Tuesday, July 14, 2009

heep see (special silverdocs edition)

The September Issue

directed by R.J. Cutler

Made by the same folks that did The War Room, a shot of the interior of Vogue's offices as it gears up for their largest issue ever (a/k/a the September issue) feels more war-like than anything in the movie about James Carville. One person esteems Vogue to be more like a church, with main subject Anna Wintour the pope, "the most important woman in the United States." But strangely enough, the film's heart does not reside within this expressionless, sunglass-hidden cultural icon, but rather in her foil, Vogue's creative director Grace Coddington.

"You don't have to look perfect," Coddington assures the cameraman as she puts his beer belly body into a fashion spread at the end of the film, "It's enough that the models are perfect." She at one time was such perfection herself, modeling with the likes of Twiggy and making the swinging '60s London scene, before a car windshield put her on the other side of the camera.

Now fraught, aged, unglamorous, stressed-out, a powerful foil to that Prada-wearing devil, "a romantic left behind" as Grace puts it herself, Coddington might be the first such female figure on the big screen to be all of the above. And as the film makes evident, she's a total artist and genius as well.

No Impact Man

directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein

A Gawker comment that appears in this film about Collin Beavan and his year-long experiment to leave absolutely "no impact" on the environment by not generating trash, riding in a car/ train/ elevator, and --six-months in-- not using electricity labels this man "a bourgeois fuck." And I can't say I disagree with that sentiment, as Beavan is one of the least-appealing characters of recent memory. Even though the film does inspire one to shop exclusively at farmers' markets with ones own canvas bags, staring at the smug-mug of this Fifth Avenue Co-op owner also makes one want to drive out to Wal-Mart in an SUV, throwing out Starbucks cups all along the way.

Act of God
dir. Jennifer Baichwal

Missed about half of this film, so I found myself adrift in impressionistic imagery of lightning storms. The film is about people randomly struck by lightning, and how they interpret it: as either the epitome of a random act or else its polar opposite, a determined act. Baichwal really plays with structure here, but to the point where it loses its grip on reality. There's also this immense leap into a digression about how the creative act itself is like a bolt from the blue. perhaps it doesn't quite fit, but the film ends in this uncanny duet between Paul Auster, reading a short story about a boy he saw struck dead by lightning when he was a child, and an incandescent guitar improvisation by Fred Frith.

Still Bill

directed by Damani Baker

From the outside, it seems almost impossible to fuck up a documentary about Bill Withers, especially when it opens with a pulse-raising montage of the man grooving through a series of live performances on Soul Train and other sound stages. And as a subject that probably doesn't quite get why he's getting the feature film treatment himself, he continually downplays his work with a knowing self-deprecation and wit.

Yet the film's pacing and editing runs contrary to the man's own powers. Emotionally-attuned but never maudlin, crafted but never rambling, direct and never aimless, Bill oeuvre has little in common with his documentary. He's burned out on the biz twenty minutes into the film. Chronology is abandoned midway through, amid a montage of live performances from the Bill Withers' songbook at Prospect Park, the concert strangely mute as old footage of him gets super-imposed. By film's end, we're suddenly back here.

It's fine enough to plunk the man into a backyard BBQ chat with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, but it never quite moves beyond the novelty of its participants. We see Bill get teary-eyed over any number of things, from talking to a class of stutterers to watching his own daughter sing a song in his studio, but that sacrifice of cohesiveness for such moments still isn't quite Bill.

Bloody Mondays and Strawberry Pies
directed by Coco Schrijber

What does a dessert maker strumming Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" have to do with no-necked stock brokers, American Psycho, a Frenchman painting numbers, football hooligans, a guy lounging in the desert, a 101-year-old businessman, the woman who "doesn't like Mondays," a toothless guys selling newspapers on Wall Street, Danish teens, a female spy, and $40K wrist watches have in common? Uhhhh....despite the chicanery of editing that seemingly makes this into a meditation about "boredom," absolutely nothing.

Dancing With the Devil

directed by Jon Blair

You'd be forgiven for thinking you stumbled into yet another remake of Miami Vice at the start of this film about life in the favelas. Bombastic, brutish, with ludicrous "cop show" aesthetic choices that beggar belief. Both the muscle-bound cops and hideous drug dons of this film thank God for (fill in the blank). Well, God has alot to answer for with this one.

This is documentary porn at its most cruel. Let's get a close-up on this guy's ear, mangled by an attack dog. Now let's get a good look at his broken foot. How about this woman shot in the face? Let's hold that shot until everyone in the theater has to turn away. Now let's talk to this drug kingpin, making sure to pan down and sloooowly regard his mangled tree stump of a leg, looking like it's got shelf mushrooms growing all over the diseased skin.

But whatever we do, let's not pause to understand just how fundamentalism, religion, and capitalism helped to create this mess in the favelas. And let's be sure to only put a female in the film when it's time to show young woman dipping low to a hot favela funk track that goes "Just spread your legs/ Just squat." What ultimately wound up running through my mind while watching a pastor hand out food to these poor kids was if they were going to recycle those plastic cups or else continue to negatively impact the environment.