Click here to read my interview with John Maringouin, director of Running Stumbled, at wT/F.
The fanboy contingent may have crowned Inception the thinking person’s blockbuster for the summer, but color me surprised that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World earns the rightful claim to that throne. Wright’s inserted cultural commentary into his work before, no doubt. His Hot Fuzz — a wickedly funny Wicker Man in Bad Boys attire — skewered a cultish provincialism in British society even as it mined laughs from the discordant sight of action-movie violence visited upon hapless (though evil) townies. And his Shaun of the Dead paralleled its protagonists’ media-cultivated apathy with the genesis of its zombie outbreak, suggesting the enervating effects of an omnipresent pop culture.
So, in that regard, consider Scott Pilgrim a companion piece to that already-classic: a film that examines the negative consequences of our media saturation while continually riffing on it. Wright doesn’t have his cake and eat it, too. No, he shoves cake down your throat even as he warns you about the calories. In the world of Scott Pilgrim, a laugh track accompanies banter between roommates, enemies explode into coins at the end of battle, vegans are endowed with the powers of Super-Saiyans, and comic book panels separate the actors before they inevitably collide. Scenes don’t necessarily end abruptly with the insertion of a new one; they fade and dissolve into each other without warning, and Scott must perpetually ask his friends whether he’s dreaming. He, and by extension the audience, finds it impossible to separate his pop-culture-infused inner world from reality at large.
Early on, it’s not really clear as to whether this is just some adolescent fantasy — a hodgepodge of manga and video game clichés fueled by Coke Zero — wherein Scott’s discomfort with his partner’s sexual history gives rise to an imagined league of antagonistic competition, all playing in the head of the self-aggrandizing hero. (Fair to say it actually out-Inceptions Inception.) As such, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t just represent some canny commentary on how this generation’s experiences are inextricably mediated through the prism of pop culture. In showing how Scott remains oblivious to the detrimental effects of his actions on the lives of past and current flames, it captures and dissects an attendant myopia as well. Is there any coincidence the film parallels Scott’s fundamental narcissism (he can abide neither criticism nor competition) with the endless parade of exclusionary inside jokes?
After tackling all that, it’s all too easy to forget that Scott Pilgrim is as effervescent and fun as any picture this year, possessing no fewer than six cleverly executed and exciting fight scenes, and the product of a keen eye, confident hand, amusingly postmodern sensibility and wry sense of humor. The whole is surprisingly sticky and exhilaratingly, uninhibitedly hyperreal. In short, it’s fantastic.
Composed of ten years of video Michael Almereyda captured during his travels, Paradise is a difficult film to describe. It’s certainly to some extent autobiographical, but Almereyda’s presence is felt primarily behind the camera. It’s thematically cohesive, but it’s a little too loose-limbed to be called a thesis or essay. Whereas many experimental documentaries feel like a bunch of clips selected to present a tone or ideology, Paradise unfolds like the steady accumulation of a worldview, an actual personality distilled into the component acts that gave birth to it. It’s a tangle of ideas related, like a series of anecdotes, solely through the prism of Almereyda’s personal experience.
The film tends to center on people dealing with forces larger than themselves, as evidenced in a visit to Yellowstone that prompts a discussion about the intangible appeal of violent natural forces or another to, one assumes, post-Katrina New Orleans that sees the city celebrating in the wake of its imperilment. The juxtaposition of kids swinging sticks at a log being consumed by fire with a group of firefighters suggests a mutual desire to witness or play a role in an act of destruction — it’s just the latter’s is legitimated through the veneer of authority.
There are two quotes in Paradise that seem integral to the movie. In the first, a man unsuccessfully struggles to fix his vehicle and woes his bad luck. “Why does this happen on a Sunday?” he asks, though his final three words seem entirely extraneous. In the second, a toddler is picked up by an adult and thrown around in a pantomime of a rocket. “Higher, higher!” he pleads. Together, these quotes represent two conflicting attitudes toward the forces out of our control — resignation toward and defiance of the forces constraining us.
The human desire, painted herein as both quixotic and laudable, to conquer the uncontrollable fittingly plays a large role. No wonder one vignette yields an half-drunk monologue admiring Napoleon’s conquering spirit. Considering how many of the vignettes of people involve children — testing the depth of a pool before finally becoming completely submerged, offering food to and being overwhelmed by a flock of pigeons, battling the plastic sheath protecting it from the onslaught of rain — it’s clear that Almereyda considers this urge as something inherent. And I have little doubt that, perhaps with some reservations, that Almereyda does not intend his title to be cynical: His movie is not just a chronicle of humanity’s creative, adventurous, enterprising impulse, after all, but a product of it as well.
North Korea is a state so committed to its totalitarian ideology, so steeped in its own self-preservative rhetoric that it’s become a cultural island — and, if Mads Brügger is to be believed, perhaps the last sanctuary from the pervasive reach of postmodern irony and snark. Into this alien land of domineering, fascistic architecture and authoritarian governance, enters The Red Chapel: ostensibly a communism-sympathetic comedy-sketch group eager to corroborate the majesty of dear leader Kim Jong-Il; in actuality, a trio of Danish pranksters who, through the self-evident terribleness of their act, seek to expose the lock-step enforcement of cultural homogeny behind North Korea’s insidiously polite facade.
The Red Chapel consists of Brügger, the film’s director, and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, and their act — replete with whoopie cushions and a gratuitous acoustic rendition of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” — is so aggressively unfunny as to represent an avant-garde attack on comedic convention. The troupe’s ace-in-the-hole is Jacob, a self-proclaimed “spastic” whose speech and motor troubles bely his mind’s sharpness and also grant him immunity from the North Korean censors; his Danish is so garbled that those who confiscated the footage nightly to check for anti-government material weren’t able to understand the subversive nature of Jacob’s ongoing commentary.
As The Red Chapel prepares for an actual audience, its members are joined by two state-selected collaborators. The first is a theatre director whose job is to make the show “relatable” to North Korean audiences. The second, Mrs. Pak, becomes their ever-present escort. He slowly changes the material — at first intended to be a legitimately independent work — to meet North Korean tastes (i.e. introduces a transparently pro-state agenda); she delivers his alterations to the group with a smiling persistence and demonstrates a motherly attitude toward Jacob that is simultaneously weird, chilling and sad. Jacob, it soon seems clear, is being used by the regime in order to address the perception that the state disposes of its disabled citizens, and the state’s exploitation of Jacob is paralleled with Brügger’s own exploitation of the comedian as a mouthpiece used to sneak his own agenda right under Kim Jong-Il’s nose.
Things come to a head at an anti-American demonstration commemorating the date the mean, old U.S. started the Korean War, and Mads’ compliance with the regime finally becomes too much for Jacob to bear. “Have you no moral scruples, Mads?” he asks the director, and underlying his question rests a sentiment with which most can probably sympathize. Eventually, Brügger’s project doesn’t feel like the attempted subversion of a corrupt, totalitarian regime but simply a sustained attack on sincerity itself — a dangerous, culturally ingrained form of sincerity in this case, but a kind of sincerity nonetheless. Even in the face of North Korea’s coercive conformity, Brügger’s smirking nihilism does not appear in too flattering a light. Rejecting both, Jacob provides some needed skepticism to the motives and efficacy of Brügger’s ruse.
The Red Chapel has received a few comparisons to Sacha Baron Cohen’s work, but that’s not entirely appropriate. Unlike Borat or Bruno, The Red Chapel doesn’t fully commit to its joke. Brügger and company regularly break character onscreen in order to argue or comment upon the reactions they elicit. This approach can go terribly wrong; in The Yes Men Fix the World, it allowed the pranksters to fraudulently evince incredulity that their pranks weren’t causing the proponents of capitalism to abandon their worldview, which gave the whole an air of liberal pandering and self-congratulation. Like Yes Men, The Red Chapel punctuates its joke with a dose of reality, but its self-reflexivity reaps more fruitful results by inviting some troubling questions: Does Brügger’s deadpan endorsement of the totalitarian state help perpetuate the regime by allowing it to feed its isolated populace a line of bullshit about the state’s cultural open-mindedness and pluralism? And if so, does the self-aware irony of Brügger’s complicity with the regime make him any less morally culpable?
By the time of the performance, The Red Chapel’s act has been irrevocably compromised and the final result is less-than-challenging — something that may disappoint some but works as a testament to the state’s potentially corrupting influence on the arts. Though in the end the experiment might not represent the gut-punch the performers set out to discover, The Red Chapel is still pretty special: a colorful and transparent political doc that playfully juxtaposes directorial and dictatorial authority, a gonzo assault on a wholly deserving target, and a deeply ironic beast that critically examines and comments upon its own brandishing of irony as a cultural weapon.
The boys of Royal St. George’s College argue the quality of specific airlines and credit cards with the same oblivious ease as they discuss girls and video games, and their schoolmasters warn them of the disappointment they’ll produce if they become a simple doctor (the horror!). In other words, these kids are drowning in a sea of heightened privilege and expectation, and at least in the beginning of When We Were Boys, they’re seemingly unaware of it. The brilliance of Boys lies in how it finds and elicits pangs of empathy with a group of boys with whom few could readily identify. Even in this disconcertingly alien environment, director Sarah Goodman catches glimpses of the painfully familiar: All the privilege in the world can’t grant them immunity from the complicated process of growing up.
When We Were Boys‘ structure is bifurcated, sliced in half between the final middle-school year and the first year of high school, to produce a portrait of adolescent alienation. The first year, Goodman captures the group in action; she offers a vérité collage of choir practices, conversations at lockers between classes, bouts of juvenile mischief, pool parties. The camera moves with a free-floating wonder, and the whole feels breezy and casual. But, upon the onset of the second year, the film takes a radically different approach and slowly centers on a single boy, Noah, just as his friends for no obvious reason begin to regard him as a social anathema.
The film’s newfound focus on Noah supplies an increased awareness of his seclusion: Once largely inseparable from the crowd, Noah finds the camera his only companion for large portions of the day and retreats into himself. The cameo of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, obvious but not heavy-handed, makes overt the shifting of a social code, as Noah’s exchanges with his classmates, marked with casualness in the first year, become laden with a discomforting tension. Quickly and seemingly arbitrarily, a social hierarchy manifests itself — a physical hierarchy, too, as demonstrated in a martial arts scene — and an inchoate, Darwinian cruelty looms, always threatening to materialize.
The second half begins with an awkward exchange in a surreally up-scale barbershop, suggesting Noah’s tipping point into a kind of class consciousness. You begin to recall the earlier portions, when Noah was the recipient of some good-natured ribbing — even in this cradle of privilege, Noah is apparently among the most privileged — and wonder to what extent Noah’s new status among his classmates represents a rebellion against the weight of that privilege, suddenly exposed by new experiences and increased self-awareness of their precise position in the world. The conclusion, a year later, finds the status quo having reasserted itself for Noah: He’s rejoined by his friend Colin playing video games, as they did during the beginning. But Noah still struggles with his violently abrupt exile. What happened? Noah asks Colin at one point, and Colin shrugs off the question. The audience isn’t let off the hook so easily, though. What is it, the film implores us to ask, about these liminal, transitory periods of our lives that fosters this thoughtless solipsism? More cynical and mournful than glastonburykids, it asks the same questions, albeit with a bit more subtlety.
Most interesting, though, is despite focusing on these kids, When We Were Boys is indelibly marked as the work of an outsider, with the camerawork evoking an uneasy mixture of nostalgia (that free-floating scouring of the walls and schools) and voyeurism (the camera’s distanced pursuit of the boys, an occasional angle that suggests we’re spying on them from an unseen vantage point). As such, the film romanticizes the relative innocence/ignorance of youth even as it confirms the audience’s unbridgeable separation from it. The last shot of the choir says it all: After lingering on the new alto soloist, the film gradually pans over to the choir’s former star as he stares at his usurper, and here When We Were Boys becomes a poignant, eloquent elegy for the days before we were confronted with our own terrible limitations.
Spalding Gray was a sui generis performer who for two-and-a-half decades mined the details of his life to construct comedic monologues that blurred the line between fiction and reality. He was a man whose life and art were wholly inseparable — an impossible self-reflexivity begot an apparently encyclopedic account of an entire life, one in which everything (embarrassments, personal turmoil, even the inner mechanics of his own mind) was seemingly transparent and nothing was safe from his keen sense of self-deprecation. Seemingly is the key word here, as Gray’s coy admission that he has his own secrets underscores the impossibility of reducing the human experience to a laundry list of events and quirks.
In And Everything Is Going Fine, director Steven Soderbergh and editor Susan Littenberg deftly assemble countless appearances of Gray (with whom they previously collaborated on Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy) as he filters the subjects of art, sex, family, and mortality through his inimitable worldview. Structured chronologically, the film is primarily compiled from his shows and interviews and spans the entirety of Gray’s career: It’s an autobiographical patchwork as crafted by another party. More intimate footage from personal videos also appears, and it lends nicely to a discussion about to what extent one is able to parse the man and the performer. Gray’s final fate is not mentioned onscreen, only hinted at, which makes some foreknowledge necessary to get the full impact of the ending. Still, Soderbergh’s decision not to intrude was a good one; like the art in which Gray made a name, And Everything Is Going Fine remains essentially a one-man show.
Eventually, And Everything builds to a portrait of a man at ease with what he sees as the fundamentally entropic nature of the universe, a man who views accidents as serendipitous events to be publicly chronicled and describes his art as ascribing order to chaos. But his, it becomes clear, is the story of a fall: After the universe indulges in a final act of arbitrary violence against him, his art proves tragically unable to impose meaning onto this accident. Achingly personal, And Everything emerges as a fond remembrance of a fallen comrade: someone who, with scathing humor and unrivaled self-knowledge, fended off life’s cruel, random blows by exhibiting them for all to see and in doing so related something universally human.