Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fantasia 2013 - Monday, July 29th

Here are some brief impressions on the two films I saw on Monday, July 29th:

Mistaken for Strangers
This cathartic video diary is the umpteenth proof of the incredible humanistic worth of documentary cinema. Far from being a simple “backstage pass” to The National’s most recent world tour, it is rather an introspective quest by the director to uncover the meaning of life, the actual strength of brotherhood, and the revelatory power of cinema. There’s no superficial exposition or glamorous close-ups here, just the confused ramblings of a confused individual, strung together miraculously through some stupendous emotional honesty. And in the end, the film manages to capture something far more subtle and interesting than the trials and tribulations of an indie rock band. It manages to capture the very essence of humanity, not only in its uncertainty and tearful shortcomings, but also in its glorious capacity to constantly redeem itself through the revelatory power of art. A surprisingly brilliant piece of filmmaking. 

Amateur filmmaker and all-around loser Tom Berninger doesn’t have much to show for himself, but a couple of really bad homemade films and a growingly famous surname. You see, Tom’s brother is none other than Matt Berninger, front man of the indie rock sensation The National, whose immense shadow is ominously cast over greasy-haired metal fan Tom. Despite the undeniable artistic inclinations that used to bind them, the two brothers have now become estranged, thanks in part to a rather large age gap. With Tom staying at home with the folks, and Matt delighting fans worldwide, this gap would’ve tended to widen, were it not for a loving initiative on Matt’s part. With the perspective of an upcoming world tour, big brother decides to enlist little brother as a roadie in order to secure some well-needed muscle for backstage chores, but also to play catch up with his humble sibling. This initiative, of course, is notwithstanding the hand-held camera that Tom elects to bring along to document the trip. But in the end, it is that very camera which makes the brothers’ reunion worthwhile, capturing not merely the life of the band, but rather the emotional and spiritual journey undertook by Tom in his crawling out of Matt’s shadow and into the light of artistic respectability.

Exalting the power of brotherhood... one beer at a time.

Mistaken for Strangers immediately reminded me of Last Days Here (screened at Fantasia 2011) in that they are two cathartic rock documentaries aiming to liven discouraged men and to glue back their broken dreams. Despite their distinct tones, the two films share some undeniable similarities. First off, the idea of deconstructing the image of “the band” by prying into the minds of its creators, dusting off the veneer of fame to uncover the gritty reality of drugs, anger and fratricidal clashes. This idea is subverted here, given the quiet nature of the band, but it allows Tom to dissect Matt with all his brotherly insight, outlining a loving human being out of the eccentric singer. This first similarity, however, is not as primordial as the real life influence exerted by both films. Insofar as they are both cathartic efforts in self-discovery, these two features managed to affect the lives of their subjects in a wonderfully tangible manner. In Days, front man Bobby Liebling is plucked out of his mother’s basement, elevated from a cesspool of drugs and self-doubt and back into the limelight once more. Here, Tom also emerges from his mother’s basement, but he does so in his own terms, embarking on a revelatory quest toward adulthood that will allow him to join his brother on an even keel.

There’s a refreshing candor to Tom, who has never dabbled in the art of documentary filmmaking and whom will need more than a little push from his brother in order to find the necessary motivation to finish his project. But this candor has nothing to do with the “fly on the wall” type camera warranted by early direct filmmakers. It is more of a clumsy candor, one that is constantly and noisily manifested through the overwhelming presence of the director. Mistaken for Strangers is very much his personal endeavor and so it strictly revolves around him. Even the straight interview scenes are tainted by his warped, nearly childish outlook on life. And this tends to become quite funny, in a tragic-comic sort of way. In one interview for example, he congratulates the drummer for being one of the rare band members to really embrace “the rock and roll lifestyle”. Then, he bluntly goes on to ask how many, and what different types of drugs the guy has taken over the years. Nervous laughter ensues. In another interview, framed in typically boring TV fashion, he claims to gather personal information about another band member, but ends up discussing Matt and the reasons behind his own estrangement with him. Tom is even heard moving through the room and gathering a wine bottle while the interview is going on. What this goes to show is the utter childishness of Tom’s mind, and it actually serves the film quite well. It is the director’s true nature that comes out of every scene, not so much in its contents as in his incongruous and often hilarious interventions. Clearly, Tom has not reached adulthood in regards to a normal emotional progression. And only through the excruciating process of filmmaking will he finally manage to gain sufficient distance to appraise his life and make the necessary changes to truly come out of his shell.

In the end, what is more interesting than either of the two brothers here, no matter whose viewpoint you embrace, is the reunion of those two brothers, which the film allows. Through this reunion, not only does Tom manage to find his own voice, but so does Matt. Far from being a static icon, he becomes a true human being, and a very fine one at that. His constant recriminations against Tom’s apathy eventually manage to strike a chord, and so does he help him come out of his stupor. That said, the most enlightening segments into their relationship comes not from the tour itself, but from satellite events, most notably the editing of the film, which is shown in regards to a self-reflexive foray into Tom’s personal endeavor. During that process, Matt provides enlightening advice and cheers, allowing his brother to climb on his shoulder on his way out of the hole. Their loving collaboration, which starts with a bitter recrimination from Matt ends in perfect harmony during a tear-inducing long take in which Tom is shown protecting Matt from a capacity crowd, all the while extending the singer’s microphone cord toward the edge of the room. The brothers are so close in that moment, united so tightly and lovingly that the whole sequence borders on genius. In turn, this provides a truly beautiful ending to a beautiful film and a rightful entry for Tom Berninger into the world of celebrated artists.

***1/2   While cheaply-produced and slightly confused, this cathartic video diary is a testament to the revolutionary power and continuing relevance of documentary cinema.

The Dirties
This idiotic anti-bullying pamphlet sinks even lower than Bully in its attempt to “raise awareness” about its subject thanks to a pseudo-intellectual, devastatingly vain effort in deconstruction. The film-in-a-film angle is never successfully exploited, the would-be realistic screenplay reeks of Hollywoodian drivel, and the numerous in-jokes seem grossly inappropriate given the context. This is a textbook example of ambition unmatched by ability, and it makes the simplicity and utter authenticity of Zero Day sorely missed. Actually, the comparison is inevitable, and it sinks the film even more than its numerous shortcomings, making it look like a smutty cousin of Ben Coccio’s crucial masterpiece

Matt and Owen are two very boring, very typical sacrificial high school students meant for beatings by some very boring, very typical bullies. Actually, there’s little more characterization here than what Manichean anti-bullying propaganda allows, making the whole drama drift straight into the realm of moralism. Hence, the boys are depicted as normal, despite their obsessive behavior toward film, their deficient social skills and their unfaltering sense of self-righteousness, while the bullies are shown as excessive and disinterested. When the two boys decide to shoot a film project for one of their classes, entitled “The Dirties”, they hit yet another brick wall in their quest for social approval. Apparently, their gender-bending performance doesn’t sit well with their tormentors, especially since it pegs them out for elimination. This propels our two protagonists on the road to a real-life “The Dirties” in which they will truly destroy the bullies in their school. Whatever happens next is, well… rather unappealing and pointless.

Victimization is a collaborative effort...

There’s a weird conception out there according to which bullying is some sort of social problem that can be vanquished through intervention and the heightening of social awareness. Notwithstanding the monumental hypocrisy inherent to its confinement to the world of adolescents, this belief shows a disturbing misconception about the nature of bullying. Call it “survival of the fittest” or whatever else you wish, but the process of cornering and eliminating social undesirables is a recurring feature of all organized societies. The weak and the misfits will always get picked on. It’s a question of evolution. And while humans suffer from it the most, bullying will NEVER go away because it is a fundamental part of our societies, and most specifically, of our school systems. Everything in nature will always tend toward normalcy; and the school systems merely exacerbate that fact in regards to conformity and its benefits to the established order. These are deep-seeded truths, and the superficial grating of isolated bullying incidents will only push them back further into our collective unconscious.

By polarizing the debate, films like The Dirties (and the unpalatable Bully) prove not only simplistic and stupid, but they are also detrimental to any sort of enlightened understanding of bullying. They are also detrimental to free thought and to a basic awareness of what humanity is really about. Actually, it is only in their uncompromised striving for self-promotion that they find deeper meaning. They are then revealed as the narrow, self-serving pieces of propaganda that they are, proving that coercion and manipulation are merely deceitful forms of bullying. Moreover, these films tend to draw us away from grassroots philosophical debates surrounding the worth of “education” in its current form. Insomuch as it allows some particularly stoic and resourceful people to free themselves from poverty and racial segregation (I’m being as idealistic as possible here), the primary function of education is to regiment and standardize students to better mold them according to a very specific social ideal. And since it tends to naturally promote conformity, bullying is actually beneficial to this idea of education. Personally, I think bullying is simply a fact of life, and also an important part of growing up. After all, far from being “the best years of our lives”, our teenage years are a mere test of our capacity to survive in a hostile environment, hence preparing us for the cutthroat world of globalized capitalism. THAT is life, people. And there’s nothing we can do about it. On the other hand, there ARE some tangible things we can do to better our world. Stop world hunger. Stop war. Then, and only then, will Syrian youths have the PRIVILEGE to bully each other in sunny schoolyards, protected from toxic clouds and fiery rain.

Philosophical considerations aside, The Dirties’ main problem is that it tries so hard to be clever that it sacrifices authenticity in the process, hence becoming as useless as a square wheel. If one wishes to make a genuine impact in regards to a genuine social reality, one must first devise genuine characters and situations in order to create affect. Unfortunately, these are found cruelly lacking here. Not only is the basic storyline (about the reclusive young hero developing an incongruous relationship with a random cheerleader) reminiscent of Hollywoodian romantic comedies too numerous to mention, but everything else in the screenplay seems carefully scripted, down to the most mundane exchanges in the guys’ underground lair. And then, there is the aggressively busy soundtrack, which clumsily complements the film as if non-diegetic music was going to help manipulate the audience… All of this wouldn’t even be so bad if the leading character had at least one scrap of charisma in him. But as things stand, even I wished to kick the shit out of him… Don't get me wrong. I do not wish for the boyish good looks of Jason Biggs; just for a slight likeability, something to make us partake in the protagonist's plight. Unfortunately, we are also denied that most basic of dramatic requirements. And so, despite its good intentions, the film turns out to have no redeeming value at all.

*   Overbearing, uninspired and limply vindictive, this anti-bullying pamphlet tries so hard to be clever that it becomes smut and ineffectual.