Moving Away from Cinéma Vérité and Towards a Self-Realized Subjective Documentary Cinema

By Dan Spada

Frederick Wiseman‘s firmness in not situating himself as a cinéma vérité filmmaker is entirely justified, even though there are links to be drawn between the markers of that style of filmmaking and his oeuvre. A few ways in which his films, and in particular High School (1968), do not properly align with the stylistics of cinéma vérité include the lack, or subversion by interruptive focusing, of long takes and the strategic use of editing, used to narrative ends, both of which draw attention to the subjective structure inherent within all, but specifically, his exercises in non-fiction filmmaking. Bearing the absence of narration, the fly on the wall “observer” approach, and “intimate” involvement, Wiseman’s films still seem to actively self-define against a cinéma vérité deployment. Setting up the institution as the protagonist and emphasizing different relations of power, some entirely human, but both physical and psychical, Frederick Wiseman’s High School exposes its differences from the cinéma vérité school of filmmaking both aesthetically, as well as, by extension, rhetorically. Wiseman presents the viewer with an assortment of scenarios that show the functioning of different relations of power (teacher-student and individual-institution, among other more specific ones).

After bringing the viewer into the school, and then into the classroom, with a wealth of expressive close-ups in tow, Wiseman settles into multiple scenes of disciplinary action, enacted upon both male and female students. The character of Mr. Allen, both an arbiter of social control and a teacher, is introduced within the first few minutes and turns out to be the most prominent disciplinarian over the course of the film’s 75 minute running time. His various scenes include reprimanding a student for not wearing proper attire to a gym class, being the mediator between a student and his off-screen teacher that (misguidedly, in the student’s explanation) gave him a detention, and, finally, reprimanding and doling out a suspension to a student who has hit one of his peers. Just briefly describing Mr. Allen’s scenes with a few words gives the impression that the split between powerful and powerless is simple, but looking at the language of the filmmaking and the language of the social actors allows for a more complex interpretation.

The scene in which the student protests his assigned detention, like the rest of the film, does not include a direct (visually) or indirect (aurally) inclusion of the filmmaker. It is thus the viewer’s job to deconstruct the filmmaking techniques to come the best possible reading of the scene at hand. Also like the rest of the film, this scene does not hinge on an interview, archival material, or a reenactment, but exists as an everyday, unrehearsed reality (however selected by the director to be filmed and included in the final cut). The way in which Wiseman edits his shots together assists in the viewer’s reading of the characters and situations; the way he edits his scenes together is rather like the creation of a sandcastle, the building up of components to naturally make a cohesive whole in the end, instead of the collage-like compositions of non-fiction films classically defined as cinéma vérité. Wiseman’s editing, on both the small and the large scale, draws attention to itself.

The scene begins with a medium close up profile shot of Michael, the student who has defied his teacher by walking out of class after being wrongly accused, in his portrayal of the unseen situation, of goofing off, and then pans left and downward to Mr. Allen, who is seated.

The camera then pans back right and up to Michael, who explains his case, slowly zooming in so his head fills up the frame.

After Michael finishes speaking, the camera pans back down to Mr. Allen (maintaining the close up from the previous shot) saying that he showed poor judgment and that it is his job to respect and listen to someone older than him or in a seat of authority.

The camera pans back right and down – now Mr. Allen’s hand fills up the frame, holding a card over his desk with, presumably, the information regarding Michael’s incident. Mr. Allen references the card to go against Michael’s claim that he was not assigned a detention: he reads it, and the camera pans back over (right) and up to his face.

Michael explains that it was another teacher, Mr. Walsh, who assigned it to him, while the camera lingers on Mr. Allen’s face as he listens to Michael, and then the camera pans back over (left) and up to Michael. The camera then zooms in on Michael’s facial features. The extreme close up of his face is momentarily obscured by what looks like a bobbing head in the left hand corner of the frame.

The conversation shifts in tone at the moment of this close up. Michael’s defiance, emphasized by the extreme close up on the vector of expression (his mouth), is made clear. The camera pans back over (right) to Mr. Allen’s face, while he listens to Michael explain himself. Wiseman then cuts away to an insert – an extreme close up of Mr. Allen’s hands, with a class ring on his left hand ring finger. He puts the card down, picks up a pen, and folds his hands. The camera then cuts back to an extreme close-up of Michael’s face. The camera momentarily loses focus, quickly regains it, then zooms out a little so Michael’s head, with the exception of his hair, fills the frame.

Another shift in tone occurs: the camera cuts to an over the shoulder shot from behind Michael (who is not sitting), showing other bodies in the room as Mr. Allen goes off on how Michael should be a man and take orders. Wiseman then cuts to a shot, clearly not in sequence from the last one (the audio jumps to a whistle being blown), of a close-up of Michael’s face (not standing up), as he makes a plea for his principles. The camera then pans back down and over (right) to Mr. Allen as he repeats the line about Michael proving himself to be a man. The camera zooms in on an extreme close-up of Mr. Allen’s mouth. Wiseman cuts back to Michael, who is now standing with his left arm behind his back, clutching his right arm, listening to Mr. Allen. The camera cuts back to a close-up of Mr. Allen’s face as he implores Michael to take the detention, zooming out to a medium-close after a few seconds and then quickly panning back over (left) to Michael.

The viewer is on the cusp of an abrupt ending: the camera cuts back to a medium shot of Mr. Allen asking, finally, if Michael will take the detention, as the background noise of chatter increases in volume. The camera stays on Mr. Allen as Michael says he will take it under protest. An unmistakable smile runs across Mr. Allen’s face. The camera pans back over (left) to Michael one last time, as a girl walks across the bottom left hand corner of the frame and Michael confirms the details of his detention.   Wiseman then swiftly cuts to a school authority walking down a hallway making sure that students are where they are supposed to be. Throughout the entirety of this successive sequence, the authority figure remains faceless, stalking the halls and students within them ever so aggressively. The transition from Mr. Allen and Michael’s dispute to this man’s disciplinary tactics is meaningful insofar as it shows two different kinds of power relationships within the same structure (teacher-student) and institution (the school).

The scene between Mr. Allen and Michael is just one in which Wiseman complicates the idea of his filmmaking being that of the cinéma vérité variety, pushing against the notion that there is anything but subjective cinema, even when it defines itself as documentary. He does this by using short, syncopated takes that emphasize certain aspects of a person or a setting and thus displaces common conceptions of power and power relations (Wiseman is in step with the intellectual leanings of Michel Foucault on this subject it seems). Mr. Allen could be seen as stepping in for society at large, in a way, teaching Michael the importance of compromising and its relation to the way we are seen as adults (rather than children, or students). Wiseman’s focus on Mr. Allen’s ring points to the possibility of a generationally-focused interpretation, one that relies on a certain passing down of ideas on character and specific values one should have. This student’s protest lays the foundation for what’s to follow, which Wiseman wisely builds on, the camera gazing over and into both interested and disinterested young faces, and across institutional landscapes and the people that run them.

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s Degree in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop Films Summer Series.

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”: the tragedy of a profession

By Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler tells the story of professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to get both his career and life back together.

Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.

As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.

Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.

Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.

Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.

I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.

“Sick Exhibitionism” in John Waters’ “Female Trouble”: I can take much more!

By Colleen Rowe

The first time I ever watched a John Waters film was when I was ten years old— it had been almost a decade since it had been released. Serial Mom (1994) was initially shocking for me, but even at that age I understood the humor of Kathleen Turner’s portrayal as Beverly Sutphin. I always made sure not to wear white after Labor Day after that, especially in areas where phone booths were prevalent.

Over the years, I watched a few of John Waters’ films here and there, but in my late teens, I was finally shown Pink Flamingos (1972) for the first time by a friend. I’m not sure what my friend was thinking, to be honest. Not because I felt overly disgusted by Pink Flamingos, which is the appropriate response, but because it was our first one-on-one interaction together. I didn’t see much of my friend after that.

IMG_6796John Waters post screening of Female Trouble at Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty years of John Waters: How much can you take?”

After the initial horror of egg-eating, ass-dancing madness, I decided that Pink Flamingos was truly original. As Mink Stole said in a clip from AMC’s nine-part series, Movies that Shook the World: Pink Flamingos, “There’s barely a moment in it that could be shown to any God-fearing household.” If you can make audiences twist their faces in anguish as you present a larger, thought-provoking point, you have truly accomplished something great. Waters explained that when titling Pink Flamingos he wanted it to have a non-sensational name since the film was so shocking in itself. Waters did this by capturing the foul, puke-antagonist that is Pink Flamingos and its “poor step-sister,” as he termed it, Female Trouble./ Theme song./

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J. Hoberman and John Waters at the Walter Reade Theater during opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? Q & A post-screening of Female Trouble.

Dawn Davenport’s (played by Divine) psychotic behavior is partially foreshadowed in the infamous Christmas morning scene where she actually pushes her mother (her parents didn’t buy her Cha-cha heels!) and a Christmas tree falls on her. At the Walter Reade Theater at the opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” Waters recounted to critic J. Hoberman and his audience that a Christmas tree had fallen on his grandmother when he was growing up and he exaggerated slightly. She was not hurt, as Davenport’s mother seemed to be. “Knocking over the Christmas tree has become a holiday favorite,” Waters remarked on Friday night, a comment that made the audience explode with laughter.

IMG_6775Outside of the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center

Waters educated the crowd on Cha-cha heels further, explaining that a lot of people didn’t know what real Cha-cha heels looked like (Apparently Cha-cha’s had smaller heels than most people thought). He added comically, “I had to teach drag queens about life.”

Dawn runs away after her dramatic outburst and crosses paths with Earl Peterson (also played by Divine). Earl literally screws himself for associating with a woman such as Dawn, and vice versa.

One of the greatest characters in Female Trouble is Taffy Davenport. Mink Stole portrays the older 14-year-old Taffy who interrupts Divine and her husband, Gater (Michael Potter), while they are having sex (take note that Mink Stole was in her late twenties when this film was made). Taffy’s responses to Gater are honestly appropriate. He’s a sick pervert and she knows it. Her infamous line: “I wouldn’t suck your dick unless I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” will make audiences laugh out loud with the follow-up classic one-liner, in response to Gater’s questions: “Writing a book, hippy? Why don’t you go listen to some folk music and give me a break!?” Taffy is emotionally and mentally tortured throughout this film and she has every right to insult the “morally bankrupt,” as the only apparently logical character, Dawn’s doctor, calls them, adults who surround her.IMG_6809Initially, Dawn and Gater spend a lot of time at a local beauty salon where Gater works. Here, Dawn meets the bigot-yuppie couple, Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce) who are absolutely obsessed with beauty. With her eyes perpetually rolling, Sally (Sally Albaugh), a customer at the salon, comments: “Well throw a goddamn penny in the fountain and make a goddamn wish and maybe it will come true.” Waters always found it hilarious that a lot of people had wishing wells on their front lawns. Along with other front lawn decorations, a lot of people also had pink flamingos. John Waters commented that he disapproved of the resurgence of pink flamingos that critic, J. Hoberman, spoke about during the Q & A at the retrospective’s screening of Female Trouble. Waters said, “‘I’m for them if you’re 75 years old and you have the plaster kind, the original since the 40s, I’m against it if you’re a yuppie with a plastic one on your front lawn meant to mock blue collar people.” He added: “Now they’ve become wearisome.”

Waters also expanded upon the act of “hitchhiking,” which Divine does in Female Trouble. Waters said, “Most people don’t know what hitchhiking is. I was hitchhiking once in Provincetown and a family picked me up. The little kid was staring at me like “’Dad, why is this man in the car?’”

Taffy is the only one who seems to realize how preposterous the idea of Dawn’s modeling career is. When Donald Dasher says that the camera he has is for taking pictures of Dawn, Taffy blatantly exclaims, “You must be cock-eyed!” and proceeds to annoy Donna Dasher with her drawn out “Hey, Laaady” as she drops chips all over Donna, who pretty much deserves it. One of the best lines in Female Trouble (keep in mind that almost every line is quotable in its entirety) is said by Donna Dasher after Dawn offers them dinner. With a long drawn out half-sigh, Donna says: “I couldn’t possibly eat spaghetti. Do I look Italian?” It isn’t so much the comment, which is in itself hilariously ridiculous, but the way Pearce says it.

This is not the only notable comment by Donna, who says to Dawn, dreamily, with the seduction of the movie-fame life overhanging, “We’ll give you a new look, an interest in life… and together, we could overcome… this boredom that imprisons us all.” Pearce’s drawl is the voice we hear when we read advertisements on highways, pushing without direct contact with the subject. Those sprawled out magazine famous models are the products that their industries make them become, and Pearce portrays this almost too perfectly with an eerily captivating tone. Her voice is the fine print that we did not care to read.

Dawn’s violent tendencies are finally captured! The Dashers start taking photographs after young Taffy throws a bowl of Dawn’s spaghetti at the wall. As Dawn is about to beat Taffy down with a chair, the Dashers excitedly ask her to pause for a great shot. Don’t worry, it doesn’t stop her from performing the act, and suddenly Taffy is Dawn’s trophy, messily sprawled across the floor like an overused prop. So Dawn begins to trade pain for fame, as many people do, and then a serious undertone takes its place beneath the blatant comedic obscenities that are performed. The Dashers are loving it: the exploitation, the opportunity to record shocking images. They are the show business industry.

While the Dashers embrace conforming behavior, or what they think is impressive, Gater’s Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) defames it. Aunt Ida states, “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.” It sounds familiar, maybe it’s usually said a little differently. How many times have we heard it on the street, at work, in school, among colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and especially enemies?: “Homosexuality is sick”, but Aunt Ida turns around and points the finger at you, heterosexuals! Why are you the exception? Aunt Ida is an important metaphor for the ignorant phrases we hear of those who dwell too long in the realm of homophobia. The next time you’re about to express a phobia against someone’s sexuality, just think of Edith Massey, and how she looks better than you in that tight, black dress.

Female trouble escalates quickly. Dawn starts to completely lose her mind as The Dashers direct her like sideshow puppeteers. Behind the scenes of her first big performance, Dawn points a gun at The Dashers, shaking it playfully with big, wandering eyes. This scene is hilarious at first glance; the shot of her as the screen flicks back to the dressing room where her high school friends, Concetta (Cookie Mueller) and Chicklette (Susan Walsh), and The Dashers sigh happily with joy as Dawn forcefully dangles a lethal weapon.

Taffy shows up behind the scenes, dressed beautifully with a new light in her eyes. She has joined the Hare Krishnas, a decision that has seemed to affect her positively.Taffy speaks with Aunt Ida who tells her, “If you get tired of being a Harry Krishna, you come live with me and be a lesbian.” It’s a pretty great offer.

Dawn “embarrassed” and horrified that Taffy has chosen to associate herself with such a group, strangles Taffy within minutes and the witnesses squeal with happiness. Taffy had said to Dawn, before she had left to be a part of the Hare Krishnas,“You can’t kill Krishna because Krishna is consciousness.” If you beat it down or ignore it enough, I guess you really can kill something.

Why do onlookers and show business “professionals,” i.e, The Dashers, find the thrill of being killed so humorous? Why is Dawn being presented as a part of a show when she should really be getting some psychological help? Why is any of this okay in any film? Oh, you will make a lot of money. In fact, it’ll be a hit! You’re famous suddenly as the screen turns red.

Dawn’s speech during her show is most memorable:

“Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart! You came here for some excitement tonight and that’s just what you’re going to get! Take a good look at ME because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow! You’re looking at crime personified AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT! I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot line on Abby Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremmer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck! And I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself! Now, everybody freeze! Who wants to be famous? Who wants to DIE for art?”

As Dawn says, “everybody freeze!” she reveals a gun, pointing it at the crowd. As she shows herself off, her trampoline routine is quite entertaining, but as soon as the weapon is revealed the situation changes from hilarious to truly terrifying in an instant.

In the final scene, Dawn is strapped to an electric chair. During his Q & A with Hoberman, Waters recounted that he and his crew, “Walked across the prison yard carrying the electric chair.” He continued, “Could you imagine that being allowed today?” The prisoners, probably horrified, were onlookers right before this scene was shot.

After laughing so hard throughout the film, it’s shocking how calm you’ll suddenly become as Dawn is finally reprimanded for the seriousness of her “sick exhibitionism”, as Donna Dasher calls it. Dawn states in her testimony during the trial that produces the result of her landing in that death chair, “How can they not want to die if they want to become famous for it?” and “Without all of this, my career couldn’t have gotten this far.” Here, the timeless question is asked through dialogue: How far will a person go for money and fame? Dawn is proud of the offenses she has committed against others. She demands to be on television.

The most horrific stories are always highlighted in the news, movies, books. People like to talk about murder or any terrible crimes because it makes their content in its entirety more interesting. Forget about morals, it is all about the special recognition. If you’re watching a film made by John Waters, the violence isn’t overtly gruesome like many films today exhibit. The dialogue is the key factor while watching Female Trouble. There are countless subtle meanings behind almost every sentence that reflect a critical idea. Through the dialogue that runs smoothly alongside the situations portrayed, homophobia, religious persecution, child neglect and abuse, sexual exploitation, snooty upper-class norms, glamorizing drug use, and many other social issues, are portrayed obscenely but correctly.

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On opening night, a few of the Dreamlanders were present at Lincoln Center Film Society’s John Waters Retrospective, including Mink Stole. Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom) was also present. He described the Dreamlanders who were present, and also those who have passed on, as “my friends, my colleagues, my gang,” some of them for over 50 years.

Prior to the screening, Waters said, somewhat apologetically, that he is sorry that everyone in this movie seems to be screaming constantly. It’s a very “loud” film. Overall, Waters said that this film, after its initial release got good reviews, “but people didn’t know what to make of it at the time.”

Today, John Waters, remains a huge part of pop-culture, influencing other filmmakers and social commentators.

There’s one great lesson to learn from Female Trouble: Remember to never mention a sex act in front of anyone respectable and rich because it is vile and crude!

We’ve Come a Long Way, but We’re Not There Yet

By Roxanne*

The title “Any Day Now” is able to suggest the contention that is present for homosexuals, throughout history and in this film. The setting is Hollywood, 1979. A sex-worker mother is busted, leaving her disabled 14-year-old son to fend for himself in their shabby apartment building. Drag performer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), stumbles upon the situation.

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Rudy is voracious and speaks his mind, despite social disapproval of his lifestyle.

ANY DAY NOW ALAN CUMMING

His more reserved partner, Paul (Garret Dillahunt) shares chemistry with Rudy while remaining as a strong fatherly character.

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It should also be noted that this is the first time a full length movie features an actor with down syndrome, (Marco, played by Isaac Levya) and he is able to provide as much work for the scenes as his more experienced counterparts.any day now 4

Renderings of custody battles have become a staple in film, but Travis Fine’s film, Any Day Now (2012), sets the bar high in terms of teachable moments through social injustices. While Marco’s mother is incarcerated, Rudy and Paul take in the boy and are able to give him an upbringing that some of us couldn’t even hope for. But their happy family is disrupted and cut short, by the resonance of the issue of gay parenting and LGBT rights, which were virtually non-existent at this point in time.

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Although the plot and character development are enough to sustain this film, the film is brought down a notch in terms of visual flair. There is little variation among the scenery and the quality of the HD film is confusing for a retro styled movie.

In the end, it is safe to say that it is not Marco’s custody that is actually on trial, but the homophobia that was prevalent three decades ago.

Everyone Else (2009)

By Colleen Rowe, originally published on Nocturnal in 2010.

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In the spring of 2010, I watched “Everyone Else” at the Independent Film Center in the West Village [NYC].

The film depicts a couple on vacation and their wavering emotional consistency within a week. There were no tragic deaths, plots to deceive an unfaithful lover, or detrimental tidal waves that threatened to destroy a major city and the lives that depend on its existence. This film, simply, illustrates the moments of tender playfulness that make up the simplest definition of “love” and the everyday hardships that occur within relationships that are continuously thrown beneath thin, silk rugs, only to be tripped over when aged wine on the top shelf is empty and the after-sex high has sunk below one’s realm of consciousness

The scenes are simple and subtle and completely real. The most powerful aspect of “Everyone else” is the abundance of everyday conversation that makes up the entirety of the film, which also happens to be one of its most realistic components. Although major visual occurrences do shock and intrigue us, it is the words that are spoken to us that continue to live in the cave of our minds as famished, hopeless savages that disconnect the stems of our brain cells, as we think  and think and tear away the remains of our mental health.

I often drift off to sleep with nothing but words in me. They are in my fingertips, my thighs, the space between my nostrils. They shout and repeat and sing me to sleep with sweet melodies and unofficial intentions. These words, nothing but emotions that have been conceptualized and given syllables to hang from. Nothing but words. Nothing but emotion. They sleep with us, watch us make coffee in the morning, and drag us through this thing called “life”. There are some days when I do nothing but think about them.

“My Neighbor Totoro”: the anime that will make you fall in love with anime

By Roxanne*

The 1988 Japanese animated film My Neighbor Totoro is what is considered to be one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best films (not to mention, Totoro is the mascot of Studio Ghibli as Mickey Mouse is to Disney). Studio Ghibli has produced films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and the famous/infamous Spirited Away (by contrast, My Neighbor Totoro will leave you a lot less confused).

Video Provided by Youtube user: Kevin Chung

The plot centers on sisters Satsuki, (which means May in Japanese) dubbed over in the American version by voice actor Dakota Fanning, and Mei, (the phonetic pronunciation of ‘May’ in Japanese) by Elle Fanning. Firstly, Miyazaki perfectly portrays the whole older sister/ younger sister relationship as the girls vary between playing and quarreling throughout the movie.

The story begins as the two girls and their father move into a new home in the countryside in order to be in closer proximity to their mother who is suffering from an illness in a nearby hospital. One of the most alluring aspects upon viewing My Neighbor Totoro is the rich quality of the scenery, which will have you wondering if you are looking at a children’s cartoon or an oil painting.

The sisters soon find they have magical new neighbors, who are forest spirits that can only be seen by children. Some of the spirits include soot sprites, a ‘cat-bus’, and most notably, Totoro, the King of the forest (who only roars throughout the film, but is interestingly portrayed by the same voice actor who plays Scooby doo.)

One critique would be the limited screen time of the iconic “Totoro.” We only actually get to see him for maybe about a quarter of the movie or so, and he doesn’t show up until half way through the movie. On the other hand, this could also be beneficial. It makes his selective appearances even more special, and you end the movie still wanting more (or wondering where you can buy the plush version).

One of the most memorable scenes is when Totoro and the girls take a ride in the magical cat bus.

It would seem that “My Neighbor Totoro” is geared toward children, but it is more than appreciable for all ages. There are a few dark scenes, one where Mei goes missing, some eerie depictions of their haunted house, and the condition of their sick mother, but nothing unsuitable for children. At the end of the day, this film proved to be a refreshing contrast to the ADD-driven, action packed mainstream movies that are more prevalent today- check it out if you haven’t!

Interview with Directors, Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, on their new documentary: “Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story”

Film Syrup Founder, Colleen Rowe, interviewed directors, Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji (currently based in India) on their documentary film project: Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story. This film “is an attempt to understand a community which has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.” Produced by: Public Service Broadcasting Trust & Ministry of External Affairs.

 

 shilpi and divya

1. Film Syrup: What attracted you to this particular community? Do you have a specific tie to the Parsi culture?

Divya: When I first moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2008, I felt an inexplicable sense that I was coming home. I not only belong to the Parsi community, but have been in love with the idea of being a Parsi all my life. My research on the community at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) during my Masters dissertation led me to a nuanced understanding of our history and an admiration for the formidable feat of holding our own as a minority community and yet influencing the world around us in nothing short of a significant manner. As the community is plagued with anxieties over its dwindling numbers, it is important to focus on all that is good and admirable, and to note that the community has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.

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2. Film Syrup: Do you think you took a subjective stance as the creator of this film or did you remain wholly objective to the content presented in it?

Shilpi: A documentary film can never be objective. The very process of a documentary production, which involves research, scripting and editing, makes it a subjective process for there is always an argument that the filmmakers are trying to construct for the audiences. The narrative flow of Qissa-e Parsi historically locates the Parsi community in India, delves into basic ideals of the Zoroastrian faith and tries to understand their relationship with the British and with the city of Mumbai. Additionally, we also look at contemporary debates gripping the community, especially regarding issues of women and inter-faith marriages. We have made these choices, keeping in mind that this is the first film in our larger project of documenting the community. At every critical juncture of the production process, both of us made sure that we brought in our respective subject positions into our work. In such a scenario having two directors, a Parsi and a non-Parsi, therefore proved to be rather helpful.

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3. Film Syrup: How is the history (between the 8th and 10th century) of the Parsis relevant to the community that lives in Gujarat, India today?

Divya: When the Parsis arrived at the shores of Gujarat between the 8th and the 10th Century (the exact time of arrival is widely disputed), they did not land here by accident or mere chance. Having previously fostered trade relations with India, they knew they would be coming to a friendly people, who would understand their plight and help them in whatever way possible. According to the Qissa-e Sanjan, which is the first written account of the Parsi arrival and settlement in India, the local King Jadhav Rana asked them for an explanation of their religion and customs. He granted their request for asylum and freedom to carry on their religious practices as they saw fit, provided they adopt the local language of Gujarati; that their women adopt the local dress or sari; and that they henceforth cease to bear arms. Having accepted these conditions, the Parsis formed a settlement at Sanjan and subsequently spread around several parts of Gujarat, incorporating local customs and ways of life that bear their mark on Parsi identity until today. It is only centuries later, with the advent of the British in India, that the Parsis ventured beyond Gujarat to cities like Bombay and Calcutta. Several still remain in the state that gave them much needed asylum all those centuries ago.

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4. Film Syrup: How is Mumbai different from the areas that surround it? Why is it particularly intriguing?

Divya: In tracing the rich history and lives of the Parsis in India, one must inevitably end up in the city of Mumbai. This influential, albeit small community, has helped shape the city of Mumbai, or more appropriately erstwhile Bombay,  into the metropolis it is today, and in turn the city itself has come to leave its mark on the Parsi identity, with over two-thirds of the world’s Parsi population calling this place home. One has only to walk down the streets of South Bombay to encounter the everlasting impression of the Parsis on the history and ethos of the place, be it architecturally, in the numerous statues that unassumingly dot the leafy lanes, in centres of cultural significance, in quaint Irani eateries, in schools, museums, hospitals, charities, and the endearing eccentric bawas (an affectionate colloquialism for Parsis) who run these establishments or offer their faithful patronage.

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5. Film Syrup: Are you/did you film from a feminist viewpoint when reviewing the issues of inter-faith marriage? If not, what was your viewpoint?

ShilpiThe community today is faced with the stark reality of its dwindling numbers and the near and very real possibility of extinction. This has given rise to anxieties over issues of conversion, intermarriage, and purity of race; the burden of which seems to be falling increasingly on the Parsi woman. In what seems a strange confluence of religion, race, law and custom, the Parsis have constructed for themselves an extremely exclusive identity, where any form of plurality appears non-negotiable. According to us, the implications of justifying the discrimination faced by women in the 21st century on the grounds that something has been a certain way for centuries and should therefore unabashedly continue to be so, will prove to be extremely detrimental for the community. We see this as a concern not just for the Parsis but for women in other Indian communities as well. So far we have dedicated a section of our film examining this debate and hope to explore it more extensively in future.

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Film Syrup: Do you think this culture/community will die out if their numbers continue to decrease?

Divya: It is estimated that under 70,000 Parsis remain in India today, and the threat of extinction seems to be a very real possibility for the community. However, it is worth noting that the worldwide Parsi population, at its peak, has never exceeded 1,50,000. We have always been a numerically small people, capable of great things. The situation today is however accelerated by increasing incidences of inter-marriage, late marriage, not marrying at all, decline in fertility and rampant emigration, to name a few. But I believe that if the community puts their heads together, and allows the panic to bring us closer together instead of tearing us further apart, this too we can overcome, as have so many things in our past.

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 All photos that are included in this interview posting have been provided by Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji.

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“Into the Silent Sea” (2013)

By Colleen Rowe

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(Andrej Landin post-screening of “Into the Silent Sea” at the 19th annual Stony Brook Film Festival, July 2014)

Filmmaker, Andrej Landin’s film, “Into the Silent Sea,” reveals a premise that surpasses the meaning of “short” by its simple definition. Powerfully presented, this 25 minute short taps into the emotions that wither in a man’s heart as he partakes in a journey that might be directly responsible for his emotional and physical demise.

Alexander (Zack Sayenko), a young cosmonaut, is assigned to a mission to space that has not been fully prepared. To beat the Americans, Russia must prevail in space travel and advanced technology. The larger premise revolves around Alexander’s physical and mental journey as he faces complications far away from a civilized world. Andrej Landin had explained during a Q & A at the 19th Annual Stony Brook Film Festival that he had been reading Joseph Conrad’s book, “Heart of Darkness,” and the sense of solitude that invades its pages inspired him to capture that isolation in a different way.

Why is this concept so unique? The setting is relevant to the story, but it isn’t crucial in comparison to the other aspects of this film. It is not the placing of Alexander, but the conversation he has with Italian radio engineer, Alvaro (Peter Arpesella). Alvaro picks up the astronaut’s call for rescue and they seem to become acquaintances that potentially change each other’s lives.

At times, why is it easier to speak with a stranger? The interaction is partially anonymous.

Reliving past experiences with his fellow astronaut and lover, Tanya (Tatiana DeKhtyar), Alexander tells a tale of immediate attraction and unexpected deception. The conversation between these two men via long-distance radio communication technology fills blanks into Alexander’s life and suddenly viewers feel that they experienced it with him.

There’s a retrospective scene that is particularly captivating: as the sun sets, the two young cosmonaut lovers, Alexander and Tanya, walk in a field that is worlds away from the deteriorating space craft Alexander is exiled to. Visually, this scene was necessary, depicting a safe place—a happy time—with the sky’s natural aesthetics to soften the film’s generally dark tone.

There’s a lot to be said about “Into the Silent Sea,” but my first response to those who inquire about it is: just watch it.

Depending on each viewer’s individual experiences with love and loss, this film has the potential to produce uniquely original and differing views. Controversial, challenging, and directed with purpose, this short film achieves in portraying a powerful message: Regardless of the familiar groups we identify with, it is sometimes strangers who save us from all-encompassing inner turmoil.

“Into the Silent Sea” Awards:

San Luis OBISPO International Film festival 2014 Best Student Film, BAFTA Los Angeles Grand Jury Prize 2013, Stony Brook Film Festival Special Jury Recognition 2014, Santa Fe Independent Film Festival Best Narrative Short 2013.

More: Facebook.com/IntoTheSilentSea

If We Encapsulate Richard Attenborough in Amber, Can We Clone Him?

By Roxanne Pfaus

Just short of his 91st birthday, Richard Attenborough died whilst in home care, after his health had been reportedly declining for quite some time. Not to be confused with his brother, David Attenborough, who has solidified himself as a  legendary narrator of natural films and documentaries, both siblings hold memorable positions in historic and modern media.

“Lord” Richard Attenborough is prolific in British film as an actor and director. Many will remember his famous performance in the Box Office classic “Jurassic Park” (1993)  His portrayal of the eccentric bio-engineer (John Hammond), who gave off a grandfatherly appearance with his stark white hair and beard, will remain a cinematic feat. His works in movies such as Gandhi, Doctor Dolittle (1967), Miracle on 34th street, among others, have not only scored him 31 awards in film, but will also be celebrated and surpass his time on earth.

Feature Film “Leaving Circadia”: How Does Art Define its Creator?

By Colleen Rowe

Behind its “feel good” effect, Evan Mathew Weinstein’s feature film, “Leaving Circadia,” is laced with serious undertones circulating around semi-harmless manipulation and the everyday struggles artists, and people, face in a world filled with aesthetically presentable competition.

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“Leaving Circadia” circulates around the life of resident manager, “super,” Tom’s interactions with the people around him—friends, his boss, and initially unfriendly, but occasionally respectable acquaintances. Tom is played by Evan Mathew Weinstein, who is not only the director, but also the writer and executive producer of the film. Portrayed as a somewhat hopeless stoner with limited obligations and a knack for painting, Tom lives his pointless life as if he is a promoter for the nonconformist lazy man. His character, initially likable, even with his untactful commentary, becomes even more engaging as the film progresses. There are times when his manipulations are harmlessly, for lack of better words, cute. His encounters with the noticeably attractive Collette, played by Larisa Polonsky, shed the covering of his comical outer persona and allow audiences to see him beneath his protective guise. As viewers, we remain suspicious of his motives that are intertwined with benign manipulation.

The few side-plots featuring the various characters in Tom’s life are memorable in their brevity—including an interaction between two lovers as they talk in a bathtub. These simple sentiments are some that all viewers can relate to on a personal level. Those moments that are so private, but all-encompassing, portrayed and likened to be interactions that probably have happened in real life situations. They are charming, realistic even—this is what makes “Leaving Circadia” so appealing, with its character stereotypes shaded with the individualistic behaviors that can be found in real people who aren’t performing for a camera. A few shots involving the major characters throughout their day at a park and its surroundings, the sun setting in the distance, remain the most aesthetically memorable throughout the film. A shot of the sunlight between trees—it strikes you suddenly like a glaring focus.

Aside from Collette, his boss plays one of the most important roles in his life, similar to an overbearing father who gives many chances, but also expects too much. Played by Joseph R. Gannascoli, Nat is a self-serving, mercurial individual who often criticizes Tom on his most obvious flaws: slothfulness, irresponsibility, and folly. He rightfully demands Tom’s time, because, as he explains to the aloof stoner, it is his job, but he is unreasonable in his expectations—even if Tom had been a hard-working, reliable character. Nat sheds light on Tom’s inactivity, forcing viewers to see that he isn’t doing enough, regardless of how rudely he interacts with him. As viewers start to see Tom through Nat’s viewpoint, they might wonder: who is in the right here? The supermodel-toting, Bluetooth-obsessed Nat has a valid point, but we are already on Tom’s side because he is so easy to empathize with. Before dismissing Nat as a typical, “jerk” boss, consider his character’s accusations as credible, as he has probably known Tom for an elongated period of time.

Aside from acting as the visual muse and emotional stability for Tom, Colette plays a key, inspiring role that transcends Nat’s introspective assessments. She offers her advice to Tom, upon seeing his art for the first time, to sign paintings, sell them—to get his work out there. She sees talent past this major “hopeless” category that Tom is fit into by his peers. Why hasn’t Tom, who is so quick to attempt to win money in poker bets, taken advantage of marketing his immense artistic talent? He answers this later during a reflective moment with a friend: “My dad was an artist, talented. At his easel, cigar in his mouth. The art world is a brutal place. Somewhere along the way, it broke him. I watched that light go out. I was always afraid that would happen to me.”

Tom eventually takes back control of his life, something that Collette is directly responsible for—picking up his art, brushing off the dirt, and offering it as a piece to sell. Before you put your “trash,” the work that made you so horribly mad, to the curb think about its effect on others. It is validated that Tom is not the potential that Collette thought he was, but that he is an artist.

If you’re not going to allow the light to shine, it will never be lit. How will it ever go out? That’s the equivalent of hiding in a dark closet, waiting for your captor to find you. If you leave your protective cage before that darkness you fear discovers your whereabouts, you might just create a perpetual brightness—art that is not tainted by fear.

The people we meet in our lives change us, regardless of how long they stay.

Larisa Polonsky won Best Actress in a Feature Award, lead lady in “Leaving Circadia,” at Long Beach International Film Festival (2014).

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“Leaving Circadia” cast includes: Christian Coulson: Tom Riddle from “Harry Potter”, Joseph R. Gannascoli from “The Sopranos”, Ashley C. Williams from “The Human Centipede”, Larisa Polonsky from “Chicago Fire”, adult actress Stoya, and two time Tony winning actor (and star of Fox’s “Fringe” and Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming series “the Knick) Michael Cerveris.

Photos previously featured found on: Facebook.com/LeavingCircadia

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