In a time where everything appears to have a price tag, writer/director Tom Dicillo’s statement rings true; “The Doors, they never sold out. It was deeply inspirational to be reminded that not everything is for sale.” More than just a documentary about the formation of an iconic band, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (2009), is about that historical, social and political synthesis that occurs when music engages with and permeates its temporal context.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the music itself stands strong “against time” (so to speak), it is also true that The Doors are a band, and that their music is an output, that captures something significant of its own time. Perhaps the very reason it resonates still today is that what it captured was a transient and hopeful moment never fully realised; its relevancy today, therefore, permeating and immovable.

Refreshingly for a documentary about so famous a group as The Doors, Dicillo doesn’t go down the tired and frankly rather fruitless line of “talking heads” and instead uses fine filmmaking craft to find the most piercing way to start a story: “The sixties began with a shot.” Tracing from here the events and awakenings of the time, Dicillo moves from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the Civil Rights Movement and up to the Vietnam War. Commenting upon whilst chartering these significant events, When You’re Strange is as much about historically significant values and moments of cultural change as it is the band. Dicillo doesn’t just pose history as a backdrop for their advent to fame but rather as the symbiotic, organic relationship that evolved between the two; “The establishment exists but a genuine counter-culture is growing.”

Making full use of remarkable stock footage of the band playing gigs as well of their fans and contemporaries, When You’re Strange is told simultaneously through voice-over narration and musical progression. A surprisingly rare feat for a music documentary, When You’re Strange actually considers the quality and aspects of their music and why that was not only unique but how it engaged and informed their displays of revelry and the carnivalesque in relation to the emerging counter-culture of the time. There is of course a tendency towards focus on Jim Morrison above other members of the band, but at no time does the film ignore the other three members; John Densmore, Robby Krieger,  Ray Manzarek; in preference of the notorious front man, always ensuring the focus is in relation to his effect on the group as a whole.

Contemplating violence as an American tradition and with the advent of Richard Nixon to the presidency, the film culminates in an extraordinarily moving montage set to “Riders on the Storm”. Contrasting war footage and an all-American child on the home front swinging like a monkey set perfectly to the lyric “let your children play”, When You’re Strange highlights how mimicry can lead to devastation. Revealing how political unrest ebbs and flows between counter-culture and conservatism just as artistic expression moves between its own motivating forces, When You’re Strange is never over dramatised or condescending to its audience and allows the incredible imagery and music of its subject to do so much of “the talking”. That said, the film is still scripted and operates as an “informative” documentary in the first instance, the dulcet tones of Johnny Depp narrating and guiding the experience. A fantastic documentary that reveals compelling subject matter, this is certainly one to make time for.

When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors is screening exclusively as part of an ACMI’s long-play season from December 27 2010 to January 3 2011 and is distributed through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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Fair Game

November 24, 2010

Whether or not the film takes too much artistic license with the exact events as they in real life took place, and in the absence of a definitive, unbiased interpretation of events, I have to say that I personally was fairly impressed by the admittedly left-leaning politics of Doug Liman’s latest thriller Fair Game (2010). But opinions regarding the true story of Valerie Plame Wilson aside, the greatest success of the film is the way in which it so seamlessly uses formal techniques to elucidate narrative content.

One of the greatest ways to ensure an audience buys the authenticity of a film is to use documentary or stock TV footage. This technique is especially successful when the footage is woven into the thematic fabric of the film and harmoniously matched with visual graphics (exemplarily explicated at the very end of the film where Liman cuts in graphic match from Naomi Watts’ performance to “real life” footage of Valerie Plame Wilson’s testimony in court.) In the opening titles for the film we are presented with news footage of George Bush and an aural mash-up of non-diegetic music from the Gorillaz layered on top of a spate of diegetic key words that alliterate and are accumulatively onomatopoeic; “scare”, “threat”, “substance”, “security”,  “terrorist attacks”, “terrorist networks”. Set less than one month after September 11 and engaging in the media frenzy that followed these events, such formal techniques allow audience awareness from the outset; this film is interested in exposing the Bush administration as hysterical and fraudulent. Furthermore, the film is clearly and explicitly aligned with an anti-Iraq occupation political point of view.

In addition to the use of such footage, the drama itself is filmed in two distinctly different styles that play off one another to great effect. When we see Valerie (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) at home or in a familial/social environment the camera work is static implying peaceful, steady and stable foundations. Conversely, when we see Valerie or Joe in governmental or field agent settings the camera work is often shaky and intrusive which is consciously interrogative implying a great deal of uncertainty and erraticism. This juxtaposition is used to both frame the Wilsons as “good” people of integrity and simultaneously cast doubt over the systems of power that employ them.

Selective use of famous quotations further ads to the communicable incredulity of certain US office holders and their role in the events that led to the West’s invasion of Iraq. From Saddam’s “I would rather kill my friends in error than let my enemies live” to the Bush administration’s “The responsibility of a country is not in the hands of a few” Liman is questioning the way in which the media present high-profile conflict to the public. In lieu of this it is clear that in presenting another perspective on Valerie Plame Wilson’s case, Liman is interested in visual media’s ability to communicate and manipulate viewers. Rousing and provocative in the first instance, Fair Game is a fascinatingly self-reflexive accusal of popular discourse in its ability to skew fact and create polemic.

Fair Game is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 25 through Hoyts Distribution.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Green Days

August 9, 2010

The youngest daughter of acclaimed Iranian new wave director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hana Makhmalbaf, proves to any non-believers that talented filmmaking really does run in the family with her outstanding second feature film, Green Days (2009). By inter-cutting mobile phone and other amateur digital footage of shocking police brutality following the protests against rigged results re-electing the oppressive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s 2009 election with a series of hopeful pre-election footage, young Makhmalbaf offers a compelling and horrific vision of the extremity of a nation full of hope descending into a nation defiled and defeated. A far cry from ‘entertaining’ or ‘enjoyable’, Green Days is an appropriately and overwhelmingly distressing viewing experience.

The film focuses predominantly on the lead up to the election in the country’s capital city, Tehran. A place that is home to some 17 million people and has been fighting for its freedom for 100 years, Tehran is described as “A city full of tears.” A continuous cycle of hope and deflation is subsequently expressed as both clinically depressing and infinite as, “Every four years we all get our hopes up…[then[ we lose everything.” Much of the documentary is informed by a young woman’s (Ava) disillusioned perspective through her search for medical help to ” Please stop this nightmare.” In a country where women can’t become president and where Ava’s work as a theatre director is politically banned, she is left to feel both politically and emotionally deflated. Proclaiming “Happiness is forbidden here”, Ava continues to work on her theatre pieces regardless, strongly reiterating the crime against humanity that is an endless cycle of hope (rehearsing) without victory (performance).

Essential but not easy viewing, Green Days is a brave piece of filmmaking that everyone who considers themselves remotely humanist really ought to see.

 Superimposed over the US flag, the opening title sequence of new French espionage thriller, Farewell (2009), begins as it means to go on: metaphoring New American Imperialism as a blanket laid carefully and strategically behind surface information, powerful in its obtuse translucency. This title sequence is immediately juxtaposed against a view of Moscow in 1981: a landscape covered by a blanket of snow, a converse metaphor for acutely opaque Communist power. Situating the two against one another in such a way from the very outset of the film provides a segue into its less gripping more humanist moral project. Questioning the ethics of both American and Soviet espionage methods and motivations, Farewell would in fact be more appropriately described as ‘character drama’ than ‘slick thriller’, its ultimate concern the resolution of the role of the individual within a greater omnipresence of oppression, post World War II between the “superpowers” during the Cold War.

Farewell is based upon true events and real life KGB defector Vladimir Vetrov whose information about Soviet intel of Western technology was given to NATO via French intelligence service DST, who allotted him the code-name ‘Farewell’. Vetrov’s name has been altered in the film to Sergei Gregoriev (expertly played by Emir Kusturica) as have, of course, some of the details of his life, particularly as they pertain to the circumstances surrounding his arrest. But factual details aside, what writer/director Christian Carion is clearly trying to achieve in the first instance is some semblance of compassion and empathy for the individuals who are so absolutely implicated in activities such as “exposing” other human beings, divulging information about “security” and “defense” in their pawn-like, yet pivotal, roles within the sticky web of international espionage.

Gregoriev’s direct, and significantly physical, tangible, animate contact is unassuming French amateur spy Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a man whose methods and motivations are so naturalistic they are considered absurd within the world of espionage and, he is, as a direct result, seen to be “above suspicion”. His actions so juvenile that his first experience with top-secret documents leads to ridicule from his wife, “It’s not your concern. I married an engineer, not James Bond”; and subsequently to his building of a child-like fort in his own living room so as to photograph the documents privately and separately from said wife; the first of many marital betrayals, a form of deception and secrecy both men struggle to come to terms with throughout the film.

Farewell moves at a slowly escalating pace so that the deeper in the two men get, the more sensitive and revelatory the intel they gather and the more risk involved, the further out in the cold they become, both literally and figuratively. The film moves between seasons climaxing at the crux of winter; the blanket of snow now representing the absolute inescapability of their situations, its coverage too awesome for either one of them to defect or escape without being granted such a privilege from the powers that be. Estranged from their own families and able to talk to no one but each other – as they meet, “out in the cold” – their only solace comes from the comforting words of European lyrics and poems (their enjoyment of Euro-centric culture and indulgences well-played against the younger generation’s fascination with western culture and imperialist capitalism), their only connection to the present moment and time one another.

Their relationship is so intense that Froment is unwilling to deal with the DTS without a guarantee that both he and Gregoriev will be safely allowed to live their lives as free men. Froment is granted a pass for him and his family to live in New York, America being the proverbial “land of the free”, but Gregoriev is none so lucky. In a perfectly shot sequence revealing double identities (pictured above) Froment confronts CIA officer Feeney (Willem Dafoe) questioning his ethical standpoint for allowing Gregoriev – the man who risked his life and gave everything to NATO – to be captured by the KGB. Spouting such clichés as “There can be no change without sacrifice” and “No democracy can survive without the trust of its institutions” Feeney lets Froment know in no uncertain terms that the concept of “Western Democracy” is indeed deeply hypocritical – and even deplorable when deconstructed to the level of implication for the individual – yet still, Feeney shows no remorse.

A carefully considered and well observed dramatic thriller, Farewell leaves its audience in a state of palpitation and reflection over its provocative moral project exploring the ethical implications for many individuals involved in the construction of fundamentally fascistic concepts such as “state security” and “national defense”. A fine film indeed.

Farewell is released in Australian cinemas on July 1 2010 through Hopscotch Films.