odd Fellows Lodge, kicked off with Jarred Alterman. He spoke about Dear Valued Guests, a short he co-directed with T/F co-conspirator Paul Sturtz. Guests takes us back to the strange final days of the Regency hotel, which housed countless True/False guests in downtown Columbia. With this oddly charming structure slated for demolition, a group of artists takes over the top floor for one last crazy party.

In his Campfire Story, Alterman recounts how Guests was nearly aborted, only to be rescued by a heroic if chemically enhanced maintenance worker named Rainey. Check it out in this video captured by the team from our media partner CAT TV.

Dear Valued Guests had its New York premiere as part of the Rooftop Films “Industriance: Black Out” shorts program. Here’s a short trailer.

Posted July 26, 2013

Coming to Terms with ‘The Act of Killing’

Note: This round-up of the conversation surrounding The Act of Killing originally ran on our blog for the film’s theatrical premiere on July 19th. The film returns to Columbia today, October 4, at our sister theater Ragtag Cinema. Check out Ragtag’s website for showtimes. The screening on Monday, October 7 will feature a post-film Q and A with University of Missouri film professors.

The Act of Killing (T/F 2013) is without a doubt one of the most important films of the year. Making its theatrical premiere today, this relentlessly shocking, surreal and disturbing film has already generated a fervent conversation spanning the globe.

In his director’s statement, Joshua Oppenheimer describes meeting former death squad leaders, men unanimously boastful about their role in the anti-communist massacres that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. Unafraid of prosecution, the killers remain part of Indonesia’s ruling political class. They share a love of American movies, and are happy to participate when Oppenheimer has them re-stage their crimes in lurid, nightmarish cinematic set-pieces. They enact the roles of both victim and perpetrator, and then watch themselves perform on screen.

This clip from the film shows the horrifyingly banal attitude towards mass murder these men exhibit. In it, former paramilitary leader Anwar Congo demonstrates an execution technique designed to minimize post-kill cleanup. Then he performs a little dance.

In a fascinating interview with Sight and Sound, Oppenheimer talks about how the film evolved from documenting the victims to filming the perpetrators.

I began this project working closely with survivors, trying to film memories of the horrors of 1965 and to document the regime of fear and violence built on the celebration of killing. But every time the survivors and I tried to film together we would be arrested and stopped.

Finally the human rights community, and the survivors themselves, said, “Film the killers: they will talk, and not just talk, they’ll boast. And the audience, seeing people who killed hundreds, thousands of people, and boasting about it, will see at once why we’re so afraid, and taste a little bit the nature of this regime.”

And [from then on] I felt I was entrusted with a work of historical and moral importance, exposing a regime of impunity through its celebration of killing. At that point I think I saw [killers like Anwar] as the people who killed my friends’ relatives and were keeping my friends afraid. But inevitably I became close to them. It was a very intimate journey: I think to make a good film with anybody you have to get very close, be willing to be intimate. I went looking for embodiments of pure evil, but found ordinary people.

In another interview with Nicolas Rapold of Film Comment, Oppenheimer talks about his evolving relationship with the killers.

I would like to hear a bit about that, if you could. What’s it like to be undercover, in a way, for so long? I mean, emotionally—you’re describing a certain repression.

Well, first I take a little issue with the term “undercover,” because of course at the beginning…

I mean that more as a figure of speech.

No, but it’s an insightful one, it’s one worth exploring because at the beginning many of these men had different goals. The general goal at first was to glorify what they did. That could never have been my goal: to glorify mass murder. So in that sense I was undercover. But people’s goals changed. Adi comes into this film acting as though he wants to use it as a vehicle for reconciliation, and to say sorry to the victims. And I thought, Oh, wow, this is an opportunity to go in a very interesting new direction. And very quickly the shallowness of that position made itself clear, and the depths of his hypocrisy became clear. And by the end he realizes that this film’s going to make him look bad, and I could be openly confrontational with him, as I am in the car, when I talk about going to The Hague, and that it would be good for the victims’ families for the truth to come out. So by the end there with him, I’m not undercover.

With Anwar, he starts with this motive, but somehow around his nightmares, a second and very unconscious but almost physical motive comes out: to get in touch with his brokenness, the part of him that died from killing people. And working with him on that and the whole second half of the film, I was also not really undercover anymore. When he’s choking on the roof, the dishonest thing to do would be to stop filming, or even to go put my arm around him and say it’s going to be okay. Because it’s not going to be okay. And I’ve told him what the film is now, and he’s said, Okay, if that’s what it is, I understand, I’m not angry, I want to see it. I’ve told him, I’ll send you a DVD when it’s safe to do so. I didn’t say, Do you want to see it? Because I didn’t feel he had to see the film.

Oppenheimer was assisted by numerous Indonesian collaborators, who were forced to stay anonymous due to the political uncertainty surrounding the project. In her piece “The Act of Seeing The Act of Killing” Caroline Cooper describes the disconcerting effect of seeing “anonymous” appear again and again in the film’s end credits. She also reports on the carefully arranged private screenings that have spread throughout Indonesia, where the film is likely to be suppressed.

After seeing the film, documentary heavy-weights Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers. The pair discusses the film in a video piece for Vice magazine, where they highlight its cinematic qualities and speculate about what it means for the future of documentary. Also, Morris penned a lengthy essay on the film for Slate, where he compares Oppenheimer’s use of recreations to Hamlet’s staging of “The Murder of Gonzago” to “catch the conscience” of his uncle Claudius. He also explores the Indonesian genocide’s relationship to Vietnam-era U.S. foreign policy.

Elsewhere, in an essay at the New Statesman, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses the film in connection to what he views as the erosion of the public space.

The Act of Killing‘s festival run resulted in an impressive collection of awards and now the critical reaction is overwhelmingly positive. At Slate, Dana Stevens calles it “Among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting — a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.” While A.O. Scott of the NY Times remarks “The horror of The Act of Killing does not dissipate easily or yield to anything like clarity.” And Jonah Weiner of the New Yorker observes, “The typical investigative documentary sets about unearthing a truth obscured by ignorance and/or deception, but with The Act of Killing, that structure is severely scrambled: what Oppenheimer ultimately seeks to reveal is Congo’s self-deception in the face of acts he freely admits he committed.”

Clearly, this conversation is far from over.

The Act of Killing plays today at the Landmark Sunshine in NYC with director Joshua Oppenheimer in person. Drafthouse films has announced numerous cities to follow.

Posted July 19, 2013

A chat with ‘Computer Chess’ Director Andrew Bujalski

Andrew Bujalski’s work has made a major impact on independent film during the last decade. His first two films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), inaugurated the “mumblecore” movement, a genre utilizing minimal production costs and an extremely naturalistic approach to dialogue to create intimate studies of the lives of 20-somethings.

His new film, Computer Chess (T/F 2013), is something rather different, a formally perplexing period piece. Through what seems to be documentary footage, we are invited back in time to the very early 1980s. A motley assortment of computer programmers have gathered at a motel to pit their programs against one another in a computer chess tournament. Down the hall, a New Age encounter group is attempting to expand its collective mind. But it soon becomes clear things aren’t quite going as planned. The chess programs start making inexplicable moves, leaving their bewildered creators to interpret the meaning of their strange behavior.

Computer Chess opens today at Film Forum in NYC. In anticipation, I chatted with Andrew about his odd and hilarious film, via computer.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Andrew, thanks for chatting with me! Your previous films are all set in the present. How did you get interested in making a film that takes place in the past?

AB: Well, the whole project began with a fantasy of shooting something on these beautiful old black and white analog video cameras. I held the notion in the back of my head for years and at some point stumbled onto the historical fact of these computer chess tournaments which, for whatever reason, ended up lodged in my subconscious right next to this camera pipe dream. I didn’t go out seeking a period piece per se. It sought me out I guess.

It was certainly daunting to take on a period piece given our limited resources, but I was comforted by a belief that a good period piece is never really about a “perfect” recreation of any particular era. When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about Abraham Lincoln, as vast as the research and the capital that goes into historical “accuracy” is, the intent is never truly to transport us to 1865, but to open some wormhole between 1865 and now, to use then as a metaphor for now. If you build your wormhole right, hopefully the audience won’t get distracted by whatever little anachronisms creep in, and I’m sure we have a few.

It helped of course that, though I was very young at the time, I was alive at the time we were depicting, as were many of the cast and crew, so we could draw on a more personal relationship with the era than just what we’d gleaned from books.

T/F: The programmers are all such vivid characters. Could you tell me a little bit about the casting process? How did you go about finding the right people to play 80s computer nerds?

AB: The casting process is always just a walk in the desert with a divining rod. Every time I’ve done it I feel like I’ve been praying for miracles and miracles have been laid at my feet. I wish the rest of life worked that way.

The short answer is I thought, if you want guys who look and sound right talking about computers . . . why not approach guys who know a lot about computers? James Curry certainly seemed like a godsend when Wiley Wiggins introduced me to him at a party. Not only is he remarkably charismatic (and a brilliant natural actor), but he had been a child prodigy programmer in England. So even though he *should* be too young to know this stuff, he actually had crystal clear memory of all the early 80s programming-speak in the movie.

Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Dr. Schoesser, is a computer science professor at University of Chicago.

Wiley is known to movie people for his iconic (I swear it bugs me when people abuse that word, but I think it’s earned here) performance in Dazed & Confused, and later in Waking Life, but he’s incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about technology. He was a terrific adviser for us at every stage of this process.

T/F: How did the encounter group become part of the story?

AB: I wish I could tell you about some Eureka moment where all the elements aligned, but I do believe it all assembled very slowly over the course of years.

That said, we never specify the date that the movie takes place. It’s clearly somewhere on the cusp of the 70s and the 80s, and I liked the idea of exploring that as a “transitional” era. The pop culture view of history would have it that everyone hung up their bellbottoms on Dec 31 ’79 and started playing Pac Man on Jan 1 ’80, and of course our experience in real time is much more fluid. Indeed, both the “touchy-feely” encounter stuff of the 60s and 70s, and the tech revolutions of the 80s continue very much to resonate in our culture today.

Dramatically of course it just made for a useful contrast. As one of the characters in the movie says, “We’re all kind of like seekers here.” I do believe that the quest for artificial intelligence, as incredibly technical and dryly scientific as it can be in its particulars, is essentially a metaphysical pursuit. In building a new intelligence we must be, on some level, seeking to understand our own. And these hippie-dippies are up to the same thing, just employing a wildly different methodology.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

AB: Oh boy. You know, at the risk of being pretentious (and, cautious as I am in other facets of my life, I am a *daredevil* in that one), I’ll go ahead and say that all cinema is True/False. And that that’s the secret of its magic. The camera is by its nature a documentary recording device. Of course you can do all sorts of artful things with the it, but its essential function is to represent the True. Editing, meanwhile, is by its nature a narrative device. Every edit is a convenient Falsehood. And in that sense, everything from a Fred Wiseman piece of “direct cinema” to Star Wars is built on that same continuum of truth and lies, and draws energy from both poles.

That’s part of my fear about the digital age that’s upon us! As movies are increasingly built in the simulacrum environment of the computer, the documentary aspect seems to risk getting weeded out of movie making altogether. Soon enough we won’t need actors . . . then we won’t need writers, or directors. The movies will still make money somehow, because that’s what they’ll be programmed to do, but what the fuck will they be about?

T/F: Formally, Computer Chess appears at first (to me at least) to be a hodgepodge of found footage, ostensibly shot by a video team hired to document the tournament and its opening panel discussion. We see a camera operator rebuked by one of the organizers for aiming his camera at the sun. But the film very quickly evolves into something much stranger. How do you understand the POV?

AB: For whatever influences and reference points were bouncing around in my head going into this project, one comparison that I never expected, which came up at our Sundance premiere and often since, was to Christopher Guest’s work. Of course, and probably rightfully so, he pretty well seems to own the concept of mockumentary. But I was surprised that people were so anxious to categorize the movie as mockumentary when, as you point out, that conceit gets (mostly) abandoned quite early on. Odd shifts in perspective throughout the movie, and the unanswered questions that come with them, provide much of its texture.

But in retrospect I am realizing that beginning, as we do, with the most “real” looking footage in the movie has a really powerful grounding effect. It is part of how we watch movies that we spent the first several minutes hungrily absorbing context. I think it’s why we so often find ourselves bored an hour into a movie (when we think we understand everything that has happened and is going to happen), and almost never feel bored in the first ten minutes of anything (when anything still might be possible). Because Computer Chess begins with straightforward enough mockumentary, we seem to stake a claim in “realism,” which becomes increasingly absurd as we make our way a million miles away from it.

T/F: Your work has been praised for another dimension of “realism”, your approach to dialogue. In your movies conversations stop and start awkwardly, thoughts are left half finished and at times multiple discussions are layered on top of one another. The result is a style of deadpan hilarity completely different from the now ubiquitous Christopher Guest style direct-to-camera confessional. How do you go about directing dialogue? Are your films scripted?

AB: They were all conventionally scripted until this one; here we just worked from an 8 page treatment. Ultimately though the process with the actors was close to identical, the main difference being that I just had to show up *better* prepared, lacking as I did a document to bury my face in when instincts failed me.

Directing a scene is always just problem solving, and the more you do it, the more you develop (for better and worse) go-to solutions . . . . But I don’t know that there’s any secret formula for it. Indeed a director tends, in most measurable senses, to be the least talented person on any given set! The only things you’re really bringing are (a) the necessary hubris to think you deserve to be in charge, and (b) your eyes and ears, which tell you when things are feeling “right” and when they aren’t. You steer by that and hopefully figure out how to clear all the obstacles in your path, given (inevitably) limited time and resources.

Posted July 17, 2013

Filmmaker Laura Poitras and the “PRISM” Leak

A T/F filmmaker was at the center of the major news story of last week, highlighting the increasing importance of documentarians as journalists. Director Laura Poitras co-authored articles in both the Washington Post and The Guardian disclosing information about the NSA’s secret “PRISM” program, which mines data on U.S. citizens from internet companies. Poitras revealed in an interview with Salon that she was contacted by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden while in Hong Kong working on her forthcoming documentary film about leaks and state secrets in post 9/11 America.

Poitras received our True Vision Award at T/F 2010 where she presented the first two parts a proposed trilogy about the “war on terror” and its implications. In a director’s statement, she describes her aim in the series.

In each film, my goal has been to understand these world events through the stories of the people living them. I also want the films to serve as primary documents. As a nation, I don’t think Americans have begun to come to terms with 9/11 and its repercussions (Guantanamo, the invasion or Iraq, legalization of torture, etc.).

The first film, My Country, My Country (2006), follows Riyadh al-Adhadh, an Iraqi medical doctor running for office in early post-Saddam elections. Al-Adhadh’s story demonstrates the perils and contradictions of a fledgling democracy, growing under U.S. military occupation.

The second film, The Oath (2010), cross cuts the story of two men, one a magnetic presence, the other a felt absence, both former associates of Osama Bin-Laden. Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal broods about his troubling past and his brother-in-law Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who has been detained as an enemy combatant in Guantanamo.

As a preview of the third part of her trilogy, Poitras created the short film The Program for the NY Times Op-Docs in August of last year. In it whistle-blower William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the NSA, discusses the “Stellar Winds” information storage program.

Compare this with the interview Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald conducted last week with Edward Snowden about the newly disclosed “PRISM” program.

Poitras has suffered repeated harassment and interrogation by the Department of Homeland Security for her work on these and related stories. In her courage and diligence, she continues to exemplify the critical role documentary filmmakers can play in our public discourse.

Posted June 18, 2013

‘Subway Preacher’ and a Conversation with Director Dennis W. Ho

Subway Preacher (T/F 2011) grants us miraculous access to a very strange place, the life of evangelist Brian Kelly. In lieu of employment, Brian, along with his wife Rose and a handful of other followers, runs a 24/7 ministry amid the daily grind of a New York City subway station. His days are spent distributing Chick Tracts and abrasively warning the uninterested passersby about the perils of hell fire. Around the time photographer, musician and first-time filmmaker Dennis W. Ho began filming, Brian attracted a new follower, a beautiful young woman named Kaitlin. The story that followed, captured by Ho’s camera, is enlightening, infuriating and darkly comedic.

Now, Dennis has made Subway Preacher available in its entirety on YouTube. You’ll find it embedded below along with an interview with Dennis discussing this gritty and oddly poetic piece of non-fiction. But be sure to watch the film first, you won’t want to spoil any of its many surprises.
-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Dennis, thanks for chatting with me.

DH: My pleasure Dan.

T/F: So, I first wanted to ask about was the amazing access you had in the film. How did you first meet Brian?

DH: I first met Brian at the Times Square Station after having passed through that station several times and seen the “ministry” and its assorted eccentrics and non-traditional New Yorkers. One day I stopped by and asked if I could take pictures of them for a photo essay. And that photo essay turned into a film.

T/F: Was he at all hesitant about you photographing him?

DH: Actually, he was very enthusiastic. Most of them were quite open to the idea.

T/F: When you first began the project, did you have any notion of the emerging love triangle story line?

DH: Not at all. Through the course of filming, there were at least three story lines I could used for the film. The love triangle turned out to be the one I captured the most completely, and also I think the story that Brian wanted to tell.

T/F: What were the alternative stories?

DH: There was a trip down to Georgia that turned out to be quite a fiasco, and there was also a whole other angle of Brian’s story involving his background as a competitive bowler.

T/F: Wow.

DH: Yeah, at one point I was thinking I might call the movie Bowling for Jesus.

T/F: How long did you film for?

DH: I spent probably about one and a half years actually filming.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

DH: I think there is definitely an aspect of the story where people wonder if these guys are for real. If  they are faking something. And also the question of what aspects of the story are influenced by the filmmaker’s (my) viewpoint and perspectives. Even speculation by viewers of what my own stances and relationship were to the subjects and their world.

T/F: There is one scene in particular that stood out to me. Brian presents a bunch of his rationalizations for the divorce, and then he turns to the camera almost giddy and says “the plot thickens”. It really raised the question of how much of what he was doing was a performance. Was he noticeably different when the camera was off?

DH: You know, he really wasn’t much different when the camera was on or off. But that said, I never saw him in a context where there wasn’t a camera person in the room. Kind of like “I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed”. I think there were definitely elements of what Brian gave me that were very much based on the fact that he was having his story recorded “for posterity.”

T/F: One of the most compelling scenes takes place on Rose’s birthday, when he leaves Rose and Kaitlin alone together on the sidewalk in front of the building. It’s hard for me to tell if he is aware how cruel he is being.

DH: A lot of people saw that scene and considered it a “nail in the coffin” on Brian’s likeability. Interestingly, knowing Brian as I did, and knowing in general other asshole people (including sometimes myself), I think Brian was not necessarily trying to be cruel for cruelty’s sake. Rather I think when he asks Rose to prove her birthday and then goads her for being old, he was handling the situation like a lot of people might, if they found themselves in a situation where they are the asshole. Sometimes when you are the jerk, it’s hard not to continue being a jerk and sometimes even exacerbate the situation just to pretend there’s nothing wrong. You know what I mean?

Incidentally, on the issue of forgetting Rose’s birthday, I personally always forget everyone’s birthday, including my own wife. Fortunately she does the same for me, so we are straight . . .

T/F: Ha, yeah, there a lot of times where he does something cruel, and then sort of quickly constructs a theological rationale for his behavior. But he seems like he believes his own crap.

DH: I would definitely say that is one of the biggest neuroses of Brian and people of his personality type; they actually believe everything that comes out of their own mouth. It’s how they get other people to buy it too.

T/F: My understanding is that you composed the score for the film? How did you approach that?

DH: As a matter of fact, the piano piece that bookends the film was one of the first parts that came to me. I was actually in Chinatown watching a funeral procession the day that I decided to turn the project from a photo essay into a documentary. I heard the song in my head. Throughout the rest of the film, the musical elements are much more sparse. I added those parts after I had mostly solidified the edit.

T/F: It creates a beautiful melancholy tone.

DH: Thanks. I actually added a lot of sound elements to the story that were intended to sound as though they were actual ambient sound, but are timed to add color and texture to the story.

T/F: Interesting.

DH: For instance, in the scene where Brian wakes up in the hospital, I added the sound of birds chirping to give the feeling of Brian’s carefree attitude. I also added sounds of banging and clanging in the subways, like the subways were commenting on what was happening.

T/F: Have you talked to Brian, Shawn, Rose or Kaitlin since you finished the film?

DH: I have. Actually, I see Shawn somewhat regularly in the subways as he has taken to regularly setting up at Atlantic/Pacific station in Brooklyn, which is right along my regular commute. Rose I hear from every so often. Brian went to Florida for a while after the film was finished and apparently has recently returned to town, though I haven’t heard from him much, though I have seen him a couple times. Kaitlin I have not spoken to since I finished filming.

T/F: Do you know what they think of the film?

DH: Rose and Shawn both really appreciate the film, from what I understand. Kaitlin I am not really sure since I have not heard from her. I gather it is not something she feels very positive about, especially since she is no longer with Brian. As for Brian, when he first saw the finished cut, he was a bit apprehensive, but then told me that he thought I “didn’t do such a bad job” and that I should “show the film to anyone and everyone”.

T/F: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Any thing else you want to add?

DH: One of my favorite quotes is one from Alfred Hitchcock which goes something like “in narrative films, the director is god; in documentary films, god is the director.” I am not religious, nor do I have any real place from which to really comment on anything of a theological nature. But the quote from Hitchcock very much describes the process by which this film came into being. I just showed up each day and hung out waiting for something to happen, never telling anyone to do anything for me, not even moving to where the light was better, or even to wear a mic. In a sense, I don’t feel like I directed this film at all. But in the end, the film that resulted was uncannily close to the film I envisioned that day in Chinatown watching the funeral procession, and I don’t believe that to be a coincidence.

Posted June 12, 2013

‘Detropia’ Streaming Online Through June 17

Detropia is available free streaming online through June 17th from PBS Independent Lens. A hit at True/False 2012, this film compiles a variety of voices into a timely meditation on the collapse and possible rebirth of a great American city.

Watch Detropia on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Detropia is the latest inventive, politically charged film from the doc making duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. You can read more about their body of work here.

Posted June 1, 2013

Neil Platt’s blog ‘The Plattitude’; ‘I Am Breathing’ Playing Ragtag June 20

Watching a good documentary is frequently emotional. Yet even when placed alongside other non-fiction, I Am Breathing (T/F 2013) stands out for its undeniable poignancy. The film documents Neil Platt’s struggle against Motor Neuron Disease (MND), and the legacy he created for his wife Louise and infant son Oscar as his life slipped away. For anyone who has seen it, Neil’s story lingers as a forceful reminder of how precious our time really is.

Neil’s illness confined him to a chair, even taking away the use of his arms. As his body became a prison, his blog The Plattitude became his means of connecting with the rest of the world. As he puts it late in I Am Breathing, “the freedom to communicate has to be your strongest and most powerful freedom”. In the film we watch as he composes posts with voice recognition software, a laborious and frustrating process. We see his words spelled out on the screen and hear his thoughts transformed into beautiful and hilarious narration. In this way director Emma Davie builds the doc around Neil’s wisdom, courage and cheeky humor in the face of death.

Now the team of I Am Breathing is resharing all one hundred posts of The Plattitude, one each day, counting down until Global Awareness Day for MND/ALS June 21st, an event which will be marked by worldwide screenings of the film. This includes a free screening at Ragtag Cinema sponsored by the University of Missouri’s Interdisciplinary Center on Aging one day early on June 20th.

Neil’s widow Louise wrote an introduction for the blog and added a commentary to each post. The original comments are preserved so that you can read the feedback and encouragement that meant so much to Neil. In addition to the film’s website, you can follow these posts on I Am Breathing‘s Facebook page and Twitter feed at the hashtag #Plattitude.

Following the T/F screening at Ragtag, fellow documentarian Alison Klayman asked Emma Davie about what was unexpected in telling Neil’s story. Her emotional response is in the video below.

Posted May 23, 2013

‘Stories We Tell’ Now Playing in NYC

Stories We Tell, a runaway hit at True/False 2013, is now playing theaters in New York with more cities soon to follow. Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary debut explores an uncomfortable family secret with humor and grace, carefully combining interviews, Super-8 archival footage and sly reenactments in an inventive structure. Avoiding the obstacles of self-importance and excessive cuteness that derail similar projects, Polley uses her family’s story to explore universal questions about the elusiveness of truth, the nature of familial bonds and the role stories play in our lives.

Sarah’s father, the actor Michael Polley, serves as the film’s narrator. You can hear his elegant and resonate voice at the beginning of the film’s trailer.

It’s difficult to say much more about Stories We Tell without giving away any of its twists and turns. If you’ve seen it already or wish to read on at your own risk, there are many places to turn. Tim Grierson at Deadspin, Manhola Dargis of the New York Times and Eric Kohn at Indiewire all offer insightful reviews. Rachel Dodes interviewed Polley about the film for the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog. And you can listen to her discuss the film on San Francisco public radio.

Stories We Tell is now playing at the Angelika Film Center New York and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Posted May 10, 2013

Four Short Films by Arthur Lipsett

Arthur Lipsett transformed literal trash into cinematic treasure. Working at the National Film Board of Canada during the 1960s, he wove bits of discarded audio and film into unforgettable collages. The four films embedded below through the NFB archive, all less than 13 minutes in length, inaugurated his tragically short career. They continue to delight, confound and provoke some fifty years later.

As Brett Kashmere put it in a Senses of Cinema essay, Lipsett’s work “disrupts the representational value of documentary image and sound, moving beyond the genre’s aesthetic codes of truth and reliability”. What we see and what we hear seem at first unrelated. Sometimes the sights and sounds come to form some sort of compliment, but frequently they press against and even threaten to negate one another, creating an unresolved and unresolvable tension. Lipsett speaks through these strange sensory paradoxes, offering a fascinating commentary on modern life.

His first film, 1962’s Very Nice, Very Nice (which played before Zielinski at T/F 2011) places us in the shadow of Madison Avenue and the Atom Bomb.

Very Nice was originally conceived as an audio only experiment, in Lipsett’s words “purely for the love of placing one sound after another”. We hear a series of voices, at times threatening to speak for the film directly in samples of cultural critics including Northrup Frye and Marshall McLuhan. But just as our understanding begins to congeal, the audio melts away into incoherence and redundancy. The result looks like this:

“We’re living in a very competitive world today as compared to 30 or 40 years ago, everything is highly competitive, uh, would you like to answer that Paul? . . . people who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of a world, that is, they completely forget what happened last Tuesday, a politician can promise them anything and they will not remember later what he has promised, and ah, the . . . oh, the game is really nice to look at, for me I like football . . . in other words we are suffering from uh, everybody wondered about what the future will hold, what’s ahead of us, but if you feel well, you know inevitably whatever’s going to happen, you feel well anyway . . . warmth and brightness will return, and renewal of the hopes of men.”

And so on. Our faculty for discerning meaning in spoken language is deftly turned against us. So too, our capacity for reading expressions at a glance is frustrated and confounded by the visuals. Mismatched edits link still photographs of faces transfixed in rapture, terror, confusion, joy and sadness. Lipsett’s simultaneous tweaking of these two cognitive systems masterfully effects the “dissolving phantasmagoria of a world” promised above.

These head games also help to account for the film’s unnerving shifts in tone, an essential feature of all of Lipsett’s work. What at first reads as a brooding, somber meditation is quite suddenly a zany carnival. Late in the film a sudden parade of magazine cutouts dance before our eyes, and the soundtrack is given over to trite, jazzy music and ecstatic yelling. Tragedy and farce are indistinguishable.

Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Very Nice, Very Nice that he approached Lipsett about directing the trailer for his own black comedy of atomic warfare, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Lipsett declined, Kubrick directed the trailer himself, but in a style clearly indebted to Lipsett. It has always been one of my favorite trailers. The unnerving audio track fills me with a weird sort of giddy horror.

Lipsett’s second film, 1964’s 21-87, confronts humanity’s search for an essential identity.

The very first image is a forceful reminder of mortality, a leering skull letting us know the stakes. The series of film clips that follow depict modern life as either mechanized or frivolous. People are seen as actors performing roles: models in a fashion show, a man dressed in a space suit, kids gyrating to rock and roll, acrobats moving across a wire. A bombardment of faces is again essential to the film, this time as a procession on an escalator, jump cuts linking the uninterested faces moving simultaneously upwards and towards us.

After opening with an unnerving robotic grind, the soundtrack offers a diverse sampling of our religious and spiritual aspirations, “the search for the force behind this apparent mask”. These range from austere choral arrangements to soulful gospel music, from Orthodox liturgies to extemporaneous musings in a public park. By the time we reach the frightening conclusion, it appears we are content to be thought of as just a number.

Lipsett’s third film, Free Fall (1964), is his most abstract sensory overload.

A pounding jazz melee immediately sets the tempo for this cinematic blitz. Even when the film slows down, the relaxed interludes are fraught with tension. Visual and thematic motifs of the first two films reappear here, the sea of faces invoking humanity lost in the crowd, the bewildering snippets of anxious dialogue and monologue. But here they are in service of something more primal and frenzied. Human beings are juxtaposed with insects, maniacally scrambling across the frame. Our Free Fall could be from grace, either real or imagined, back into the the chaos of nature.

The final film in Lipsett’s inaugural quartet, A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), is a chilling history lesson.

Subtitled Additional Material for a Time Capsule, the film is more formally restrained than the other three, utilizing relatively longer snippets of archival newsreel footage. Public celebrations of “achievements”, political, cultural, economic, religious, military, technological and scientific, are fed back to us as an alarming spectacle. The common aura of pomposity surrounding these events, despite their diversity, creates a nauseating sense of the grotesque. This feeling builds until it manifests as the searing audio distortion of the film’s climax. Our present search for meaning, it would seem, needs to avoid such public displays of “meaningfulness” at all costs.

For a clear example of Lipsett’s continuing influence, see Adam Curtis’s brilliant It Felt Like A Kiss (T/F 2010). Curtis describes this film as a “psycho-archaeological dig of the American Empire”. As in Lipsett’s Trip, shock edits highlight unsettling connections, and the comfortable compartmentalization of our historical memory is gleefully destroyed.

Curtis’s collage is just one example of Lipsett’s continuing relevance. His films feel perfectly at home in the age of YouTube and will no doubt continue to confound and delight far into the future.

- Dan Steffen


Posted May 2, 2013
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