Next in the von Trier Bag of Tricks

Sometimes, I find that watching trailers is more fun than watching the films themselves. I was particularly excited when I saw the trailer for Lars von Trier’s next film, Melancholia, due out in Denmark in May of this year. I am still puzzling over von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, two years later. From what I can tell from the trailer, Meloncholia is as unintelligible, beautifully shot and, most likely, thought-provoking as Antichrist, if not as controversial.

What threw me off was not the lack of plot points, but the peculiar casting. I understand Charlotte Gainsbourg; she loves her indie films and starred in Antichrist. But Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland? Maybe it’s just because Kirsten Dunst will be forever associated in my mind with teen flicks like Bring It On and Crazy/Beautiful. And the last the movie I saw Sutherland in was the horror film, Mirrors, which despite having a premise with the potential to dive into the philosophical realm of perception and doubling, did not, in fact, choose to take this more intellectually stimulating route. In addition to having an awful horror film plot and puzzling ending, Mirrors is marked by Sutherland’s character’s strange tendency to become belligerent in situation when the requisite emotion is ‘scared’. Perhaps, now, though, he has had enough time to shake off his Jack Bauer instincts.

That said, I have always been intrigued with von Trier’s art house style squeezed into the framework of film genre. If Antichrist was von Trier’s experimentation with the horror/slasher genre then here it looks like he’s trying his hand at the science fiction thriller genre. The film, according to this interview summary, is about two sisters’ reactions to a planet’s threat of colliding with the earth, a Lars von Trier re-conceptualization of Deep Impact, if you will­—though the film begins with the earth’s destruction so we won’t have to spend any time playing the will it or won’t it game. Perhaps we’ll even see the exploration of the motifs of doubling and perception that Mirrors so readily neglected. I wonder if von Trier even got a little inspiration from Kanye West’s music absurd video/short film, Runaway (see 1:13).

Bolder Isn’t Always Better

        Left: the American version of the I Am Love poster // Right: the British version

I have adored the American version of the I Am Love poster since it came out in 2010—obviously, I am not alone here as it seems to be just about everyone’s favorite film poster of last year—but I hadn’t seen the original British quad until last weekend. I did a little research into the film after I found a $4 copy in an attempt to rent Kill Bill. Arriving at the Blockbuster where I planned to find said film, I discovered that the store was, in fact, going out of business and on the last days of its going-out-of-business sale (thanks for mentioning that on the website, Blockbuster). I found some wonderfully cheap foreign films (strangely enough, all that was left at that point was foreign and horror), including I Am Love.

The delightful—albeit Kill Bill-free—experience got me thinking about U.S. posters versus foreign posters and how often the Hollywood system sucks the creativity out of poster art (this is not to say there isn’t any creativity in poster art, but it’s left mostly to indie films where the star’s faces aren’t recognizable enough to focus all attention on them—in fact, 2010 was the year of the throw-some-text-over-the-face poster; think I’m Still Here and The Social Network). In his book on British film posters, Sim Branaghan wrote that British film posters had an advantage in that their quad format reflects the film screen better than the portrait format of American posters.

Although it took me a while to decide, I actually think I like the American version of the poster better. Both posters are doing the same thing: highlighting the alluring Tilda Swinton while pushing everyone else to the background. But the British version reminds me a little too much of that cheap Photoshop trick where you convert everything but the red flower petals to gray scale.  The bold sans serif and burn-out-your-eyes 100% magenta weighs the poster down. Swinton’s red dress and the white of the letters in the American version of the American version is just subtle enough while still making Swinton pop.  That chandelier is just the cherry on top of the cake. And yeah, every poster seemed to cover the actors with text but how often was it done with a script font? And that artfully done? About as often as you can buy a DVD from a major corporation for $4.

Fear, a Fox and the White Box

                                         A Still from Mircea Cantor’s Deeparture

I wish that Minneapolis-St. Paul would get the national recognition it deserves for its stellar art scene. Towards the end of a recent visit to the Walker Art Center, we wandered up to the upper floor exhibits, which I often overlook—perhaps subconsciously due to a traumatic experience wherein I was nearly left behind during a sculpture class field trip.  We discovered a hidden gem, even better than the new exhibit Midnight Party we had originally come to see. The exhibition, A Shot in the Dark, features work that explores the “mysterious energies that permeate everyday life” (and it’s open until April 24, 2011 so if you’re in Minneapolis, go see it!). There was a great piece that featured a large swath of tin foil on the floor that slowly moved about startling each visitor as they walked by. Unfortunately, I could find neither title nor artist anywhere (I wish the Walker would list all the works on display somewhere on the website, but you’ll just have to go see it in person).

My favorite piece, which, thankfully, was featured on the exhibition’s page, was a video installation by Romanian artist, Mircea Cantor, titled Deeparture (2005). The video, which I found listed as 2 minutes and 40 seconds as well as nearly 3 hours on different sites across the wonderful World Wide Web (perhaps it’s 2:40, looped for 3 hours?), depicts a wolf and a deer in a white room, presumably a gallery. Tension builds as the two pace, stand, lay and breathe—the deer with a twitchiness that only prey animals exhibit (our bunny has the same difficulty breathing without bobbing his head up and down). The audience wonders if the wolf will finally strike. Deeparture has the kind of nerve-racking tension that every horror film strives to build but the video cuts back to the beginning of the loop before any such terror occurs (if it would have occurred at all—they almost seem oblivious to each other’s existence). The blank space forces us to focus on the animals interactions but we are never given the exchange we expect.

                          A Photo of Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses)

Of course, Cantor isn’t the first to plop our four-legged friends into the white cube of the gallery.  According to Frieze magazine, people have often compared Deeparture to Joseph Beuys’ piece I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), though the magazine argues that these comparisons “are hardly fitting.” In Beuys’ “action” (his clever name for a performance piece), he lives in a gallery for several days with a coyote in an attempt to evoke a spiritual commentary. I have to agree with Frieze; Deeparture reminds me more of Untitled (12 Horses) (1969) where Jannis Kounellis exhibited 12 horses in a gallery for several days. Kounellis challenged the assumption of sculpture as a constructed, sellable structure and brought attention to the space of the gallery (with a dash of politics and Italian history thrown in there).

While both Untitled (12 Horses) and Deeparture are about altering environments, Kounellis’ work is about putting an unexpected object in an environment, while Deeparture is about removing an expected environment from an object. In Untitled (12 Horses), the use of animals in a gallery space was intended to bring attention to the space and object, questioning art as object. In Deeparture,the lack of definable space focuses the viewer’s attention on intangible relationships rather than tangible space/objects. This realignment makes us wonder about how environments, and perhaps expectations, affect these animals’ (and our) relationships, character and behavior.

Brushing the Dust off a Classic

   

                       Two film posters from the ’80s classic, The Adventures of Milo and Otis.

I was thinking back on some of my favorite films as a child, when I stumbled across the film poster/DVD cover for my beloved The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1989). While I can’t say whether or not this film is actually good—my Milo and Otis phase was followed by a period of time marked by my attempt to see every teen flick Shane West was in—what I can most assuredly say is that in retrospect those seemingly adorable marketing materials are creepy as all get out. I don’t know which is worse, the first poster with the cat’s arm around dear Otis, the oddly god-like way they are positioned on top of that hill with Technicolor flowers, and the paw print dotting the ‘i,’ or the second poster with the floating heads (a good old Hollywood standby that just doesn’t work with animals—or people for that matter), the airbrushed glow of the animals, and the faded rainbow stretching across the sky.  

And speaking of strange realizations, I had no idea that Milo and Otis began as a Japanese film, originally titled (after English translation) A Kitten’s Story and/or The Adventures of Chatran, and was heavily Americanized for U.S. release—I am glad the pug got headline real estate in the U.S. version. Nor did I know that it received many allegations of animal abuse. Ah, the naïveté of youth.

Delightfully Repulsive

 

Outsiders wanting in. Christine from Me and You and Everyone We Know and Mother from Mother

At first blush, Mother (2009), a Korean thriller directed by Joon-ho Bong, and Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), an American romantic comedy directed by Miranda July, have very little in common. Perhaps even at second blush they have very little in common. Yet despite living in different corners of the film canon, I found myself having a very similar reaction to both. Twenty minutes into each film, I had the same reaction, this isn’t what I was expecting,and forty minutes in I was thinking, there’s something uncanny about these characters.

My initial reaction may have more to do with marketing than the actual content of the film. Neither quite fits into their respective genres. Dig a little deeper, though, and I think the films have even more in common than category defiance. The characters, themselves, are not quite categorizable either. They are uncanny in that we recognize them as the protagonist(s) of the films, but they don’t quite fit in the role. Under the surface of their narrative story lines, both films are dealing with the abjected.

The abject has been a theme in art and film since Kristeva published her seminal work on the subject in the early eighties. She writes, “the abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to the I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles me with the fragile texture of desire for meaning, which as a matter of fact makes me carelessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva, 230). The abject is what is labeled in society as other and cast away, so we—actually, the white, stable, heterosexual male—may develop our own subjectivity. The body becomes a symbolic representation of society, and the waste we expel (feces, spit, menstrual blood, vomit) signifies the abject of society.

Mother is less obviously about the abjected than Everyone We Know. Films, especially those supporting the status quo, tend to mask their ideology under layers of narrative. Before I say any more, I want to add that Mother is a thought-provoking and excellently executed film. The first moments of mother dancing along in an empty field (one of my favorite opening scenes to a film) sets the stage in two ways—first, this is not going to be your typical thriller, and second, this woman here, well, she dances to the beat of her own drum. What follows from this telling (yet, not narrative-relevant) opening the story is Mother who lives with and for her son, Do-joon, who is mentally ill. Despite her weary surveillance, a young girl ends up dead and Do-joon ends up with the blame. When her thieved evidence doesn’t convince the cops and her acupuncture technique doesn’t help Do-joon remember the night, she sets off to find the real murderer.

One particularly memorable scene begins with Mother chopping herbs, her fingers inching closer and closer to the blade while watching her Do-joon through the frame of the door. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes of this scene, “The dim interior and bright exterior only accentuate his body — the daylight functions as a kind of floodlight — which puts into visual terms the idea that he is the only thing that Mother really sees.” And yet the scene tells us more than that. As a car drives by and slams into Do-joon, Mother slices her finger in the blade. The two are bound together tightly, so tightly, in fact, that by the end of the film, the crime that Do-Joon has committed, Mother will have committed as well.

This binding is where abjection begins to play its role in the film. According to Kristeva, the need to abject stems from the incest taboo. In order for the mentally stable male to define himself as an ‘I,’ he must abject, or break his bond with, his mother in order “to ward off the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into [her]” (Kristeva, 254).  Time and time again Do-joon is ridiculed for sleeping in the same bed as his mother. Because Do-joon is seen as other he is an easy scapegoat for the murder. Already on the outskirts of society, he is barred, literally and figuratively, from joining society.

One of the biggest criticisms about Kristeva’s theory when applied to art is that it only reaffirms instead of breaking down the status quo. While Mother may be doing some interesting things with narrative and cinematography, its ideology remains firmly planted in the norm. We discover that Do-joon is no scapegoat, that he really did commit murder, and Mother is no innocent either. In trying to protect Do-joon she herself kills a man—an outsider, at that (the abjected still abject others). Do-joon goes free (with another mentally ill man taking his place), but we are shown that we are right to abject these characters. Our initial repulsion is right.

While Everyone We Know is about a very different subject matter than Mother, it too deals with the abjected. The film follows a cast of characters, all just a little outside of “normal”—quirky, if you will—as they make and break connections with one another. July has a very different spin on the abjected, than Bong. If the reviews are any indication, July successfully breaks down the paradigm of the abjected.

Nearly every review I read applied the world “delightful” to the cast of characters or the film itself. Roger Ebert of the Sun Times writes “The MPAA gave it an R rating, ‘for disturbing sexual content involving children,’ but the one thing it isn’t is disturbing.” That would be all well and good if the characters were all wholeheartedly delightful. To some extent they are delightful, but there is also something uncanny about them—delightful but not quite right. Every character has a creepy quirk. Christine (played by July herself), a struggling artist and old-folk taxi driver, practically stalks Richard, a newly divorced father of two, in her attempts to get him to call her. Richard sets his hand ablaze in front of his children. Andrew, a shoe store salesman, leaves sexual messages taped to his window for the two teenage girls who flirted with him. The list goes on and on. Yet, despite these uncomfortable (dare I say, repulsive) quirks, the characters are all endearing. Instead of being disgusted by these abject characters as the theory of abjection dictates, we are drawn into them. We relate to them rather than distancing ourselves from them—the opposite of what our response ought to be to the abject.

Although only a peripheral character, the gallery curator provides an excellent case study of the ideological workings of the film. In one telling scene, she flips through a slideshow of potential artists when she comes across Christine’s work. She and her assistant have the following exchange:

“Is she of color?” 

“No. But she’s a woman.” 

Christine is not other-enough to be accepted into the gallery (at first at least—her strange behavior on the later portion of the tape eventually convinces the gallery curator to select her video work). This is an interesting role reversal where the trait of being on the outside is necessary to become an insider. The abject is reclaimed as the subject.

In another key scene, Robby, Richard’s young son starts an Internet flirtation with an anonymous chatter, telling her he wants to “poop back and forth, forever.” Although this may seem like a throwaway gag, this line could probably sum up the ideology of the entire film. If feces represent the abject—as they often do—then this scene tells that the abject is kept within, not forced outside the confines of society. We all feel abjected and we all abject others at various points. The abjected are never really pushed outside of society. We are all a society of others.

While Mother is undoubtedly a fantastic film, when considered in terms of abjection it supports the complaints that abject art only reaffirms societal constructs. Do-joon and his mother did really commit those crimes and our tendency to recoil from the abjected is reaffirmed. Me and You and Everyone We Know, however, endears us to the abjected, and brings into light how we are all abjecting and abjected—one and the same.

Since I can’t find a link to Kristeva’s article here is the citation:
Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror.” The Portable Kristeva. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 229-64.

Bleaker Than the Neorealists

Harmony Korine has been compared to the neorealists before, but the connection was never solidified for me until I saw Kids (1995). Having finished watching the film, I can’t help wonder if Korine had ejected Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948)from the VHS player only moments before he sat down to write the script. Written by Korine and directed by Larry Clark, Kids has had sixteen years to simmer in the public consciousness. Now is probably as good of a time as any to write about it, since it is the sort of film that needs that some time for people to stop worrying about whether it’s child porn or not and start looking deeper.

The biggest controversy The Bicycle Thieves had in its American release was the mistranslation of Ladri di Biciclette to The Bicycle Thief. Perhaps the lack of controversial content, at least in the U.S., explains why The Bicycle Thieves was lauded and Kids was called “smutty.” In fact, it’s surprising to see how often early reviewers of Kids dismissed and even criticized portions of the film that were virtually lifted from De Sica.  

Kids follows a group of grungy semi-street kids in New York. The film doesn’t have much of a plot (though more than Korine’s later films) but if it does have one it could probably be summed up: Jennie, after discovering she has HIV after losing her virginity to Telly, searches for him while he searches for more virgins to bed.

 Jennie, in many ways is analogous to The Bicycle Thieves’ protagonist, Antonio (or perhaps is more similar to Antonio’s son, Bruno, who, despite his quiet innocence, seems to absorb his surroundings better than the careless Antonio). Set in post-WWII Italy, The Bicycle Thieves follows Antonio and Bruno as they search for Antonio’s stolen bicycle, which he needs for his job as a sign poster. Both Jennie and Antonio wander hopelessly through a landscape that overwhelms and dwarfs their characters, desperately searching for something that is only a temporary fix for their predicament. More then a plotline, their respective quests serve as an excuse for the camera to survey the broken city.


Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes of disruptions to the film’s flow, The occasional contrived-sounding scene (like Jennie’s encounter with a sympathetic cabbie) breaks [Korine’s] dialogue’s grueling spell.”

Jennie’s encounter with the cabbie is less a break (as in fracture, not respite) from the narrative and more a break from the insular world of the kids, much like the break from the world of poverty Antonio and his son encounter when they stop at an upscale restaurant. The cabbie tells Jennie that the best way to be happy is simply to ignore her problems, yet it is her ignorance of Telly’s HIV that got her into the predicament in the first place. The scenes in both movies demonstrate counterpoints to the cultures that the main characters live in, seeming moments of relief, but upon further reflection, the viewer realizes that these are lives the characters can never achieve.

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly writes of the ending, “…though Jennie eventually does catch up with him, the confrontation [that the audience expects] never occurs. Clark may have thought he was staying true to reality. In doing so, though, he botched his one chance to place Telly in a situation that might have melted his hard shell. We never get to see if the little son of a bitch has a soul after all.”

Rita Kempley of The Washington Post, also complains of lack of direction provided by the film. She complains that the films characters “never develop. Even the pivotal Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), one of Telly’s virgin conquests, fails to confront Telly upon learning that she is HIV-positive. The final act of the film is driven by her search for him, but when she finally finds him about to have sex with an even younger girl, she does nothing.”

Kempley continues, “[Clark] doesn’t seem to understand the characters, nor does he link their wasted lives to economic circumstances, social failures or accidents of birth.”

The majority of reviewers who disliked Kids try to pigeonhole the film as a failed morality tale. With all that awful behavior, all that despair, there must be a lesson to be learned here. Much like The Bicycle Thieves, Kids never satisfies expectations, and doesn’t tidy up the ending with a nice bow. Antonio never finds his bike and Jennie never confronts Telly. In fact, both protagonists eventually become antagonists: Antonio stealing a bike and Jennie passing on the disease (though against her will). If there is any message in the two films, it is that these characters (and by extension, society) are trapped in a cycle from which they cannot break free. Kids may take this message even further: while Antonio is able to exert some agency in his final failed act, Jennie is drugged and raped, having lost control of her world entirely. Perhaps, it is Jennie’s apparent hopelessness that reviewers find so troubling. But Jennie is simply more aware of her world. She already knows what Antonio will not discover until the very end of the film. 

Robert Ebert of the Sun Times ends his review on an out-of-place reconciliatory note, “You watch this movie, and you realize why everybody needs whatever mixture of art, education, religion, philosophy, politics and poetry that works for them: Because without something to open our windows to the higher possibilities of life, we might all be Telly’s, and more amputated than the half-man on his skateboard.”

This conclusion to the review is particularly puzzling (Ebert’s offensive reference to the amputee as a ‘half-man’ certainly doesn’t help) considering Ebert’s appreciation of the film’s nuances throughout the bulk of the review. It is as if the desperation in Kids is too close to home for American viewers, who appreciate the distance The Bicycle Thieves’ Italian setting provides. Ebert can not accept the absolute bleakness of the final moment and fabricates a moral detached from any thing we are given in the film. The lesson Ebert describes stems from a film that ends with Jenny volunteering at the AIDS clinic, not passed out on the couch losing whatever is left of her innocence. At least Ebert waits until the ending of his review, unlike other reviewers, who dismiss Kids after only skimming the surface.

 

Objectivity & Southern Traditions

  Hell House  

                                         A Still from Ratliff’s Hell House

Coincidentally, in the past week, I saw two documentaries, The Order of Myths (2008) and Hell House (2001), on Southern traditions. Hell House, directed by George Ratliff, captures the production of an Evangelical “haunted house” in Cedar Hill, Texas, and The Order of Myths, directed by Margaret Brown, reveals two racially divided Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. Besides their shared locale, both films, also, lean towards neutrality in their storytelling, which sticks out due to their controversial topics.

The Hell House of Hell House is a “haunted house” filled with tales of botched abortions, classroom bullying-induced suicides, and Jewish raves (the spray painters confused the Star of David with a Pentagram), all with the intent of convincing the passers-through to repent. This is not a fact the orchestrators of the event try to hide, as the end of the haunted house funnels you right into a prayer circle. The documentary follows the church’s production process from idea to auditions—the kids are all to eager to try out for parts of the abortionee and ravers (anyone else smell some teenage rebellion coming on?)—to construction to the mechanics of shuttling thousands of people through the various “horrors.”

Many reviews of the film (notably The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune review) praise Hell House for taking the honorable, more challenging path—c’mon, everybody makes fun of Evangelicals—because of the unbiased approached. Maybe I am in the minority on this but I believe a documentary should not be objective. Nobody would ever try to argue that an essay should be impartial; if college taught me anything it’s that you need that thesis statement. A documentary needs a thesis too, and “here is Hell House” isn’t much of one. I am not saying a documentary should leave out or manipulate facts—you’ve got to use those facts to make an argument. Not every documentarian can or should be a Michael Moore or an Errol Morris. On the other hand, this isn’t a National Geographic special and we shouldn’t just be surveying the wildlife.

The fact that documentarians love making films about Evangelicals means that Hell House already has the challenge of originality. If you’re going to watch one I would recommend Jesus Camp (2006) rather than Hell House—and granted, it has 5 years on hell house—which is delightful and far more terrifying than Hell House (although I’m a little biased—one of my best friends from high school worked on the film as an intern). The poor film was robbed of its Academy Award by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth—and boy, did that documentary have a thesis, just maybe not the facts to support it…

At moments, Hell House does almost find its heart, particularly in a divorced dad of three (maybe four, it’s not entirely clear), one of whom is a special needs child. We could have dug a lot deeper into his character, but Ratliff was too busy showing us the mundane facts of the construction—we get it!

People are going to see whatever they want in Hell House—maybe some will see that as a good thing, but I don’t. It’s the kind of film that ends up getting judged by the content rather than the filmmaking because the filmmaking is nothing but a vessel. In this postmodern world we all know there is no such thing as objectivity—so let’s not try to pretend.

                      Order of Myths

                                             A Still from Brown’s Order of Myths

On the surface, The Order of Myths appears to be remaining impartial in the way Hell House is. The film follows some very racially and socially divided mystic societies and their Mardi Gras celebrations.  Two sets of kings and queens—reigning, symbolically, over their respective monochromatic mystic society—hold the spotlight for most of the film. The white queen doesn’t seem to know how she got to be queen, except that maybe it has to something to do with the fact that her grandmother is the oldest living queen of the carnival, and it probably has nothing to do with the fact that her great-grandfather brought over and set fire to a ship full of slaves. The black queen has spent as much as a car, in her estimates, preparing for her role—those beaded capes don’t come cheap. In the end, despite the economic differences, both celebrations have mostly the same traditions.

Most of the film feels like the town is just teetering on the edge of racism. Each set of royalty visits the other’s parties and they have a jolly time but they seem like vacationers in a foreign land. “Oh, the trip was great, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

My first reaction upon viewing the film was that it just hugged that line too closely; there was not enough sensationalism, not enough moments to make you say, “Wow, look at how F-ed up they are down there.” I was looking for that argument to grab me, the one that I couldn’t find in Hell House.

The Order of Myths, though, is much more subtle than that. I quickly dismissed an odd scene, the final few seconds of the film, after the title screen had already flashed. Brown’s grandfather looks to the camera and says, “I will tell you something and I will not permit it to be filmed.” I had a film teacher who always said that, if there is a scene that feels out of place or that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, that is where the true meaning is held. 

The Order of Myths, then, becomes a film about the subterranean racism (and classism) that exists everywhere. Brown doesn’t let us extract ourselves and belittle the people of Mobile. Instead, we think ‘that’s not so different than here.’ The racism that the film reveals is not out loud and out in the open, and it’s not something that only lives on in Southern tradition. Brown employed the fly-on-the-wall technique to bring out her argument showing that objectivity doesn’t have to lose its truth, even if Hell House would have you believe otherwise.

Herzog does Guinea Pigs

Nobody Wants to Play With Me

Before Werner Herzog completed his infamous feat of transporting a 320-ton steamship through the jungle, he first accomplished an even more challanging task: Fitting guinea pigs into business attire. These dapper rodents starred in Herzog’s Nobody Wants to Play With Me (1976) a PSA “encouraging children to play nice”, according to this post from the The Daily Notebook.

The Sundance Saga Continues: Adoption as Performance Art

        The art star and the sudanese twins

   A photography by Venessa Beecraft of herself and the Sudanese twins she tries to adopt

Continuing with my apparent obsession Sundance films, I recently saw Pietra Brettkelly’s The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins, which screened at Sundance in 2008. The path that lead me to the documentary had little to do with Sundance and more to do with Kanye West’s 35-minute music video, Runaway. Vanessa Beecroft, the “art star” referred to in the title, served as art director for the video—which explains the hordes of ballerinas but not the incoherent storyline. I am wondering now whether she also had anything to do with Kanye’s performance on SNL. That performance also involved a horde of women, Beecroft’s signature material (the SNL clip is definitely worth a look if you have yet to see it). Following up on Runaway via the Internet I found a blog (which of course is now lost in the wilderness of the Internet never to be found again) mulling over why the heck Kanye would collaborate with this self-serving materialist. Seems right up his alley to me but that is neither here nor there.

Anyway, it was along that pop culture path that I found the documentary, which follows Beecroft as she attempts to adopt two Sudanese babies and create her new art series. Problems arise because Sudan doesn’t have any adoption laws, Beecroft’s husband doesn’t have any idea she’s trying to do this, and, well, the fact that she really hasn’t thought it through.

Clashing cultures are always a gold mine for cinematic material and the film provides no dearth of that. But what is really fascinating about the portrayal is how intertwined her attempt at adoption becomes with her artistic process. Her motivations become muddled between the two. In fact, the film spends much of its one and a half hours struggling to discern Beecroft’s motivations. Her husband has a few discussions with the camera and with Beecroft herself concerning her obsession with celebrity and celebrity adoption. Brettkelly also points to Beecroft’s upbringing as a source of her adoption drive. Her journey in Sudan is interlaced with an interview with Beecroft and her mother discussing her father and brother’s lack of presence in her childhood and her desire to have a large family.

The most revealing aspect of the film is how Beecroft herself appears to see the children as an extension of her art. In fact, at many points the children become the art—literally, she photographs herself breastfeeding them, as the Madonna and child[ren]. To see inside the head of an artist—whether or not you are fond of her work—is an interesting exploration. The adoption becomes a work of performance art and Beecroft begins to struggle when she butts up against the fact that these are people with real lives. However, Beecroft has been working with human bodies her whole career, maybe this is just the next step.

The film ends where it began—with Beecroft’s production of VB61, Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?—a performance piece where Beecroft has 30 Sudanese women lay sprawled and covered in a blood-like liquid. Beecroft explains that, with the possibility of adopting her desired twins gone, she had to find something else to throw herself into. The film itself feels like we are briefly and inexplicably thrown into Beecroft’s life and we never quite get the foothold we are looking for. It’s a fascinating ride, nevertheless.

SUNDANCE FILM FEST: DAY 3

The Redemption of General Butt Naked

 A Still from The Redemption of General Butt Naked by Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion.

Early afternoon flights on Sunday left us with time for only one film in the morning of Day Three of the Sundance Film Fest. We had tickets for both On the Ice, a fiction film, and The Redemption of General Butt Naked, a documentary by filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion. We ended up going to The Redemption since we had yet to see a documentary at Sundance this year. I’m glad we did, as it was a captivating film that gave me something mull over on the flight back to Minneapolis—although I haven’t heard much about On the Ice, so maybe we would have enjoyed that just as much.

The film follows Joshua Milton Blahyi, a once ruthless and feared Liberian warlord—called General Butt Naked because he carried out his merciless attacks wearing nothing at all. After, or possibly during the Liberian civil war—this point is never made quite clear—Blahyi finds Christianity and remakes himself as an evangelical preacher. The film portrays Blahyi’s and the country’s struggle to come to terms with their violent past. Blahyi spends much of the film seeking out his victims in order to give an apology.

The filmmakers do an excellent job of letting Blahyi, his victims, his now grown child soldiers, his supporters, and his adversaries speak for themselves. The film packs five years of filming and a story encompassing many more years into a solid 84 minutes. Though every now and again it wanders, it always pulls itself back on track before it becomes too derailed. It must have been a monumental task to edit down their footage.

What surprises me most about the film’s portrayal of Blahyi is how candidly he speaks of his past atrocities. He calmly discusses every miniscule detail of the violent actions he had undertaken, all the while, taking full responsibility for them—whether they were done with his own hands or through a command. I could never imagine anyone in the U.S. political scene being so brutally honest about the wrongs they had committed. We live in a cultural of forced apologies and blame (think Clinton, Blagojevich, Spitzer—though it’s hard to draw a direct comparison from killing 20,000 to cheating on your wife). Blahyi goes, of his own volition, before the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and confessed to taking 20,000 lives. The documentarians believe that he professed to such a high number in order to take responsibility for anyone he might have wronged, even tangentially.

Despite his openness to accepting his past life and moving forward, the film brings to light the strong similarity between his past life as a warlord and his present life as a preacher. Both lives spring up from his deep connection to spirituality. In the film, he explains that he chose to be naked during his attacks to better channel spiritually—the documentarians explain (this is not actually in the film) that he grew up in a cult-like religious group. In his life as a preacher, we see how Christianity fills the same role as the spirituality he left behind, giving his life direction and drive. One of his victims explains how she sees the same ferociousness in him at the pulpit as when he was killing her brother.

Even the child soldiers he recruited in his past life flock back to him once he becomes a preacher. (An interesting aside: In the film he explains that he recruited them using American war films showing that, once soldiers died, they could come back to life in another film). They quickly fall back into their old roles as disciples, and when he leaves again in exile, many return to the street and to drugs. Perhaps it’s just a different understanding of the language but he even seems to maintain his commander attitude with his victims, often demanding “you have to forgive me.”

One of the most salient moments of the film comes from one of his past child soldiers who manages to keep his head above water when Blahyi leaves again. He explains that Blahyi may not be perfect, but he is at least 75% good and only 25% evil. My mother asked afterwards whether we thought he had really repented and given up the joy he had found in his old life. In the end, I wondered if it really mattered whether he had or not. No one is ever 100% good—certainly most people have more good in them than Blahyi did in his warlord years—but in the end, all we ask of people is that they try their hardest to do good. Blahyi was doing more good than evil—he wasn’t perfect but he certainly seemed to be trying.

The audience always seems to ask more intelligent questions at documentary screenings than at fiction films—perhaps because they can ask about the further reach of content. The documentarians told an interesting story about how there was an attack on Blahyi’s life that they were unable to catch on film. Because of the threats, though, they put him up in a hotel to ensure his safety—he was seen in the fancy hotel in many shots of the film. Another audience member asked why so few victims refused to forgive him. The documentarians explained that, while there were only a few who refused to forgive Blahyi, those were also the ones who refused to be filmed. I think it’s always a good reminder that no matter how well done a documentary, it cannot capture everything and there is always another side to the story.

In the end, my only gripe with the film is the title. The Redemption of General Butt Naked is just a little to funny for a film with as much horrific and heartbreaking content as this one.