Saturday, April 16, 2011

It has been a while since i've blogged, and i have been seeing things. This week, for example, i went to three press screenings: the Scandinavian film "Limbo", the indie film "Earthwork" starring John Hawkes, and "The Arbor". "The Arbor" was one of the most intriguing films, and it is the longest example of strategies that i've seen in a number of works which have been characterized as "experimental". In "The Arbor", Clio Barnard (the writer-director) takes audio recordings of the family and friends of Andrea Dunbar, and then she has actors lip-synch to the recordings. Ok, i'll quote from the press release: "The film is based on the life and autobiographical writings of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, whose work was produced at London's prestigious Royal Court Theatre, but who died of a brain hemorrhage at age 29 in 1990. Dunbar is best known to American audiences as the screenwriter of 'Rita, Sue and Bob too!' - the 1987 movie that took a darkly comedic approach to her hardscrabble life. 'The Arbor' revisits this material through an innovative technique known as vrebatim theater: actors lip-synching documentary recordings of the people they're playing. Dunbar's daughters update a family saga of alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, sexual abuse and violence. Rarely has the cyclical nature of poverty been so brilliantly and believably dramatized." So, right away, i'll say that the film is seamlessly done: the acting is so precise and you're not aware of the lip-synching. The idea of re-creating documentary material has been done a few times. Two examples that i can think of are Elizabeth Subrin's "Shulie" and Trent Harris's "The Beaver Trilogy" (which was recently shown at Anthology Film Archives). When i first saw "Shulie", i went in without knowing what the film was, and i found it a fascinating portrait of someone living in the late 1960s. But after i saw it, i found out that the film was a recreated documentary: in the late 1960s, some students at the Art Institute of Chicago decided to make a short film about someone they knew, a young woman who had dropped out of school to work in a factory. Just from that information, it seemed like a Simone Weil situation. And what Elizabeth Subrin did was to take the original short documentary and recreate it. And it retained the fascination of capturing so much of what was happening in the late 1960s (though Subrin made her film in the early 1990s). And there was a kicker: it turned out that the original subject of the documentary was Shulamith Firestone, the feminist writer, prior to her decision to start writing. Trent Harris's "The Beaver Trilogy" (which i've seen several times over the years, i think the first time was when it was shown as part of some series at the Walter Reade Theater) is one of the more anomalous works out there. It's been a while since i've seen it, but i know it begins with Trent Harris, who was working at a local TV station in Beaver, Utah, testing out some video equipment, and then running into a young man, Groovin' Gary, in the parking lot. The young man is eager to be recorded, and it turns out he's an aspiring entertainer. And the young man is trying to set up a talent show, and he's going to present his act, which consists of his impersonation of Olivia Newton-John. That's the original material, but what makes the work so bizarre is that Harris takes that material and then recreates it. Twice. The original material was taped in 1979; a little while later, Harris decided to recreate his original documentary, and he got a young actor to play Groovin' Gary. And then, Harris wasn't through with the material, so after a few years, he created another enacted version of his original documentary. The freak aspect of the work is that for the second version ("Beaver Kid 2"), Harris got Sean Penn, for the third version ("The Orkly Kid"), Harris got Crispin Glover. To watch the original documentary, and then to see these two very different actors (with very different approaches to acting) playing the same part... the whole exercise is incredibly provocative. "The Arbor" is a powerful work, the whole recreated aspect was done with such incredible artistry. And the original material (the audio recordings) was already very loaded, very emotionally powerful. The recreations provided a framework so that the emotional quality of the material wasn't gut-wrenching. In the past few years, Milestone has rereleased a number of films which have shown different ways of dealing with documentary material. The three great examples are "The Exiles", "On the Bowery" and "Araya". In terms of those films: seeing those films projected in a restored print is a revelation. The cinematography is so wonderful! But the DVDs are incredible, because the Milestone team has done a real job of providing all sorts of extras which really do illuminate the films. And each of these films had a very specific backstory, which was dramatic in and of itself. One of the things about "Araya" was that the very careful visual compositions recalled the highly stylized visuals of the Gomez-Zinnemann-Strand "The Waves". And here, we get into the very deliberate artistry involved in these documentary (or semi-documentary) films, which takes us back to "The Arbor" and the way documentary material is used.


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