Looking back as the credits roll on this touching and open-hearted NYC-set comedy/drama, it’s startling to think that the opening scenes could ever have felt so dubious. Something about the eponymous protagonist’s self-aware manner in those first few minutes really seems designed to rub the viewer up the wrong way. At this point, the near future looks bleak – an uphill slog through a bandwagon-jumping Brooklynite yarn. Will this be utterly, unbearably pretentious? Is Frances the epitome of annoying? You’re prepared to hate it. And then it surprises you.
Given director Noah Baumbach’s history, his documented perfectionism and meticulous use of openings to misdirect the viewer’s expectations in his prior films, you’d imagine this has been an intentionally cheeky manipulation. As important as first impressions usually are, Frances excels at not making – and then transcending not making – a good one. You fall for her, and for the film, rather despite yourself.
Although the film is set in the apparent hub of hipster culture right now, Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t easily fit any conceivable definition of cool. A reactive rather than proactive person, she’s a little lost, but not particularly concerned about it. She’s lazy, and spends time (as do a lot of us) talking about what she should be doing. Most of her flaws constitute what make her loveable: she’s a bit of a goofball, often quite annoying (but in a sweet way, unlike the character of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s irritating Happy-Go-Lucky, for example), has no self-censorship and no awareness of when she’s crossing the line with other people. As a character she feels intensely real, and Gerwig (co-writer of the film) plays her beautifully, with just the right amount of confusion and vulnerability hidden under the apparent spacey lack of awareness.
Fran’s friendship with Sophie (an impressive Mickey Sumner) constitutes Frances Ha‘s central relationship. As Frances refuses to meet her impending thirties head-on, the pair start to drift apart – a plot thread which accounts for much of the film’s emotional impact and dramatic tension. It’s also a blessed relief to see a contemporary comedy focused almost exclusively on a single female lead that isn’t ultimately concerned with the male love interest; the brilliantly casual way in which Frances casts off her first boyfriend is a good indication of the film’s lack of interest in her sex life.
In a number of ways, Frances and the film mirror each other. Frances is often casual to the point of being non-present, and while Frances Ha is ostensibly a comedy, its humour is often so low-key as to seem almost unintentional. This is a definite strength, in that it never seems to be actively looking for laughs. Baumbach’s choice to shoot in black and white doesn’t feel like an act of pretension so much as a Frances-like avoidance of having to choose colour schemes (although the film is visually rich, in a nicely understated way). It’s also brilliantly edited. Frances’ daily activities, often used as bridges between scenes, are briskly summated in montage-style vignettes which cut in and out of random exchanges and personal moments. In keeping with the film’s winning combination of frothiness and mild spikiness, these sequences at once lightly mock and highlight the bizarreness of peoples’ routines and behaviours. By making these observations awkward by robbing them of their immediate context, the film portrays life as a series of random, beautiful but ultimately meaningless instances. Yet, of course, the meaninglessness is what makes it all interesting.
I must admit I found the film emotionally affecting in a way I rarely find. Frances’ willingness, in the end, to open herself up to ridicule perhaps won my sympathies. If Lena Dunham’s fantastic Tiny Furniture(2011) was a film that encapsulated the knowingness of being in your early twenties, Frances Ha is definitely older, more world-weary, but conversely also more openly optimistic. It’s something like a pep talk to dreamers. The possibility of failure manifests throughout the film, daunting, concrete. And yet Frances’ steadfast refusal to allow that reality to exist (despite it so obviously existing) means the chance of a lucky break never seems beyond her. We create our own luck, it says, through an insane, bloody-minded refusal to believe there is no such thing as failure.
Frances Ha is in cinemas from Friday courtesy of Metrodome Pictures. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
Loosely based on their 2007 short Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, comedy-writing team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have reimagined the End of Days from the perspective of a group of friends trapped in James Franco’s Hollywood home. As the Apocalypse rages outside, the group (Rogen, Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride) must come to terms with themselves, their friendships and the total, unequivocal destruction of everything ever. Cue the dick jokes.
The cast is essentially a reunion of stars from earlier Rogen/Goldberg films, all friends in real life, and fully prepared to take the piss out of themselves by playing up to the common (negative) public opinion of A-list celebrities. They clearly had a lot of fun making this, which translates best in extended scenes of dialogue rather than the later CGI horror/action sequences. The film’s strengths naturally lie in the sharpness with which the character relationships are portrayed. Male friendship and bonding rituals have always been a big focus in the pair’s writing, and they’re particularly astute at revealing the nuances in male egos that make their characters feel solidly human. In the wrong hands This Is The End might have slipped into lowest common denominator gross-out territory, but Rogen and Goldberg provide customary vital touches of warmth and sadness. Like their other efforts it’s also genuinely funny, their expert way with a cutting put-down shining especially brightly here.
Where the film falls down slightly is in the concept, which is initially interesting, but ultimately tiring. There’s the gnawing impression that Rogen and Goldberg weren’t wholly clear where to take the idea, and that the clearly sizeable budget allowed for too much. The first disaster sequences are actually pretty tense, the shocks real. But herein lies the problem; if you’re going to start a film with tension it becomes obvious when the tension is lost. Much of the plot outside of the house in the later stages is half-baked – as though everything around the original scenario has been more or less tacked on. Rogen and Goldberg don’t seem interested in developing the setup in unexpected ways and thus come to rely heavily on star cameos to carry through the lulls. Besides that, the film slips into self-indulgence fairly easily. What you end up with is a movie that looks at first like a blockbuster, feels for a good while like a joke between friends, and then sputters around in the final third like a balloon that’s not been tied at the end, finishing (probably like the earth itself will) with a whimper, not a bang.
At the end of the days though (honk!) this is an enjoyable and very funny addition to the Superbad/Pineapple Express collection of US comedies with a bit more bite; perfect fodder, in our globally warmed times, for the excruciating and pathetic death-whimper of the British summer.
This Is The End is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall
“It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every grey hair on my head I call ‘Kinski’?”
Werner Herzog’s triumphant anti-epic concerning man’s crazed will to power – over nature, other men and adverse shooting conditions – is now being brought back to the big screen by the British Film Institute in all its compelling, insane glory.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog’s first collaboration with genius/maniac Klaus Kinski, who works to evil, haughty effect in the role of the vaingloriously ambitious Don Lope de Aguirre. Towering, glowering, hyper-intelligent and totally unhinged, Aguirre hacks like a zealous devil through an unwelcoming Amazon on his singularly quixotic quest. With the mythical treasures of Eldorado as his goal, promises of boundless wealth, fame and power burning in his fevered imagination, Aguirre is the ostensible leader of an ever-more rag-tag group of lost conquistadors as they stumble towards their stifling Equatorial graves. With the uncomfortable nearness of the jungle translated vividly on screen, its dispassion and tactile intrusiveness so directly expressed, you imagine the film crew feeling a great kinship for this group of doomed fools as they followed their own bloody-minded leader into the unknown.
The film follows its own linear path, heading towards its destination with unremitting purpose, not so much written as bluntly forced into being. Which isn’t to suggest it is in any way brazen or simplistic. Rather, it’s incredibly nuanced, perversely conjuring poetic tragedy and weightiness through being light and actually somewhat silly. As Aguirre, Kinski’s performance is totally absurd and hilarious, but you wouldn’t dream of laughing within 20 miles of his face.
Within a barrage of sledgehammer blows, Herzog is engaging in subtle connections. Though the film is intently focused on its lead, there are some fantastic supporting characters: the noble yet short-sighted Don Pedro and his beautiful wife Inez, blind to the tide of fate that’s turning against them; the corpulent and childishly entitled Don Fernando; the grubby and sycophantic priest Brother Gaspar, calmly reshaping his influence to suit the interests of whoever happens to be the group alpha of the moment. And, of course, the Amazon itself: churning brown water framed by impenetrable jungle, untamed and unforgiving.
Herzog’s genius lies not just in his ambition. It’s in his intuitive feel for what lies beneath, the hidden nature of things. Stripping away all the bombast and bullshit he shows the stickily glistening pulse at the core. From the breathless opening shot, men and women the size of ants forging their hesitant way down a mist-swathed Andean face, he places a supposedly cultured humanity back in the cycle of that same fierce nature which for years it seems to have been deluded enough to believe it had escaped. Back in the midst, oft-vaunted civility is openly revealed as a lie.
And there’s the kicker: on some level, everything which seems alien to us about what this film portrays is actually incredibly, intimately close at hand. As remote as Don Aguirre is, a coldly burning star in the void, like all anti-heroes there’s something painfully knowable about him. Despite the grandstanding, his motives are as simple, as proximate – as inane and ultimately pointless – as our own. There’s an absurdly comedic horror that as everything falls apart he only grows more certain; that, in the face of impeding failure, he’s only more committed to what he sees as the authenticity of his actions.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God is on limited release now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
“Freedom of speech is always under threat, every day, worldwide.”
Something you might once have found Dick Cheney saying, perhaps, as he lowered his visor and prepared to blast his way through ranks of dangerously insurgent women and children obscuring his view of the oil fields, but in this instance uttered on camera by a Swedish conservative politician and ringing with the gravitas of a series of ridiculous – but very serious – events that have preceded it.
Historically, truth has resided with power. In our modern society money is the real power – therefore ‘truth’ as it will be remembered is usually pretty easily bought. If this assertion scares the crap out of you, you’ll want to watch Big Boys Gone Bananas!*.
A documentary about a documentary – or more accurately the staggering response to a documentary on the part of one of its subjects – this brilliant film details the aftermath of the LA Film Festival in 2009, where Fredrik Gertten’s attempts to show Bananas, his movie about the legal struggles of Nicaraguan workers against the multi-national fruit corporation Dole, led to the threat of a lawsuit being filed by Dole against his tiny production company for defamation. All this despite a) the CEO of the company having basically admitted its guilt in court, and b) no one at Dole having yet seen the film.
That was only the tip of the shitberg. Dole then set about waging a dirty campaign in an American media only too willing to propound their side of the story without any apparent investigation (suggesting the mainstream American media is now chock full of Scott Templetons, and hardly any Gus Haynes’).
Some of what is in this film is petrifying, some of it incredibly hopeful, but it’s always compulsive viewing. Highlighting the insane amounts of influence that multi-nationals wield, it is at times a terrifying glimpse into the way life could be if we, as a collection of oft-disinterested or apathetic individuals, don’t start being more proactive in making ourselves heard. In the decade when American corporations were granted the right to make political donations under the First Amendment (yes, the Amendments reserved for people) this film is not just relevant, but should be compulsory watching for anyone with a passing interest in our future.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is available on DVD now, and is released by Dogwoof. You can buy it here. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
In cinemas now, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yetis the moving story of the eponymous guitarist who refused to give up on his dream despite being diagnosed with a rare, incredibly serious wasting disease. PPH caught up with the film’s eminently likeable young director Jesse Vile to talk about his must-see film, the process of art, and cheese in cans.
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PPH (in bold): From watching the film it’s pretty obvious you have a great deal of genuine feeling for Jason and his family. Having read some of what you’ve written and said in previous interviews it seems this was an idea you had germinating for a while. Apart from knowing his work growing up what was it that drew you to his story?
Jesse Vile (in regular): The thing about Jason is he’s such a rare individual. Everything about him is rare. The fact that he was so talented at such a young age and the fact that he actually achieved the rock and roll American dream at 19 – that’s rare. Not many people get to do that. And for his talent and the amount of success that he was able to achieve he was still a super down-to-earth great guy who didn’t get into drugs and alcohol like most rock stars do – that’s rare. And then he gets a relatively rare disease at an extremely rare age, and then lives 23 years after diagnosis which is…only 5% of people with ALS ever do that so that’s extremely rare. So he’s just a rare person. I thought: what a fascinating guy, everything about this guy is just amazing and he just never stops amazing people and just being brilliant pretty much and that’s what drew me – he’s an amazing person.
So was it the idea of telling an incredible story, would you say, that you wanted to make something that was inspirational to other people in that sense? Or you just wanted his story to be known to a wider audience?
Yeah, well I definitely wanted that that for sure – for his story to be more widely known. But I didn’t want to make just a fan film – I didn’t want to make a film that only fan-boys of Jason and of the guitar would like – I think a lot of directors probably easily could have gone in that direction. I wanted to do something that was… that had more of a universal human story at its core – because it does. I mean – to spend all that time and resources to make a film about Jason which is purely just about his shred and having ALS and dealing with it would have been selling the story short – it was more about incorporating all of the main characters in his life and all the themes that come out in a film. So yeah, I guess I didn’t really set out to inspire people because Jason did that for me, I just pretty much kept myself out of it [laughs] as much as possible.
You can definitely see that in the film. And I would definitely say that it succeeds at being a universal message, one that I personally found really hopeful. As a film that’s aiming for a universal audience – because it is quite niche terms of subject matter – regardless of the way the film turned out some people are still going to perceive it as being mostly about a shredding guitarist. As the producer as well as the director how have you found the challenge of bringing it to that wider audience and how much pressure have you felt being so personally connected to Jason and the people who are close to him, in gaining that wider audience?
I feel very lucky and grateful that it’s been received so well on the festival circuit. I think that’s really helped bring it to a wider audience. It’s very, very, true people either look at my film and go “oh my god it’s about heavy metal and a guitar shredder” or “it’s about ALS and it’s sad and depressing” and they don’t go for either of those reasons. You know, people come up to you after Q&As and they say “great film” or, they don’t [laughs] – but the most satisfying ones are when people come up to me “I just stumbled in. The film I wanted to see was sold out so I came in here and I’m so glad that I saw yours. Has it been out long?” I mean that’s cool because that’s really who I made it for: people who would maybe just stumble in, had never heard of Jason, hated shred guitar and would walk out kind of glad that they saw the film.
I think it would be sad if people were put off by the fact that it involves shredding. In some senses it starts off as being about Jason’s career…but you don’t watch The Wire because you’re really into the idea of being a drug dealer…
Yeah, exactly, like “I’m a crack addict so I’m looking to start selling crack in the streets of Baltimore or whatever”. It’s difficult! Fortunately in the States, the UK and Canada it’s not my main job any more – my job is support and to help get the word out to Jason’s fan-base and things like that.
It was interesting: earlier you called Jason’s success ‘the American Rock and Roll dream’ – what did you mean by that?
Well, just to be a rock star. If you’re an American kid, most American kids want to either be a football player or an astronaut or…a rock star. Maybe some people want to be doctors and teachers and stuff, and those are brilliant obviously but I think kids grow up wanting to be rock stars. You’re in a rock band in middle school and high school because it’s worth aiming at.
It’s funny though because when you’re particularly a teenager the idea of rock and roll stardom appeals because of the lifestyle. But then with Jason it doesn’t seem he was really into all of that, so it’s interesting because he got into it purely because of the music – which I think is quite naturally a part of his success – that he really committed to it.
Yeah, Jason’s dream was never to just get chicks and do drugs and drink. His dream was to be a professional musician – but to be the best one. He wanted to be the best guitar player – and he was on his way to doing that. And that’s what those guys on that label – the label he was on, Shrapnel Records – that’s what that label was about. It was started for guys like that, that were focused on just being the best on the guitar. It was for guitar nerds and really technical guitar playing and – you know the guy in the film Richie Coxon? He’s in the film very briefly, he’s an old friend of Jason’s – he was in the band Poison in the 80s who are known for super glam excess and all that kind of stuff – and he basically said “we didn’t do that any of that stuff. That’s not what we were about on that label. We were all about guitar, being the best at the guitar.” And then what he said is kind of funny – it’s like “and then you know, once I figured out: ok I can play guitar. Now what?” That’s when he got into all the shit.
There seems to be an obsessive impulse that runs through all these guys…
It’s competitive! And…it’s not just like Keith Richards – they’re not just writing great songs on the guitar that aren’t…well some of those songs are really difficult! But you could probably learn a Keith Richards song if you started playing guitar within a year, whereas one of Jason’s songs you’d spend ten years trying to learn it. It’s a completely different level of technical guitar playing. And so you can’t be all fucked up on drugs if you’re gonna play like that! We interviewed Steve Vai. He had a really interesting thing where he was like: “I was a bee on the edge of the honey pot. And I would just take a little taste every now and again. But I knew a lot of guys that would fall in and that was it.” And for him, again, for him the most exciting thing was getting an idea out of his head and onto tape. And some guys, they’re excited about just being fucked up, you know?
They’re virtuosos. The way those guys look it almost reminds you of the way musicians looked in the times of Beethoven and Mozart doesn’t it?
[Laughs] Jason never wore that stuff though. All that glam stuff you see him in – that was just someone dressing him up for photos. He was just into jeans and sneakers.
He strikes me as an incredibly unpretentious guy from an incredibly unpretentious family. His parents and his brother – all the people around him – are obviously crucial in his life before as well as after the illness. The influence of his parents shines through the film as a big part to his character…
I’m glad you saw that because that was definitely intended – they’re huge characters. They’ve done everything for Jason – they’ve given up their lives for him – not just to take care of him for the past twenty years, but for everything. At the very beginning they nurtured him. They saw that he was interested in the guitar and they nurtured that. They supported him and, yeah, they’re huge characters. Hid Dad invented how he speaks now for Chrissakes! You know what I mean? They’re not going to not have a huge part in the film. They just awesome people, and really interesting. Gary (Jason’s Dad) has the greatest voice. He’s so great on radio. Everything about them was brilliant so I just wanted to include them as much as possible.
I think there are certain moments of the film that really bring out an optimism in humanity. The fact that his parents devoted themselves so much to their children…you can infer that from the film – they seem extremely tight as a unit and it was almost like a blueprint of how to be a good family. The parents are artists, really creative people but not in the way that they’re trying to use that creativity as a leverage above other people. Where was it they live?
Richmond, California. It’s quite near San Francisco.
It’s not an amazingly affluent area, it’s quite run down…
Dave Lopez says it’s pretty ghetto. And he’s right man. A couple of the guys from my crew went and picked up the Chinese food we ordered for lunch when we were shooting and they were scared to death! It’s rough man! Jason’s old high school has got barbed wire, a fence and metal detectors.
I love that though, I love that they’ve brought him up in a really… I guess it’s realistic urban environment. Some of his friends were interviewed in the film, and again, they just looked like an amazingly tight knit group – good people you know?
Yeah. I met some amazing people making this film. Everyone I met. Well, just about everyone (chuckles ironically) were just unbelievably amazing.
It’s just unbelievably selfless a lot of these people and what they give up for Jason. That was amazing. I never really saw a family that close before and people just give up their lives to help someone else before like that. It was really inspiring.
In the wrong hands this film could have been incredibly melodramatic. I could tell that wasn’t your intent…
I’m not a sentimental or melodramatic guy. Most Brits I think definitely aren’t and that’s why it was great working with a British film crew and a British editor because you want some drama but you don’t want it to be…[sighs] lame. I think it’s more of an American thing. Because we love our cheese.
Yeah. Why is that?
We just love cheese. We love it so much we put it in cans. And squeeze it out on ourselves.
Spray it all over each other.
Yeah! We love it! But you know, I think you’re just immediately aware when something’s just [grimaces] cheesy so it’s kinda…there are certain scenes in the film where I asked “dude was that cheesy” and they’d be like “no, that’s great” and I’d be like “OK, cool”, you know?
I think it struck a nice balance. To sentimentalise a situation like that is to patronise Jason quite a lot and you showed him the appropriate amount of respect – the tone of the film was spot on in that sense.
It could have been really easy to do that if you didn’t try and keep a close eye on it – not because he’s someone to be pitied but it’s not something you deal with every day is it?
Becker with director Jesse Vile
You’re in a situation where it’s really easy for someone from the outside to say “Oh, poor you”, though.
He gets that all the time. At the end of the film you see him go see his spiritual guru, Amma – and he gets people going up to him [speaking in a loud, slow voice] “hello – how… are… you… today?” And I saw that and I was like for fuck’s sake. And Sorana’s like “he’s not deaf you know”. Or they’ll go round and go, “you’re such an inspiration” and he’s just like “thanks, that’s really sweet but it’s a bit much!”
The thing with Jason is once you hang out with him you know he’s not like everyone – in many ways. And not just because he’s ill. Especially in emails because on email he can ramble on and crack jokes…
He comes across as having a sharp wit.
He does. And he’s really observant. For obvious reasons. He can’t just jump in and start chatting. And he was really getting the whole film thing. He was picking up a lot of stuff, with people in interviews. He’d say “no, you have to go back and do it like that” and it was like “oh yeah!” No, he’s really observant and he’s a smart dude. He’s not just great at guitar he’s a smart guy as well.
You talked once before, in another interview I saw, about waiting to make this film until you were ready – you had the idea in film school – what prepared you to finally take that step of saying “alright, I can do this now”?
It was a combination of regret and the challenge. I think I always regretted not following through with it. I’d always see his name in my ITunes and just go “oh!” – I couldn’t even listen to it – I was so like “damn, when am I gonna make this film?” and all the rest of it. So it was kind of that, thinking “I don’t want to feel that way any more. I want to make this film. Fuck that. Fuck regret.” And the other was just – I’m ready. I was 29 when I started and I was like “I want to make – or be making a film – before I’m thirty at least” and…I don’t know! I just felt I was ready. I’d experienced things in my life.
It must take an emotional maturity to deal with such a vast subject matter that, as you say, requires a lack of sentimentality in certain areas…
For sure. And I think I was just really creatively starved. I wasn’t doing anything too creatively fulfilling at the time.
Were you working a normal job at that point?
Yeah. I’ve always worked in the film industry – helping other film-makers have their work be shown and put out there and exhibited – but never my own. And it was always like: when am I going to get around to doing that? You know, you get stuck in your day job, paying the bills and going on holiday and all the bullshit and then you come home and you’re tired – you don’t want to write. You don’t want to put a project together and raise a hundred grand of funding. You don’t do that stuff so…really, it’s a big effort so it just takes something to push you over the edge to think “Fuck it. Just do it.”
And now that you’ve done it have you got other ideas germinating? New plans forming?
Yeah, I’ve been developing something for the past few months. It’s not concrete. I don’t really have the rights to do it yet. Unfortunately. I’d love to be able to talk about it because I’m quite excited but because it might not happen. But yeah, it’s going to be amazing! It’s got to be something you love to do because you’re going to be busting your ass doing it for two or three years – longer sometimes.
I remember I saw a Q&A with Shane Meadows and he said just don’t work on anything you’re not passionate about. He said he wasn’t that passionate about Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and that’s why he didn’t like it, or it didn’t turn out as well as it should have – because he didn’t love it. And I feel the same way. I can’t get involved in anything I’m not crazy passionate about. So anyone who wants to make a film just needs to love it and do nothing but think about it, and hopefully they stay that way for two or three years! Otherwise you’re like halfway through a project thinking “I hate this, I just want to get it over with.” You just find ways to get out of it like “ok, that’s fine, cut, next one.” And it just becomes, you know…shit!
I think the only inexcusable art is lazy art, ultimately.
Yeah, and I think a lot of artists are (lowers his voice conspiratorially) lazy [bursts into laughter].
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas now, and released by Dogwoof. It’s available on DVD from December 3.
Cinema’s power often lies in a very direct form of emotiveness, with the immediacy of the image being the perfect foil for a good story. But the simplicity with which this directness operates requires a fine balance. It’s all too easy to mishandle the power at one’s disposal, to bludgeon an audience’s goodwill into pained submission under a hail of grandstanding sentiment. This is especially true in the ‘Life Story’ genre. Documentaries and acted biopics which bear this scary moniker often come generously ladled with words and phrases like ‘inspiring’ and ‘heart-warming’ as directors amp up every aspect of tragedy and triumph in human life, screaming ‘FEEL!’ at the audience as though we were already cold in our seats, vacant and resigned at this still-early stage in the emotional evolution of the human beast. In most cases, ‘vomit-inducing’ would be more of an accurate description of these films.
Great credit, then, to Jesse Vile, director of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yetwho has made a film which impacts in a meaningful way whilst keeping any potential melodrama or sensationalism firmly outside of the frame. Jason Becker isn’t manipulative, it isn’t preachy, and most importantly it isn’t patronising. Jason Becker isn’t dead yet, and he doesn’t want your sympathy.
In 1989, small-town teenager Becker, a ridiculously talented guitarist, was about to make the step up from barely-known prodigy to big time player. David Lee Roth, whose band had launched the careers of first Eddie Van Halen and then Steve Vai – the established Best Guitarists in the World in the ‘shredder’ mould – had heard Becker playing and wanted him to feature on a new album and a tour. This was literally ‘it’ – and nothing more than a culmination of years of obsessive practice combined with a natural talent in a nurturing family environment, although these are the kind of dreams we hardly dare hope for even in our wildest moments. The album was recorded and the band were hitting the studio in preparation for the next stage. Around this time what had begun as a twinge in Jason’s leg was causing him serious discomfort. On the advice of his parents he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with ALS – a wasting disease – an extremely rare condition for someone of his age, and totally incurable.
As a reviewer you try to be as neutral as possible during screenings, but sometimes you get caught up, and from there it’s almost impossible to imagine blankly critiquing things like form and narrative. In this sense the film must, therefore, be a success – removing this reviewer from the relative ease and safety of his objectiveness. So far as this is a piece of cinema, it has some cute directorial touches, but Vile is both wise and modest enough to keep his presence to a minimum. If there’s a message, it’s one that comes naturally from the material, not from some superficial slants, artificial crescendos of emotion or sensationalism. Becker’s story changed, it deviated from what might have been expected – and many times – but it’s clear from the film that all changes are navigable with good people behind you.
Having made a point of the film’s emotional neutrality, I haven’t tried so hard not to cry in a film since watching Bambi as a child, unsure as I was at the time whether it was allowed in the cinema or not. As with then, the effort gave me a massive headache. But it wasn’t that what I was watching made me sad. The film’s emotional impact sits in that quiet hinterland between sadness and joy – the one where you’re experiencing the sense of being. It’s neither a happy experience nor an unhappy one, but it’s more than both – an experience of fullness and potential. A man who created his opus while paralysed? A great achievement – but here’s the thing – it’s also not. It’s entirely normal when viewed in the context of Becker’s life. What this film highlights –the incredible thing – is that all of life is within anyone’s grasp if they just have the confidence to take it in hand – to commit to it. Life can’t be this simple, so we think. And truly, you don’t know what myriad complexities have been simplified, what disparate threads have been unified for the purposes of effective cinema. But what this film suggests is that there aren’t any, and if there are they’re unimportant. While it’s common practice now to view life ‘realistically’ as a series of inherently meaningless events swinging, by our selfish imposition of our worth upon them, between the twin states of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, one can also approach it from a far simpler outlook: we’re alive right now, and that’s what really matters. Is there not incredible hope in that?
Please don’t be put off if you think this is just going to be a film about a metal guitarist. This is a universal film, an important film, meriting a wider audience than it will probably receive. In his steadfast refusal to patronise his subject, Vile has made the film his subject richly deserves.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas from Friday, and released by Dogwoof. It’s released on DVD on December 3.
Twee – excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.
At its best ‘the twee angle’ (for wont of a better phrase) can present a charmingly naïve view of the world that in turn leads us to look at our surroundings with refreshed, childlike eyes (see Wes Anderson). At its worst twee is simply a denial – a refusal to look at things head on, a frustrating, dishonest and manipulative trait employed for and by ruthlessly egotistical or emotionally weak individuals who’d rather take life as a prescribed dose of cutesy vignettes than face a proper engagement with the world and all of its wonderful difficulties.
Ruby Sparks, for better or worse, has a little of both aspects. It’s like an obviously clever child who’s a bit too good at giving the doe eyes, and for all it’s apparent warmth you can’t help but feel there’s something really very cold, very clinical, happening underneath. It’s an incredibly twee film that sometimes charms, more often manipulates, and never quite escapes the plot bind it fixes itself in. It’s populist schmaltz cleverly disguised as subverted schmaltz, with a plot that could have been a novel route to exploring some interesting themes – such as the role of fantasy in our lives – finally content to roam the colourless wastelands of the middle ground.
Ruby Sparks should be seen as a missed opportunity. The film flirts with the idea of really challenging the audience, but instead sucker punches them in the strangest way – by giving them exactly what they want – and leaves with their wallets. It’s part set on the West coast, but that cackling you can hear isn’t the gulls, and that swishing isn’t the waves – it’s studio accountants crowing with delight as they read the numbers off the ticker tape. It might just be the most cynical film of this year (and this year included We Bought A Zoo!).
Contrary to the aftermath, the experience of watching Ruby Sparks is on the whole a placidly pleasant affair – if a little close to watching the slew of ukulele-backed mobile phone adverts from the last five years rolled into one. Like you’ve dropped a few anti-depressants – sit back and watch what were formerly your brain cells pop like mellow fireworks in the distance.
The currently ubiquitous Paul Dano plays Calvin, a self-absorbed writer in a perma-sunny LA (where else?) whose first novel has rendered him a literary phenomenon at a tender age, but who currently finds himself rather lacking in the ideas department. As publishers’ demands to see some new work increase, Calvin can’t seem to get past his block. He’s lonely, but has no friends apart from his dog and his brother, and certainly no chance of finding a girlfriend, which is what he really wants. One night, he has a dream about his perfect girl. Waking up with the fire of inspiration burning hot in his belly he stays up for days on end tippy-tapping away on his beautiful vintage typewriter. Then things go weird. The girl he’s written about suddenly appears. Those vintage typewriters, man.
The film potters along in what is essentially a romcom vein, probably exactly as you’re imagining, and though there are some genuinely funny moments in amongst the achingly cute set-ups you’re always waiting for some kind of conflict.
And then Ruby Sparks dares to do what a romcom would never do – it gives you a taste of real conflict. This is where this film could have become really interesting, and ultimately, where it truly fails, backing away from the difficult questions it starts asking and giving in to a happy ending which isn’t just stupid but actually insulting – to everyone who’s gone to see the film, but especially to women. Without giving too much away, there’s a puzzling plot dilemma Ruby Sparks doesn’t even really try to address, breezing on past like a politician happily answering a totally unrelated question.
The film’s unremitting support of Calvin and his egocentricity is grating, and there’s a faintly misogynistic subtext in the action which makes me surprised this film was written by a woman. It’s called Ruby Sparks but really it’s about Calvin. Ruby herself (Zoe Kazan) has been written as an ironic comment on the two-dimensionality of female characters in film, literature and the male psyche but is ultimately a plainly two-dimensional character. What kind of a message is that for girls?
Zoe Kazan is very watchable, by far the best actor in this film, which is convenient as she wrote it. Paul Dano, so reliable when playing twitchy borderline psychopaths, looks a little lost having to rein it in. The material doesn’t suit him, and he lends Calvin an utter charmlessness that undermines the film’s desire to see something good happen to him. Antonio Banderas and Anette Benning pop up as Calvin’s mother and stepfather in a sickeningly lovely (more fantastic than Ruby herself) pseudo-bohemian life together – which brings me to my other gripe: if you lump this into the same broad category as Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are Alright (or as my mother had it The Children Are Going to Be OK) and The Descendants – decent, respectable, well made Hollywood films that confront ‘problems’ in a realistic even-handed way – you notice that these problems seem to solely be the domain of middle-class white people with large disposable incomes in a sun-drenched Californian (or Hawaiian) paradisiac alter-world.
This sun-drowned existence is, in the wake of so many films with such a similar aesthetic, so unappealing that it unconsciously starts to look like a kind of weird aspirational purgatory where these annoyingly well-rounded-but-still-lost people enact their problems without ever learning anything, imprisoned forever by a particular kind of dreamy living (what we might call the faux pastoral fantasy of the non-materialist middle classes) – their Organic Farmers markets, their Apple products (how it pains me to be at the point of saturation I feel more or less comfortable writing that line) and their non-committalfucking principles oh god shoot me now for any colour other than beige.
The irony about Ruby Sparks is that, whilst the character of Ruby is supposed to be an avenue to a realistic exploration of the falsehood of an unrealistic idealisation, the ‘realistic’ world the film is set in is itself a massively unrealistic idealisation. As the quirk drips out of every frame you can’t help but start to wonder if this has really been written, not by a person, but some kind of advanced marketing machine that’s spent the last three or four years amalgamating the popular life-desires among artistic, sensitive types. Let’s sell some vintage typewriters boys!
Rian Johnson’s Looper is not only a welcome return to form after the quirk overload of 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, but also sees the director achieving the rare feat of crossing over into the mainstream while retaining pretty much all of his stylistic quirks. Johnson is a man of vision, and, luckily for cinemagoers, seems to have producers who are wise to his not-inconsiderable talents.
Of course, it’s the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – made up beyond recognition and doing an uncanny take on Bruce Willis’ off-key manner – plays Joe, a mob goon who assassinates people from the future’s future – a ‘looper’. It’s a grubby line of work usually ending with a grim payoff – what’s known as ‘closing the loop’: murdering your future self. Bruce Willis is the older version of Joe who’s determined not to die – and has some ominous information that could change everything.
Looper has at some stage been compared to The Matrix, a comparison stemming from pure laziness on the part of some hack, picked up on by the press team in a move (albeit an understandable one) no doubt designed to get bums on seats. At the risk of sounding pompous, comparing Looper to The Matrix is a bit like comparing a Madlib album to Dr Dre’s Chronic 2001, Grizzly Bear to Mumford and Sons or Fiona Apple to Alanis Morisette. While those comparisons aren’t necessarily formulated to express the relative merit of each film, they do serve to highlight that, despite Looper‘s mass appeal, it’s still pushing for something a little deeper.
If a comparison to a Keanu Reeves science fiction film were to have to be made (oh, go on then!), Looper would probably end up a lot closer to A Scanner Darkly – which took the novel approach of sorting out Reeves’ acting by turning him into a cartoon. A Scanner Darkly was also, it should be remembered, a film that was misunderstood in a lot of quarters – a fate that seems entirely possible for this film if audiences go into it expecting the kind of depressing bangs-whizzes-and-relentless-gun-battle fare that has become the norm since The Matrix ‘changed the game’ (ruined everything), and Christopher Nolan ‘changed the game’ (added a snow level).
This film’s refreshing difference lies in its concern, not in plot information factoid overkill, but the human element of the tale. It’s very much a character-driven story, and the acting and casting are superb. To list the great performances in this film would be pointless, as they’re all pretty flawless, but a special mention should go to young star Pierce Gagnon who is terrifying as Cid, a preternaturally mature child that Joe comes across in the course of his journey.
As in his debut Brick, which cleverly subverted the conventions of film-noir, Johnson simply uses the science-fiction genre as a way of exploring themes that interest him – memory, fate and consequence. The clever move he makes is to have the film breeze over its concept (setting out its sci-fi stall, so to speak) in the opening few minutes. In this way, Johnson dispels the impulse to pick the story to pieces. Either you take it or leave it.
In some senses Looper has the makings of a slick film aiming at a bigger target audience than Johnson’s previous efforts – but as a writer/director he also isn’t afraid to take the leftfield option at the risk of showing a rougher edge. It’s far from perfect, and at times experiences something of a lack of coherent movement between acts, but in taking more risks it rewards the viewer with a richly emotional and thoughtful centre.
Unlike some genre staples, it doesn’t make a song and dance over instances of directorial inventiveness, of which there are many. It’s playful, rather than po-faced. It has no cartoonishly alluring latex-clad sex-token girl-trope cartwheeling about the place – although Emily Blunt’s single mum is a subversive nod to the type and does simultaneously function as a love interest for Gordon-Levitt’s character. The action sequences are muted and interesting rather than bombastic. Its tone is nuanced between light and dark and (like Duncan Jones’ 2011 Source Code) it doesn’t simply rely on a dark, gritty colour palette to make it feel weighty.
In the end Looper’s smartness lies deeper than some smug pseudo-philosophical meditations. It also doesn’t literally end on a shot of the main protagonist flying away like superman to a Rage Against the Machine tub-thumper – all wise moves on balance, when the idea is to get some brainboxes working, rather than a monster truckload of fifteen year-old boys’ throbbers pulsing.
Looper is in cinemas from Fri 28 September. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
These are the words uttered by David Siegel, ‘The Timeshare King’, gazing off into the middle distance as he pictures his dream house: a sprawling bomb-blast of nouveau riche pomp and bombast. It’s a taste abomination that could only have been conceived in the peculiar vacuum of imagination opened in the heads of the Babyboomers by the day-glo visions of that liar Disney and his tepid concept of romance, aspirational living and happy endings. It’s a particular version of an even greater mistruth: the infamous ‘American Dream’ (Happy Endings R’ Us), which stipulates that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they work hard, play hard and consume consume consume.
After a pause it’s clear that nothing else is coming. David Siegel’s head is pleasantly empty. The words hang in the air, a grandiose sentiment that Siegel is able to start but powerless to finish. He’s clearly bamboozled by this sudden reminder of words’ flightiness; he doesn’t wield the same influence over mock-poetic language as he does over people and things. There’s a hint of impotent desperation somewhere behind his eyes as he glances furtively at the camera, as though on some level he’s aware of playing a part – that of himself – and has no desire to be playing it.
Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a cheekily-edited documentary charting the epic fall from grace (American grace – ie. wealth) of one of America’s richest entrepreneurs, his extravagent wife Jackie (the ‘Queen’ of the title), and their large family of children, maids and pets is a good film that could have been great, but falls victim to that same need for tidy allegory that demands there be such things as happy endings. In this case the ‘happy’ ending is the moral ending – where David is shown the error of his greedy materialist ways by the advent of a crisis beyond his control. From unintentionally hilarious characters having not a care in the world, the impact of ‘The Crash’ both humbles and humanises the Siegels, bringing them to the level of ordinary people like you or I.
We watch with a certain glee as bumbling David and former beauty queen Jackie are forced to ‘adjust’ to a life within reason – a life without a private jet, without a team of housekeepers, without continuous spending on frivolous items (which Jackie, in a constant rapture of materialist desire, continues to do). Cleverly, Greenfield uses interviews with the Filipino maids, Jackie’s adopted daughter and David’s estranged son, as well as various other interconnected characters to create a rich tapestry of opinion and experience that acts as a commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the couples’ life as they go from oblivious (with some moments so ludicrous they might have been scripted by Christopher Guest) to humbled, emotionally vulnerable and relatable. The building of their personal palace is put on hold as David struggles to hold things together, a fittingly symbolic state of affairs mirroring the struggle of ordinary Americans.
Except, of course, their lives aren’t the lives of ordinary Americans. What is shown but not explicitly commented upon is that, despite their apparent poverty (see the dog shit on the carpets, the dying pets left to starve in the absence of maids) Jackie continues to spend sums that most people could only dream of. What is not shown (Greenfield deliberately chose to cease filming at a point of financial uncertainty for the family) is that just after the events depicted David managed to turn things around. He’s now happily ripping people off with crappy timeshare apartments in much the same way as he was before. In humanising them, Greenfield defends the Siegels as much as she mocks them. They clearly don’t want or need her validation; the added irony being that David Siegel, in addition to resuming work on Versailles, is now suing for defamation of character– two rampantly egotistical moves that conveniently sum up the total lack of perspective he was supposed to have gained according to the film’s narrative.
Greenfield has said in interviews that she chose not to continue filming to leave the film as ‘a parable’, which, as a natural fan of this film, was incredibly disappointing to hear; I had felt that this was an important piece of work, something that should be shown to the Trumps, Camerons and Osbournes, Romneys, Sugars and Greenes – all the posh boys and self-made men who don’t give two shits about the people they left behind or never knew. I can’t help but feel that consciously leaving something so important out undermines the strength of the argument, rendering a great deal of meaning the film might have had void.
Having said all that, The Queen of Versailles is still very much worth a watch, especially for the unintentional comedy of the opening half hour. Greenfield has been called a sociological photographer for her work in stills – as director she acts very much like the arch sociologist, crowbarring meaning onto situations and events that don’t necessarily have inherent meaning, to portray the world in the light she’s clearly already decided she wants it to be seen. Is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it honest? Not really.
The Queen of Versailles is in cinemas now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
That hallowed phrase among artists, with all its implied images of a cat-suited Andy Warhol abseiling down a skyscraper with a massive ruby in his pocket (don’t drop it Andy!), has many incarnations. It has more incarnations than Buddah, Vishnu and Bob all rolled into one. More incarnations than Bowie. So many of the great and good have voiced the sentiment that it might as well be taken as a given that your favourite creative type has had a bash at personalising it at some point. But what is the nature of stealing here, as opposed to borrowing?
Jaunty, dynamic, cacophonic; bustling with movement and filled to the brim with ridiculous, insane life: more caper than documentary, F for Fake, Orson Welles’ final film, about ‘hanky panky men’ in the Art World™ is a strange and delightful oddity that was itself partly stolen. Directly, that is, from another film-maker François Reichenbach. It incorporates document, fiction and a shred of biography. It’s been called an essay in a film (a Fessay? An Essilm?). It’s uncompromisingly playful, but nonetheless leaves you questioning it on a serious level.
True to form, it indulges in its fair share of trickery, misdirection and mischief. It delights in its style, which seems to be most every style (including some new ones). You can imagine the sphere of its influence stretching from Wes Anderson to Eurotrash television. The question it asks about fraud, the question at the heart of the film (and mirrored by questions about the film’s own authenticity), is a mind-boggling one: fake or real – what does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?
For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are three men and two women: the infamous international art forger Elmyr de Hory, his ‘biographer’ Clifford Irving, Irving’s wife Edith Sommer and the actress Oja Kodar. And Welles himself. All come together on the quiet island of Ibiza in a pill-popping Manumission frenzy in a true-life tale of fraud (even involving Welles favourite Howard Hughs) that’s far stranger than most fiction.
Elmyr De Hory was pretty good at copying famous artists. In fact, for ‘pretty good’ substitute ‘totally impeccable’. That is to say no-one, not collectors, nor experts, on occasion not even the artist themselves, could discern the difference. His forgeries appeared (and appear, apparently) in numerous major art collections – making a mockery of the idea that the so-called authorities know anything much at all and, in turn, pulling the rug out from under the idea of an ‘art market’, that is: a market where art is assigned a monetary value (and hence a value in terms of merit) as though it had intrinsic or inherent value. De Hory, as it transpires, isn’t the only faker in this drama, with all of the above-mentioned players getting in on the act.
Strangely, and by pure coincidence, I’d watched ‘The Banksy film’ Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time the night before the F for Fake screening. These two films serve as different answers to the same question – or, it might be better to say, two questions that hint at even bigger questions. In opposition to this fake documentary (is it?) about a man who produces fakes as a means of undermining the Art World™, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary (is it?) about a man faking his way into the Art World™ with fake art, whilst seemingly believing what he’s doing wholeheartedly. There is one crucial difference: De Hory produces forgeries. Thierry Guetta, or Mr Brainwash as he came to be known, produces ‘originals’ that are entirely – mind-fuckingly – derivative (and of course Madonna commissioned Guetta to design her last Greatest Hits album cover).
They are each ‘stealing’ without stealing, borrowing for different reasons – and (strange to say, especially about the idiot-savant Guetta) they’re each indisputably a genius in their own right – De Hory at being someone else, Guetta pretending to be himself, through the lens of other people.
If you’re into Orson Welles, good stories, strange facts, Exit Through the Gift Shop or have even a passing interest in art, I’d highly recommend catching this underrated little gem (oh, Andy!) while it’s on at the BFI.