Two Trips to the Toronto Film Festival

I managed to see 'So Goes the Nation' and 'When the Levee's Broke' last week. Both films were excellent as well as important social and historical documents.

'So Goes the Nation' examined the 2004 Presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry. The focus of the film is both macro and micro as it deals volunteers on the ground in Ohio, which turned out to be a swing state and an important campaign battleground, as well as interviews with the chief strategists from the Bush and Kerry camps. It is the balanced view that gives this documentary it's interesting point of view. Far from Michael Moore and Al Franken, the film tries very hard to be non partisan and show the election from both the Republican and Democratic side. The election was an easy target for a soap box documentary where you could expose the dirty tactics used againt John Kerry but they don't follow the easy target. Instead, you get a unique view into the strategy of the opponents. This deconstruction of the party battle plans doesn't diminish it's human appeal as a lot of time is spent with the volunteers on the ground and their emotional investments in the outcome of the election. It is a wonderful balance of people with political strategy and free of any apparent partisan manipulation. You can't help but marvel at how an election campaign is constructed and won, or in Kerry's case, lost.

'When the Levee's Broke' is Spike Lee's documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans. In a four hour running time, the film is a comprehensive view of the storm and its social and political aftermath. Some might expect the outspoken Lee to have a hayday with this material which undeniably exposes America's flaws in both race and poverty. Yet Spike Lee, like 'So Goes the Nation', doesn't go the easy direction. Instead he focuses his camera on the people and allows the material speak for itself. 'When the Levee's Broke' becomes an important document of the storm and the views of the people who were abandoned by the beauracracy of the government. The issues of race and poverty are apparent in the film but Lee allows it to come to the surface naturally. His main agenda in this film is to humanize the events, to show you how a great city and a unique people are shamefully swept away in the richest and most powerful country in the world. The film is an angry, funny, sad, painful and spirited look at the United States biggest catastrophe. If you watch the news often, you might find that the film doesn't offer much new information but it doesn't matter - it offers empathy and humanity. It shares the horror of being black and poor in America as well as the horror of Katrina itself. It is a humbling documentary and one well worth seeing.


Lady in the Lake

Robert Montgomery's 1947 film noir 'Lady in the Lake' is an interesting film that uses the technique of POV (point of view) to tell the story. Montgomery directed this film as well as starred in the leading role of Philip Marlowe. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Marlowe is hired to find a publishers missing wife.

The film is an interesting but ultimately failed experiment in film technique. Orson Welles proposed to do an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' when he was first hired to make a film for RKO. Welles had planned to do the film in the point of view of Marlow (odd that it's the same name) but for a variety of reasons Welles abandoned 'Heart of Darkness' for 'Citizen Kane'. It was a smart move for Welles as the technique limits the filmmaker. For this reason 'Lady in the Lake' lumbers along, chained to the point of view of Marlowe and never giving the audience the opportunity to see how Marlowe reacts or feels. For Montgomery the point of view allowed the audience to participate in the film as if they were Marlowe. This fails as we are not Marlowe and although we are carried along by the dialogue and plot we never really participate in the film. Film is a window into the characters lives and just because we share their visual point of view, it doesn't mean that we share in the characters thoughts or feelings.

I have seen this technique used well in the BBC comedy 'Peep Show'. What separates 'Peep Show' from 'Lady in the Lake' is that 'Peep Show' shifts the POV shots between the characters. This allows you to see a character react visually to the events of the story. It gives you the window into their thoughts and feelings. 'Peep Show' takes it a step further by giving the characters internal monologues where we hear their private thoughts.

'Lady in the Lake' was interesting to watch as it highlights the strengths of traditional and classic film technique. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope was a similar exercise in making a film that seemingly employed no cuts. 'Rope' was made to preserve total continuity and look like it was made in a single take. Hitchock reflected on this experiment with Francois Truffaut:

"When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a an experiment Rope may be forgiven, but it was definitely a mistake when I insisted on applying the same techniques to Under Capricorn."

Montgomery's 'Lady in the Lake' can also be forgiven as an experiment in technique. It is no wonder that we don't use the technique as 'Lady in the Lake' highlighted the flaws in using extensive POV for storytelling. 'Rope' was a more successful experiment and remains an entertaining film today. This is probably due to Hitchock's acknowledgement that although there were no cuts in the film, he staged the film in a way that it was 'precut'. Although the film had no physical cuts, he blocked it in such a way that he was still able to follow simple film grammar of establishing shots, medium shots and close ups. He just used a dynamic and moving camera as opposed to cutting.


Steve Irwin 1962-2006

I was saddened today by the news that Steve Irwin, aka 'The Crocodile Hunter', died unexpectantly. I remember watching the 'Crocodile Hunter' on discovery channel when it came out and couldn't tell initially if Irwin was sincere or a put on. I came to enjoy the program as I realized that this was indeed a sincere, funny, warm, dedicated and nutty guy. His passion for the conservation of dangerous animals was genuine and heartfelt and it shone through in his documentaries.

What happened today seemed to be sadly inevitable being that he spent so much of his time around vicious and powerful adversaries. It reminds me in a small way of Werner Herzog's documentary 'Grizzly Man' about Timothy Treadwell who spent years living amongst Grizzly Bears in Alaska. As much as you can criticize these men, you have to respect their courage and conviction in their need to try to protect these dangerous species.

Steve Irwin was a charismatic, energetic and enthusiastic personality and I can't help but feel the world has lost someone special.


Yesterday Sylvia and I went to the theatre to see the wonderfully dysfunctional 'Little Miss Sunshine' and it was one of the best theatre experiences I've had in a long while and one that gave me some optimism for the future of projected films.

I decided not to write a review of the film so I'll just say that it was charming, funny, playful, well cast, well written and well directed. In other words, it's a delightful film.

As the theatre filled up I couldn't help but think of all the recent news of movie studios, fearful of the modern age of digital distribution and shrinking audiences. Despite these fears ticket sales are up seven percent from last year. We got to 'Little Miss Sunshine' about a half an hour early and proceeded to watch the theatre fill up. When the previews started people were struggling to find empty seats (other than those horrible seats at the bottom of the auditorium). Young and old came to see this little film (budget of 8 million according to imdb)and they weren't disappointed. It was one of the rare films I've been to where the audience clapped at the end!

As a casual observer it seems to me that people are just hungry for a great theatre experience. This means first and foremost, a great movie. The film opens with the big Dolby Digital logo, signaling the audio experience of the theatre, then follows with the theatre chains promo of 'Go Big', showing off the size of the screen. I love the 'Go Big' campaign as it is right on the edge of an anti-campaign. They won't finish the statement of 'Go Big or Go Home' - home is the last place they want you to go so they leave it off. You can advertise the theatre experience of big picture and big sound all you want but in the end it means nothing if the next hour and a half is a dud.

What a terrific experience it was with no cell phones ringing and nobody chatting. This is what a good film can do. It brings you into the story and holds your attention and engages you. We just need more of them - you shouldn't need a business degree to figure that out.