From 28 August to 6 September, I was present at the 70th Venice International Film Festival. I had a great time, it didn’t rain much, I ate a bit too much pizza, and I murdered lots of mosquitoes with one of these. I also saw lots of films and wrote about them. Since a few of you have asked me for recommendations on what I saw, I thought I’d bring together all of my coverage in one place. Enjoy:
Is Blackfish a film with a message but no meaning, or a film with a meaning but no message?
Although it’s not immediately obvious which of these dubious honours it might have garnered, the result is certainly not particularly impressive. Bursting with information, it singularly fails to cohere – a weak sum of potentially strong, individually compelling parts. You suspect that, had there been anyone on board with the same amount of passion for the subject as the makers of, say, 2009’s The Cove[Louie Psihoyos’ angry interrogation of Japan’s dolphin hunting culture], the result might have been a very different kettle of whale.
The purported subject of this mixed bag is Tilikum, resident of SeaWorld in Orlando Florida, the largest Orca in captivity and to this date responsible (depending on one’s definition of responsibility) for the deaths of at least three people. Through a combination of historical footage, interviews and data, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite attempts to profile Tilikum both as individual and in the wider context of ‘the industry’ of whale-based amusement parts, from shady, frontier-like beginnings in the 1970s to the current SeaWorld-dominated landscape.
As a spin on the typical documentary format, Tilikum’s story is covertly presented as a kind of murder mystery/court case. It’s an unnecessary piece of directorial artifice, and the noose by which the film hangs itself. Cowperthwaite is a weak prosecutor, unable (or unwilling) to take a position beyond some bland notion of ‘objectivity’. In this context, the form is pointless; a purely superficial touch.
Cowperthwaite is a veteran of a particular breed of televisual documentaries, having worked for some of the big names (National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN, The Discovery Channel) in the past. There’s something in her style that’s vaguely, uneasily, reminiscent of the parades of cable TV documentaries you might flick through at hotel stopovers. There’s an indistinct impression of disinterest in the way she approaches the subject matter; some mercenary element that’s more focused on presentation and graphics than content. This commitment to superficiality imbues some weak information with too much significance, and sucks the life out of the stronger material.
While the film is happy to (rightly) suggest SeaWorld is to blame for a lack of compassion and common sense in relation to the treatment of its water-bound behemoths, the question of motivations is never explored. In an identikit series of inane interviews with wide-eyed former trainers, Cowperwaithe steadfastly refuses to pin any of them down on where exactly they think they might fit into the tragic picture as a whole.
Bar one square-headed nutter who, employing a logic that’s so perverse it’s almost laudable, tries to claim that whales performing like trained dogs for crowds of baying humans constitutes man honouring nature, one after another of these former SeaWorld devotees spit near-identical repentant/outraged tidbits. As though the goons in a fallen dictatorship had been given the platform on which to absolve themselves, Cowperwaithe presents this parade of disembodied characters spilling words and tears, tears and words – as though there was no inherent value in making sure any of it was honest.
Of all the individuals interviewed, the one who emerges from the film with the most credit is the rather brilliantly named Dave Duffus, an expert witness for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the case brought by the US government against SeaWorld’s working conditions after the last of Tilikum’s ‘accidents’. Duffus’ clear respect for Orca whales and his palpable anger at the whole sorry business transcends Cowperthwaithe’s lame ‘neutrality’. Oddly, it also means that, amid the confusion, he stands out in the film to a degree that makes him feel more central than Tilikum.
As a piece of documentary filmmaking I’m pretty sure it is, if not a total failure, then at least a weak specimen of the genre. On the other hand, the agenda it has little or no interest in using its scattergun stack of information to fully support is one that a lot of the people who will end up seeing it already subscribe to: that keeping animals in a state of captivity is inhumane. As one of these viewers it’s a challenge to know how to react. Your instinct is to agree, but something makes you hesitate. It’s like watching Bono preaching about the plight of children in Africa, but with the nagging suspicion he bought an extra first class seat on the plane for his hat.
It’s confusing, painful to watch, when someone with no clear view of which field they’d rather be in positively hurls themselves onto the fence in the apparent name of objectivity, writhing around for an hour and a half before ascending to that beige heaven reserved solely for those who were pure enough to desire purgatory. SeaWorld representatives, naturally, declined to be interviewed for the film. Given the all-forgiving tolerance of the interviews here, they might now be feeling that they missed a trick.
“The terrain is strewn with ideological rubble, and it’s there to be fought over.” – Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
When the sweet, feel-good The Angel’s Share was released in 2012, critics all asked – where has Britain’s foremost firebrand and social realist gone, at a time when we most need him? Well, he’s returned. Well and truly.
Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 is a wonderful, unremitting archival documentary that steadfastly refuses to sit on the fence. What are we doing?, it asks. What next? Bold, political and polemical, it dares to make an explicit case for change, reminding us of a time in the not-too-distant past when a set of ideals helped build a welfare state which many of us now take for granted as it is insidiously dismantled while we look the other way, distracted by one-eyed dancing mascots and an old woman in the rain.
The Spirit of ’45 grabs our attention. It raids the riches of the British archives and reconstructs a narrative, which – if selective – is nonetheless compelling: The post-war election, the rise of the labour party, Churchill’s decline and Attlee’s exciting rise to power, the nationalisation of utilities and major industry, the beginnings of a truly socialist Labour party manifesto. It goes on. Figures clouded in public memory are re-animated, the most moving being Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, the health minister who championed the working classes in the post-war years. Cut with interviews with retired doctors, economists, Tony Benn (a category of his own), miners, dockers, steel workers – all of whom witnessed the seemingly tectonic social changes of the ‘40s– Loach mines the archives of a British social conscience now obscured by neoliberal rhetoric.
It is, of course, a re-dreaming of post-war British public space, but in its nostalgia the film prompts us to discover what shared future we’ve lost. As an old steel-worker describes the council housing he was given after the war, and quotes from the Labour party manifesto appear onscreen, declaring that public space for culture and education should be integrated into the new estates, Loach prompts us to ask; if this was possible in the ruins of the great war, what fallacies have led us into this age of austerity? What ideology dressed up as pragmatism have we believed (or been too inert protest against) that has led us to see police battering students over education, deep cuts to welfare, and public spaces and institutions being treated like businesses, when any cretin can see that the logic of business and capital is a broken, vicious ill to society.
Some critics will call the film propagandist (for example), which it undoubtedly is. But it couldn’t be anything other, for as Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “it is impossible to conceive or fascism of Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it”. The Spirit of ’45 – a socialist, collectivist spirit – can only be presented now in these terms, because capitalism is the all-pervasive norm. Despite an astronomic crash in 2008, and as countries in the EU fall, one by one, our policymakers and politicians blindly lead us further into the mire. Loach’s film dares to expose this as pure ideology, not simply the sorry necessity of the status quo, and for this the film should be celebrated, and beamed to every home in the country.
Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance. The Spirit of ’45 is released in cinemas 15 March by Dogwoof.
“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.
You may have never seen ballroom dancing in person, but you’ve probably seen Strictly Come Dancing (or Dancing with the Stars, if you’re in the US) and noticed that it’s actually really difficult. In addition to remembering all the steps, you’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to make it look meaningful, and you’ve got to trust your dancing partner. Ballroom Dancer is a documentary about a professional duo, Slavik Kryklyvyy (go on, say it) and Anna Melnikova, struggling with all the aforementioned things, under enormous pressure – they’ve just gotten romantically involved with each other, and this is Slavik’s last chance at a comeback after ten years out of contention.
Slavik reminds me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish footballer – yes, they’re both of Eastern European descent and happen to wear their long dark hair slicked back into a knot, but they both have an intense, virtuosic charisma about them, possibly informed by their martial arts training. Slavik lives and breathes dance, an exacting perfectionist about his craft; but at 34, he’s intent on proving that he’s not past his prime. Anna is younger and certainly in her prime, as the current amateur Latin champion; she’s formidable yet vulnerable, and struggles to cope with Slavik’s anxieties and dominance of their relationship.
Their romantic and professional partnership is the centre of the film, slanted towards the perspective of Slavik. We often see the two in their hotel room hanging out in addition to seeing them during rehearsals and competitions, so we can observe their chemistry and communication candidly, on and off the dance floor. We come to know their individual personalities through observing their separate physical and mental preparations for competitions; Slavik pushes himself to breaking point, while Anna seems to be more circumspect. Their egos clash constantly, and we see them striving to negotiate between their individual needs and the needs of their partnership. Anna exasperatingly comments during one argument that if you don’t want to deal with partners or emotion, ballet rather than Latin would be a better fit.
The film is an intimate portrait of the couple, going far beyond the usual fly-on-the-wall perspective of documentaries to construct a character-driven narrative. We’ve got Big Brother-like access to their lives, augmented by the candid reflections shared with their coaches and trainers (so there’s no need for anyone to speak directly to camera). The Danish directors, Andreas Koefoed and Christian Bonke, say the film was ‘shot as cinema verite but [was] edited like fiction’ and indeed, while watching Ballroom Dancer, it’s almost surreal to think that there was no script, that these are real people and this actually happened between them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re both attractive and emotive, like hired actors, but it’s the authenticity of their story that’s so compelling – this isn’t light, Dirty Dancing-like fare. Ballroom Dancer’s brutally honest depiction of a couple’s struggles is refreshing to see onscreen, whether you like ballroom dancing or not.
Ballroom Dancer is out in selected cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
There seems to have been a developing trend in year-end film lists for the listmaker to casually drop a self-deprecating reference to the sheer arbitrariness of the task they’re engaging with. Well, I just enjoy making lists, and to paraphrase 90’s pop favourites The Cranberries, everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I? My ambitions for the list are fairly modest: that a) it might provoke a bit of discussion, and b) it might inspire people to go out and catch some good films they may have missed.
For consistency’s sake (and to couch the list in some kind of context), I’ve only selected films that were released in the UK in the calendar year 2012. This means there’s no place for some fare I greatly enjoyed at festivals, including Pablo Larraín’s astonishing docudrama No, Adam Leon’s sprightly New York fable Gimme The Loot, Ken Burns’ riveting documentary The Central Park Five, or Ashim Ahluwalia’s gloriously seedy Miss Lovely, all of which should (or definitely will, in No and Gimme The Loot’s cases) hit UK screens in 2013.
Here, then, is the Top 10, in alphabetical (not numerical: that taxonomic task was too tough) order.
Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
Austrian director Haneke (who “took to Twitter” this year with hilarious results), produced two truly outstanding performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant for this stately study of the devastating effects of dementia on an elderly, close-knit couple. It didn’t necessarily say anything overtly profound, but it was profoundly moving, not least because the two actors so fearlessly confronted issues that, owing to their advanced age, they would surely be dealing with when the cameras stopped rolling. Regardless of how Haneke’s exactitude made one feel on a moral level (Riva has a truly upsetting nude scene), it made for searing drama.
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Barbara (dir., Christian Petzold)
Petzold’s slow-burning drama about a nurse plotting her escape from banal early 80s East Germany was a fascinating, beautifully composed character study which had me hooked from minute one. In the title role, Nina Hoss was extraordinary. Her surface coldness was a vivid semi-subversion of the passion, fear and political courage that bubbled underneath. When her character eventually thawed, the monumental rush of relief and excitement I felt was testament to the poise and the sublime technical control of her performance. All that said, I also really enjoyed Andrew Tracy’s perceptive, skeptical review in the ever excellent Reverse Shot magazine.
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Bill Cunningham New York (dir., Richard Press) | full review
My favourite doc of the year profiled the octogenarian, workaholic New York Times photographer in breezy, joyous style. Likeable, eccentric, talented and ultimately unknowable, Cunningham was the perfect subject. As I gushed at the time, “[BCNY is] not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.” I also said, “It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.” So there we go.
Like Barbara, Markovics’ initially austere (and very well-acted) directorial debut crept up on me, possessing an unexpected power. Focusing on the rehabilitation and subsequent growth into manhood of a 19-year-old offender, it was a real slow-burner about a tough subject that somehow managed to end up genuinely uplifting rather than depressing. Though such a comparison may seem a tad arbitrary, I much preferred it to the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike, which struck me as far more overdetermined, protracted and fantastical than many of its more effusive cheerleaders had suggested.
Moment for moment, Carax’s Holy Motors was the most fun I had in the cinema this year. Following a day in the life of mysterious everyman (and he really is every man) Mr. Oscar, played by chameleonic superstar Denis Lavant, it was an episodic, unpredictable and dazzling tragicomedy packed with bizarre jokes, berserk stylistic diversions, and myriad loving cinematic references. Above and beyond the craziness, the film hit me on a gut level. I saw a brave self-portrait of a filmmaker self-reflexively admitting the absolute folly of striving to present “reality” onscreen. And, most heartbreakingly of all, I saw, in Mr. Oscar, a deeply moving portrayal of the exhausting, crippling effect of the various roles which we (the human race – I’m aiming high here, folks) force ourselves to play, over and over again, on a daily basis. Oh man, and those chimps at the end: was there a more bittersweet moment at the movies this year?
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Keep The Lights On (dir., Ira Sachs)
No film swam around my head this year like Ira Sachs’ elliptical, New York-set drama. Focusing on a long, doomed relationship between a sensitive documentary filmmaker and a drug addicted lawyer, the semi-autobiographical KTLO was marked by fiercely unguarded performances, gorgeous cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis, and extensive use of the woozy music of late musician Arthur Russell. Not only that, with its plot thread about late queer artist Avery Willard (not to mention its championing of Russell), it actively looked to celebrate and excavate a particular section of American subcultural history. A deep, warm, discomfiting nightmare dream of a film.
Evil has a voice, and it sounds a lot like veteran director William Friedkin collaborating with playwright Tracy Letts for a second time. And guess what, evil’s a whole lot of fun too. This rollicking redneck neo-noir pushed the boundaries of taste (just ask Colonel Sanders), and provided Matthew McConaughey (an actor for whom I’ve never – Dazed and Confused aside – had much time for) with his greatest role to date. Rough, sexy and surprising, Killer Joe was the best thriller of the year. In the interests of full disclosure, I also got off on quite how much it seemed to piss people off, too.
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Magic Mike (dir., Steven Soderbergh)
Despite a marketing campaign which did its level best to make it as difficult as possible for the heterosexual male to walk up and buy a ticket, Magic Mike emerged as one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year. Expertly helmed by the redoubtable Steven Soderbergh,it was a hazily (and gloriously) shot Floridian tale which balanced a keen view of contemporary economics with a host of cutely quoted influences, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights to John Cassavetes’ fondly sleazy The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Channing Tatum was great in the lead role, and McConaughey (again; who’d a thunk it?) shone in a flashy supporting role as Dallas, the oiled-up, stripping patriarch.
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Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (dir., Nuri Bilge Ceylan) | feature
Boringly thrilling? Or thrillingly boring? Either way, Ceylan delivered a cinematic oxymoron of rare depth and panache with this rich, long and deeply atmospheric procedural. When it finished, I genuinely felt like I’d been locked in the cinema all night with the film’s cast of exhausted, devastated characters. Existential malaise never tasted so good.
The surprise of the year, for me. After the crushing disappointment of the second half of Wheatley’s sophomore feature Kill List, my expectations for this black comedy were low. But what began as a cute riff on Martin McDonagh’s play ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ swiftly turned into something much richer and darker. Sightseers was a merciless excavation of the murkily unpalatable underbelly of the British national character, filtered through a host of key tropes from the history of classic passive-aggressive British TV comedy. What’s more, all of this venom was set against Laurie Rose’s exceptional cinematography, which highlighted England’s natural beauty like few films have deigned to do. It stayed in my head for days afterward.
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There were a few films painfully close to squeezing into my top 10. One was Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s “non-narrative, non-verbal 65mm journey” Samsara, which made me feel like I was flying at the time, but wore off fairly quickly afterward. Another film whose lasting effects didn’t quite match up to the visceral experience of watching it was Gareth Evans’ gripping (and absurdly violent) martial arts cracker The Raid (full review). The seediest film I saw this year was Beauty, Oliver Hermanus’ exquisitely composed and extremely disturbing tale of illicit obsession in contemporary South Africa.
I also really enjoyed a couple of big blockbusters (I’m only a preening arthouse dilettante for some of the time); Sam Mendes’ Skyfall had the lot: a good story, some great stunts, truly beautiful cinematography (kudos Roger Deakins) and, in Javier Bardem, a genuinely brilliant villain. Seeing it at a full-to-bursting public screening on its seventh (!) week of release underlined the extent to which this Bond bonanza was ‘event’ cinema at its best. I was also taken with Avengers Assemble; chaotic, overlong and in-jokey for sure, but also a hell of a lot of fun which possessed a keen sense of its own ridiculousness. It made me laugh like a drain on more than one occasion.
On the other side of the ‘fun spectrum’, Steve McQueen’s Shame, which sent me into paroxysms of praise at last year’s London Film Festival, cooled on me like few films in recent memory, not least in response to a discussion with my wife about the film’s questionable sexual politics. Her excellent piece on that theme, ‘Shame and Gender’, can be read here. Oh, and despite Mark Cousins’ pretty bizarre rant (I like him normally), I enjoyed Argo lotstoo.
2012 was also an excellent year for documentaries; I greatly enjoyed Malik Bendjelloul’s revelatory musical excavation piece Searching for Sugarman, and was very moved by Call Me Kuchu, a sensitive and shocking study of the day-to-day lives of brave LGBT campaigners in Uganda. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis was a powerfully made and propulsive dissection of a grim failure of US justice, but let itself down by indulging in some of the formal shock tactics it decried its villains (the West Memphis Three prosecutors) for using. Finally, though it was no doubt an acquired taste (you had to buy into the myth of LCD Soundsystem as one of the modern titans of popular music to swallow its precious combination of hushed reverence and relentless solipsism), I was ultimately seduced by Shut Up And Play The Hits.
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There were a handful of films – very highly rated by people whose opinions I generally trust – that I never got round to seeing. These included: Bela Tarr’s final film The Turin Horse, James Marsh’s Troubles-based thriller Shadow Dancer, Jafar Panahi’s “not a film” This Is Not A Film, performance art doc Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, David Cronenberg’s limo-fest Cosmopolis, and child soldier drama War Witch (which I’m not sure ever actually got/will get a proper theatrical release). I hope to get around to all of these sooner rather than later.
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Thank you for reading. Do pop your head around the door for the second part of our end-of-year round-up, which will be with you shortly.
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.
Now only two weeks away, our screening of Michael Rapaport’s cracking hip hop doc Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest at the Clapham Picturehouse is starting to cause some serious excitement around these parts. Join us on Thursday September 27 for the big event.
You can – and how will you live with yourself if you don’t? – book tickets by following this link. Our last event (a screening of Do The Right Thing) was a sell-out so book now to avoid disappointment.
If you’re on Facebook, you can also use our event pageto tell us you’re coming. Spread the word!
Here’s a running order:
7.30 Join us in the bar for food and drink, soundtracked by classic 90s hip-hop
8.30 Intro and prize giveaway
8.45 Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest starts
10.15 More drinks in the bar!
To whet your appetite further, here’s the lovely event poster; a joint effort between Soda Pictures and designer Piccia Neri.
The Imposter is a thought-provoking new documentary based on the bizarre true story of a Frenchman who convinced a grieving Texan family that he was their 16-year-old son who been missing for 3 years. I recently met up with the film’s director Bart Layton, and the Private Investigator on the case, Charlie Parker, to find out more about this strange tale and how the film came about.
PPH: How did you guys meet initially, and did you get on?
BL: Well, the person who deserves a great deal of credit for a lot of the access in the film is Poppy Dixon, who’s the co-producer. If you wanted to speak to her, we could happily arrange that. And she went to San Antonio on her own – she’s a young, attractive English woman – and she was there trying to find the family in order to talk to them about possibly collaborating in the film, you know contributing, and also to find Charlie, and of course she found Charlie, and then Charlie helped her, because being a private investigator, helped her to find other people that we were looking for to be part of the film. She spent a long time just doing her own detective work, didn’t she?
CP: She did; she did a great job.
BL: And Charlie was incredibly helpful. And then I came out and we met…
This was a few months after?
BL: Yeah, this was a few months after she arranged it. And I came out and met with Charlie, and we hit it off straight away.
CP: I had seen a lot of people ask about the case, and he’s really believable. And he got me from hello, from the start. So it helped.
How did it feel for you, to go back to this story, being such a big part of your life at a particular time?
CP: It’s an unusual feeling, to go back and see Frédéric [Bourdin, the Imposter of the title] again. Our relationship was a strange one, and to see him on the screen and see how frightening he is…
What was it about the case that provoked you to feel so passionately about it?
CP: No one would believe me, and I think when you feel that you’re in the right, even if someone’s beating you up, you know that eventually it’ll be told right. So you take that stand, and it’s like a cause, it’s like a fight for a cause.
And you were isolated in that cause for how long?
CP: For… months. Even from my own wife! Who wanted me to work, get out and make some money, quit worrying about that guy. And I was thunderstruck when Hard Copy, the people that hired me, told me “forget about it, go on to the next thing”.
Between the two of you, what did you think the case says about the American Dream? Because it comes up at some points, the idea that this guy came over and he mentioned the American Dream? Does that mean anything to you guys in relation to this case?
CP: No, except that it’s going to be the American Dream and going to this movie that’ll probably help us find the real Nicholas Barclay. Somebody out there watching this movie will have heard something or know something. Just the fact that it grabs people, and gets a hold of them and mesmerises them is a big help.
BL: I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one – I think you’re only aware of it if you’re not a part of it. If you’re not an inhabitant of the US – it’s part of the psyche there. I think with Frédéric, what America represented to him was everything he’d seen on TV, everything that he’d seen in the movies. I think there’s this moment when he gets on a yellow school bus – it’s pretty commonplace to these guys, but for us it’s kind of an icon of America. At times it felt like he was playing a role in his own strange movie that he was creating for himself. And I guess he talked about America as the home of Michael Jackson and Kojak and all of those TV shows.
So Bart, as a Brit, do you have a fascination with Americana, because the film has a quite Errol Morris-esque and film-noirsh element to it – was that something that informed you making it?
BL: Yeah I think so – I certainly felt that there was something about this story and about this documentary that feels like it shouldn’t belong in the real world; you know, it should belong in a Coen brothers’ film. And I think because of that, because it had this cinematic quality to it, I was keen to find a kind of visual language which would do justice to the kind of surreal, at times, story which has one foot firmly in reality because, as Charlie says, he lived it. But it also feels like the character, Frédéric, could say that, do that in a movie. Those kind of shots that I shot of the school corridor and all of those things that we’ve all seen in those movies felt like they belonged in this kind of strange hybrid world.
And that really comes through in the film. Charlie, to what extent did you enjoy being in front of the camera? You provide some of the film’s most memorable moments.
CP: I was being myself. I was actually surprised when people laughed. I actually thought it was sophisticated to examine the ears, didn’t know that about ears… but people found that humorous. And nobody Photoshopped – young guys have used that for years, and back then nobody did. Lots of law enforcement people now use that to look at crime scenes. But to me, one of the best shots of the film is him walking down, out of that school bus – that was eerie to me – and looking at the people, and in the room with the orphans. That was a great shot for me.
And to what extent did the two of you develop a bond with the Barclays?
BL: Charlie’s relationship with them is obviously completely different. I think my relationship with them was… anyone you spend time with as a contributor, you tend to, I… Generally our nature – this is borne out – our nature as human beings is that we tend to believe people. We tend to see what’s best in them. If you’re confronted by a damaged child, you don’t question their mind to you – this is something he [Frédéric] relies on. I think most of the people you’re confronted with, you believe the story they tell. And I certainly believed everyone’s story, even though they were all completely implausible. And I think that’s one of the things that..
CP: I think in fairness to that family, the grandmother, Bourdin called the grandmother, made a 94 minute phone call and pumped her for information to tell the family. I bonded with them, even though I was accusatory at the beginning; Beverly still talks to me, I talked to Carey the other day. My job was to find out what happened to that boy. In my mind, that’s my job. And I think they were so fooled by him, that were they the perpetrator, he still got to them. He has a way of getting into someone’s head. I think the young kids liked him because there’s a vampire effect to him. I think older people like him because there’s a Criminal Minds thing to the show. This is the kind of movie that the old people like it, they know people like it. Strange, strange thing.
Have you, in all your years as a PI, worked on a case as strange as this?
CP: No, I haven’t. I believe he’ll do it again. I don’t care if he has a family, what he has – he will probably do it again. He’ll be an older person, and he’ll pretend to be someone else, but…
It’s a compulsion thing.
CP: I think fooling people, the challenge…
Do you see yourself going back to him as the subject? You couldn’t bring yourself to do it, or…?
BL: No. I feel like at the beginning I possibly wondered whether this was his story. What the film was going to be – was it going to be about the imposter and was it going to be really limited to his story. But I felt that actually he was the way into another bigger story which was really about not just about deception, but about self-deception. It becomes more of a human story, it becomes bigger than just his story. Even though I’m sure he’d like to think the whole film is about him, I don’t think it is – I think it’s about other things: what we chose to believe, what we’re capable of convincing ourselves of. But no, I wouldn’t go back; that bit of that story is done.
Charlie, are you a big film fan, and if so, what kind of stuff are you into?
CP: Actually my wife and I went to see Bernie – we like that – and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And I’m really not into criminal shows, like Criminal Minds, I never watch that. But a lot of people do. When I left that theatre with my wife [to see The Imposter], we were talking about that case! It so grabs you. It’s the only movie I’ve been to where no one spoke during the movie! No cell phones went off in that movie. I mean, it was quiet and they were on the edge of their seats – I bet you got that same feeling.
A version of this interview first appeared on Grolsch Film Works. The Imposter is in cinemas from Fri 24 Aug.