The main film we viewed was Nanook of the North, which is just an amazing film. It's not a true documentary, in that the Eskimos were acting for the sake of the camera and using anachronistic tools on the hunt. It's also over dramatic and schmaltzy and contrived. But it's brilliant. Polished to the point where it just gleams with life and beauty and meaning. There are so many incredible scenes, from the hilarious unpacking of the kayak to the gorgeous northern vistas. There's subtle tintings and careful editing of footage to make points and ridiculously written title cards (At one point the Eskimo is called Carefree and Happy-Go-Lucky about 3 title cards after we've learned that the main Eskimo, Nanook, starved to death a year or so after the film was made. I generally draw a distinction between those who are carefree and happy go lucky and those who have an imminent risk of starving to death if the hunt goes poorly, but maybe that's just me.) It's from the 1920s and it shows, but it's still vibrant and great. A few elements/scenes stood out for me in particular.
1) The children. They were so beautiful and to watch them cared for and parented and kept safe in the arctic wasteland gives a vision of the best parts of humanity. When a rugged father who has killed walruses with his bare hands cups his young son's hands against his cheeks to keep them warm it cuts right to the core of what it means to be human and to be a man. Strength and sovereignty coupled with compassion and love for those around you and weaker than yourself. Be strong enough to drive back the threat (be it starvation or an attacker or just self-doubt) yet tender enough to love those who are weaker than yourself. Strength without compassion is fascism and brutality and bullying. Compassion without strength is weakness and dangerous vulnerability.
2) Awareness of the camera. This is double-faceted. For one thing there's the Eskimos' awareness of the camera, which is really cool. They smile at it and play to it and haven't been trained like modern documentary subjects to pretend it's not there. In many ways that makes their behavior more authentic because while they are pretending and intentionally trying to show things to the viewer they are doing so in an honest way. They aren't pretending not to pretend. It's not communication through sidelong glances and body language, it's full frontal engagement. Good stuff. Also the audience's awareness of the camera and the camera man are critical. You know that it's one guy, with a small crew at times, out there in the arctic cold taking moving pictures. Living with a family and engaging with them and lugging around a huge ridiculous contraption with flammable film stock and all sorts of technical issues to bring back these pictures. You appreciate them a little more for that. There is one scene where the title cards warn of a snow-storm and that the Eskimos must hurry back to their shelter, having been delayed by the squabbling of their dogs. They recede off into the distance, running from the snow and the darkness and you're aware of the fact that someone was actually still back there holding the camera, without a dog sled or any sort of mechanical conveyance to get home. Now it's quite possible that there was a whole modern tent behind the guy, since as I said a lot of scenes were staged and I doubt the film maker would put himself into real danger under those situations, but I just imagined him sitting there filming, really excited to get this great footage, and shouting after them "Go on! Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. I'm a middle aged white guy with a 40 pound camera. In the arctic. Just go. I'll track you. Through the snow. I think I learned how to do that in boyscouts. 30 years ago. Maybe I learned how to tell whether an animal is pregnant through its poop. I can't remember. Oh god. I'm fucked. I'm going to die out here." It made me laugh.
3) The title cards themselves. I love title cards. I think they're a wonderful way to communicate to an audience and there's something so old-fashioned and wholesome about them in my opinion. Long live title cards. I know they're passe and people hate reading but I can't help my fondness. Related to that are the advantages of having a non-voiced film. The opportunity to observe the action without the intrusion of the narrators or the characters giving their verbal opinions of what's going on is great. Just give me some context and let me watch them frolic and fight and hunt and hide. Maybe I was just in the mood for that but I think I'm starting to realize why some cineastes scoff at sound and color. Personally I think sound and color are great, but I agree that it sucks that you almost HAVE to use sound and color now that they are technologically available. They should be options. Kubrick shot in black and white after color was invented and those black and white films of his can be absolutely brilliant. Hitchcock did the same. Virtually nobody does any more. Kevin Smith did, but purely for budgetary reasons. Black and white can be beautiful. Silent can be beautiful. They should not be written off by the newer and the sexier.
The next film we watched was Rien Que Les Heueres, which is basically a 45 minute montage set to music meant to give a sense of Paris and the inequity of capitalism. I guess it works pretty well. The VHS we saw was absolutely horrendous, not the worst I've ever seen but I've seen the worst there is. It was hard to appreciate the film without really being able to see it. There was stuff to like, clever juxtapositions abounded and there was a whole lot being said without a single title card, but I couldn't appreciate the BEAUTY of it because it was just too crappy an image. I do like these types of films. There's something grand about seeing 1920s people hamming it up for the camera and French people making out in the city of lights. I liked the class consciousness and care for animals. I liked the comparison of sumptuous foods yet to be served and the garbage left afterwards, with a few nods of the head to the hungry a long the way. I liked a lot of what there was there, I just wish I could have seen it.
Anything Else is a fiction film by Woody Allen and not something we saw for class, but I watched it this morning and feel like commenting on it, so there you go. As a reader you are hostage to my whims unless you scroll further down the page, and you can't because you want to know what I think of this late addition to Allen's oeuvre. The answer is that it's okay, but certainly not anything special. To steal from its titular joke, I guess it's good some good and some bad. Like anything else. The main problem here is not Allen's writing or direction, they are fairly breezy and light in a way that his worst pictures aren't. The film never feels heavy or weighed down, and it's never difficult to watch. Instead the problem here is with the casting. It's atrocious. Asking anyone to fit in the shoes of Woody Allen is a tall order, but asking Jason Biggs to do it is just plain mean. It's not that Biggs does a TERRIBLE job, it's that he does the best job he can given his range and the material, and it's not good enough. At times he reads the dialogue like he's in a play, acutely aware of how theatrical it is. You can't do that in a film, at least not the sort of film Allen was trying to make. The character is also too young for his dialogue and his situation. Biggs is 25 playing 21 with a character who should be in his early 30's. It's unsurprising that 60+ year old Allen doesn't remember what it's like to be in your early 20's, but it feels like he's overcompensating for being accused of having gotten old by using characters that are just way too young for his sensibilities. I suspect Allen is like me and was never really comfortable being in his early 20s and anti-intellectual. Make the character 33, Woody. Get a world wearier actor. It's not that hard.
Other parts of the film were better. Danny De Vito was hilarious as a schmo who's every metaphor was about suits and clothing, often in contradictory ways. Allen himself is quite funny in the mentor role, and his last lines in the movie are absolutely hilarious. Christina Ricci is pretty good in her role as the girlfriend, although she is also too young for it and at times sounds stagy. When the two of them are chatting wittily there is an acute awareness that it's two people reading lines written by someone else. She's sexy, though, and I've never found her attractive in other roles, so I have to believe some of that was in her subtle body language and good work. New York is presented well, but it always is in Allen. He knows how to shoot central park and make it look both vibrant and anachronistic, which it is.
Ultimately, though, the movie is unfunny. It's pleasant, but not funny. It features young people sitting around chatting about Sartre in a way that they just don't anymore and living in nicer apartments than anyone can afford anymore, and eating in restaurants that young artisty types can't afford to go it. In other words it's a movie stuck in the 1960's or 70's and Allen's sensibilities. Worth seeing? On a lazy Sunday morning on cable, sure, but I wouldn't spend money on a rental, unless you're specifically in the mood for an easy pleasant unchallenging but unspectacular watch.
Want something special? Get Nanook of the North instead.