Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

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As with a great number of other films I adored with one viewing, there are no elevator pitches for Shoah that would encourage anything other than avoidance from most potential viewers. “Shoah, the 10-hour Holocaust documentary” – I can already imagine the stream of parodies such a description would invite. But, quite honestly, I cannot imagine any one film that would feel equally pertinent of a shorter length. Night & Fog‘s formalism results in an auteurist masterpiece more than a documentarian one, Schindler’s List‘s hammy Spielberg pathos renders it a cartoon, and the cornucopia of breathtaking WW2-themed cinema to come from Eastern Europe in the 1960s (The Third Part of Night, Diamonds of the Night, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, Ivan’s Childhood etc), always seem best understood, like Fog as a reflection of the artist, or as part of a vast number of artistic responses to atrocities of Nazi projects of invasion and extermination. I must confess, as of writing this review, I have not yet seen Son of Saul.

Shoah is a grand-scale documentation of an immeasurable atrocity. Although it does not carry the aesthetic of auteurism, it does not hide director / interviewer Claude Lanzmann’s stance on the topics discussed, or the people with whom he discusses them – at many a point, when sharing space with German perpetrators, he struggles and sometimes fails to hide his aggressive contempt towards these men. At such moments as these, Shoah‘s closet sibling appears to be The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On which should perhaps be unsurprising, considering both films’ highly unique preference for oral subjective history over any attempt at “adult education.” Does this allow for bias against Poles? Yes. Does one feel like even a little time could have been devoted to the other victims? Yes. Does this make Shoah any less of a film? No. The film’s ambiguity in many respects parallels the myriad contradictions of the event itself: the brutality and yet the bureaucracy; the titanic proportions and yet the alleged invisibility. Such an unfathomable catastrophe demands conflicting responses of objective abstraction and subjective obsession.

Noticing Lanzmann’s own biases whilst watching Shoah does not make the film about his reaction; rather, it makes it about reactions, generally. Interviewees are routinely put in overtly staged environments or protracted states of discomfort and we the spectators are equally disquieted. No-one can watch Shoah without questioning ethics of both documentation and perhaps memory, itself. Chelmno survivor Szymon Srebrnik at one point is filmed, standing with his former Polish neighbours in front of the Church used at one point to imprison him and others before being shipped to the extermination camp, looking not unlike an extended family photo. The camera zooms in on his falteringly fixed smile as they speak jovially of his parents’ murder, of the Shoah being possible repercussion of the Jews’ murder of Christ. We share in Szymon’s quantum state between rage, despair and disassociation – much like our reaction to the Holocaust itself – perhaps such an event that defies understanding can only be documented in a manner that denies tact and taste.

Shoah is a film of poetry and symmetry. Discussions in the first hour of Nazis’ insistence on Jewish corpses being referred to as Figuren – “dolls, marionettes, puppets” – are recalled in the ninth hour, remarking on Adam Czerniaków’s description of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Judenrat as “marionettes.” We hear of a survivor’s dream, when in Treblinka, to survive Shoah and be the sole living human being on Earth, echoed in the final scene of the film, in which a resistance fighter for the J.C.O describes being in a seemingly empty Warsaw, thinking “perhaps I’m the only Jew left.” The camera takes us into claustrophobic conversations, and the agoraphobic open spaces of what once were the camps themselves – none of the modernised cities of Krakow, Berlin, or even New York have escaped the touch either, appearing each time either a little too grainy or a little too sheen – there’s nowhere truly safe or happy to be found in this post-Holocaust world.

Shoah’s narrative, such as it can thus be described, predominantly flows from Chelmno to Treblinka to Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Warsaw Ghetto. Whilst the ordering surprised me at first – the Czerniaków’s diary in Warsaw ending the day after the first shipment of Jews from the Ghetto to the camps, after all – however, this seems to aid Shoah’s holistic directive. Rather than a chronological ordering that charts a system of escalation, the temporal reshuffle stresses that the Shoah was not any one phenomenon, but something that touched all Jews and other Figuren throughout Europe. That the most bloodcurdling tale told is by Jan Karski of his visit to the Ghetto – the Ghetto which, crucially everybody knew about, no matter who knew what about the extermination camps, everyone knew about the Ghetto – is so vital. It denies any Nazi officer interviewed throughout the rest of the film (or, for that matter, not interviewed in the film) any sense of plausible deniability. Even if they didn’t know about the Final Solution, they still knew about the Hell on Earth that was the Ghetto. This unrelenting sense of responsibility Lanzmann places on the Nazis, on the Poles, on anyone who did anything other than actively fight against the atrocity, is at the heart of Shoah – even if they only knew 1% of what was going on, they knew 100% of that 1% and that is enough to damn them. The Shoah happened not just to the Jews, but to the world. The world itself is damned for having such incomprehensible barbarity upon it, and it is the world that requires redemption.

Not simply as someone whose family tree had significant branches torn off by the Shoah, or someone who would have been sent to the camps in a heartbeat, wearing a yellow star combined with a pink triangle, red triangle, or black triangle as the Nazis saw fit, but as a living being on this Earth, Shoah was a film that spoke to me about hope and hopelessness, survival and despair, guilt and innocence, and the world’s constant need for redemption. Shoah is the example of cinematic language bravely doing what human language cannot and, for that, I cannot give it anything but the highest rating, and the highest recommendation. This is that for which cinema was made.

*****

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A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, 2013)

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Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a, confusingly enough, hypnotic yet frustrating documentation of Estonia, Finland and Norway that undoubtedly shares much of Stan Brakhage’s “back to the land” philosophy, albeit few if any of his aesthetics. Certainly, as a visual and aural reflection on a spiritual commune between man and nature, A Spell works best when it is at both its quietest and its loudest – both of these states most brilliantly carried on the shoulders of semi-protagonist, avant-garde / black metal / drone pioneer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.

Unfortunately, what certainly feels like the lion’s share of A Spell is not devoted to Lowe, silently rowing staring with stoned, unblinking eyes at a burning wooden hut, or performing some of the most surreal harsh vocals in extreme music today, but instead to a group of fairly insufferable hippies who mumble and murmur aimless anecdotes and half-baked social theories which, speaking as a mid-20s Arts & Humanities graduate living in east London, I really don’t need to watch a Ben Rivers film to hear. I don’t want to be giving A Spell the relatively pedestrian rating of only 3.5 stars but, beyond having to dock the rating due to the tedium of the aforementioned section, it had to lose another half due to the actual – presumably unplanned – alienation effect this section has on the rest of the beautifully serene film. As I alluded to earlier, A Spell does operate on a paradox here – if the rest of the film didn’t operate so beautifully, it might have ironically ended up with a slightly higher rating. Life is strange.

There is, undoubtedly, a Bazinian beauty to A Spell which absolutely works to the benefit of its philosophy – it is the realism of the cinematic praxis here which endows the film so much with a spirituality of form. Such a relationship to the pro-filmic environment is what allows the opening shot and the final 45 minutes such consistency. Much of this rests on the camerawork, which achieves at its best moments a perfect harmony between phenomenology and restrained documentation. The opening shot is a methodical volley of pans, back and forth across a vast and seemingly completely secluded lake, all of which stop short of being 360⁰ as though to self consciously deny the camera the privilege of an omniscient position. Likewise, in the black metal performance in the last half hour, shot entirely in one take, the chiaroscuro on-location mise-en-scène of the stage, only emphasised when contrasted with the band’s corpse paint, gives the scene an ecstatically disorientated ambience, as the camera snakes around the performers, almost entirely in close-up to extreme-close-up, in such a way that we are left with no concrete understanding of the geography of the stage, or the positioning of the musicians. They seem to appear randomly in the line of the lens’ sight, again stressing the limitations of the artist’s hand in the face of an holistic omnipresence of of man-nature communal spirituality (an ever-increasing preoccupation of black metal lyrics, both in its Scandinavian birthplace and beyond, from France to the Pacific Northwest).

There is so very much to love about A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, I can only hope that, the next time I watch it, I’ll be in a slightly better mood and be able to afford it at the very least half an extra star.

 

***1/2

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)

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Though I’m unsure how many times I have seen this film at this point, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this was the first time I had realised the meaning behind the title: that “autopsy” (derived from the ancient Greek autos meaning “self” and optos meaning “seen,”) can in fact be translated to “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes.” This information massively contextualises the content: rather than the film providing us with a typically unseen vision – corpses – in a manner one might describe, for example, Mothlight as doing, Act of Seeing instead places the kino eye within the morgue as locus of the revelatory event of autopsy. The reality of the film itself merely provides an entrance to a very literal unveiling. Stripped away is skin, fat, muscle, organic matter and what is left is… hard to say. But impossible not to see… and that, in a nutshell, is Brakhage’s game.

Such discomfort that I endure during Act of Seeing is not on account of gore; rather, much like sea-sickness, which is the visceral response to cognitive dissonance between perceptions of balance and vision, the nausea arises from the cognitive dissonance between the loss of these human bodies living, experiential subjectivity, and the addition of their objective potential as containers of mystery. Perhaps most disturbing is seeing the removal of faces, peeled away like a mask, revealing largely un-individual skull. The barrage of graphic imagery inducing a certain nigh-intoxicated effect, I mused, stoner-like, about the etymological meaning of “person” – mask. I recalled Alan Watts’ discourse on “who am I?” in which he discussed the ways in which one may not know oneself, in the same way one may not taste one’s own tongue or indeed see one’s own eyes with one’s own eyes, without the use of a mirror. How interesting that what we use to identify one another, read one another, be attracted to one another, is that about ourselves we are unable to see unaided…

I could go on but, as an act of mercy, I shan’t.

That Brakhage is able to elicit just as much wistful navel-gazing as he is pure revulsion is highly impressive, but perhaps also to be expected from his mastery of camerawork. Act of Seeing performs a certain phenomenological Cubism: flattening, thus relativising, the relief of subjectivity by stripping away the outside world, as so too is stripped away the flesh of the bodies, vision once again becomes an act of holism, just as it did in Dog Star Man. When the body of a larger woman is wheeled in near the end, green, the whiteness of the fat revealed as her chest is sliced open giving the effect of mattress foam more than anything as shocking as body tissue, it becomes ever unclear through the juxtaposing montage with other corpses of hues white, brown and grey, if the green-ness of this body was an effect of decomposition, or a trick of the light. The universal eyeball of the kino eye makes no valuation. Not this time. The final conflict between the lyrical hand and the Bazinian objectif in this film ends, I believe, in the latter’s favour. Though these corpses may no longer possess the subjectivity of the anima of their former living hosts, the gaze in the Act of Seeing feels considerably more akin to that expressed by Todd McGowan than by Laura Mulvey: this is no controlling gaze. Neither Brakhage’s eye, the camera’s eye, nor our eye has anymore say in what happens to these bodies than the bodies themselves; all we can do is see them, or turn and look away.

 

*****

Cassette (Zack Taylor, 2016)

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Cassette, on its international quest to explore the cassette tape – and above all, the mix tape – its origins, its influences, its demise and its resurgence, absolutely has its heart in the right place. It manages to interview all the surviving inventors, it has the obligatory talking heads of Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore, not to mention live footage of presumably grateful Williamsburg hipster bands.

The problem is almost paradoxical: Cassette documents a great many people with a huge passion for the subject matter; something that does not appear to be particularly shared by the filmmakers, themselves. The film is consistently permeated by a largely impassive atmosphere which one can only assume is the reason behind its general lack of pursuit. Absolutely, a lot of people are consulted – we hear from DJ Ron G and others about the mixtape’s major influence on hip hop, we see Mike Watt discussing the impact it had on the garage band’s ability to get recordings out there, but we never really explore the impact on such movements and phenomena; all we get are some anecdotes as a camera scans over collections of tapes, or someone holds the cover up to the camera, the majority of the time, the lens is too unfocused to capture the titles or images, anyway.

When you think of all the eccentricities of cassette culture out there, all the crazy packagings noise and experimental artists like Aube, A Band, The Gerogerigegege, Merzbow and others have been involved with that isn’t mentioned at all, you really can’t help but feel a little cheated. Instead, we hear X number of people saying the exact same thing about the tape’s relevance to hip hop, X number of people saying the exact same thing about the tape’s relevance to punk, X number of people saying the exact same thing about how their tape-related manufacture/distribution/retail business hasn’t yet folded.

I absolutely agree with the sentiment that a documentary is not the same as an adult educational video, and there is no necessity to “learn” in the strictest sense anything from one. However, feeling like I’ve gained almost nothing phenomenologically has led me to the conclusion that, whilst nothing at all is particularly bad about Cassette it is the standardest of standard boilerplate kickstarter-funded pet project documentaries, without even really showing the “love” implicit in the term amateur. Shame, really.

**1/2

Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)

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Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.

 

*****

The Mask You Live In (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2015)

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The Mask You Live In is a solid and vital, if unadventurous, documentary on the crossover between gender performativity and toxic masculinity and the societal feedback loop that cultivates it / which it cultivates. Its primary tool is an impressively varied set of talking heads and interviewees, the former including neuroscientists, behaviourists, sociologists, sports coaches, social workers and psychiatrists; the latter including reception-age children, high-school kids and young male felons with life sentences. Mask‘s strong point is looking at current affairs and developing recent discussions on pop culture – for example video games – and contextualising the young men – young boys, even – and their engagement with misogynist and hyper-masculine representations of violence as the only means of conflict resolution and rage as the only emotion – if any – worthy of expression to a degree which Anita Sarkeesian has somewhat often fallen short.

It’s a trippy and affective experience, watching such a film as a young woman, raised in childhood to be someone’s son and, perhaps it was as someone with such a relatively unique perspective that I noticed the morals of the film being disappointingly simple – essentially a “don’t do that.” It was a little jarring that it focused so often on language relating to queerphobia and misogyny, but didn’t bother too much to pursue the narratives of queer young men. It was a little tiring to see such an un-nuanced attitude of suspicion and blame towards sex work, including but not limited to pornography, to the extent that there were points at which it did become difficult to see too much distance between Mask and any other special news report. Much like a special news report, Mask mixes agenda with information in a way that, whilst not teaching me very much I didn’t already know, it did have me jotting down the names of some of the consulted experts to find out about any related TED talks etc – without a doubt the most impressive of these is Ashanti Branch.

Problems aside, The Mask You Live In‘s heart is indubitably in the right place and it comes away with considerably more wins than losses. We must just look at this film as the beginning of a much longer conversation.

 

***1/2

Slow Action (Ben Rivers, 2010)

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Fascinating and deceptive, Slow Action is a pseudo-anthropological essay film that combines legitimate documentation with fiction direction and an entirely fantastical, almost completely separate, commentary, read by multiple voices.

Accordingly, Slow Action seems prefigured on a number of established ambiguities of fiction and reality, exotica and mundanity. There is arguably slightly too much of a cognitive dissonance between the images and commentary for the spectator to receive both simultaneously, thus they are in a certain competition which can be understood as indicative of a larger question relating to the white, western gaze and the rivalry between the Bazinian indexicality of the photographic / cinematographic image and the colonial and othering attitude that informs that image’s reception, time and again.

The competition between narrative and image may, however, be most often won by the image, on the basis that the very old-school narration technique of Slow Action is not read evocatively at all, but it is clearly modelled on a pre-Attenborough mode of pedagogy that certainly increases a sense of that colonial gaze, but arguably at the expense of reading much into the disjunct available. However, Slow Action, especially at 45min running time, should be able to hold your attention enough to get enjoyment out of a mixture of all its parts. Whether the whole is as great as them I leave to the individual spectator, but I’ve liked it both times I’ve seen it, especially as I’m currently re-reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

****

Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay (Amélie Ravalec, 2015)

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I was really looking forward to this. The title suggested that I was going to be in for some psychogeographical complement between the sounds of the industrial scene and Herzogian documentary-style footage of estates and ghostly urban sprawl, like a contemporary reimagining of Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Halbe Mensch” and instead I watched a surface-level talking head fest with less information than BBC Four’s 2009 program Synth Britannia.

Covering almost exclusively the mot accessible and synthpoppy elements of Industrial, with massive gaping holes as far as artists like Nurse With Wound, Coil, Whitehouse and Merzbow are concerned, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decayteaches you nothing new, but at least seeing it at the cinema gives you the opportunity to hear some Throbbing Gristle and SPK played on louder speakers than you probably own at home. This fact becomes all too abundant, however, thanks to the shoddy mixing job and poor quality of the sound recording equipment, resulting in many of the interviews getting drowned out by music many of us have heard before.

However, given that the interviews are nothing but musicians making incredibly bold Great Man Theory statements, all claiming to be the first musicians of discord, first practitioners of sampling techniques, selectively forgetting futurism, free jazz and musique concrète as just three examples, we aren’t missing all that much.

At 52 minutes, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay is a short, pretentious and dramatically wanting affair, salvaged only somewhat by the quality of its primary source material, which will itself be entirely familiar to a solid 90% of its audience anyway.

**

Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Dylan Rossi, 2014)

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Heaven Adores You is without a doubt a charming, beautiful and emotive tribute to the music of Elliott Smith and the effect and affect it had on those who knew him and those who didn’t. However, as others have criticised as well, its narrative contains certain glaring omissions and perhaps too strong an investment in claiming him as Portland’s own (one cannot help but feel the film itself becomes a little resentful and loses a certain amount of interest when it reaches Smith’s exodus first to New York City and then Los Angeles). Clearly the filmmakers were not as privileged in terms of access to the cornucopia of primary source material as those behind Cobain: Montage of Heck (and the comparisons will be abundant) were.

Still, this does mean that Heaven Adores You provides the viewer with a much clearer insight into Smith’s Portland years, both solo and as a member of Heatmiser, than I personally had previously. The way the sound editing transitions between often amateur-shot live footage and album recordings and the introspective, psychogeographic relationship the film has with both the urban and rural landscapes that were the backdrops to Smith’s creativity makes Heaven Adores You an engaging and appropriately sentimental appreciation of one of the most unique and profound singer-songwriters of our time.

***1/2

In the Turn (Erica Tremblay, 2015)

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A deeply heartfelt, inspiring and funny documentary on the worldwide queer girl phenomenon that is the Vagine Regime roller derby collective and their efforts to get one bullied Canadian trans girl to derby camp in California, In the Turn is extremely well-executed for a film that feels so DIY in production. For the grand majority of the film, I had the impression that all participants were being portrayed in a way that was both respectful and true and I rarely felt in any way manipulated by the post-production to feel a particular way or see any forced narratives emerge in the editing room.

This is one of the few films I’ve seen – documentary or otherwise – that I felt treated the trans people in it well over 75% of the time. I recommend it to all.

****1/2