Sunday, April 24, 2011

A (Humble) Champion For Kurdistan

A week ago I talked my wife and our out-of-town guests into an evening at the Harvard Film Archive. The film was A Time For Drunken Horses, and was followed by a Q and A with filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. When it opened in New York, where I was living at the time, Horses ran for a mere two weeks, and I missed it before I'd even read that it was "like a blast of cold, fresh air," or something like that - a goofy notice, sure, but then I let the idea of the film grow in my mind, a masterpiece that got away from me, something to track down later. Then I forgot about it. Then Jamie and I saw Ghobadi's later film Half Moon, and that was so unexpectedly good it got me building the legend of Horses again.

It didn't disappoint. It felt very much like the debut feature it was- less polished than Half Moon, energetic, unfiltered yet uncluttered, and unrestrained in pursuing a simple ambition, to evoke sympathy.

Like Half Moon, Horses is about the importance of family, but Horses is almost unbearably poignant in this respect. The children in this film, who work with smugglers bringing tires into Iraq on horseback, care for and fight for one another in astonishing conditions. Every moment seems to embody the children's struggle to survive- fighting hypothermia, escaping narrowly from the guns of the border guards, or negotiating to get treatment for their disabled, terminally-ill brother, Madi.

The Q and A was long and enlightening. At least half the audience apparently spoke Farsi. Mr. Ghobadi's translator patiently scribbled and summarized his discursive answers, but there was plenty of laughter before she had the chance to deliver each translation. Isn't Cambridge something?

My mind keeps returning to a scene early in the film. Border guards stop a truck carrying at least twenty children; the children, who are forgotten as the truck is confiscated, leap through the snowy wasteland in a single file, clearly with a plan, although I for one wasn't completely sure what it was. That basically sums up what I consider most memorable and unique about Horses: the quantity of moments that feel so natural and effortless, and so outrageous at the same time. It's hard to say whether it would be more amazing to learn that the scene had been staged, or that it hadn't.

I thought of this again when a young man asked Ghobadi if he is influenced by literature, and he replied that a film influenced by a piece of literature, though with its own merits, would be far more contrived that what he aims to create. As he describes it, his method is to write pages of notes, but not a script, and then let the film coalesce naturally from the location; the people who live there become his characters, and their lives, and the situations he encounters, become the story. In fact, one can simply go to Kurdistan and start filming, he said, and one will have a movie. Now I was more unsure than ever whether those children in the snow were acting or not, and then it occurred to me that it didn't even matter- they may have played out the scene one day as actors for Ghobadi, and on another day, lived it.

I think this is the moment when what we call "documentary fiction" finally does its job: the questions of what was staged and what wasn't become irrelevant. It's an unusually powerful kind of investment you experience when you start really accepting everything you see, and I won't be convinced that it didn't require enormous skill and creativity to make a true narrative film that accomplishes this.

Yet Mr. Ghobadi goes out of his way to downplay his own role in this process. The film opens with a full-page letter, from him to the audience, insisting that everything we are about to see is real, and that the characters are "not figments of my imagination," but Kurds he knows who actually live in the manner the film depicts; and after the film, he continued to insist that his own hand as an artist had little to do with what we'd just seen. But he'd made us see a bit of what he sees himself, and in the way that he sees it, which is what most artists are trying to do all the time, and what only good artists can actually do.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Beautiful Loner

I don't know, I just thought it would be another one of these slight, straining-at-feature-length documentaries, with some chuckles and a late attempt at profundity. An easy movie about Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer whose scratchy, giddy voice you can hear on the Times website. It would be passable for an evening out, I thought.

Yet my hours are haunted still, days later, by Bill Cunningham New York. I kept thinking I had finally determined what the film was really about, what it was trying to do me, and I bracketed these answers several times for myself, only to see it take another turn, expand in its ambition, and bore deeper into its subject, Cunningham, the happy-go-lucky aesthete, the lifer street artist. There is something wonderful and something terrible going on behind his twinkling eyes and disarming giggles. As we find out, Director Richard Press's patient determination to crack these things open is itself both wonderful and terrible.

Only after some percolation did I see the complete design of this film: so many of the subject's remarks and telling facial expressions are inserted along the journey that bear significance you can only appreciate afterward. Even as I write this, more of these details I made too little of at the time are drifting back to me. Press's craft, then, is uncanny, but so is his luck: there are perfect New York moments in this film, one after the other, that seem to drop into his lap. These are no doubt skimmed from hundreds of hours of footage, but so is the best stuff you see in any documentary, and it's rarely as good as the incidental material used here.

I really like Bill. Getting to know someone you like can be an intense experience. As I watched this film, the intensity of spending so much time with Bill, though vicarious, was more than I was prepared for. He is so individual, so seemingly happy in his perfect solitude. I wanted to rejoice in his purity as an exception, but one simply can't do that without feeling sad at the same time. A scene late in the film shows him seated at the runway of a fashion show, marveling, snapping pictures and hurriedly winding and changing rolls, completely immersed in what he loves. Press uses a song for this scene and I don't want to reveal what it is, but a local radio station (here in Boston) once played a parody of this song that was so funny Jamie and I still mention it and laugh, so when the song came up in the film, our first reaction was more chuckling and nudging each other. But by the end of the scene, it had easily been the most moving occasion of hearing that song I could remember. It perfectly captured the bittersweetness of his independence, and his questing after what he loves.

Which brings me to another loner, who I feel like I met last year, around this same time. Here he is:

Daniel Johnston and Bill Cunningham seem to me to have a lot in common, but Daniel's art is actually about loneliness. Daniel sings about the heartbreak of being himself, while Bill just waves it off and laughs. If Bill were a singer, would he sing "True Love Will Find You In the End"? (Perhaps, but only if he played with the meaning. He has found true love, in a way.)

Not long before I started this blog, I saw The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Cunningham is this year's Devil for me, yet although each left me somewhat transformed, Devil was the one that had me so emotionally wrecked after the first hour I needed an intermission.

I don't think it can be explained why Daniel's music is so good, but Kathy McCarty of Glass Eye gives it an excellent go in one of several incredible interviews that drive the film. That's the biggest difference between the two films: whereas Bill Cunningham New York is very much a documentary witnessing a moment in time, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a history, a lot of digging up painful memories (which brings visible stress to the interview subjects, Daniel's family and friends). The fact that Daniel himself is essentially never interviewed - the middle-aged Daniel of today appears only occasionally, and mostly towards the end- makes the telling even more forlorn and almost funereal.

I think I like these guys so much because they do absolutely nothing but search for beauty. One way or another, they've lived on that and nothing else. And the contradiction is, here I am, the movie watcher, seeking thousands of vicarious experiences, and one of those is to have such a simple life as they do.