Thursday, October 1, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Two - 9/25/09

Film #2 - Reporter
Film #3 - Herb & Dorothy
Film #4 - We Live in Public

*Movie reviews at the bottom of the post*

Settling down for the second day of the film festival, I am acutely aware that while I am thankfully the only person in my mini-side row for "spreading out" purposes, it's probably best all around since I seem to have put on some stinky shoes today. I come to this realization about three minutes ago when I was detecting the slight odor of feet, and, after scoping out the empty rows around me, ascertained that the culprit were my trusty old deck shoes that apparently had been worn without socks for too many years. Suddenly, the conflict wasn't on screen, it was the unholy battle between feet and Chanel Chance perfume in a Spartan battle for dominance. With two movies to go after this one, the suspense was killing me which would win, and I was selfishly (or not, depending on how you look at it) hoping that I'd be given as wide a berth at the next two screenings, when I could fulfill my vow to go home and dig out my old, trusty (not stinky) Converse. (See a pattern here? I clearly haven't purchased shoes in years)

I was surprised at the crowd level for Reporter, because despite its early start time of 5:15 pm on a Friday, I thought that this film would be more of a draw; but only about 50 people attended the screening. Prior to the film was a short film called It's in the P-I which was a little confusing at first since it wasn't announced that there was going to be a pre-feature, something that was routinely done in the past. The short film centered around the closing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and interviewed a few of the reporters who gave their side to the story and mainly conveyed that they had no idea this was going to hit them. Obviously, since one of the things I do is work with a newspaper that has seen its staff severely slashed and circulation reduced from a weekly to a monthly paper. However, beyond simply being a short, formative piece that probably made people aware, if they weren't already, I'm not sure what the point was and kind of was left with a "huh?" feeling.

The following screening was Herb and Dorothy, a film that was on my short list of must-sees. Sitting in anticipation of the film, my stinky shoes were masked by the smell of the Zaffiro's pizza people were bringing into the theater with them. It was hard to concentrate over my stomach growling, but I did notice that everyone coming in was apparently allergic to the front section of seats - not bad seats, I only don't sit there so no one will have to crawl over me, my notebooks and big old lady bag - because they were packing the upper section like sardines. Clearly, I have no shame because I'm trying to spread out across the four seats in my side row as much as possible, giving people a "trust me, I'm gross and rude and will not hesitate to elbow you the entire movie if I have to" look, which seemed to work.

The crowd was lively, applauding and cheering the festival and the sponsors, and somehow, above this noise I was able to hear two of the four church friends talking to each other. Continuing through the sponsor trailer, I was blessed with the knowledge of every mundane errand this woman had run prior to this very moment. When the conversation turned to gossiping about "Pastor Rick" I abruptly turned around to tell them to shut it, and was promptly met by a huge stomach and legs splayed out at eye level. I decided to let it go.... for now. I resolved one thing at that moment as I tried to scrub that image out of my memory with a series of rapid blinks and eye rubs: I sure would not feel guilty about crunching my ice - loudly - with those two clowns behind me. After another five minutes of writing mini-notes to myself and spreading myself across three seats to make myself look important and therefore carry on without asking to sit next to me, like, "I'm just writing to look important and in need of three seats now... carry on" (real note in my steno pad) the movie began, with at least 250 in attendance. As a post-script, the people in back of me finally shut up, other than to say once, "I just don't get that kind of art" which made me chuckle, and really happy in a super petty way because for some reason I really wanted her to be philistine, and she was.

The final screening of the evening was We Live in Public which I knew absolutely nothing about, I just thought the representative picture of it in the MFF program guide was striking. So for this shallow reason alone, I picked this film over Rumba which was playing in the next theater. So did everyone else, apparently, because there were maybe 30 people in the theater.

Meanwhile, after the obligatory bathroom break, shuffling back into the theater and acquiring my same seat (this seat will have my ass groove on it yet!) I seemed to be suffering from an onset of heat stroke (or menopause about 20 years early) or more likely, low blood sugar since it was 9:30 and I hadn't consumed anything since a crappy sammich at 11:30 am, but my face was on fire, I was sweating (I don't sweat!) and I could practically wring my hair out while I was putting it up in a big bun to get it off my neck. At this point, I was thinking, this movie better be interesting since I'm sitting here looking like John Candy in JFK and listening to some guy in the next row dressed in early 1990's couture discussing poetry readings.

One other note - never mind already knowing the order of the names during the sponsor trailer after four showings - but if you're going to sponsor something that is going to be announced at every single screening, you should probably tighten up the names a bit. Thank god for Bud & Suzanne Selig and their generous gift to Milwaukee Film, and I am irrationally attached to my "M." middle initial, but someone needs to give up a middle initial or "nickname" in the Allan H. "Bud" and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Award.

Director: Eric Danie Metzger
USA 2008 - 92 min
- English
Previous Screenings:
Hot Docs Film Festival 2009
Sundance Film Festival 2009

Reporter is a documentary that follows 2-time Pulitzer Prize The New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof as he searches for compelling stories to tell in some of the most politically volatile and violent countries throughout the world, including Afghanistan and Central Africa. Kristof, a Harvard educated intellectual, is tailor-made for his profession, having traveled to 140 countries and lived on four continents throughout his life. Kristof is credited, through his articles, with raising awareness about the plight in Darfur; a feat that landed him on The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert asking him in his farcical conservative way, "Why, as Americans, should we care about other people?"

Kristof found, through social studies, that when an average person looks at a picture of one starving child from Africa, there is an emotional response. However, when the average person is then presented with two pictures of starving children, their interest wanes. Kristof's challenge, when there's no evolutionary advantage to care about more than one person, is to make people aware of world crisis situations that involve millions, and therefore, based on this kind of study, deliberately attempts to find the most compelling, emotional, even horrifying story to offer his readers as a representative of the bigger picture; without blurring the line between investigative reporting and exploitation. According to Kristof, "That is my sad reality when I sit down to write a column. I always feel like I'm navigating a thin line."

We see this in action during the main thrust of the film, when he traveled to the Congo with an inner-city schoolteacher and a medical student looking for a story relating to the genocide in Rwanda. The danger is real; a journalist was shot and killed in the same town they were staying in only two days prior, and this is not lost on Kristof's "civilian" companions, who express both excitement and fear during this journey. While searching for his story among hundreds of desperate, violated and troubled people, Kristof not only becomes a savior figure to them, someone to whom they look for with hope for help with their individual situations, but Kristof sometimes has to question both the victims' and aggressors' accuracy when he talks to them. Regardless of what he sees and encounters, he is always looking for someone worse off, and he finds it in a dying woman who had been raped. At the medical student's behest, they rush her to the hospital, and Kristof realizes that he has his story.

I felt very conflicted watching this documentary because at times I found myself doing exactly what I was witnessing on the screen; despite the fact that people were crestfallen after he would leave in search for his next bigger, sadder story, I had to set aside my feelings of pity to remember that he is a journalist, and his job is to report the most effective story he can. Kristof is a humanitarian, or he could take his carte blanche status he has earned as a journalist and do other kinds of work, not using his medium as a platform for hundreds of thousands of people to read. All he can do is offer the story as best he can; whether people choose to care is not in his control. Reporter does not have any fancy elements, no quick edits or music montages. The camera trains on its subject and stays there, for better or worse. It is an effective film that focuses on the work of the journalists, and whatever emotional response one may have to the film is purely from the footage presented. This is a film about journalism, not the journalist. Reporter is compelling and thought-provoking, and I found that I was arguing with myself for most of the film and even for some time after.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Director: Megumi Sasaki
2009 USA - 87 min - English
Previous Screenings:
Hamptons Film Festival 2008 - Award Winner
Silver Docs Film Festival - Award Winner

Herb & Dorothy is about the Vogels, a NYC couple who have been married for over 40 years and have amassed an art collection of more than 4,000 pieces of Minimalist and Conceptual Art. The extraordinary thing about this story is that the Vogels are not wealthy; they fostered their love of art by living on Dorothy's salary as a librarian, while purchasing pieces with Herb's salary as a 3rd shift mail sorter at the United States Post Office. The Vogels have simple guidelines when they purchase a piece: It had to be affordable, and it had to fit in their one bedroom Manhattan apartment. How it fit in the apartment was seriously left up to interpretation, as they had pieces everywhere and anywhere, but despite becoming shuttered in by their art, they continued to collect and love every piece they own.

Though their story is fascinating, the Vogels themselves are absolute gems. One would never know, unless you actually knew them that they were world-class art collectors, with their regular clothes, Dorothy's old digital watch, and their easy and straight-forward demeanor. When they married in the early 1960's, they went o the National Gallery of Art, and Dorothy did not have an interest in art, but Herb's passion for it was infectious and she soon learned to love it as much as he did. Herb states his passion in typically simple terms: "They're just beautiful, that's all. And beauty is enjoyment." For art lovers, myself being one of them, Herb & Dorothy is sublime. However, I believe it is actually more effective for those who have less exposure to art and art history because the way the Vogels describe their pieces is so loving, and they use such simple terms, that I couldn't help but believe that they make those who don't "get" Minimalism and Conceptualism see what "normal" people see in those pieces.

Herb & Dorothy features interviews with established artists like Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Robert Barry and Christo & Jeanne-Claude, as well as up-and-coming artists, as they still continue to collect. To these artists,the Vogels didn't merely become their patrons, they became their friends. According to Chuck Close, "I always thought of them as the mascots of the art world." They received their first piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude when, after approaching them and finding their price too high, the artists, knowing the Vogels are cat lovers, offered them artwork in exchange for their cat-sitting services while they installed the Valley Curtain in Colorado. These stories really brought an amazing depth to characters who are really just simple people.

The single most interesting and endearing element of this film are the Vogels themselves. They are both charming and funny, and though they frequently attend gallery exhibits (most week nights as a matter of fact), they are highly ranked members of "the art elite" without any of the pretense. There were many times that the audience laughed at their interactions with one another, because they are both self-deprecating (especially Herb) and humble, but above all, they love each other as much as their art. Herb & Dorothy is a must see film for those who appreciate art, but it is also a "should see" film for those who may have a passing interest in it because it - I believe unintentionally - Herb & Dorothy also serves as a primer for art movements that are some of the least understood, making them more accessible to the public; much like Herb & Dorothy made, and continue to make, their collection accessible to the public.

4 stars out of 5

Director: Ondi Timoner
2008 USA - 90 min - English
Previous Screenings:
New Directors/New Films Festival 2009
Hot Docs Film Festival 2009
Sundance Film Festival 2009
- Winner, Grand Jury Prize

We Live in Public documents the social experiments of Josh Harris, Internet visionary and former dot com millionaire, who predated You Tube by about 8 years when he began to broadcast himself and others 24 hours a day. Harris made his name in the technology industry by foreseeing trends in the Internet long before the Internet was fully formed. He created an instant message chat client and chat rooms for Prodigy, including adult themed chat rooms, which he eventually sold to them for 80 million. He also created an online television network that started out promisingly, but, like most of Harris' other ideas and experiments, became unhinged when he became increasingly unhinged, due in large part to a childhood and young adult life where he grew up with an apathetic mother who would simply put him in front of a television in order to entertain him. Harris grew up an apathetic figure himself, with almost sociopath tendencies, and when he made his money, he decided to take his ideas and create his social experiments.

The largest one was called "Quiet", which was an underground bunker in NYC which served as a full-service commune for 100 people. People were auditioned, put through a battery of tests and forced to divulge all of their personal information. The response was huge, and what the chosen 100 received was all of the food, alcohol, entertainment, alcohol and drugs they wanted, but they were taped 24 hours a day, including using the bathroom, showering, etc.; Harris owned the rights to the video to do what he wanted with it. What resulted was a pressure cooker of a environment, helped along by the natural hedonism, firing range with an arsenal of loaded weapons people could fire whenever they wanted, and mandatory "therapy sessions" conducted by a trained hostage interrogator who would use information that was disclosed in the vetting process to mess with their minds.

After this experiment, Harris decided to turn the cameras exclusively on himself and his girlfriend, and proceeded to wire his entire loft with motion sensitive cameras, and broadcast their lives 24/7 on the Internet, complete with a live chat capability, where the two of them could interact with online viewers. Inevitably, lines and boundaries get blurred, and not only are intimate moments such as arguments and their affection captured, but they would use the audience for things like finding their wallet, or keys, etc. An interesting endeavor, but of course, no one can easily hold up with that kind of scrutiny and both have to move on. Harris, an obviously flawed man, ends up foundering, even to this day.

We Live in Public was an interesting film, but it was a little like witnessing a freak show, because this level of exhibitionism is pretty crazy. There were a couple of things I learned after seeing this film, most notably, that if you have the hubris to put your entire life out there, people will watch, regardless of how uninteresting it may be. No, I'm not ignorant to the nearly decade-long obsession with reality television, I am simply looking at this in terms of the time period this took place, long before the You Tube revolution, Facebook and Myspace. We Live in Public is more of a sociological study than anything, and if you approach it from that perspective, then you may get something out of it. Otherwise, you merely become a voyeur, like so many were during this film, because there are no other substantive layers to the film.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment