Friday, December 10, 2010

I've spent the last few days trying to come up with my lists for the Village Voice/LA Weekly annual film critics poll. One thing: because of the release patterns for American movies in the international market, i was able to see a lot of the commercial movies which i ordinarily wouldn't have seen. The Kino Arsenal and the Berlin Film Festival (even though i had a horrendous time with the press office) also provided a lot of compensations in terms of indie films and international films (big example: "Our Beloved Month of August"). A movie like "Green Zone" (which proved to be engrossing and quite impressive) was a movie i would have missed in New York City, but i saw it in Berlin. Usually, with the acting catgeories, i try to avoid the usual American/English candidates; perhaps that's a little snobbish, but that's been my modus operandi.

But it's hard to know American release dates. One example: a film which i loved was Joao Pedro Rodrigues's "To Die Like a Man". But it's been playing the festival circuit (where it's racked up an impressive litany of critical commentaries) for two years now, but is it ever going to have a standard American theatrical release? There are movies like Soderbergh's "And Everything Is Going Fine" (a film "portrait" of Spalding Gray) which are getting a theatrical run, but "LennonNYC" and Scorsese's "Public Speaking" (about Fran Liebowitz) haven't gotten theatrical runs, though their exposure was probably greater on television. (And coming up: "Wishful Drinking", the World of Wonder guys' document of Carrie Fisher's one-person show, also on television.)

Ok: an admission that one problem i've been having with recent movies is the preponderance of documentaries. I'm a person whose aesthetic interests tend to be formalistic, and what can you say about most documentaries, which depend on the presentation of information? Sometimes, this information is "intimate", as in all these film portraits of show business/artistic personalities (Spalding Gray, John Lennon, Fran Liebowitz, Carrie Fisher, Joan Rivers, Keith Haring, Phil Spector, Mark Kostabi, et al) but then, what we judge are our own attitudes as reflected in those people. So the "judgement" becomes a reflection of our attitudes towards the person, and not a judgement about the film as a work of art. And to a larger extent, this is true of documentaries like "Client 9" or "Inside Job": our attitudes (towards Eliot Spitzer, towards Wall Street) necessarily color our judgement of those films.

In France, so much of the documentary tradition derives from a very literary basis. This is apparent in the work of Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais. The commentary becomes an integral provider of meaning, so that analysis and information are presented jointly.

And this can be seen in Nicolas Philibert's "Nenette". I have to admit that when i went into the screening, i had certain preconceptions: years of seeing documentaries (on PBS's "Nature" or on Animal Planet) which provide these leisurely panoramic views of animal life. But "Nenette" is different. For one thing: the space is very confined, Nenette the orangutan is stuck in an enclosed space in the Jardin des Plantes Exotiques in Paris. So most of the shots of Nenette are simply close-ups of her as she lies around in her cage.

But what animates the film is the commentary; we hear what initially seems to be random comments. Presumably, this was recorded as the people walked through and stopped to look at Nenette. Some of the comments are funny, quite a few seem to be reading the information posted near the cage. And this commentary provides a verbal drama, as people recite the information, and that information is interrogated and interrupted. But gradually, one voice recites the facts of Nenette's life and that provides the narrative arc of the film.

So "Nenette" isn't simply an observational documentary on one orangutan in the zoo in Paris, but the commentary (which is "neutral") provides information which allows us to see Nenette "in the round" as it were. And i was struck at how much "Nenette" fit in to the documentary tradition in France, especially having seen such films as "The Beaches of Agnes" and "Remembrance of Things to Come" recently. The commentary turns what could have been simply an observational documentary in the Animal Planet mode into an essay on captivity. So "Nenette" turned out to be more complicated than i had anticipated, and is a better film for that reason.


Post a Comment

<< Home