5-Word At EIFF 2012 – Leave It On The Track

I was out and about doing a few interviews today at the festival, so I only got the chance to watch one film. Don’t worry though; I chose wisely. In case it isn’t already obvious by now, I’m putting my usual theme weekends on hold for a couple of weeks, as my schedule is pretty much dependent on the vagaries of the festival organisers. Or in shorter words: no kids film today. Sorry.

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5-Word 365 #084 – Tyson: The Movie

I thought I’d try something new today. I’ve been having trouble with my voice for the past few months, but I discovered yesterday that it’s not so bad when I’m drinking (there’s a pint of rum and coke just out of the shot here, and a couple of packets of Lockets). I wonder if the bosses will let me have rum at my desk…

Tyson: The Movie

Can’t be bothered typing today.

Ironically, I decided to do this because I figured it would be quicker, but in the time it took to upload the clip I probably could have written about 500 words. Oh well. You live and learn, I suppose.

Sorry for the background noise too; that’s the washing machine.

Tyson: The Movie – Video review

5-Word 365 #077 – Food, Inc.

It’s Saturday again! It is also St. Patrick’s Day and, being a native of the Emerald Isle, I have a legal obligation to get hammered today. I’m not kidding. There’s actually a law. But before we get to the drinking, let’s talk about the eating.

Food, Inc.

I’ll never eat in America.

Robert Kenner’s film examines the pervasiveness of Big Agriculture in America, and how it affects the production of the food products – both animal and vegetable – that are made available to the consumers, as well as illustrating the lengths these corporations will go to to maintain their growing market shares.

Holy shit! That was terrifying. This film may have accomplished the unthinkable: it might just have changed my eating habits. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all weird and vegetarian or any of that nonsense, but I am definitely going to be more circumspect about what I eat and where it comes from. There is one of those city farm things near my flat. I mean really near my flat. I’m looking out my bedroom window right now and I can see goats and a pony named Bob. Their damn rooster wakes me up at 5am every morning in the summer. The point of this digression is that they have a garden where they grow some fruit and veg and they sell this stuff, and after watching this movie I will probably be giving them a lot more of my business. Yes that’s right. I do eat vegetables sometimes.

But back to the film… Food, Inc.’s three-act structure is devoted to looking at each of three sections of the core issue: Act one is all about meat production and standards of animal welfare. This is certainly the most emotional section of the film and is designed to get people’s backs up. In that goal it succeeds admirably. With TV chefs like Jamie Oliver fighting the good fight, as well as other books and documentaries raising awareness, none of this is really new but is presented very effectively none the less. Act two focuses on grains and vegetables, and how corn has become the dominant crop on the face of the planet, its uses myriad and often mysterious. The third and, frankly, the scariest act examines the legal minefield that has sprung up as these corporations lobby the lawmakers to create statutes that protect them from even such things as criticism and disclosure at the expense of the small farmers and the surrounding industry. The story of Moe Parr’s battle against the monster that is Monsanto (please don’t sue me) is both sobering and very, very unsettling. I love the “revolving door” segment as well, showing the various members of the Clinton and Bush administrations who have moved from these corporations into such agencies as the FDA and the EPA (who allegedly ‘govern’ them) and back. So much for impartiality.

It is now 11:47pm and I am pretty well in the bag. I can’t honestly remember much about the film besides what I’ve already said but I do remember that it was a very well-presented argument that relied more on the weight of the points it was making than on empty and over-excited rhetoric. For that alone, it is to be applauded. I may come back and edit this at some point in the future, but for now just watch it (if you haven’t already).

5-Word 365 #070 – Exit Through The Gift Shop

This film has been dogged by controversy since it’s release. There are those who would say this week’s Saturday Documentary doesn’t count, because it’s not a documentary. Is it real? Is it all a set-up? Is it Banksy taking the piss out of the art world and the poseurs that surround it? Do I give a shit? (Answers below)

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Who cares if it’s real?

Exit Through the Gift Shop claims to be a documentary by the reknowned (and anonymous) street artist Banksy, about a possibly quite mental Frenchman trying to make a documentary about the reknowned (and anonymous) street artist Banksy. Confused? You won’t be. Or maybe you will.

Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant living in LA who is obsessed with filming every aspect of his life. While on holiday with his family in France, he discovers his cousin is the artist known as ‘Space Invader’ who makes small mosaics inspired by the characters from that game and pastes them up around Paris. Thierry seizes this opportunity and starts to follow Invader on his late-night sorties. A few months later, Invader comes to LA to visit Thierry and introduces him to Shepard Fairey – he’s the one who created Obama’s “Hope” poster – who becomes the latest target of Thierry’s camera. While travelling all over the country with Fairey, Thierry becomes more and more enmeshed into the street art culture and tells the artists that he is making a documentary about their secretive scene. As he becomes aware of Banksy, Thierry does everything he can and chases down every lead to get a meeting with the elusive Englishman, to no avail. According to the film, it is only by chance that the two eventually cross paths; Banksy is visiting LA and his usual guide was denied entry into the country. Banksy contacts Fairey for help, who gives up Thierry’s number. Suddenly, out of the blue, Thierry has his man.

The myth, the legend, the sideburns. Thierry Guetta.

Guetta and Banksy soon become inseparable. He spends time in London with Banksy and his team as they work on his art and, ultimately, his show “Barely Legal”. Thierry even accompanies Banksy on his return trip to LA where he placed an inflatable Guantanamo detainee in Disneyland. Eventually though, Banksy asks Thierry to produce this documentary he has spent years filming. This is where the Frenchman runs into trouble. His obsession only extends to the actual capture on tape of what he experiences. Once the tapes are full, he just puts them away in boxes without ever watching them. Suddenly put on the spot, he manages to assemble something (from the clips shown, I can’t even describe it as a film) he calls Life, Remote Control. It is a 90-minute seizure of flash-cuts, electronic music and snippets of speech, every frame of which is seemingly unrelated to its neighbours. Even Banksy himself calls it “unwatchable”. Taking possession of the raw tapes, the artist decides he will make the film himself.

This may be my favourite piece of graffiti ever.

In his introduction at the start of this movie, Banksy tells us that he thought Guetta was more interesting than he was, so he decided to make the film about him instead. The result is the first 60 minutes of Exit. The rest of the flick is about what happens when Guetta has started to get bored of filming others putting up stencils and stickers and decides to try it for himself. Inspired by Banksy’s advice to “put on a little show somewhere” (so that he can get some peace to go through the tapes and try to construct something coherent), Thierry hires out an empty TV studio complex in LA and, rechristening himself Mr. Brainwash (or “MBW”), fills it with his art.

This is Shepard Fairey. This whole thing is mostly his fault in the first place.

Okay, that summary sort of ran away from me a bit. As well as fulfilling the essential purpose of a documentary (“to document”, duh) this film makes you question the truth of that document, particularly in the Mr. Brainwash section. You can’t really doubt the first hour, where Thierry is travelling around filming himself and these various artists, but the last part just makes you wonder. The artwork MBW creates isn’t really created by him at all. He merely hires a bunch of graphic designers and screen-printers and tells them what to do and they mass produce all this stuff. The pieces themselves aren’t even really original or inspired; one of the works seen prominently in the film is a series of pictures of famous faces like Larry King and Spock, but with Marilyn Monroe’s hair and make-up from the famous Warhol portraits. Basic photoshop stuff, really. One of the more believable theories that followed this flick around is that, while Thierry is a real person, MBW is a creation of Banksy himself; that Thierry is playing this part as a live art piece in itself, and that the art MBW displays and sells is Banksy’s big joke on the rich wannabe elitists who will spend a fortune on any old crap if someone else tells them it’s cool. Some people have even come to the conclusion that Guetta actually is Banksy, but that one is going a step too far.

For one thing, there's no way you could hide those sideburns under a hoodie.

Assuming it’s all real for a minute, you could look at the phenomenon of Mr. Brainwash as an examination, even an indictment, of the celebrity culture in our world today. Here is a guy with no artistic training and arguably not much in the way of talent who took the ideas of other artists like Banksy and Fairey and Warhol and essentially ripped them off for himself. He came out with a splash with that first show in LA and has just exploded. But he is big because he announced that he was big. He’s famous because he said he was famous. And now his pieces go for $500,000 at auction. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

West Banksy. (He's in West Bank, and his name's Banksy. Get it?)

So, is it real? Honestly, I don’t know. Like with Catfish, I think it’s better not to know. It makes the film more interesting, in my opinion. The producers Chris King and Jaimie D’Cruz have denied repeatedly that it’s a hoax, claiming that it was a shame the film was being “dismissed” as just a gag. But are those statements not just fuel to the fire? Despite protestations and arguments one way or the other, we may never know for sure. But I don’t think this film should be dismissed. It is a very entertaining look at one man’s obsession and the birth of an artistic movement, all held together by Banksy’s wry presence and a great narration by Rhys Ifans. If that’s all it is, so what?

Answers: Technically, yes. Possibly. Most likely. Not so much.

5-Word 365 #063 – The Bridge

So this is episode five of Documentary Saturday. This week, it’s a film from 2006 that I won’t blame you for not wanting to watch.

The Bridge

I won’t be funny here.

Over the twelve months of 2004, a documentary crew set up their cameras looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge, to capture the last moments of the people who chose to end their lives by jumping into the bay*. The same crew then interviewed the friends and family these people left behind, in order to find out why.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this film. More than any other (except perhaps that one from Serbia), I think this might be the film that will haunt me in the years to come. During the year that Eric Steel and his crew spent filming the bridge, 24 people jumped to their deaths. Of those 24, 23 were caught on the tapes. Those 23 suicides are shown in this 90 minute film. Let me say that again: if you watch this, you will see twenty-three real people committing real suicide. To call this a harrowing experience doesn’t seem quite enough.

In contrast to most of the popular docs being made in the post-Roger and Me era, Steel himself is completely absent from the film. There is no corny animation or any jaunty music stings to try and lighten the tone either. This is an unflinching look at what happens when someone just can’t take it anymore. The interview subjects run the gamut from acceptance, to disbelief, to anger, to guilt but I wonder how many would have agreed to take part had they known beforehand that Steel had filmed their loved ones’ deaths (none of them were told about that footage until later). Some of these people you might choose to vilify for knowing about their loved one’s intentions ahead of time but not stopping it. One woman in particular, Caroline Pressley, when her friend Gene called her to tell her he was going to jump off the bridge, asked him to write her name and phone number and put it in a plastic bag in his pocket so that she would be informed. Should she have notified the authorities herself? Tried harder to talk him out of it? I don’t know. Her friend had been seriously affected by the death of his mother (who Caroline grew up with) among other problems. The point is, the film doesn’t judge these people and I don’t think I should either – with the exception of the woman whose friend admitted he was feeling suicidal and asked if he could come over to her house. She said no because she wanted to be by herself, and never saw him again. Her, I judge.

This shot isn't from the movie, but I just had to put it in here. From skyimagelab.com

Despite the difficult subject matter, this film looks beautiful. As the title character, the Golden Gate has never looked more grand and imposing. It’s almost mythical the way the clouds come roiling off the bay and shroud the entire structure. One shot near the end shows the bridge in a clear moment, with a full rainbow under the span. You can see why people are drawn to this thing, and not just so they can jump off it.

The end credits show that The Bridge was inspired by an article called “Jumpers” that featured in the New Yorker back in 2003. Even if you can’t or won’t watch the film, the article is well worth reading, and available here.

*Apparently, they would contact the bridge’s Highway Patrol contingent if they spotted someone acting iffy. The only suicides caught on tape were ones where the person could not be reached in time, or went over the side before the call could be made. Eric Steel reports they were able to save six people this way.

5-Word 365 #056 – Encounters At The End Of The World

This was probably the easiest day of this week’s little experiment when it came to picking a film. That’s the thing with documentaries: most of them at least loosely fit the “exactly what it says on the tin” requirement. Some less so, of course.

Encounters at the End of the World

More penguins than Werner wanted.

Legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog travels to Antarctica to explore not just the continent itself, but the people who find themselves drawn there. And yes, there are some penguins wandering around too.

The first thing to mention about this film is the sheer beauty of it. Films like this are what hi-def was designed for. This belongs on the biggest screen with the biggest sound system possible. Unfortunately I had to make do with my crappy little 24 incher but while that may have diminished the quality of the images somewhat, it didn’t have much effect on their impact. I have just spent the last 100 minutes in a daze.

You see? I just don't have it in me to be snarky about this.

There isn’t really any narrative point that Herzog is making with this film. The title is entirely literal. He encounters these people and he records what they have to say about who they are, how they got there, and why they do what they do. While they have all kinds of jobs, from plumbers and bus drivers to cell biologists and volcanologists, one thing they have in common is that they probably didn’t really fit in back in the real world. These are the people who see things from a slightly different angle than everyone else. It’s a very endearing kind of crazy, and one that’s seen all too rarely these days.

Like this guy, Stefan Pashov. Part philosopher, part forklift driver, all awesome.

As well as the interviews, there are several sequences where the camera explores this world both above and below the ice. These are the moments that will take your breath away. The images on the screen, combined with the choral music and Herzog’s hypnotic narration, are simply beautiful. At times it feels like you are looking at a whole other planet. I want to call this a mood piece, but I don’t want to sound wanky about it. It is a fantastic film though. I’d put it right up amongst Herzog’s best, both fiction and documentary.

"You sure we're still on Earth?"

5-Word 365 #049 – Waiting For Superman

 Welcome to week three of Documentary Saturday.

Waiting For Superman

The inconvenient truth about education?

Well now, this is powerful stuff. Davis Guggenheim, probably best known for pointing a camera at Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation, here points his camera at America’s broken school system, and the result is both shocking and uplifting at the same time.

First, the shocking: there are a lot of truly frightening statistics flying around this film, including my favourite, apparently 70% of eighth grade children in the States cannot read at grade level. Guggenheim pays particular attention to the issue of tenure, whereby once a teacher achieves this privilege they can effectively not be fired. As the movie says, tenure was originally meant to protect University professors from unfair dismissal on political or some other arbitrary grounds, and it had to be earned after long service and excellent performance. Now, tenure is granted to basically all teachers after two years. The interviewees depicted here all say that this is one of, if not the, main problems with public education in America. Once teachers have this protection, a lot seem to just not bother any more. If you have a guaranteed job for life what does it matter how hard you try? And it seems the teachers unions are the big problem with this. One sequence looks at an attempt by the Washington D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to change the contract with the unions to remove tenure and replace it with performance related pay that could potentially double a teacher’s salary. This prospect was so anathema to the unions that they wouldn’t even ballot their members. In the interests of disclosure, I am a member of the union in my day job. In fact, I am actually a Shop Steward. I believe very strongly in the spirit of Trade Unionism, but I do not believe that someone can stop trying to do a good job just because they can’t be fired, especially if doing so has such a massive knock-on effect. Now I have to say that this is only one side of the story. Guggenheim speaks to plenty of Superintendents (past and present) and other senior administrators, but there is no counter-argument except for a brief clip with the president of one of the two teachers unions, and it is fair to say she is not painted in the most favourable light. The main thrust of Guggenheim’s thesis is that the blame for failing standards is to be laid at the feet of the teachers that are unwilling to try and the unions who protect them from any kind of evaluation process or punitive measures for not doing their jobs.

Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone, and the ostensible star of the movie

Now for the uplifting: to give a face to these statistics, Guggenheim has spent time with five young kids from across the country; kids who want to learn and to excel and to build a good future for themselves, but who have been hampered by geography and finances and are stuck attending schools that aren’t giving them the best shot. They all get entered into the lotteries held by the private charter schools to fill their limited places. Not all of them make it, but to see how much they and their families care is a sight to behold.

Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers union. If this flick has a wicked queen, it's her.

It may be biased, it may even be manipulative, but this film certainly has an argument to make. And it is an argument that America clearly needs to get into.

5-Word 365 #035 – Religulous

This is interesting: Netflix has got loads of documentaries on Instant Watch, and there are enough that I haven’t seen in order to make a new theme day. I can tell you’re all really excited by this. And lo, on this the fourth day of February in the year 2012, I decree that Documentary Saturday will now commence!


I think Bill’s an atheist.

Bill Maher travels the world to meet the true believers, and argue with them.

I’m from the UK. Bill Maher isn’t really known over here except among people who go out of their way to follow American pop culture and politics, and the cross-over between the two. But me, well, I’ve seen Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death* and a few clips of Politically Incorrect on YouTube so I’m just vaguely familiar with him. I was surprised by how vehement he is towards religion though, although the outward depiction of that strength of feeling is tempered by his comedy. Comedy. That seems to be the one unifying characteristic in all the people Bill speaks to in the film (with one notable exception): a complete lack of a sense of humour. I find it worrying when a person has something in their life that they cannot laugh about.

This man claims to be an actual descendent - and thus the Second Coming - of Jesus. He's from Puerto Rico.

I figured I might throw out a list here.

Things I learned by watching Religulous:

  • Bill Maher really doesn’t like organised religion.
  • Some (well, one anyway) Catholic priests seem like fun guys to get drunk with.
  • There is a church devoted to pot in Amsterdam. It has no dogma or tenets, and seems to revolve around nothing more than smoking lots of weed and accidentally setting your hair on fire.
  • The sooner America gets an atheist President, the better off the world will be.
  • I want to move to Amsterdam.

    Whereas this man just plays Jesus at a theme park. Yes, in Florida.

In the interests of full disclosure, this is the point where I tell you that I am not a religious man. In this debate I would be mostly on Bill’s side, although I’m not entirely convinced when he says that religious people meet the definition of insanity. Amongst the religious people I know, that aspect of them is like a personality quirk in my eyes. It’s the same as my fondness for chocolate sauce on my ham sandwich. Just part of who they are, but as long as they don’t try to make me do it too it’s nothing for me to worry about. Saying that, I don’t know anyone you could come close to describing as an extremist. Once you get to that sort of territory then yes, my friend, you are whack-a-doodle.

Larry Charles (Borat) directed this movie, and you can take your opinion of his and Sacha Baron Cohen’s earlier adventure in winding up close-minded folk as a pretty good indicator of whether you will enjoy this or not. Personally I really liked it, both as a film to be watched and on the deeper level as a vindication of my own point of view on the matter. There were one or two moments where things seemed to be starting to veer towards “let’s point and laugh at the idiots” instead of just trying to engage in a debate but Maher and Charles managed to tiptoe on that line without falling over it. It wouldn’t have done the thesis any harm to have one or two slightly more credible interviewees though.

There's nothng I can add to this.

Technically, there’s nothing to complain about. The film looks good and the sound quality is clear, but won’t exactly trouble your 5.1 set-up. The edit is a work of art though. Cutting down probably weeks’ worth of material into a cohesive film must have been an absolute nightmare.

Oh, and here’s another list.

Things I didn’t learn by watching Religulous:

  • How the hell do you say “Religulous”? Seriously, is it a hard G or a soft G? This has been bugging me since I first heard about the film.
  • How many death threats came as a direct result of the flick.


*Yes, it is a real movie. It is also the winner of the Best Movie Title Ever award. Captain America was runner-up.

5-Word 365 #012 – Lost In La Mancha

(Just a reminder, if there is anything you think I should watch as part of this little adventure, feel free to drop a comment on the Suggestions page. Just click up there where it says “Suggestions”. Easy peasy)

Lost in la Mancha

The Gods hate Don Quixote

For those of you who don’t already know, this is the making-of documentary to accompany a film that doesn’t exist.

In 2000 everything Terry Gilliam had spent the last decade working towards, his reworking of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, was finally coming together. He had the script, he had the financing, he had the cast, he had the crew; he was, in a word, set. Or he thought he was. The one thing that was missing was the co-operation of the Big Fella upstairs. Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Elvis, whatever you want to call him, He didn’t want this film to go ahead. The catalogue of catastrophes that plagued The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (way to give away your ending Terry) could only be described as Biblical. Luckily for us, a pair of filmmakers named Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were there to capture it all unfolding, and Lost in la Mancha is the result.

Saying everything that could go wrong did go wrong is a horrible cliché but for Gilliam and this production that is exactly what happened. Over the course of 90 minutes, we get to see this film go through pre-production to the start of principal photography, and shortly thereafter to disaster. Actually, the seeds of destruction are there from the very beginning. While Terry and his crew are hard at work in Spain building sets, making costumes, casting the supporting roles and so on, his main cast of Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis and the legendary Jean Rochefort are nowhere to be found. When they do arrive and get started filming, a monsoon arrives at the shooting location that turns the desert into a river of mud. When Rochefort has to get on his horse, it becomes apparent that he is in fact too unwell to be there. He is eventually diagnosed with a double herniated disc and is forced to pull out. And this is after spending seven months learning English for the express purpose of taking on the role! Soon enough, the insurance company pull the plug entirely and the project is confined to a (probably) dusty basement somewhere.

Here's one for the ladies...

On watching this movie, it is soon clear why Gilliam is so enamoured with the story of Quixote. He has himself spent most of his post-Python career tilting at windmills trying to make the visions in his head into cinematic reality. That he has succeeded at all in the past is almost a miracle, but on this occasion it was not to be. Is he the villain of the piece? A crazed obsessive? More Ahab than the Don? Not to me. He is a little bit crazy, that much is almost certainly true, but how much less interesting would the landscape of film be if he weren’t doing what he continues to this day to do? The villain, if there has to be one, is… No. There is no villain here. There is just heaps and heaps and heaps of shitty luck. And it is heartbreaking. The few finished shots that appear in this flick, as well as the wealth of sets and effects that we see take shape hint at what could have been accomplished. It may not have been a huge financial success, but it would have been a unique piece of entertainment and a worthy addition to the Gilliam canon.

As it stands, this documentary is something that anyone with an interest in peeking behind the cinema curtain should see. It, like Gilliam himself, is a one-off and should be celebrated.


And the giants are amazing.