Danish filmmaker Ada Bligaard Søby makes beautiful, oblique, rock’n’roll Super 8 documentaries that look at big issues in Western society from an individual perspective. In the brilliant Petey and Ginger, she examined the economic crisis from the viewpoint of two of her American friends, San Francisco-based Petey, former bassist of Thee Oh Sees, and New York fortune-teller Ginger, both of whom have worked in the sex industry.
Virginie Sé;lavy talked to the director about suicidal Santas, losers and winners, and the magic of Super 8.
Virginie Sé;lavy: Petey and Ginger is part of a trilogy, is that right?
Ada Bligaard Søby: Yes, it’s part of a trilogy with Black Hearts and American Losers, about my friends in America. American Losers is about two people who are really amazing but haven’t done well in life. The movie reflects on what a loser is and what a winner is. I come from a very academic background, my parents are very educated, but I’m not very academic, so I felt like a loser. And I’m always attracted to the people who are not doing so well, because they take more risks and it’s more fun. So I made that film because American society is so bent on making money. Black Hearts is about some friends of mine who got married when I was living in New York. I filmed their wedding in Super 8 and gave it to them as a wedding present. And 10 years later they got divorced, so it’s their divorce story – why do people get divorced, why does love fail. I’m using 9/11 as a background for the story as I was in New York then, because 9/11 was also the American dream that crumbled. All those immigrants going to America to do things in a new way, because they’re not welcome where they come from, so they want to start a new world and a new society. That’s the same when you get married: you feel like you’re going to conquer the world your way, and then it collapses, and whose fault is it?
Petey and Ginger is available on VOD in Europe and North America. For more information visit www.peteygingerfilm.com.
The film is explicitly about the economic crisis, but it seems that it’s just as much about America.
It’s about America, but it’s also about the Western world and how we are fucking ourselves up. We’re going to be finished soon, I think. Petey and Ginger don’t know each other, but what they had in common was a certain chaos in their lives and the fact that they were not part of the rat race, they were tagging along, struggling along. They didn’t own anything so they didn’t lose anything in the financial crisis. But it trickled down and touched them in very strange ways, and I found that very inspiring.
You use Super 8 as well as still photographs, which makes everything look very melancholy and beautiful, including dereliction and poverty. It seems like you find a beauty in America, but you also feel a little sad and distant from it.
Yes, definitely, I couldn’t have said it better. The slums are beautiful. They’ve got soul. But it’s also super sad. If I could I’d look at everything through Super 8. Because it lifts up the ordinary to another level. But that’s impossible.
You film America from an outsider’s perspective. What is the thing that fascinates you the most about the place?
Because I come from a Scandinavian place, I meet these people and they seem a lot like me, but the platform on which we have to build our lives is very different. Here it’s very safe and secure and stable. If you have a baby it doesn’t cost you anything. If you’re unemployed they help you. Over there, circumstances are very different and that makes people feistier. Those extreme conditions bring out some things in people that are very creative and beautiful and vibrant that you don’t find here, because things can’t go that bad, so people don’t make that much of an effort. I’m fascinated by that effort that Americans have to make to help other people, because they might need that help back to develop their talent.
For you, what were the most interesting things that Petey and Ginger said about the financial crisis?
I found it interesting that when she was working as an escort, Ginger could feel within her clients that something was wrong, because she’s so intuitively intelligent. She could pick up that something was not right. These people think they’re partying, but they’re not partying. And with Petey I think it’s hilarious that he’s selling dildos and shipping fantasies to the world, and meanwhile the world economy is a fantasy, and money is a fantasy – money doesn’t really exist.
That’s another thing they have in common: they both work or have worked in the sex industry, in more or less unusual ways. Was that also something that you were interested in exploring?
It’s connected to the fact that when you’re in America you have to work with what you’ve got. And sometimes you might end up in something that is considered dirty, but that’s what you can get at that point in time. In San Francisco there’s no film industry because it’s in Los Angeles, but there’s a huge porn industry. So many people work in porn, and there are also many people who deal weed because there are a lot of weed farms. And that might be illegal, but that’s what’s going on. I like that casual approach to things that people may look down on. I have seen that a lot in America. People have to trudge in the dirt, or the reality of things. And the reality of things is that a lot of people want escort girls and a lot of people order porn.
Ginger became a fortune teller after working briefly as an escort girl (which she did for unusual and fascinating reasons). Were the people you filmed real clients?
They were friends. We gave them a free reading and asked if we could film them. We made sure they were all dudes because we thought it was interesting that she used to provide one kind of service, and now she’s providing another kind of service. It’s all about feeling good, it’s all about solutions to your problems.
With Petey, you could have made a documentary about him and Thee Oh Sees.
I wasn’t interested in making a band film. I would have liked to make more of the complexities of being in a band, but it was very hard because there are so many layers to everything and so many things to talk about. You have to keep a focus when you’re doing a film like this. And also because they’re like a family – they were a family, they’re not together anymore, Petey has left the band – it was a hard environment to break into. They let me in but they were very aware of the camera and what that means. When you enter a family like that there are many things that are going on that they might not want revealed to the outside world. I was a big fan of their music and of all of them, they’re all my friends. But there would have been too many angles if I’d done a band film.
The music is obviously really important in the film and you’ve got a great soundtrack.
When I worked in San Francisco I became friends with all these bands. There’s a big music scene that is really amazing. I bought a lot of records while I was there and then I asked if I could use the songs. For New York, the bands I wanted I couldn’t afford, because New York is always so hip.
Do you still have the same relationship with your friends?
Yes, I have an even better relationship with them. They really trusted me and they were very brave. But being there with a camera sucks. When you’re making a film, you’re the observer, you’re trying to make your friends talk about things, you’re manipulating them. But I think I’m so bad at manipulating people that they just look at me and go, OK we’re going to have to help her.
What did they think of your films?
I think they liked them. American Losers was tough because I used the word ‘loser’ without knowing how hard it was. Kevin, one of the characters, said to me, ‘you’ve got it so wrong that you got it right’. It was really tough to call someone a loser in America. But I had to have that title to have an effect. Maybe my friends were a little sad about that but I think they understood that I didn’t mean to harm them. When you make art you’re not supposed to please, you’re supposed to push, otherwise why do it?
One of the most memorable images in Petey and Ginger is that of Santa Claus about to commit suicide from a rooftop. How did you get that?
On one of my research trips to San Francisco I went to Petey’s house, and I found this picture in his old photos of Santa Claus trying to commit suicide. He told me the story of how he was walking in the Mission in San Francisco and he saw that situation, and I thought it was the perfect image for that film. So I recreated it. I got someone to wear a Santa Claus outfit on a roof.
Why did you think it was perfect for the film?
Because Santa Claus is this guy who doesn’t have any problems, he has presents coming out of his arse, there are no limits to his goodness or his willingness to share what he has. And there’s nobody asking where he gets the presents from, so it’s the perfect picture for the financial crisis and people’s relationship to money, to the environment, to everything. There are no limits – I want more, more, more, and I’m not going to think about the consequences.
The film is subtitled ‘A testament to the awesomeness of mankind’.
My friend Brian came up with this phrase and I thought it was perfect. It’s a celebration of people – some people doing the right thing. I feel that Petey and Ginger have figured it out from the beginning: there’s no free lunch, there’s no Santa Claus, there’s no gold coming out of the river, you have to work for things, and you have to be honest, and you have to try and understand things. They’re smarter than everybody else.
It feels like it could be the subtitle to all of your films. Does that define your approach to filmmaking?
I don’t know. I’ve stopped making films because I was so worn out. I think my old approach is not going to work anymore, I have that feeling that something else is going to have to enter the scene. I will do something in a new way.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.
In 2011, I set off with a camera to explore a mental asylum in Mexico run by its own patients. The place is just beyond the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, the world’s most violent city. Years ago I’d seen a Russian film called Palms by Artur Aristakisyan. It’s about people conjuring up their own worlds on their own terms while living amongst the detritus of lumpen society. They’re presented as an aristocracy representing freedom. Consciously or not, I’d been seeking out similar people, and all at once I encountered 120 of them running their own asylum in the desert.
On one level these people shared a common purpose in that they dressed each other, cleaned each other and fed each other. But then there were many other levels, many other worlds. As there was very little medication available, people were free to incant their nightmares or be amused at apparently nothing at all. The tragicomedy of Beckett was everywhere, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, while the infantile grotesqueness of Jarry’s Ubu Roi was never far away. I admit I was more than a little afraid but set about to film these people. The more I filmed, the less I understood, and the more curious I became.
There will be a live soundtrack performance to Antes Muerte, the prequel of Dead When I Got Here, in London on June 21 – for more details, please go to deadwhenigothere.org.
I met a man called Josué who was managing the asylum. Five years previously he’d lost his mind and the ability to walk, but I found him in a reflective mood. He told me his dream. After two visits and many hours of material, my editing was frustrated by a desire to present the mystery I’d encountered while needing a story to hang it on. Then Josué’s dream came true. His daughter in LA emailed me to ask what her father was doing in a mental asylum. She’d seen a trailer for the film I’d posted online. She hadn’t seen her father in 22 years and had been told he was dead. Two more visits and I managed to put Josué and his daughter together and filmed the reunion. I had my story and it had arrived in mysterious ways.
Dead When I Got Here unites the oddest of bedfellows: a warm family reunion and the mystery and trauma of mental illness from a city where eight people are murdered every day with impunity. The film is due for completion later this year and we’re inviting people to take part in the process over the month of June.
If you’re interested in taking part, please go to the project’s Kickstarter campaign.
Mark Aitken (Producer/director)
Watch an exclusive scene for Electric Sheep readers – ‘Breakfast at the asylum’:
Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about a long lost American musician who is rediscovered by his fans in South Africa, has been the subject of much praise. But having grown up in South Africa, I could not help being irritated by its conceits, despite enjoying the film. The latter have stayed with me while the entertainment value has waned.
I first encountered Rodriguez when I was 14 in 1978 in South Africa. In terms of Western pop culture we were very isolated. The Beatles had been banned some years ago and we’d only had TV for two years. But there were many chinks in the apartheid regime’s armour and the Rodriguez album Cold Fact somehow slipped through. The cassette I had sounded like Dylan but was more haunting, and there were names of drugs in titles and psychedelic references. There was even a song called ‘The Establishment Blues’. This was heady stuff for a young boy in South Africa. It was strange for me to witness such a small cultural breath of my past blown up to such mythical proportions – as this film does in so many ways.
To keep it simple, there were generally two types of young white boys in South Africa in those days: those who played rugby, drank beer and got into fights; and those who listened to music and smoked dope. The latter crowd all knew the Rodriguez album forensically but we listened to a lot of other stuff and when I moved to Johannesburg in 1979 I discovered punk and everything changed. Us dope-smoking army dodgers thought we were cool and that apartheid was wrong. But our position was an extremely comfortable one – much like looking at the slaughter in Syria now but not doing anything about it, or people from Hampstead on Radio 4 being shocked about teenage pregnancy. We were nothing more than liberals. Those white South Africans who did make an effort to overthrow the regime made real sacrifices. I can’t imagine Joe Slovo or Albie Sachs were smoking joints and listening to ‘The Establishment Blues’ while operating for uMkhonto we Sizwe. Equally you’d be hard pressed to find a single African from those times who owned a Rodriguez album.
If you knew nothing of the tumultuous times in the 70s and 80s in South Africa, this film would have you believe that Rodriguez and his fans played a significant role in bringing down the regime. There’s good reason why they didn’t interview anyone who actually made sacrifices or lived in the township wars. They would never have heard of the guy. The myth perpetuated by the film and its nostalgic characters would have been laid bare and the subject of the film would have been far less relevant than they suggest. I know the film is about a tiny minority of liberal white guys but we’re led to believe that there were millions of them – there weren’t – and that they were somehow influential – they weren’t. What we’re left with is pure nostalgia for what was for most people a very dark time. Except for us Rodriguez fans. Well, it was kind of dark but we still had servants.
Passion Pictures, the people behind this film, are good filmmakers and the narrative is very well crafted. But it is like giving a documentary a Hollywood makeover – not in terms of production gloss but in terms of myth-making to suit the needs of entertainment. The claims of Rodriguez fans somehow being on the frontline of anti-apartheid activism are insulting to everyone who actually did something. The film plays into the nostalgia of middle-class white guys who like to think that they made a difference by simply having a counter-cultural attitude. It’s not true and the truth and joy in the film of finding a long lost musical hero is built on a serious conceit. But you can still enjoy the film. I did, but it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.
For more information on Mark Aitken’s latest film, about a Mexican mental asylum run by its patients, please visit deadwhenigothere.org.
After last year’s hit-and-miss transition, the 66th edition offered an impressive bounty of excellent films. David Cairns, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy report on their festival highlights.
This delirious, absurdist three-hour-long Russian film set in a Crimean seaside resort revolves around four intersecting stories: a pretty, lively young girl goes on holiday with a socially-challenged, grumpy, chubby geek she met online; a deaf-dumb singer leaves his deaf-dumb friends behind to join a troupe of street performers; an ageing famous actor takes his estranged son on a trip; a hapless Warhol-inspired music producer tries to make a star of a Russian Elvis lookalike.
The narrative is pleasurably intricate and brilliantly constructed, with characters, scenes and themes recurring from different viewpoints. In each story, a character is taken out of their usual environment and placed in a new one in which they are uncomfortable: the film treats the difficulty of going out into the world and creating relationships light-heartedly and with offbeat humour, and pokes gentle fun at people’s self-importance and thwarted ambitions.
The stories are interspersed with musical interludes and they all converge into the final show taking place in a mysterious circus tent set up at the resort: for the filmmakers, as for the troupe of street interventionists who provide anarchic fun throughout, life is a permanent spectacle of small dramas and surreal ordinariness. VS
Berberian Sound Studio
Berberian Sound Studio is the latest from Peter Strickland, whose Katalin Varga combined horror genre and art-house tropes to considerable acclaim. Here Toby Jones plays a put-upon sound mixer at work on the audio tracks of a nasty giallo-type horror film, his personality disintegrating under a barrage of bullying from his bosses. Rather than having life imitate art, the violence of the film-within-the-film infecting ‘reality’, Strickland keeps the movie bloodless and focuses on the psychological disintegration of his hapless protagonist. This is an even more relentlessly interior film than Polanski’s apartment horrors Repulsion and The Tenant, confined to a couple of rooms and a corridor, and to Jones’s fragmented point of view. Strickland’s throbbing analogue soundscapes and fetishistic ECUs of decaying vegetables and shiny audio knobs combine to create a hypnotic film that’s more melancholy than scary. His evident love of Italian horror has paradoxically produced a film that’s quite the obverse of the savage cinema of Argento and friends. DC
Berberian Sound Studio is released in UK cinemas on 31 August. Look out for our interview feature with Peter Strickland.
By far one of the most bizarre and excitedly discussed true-life stories to be revealed on screen recently is told in Bart Layton’s The Imposter. It’s the story of Nicholas Barclay, who, in 1994, went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas, and, to everyone’s surprise, was found in Spain three years later – or at least it seemed that way, despite the fact that the blond, blue-eyed, 13-year-old American suddenly had brown eyes, dark stubble and a French accent. The Imposter is the story of a 23-year-old drifter who pretended to be Nicholas Barclay, in the hope of finding a new home and the family he never had. Mixing dramatic re-enactments, interviews and archival footage to detail the key events of the baffling case, from the moment the interloper hatched his plan up to the point when the identity of the man known as ‘The Chameleon’ was revealed, Layton has crafted a gripping, powerful and eye-opening documentary that surpasses many wannabe fiction thrillers produced in recent years. PJ
The Imposter is released in UK cinemas on 24 August. Look out for our full review.
Sun Don’t Shine
This dark, poetic American indie road movie was one of the great surprises of the festival. Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) are young lovers on the run in humid, summery Florida. They are getting away from a dark secret in their past, the nature of which is only very slowly revealed. Crystal is instinctive, impulsive and sensual; she simply reacts to what happens around her. Leo is calm and tries to organise their chaotic lives, as much as he can. Elliptical, hazy and dreamy, the film tells their story in an impressionistic way, through small gestures, looks and atmospheres as well as contrasting juxtapositions – between what we see on screen and what the voice-overs tell us, or in a sequence intercutting a scene of almost childish innocence with one of inevitable violence. Despite the obvious influence of Badlands (1973), Sun Don’t Shine creates its own world and the dynamic of Crystal and Leo’s relationship develops according to its own fatal logic, making this impressive debut mesmerising to the end. VS
Brake, directed by Gabe Torres, offered a largely enjoyable, adrenaline-charged thrill ride that at first seemed reminiscent of Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried, but ultimately didn’t live up to its promise. Stephen Dorff gives a ferocious performance as Secret Service agent Jeremy Reins, who finds himself confined in a plastic box in the trunk of a moving car, with no memory of what happened and how he got there. From that point on, his time is running out, inescapably controlled by the terrorists who have taken him captive as part of their mission to assassinate the president. The set-up follows all the rules of an asphyxiating, claustrophobic thriller, with absurd but compelling plot twists coming fast and furious along the way. But Brake inevitably loses momentum in the last 20 minutes of the film, when the story becomes all too ridiculous, phasing out in an unnecessarily wound-up twister of an ending that beggars belief. PJ
Brake is out on Blu-ray in the UK.
Demain? is the work of Christine Laurent, long time script collaborator of Jacques Rivette (e.g. La Belle Noiseuse, 1991). It’s far from a conventional biopic, but it does cover part of the short life of Uruguyan poet Delmira Agustini. The film seems bathed in summer light, and moves in either floating, dreamy fashion or more vigorous bursts of energy: Laurent’s style can be abruptly playful when you least expect it. Like Shinji Somai (see below), she has a feeling for adolescent yearnings and explosions of passion, and blurs the line between reality and dream without making a manifesto out of it. DC
Breaking classic genre conventions in the most apt and eloquent way, while consistently subverting them with bold narrative choices and a beautifully dreamlike visual style, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu turned out to be the special treat of the festival. In his third feature, the Portuguese director combines the story of an impossible love affair with a quirkily surreal, poetic view of colonial history. The film is formally divided into two different narrative parts – one set in contemporary Lisbon, the other in Mozambique in the late 1960s – but revolves around one central heroine: the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), a compulsive gambler with a mysterious past. The prologue, which in itself offers another superb small film within a film, captures the caustic politics that make Tabu such a unique and compelling cinematic experience. PJ
Tabu is released in UK cinemas on 7 September. Look out for our full review.
Think you know about neo-colonial corruption in Africa? Think again. Yes, we’ve all heard about blood diamonds, dodgy politicians and the involvement of Western countries. But in his jaw-dropping documentary, Danish provocateur Mads Brügger reveals the cynical extent of the dangerous political and economic games played. To do this, he buys a Liberian diplomatic assignment to the Central African Republic and attempts to organise a diamond-smuggling operation, setting up a match factory employing Pygmies to cover up his real activities. Astoundingly brave/reckless, Brügger arrives in CAR in stereotypical colonial attire, complete with white suite and permanent cigar. As he reveals the mind-bending ramifications of corruption in the country – including the brutal, ruthless manoeuvring of France to control CAR’s resources, particularly shocking in contrast to their official discourse – his situation as a ‘freelance diplomat’ becomes more and more precarious and it becomes clear that the people he is trying to manipulate are playing their own game. And yet, despite the perils of the situation he has engineered, to his credit and unlike many shock reporters, Brügger never once comments on how much danger he is in. With a great sense of the absurd, he takes his set-up as far as he can, exposing the appalling farce of corruption that plagues Africa. VS
The Shinji Somai retrospective unearthed a filmmaker almost wholly unknown in the West, a distinctive personal voice whose short career spanned both commercial genre works (especially teen movies) and purely personal dramas, with a visual style based around stunning long takes and a love of fireworks, water and rain. There’s also a mysterious mythological or supernatural quality, which bleeds through even in quite realistic stories. A perfect fit for a complete retrospective, Somai’s cinema can encompass both The Catch (1983), a largely, even grittily realistic drama about tuna fishermen, and Luminous Woman (1987), which seems to combine the most operatic elements of Fassbinder, Fellini and even Tarkovsky. It also feels like Somai somehow blended One from the Heart and Diva and made it work. Apart from these strikingly different extremes, the retrospective included Somai’s masterpieces Typhoon Club (1985), Moving (1993) and The Friends (1994). Heady stuff. DC
Gregory La Cava
Gregory La Cava is better known than Somai, but his films are rarely gathered in one place. The festival screened six, ranging from the bittersweet comedy drama Unfinished Business (1941), which attains depths of emotion and maturity startling in its genre, and the knockabout romantic farce Feel My Pulse (1928), which eschews such niceties altogether – but its rollicking inventiveness had more than one audience member declaring it the highlight of the Fest. Both films touch on the subject of alcoholism, which blighted La Cava’s life but also informed much of his art. DC
Festival report by David Cairns, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews