August 5, 2010

Although labeled a “cultural revolution”, the unhealthy obsession with fame that is now bred into the vast majority of children and youths is actually more a powerful political tool for the continued and unchallenged repression of the lower socio-economic classes. Erik Gandini’s documentary film Videocracy (2009) reveals the rise and shame of an appallingly strong “media oppression” in Italy.  Though the notion is not exactly “news”, the film successfully communicates an aptly bleak and depressing picture – not so much of “the power of television”, but rather of the power of the social and political elite.

There is an entire generation who believe that the greatest achievement in life is fame and furthermore that being seen on television is a form of validation because it means others will “remember” you – rendering you (in a manner of speaking) “immortal”. Belief in this ludicrous notion is what continues to keep those of low social-economic standing repressed, something the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Lele Mora know all too well. Berlusconi, the current Prime Minister of Italy, also owns 90% of Italian television media, a devastating conflict of interests, but one that helps to successfully breed the controlled climate that produces such questions from “average citizens” like, “Why should I have to be a mechanic all my life?” By giving the masses an “aspiration” of this kind, those in power distract and mask the corruption within the political system, focussing the masses on achieving within it rather than challenging it.

Filled with a plethora of dirty facts such as “the minister for gender equality was a former showgirl”; and a ream of baffling ideologies; “I’m like Robin Hood, I rob from the rich, but instead of giving to the poor, I give to myself”; Videocracy is an important and blunt reminder that we are far from “free”.


Experimental Shorts

August 3, 2010

It is important when discussing experimenta and avant-garde modes of cinema to remember that one of its most significant and defining qualities is that it necessarily situates itself outside of, though still in conversation with, its “mainstream” counterpart. This year’s MIFF selection of Experimental Shorts was in many ways a typical, “balanced” program of its kind. What I mean by that is not necessarily negative, rather that the programming team clearly took into account that a relative portion of its audience might well be approaching experimenta from a “first time” perspective and, as such, the program includes a carefully considered breadth of experimental filmmaking.

Flyscreen (2010) / Richard Tuohy / Australia /8 min.

Working with 16mm film using the rayogram technique and optical sound, Richard Tuohy (part of the Artist Film Workshop) creates a successfully claustrophobic and atmospheric work. The flyscreens themselves simile the individual frames that make up the moving image and the optical sound of the screens emulate both the buzzing of an actual fly and the low drone of a film projector. It’s refreshing and exciting to see that there are still filmmakers out there who care about and are interested in experimenting with actual film.

Friedl vom Groller  (2009) / Austria / 8 min.

Passage Briare: A silent, black and white document of a middle-aged heterosexual couple reveals the simplistic beauty behind the human experience of (an)other.

Hen Night: A group of six women staring at the camera represent the reflected artifice and construction that appear in cinema and everyday life alike.

Wedding: A naked couple sit by one another facing the camera in what is shown to be a moment of “honesty”, transcending “seemlessness”. Simple yet beautiful.

Kitchen Horror (2009) / David Short / Australia / 4 min.

Using science and mathematics to inform its representation of the horrors hidden within a typically domestic space, Kitchen Horror is most interesting for its use of sound in illuminating the extraction of spacial ideological anomalies.

Palm D’Or (2009) / Siegfried A Fruhauf / Austria / 9 min.

The blurring of a fractured, fragmented crowd of people and places set to a sort of “white noise” soundtrack disorient and remove the viewer from a process of identification with the subject in this well executed black and white short.

Parallax (2009) / Inger Lise Hansen / Austria & Norway / 5 min.

A simply yet cleverly inverted image shows how the earth struggles to achieve its “natural movement”; suffering under the unnatural weight of human industry.

The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog (2009) / Johann Lurf / Austria / 3 min.

Through framing film frame and showing sound, Lurf confronts his viewer with the very nature of the object they are viewing.

Long Live the New Flesh (2009) / Nicolas Provost / Belgium / 14 min.

Using CGI (computer generated imaging) to alter and enhance visceral sequences from famous horror films, Provost creates a new texture – or “flesh” – for the image. From conventional suspense horrors such as The Shining (1980) and Drag Me to Hell (2009) to Cronenberg body-horrors like Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), Provost takes an experimental art form and makes it both contemporary and accessible to wider audiences. Although some of the images are quite beautiful the medium itself is disappointng; pixelation and computerised sound ultimately render it more like to a computer game than “film”.

Flag Mountain (2010) / John Smith / UK / 8 min.

Presenting a strong image of a liminal border space, Flag Mountain looks at a literal and ideological imprinting of nationhood upon the physical landscape.

Strips (2010) / Felix Dufour / Canada / 6 min.

Segmenting the image into “strips” we watch a woman “strip”. The cutting up of the woman and the image hark back to Laura Mulvey’s seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Nothing new, but effective nonetheless.

Still in Cosmos (2009) / Makino Takashi / Japan / 19 min.

Matched to a soundtrack by Jim O’Rourke, Still in Cosmos shows scratched and deteriorating images that reflect the universe. Distorting the original photography it slowly reveals glimpses of nature and straddles the boundary between a Kantian understanding of beauty and the sublime.

Finally, whilst the program could be described as Austrian-heavy (hardly surprising when Austria is where pretty much most of the most interesting and cutting edge experimenta comes from), what was (pleasantly) surprising for me was to see Australian experimenta not only feature but contend in such an established program.

Film Socialisme

July 29, 2010

Having never personally walked out on a film in the cinema it was fascinating to watch so many people hurriedly, frustrated and constantly leave ACMI 2 on Sunday night during the screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Film Socialisme (Socialism, 2010). I’m not sure if it’s because they were expecting the likes of A bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) or even Le Mepris (Contempt, 1963), unaware of Godard’s more recent string of arrogant, elitist cinematic works, or, if it was perhaps that Film Socialisme in and of itself is far too inaccessible and abrasive for a majority of cinema-goers. Either way, it certainly caused a bit of a stir (much to Godard’s delight no doubt) and, for all its pomp, is worth sitting through, not just because you shouldn’t let the smug old bastard get the better of you, but because it is actually a very thoughtful and provocative film, deserving of both the time and concentration it demands of its viewers.

As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy what might be considered “passive” cinema, I find the challenge of unpacking something so incredibly dense, theoretically and philosophically loaded to be a rewarding, yet still arduous, task. If there was even an inkling of doubt in anyone’s mind as to the complexity of the ideas in Film Socialisme, these were immediately dispelled as the title credits flashed up on-screen, revealing the involvement of one Alain Badiou. It was clear already that this film would at the very least contemplate the role of individual subjectivity within its greater contemporary global social context. Heavily layered and somewhat aesthetically manic, Film Socialisme is a commentary on the way in which we negotiate our global existence and a question over the ethics of our actions and experiences.

It begins on a cruise ship and follows a type of segmented forward trajectory that explicates Godard’s Euro-centric view on the ethics of international tourism. The partial, stilted, subtitled translation throughout employed to further implicate and alienate western audiences, put perfectly through the sarcastic words of a child, “It’s true if it’s in English.” There are three main “chapters” to the film; Des Choses comme ca (Such Things), Notre Europe (Our Europe) and Nos Humanites (Our Humanities) and six specific locations; Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Hellas, Naples and Barcelona. The “chapters” separate the three main themes in the film; human interest in indulgent, superfluous and postmodern activities; the conscience of Euro-centric socialism; and the ethical question as it pertains to a philosophical consideration of “humanity”.

Film Socialisme opens with conversation surrounding “white Algiers” against visuals of a tumultuous sea; the frothing white at the surface looking markedly out-of-place in an otherwise natural, calm environment. This level of subtle metaphor is sustained throughout the film and, even if your French is so pitiful as my own, the correlation between dialogue and image is always apparent, though visual tone certainly takes precedence in the context of the overall “moral project” of the film. There is constant reference made to “currency” and the notion of “exchange” that capitalist success is built upon as well a clear critique of the consequences of misunderstanding and misinterpretation due to a global preference and reliance upon language rather than images and actions. Certainly in my mind at least, it seems Godard’s latest film is informed by a Levinasian ethics of the Other and the “face-to-face” encounter he speaks of (see Colin Davis’ Levinas: An Introduction).

Featuring images from Sergei Eisenstein’s famous and acclaimed Battleship Potemkin (1925) amongst a plethora of other historical and archive footage, the film culminates in a succession of bold imagery that homages Soviet montage and aims to shock its audience into consciousness. Claiming “smiles dismiss the universe”, Godard is claiming in no uncertain terms that we shouldn’t approach places and people of historical significance with such flippancy and personal pleasure as is attributable to the act of tourism for it inherently denies historical comprehension and unethically annihilates the Other.

Anything but easy viewing, Film Socialisme is a lot of things – and not all of them are necessarily good. Demanding its audience participate in an “active” viewing experience, it is in my mind an achievement in contemporary cinema (even if it is occasionally flawed and pretentious.) But most importantly, if you’re going to see it, I urge you, don’t walk out! In doing so you’re only confirming Godard’s condescension. Great film, smug bastard.

Film Socialisme is screening as part of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again Friday July 30, 2.30pm and Saturday August 07, 4.45pm in ACMI 2.


April 12, 2010

It’s 2010 and a lot of us already know that we are constantly being had. But it’s always good to be reminded that many of us are either still in denial or just plain unawares. Starsuckers (2009) is a documentary film that hopefully does more than just preach to the converted about the oppressive cycles of capitalism, looking specifically at the utility of the fame factory within it. So if you didn’t know, or if you just weren’t quite sure, then Starsuckers is the kind of documentary that ought to help you find out.

The way in which the phenomena that is ‘fame’ operates is as an echo of the greater system within which it thrives: capitalism. Starsuckers purports that through convincing children that everybody can be famous  and that the key to happiness lies within the entertainment industry, the elusive and untouchable ‘powers that be’ (media networks, global corporations, et al) begin to control and direct our lives from the moment we enter the soul destroying system that is the capitalist western world. These claims seem fair and the world of fame is certainly a suitable target for mockery. But as always with this mode of ‘revelatory’ documentary (see anything by Michael Moore), it needs to be viewed with a pinch of cinematic salt.

Structured a lot like a persuasive essay or a series of debate cards, Starsuckers is segmented into clear points of contention to support its central thesis; that you’re being conned. Of course you are, but not just by the capitalist system, Starsuckers itself utilises many persuasive and manipulative visuals to convince its audience of its chosen agenda. For example, though I’m sure it is true that if there were a magic button you could press to make you smarter, stronger, more beautiful or famous, a majority of children probably would answer ‘famous’, but it might also be useful to know a little more about the reception studies at hand beyond the most obvious and binary opposition of gender, such as; socio-economic background, race and ethnicity, skills, aptitudes and abilities of the children surveyed. That is to say that the presentation of ‘factual’ information is at best partial and therefore subject to potential bias. Even when it asks questions that ought to be asked, such as, ‘to what extent are parents to blame and to what extent are the forces of capitalism at fault?’, it isn’t really asking. Having already suggested that we were all raised by “the system” it essentially absolves parents and individuals from any form of liability before it can even entertain the concept of responsibility.

The documentary goes to great pains to accredit itself and corroborate its message through the presentation of a great many talking heads authorities who include psychiatrists and university professors in related fields; their words weighty and their opinions valid. Inter-cut with humorous and at times eccentric found archive footage as well as undercover ‘observational’ documentary film bites, Starsuckers masterfully blends just about every mode of documentary filmmaking known to the discourse. Successfully alternating between serious persuasive argument, shock-factor footage or statistics and humorous eccentricities, Starsuckers is trying to reach the not-already-in-the-know “average television viewer”. If you’re not convinced then take into account the fact the film has been simultaneously released on terestrial television and on DVD. So, aspirationally, at least, it’s got its cinematic conscience in the right place.

One of the more contentious and therefore significant points the film raises is to do with the boundaries between “healthy enthusiasm” and “unhealthy obsession”. There is certainly a difference between the two and the film, to its credit, does attempt to address it. Its ultimate conclusion however is that the pervasive intent of the media is something of a responsible party in the increasing cases of mental illness amongst children. Little support for the claim is provided.  The film also indicates a central instigative problem of individuals necessarily copying one another since the dawn of mankind. Whilst there is certainly something to be said for the way in which we learn from others and are taught to repeat, mimic and copy, in terms of media reception there can hardly be such a suggestion without taking into consideration the history and evolution of art, film and televisual media, let alone theories of identification and spectatorial studies. Something the film sadly neglects.

The film focuses its watchful eye primarily on US and UK media, giving the British press an extra special mention when it comes to celebrity gossip. Revealing the farce that is the British popular press, Starsuckers shows how several publications don’t necessarily fact check their stories before going to print. The nature of celebrity gossip is in fact such that they don’t even go out looking for stories anymore, they just wait to see what endless amounts of tosh come to them. Suggesting that the view of free press and increased access to information via the internet has not actually given us a greater sharing of information and opinion – that being far too optimistic a view – Starsuckers lets you know in no uncertain terms that there is very little journalism out there and that most of what is on the internet is incomprehensible babble. I’m not going to argue against that, but I would like to put forward the idea that for all the babble there is still some cohesive criticism.

But for all its flaws there are equal measures of achievement. 1) In terms of persuasive argument, at least five members of parliament in Lithuania were previously famous pop stars, television presenters and/or entertainers, 2) in terms of cinematic shock-factor footage, so called “charity events” such as Live Aid and indeed Live 8 actually do more harm than good, enabling ethnic cleansing and preventing other charitable organisations (specifically those which make up Make Poverty History) from succeeding not only in supplying aid (alone, something that in fact acts to keep third world countries oppressed), but also in achieving fair trade and debt resolution (a strong combination of which would help alleviate a country’s third world status in the long term), and 3) in terms of humorous eccentricities, as the head of The New York Reality TV School claims, “I was actually, like, raised by a television.”

And if no none of the reasons above convince you, then you ought to watch it to find out just how much of a C**t Richard Curtis actually is.

Generation M

March 5, 2010

Not since Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) has there been a film about teenagers that has been so deeply affecting. Certainly not a film one would categorise as ‘easy viewing’, Afterschool (2008) is an intense, intelligent and provocative account of one boy’s conflicted and troublesome high school experiences. Unlike the more conventional ‘coming of age’ dramas that probably spring to mind, Afterschool explores adolescence through the contemporary mediated experience.

Set against the backdrop of an elite American East Coast prep school, protagonist Robert (apathetically played by Ezra Miller), is something of an awkward teenager who views his own journey through adolescence as solitary and polarised. Interested in youtube-esque videos of babies, kittens, pornography and violent outbursts, Robert embarks upon a project for the school’s AV club. When, seemingly innocently, he sets up a camera in the corridor by a stairwell, Robert unexpectedly captures the traumatic event of popular twins, Anne and Marie Talbert, dying. This chilling event comes to implicate everyone at the school – staff and students – shaking every individual to their very core. Misunderstanding Robert’s experience of the event itself the head master asks him to take on the responsibility of filming & editing a tribute film for the girls who lost their lives and more significantly, to comfort and appease friends and family left behind. But when Robert’s edit of the film reflects the bleak and depraved reality of his own experiences instead of the supposedly beautiful girls’ innocent and meaningful existence, the effects of mediated representation are called into question, asking the viewer to assess the responsibility of the camera as ethical apparatus.

From the very first opening of the film it is clear that watching and being watched are not entirely separable  acts, particularly when the events are, or at least seem, to be ‘real’. Often switching from home video footage, to computer screens, to windowboxing and then back to letterboxing, the image, and its parameters, are constantly changing. Shot in a way that never quite assumes anyone’s specific POV, the film has an air of documentary about it and the camera itself feels like an omniscient presence, often ominous for the severity of what ‘it’ sees. Explicated early on through a classroom scene studying Hamlet, the idea that an individual is implicated in an act through the process of viewing is integral to the film’s moral project, and the layers of viewing that are involved are indeed intended as provocations. Ultimately, the disparate examples of filmmaking styles, from mobile phone videos to ‘seamlessly’ edited films, reveal every inch of construction that is involved in visual media.

Eventually, the head master comes to the conclusion that it is ‘in a way’ everyone’s fault that the two girls died, yet another way in which writer/director/editor Antonio Campos asks the audience to consider their own ethical involvement in viewing. Towards the end of the film the focus has once again shifted and it resolutely settles upon the viewer him/herself. The final positioning of the camera is the greatest questioning of all; any position from which you are ‘allowed’ to see synchronously has positionings from which you are not allowed to see. What then is the role of the camera in terms of an ethical apparatus? How does it control the situation and manipulate the viewer so that a chosen perspective is given?

Without doubt one of the more intelligent and challenging films to be released this year, Afterschool is refreshing for its confronting and original perspective upon the adolescent experience and others’ subsequent ‘view’ of it. In an age where much of our experience or knowledge comes from mediated representations, Afterschool is an achievement in critical visual reception.

Afterschool is available from March 8th 2010 through Network Releasing. Its retail release includes; deleted scenes, mobile phone videos, teacher testimonials, New York Film Festival trailer, theatrical trailer and image gallery.