Wachowski, Andy and Lana
CLOUD ATLAS C- 67
This is Hollywood
moviemaking at its excessive worst, which unfortunately the movie moguls think
is the absolute pinnacle of box office entertainment, throwing $100 million
dollars into big stars and an entire galaxy of computer graphic designers,
where it takes over a minute during the end credits just to list them all,
using a popular novel by David Mitchell as the source material, where in their
eyes, this is a financial gold mine, a big budget item turned into a colossal
action adventure movie modeled on so many other previous successes, like LORD
OF THE RINGS (2001–03), AMISTAD (1997), ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975),
AMADEUS (1984), or Blade
Runner (1982), among others. In the
eyes of high-priced
Unfortunately, not all
the storylines hold sufficient interest, such as the mid 19th
century voyage across the Pacific, where the entire segment continually plays
to stereotype and could easily have been jettisoned in this near 3-hour
monstrosity. Similarly, equally
uninspiring is another AMADEUS storyline that features a world renowned
composer too ill to continue working until a young upstart with a mysterious
past walks into his life and rekindles his musical inspiration. Do we really care, as there’s nothing
remotely original about either segment?
That leaves four other interweaving stories, where even one of those is
questionable, but becomes significant due to Berry’s strong performance as an
investigative reporter risking her life to get a secret report exposing a
behind-the-scenes power play of corporate greed and theft, where big oil is
intending to create an apocalyptic disaster to rid the earth of the remaining
oil reserves in order to join forces with current owners to buy up monopoly
shares in the nuclear power business.
Typically, the way this plays out,
Cracking David Mitchell's dense tome about how actions ripple
through time to shape and affect souls for the screen must have been a daunting
task, but the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run)
do a masterful job of translating the ambitious text into a widely relatable
Abandoning the novel's unique structure was a necessary conceit to the responsibility of engaging the fickle attention of a mass audience. For the most part, it works tremendously well, with the three directors adeptly juggling six interconnected plots taking place in different time periods and places around the globe.
A mid-19th century notary documents a perilous voyage across the Pacific; in 1931, a destitute young musician writes to his lover about his experiences as an amanuensis for a famed composer in Belgium; a reporter investigates a corporate conspiracy in '70s California; a present-day book publisher dodges Irish gangsters; a rebellious clone is interviewed before her execution in a dystopian future Korea; and a guilt-ridden tribesman in Hawaii wrestles with his inner darkness when confronted with a seed of hope presented by an outsider from a crumbled civilization.
These diverse stories are deftly connected by cyclical themes of oppression and resistance, love and sacrifice, courage and control. Existing in the visual medium of cinema forces the explicit interpretation of the evolutionary path each soul takes - it's one of a number of ways this adaptation spares the audience some intellectual strain - but it also gives the creative team room to expand upon gender themes and immerse the highly recognizable cast in a surprising number of roles.
The chameleon nature of the first-rate (though still sometimes distracting) practical effects encourages the actors to equally burry themselves in the colourful array of characters. Giving the performances some showiness reinforces the rather overt subtext that stories are embellished and distorted in the telling. That's how myths and legends are propagated, and that's how an elegant story packed with profound sentiments gets lured into a
It's a thematic compromise designed to mollify populist sensibilities, but a relatively minor one in the face of the broad-minded ideals championed and sheer exuberance of the film's cinematic craftsmanship.
The ensemble cast is uniformly strong (especially Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent, but even Halle Berry rises to the occasion), the distinct art direction and special effects for each era are brilliantly executed, as are the required massive leaps in tone and style. And the music, that all-important Cloud Atlas Sextet hits all the right notes of emotional resonance, even if it's not as impossibly iconic as it wants to be, much like the film itself.
“Unfilmable” is an adjective that has been attached to countless well-regarded literary works. It’s meant to convey a novel with a topic so epic or eccentric that translating it to screen would be nothing less than a minor miracle. That hasn’t entirely dissuaded filmmakers. Dune, A Confederacy of Dunces, Naked Lunch, The Life of Pi, Ulysses, Crash, Tristram Shandy, Gravity’s Rainbow, Neuromancer, Catch-22, The Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, The Catcher in the Rye—some of these have actually been produced. Some were even made well. Others, not so much. A few are still in the pipeline. And several will remain tantalizing, forever-unsolvable puzzles for the movie biz.
Among the books often labeled unfilmable is David Mitchell’s 2004 sci-fi hexaptych Cloud Atlas. Somebody finally decided to wrestle that tiger, though, and the results are structurally (if not always emotionally) miraculous—a $100 million genre-hopping art house blockbuster in search of a sympathetic audience. To achieve this Herculean labor took no less than the writing-directing superpowers of the Matrix-making Wachowski siblings (formerly known as the Wachowski brothers) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (best known for 1998’s Run Lola Run).
Kudos are definitely in order for even attempting the complex nesting doll of a narrative that is Cloud Atlas. In the first 15 minutes of the film, audience members are introduced to six different narratives in six divergent time periods. With a little patience and a modicum of attention, it’s relatively easy to sort out the tangled fragments. Chronologically speaking, we’ve got segments in 1850, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2177 and sometime way in the far-flung future. Tykwer handles the historical portions, while the Wachowskis (unsurprisingly) deal with the more action-oriented, space-age segments.
Once you’ve got the story sections organized in your head, you’ll
come to realize that each exists as a (possibly fictional) segment in the
following narrative. We start in the late 19th century with a young
The musician’s letters to his lover back home in
The impressive cast includes Tom Hanks,
Overall, the stories hint at a universal unity, reflected heavily in the revolutionary words of our Korean slave girl, Sonmi-451. Her philosophy states that we are all attached to one another, past and present. Hence, our actions, both good and bad, reverberate throughout space and time. As sci-fi philosophies go, it’s more elegant (if less concise) than “Be excellent to one another!” from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
If Cloud Atlas’ morality sounds suspiciously like karma to you, that’s probably correct. After all, our characters do seem to be playing out similar themes and stories (with very similar faces) over and over again. Are we meant to view these people as direct reincarnations of one another? Or is the web here more complex than that? On the surface, Cloud Atlas resembles Darren Aronofsky’s long-gestating vanity project The Fountain. That film too had a single cast enacting stories over multiple timelines. Cloud Atlas has a better sense of humor and feels less like a chatty discourse on destiny.
Despite coming from three different directors, our six plot strands weave together with expert precision, like instruments in a symphony. Occasionally, when the piece is really working, they dovetail beautifully, reaching a simultaneous crescendo of action. My only wish is that the payoff had been larger. The film’s major philosophical points (slavery is bad, do good things and good things will happen to you) aren’t what you’d call radical. And for a story with such a complex, borderline experimental setup, the plot strands all end right where you’d expect them to. I worry that average cineplex patrons will find the film too long and complex, while more adventurous viewers won’t be as stimulated as they’d hoped. Sad that the filmmakers could nail Mitchell’s massive narrative, yet fail to deliver the earth-shattering emotional coda it deserves.
Not quite soaring into the heavens, but not exactly crash-landing
either, Cloud Atlas is an impressively mounted, emotionally stilted
adaptation of British author David Mitchell’s bestselling
novel. Written and directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom
Tykwer, this hugely ambitious, genre-jumping, century-hopping epic is
Mitchel’s 500-plus page book garnered several literary prizes and a huge following after it was first published in 2004, but many would have said that the novel’s unique structure–where multiple stories in different time periods are told chronologically from past to future and then back again—was impossible to adapt to the big screen.
The Wachowskis (with Lana receiving her first screen credit here) and Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) figured out they could streamline the narrative by cross-cutting between the different epochs and casting the same actors in a multitude of roles. Although this helps to make the whole pill easier to swallow, it also makes it harder to invest in each narrative, while seeing the actors transformed from old to young, black to white, and occasionally gender-bended from male to female, tends to dilute the overall dramatic tension.
A brief prologue features an old man, Zachry (Tom Hanks), telling a story around a campfire, and from hereon in the film reveals how each plotline is in fact a tale told—or read or seen in a movie—by the next one (this is also a process used in the book).
They are, in ascending order: an 1849 Pacific sea voyage where a crooked doctor (Hanks), a novice sailor (Jim Sturgess) and an escaped slave (David Gyasi) cross paths; a saga of dualing composers (Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw) set in 1936 Cambridge; a San Francisco-set 70s thriller about a rogue journalist (Halle Berry) taking on a nuclear power chief (Hugh Grant); a 2012-set comedy about a down-on-his-luck London book editor (Broadbent); a sci-fi love story about an indentured wage slave (Doona Bae) and the rebel (Sturgess) who rescues her, set in “Neo Seoul” in 2144; and a 24th century-set tale of tribal warfare, where Zachry teams up with a visiting explorer (Berre) in search of a groundbreaking, planet-shaking discovery.
Despite their myriad differences, the half-dozen plot strands are coherently tied together via sharp editing by Alexander Berner (Resident Evil), who focuses on each separate story early on, and then mixes them up in several crescendo-building montages where movement and imagery are matched together across time. As if such links weren’t explicit enough, the characters all share a common birthmark, and have a tendency to repeat the same feel-good proverbs (ex. “By each crime, and every kindness, we build our future”) at various intervals.
Yet while the directorial trio does their best to ensure that things flow together smoothly enough and that their underlying message—basically, no matter what the epoch, we are all of the same soul and must fight for freedom—is heard extremely loud and incredibly clear, there are so many characters and plots tossed about that no one storyline feels altogether satisfying. As history repeats itself and the same master vs. slave scenario keeps reappearing, everything gets homogenized into a blandish whole, the impact of each story softened by the constant need to connect the dots.
Of all the pieces of the puzzle, the ones that feel the most effective are the 70s investigative drama, which has shades of Alan Pakula and Fincher’s Zodiac, and the futuristic thriller, where the Wachowskis show they can still come up with some nifty set-pieces, even if the production design (by Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup) and costumes (by Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud) feel closer to the artsy stylings of Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 than to the leather Lollapalooza that is The Matrix trilogy.
Perhaps such choices go hand in hand with a movie that yearns to be both
arthouse and blockbuster, yet can’t seem to make up its mind. Thus, the
decision to utilize the same actors helps to visually link up the plots, but is
so conspicuous that it distracts from the drama. It’s hard to take
Broadbent’s experience in spectacles like Moulin Rouge! and Topsy-Turvy makes him better equipped for such shape-shifting, and his present day scenario is both the silliest and in some ways, the most touching. But it’s Hugo Weaving who seems to have more fun than anyone, especially when he plays a nasty retirement home supervisor reminiscent of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and does so by getting into full-out drag. It’s an effect that’s amusingly disarming—not to mention evocative of Lana Wachowski’s recent backstory—in a film that aims for the clouds but is often weighed down by its own lofty intentions.
Cloud Atlas, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, reviewed. Dana Stevens from Slate, October 25, 2012
Review: CLOUD ATLAS - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
Oscar Prospects: Cloud Atlas | The House Next Door R. Kurt Osenlund
Cloud Atlas - Washington Post Ann Hornaday
God, do I love this movie. Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock is
a gloriously living, breathing film, a pulsating document of one of the most
remarkable moments in all of pop culture. It is, I believe, the greatest
concert film ever made. It may very well be the greatest documentary ever made,
as well—and even if it isn’t, I don’t know that there’s ever been a doc that is
so much pure fun to watch.
Warner’s new 40th anniversary Blu-ray box is, I’m willing to bet, as good as this on-the-fly documentary is ever going to look and sound—and make no mistake, it sounds amazing. The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is immersive and alive; in the music scenes, you really feel like you’re a part of that audience, while the track makes wonderful use of the directional capabilities during the documentary sections. In his original review, Roger Ebert noted “It gives us maybe 60 percent music and 40 per cent on the people who were there, and that is a good ratio, I think,” and I concur. The music is remarkable—spirited, fiery, energetic. But the documentary footage is downright compelling; we meet so many interesting people, and observe so many extraordinary moments.
Woodstock was edited, from 120 miles of raw footage (they shot most of the weekend, and sometimes had over a dozen cameras going), by a team headed up by a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The result, in either its original three-hour form or the newer, three-and-three-quarter hours “director’s cut”, is one of the most brilliantly edited films ever seen; they cut to the rhythms of the music, with a variety of visuals and a proximity to the players that is stunning, and the exhilarating split-screen editing may have become a cliché in the years past, but it is so effectively done here, it gobsmacks you. I’ve never been the fan of The Who that I’m probably supposed to be, but the way they cut “See Me Feel Me/Listen To You” makes you into one.
So much of the music is extraordinary, in fact; Canned Heat’s one-shot performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” is electrifying, while Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes” suite is simply luminous. My favorite stretch of the film puts two show-stoppers back to back: the bongo pyrotechnics of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and the joyous funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher.” And I can’t imagine what I could say about Hendrix’s set that hasn’t been said better, elsewhere, counteless times over.
One weekend in the summer of 1969, the summer we put a man on the moon, 400,000 people came together as one, and there were no fights and no crime and no bullshit. There was a lot of sex, and a lot of drugs. But everyone kept their cool, and everyone was on the same page. You don’t have to imagine how badly something like this would go these days—just look at what happened at Woodstock 1999. Good heavens.
During August 15 – 18, 1969 Max Yasgur loaned out his 600 acre farm, which was near the town of Bethal, New York to some concert promoters for an epic 32-act rock extravaganza that has become the cornerstone for the counterculture movement and a major moment in Rock’N’Roll history. Although originally expected to attract only 50, 000 it ended up being more than 400,000 and this movie captures the mood, festivities, and music right up close.
Unlike most documentaries this film doesn’t just turn on the camera and then proceed to let things happen at a sometimes slow and boring pace. Instead it relies on a great use of editing done at the time by an unknown Martin Scorsese, which helps give the film a very polished and dramatic narrative. The dual screen setting allows the viewer to see two things at once and you are given a full view of the occasion as you watch not only the beginning as they construct the stage, but also the massive clean-up of all the debris left afterwards.
The music acts are captured perfectly as director Michael Wadleigh’s use of the camera nicely compliments the energy on stage with a variety of angles and quick cuts. In some ways you feel more connected with the music by watching it here than having been there in person as you are made to feel like you are right next to the performer as they are playing. One of the best moments is Richie Haven’s opening act where you see the broken strings on his guitar, the sweet glistening off his nose and saturating his back as well as a close-up of his mouth where he appears to have no teeth on his upper jaw. Janis Joplin who was known to have an incredible onstage energy is also memorable and is part of the added 45-minutes of the director’s cut. Country Joe Mcdonald is also memorable with his now famous ‘fuck cheer’ and ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’, which comes complete with lyrics on the screen and a little bouncing ball.
The film also features different elements than what you would find in most other concert movies including one segment that looks at the cleaning of the many port-o-potties as well as a long drawn out rain storm in which many of the concert goers’ end up sliding through the mud. There is another segment looking at the skinny dippers as well as all the naked children in attendance.
There are some good interviews spliced in although I wished there had been a few more. Some of the more interesting ones include those with the townspeople who despite reports to the contrary where actually excited about the event and supported ‘the kids’at least the ones seen here. I also liked hearing from the attendees as they lined up to take turns at calling their parents on pay phones. The only interview that I didn’t care for was of a young man who used the phrase ‘you know’ so numerously that it really got on my nerves.
The movie is quite long with the director’s cut being almost 4 hours in length and not all of the music acts shown including some of the better ones. However, the film is still quite electrifying and doesn’t end up seeming as long as it is. It is also so amazingly vivid that it gives you the feeling like you were there and something that only happened yesterday instead of forty-five years ago.
When Max Yasgur, the farm owner who provided Michael Lang and his crew with the necessary space for the legendary music festival to take place, stood in front of roughly 500,000 people and bravely addressed them, he pretty much expressed everything that Woodstock was about, and everything that the film made during those three days, still stands for: “This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music. And I God bless you for it!”
A documentary on the Woodstock Festival that took place in August 1969 at Bethel, New York, Woodstock is directed by Michael Wadleigh and was released in March 1970. Edited by a group of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, the documentary is by far the most entertaining and well-made concert movie ever made. A huge commercial and critical success, Woodstock received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and two nominations for Best Sound and Best Editing. Selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, as a movie “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, Woodstock gave body and history to what was until then just a state of mind.
Offering a close look at the Woodstock Music & Art Festival held in August 1969, the documentary takes its audience from the early preparation stage to the last cleanup after it has all ended. It includes interviews of the concertgoers, the producers of the festival, and the people working behind everything, as well as an intimate look at every musical act and unexpected incidents, like the arrival of National Guard helicopters, bringing food, clothes and medical assistance for what was declared a disaster area. Aka an impromptu city of 500,000 people. Aka a weekend of music, peace and love. — Woodstock’s sub-description highly depends on the individual’s perspective.
A film about not just the music, but also the place, the time and the people, Woodstock gets up close and personal with everything. Michael Wadleigh’s camera allows everyone watching to get lost between Jimi Hendrix’s fingers, to be electrified by Joe Cocker’s voice and Pete Townsend’s guitar, as much as it allows everyone to taste what the Hog Farm is serving, check out what commodities the Port-O-San toilet facilities include, swim in the lake, slide in the mud, and, more than anything, experience how good three days with no violence, no fighting, no politics and no fear can really be. So basically unless you were there, this film is the closest you will ever get to Woodstock. And it’s pretty close.
The film doesn’t follow the actual timeline of the music festival, however, it keeps the opening and closing act the same as in real life, with Richie Havens kick-starting the three days of music, and Jimi Hendrix ending them. Apart from the two, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Canned Heat, Joan Baez, The Who, Sha-Na-Na, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, Arlo Guthrie, Ten Years After, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and Janis Joplin offer outstanding performances, and Michael Wadleigh’s crew does an amazing job recording them. If I have to find something negative about this flawless piece of work, the only thing I could ever come up with — and this is after I recently watched the editor’s cut, or else I would have never even known — is the fact that the Creedence Clearwater Revival performance was omitted during the final editing of the film. A bit of a shame, since John Fogerty’s act was exceptional and definitely worth a place in the film.
Woodstock is three and a half hours long, but it never allows you to look anywhere else. And even when your hippy, rebellious self starts getting a little tired, or when your rock ‘n’ roll nature desperately wants Joan Baez to say that “Amen” and walk off stage, you are still kept hooked. Because the order in which everything has been put into the film is perfect. The second the documentary feels like it’s risking losing a bit of its viewer’s focus, it does something big and brings him back in. To the extent that you keep thinking “after this I’ll get some cookies from the cupboard”, but the cookie never comes in the end. And just as you finally think it’s time, and you half get up to get yourself a snack, Country Joe McDonald puts you back in your place: “Listen people, I don’t know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that… There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there… I want you to start singing.”
Without forcing his material, Michael Wadleigh is a part of everything that is happening around him, and his movie succeeds in staying objective, presenting the musicians, the festival attendants, the festival’s producer and his crew, Bethel’s residents, and the people working to keep everyone in Woodstock fed and safe. However, at the same time, the film is not at all neutral. Although clearly on the kids’ side, Woodstock still manages to not get in the way between the viewer and the view. The best documentary ever made in America, a beautiful, colourful, moving, and, ultimately flawless movie from every perspective, Woodstock is a constant reminder of the fact that we have it in us to be great…
The Way It Was | Movie Review | Chicago Reader August 11, 1984
The House Next Door [Jason Bellamy & Ed Howard] a conversation about the film
Woodstock Nation - The Atlantic James Parker, September 2009
“Woodstock” Bill Wyman from Salon, October 26, 2000
Reviewing Ebert's 'Greatest Films': Woodstock (1970) Jaime Lopez from ScreenCrave
BFI | Sight & Sound | DVD review: Woodstock (1970) September 2002, Region 2
Film @ The Digital Fix - Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace & Music Raphael Pour-Hashimi, Region 2
DVD Savant Review: Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music 40th ... Glenn Erickson, 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
DVD Talk [Phil Bacharach] 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
Home Theater Info DVD Review Douglas MacLean, 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
Film Intuition: 40th Anniv. Dir's Cut DVD Review [Jen Johans] 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
DVD Verdict- 40th Anniversary Edition [Victor Valdivia] 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music - The Director's Cut Michael ... Michael Edwards from Exclaim, 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music Blu-ray: Ultimate Collector's ... Kenneth Brown from Blu-Ray.com, 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Big Picture Big Sound - Blu-ray Review [Chris Chiarella] Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Blu-ray Reviews - Woodstock & Revolutionary Road - The Digital Bits Matt Rowe, Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Woodstock: Director's Cut - Ultimate Collector's Edition Review Lex Walker from Just Press Play, Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Home Theater Info DVD [Douglas MacLean] Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
High-Def Digest [Jeff Shannon] Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music Blu-ray: 40th Anniversary ... Kenneth Brown from Blu-Ray.com, 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Revisited
DVDizzy.com - 40th Anniversary Revisited 2014 Blu-ray Luke Bonanno, Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Revisited
Big Picture Big Sound - Blu-ray [Rachel Cericola] Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Revisited
DVD Verdict - 40th Anniversary Revisited (Blu-ray) [Clark Douglas] Blu-Ray 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Revisited
DVD Review "Woodstock: Ultimate Collector's Edition" Jen Chaney from The Washington Post
Review: Woodstock ... 3 Days of Peace & Music - Screens - The Austin ... Eli Kooris from The Austin Chronicle
DVD Review: Release 'revisits' Woodstock's 40th anniversary - LA Times Andy Klein, August 15, 2014
rogerebert.com [Roger Ebert] May 3, 1970
rogerebert.com [Roger Ebert] March 26, 1995
rogerebert.com [Roger Ebert] May 22, 2005
A surprisingly good
movie, small and intimate, under-budgeted, shot in just 18 days, allowing the
actors plenty of freedom of expression, exploring the rarely seen New York City
literary world through a few of its contributors, an aging novelist Leonard
Schiller (Frank Langella), and a young grad student Heather Wolfe (Lauren
Ambrose) who chooses him as the subject of her Master’s thesis, hoping her
interest may resuscitate his career, as he’s been deemed old school, no longer
in fashion, his books long out of print.
Schiller hasn’t published in ten years, but he’s been dutifully working
on his 5th novel, where he shuts himself off in his room and sits at his
typewriter free from any outside interruptions.
Heather is a whirlwind of interest that disrupts the very core of his
being, a graduate from
Schiller has a grown daughter who is nearing 40, the always energized Ariel (Lili Taylor), a former dancer who now utilizes her talents as a fitness instructor, who is something of a disappointment to her father, as he’s always felt her life was adrift. But she looks in on him regularly, makes him warm soup, and loves him dearly, so she’s suspicious of Heather, his newly discovered friend, who after an initial rejection has been making herself comfortable in his apartment. There’s at least a 40-year age difference between them, but Heather is an ambitious go getter, a girl who lets nothing stand in her way, least of all him. Ariel on the other hand, is pursuing the idea of having a baby, with or without a man, believing it’s now or never to start a family. After falling away from one possible boyfriend, she pursues one of the lost loves of her life, Casey (Adrian Lester), and black radical writer who’s interested in restarting a leftist political magazine, but who’s adamant about no more children in his life. Her breakup with him years ago was extremely painful, where she lost a child, so her father can’t bear the two seeing each other again, even if it offers her a temporary happiness.
If all of this is starting to sound like a novel, it is – based on the novel by Brian Morton, adapted by the director and Fred Parnes, so the film exquisitely explores the deeper sides of the relationships, where Langella and Ambrose couldn’t be more fascinating, each in quite different ways, yet their onscreen chemistry is unmistakable, as is the unbridled bundle of joy that Lili Taylor represents, as her relationship with Lester provides insight into her father in ways Heather could never suspect. It’s a strange film that lures us into this literary world with surprising sensitivity and taste, offering intelligence as a means to guide us through, where Heather gets into a spirited debate about Schiller with a Village Voice-like magazine editor, Jessica Hecht, pulling Schiller himself into the argument at one point, but he despises advertisement driven literary works, claiming they lack seriousness and depth. This is a brilliant comment on our times, as we compartmentalize everything we do to such an extent that reading novels is no longer a serious part of our lives anymore, replaced by speed-reading through magazines and journals and newspapers, rapidly exploring the Internet, but rarely taking on profound literature. The difference in character between Heather and Schiller could easily be defined by this single fact, as Schiller is devoted to the old style typewriter approach to writing while Heather on her laptop is looking for a quick sum up of his career that may generate a sales boost for his largely forgotten works, thinking this financial breakthrough is a way of defining his worth.
Heather’s intentions couldn’t be more admirable, and she offers genuine affection, but the difference in perspective coming from their life experiences is startling. The film spends plenty of time unraveling bits and pieces of Schiller’s past, while Heather’s life remains a complete mystery. And therein lies the real problem with the film, amazingly enough with the writing. The acting all around is simply superb, the look and pacing of the film is near perfect, the musical score tastefully restrained, but the writing in the end disappoints, especially the way the story treats Heather, who is a burst of light and a luminous force throughout the film. Take her away and its scary how dark and empty the film feels without her. Perhaps that’s the point, as we’re finally into Schiller’s real world that is filled with all the empty spaces that surround a blank page, but it’s dramatically absent the core feeling that makes this such a tender and brilliantly observed film. In the end, it’s like watching a Broadway show in the dark, with people going through the motions, but we can barely make them out.
A pretty, bright graduate student, Heather (Lauren Ambrose, from "Six Feet Under"), with an impossibly silky curtain of red hair, decides to do her thesis on a brilliant, but out of print author, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella). They meet for a series of interviews, and they grow closer, she attracted to his genius and stature, and he to her beauty and intelligence. (Their fling his handled delicately and tastefully.) Written by Andrew Wagner (The Talent Given Us) and Fred Parnes, based on Brian Morton's novel, the film begins a little too much like a Woody Allen film, talky and overwritten, but it soon finds its groove. Langella has received much praise for his performance as the stiff, guarded, restrained author, and though I agree that Langella is a magnetic performer, I'm not sure he completely pulled this off; it's difficult to convey stiffness without giving a stiff performance. Regardless, Ambrose is the one who makes the relationship work; her connection and reaction to him finds the holes in the character and patches them (it reminded me of Tom Cruise's ignored performance, enhancing Dustin Hoffman's award-winning one, in Rain Man). But the real reason the film works is the subplot: Leonard's daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), nearing forty, wishes to have a child. She re-connects with her true love, Casey (Adrian Lester), who absolutely refuses. Their stalemate is often more interesting than the main plot, and it provides an interesting counter-balance between couples. It asks: what do we want from this other person? The answer may not be here, but there's still plenty for smart audiences to savor.
Screen International Brent Simon
A superb performance by Frank Langella anchors the
exceedingly literate, engrossing Starting Out In The Evening, a richly
drawn and for the most part artfully understated portrait of an aged novelist
struggling with the flickering flame of creativity's muse. Mainstream breakout
potential is highly unlikely given the film's serene rhythms and preference for
debate over action, but distributor Roadside Attractions should reap solid arthouse
returns courtesy of reliable critical praise and dependable word-of-mouth.
While not making a marked difference in terms of box office, certainly Langella's recent Tony Award-winning turn in Frost/Nixon, and just-wrapped reprisal in Ron Howard's forthcoming film adaptation, could have a positive impact on profile and awards consideration. Though positioned later in the calendar, Starting Out in the Evening could, like Ryan Gosling's Half Nelson last year, attract exactly the right sort of attention courtesy of the nuance of its lead performance.
(Langella) is a once-famous
Despite having suffered a heart attack the previous year, Leonard still doesn't have much use for self-reflection until Heather Wolfe (Ambrose), an ambitious grad student defined by an obscure hunger for self-definition, enters his life. Leonard's early novels had an electrifying impact on Heather, and she now wants to use her thesis project to spur a rediscovery of his work.
At once shaken and emboldened by their challenging interview sessions, Leonard's staid, respectful tolerance for Heather slowly melts into consideration. An indefinable and precarious intimacy develops between them, but the stars in Heather's eyes dim when she slowly comes to the conclusion that Leonard is too closed-off from certain unacknowledged traumas of his past to ever again write a truly great book. This cooling coincides, meanwhile, with an unexpected turn in Ariel's life when she rekindles a relationship with ex-boyfriend Casey (Lester), a matter that greatly worries Leonard given their differing priorities (she wants kids, Casey avowedly doesn't) in life.
Langella is well known for his stage portrayals of larger-than-life characters — including Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, among others — but his perfectly modulated performance here is one of managed disappointment. Leonard is an emotionally imploded man, able, in his great intellect, to parse and justify his self-interested behaviors. In his stillness and the consistency of his proper actions (both in movement and diction), Langella captures the character's regret in evocative fashion before the story even spells out the particulars.
Adapted by Fred Parnes and director Wagner from Brian Morton's novel of the same name, Starting Out In The Evening is characterized by a great and involving sense of character detail. The movie grapples in an intellectually honest fashion with notions of aging, responsibility and reinvention, and how they intersect with creative fire. Through it all, Wagner (2005 Sundance entry The Talent Given Us) trades in an unfussy style that keeps the focus firmly on his characters.
The one knock on Starting Out In The Evening is that it has such a strong sense of Leonard that Heather is a bit recklessly sketched. While intelligently written — she's certainly no bubbled-headed ditz — the manner in which she, and the movie, eventually address the inevitable elephant in the room, the potential of romantic connection, rings false. Heather's occasional lack of awareness at how others perceive her actions also seems implausible, and after a while, her pluck becomes a bit irksome.
Technical standards are fairly polished and of a piece with the material, if understandably strictly defined, given bankroller InDigEnt's typical production parameters of small budgets, 18-day shoots and available locations. Production designer Carol Strober elicits a warm, believably lived-in feel for academician Leonard's nest, and Adam Gorgoni's discreet score never conjures up explicit emotional signposts.
In Starting Out in the Evening, a new film by Andrew
Wagner, a pneumatic graduate student spreads honey over the face of the elderly
A mutually dependent relationship unfolds between Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), an old-school writer of the Bellow-Roth-Howe generation of realists, and Heather (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose), the eager-beaver Brown University grad who worms her way into Leonard's life and tries to persuade him that her forthcoming master's thesis on his work will put a new shine on the old man's dusty reputation.
When Heather, a thief in more ways than one, bursts in on
Leonard's cramped, poorly lit
Starting Out in the Evening is about people who are just ticking over, not just Leonard but his devoted, equally becalmed daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), whom he loves but distractedly holds at arm's length. A former dancer and Pilates instructor whose biological clock keeps murmuring "pushing 40," Ariel is girlish and eager to please in the awkward way of women who have fallen behind in the business of finding an adult identity to grow into. (She tiptoes in and out of her dad's apartment bearing soup.) Her lack of self-definition also makes her both a victim and an exploiter of poorly chosen men, notably a similarly under-evolved former boyfriend (Adrian Lester) whose re-entry into Ariel's life earns the reflexive disapproval of her father, even as he succumbs to the blandishments of a woman less than half his age.
Like Heather, Wagner went to Brown, and his grasp of the clash between old and new academe is witty and quietly assured. But if there's little question about whose side he and Morton are on, neither world gets off lightly, or without sympathy. Callow, ambitious, and raring to connect the dots between what she thinks she knows about Leonard's life and his art (the movie takes a discreet swipe at dirt-driven magazine writing in the form of a canny Village Voice editor nicely underplayed by Jessica Hecht), Heather is a parasite. But she's a useful one, for Leonard, with his fastidious—and, did he but know it, terrified—withdrawal from the world, is the embodiment of snooty ivory-tower detachment. Heather may not know as much as she thinks about Leonard's life, but she galvanizes him, albeit with a high cost to them both.
If Starting Out is a movie about how little we know and how much we presume, it is also about transformation, about heartbreak and halting renewal. There's no vulgar equivalence between Leonard and Heather, and when it comes down to it, Starting Out in the Evening comes down squarely on the side of the old-fashioned literary life. Yet if Leonard may be kept going (and kept out of print) by "the madness of art," he can't proceed without the painful recognition that, as he ruefully puts it, his characters haven't been doing anything interesting. He's always known that the unexamined life is not worth living. Heather may be an intellectual and emotional thief, but she has forcefully awakened Leonard to the fact that the unlived life may not be worth examining.
Every reader knows that the delicate emotional textures of a good book are the hardest things to re-create on film. Some filmmakers seem to know it, too: In adapting Brian Morton's sturdily exquisite 1998 novel, "Starting Out in the Evening," Andrew Wagner (who directed the 2004 feature "The Talent Given Us") may not get every nuance of the book exactly right. But it's rare to see a movie adaptation in which a filmmaker has taken so much care in translating the odd little qualities that make a particular novel special, to preserve the complex and fragile threads of feeling between characters that are often much easier to grasp on the page. "Starting Out in the Evening" is a small picture -- it was shot on location in New York City, in high-definition video, in 18 days -- but it's from a filmmaker who's used his brains to make up for any monetary resources he might have lacked. The picture feels both intimate and immediate, a model for what smart young filmmakers can do with good material.
Frank Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a novelist in his 70s who has achieved moderate acclaim during the course of his career but whose books have drifted out of print. He's been working on his fifth novel for 10 years -- and this is real, old-fashioned work we're talking about, not coffee-shop laptop noodling. Leonard dresses for work, in jacket and tie, and sits down at the typewriter in his study for a specified number of hours each day. He's the kind of old-style writer, in the mold of Saul Bellow and (in his dedication to toil, at least) Norman Mailer, that was already becoming a dying breed when Morton's novel was published. Today -- particularly after the death of Mailer -- these men are even scarcer on the landscape, which gives the story a sharper edge of poignancy.
Leonard's life is changed when an ambitious 20-something graduate student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose) approaches him: She wants his work to be the subject of her thesis. (One of the loveliest qualities of the story is the way it asserts that a life can be changed even when a person has reached his 70s.) Heather wants his approval and his participation (and possibly more), and she's convinced her research will spark a rediscovery of his work. Leonard demurs, but he finds the attentions of this attractive, intelligent young woman difficult to resist. Leonard's daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), a former dancer who's nearing 40 and longing for a child -- she's on the brink of renewing a relationship with an old flame, played by the wonderful Adrian Lester, who doesn't share her desire for children -- is puzzled by the unusual bond that has begun to form between Heather and her father, but she resists passing judgment on it. Still, her own relationship with Leonard has always been complicated and a little prickly: Her mother, Leonard's wife, has been dead for some 20 years. Although Leonard clearly loves his daughter, over the years he's poured more emotional energy into his work than he has into his relationship with her, for reasons that are purely human: Words are so much easier to manage than people are.
Wagner -- who wrote the screenplay with Fred Parnes -- sees that this is a story with no villains, although the threat of emotional treachery is always vibrating in the margins. His actors are all beautifully in tune with the material and with one another. Ambrose gives a very fine and terrifying performance: Even though there's an inviting roundness about her, her dark, glittery eyes suggest a calculating hardness. When Leonard takes her to a party filled with literary stars, she immediately dashes from his side to make a beeline for a powerful editor (played by Jessica Hecht), boldly ingratiating herself in a clear bid to get some work out of the woman. Even so, as Ambrose plays her, Heather isn't wholly unsympathetic -- she doesn't know how to control what she's started, simply because it's uncontrollable. She's a young person who has allowed herself to be guided by impulse and ambition rather than compassion.
Taylor also gives a wonderful performance here: Her Ariel has a breathless, open-hearted quality that makes you want to protect her, but she's not a sap -- the mistakes she makes are the normal ones any of us might make in figuring out what we want out of life and how to get it. She also carries the movie's most beautiful and most wrenching moment, one that I suspect will resonate with any adult who has ever lost, or faced the possible loss of, a parent.
Langella carries the weight of Leonard's mistakes, achievements and missed opportunities on his tweedy shoulders. This is a lovely, fine-grained performance, the sort of role an aging actor is lucky to get, but also one that demands a great deal of surefootedness and sensitivity. Early in the picture he stares at his new young friend with wide, unblinking eyes, as if she were a creature from Greek mythology sent to the here-and-now to confound and test him. Later, as he warms toward her, his cautious openness is heartwrenching. For years now, white male writers -- the old-style kind, like Leonard -- have been out of fashion. These are the kinds of guys we're never supposed to identify with, as punishment for the fact that their view of the world was once treated as supreme. "Starting Out in the Evening" suggests, among other things, that once these writers have disappeared, we'll have lost more than we know. Someday their books will be in style again. Until then, there's no law against feeling something for them. Understanding the human heart is an equal-opportunity affair, and old -- or even dead -- white guys have often done it as well as anybody else.
Complicated Characters [STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING ... Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader, December 13, 2007
Filmcritic.com Movie Reviews Blake French
Slant Magazine [Jason Clark] one of the more misguided reviews out there
New York Times (registration req'd) A.O. Scott
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE B 88
New Zealand (101 mi) 2016 ‘Scope Official site
The first New Zealand film to gross more than $1 million dollars on its opening weekend at the New Zealand box office, this is pure family entertainment, channeling the quirky, character-driven escapades of Wes Anderson, specifically 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Moonrise Kingdom, creating a heartwarming story about a lost child, who’s only lost to the people seen in the story, as he’s center stage throughout the film where the audience knows where he is at all times. Thriving on the outgoing, multi-faceted personality of a charming, overweight 13-year old child actor Julian Dennison playing a displaced Maori kid named Ricky Baker, described as “a real bad egg,” a comical misfit who’s been kicked around the block a few times, moving from group homes and foster families, but eventually running away or getting kicked out of every single placement after committing a series of seemingly neverending offenses so that now there’s no one left who wants him anymore except Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata), a rugged farmwife living out in the sticks with her cantankerous husband Hec (Sam Neill), both as wildly eccentric as Ricky himself. The satiric tone of the film is set when the police arrive to a home in the middle of nowhere delivering this wayward kid to their door, where Paula (Rachel House), the child welfare services representative, hands him off to his new family like he’s damaged goods, claiming this is his last and final chance, as the welfare system itself is sick and tired of him, believing he might be better off in jail, but as he’s still a kid, they’re obligated to at least try to offer him some semblance of a better life. After reading him the riot act, followed by a hilarious list of all his petty offenses, each one comically visualized, they depart, almost certain they’ll be back in a week to recollect him once again. Ricky receives plenty of hugs and encouraging words from Aunty Bella welcoming him to the family while Uncle Hec and his dog Zag ignore him completely, hanging out in the barn instead hoping they never run into each other, as he’s obviously not too keen on the idea. Nonetheless Bella stuffs him full of pancakes and pies and sausages and just about anything else he can eat as a sign of endearment, but this doesn’t stop him from making a break for it in the middle of the night, wandering into the vast unknown where Bella finds him in the morning not 200 yards from the house offering him some breakfast.
Told with amusing chapter headings, what’s apparent from the outstanding opening aerial shot whizzing just over the tops of the verdant mountains and vast extended wilderness of New Zealand is the natural beauty of the landscape, something put to good use in this film, as this is a home on such distant outskirts from civilization that there isn’t a single neighbor to be seen anywhere, where they’re really out on their own. Perhaps the finest expression of the warmth and zaniness of his new home is the birthday song sung by Bella, Ricky baker birthday song full from the hunt for the wilderpeople YouTube (59 seconds), exhibiting lunacy and mad delight all at once, where Ricky is entranced while Hec can hardly believe his ears. His birthday gift is a giant pit bull mix dog that he immediately names Tupac, so it comes as a huge surprise that shortly afterwards Bella dies unexpectedly, completely altering the balance of the universe for Ricky, as child services announces they’ll be out shortly to collect him, but not before the funeral services are held in a near empty church with the director serving as the minister, offering some puzzling and strangely ambiguous metaphors for the next stage in their lives which doesn’t really help them at all, but perhaps confuses things instead. Weary of having to return to another institution, Ricky fakes his own death and runs away into the bush with his dog, accompanied by the jazzy music of Nina Simone, NINA SIMONE - Sinnerman (1965) [Video Clip] - YouTube (5:27), discovered shortly afterwards by Uncle Hec and his dog, combining forces while learning to survive in the wilderness, something Hec knows all too well, as its second nature to him. Strangely, this is an inverse of WALKABOUT (1971), where here it’s the knowledge of a grizzly old white guy leading an urbanized young Maori child through the bush, where Ricky thinks it’s totally gangster to be avoiding the law, but he’s more of a pain in the ass to Hec than even he can imagine. Nonetheless, in his own goofy way, he retains his comical sensibility throughout while Hec remains grumpy, dour, and ever stoic, barely able to tolerate a youngster that has no interest in listening or learning from him. The two couldn’t be less alike, which becomes even more apparent when Hec stumbles on a rock and sprains an ankle, probably needing weeks to recover. Channeling John Rambo in FIRST BLOOD (1982), Ricky goes into full survivor mode, Hunt for the Wilderpeople Movie CLIP - Hunting for Food (2016) - Sam Neill, Julian Dennison YouTube (55 seconds), mostly failing miserably in his efforts while Hec is a natural born wilderness man.
While Ricky goes missing, rumors abound with social advocates suggesting the grieving uncle has kidnapped the kid and gone mad in the wild, Hunt for the Wilderpeople Movie CLIP - Famous (2016) - Sam Neill, Rhys Darby Comedy HD YouTube (53 seconds), where a search party is dispatched that more closely resembles an exaggerated SWAT team, complete with riot gear, automatic weapons and bullet-proof attire, where Paula is leading the charge, megaphone in hand barking out instructions, where she has to be reminded that she’s not even a cop. This does not deter her from appearing in front of TV cameras and announcing that “No child is left behind,” as if he’s been left and abandoned in a war zone. The nation remains riveted to this developing manhunt, where Hec is being labelled a pervert with lascivious motives, becoming public enemy number one while behind the scenes, unbeknownst to anyone, he’s really more of the savior and guiding light. The contrast between the two separate worlds is well drawn, where the intimacy in the wilderness, despite their initial suspicions and reservations, is actually a developing friendship, as Hec is actually saving Ricky from the forces of doom that intend to ruin his life, developing an “us against them” mentality, beautifully rendered in one of the most eloquent sequences in the film, a winter scene in the thick of the forest where they continually hide from the pursuing soldiers set to the music of Leonard Cohen, “The Song of the Partisan,” La Résistance/the partisan-Leonard Cohen - YouTube (3:34). This is exquisite filmmaking, reminiscent of the barren harshness in the Scandinavian film King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy) (2010) featuring a similar prison break in the snow, adding a surprising degree of complexity and depth to what is ostensibly a children’s story. While much of this turns out to be a chase film, continually pursued by the authorities, where arch rivals Ricky and Paula come close enough at one point separated by a ravine to exchange trash talk:
Ricky Baker: I’ll never stop running!
Paula: Yeah, and I'll never stop chasing you – I’m relentless, I’m like the Terminator.
Ricky Baker: I’m more like the Terminator than you!
Paula: I said it first, you’re more like Sarah Connor, and in the first movie too, before she could do chinups.
Adapted by the director from Barry Crump’s short comic novel Wild Pork And Watercress (1986), this zany mood is sustained throughout the film, mixing in strange social references and a collection of oddball characters to this already mismatched couple, becoming a coming-of-age, buddy movie where braving the elements becomes a battle of self-sufficiency, growing up and learning to trust oneself, where fantasy and humor are interspersed with expressive language and moments of tenderness, all part of the learning experience Ricky so reluctantly embarked upon in the first place. Despite the obstacles, and the director throws plenty at them, the outlaw pair on the run cunningly displays a healthy degree of wit and charm, including a brief diversion into a Maori family that accepts Ricky without question, as he’s become a folk hero as a slippery fugitive on the lam with his photos plastered all over TV, seen taking selfies eventually posted on the Internet, where the missing kid becomes something of a rock star. This has all the makings of a delightful children’s movie that’s just clever enough to be suitable for adults as well.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE Ken Rudolph
At the start of this comic fable, Ricky is a rowdy sub-teener, a ward of the state who has failed in previous foster homes. Sulking, he's brought to a new home by a tyrannical social worker. His new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her lay-about husband Hector (a crusty Sam Neill), are so nurturing that Ricky starts to come around when Bella suddenly dies and Ricky and Hector are forced by circumstances to head into the New Zealand bush to avoid Ricky's being sent off to a borstal institution. That is the set-up for a totally unlikely story of two weirdly mismatched fugitives evading capture in the wilds. There is genuine humor in the script, and the director has a real feel for the characters and the setting (Ricky was played by roly-poly young actor Julian Dennison who delivers a classic smart-aleck performance of wit beyond his age.) But ultimately as much as I enjoyed the journey, I had trouble believing in any of the story.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople :: Movies :: Reviews :: Paste Kenji Fujishima
Bella’s (Rima Te Wiata) first encounter with Ricky (Julian Dennison), the new foster child she’s agreed to take on, doesn’t inspire confidence, especially with her clumsy jokes at the expense of his weight. In turn, with child-services representative Paula (Rachel House) painting Ricky as an unruly wild child, one dreads the prospect of seeing the kid walk all over this possibly in-over-her-head mother. Not too long afterward, though—the morning after Ricky unsuccessfully tries to run away from his new home—Bella proves to be much smarter than she initially seemed: Instead of castigating him, she wears him down with kindness, beckoning him to at least come back home for breakfast before he tries to run away again. By the same token, Ricky ends up less of a tough cookie than he—with his fondness for gangsta rap and all that implies—initially tried to project, quickly showing his warmer, truer colors.
An adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, Taika Waititi’s new Hunt for the Wilderpeople thrives on upending such preconceived notions. Once Ricky and Hector, or Hec (Sam Neill)—the latter an older bushman Bella cares for before she suddenly dies—go on the run in the wilds of New Zealand after child protective services seeks to return Ricky to a care home following Bella’s passing, Paula reveals herself as more of a fanatical zealot than she let on in that first scene (“no child left behind” is her frequent motto, which she utters in the film with seemingly unthinking reflexivity). Considering TK (Troy Kingi)—the father of Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), the young Maori girl Ricky meets as he tries to get help for a sick sheriff he and Hec encounter in a cabin—one initially expects him to capture Ricky himself. Instead, he’s star-struck meeting Ricky (newly anointed folk hero for being a widely sought-after fugitive) and proceeds to take selfies with him.
As for the film itself, though Waititi includes aspects that play like genre parody—a montage scored to Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of the “Song of the French Partisan” unexpectedly recalling McCabe & Mrs. Miller; a Mad Max-like chase climax; Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde’s 1980s-style synthesizer-laden score—Hunt for the Wilderpeople is ultimately disarming in its innocent sincerity.
Innocence in this case, however, doesn’t equal lack of wisdom. The central relationship between Ricky and Hec is a collision course between wide-eyed naïveté and bitter experience, both gradually drawing strength from each other in different ways. This is especially the case with Ricky, who is so enamored with gangsta rap that he names the dog Bella gets him “Tupac” and generally reacts with awe whenever Hec does something he considers badass. Even though Ricky eventually understands the limits of the on-the-lam lifestyle he romanticizes, Hec loosens up on his curmudgeonly ways the more he learns about Ricky—especially the younger lad’s difficult upbringing. In many ways, Ricky’s desire to settle down resembles his own.
To some extent, Waititi shows more sympathy for Ricky’s innocence, which is reflected in the film’s grand-adventure style. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s sweeping, colorful panoramas and a chapter-based narrative structure gives Hunt for the Wilderpeople the feel of a storybook fable, but thanks to the warm-hearted dynamic between Ricky and Hec, even the film’s most whimsical moments carry a sense of real underlying pain: Both of these characters are outsiders ultimately looking for a home to call their own. Their adventure across the bush doubles, then, as a metaphorical journey toward normalcy in their deeply abnormal lives. By the end, though both characters have found a measure of that normalcy for themselves, there’s a strong sense their real home is out in the open of the New Zealand bush, in each other’s company, armed with a renewed sense of openness to life’s possibilities.
Deep Focus: Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Film Comment Michael Sragow, June 23, 2016
Familiarity breeds affection between an out-of-control 13-year-old Maori boy and a crusty old white bush hand—and between the movie and the audience—in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a rambunctious, beguiling comedy adventure about fugitives on the run in the New Zealand wilderness. Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, the roly-poly problem child from foster care, and Sam Neill as Hec Faulkner, the illiterate loner with tip-top survival skills, generate a rare prickly warmth. As their director deftly navigates every step on the dramatic spectrum from farce to tragedy, Dennison and Neill cannily convey the mutual appreciation of characters who don’t how to please or even understand each other.
Waititi, as director and writer (he adapted Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress), maintains his story’s zip by keeping his two leads off-balance. In an offhand manner typical of their haywire relationship, Hec tells Ricky that the farm dog’s name is Zag—and the boy suggests that Hec get another dog and call it Zig. Then Ricky gets his own dog for his birthday and dubs it “Tupac.” Ricky has acquired a hip-hop vocabulary, some pop psychology, and even more pop culture while ricocheting from one foster home to the next, picking up demerits from Child Welfare for the petty thievery and vandalism he’s committed along the way. Hec is a Kiwi version of the strong silent type, clinging to an ideal of stoicism and self-sufficiency.
Early on, Hec’s wife Bella (the remarkably robust Rima Te Wiata) pierces Ricky’s hard shell with her compassion, practicality, and gusto. He loves that she provides his bed with a hot-water bottle. She lets him “run away” every night, knowing he will get as far as some steep hills nearby and be back for breakfast. Bella dominates the film’s first 20 minutes, whether she’s demonstrating how she outfitted her old sewing/guest room with toy animals and books for Ricky (the amusing mix of titles range from Animal Farm to Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways) or flaunting her bloody knife as she slaughters a wild pig. All that time, Hec keeps his distance. In an unlettered man’s flash of native wit, he wonders whether Ricky is going to be a useful farm hand or merely remain “ornamental.”
When an unexpected calamity causes Child Welfare to declare that they will take Ricky back into custody (which to him means one place: “juvie”), the boy goes on the lam for nearly the rest of the movie. But Hec doesn’t abandon him. He finds Ricky and prepares to lead him out of the bush. Then they argue over whether “reading is stupid” (as Hec says) or Hec is stupid (as Ricky strongly implies). Their discussion grows so heated that Hec stops watching his step and breaks his ankle. It’s the perfect pivot for the movie, and not just because it yokes the two heroes together: it underlines the movie’s belief in literacy as the start of personal liberation and renewal. Hec mocks Ricky’s habit of concocting haikus to express emotions. (At one point, Ricky uses the au courant word “processing” to describe how he absorbs difficult experiences.) But Hec is moved when Ricky includes his name in the boy’s funky stabs at poetry. The title of the film is based on one of Ricky’s wordplays: After reading that migrating wildebeests travel a thousand miles, he reckons that he and Hec are “wilderpeople.” Near the end, we first guess how much Hec has changed when we see and hear him sounding out the words in a well-worn science fiction paperback.
Waititi’s triumph as a writer-director is to make Hec’s path to that moment play as a sprightly picaresque. The movie boasts a wry cast of supporting characters, such as the Child Welfare officer Paula (the formidable Paula House), who stalks Ricky like a comic version of Inspector Javert. She takes as her motto “No child left behind,” though no one can figure out what it means in that context. Waititi himself is hilarious as an inept minister who considers it inspirational to describe his flock as “sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves.” With authority figures like these, why wouldn’t someone like Hec mistrust language?
As Hec and Ricky follow a route that’s almost as forbidding as The Revenant’s, they meet up with rugged and antic individuals. Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne is charming as a girl who chatters more than Ricky and sings as sweetly as a bellbird, and Rhys Darby is brilliant as “Psycho Sam,” who has lived by himself in the bush for 15 years. Darby imbues Sam with the addled, ragtag charm of mad, marooned Ben Gunn in Treasure Island. He’s wiry and electric, continually reenergizing himself with his obsessions, whether he’s adorning Hec’s and Ricky’s heads (and his own) with tin colanders to keep their brains free from infiltration or depicting the Earth outside the bush as a globe full of “form-fillers.” With good reason, Hec worries about Ricky’s detachment from reality: the boy segues effortlessly from gangsta fantasy to the illusion that he and Hec are glorious Western outlaws. Psycho Sam provides an indelible picture of what lunacy actually looks like.
What We Do in the Shadows (14), Waititi’s biggest previous hit (he co-wrote and co-directed it with Jemaine Clement, and also played a dandified vampire), won over international audiences with its verité-style lampoon of post-Dracula culture from Nosferatu to Twilight. This Mad magazine-type romp was truly “humor in a jugular vein,” mixing a slice of undead life with a parody of the perils of house-sharing. Waititi nuanced the comedy, but the visual attack of that film was simply mockumentary spiked with special effects. Waititi exploited the visual humor of fly-on-the-wall cameramen capturing antiheroes flying through the air and drinking gushers of blood.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, though, is vastly more sophisticated. We know we’re in good hands from the opening moments, when the New Zealand greenery undulates across the screen while an otherworldly choral chant fills the soundtrack. Even Child Welfare’s Paula seems to tap her pen in counterpoint to the music. The whole movie has an eccentric rhythm because this director is confident enough to let scenes sit and breathe before accelerating his narrative with peppy deadpan montages. In one charged sequence, timed to Leonard Cohen’s “Song of the French Partisan,” Waititi unfolds the action in the cinematic equivalent of a mural. Via some optical and/or digital wizardry, the camera doesn’t stop moving from left to right as we see Hec, Ricky, and Tupac disappear into the snowy forest while bounty hunters, cops, and guardsmen trail them and Paula huffs and scowls eloquently, at different times and without a cut. It’s startling when the paths of heavily armed lawmen and Paula intersect. It’s as if time and space have merged kinetically.
Waititi mostly directs like an orchestra conductor, merging all the audiovisual elements for a smashing effect. But he displays an unerring sensitivity when Ricky stumbles on a heartbreaking discovery at the farm; the camera never moves closer than a medium shot as Ricky listens to Hec’s howl of grief.
Waititi’s handling of his actors is beyond reproach. Neill sustains a gruff timbre throughout, and the only hint we get of his James Mason-like gentleness comes near the end, when Ricky demands to call Hec uncle, and Hec thoughtfully repeats, “Uncle.” Dennison takes Ricky’s aggressiveness to the edge of irritation. Their moment of rapprochement is just right: Ricky claps Hec into a hug, and Hec abashedly pats him on the shoulder. By then, Hec has crowned the movie with his own first haiku: “Me and this fat kid / we ran, we ate and read books / and it was the best.”
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Andrzej Wajda - Full Resource Library of Films and ... - Culture.pl extensive biography from Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland
Andrzej Wajda, Towering Auteur of Polish Cinema, Dies at 90 Michael T. Kaufman from The New York Times, October 11, 2016
Cinema: Past and Present | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist A speech given by Andrzej Wajda at a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001, from Louis Proyect, June 23, 2017
A jaundiced regard for documentary practice pervades Wajda's slice of Polish history, which takes the form of an inquiry conducted by a young, aggressive film-school graduate into the fate, after reward, repudiation and rehabilitation, of a '50s Stakhanovite shock-worker, a record-breaking bricklayer. Film-as-evidence (monochrome flashbacks represent propagandist archive footage) is stripped of its authority just as inexorably as the investigative process meets an impasse at the point where preconceptions and actuality intersect. Wajda builds his own 'detection' story with complete assurance, though it's often difficult to decide whether his visual style is a parody of TV's (an ageing cameraman bemoans the constant use of hand-held shots and the wide-angle lens) or an accommodation of it.
Andrzej Wajda appropriates the structure of Citizen Kane to mount as frank an attack on Stalinist ethics as possible in an Eastern European film in 1976. The mechanics of socialist mythology are explored as an ambitious filmmaker (Krystyna Janda, manic and bizarre) delves into the fate of a worker-hero who fell from official favor. Immortalized in a marble statue, he survives as an archetype while melting away as an individual. Wajda makes fine use of the investigative format in telling his story, but many of the incidental points are unclear, and the ending, pruned by the Polish censors, is totally unsatisfying. Late Wajda is a matter of plot, statement, and little else; his characters are merely functional, his camera style uninteresting. But the material here is compelling, for all its lack of resolution, and the film sustains interest throughout its 165-minute running time.
It wasn't long ago that film critics and consumers alike were scoffing at Vanguard Cinema for a lack of quality in terms of content and technical matters. The company took such criticism to heart and worked to improve both aspects at once. Since that time, they gained access to a number of excellent foreign films, most notably the back catalog for Andrzej Wadja, the Polish directing genius, and have planned their release over time. The latest such release is Man Of Marble (Cztowiek Z Marmuru). Here's what the boxcover said:
"Not only is Andrzej Wajda's award winning MAN OF MARBLE
one of the most important films in the history of Polish cinema, it is one of
the most compelling attacks on government corruption ever made. It is a Citizen
Kane - styled story where Wajda introduces us to a young woman in
The story saw the exploits of the young student director as she led an investigative approach to what the truth behind the bricklaying hero was. Did the man really exist or was he a fiction character of the massive propaganda campaign? As she dug ever deeper, she discovered that Birkut was in fact an ideal man who truly cared for his fellow worker; the basis for making communism/socialism work as espoused by philosophers throughout the years. She found that he embodied the principles needed but was left wholly unprepared to deal with the realities of any system that relies on people and he soon was turned from hero to criminal by those who wanted to use him as a visual aid without his opinion or help. In short, the system that sought to use him as a dumb, malleable worker for their own benefit, quickly tired when he used his position to advocate his fellow workers, at which time he was taken out of the picture after being discredited.
I think Wajda, himself a victim of the political leanings of corrupt governments over the years, hit this one square on the head. Much like his films on Capitalism and War, the famed director presents a compelling cautionary tale that shows how revisionist history works as well as how the powers that be will distort any truths in order to accomplish their goals. Lest you think the movie is solely about the two political systems so properly skewered here, keep in mind that the themes of corruption and misuse of government resources to bury inconvenient people are particularly fitting in these times, regardless of your political leanings. For all it's strengths in direction, acting and writing, I think this one is well worth a rating of Highly Recommended, even without the advertised extras and the minor print flaws. Check it out.
History is replete with examples of regimes that sought to control the media and use it to discredit their opponents for their own gain. In this day of the Internet, even private groups seek to do the same thing, albeit with less degree of certainty, and movies such as this one remind us to be careful how we build, and ultimately destroy, our heroes. I look forward to more releases by Vanguard, particularly if they continue to obtain such gems as this one, but I'd really appreciate it if the company would spend more time restoring the prints before transferring them to DVD. In all though, it was well done and looked better than the small trailer I saw on videotape several years back (even the subtitles are much better on this one).
Man Of Marble. Man Of Iron Polish Film and Politics, by Lisa DiCarpio from Jump Cut, July 1982
Heroines of Polish Cinema - Kinema : : A Journal for Film and ... Ewa Mazierska from Kinema
of Marble Acquarello from
FILM - 'MAN OF IRON' - The New York Times Vincent Canby
With his magnificent war trilogy - A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds - Wajda helped establish Polish cinema as a vibrant force. But as his fellow directors moved abroad and times changed, he gradually found that monumental political works, such as this one in support of the Solidarity movement and its equally ambitious predecessor Man of Marble, failed to engage international audiences. He wrote in despair that Eastern European films seemed 'of little or no interest to people in the West'. Twenty years on, this story of a journalist (Opania) who has to cover the crucial 1980 shipyard strike in Gdansk from the official viewpoint seems even more remote and less relevant. Even so, when it was still topical it was awarded Best Film at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.
Wajda's remarkable sequel to Man of Marble welds newsreel footage of the Solidarity strike to fiction in a strong investigative drama. A disillusioned, vodka-sodden radio producer is bundled off to Gdansk in a black limousine. His mission: to smear one of the main activists - who also happens to be the son of the hapless 'Marble' worker-hero. But, tempered by bitter experience of the failed reforms of '68 and '70, these new men of iron are more durable than their fathers, not as easily smashed. Media cynicism, censorship and corruption are again dominant themes, this time anchored through the TV coverage of the strike, though the conclusion hints with guarded optimism at a possible rapprochement between workers and intelligentsia. An urgent, nervy narrative conveys all the exhilaration and bewilderment of finding oneself on the very crestline of crucial historical change; and for the viewer, all the retrospective melancholy of knowing that euphoria shattered by subsequent events.
Man Of Marble. Man Of Iron Polish Film and Politics, by Lisa DiCarpio from Jump Cut, July 1982
Heroines of Polish Cinema - Kinema : : A Journal for Film and ... Ewa Mazierska from Kinema
KATYN C 75
Despite the historical relevance of this film that attempts to set the record straight in telling the story of a Russian massacre of some 12,000 to 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals, professionals, and soldiers in the Katyn forest located 12 miles west of Smolensk, Russia in 1940, later blamed by the Soviets on the Nazi’s several years later in a brazen (and at the time successful) attempt to alter the historical record and maintain Allied sympathies with Russia in the West, and despite the importance of unearthing the truth about war crimes, as there were two other similar burial sites in Mednoye and Piatykhatky admitted to by Russian Premiere Mikhail Gorbachov in 1990 totalling nearly 26,000 Poles killed, perhaps a fictionalized war drama is not the way to go about telling a story of this significance, even by a heralded Polish filmmaker who’s own father was murdered there. Unfortunately, the grim tone of this film bears the Spielberg stamp of moral overreach, an honest, good-hearted but humanly flawed attempt that melodramatically overempahisizes the director’s own point of view, which is to make sure audiences will know what to think when they leave the theater. In my view, this is conventional filmmaking at its mediocre worst, as the characters are never fleshed out but are drawn in stereotypical depictions, all emphatically meant to portray a specific type, an honorable Polish army officer in captivity, his loving and long suffering wife and child, good intentioned family and friends who are caught in the middle of not knowing what’s going on, corrupted Polish officers that survived only to be used by the Russians to help convey the “truth” of the Russian myth imposed on the Polish people, idealistic professors and intellectuals who were duped by the Nazi’s and later executed, bold, heroic Polish women who years later would rather die than admit to the Russian lie, next generation students after the war who for decades were not allowed to mention Katyn, subject to signed confessions admitting guilt or imprisonment, and of course, a shadowy Russian presence that only comes to light in a starkly realized final sequence of the massacre itself, where a bullet to the back of the head was Stalin’s method of choice, one after another falling into mass graves.
I can’t speak for others, but the most effective cinema recollections of Holocaust atrocities, battle sequences since WW II, war crimes footage, or even seeing the Japanese bury Chinese citizens alive with bulldozers in the Nanking Massacre of 1937, has been through documentary footage that makes an indelible imprint in one’s memory banks that is not skewed by opinion or point of view, that simply shows what happens – here it is, look for yourself, perhaps something similar to the Rodney King footage. Accordingly, within this film, like Hamlet’s play within the play, are two stunning newsreel depictions of Katyn, one by the Nazi’s in 1943 blaming the Russians (accurate) and the other by the Russians in 1945 blaming the Nazi’s (bogus). Similarly, the director makes excellent use of the Polish officer’s diary that meticulously records being transported from camp to camp as he is being moved to the Katyn forest and then is strangely silent. But this film leaves itself open to so many other subjective criteria, such as the annoying portrayal of the long suffering wife (Maja Ostaszewska, a stand-in for the director’s mother) righteously behaving as if she’s part of a privileged elite class, who always looks and dresses like a well dressed, lipstick-and-hair-always-in-place, movie actress, where the same could be said for almost any other character in the film, none of whom are particularly compelling or memorable. Adapted from Andrzej Mularczyk's book Post Mortem – The Katyn Story, based on the letters and diaries of actual people, few of whom survive, perhaps the strongest and most powerful record left by this film is the singular brilliance of its composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, whose work “The Awakening of Jacob” has been previously chosen by the likes of Kubrick and Lynch, but is perhaps best suited here in his homeland where his music, especially the way it is used in the finale, adds a stunning elegiac reverance.
KATYN (d. Andrzej Wajda; Poland) *** 1/2 Ken Rudolph
Wajda is, and has been for decades, an important master filmmaker; and this film proves that his skills are still vibrant. It's the epic story of an early WWII massacre of captive Polish officers by the Soviets, who tried to change the perception of history after the war by promulgating a big lie that it was the Germans who committed this atrocity. Much of this history came as a revelation to me; and occasionally I had trouble understanding the ins-and-outs of post-war Polish politics. But that didn't stop me from respecting the sheer importance of this film and the tremendous artfulness of Wadja's achievement.
First up was famed Polish director Andrzej Wajda's
Oscar-nominated film Katyn
(4/8), a movie of great importance with a super-powerful climax that otherwise
came across as muddled, disjointed, and rather uninvolving. Spanning from 1939
until after the war when the Soviets occupy
The very fact that this new film has already been prohibited
in my native country,
Killing Field Benjamin B. Fischer
from the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence,
Meanwhile, the Soviets obliterated references to Katyn on maps
and in official reference works. Then, in 1969,
A CRIME and a lie are the twin strands in the shameful tragedy of Katyn: the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, and the cover-up that followed. Now Andrzej Wajda, Poland's leading film maker, has made his last film (he is 81) about what he calls the “unhealed wound” in his country's history.
Mr Wajda's own father, Jakub, was murdered at Katyn, as were family members of many of the production team. Those killings come in a gruelling, 15-minute final sequence. First, the film shows in sombre and claustrophobic detail the Polish POWs' travels to Golgotha; the occupation authorities' vengeance on their families, and flashes forward to the attempts by the country's post-war rulers to disguise and deface the historical record.
The film has been nominated for best foreign-language film at this year's Oscars. Those watching it should not expect to come away happily humming the dramatic theme music by Krzysztof Penderecki. “Katyn” is based on the letters and diaries of real-life victims—unearthed when the Nazis first came across the mass graves in 1943. The last entry records the Polish officers' arrival at the killing fields. “A thorough search. They didn't find my wedding ring. They took my belt, my penknife and my watch. It showed 0630 Polish time. What will happen to us?”
Expert cinematography, compelling acting, and a story that leaves the viewer both sorrowful and angry, are a strong combination. But they may not be quite enough to convince the judges. “Katyn” is filmed from an uncompromisingly Polish point of view. Some outsiders may find it confusing. One of the most powerful scenes, for example, is the mass arrest of the professors of Cracow University by the Germans. Those who already know about the upheaval that followed the German invasion of 1939 will see the point: the Soviets and the Nazis were accomplices. Others may puzzle.
The moral dilemmas of post-war Polish collaborators are better portrayed than those of the wartime occupiers. If honouring the dead means doom for your family—or for you—is it better to keep silent? Poles faced that choice again and again after 1945, as their new rulers used Katyn as a litmus test of loyalty. But barring one Red Army officer, impeccably played by a Ukrainian actor, Sergei Garmash, who saves his neighbours (an officer's widow and child) from deportation, the foreigners are so villainous as to be little more than sinister mannequins.
Melodrama is perhaps one fault of the film; an oddly sanitised picture of daily life is another. Teeth, complexions and clothes all evoke the prosperous Poland of today more than the squalor and hunger of 1945. Material deprivation brings out the worst and the best in people. But it needs to be shown to make the measure convincing.
Astonishingly, some in Russia are now reviving the lie that the murderers at Katyn were not by the NKVD, but the Nazis. That was maintained during the communist era, but only by punishing savagely those who tried to tell the truth. Last year, as Mr Wajda's film opened in Poland, a commentary in a Russian government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, dismissed the evidence of Soviet involvement in Katyn as “unreliable”. An Oscar would be a good answer to that.
New York Review of Books Anne Applebaum
Monsters and Critics Ron Wilkinson
Screen International review Lee Marshall in Berlin
Prost Amerika Mati Bishop
The Age review Jake Wilson
The Hollywood Reporter review Kirk Honeycutt
The Katyn Massacre: An Assesment of its Significance as a Public and Historical Issue in the USA and GB, 1940-1993 Masters Thesis by Louis Robert Coatney, December 1993
of Katyn Jamie Glazov from FrontPage magazine,
Killing Field Benjamin B. Fischer
As the title, and superficially the script, might suggest, Aliyah is about a young Jewish
man’s “ascent” to
Sincere and engaging, Aliyah fields a fresh and attractive cast with the director Cedric Kahn taking a lead role. The central relationship between Alex (Pio Marmai) and his overpowering brother Isaac (Kahn) is beautifully conceived and executed, a Cain and Abel push-and-pull that’s satisfyingly subtle and oblique. But there’s a lack of narrative tension that pulls Aliyah up short. The question of whether Alex will ever make it to Israel never feels urgent enough, although Aliyah does make it clear that if and when he gets there, it will be a Promised Land of all varieties of Jews, for better or worse - some running to something, others running away.
Wajeman has made a debut that calls to mind the world of Mia Hansen-Love, adopting a natural approach that takes on specific and yet highly universal themes. Some of the film is opaque: it hints at past events and makes reference to the brothers’ dead mother and unfeeling father, but it never offers an explanation. Yet other sections are over-emphasised and verge on the ponderous.
Ultimately, Alex has a tendency to take a casual attitude to his
own fate which the film finds hard to overcome. Part of a close-knit extended
Jewish family, Alex and his cousins are relaxed about their faith. Yet one has
just returned from military service in
Nothing and nobody seems to be in any real peril in this chatty film. You always get the feeling that just as easily as Alex said he was in, he could be out again. He strikes up a sweet relationship with goy Jeanne (Haenel) but it’s clearly not going anywhere, and he has bittersweet feelings about his ex, Esther (Sarah Picard). As the brothers, Marmai and Kahn are convincing, with director-writer Kahn delivering just the right amount of edge to make Isaac a persuasively realistic bully.
With solid production values and some persuasive flourishes from cinematographer Chizallet, Aliyah opens and closes to Schonberg but remains mostly silent in between, apart from Sixto Rodriguez’ Sugar Man, an odd but effective selection.
Cannes Review Jordan Mintzer at
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body
with her mind
—Suzanne, (Third verse), Leonard Cohen, 1966
First and foremost is Tiaõ, an ambitious young man who aspires to build a coalition of workers to help improve their living conditions while also becoming the point man leading demonstrations against the mayor and the city for dragging their feet and refusing to implement a citywide recycling program, as promised. Suelem is an attractive 18-year old with a strikingly good looking face, but she has two children living with her sister away from the dump that she misses, so she periodically leaves the dump shantytown to visit them in a different dilapidated shack nearby that looks just the same, except they’re wired for a TV. Isis is another attractive young woman with man problems, while Magna (truly the most interesting to me) is more mature, with a world weary expression on her face, as if she’s somehow capable of surviving some of the worst battles, while Irmã is the eldest and the woman who’s probably worked there the longest. All live on the premises and are slowly brought into Vik’s world, as he has a large studio nearby where he takes the photographs, enlarges them to huge, places them on the ground, and then embellishes them with products found in the landfill, a tedious process that includes the involvement of the catadores themselves, who get a personalized taste of the high end art world, all startled by how it looks from a proper distance. What’s interesting is the discussion about what happens next, as Vik’s wife comes to visit and she’s quite demonstrative about how taking responsibility for their lives is beyond any concept of art, as they’re being introduced unto a brand new world with no instructions on how to navigate their way through, claiming they are all fragile and vulnerable. But Vik is not interested in negativity and in no short order rejects his wife’s ideas completely, claiming even if just for a moment if they could live outside the landfill for a few precious weeks and see how the rest of the world operates, that in itself would be a life altering experience equivalent to the transforming power of art.
Next thing you know,
Tiaõ is whisked off to
British doc maker Lucy Walker
(‘Blindsight’, ‘Devil’s Playground’) profiles the successful Brazilian, New
York-based artist Vik Muniz as he executes a project which touches on issues
relating to his own modest background and the responsibility of anyone offering
a temporary leg-up to those with limited opportunities.
Review: Waste Land - Reviews - Boston Phoenix Gerald Peary
Vik Muniz, a well-regarded Brazilian artist living in
A fascinating look at the complex intersections of art and
charity, reality and perception,
Jardim Gramacho is the biggest landfill in the world, taking in
The compelling documentary
Though narrower in scope and lacking the first-person angle,
Cineaste Karen Backstein
In the 1960s and ’70s, revolutionary
Internationally successful Brazilian-born painter Vik Muniz believed that he could make a huge difference. So he left his adopted home in New York to return to Rio—but not to the city’s renowned beaches, tourist sites, or even the gun-packed hillside favelas that have become standard fare in so many recent Brazilian films. Instead, he focused on the ironically named Jardim (garden) Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, and on the people who scavenge in this mind-bogglingly vast mountain of garbage. Muniz was determined to do nothing less than transform their lives through art.
Waste Land—or Lixo Extraordinario (Extraordinary Garbage) in Portuguese—documents Muniz’s work among the catadores, those who dig through the trash to gather all the recyclables, which they in turn sell to large companies eager to get the materials but not to do the labor. Directed by Lucy Walker, with codirectors Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, the film follows Muniz as he chooses several “pickers” to join him in creating a huge painted and collaged canvas, incorporating items scavenged from the trash. He then, additionally, paints portraits of these subjects, often in poses and scenes rich in cultural allusions, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat.
Obviously, one factor that distinguishes Waste Land is the
landfill itself, a site so astoundingly enormous that it becomes an object of
visual and intellectual fascination. Set on the outskirts of the city, Jardim
Gramacho receives 7,000 tons of garbage each day, and serves as the central
But the “garden” is a paradox, too.
Vik Muniz, too, is a fascinating subject, constantly questioning himself and wondering what will happen to his subjects when his project finally concludes. (His friends and family worry on camera about this, too.) Because of Muniz’s introspection, the film actually brings up and debates many of the same questions that viewers might have. When the catadores attend the opening of Muniz’s exhibit, and enter to the applause of the upper-class gallery attendees, it’s hard not to think of Cinderella and what will happen when the clock strikes .
Muniz’s larger-than-life depictions could—in the most hopeful interpretation of his project—turn a mostly “invisible” class of people visible once again
REVIEW: Waste Land Tracks an Artist Who Turns Trash -- and ... Michelle Orange from Movieline
Cinematical [Christopher Campbell] Doc Talk: How Involved Should Doc Filmmakers Be with Their Subjects?
Filmcritic.com Chris Barsanti
ReelTalk [Donald Levit] Where to Look Among the Garbage and the Flowers
Waste Land | Review | Screen Tim Grierson from Screendaily
Image Good Letters: The IMAGE Blog Trash Transformed Jeffrey Overstreet from Image
Waste Land: One man's trash is another man's … art? - The Globe ... Stephen Cole from The Globe and the Mail
Finding beauty among trash and its sifters - Philly.com Steven Rea from The Philadelphia Inquirer
Waste Land - Page
1 - Movies - Minneapolis - City Pages
Eric Hynes from the
Oscar nominations: Weighty matters in documentary and foreign categories Reed Johnson from The LA Times, January 26, 2011
New York Times
(registration req'd) Stephen Holden,
Art Meets Trash and Transforms Life
Carol Kino from The New York
WASTE LAND : Vik Muniz brief bio
WASTE LAND : Vik Muniz PBS Independent Lens
Countdown to Zero Uses Fear and Optimism in Discussing The Bomb Vadim Rizov from The Village Voice
The title of Lucy
Walker's pro-nuclear-disarmament tract Countdown to Zero has two meanings: a
paranoiac's ticking off down the last moments until the bomb goes off, and an
exhortation to work for the cause until zero missiles and weapons remain.
Synthesizing fear and optimism like that requires
Countdown to Zero; The Housemaid; A Screaming Man; Outrage Peter Bradshaw at Cannes from The Guardian, May 17, 2010, also seen here: Peter Bradshaw
The most traumatic experience at
Nukes are a subject that we have long made a semi-conscious
decision to ignore.
The Hollywood Reporter review John DeFore at Sundance,
PARK CITY -- A doomsday doc suggesting that climate change and
eco-degradation aren't going to matter much if we blow up the planet first,
"Countdown to Zero" reminds viewers of old fears most people have put
on a back burner. Convincingly argued and extremely polished, it has theatrical
potential for auds whose reservoir of worry about humanity's future hasn't
already run dry.
Taking cues from a famous JFK speech, the doc studies three ways -- accident, miscalculation, or madness -- in which nuclear weapons might be detonated. Director Lucy Walker (also bringing the lighter-hearted "
Some possibilities seem anything but low-probability, though:
Experts like Valerie Plame and
radiation detectors at shipping docs, which give false-positive readings for everything from CRTs to kitty litter and could easily be bypassed by a few grapefruit-sized chunks of HEU.
With its constant stream of images of the world's great cities -- with "five-mile" circles showing the area of maximum devastation -- the film never lets us forget the specifics of a hypothetical nuclear detonation.
innocent lives a bomb would destroy.
Ending on a de rigueur positive note,
Andrew O'Hehir Valerie Plame on Naomi Watts and nuclear doom, from Salon, May 17. 2010
David Bourgeois at Cannes from Movieline magazine, May 16, 2010
Christopher Goodwin The Blond's Bombshell, interview with Lucy Walker from The London Times, May 16, 2010
Owen Gleiberman at
First and foremost in this movie, even better than the movie itself is the music by Dean and Britta and their former band, Luna, which by itself is worth the price of admission, where their still relatively unknown exposure could use a jump start from this small indie film. Links to available YouTube music videos of songs used in the film will be listed after the review. This is a wildly uneven but comically satiric, capitalistic take on the American Dream gone wrong film, as personified by Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius), a normal and typically easy going guy, living from paycheck to paycheck in the New York suburbs of Long Island, not particularly happy in his job, but he knows and likes the people, even if none of them are really his friends. Working in the marketing division for a string of supermarket chains, this was never his career choice, rather the kind of job he settled for in order to pay the bills, as his real joy is spending time with his lovely wife Sarah (Annie Parisse) and infant son. When his longtime boss retires, someone from corporate headquarters is being brought in with a reputation for being a “real ball-buster.” The new boss’s arrival is, of course, preceded by a moment of brilliance from Amy Schumer as Lila, seen as she walks into the building in the morning when she deadpans “I feel like shit, being human sucks. I hope someone brought donuts.” This defines the prevailing blasé office attitude where casual nonchalance takes precedent over actual work. Of course, who’s brought in to shake things up and get these slackers in line? Susan Felders, rising corporate star, played by none other than Parker Posey, introduced here: Price Check Movie (Parker Posey & Eric Mabius) - YouTube (). Posey is energy in a bottle, given a starring role written for her by the writer/director, where she channels the spoiled and manic nature of her previous role in The House of Yes (1997), where she is literally so narcissistic that she always has to have her way, steamrolling over others to make sure she gets it. Her ruthlessly ambitious personality is both lovably adoring, the way Posey plays it, yet also slightly terrifying, like she’s an unleashed monster in the room.
Posey’s high strung character represents the boss from Hell, the Type-A personality that has you immediately sending out resumé’s for another job, but then she pats you on the back, calls you by your first name, and starts throwing out impossible sales projections that need to be met by next week, accompanied by the shouting of hurrah, clapping her hands, yelling let’s get to work, and deep down, you know she really means it. Immediately you know your life is not the same anymore, as it’s owned by the company you work for. But Pete doesn’t see it that way initially, as he’s a decent and earnest guy, responsible and hard-working, feeling it’s time to step up to the plate and try some of these new ideas, though doubling his salary and making him a company Vice-President doesn’t hurt in buying his allegiance. Sarah’s a little upset that he’s bringing work home with him, that he never has time for his family anymore, but she’s fine with it as she’s finally able to pay off the credit card debt. Hell, she’s even got her eye on a new Volvo to replace that stinker in the driveway. Posey always works best with a straight guy, and Pete couldn’t be more straight and narrow, where she has him eating out of the palm of her hand, supporting her every move, reduced to being a corporate lackey, yet actually excited about implementing these newfangled business ideas. Susan needs a guy like Pete to do all the work, as we never see her do any of it, instead she’s the sleight-of-hand, deviously motivating “bullshit” overseer that expects everyone else to pull their weight, and hers as well. She, of course, takes home the corporate paycheck, while everyone else earns the satisfaction of a job well done, and maybe, in good times, a small Christmas bonus.
In the 40’s and 50’s, Posey would be played by Judy Holliday, where her unbridled enthusiasm would liven up stale business practices, and she’d catch the ear of a corporate mogul who’d find her ideas refreshing and exactly what was needed to prevent the company from being driven to corruption and ruin by the predictable financial experts who were little more than yes men. Half a century later, the company plays with sharks in the water who bully and terrify the workers into becoming yes men, where in reality it’s a cutthroat business where only the strong survive and any misstep only gives them grounds to cut you loose. The meat of the narrative hardly feels like a comedy, and the way Susan manipulates Pete, the financial numbers, and her entire corporate world is an artificially dizzying process that is oftentimes uncomfortable to watch, as it’s saturated in greed and self-centeredness. Susan not only controls Pete’s working life, but she takes over his personal life as well, as he’s forced to spend every waking minute with her. Again, his wife Sarah suspects something’s up, but she’s willing to overlook it because of all the money rolling in. What’s truly unique is the use of the Dean and Britta music playing quietly underneath, where Susan and Pete actually catch them in a live act, which is nothing short of brilliant, but Susan’s only there to be seen with a hip crowd, where she still wants to be the center of attention, barely even conscious that a musical group is onstage, as it’s all about her. Like a Faustian bargain, straight arrow Pete actually falls for this, as he envisions seeing himself up the corporate ladder somewhere on easy street. And it all could have happened, only it doesn’t, as instead of his trusted business ally, Susan in real life is a heartless backstabber, cutting him loose without a second thought, undermining his own ambition with a little of her own, where nowadays it’s considered sound business practice to eliminate the competition. The capitalistic ruthlessness of the film is a bit frightening, dressed up in what appears to be light comedy, even the so-called happy ending where Pete lands on his feet, but it’s a savagely downbeat and dark tone.
“Someone Else” The Working Title Someone Else - The Working Title ()
“Black Postcards” Luna Luna - Black Postcards (Tell Me Do You Miss Me ... ()
“When There is No Crowd” White Fence White Fence - When There is No Crowd ()
“Eyes In My Smoke” Dean and Britta Dean & Britta : Eyes in My Smoke ()
“We Dress Ourselves” Princess Katie and Racer Steve Princess Katie & Racer Steve We Dress Ourselves Rock Songs Music For Kids ()
“Harvest Moon” Pepper Rabbit Pepper Rabbit, 'Harvest Moon' @ Bootleg Theater, 1.19.10 ()
“Mermaid Eyes” Luna Luna - Mermaid Eyes ()
“After the Moment” Craft Spells Craft Spells - After The Moment ()
“Radio” My Hero My Hero Official "Radio" Music Video ()
“Well Well Well Well” The Satin Peaches The Satin Peaches - Well Well Well Well ()
“I Found It Not So” Dean and Britta Dean & Bretta - I Found it Not So ()
“Show You Mine” Alyx Alyx - Show You Mine ()
“Ramona” Craft Spells Craft Spells - Ramona ()
“Night Nurse” Dean and Britta nightnurse - dean wareham britta phillips ()
“Knives From Bavaria” Dean and Britta KNIVES FROM BAVARIA (), also here: Dean and Britta "Knives from Bavaria" Live @ The Warhol in Pittsburgh JANE HOLZER ()
“Ticking is The Bomb” Luna
“Big Toe” Xray Eyeballs Xray Eyeballs - Big Toe ()
“We Are the Dinosaurs” Laurie Berkner The Laurie Berkner Band - We Are The Dinosaurs ()
“All I Ask” Theodore Theodore-All I ask ()
“All Things Merry” Britta Phillips
“The Day Summer Fell” The Sand Pebbles Sand Pebbles The Day Summer Fell ()
PRICE CHECK Facets Multi Media
Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius, Ugly Betty), is a good guy who used to be cool and once had his dream job in the music industry, but now finds himself working in the pricing department of a failing supermarket chain. He has a home in the suburbs which he shares with his loving wife and young son. His position allows him to spend quality time with his family, and they are quite happy, despite the fact that they are living beyond their means. However, everything changes when Pete gets a new boss, the high powered, fast talking Susan Felders (Parker Posey, House of Yes, Best in Show). She is an alpha female, and with her enthusiasm and unconventional ideas, Pete finds himself on the executive track, a new role which both surprises and excites him. As his salary increases, he is busier than ever, and work becomes so demanding that it starts to adversely affect his life at home. Pete begins to wonder if this new career is changing him in ways that he can no longer control, in this smart and honest dramedy about the high price of a middle-class life. The question becomes: What are we willing to do for the life we think we deserve.
Village Voice Chris Packham
At what point do the responsibilities of marriage and family
supersede those of personal actualization and dream fulfillment? A lot of
people would say "at the moment of conception," while others might
suggest that kids are just along for the ride, anyway. Go ahead and found that
puppet theater or artisanal ukulele atelier you've always dreamed of, and just
pack the kids to junior college at 18. Director Michael Walker's Price Check
presents a miniature Faust story in which Peter (Ugly
Betty's Eric Mabius), a husband and new father, grinds away
precious hours of unrecoverable life in the fluorescent-lit head office of a
failing chain of supermarkets. The company sends in Susan (Parker
Posey), a tornadic new vice president with a terrifyingly unstable
personality and epic professional ambitions. Recognizing Peter's intelligence
and stability, she immediately bullies him into naming the office's worst
performers (whom she fires) before doubling Peter's salary and enlisting his
help to ram a difficult new business model past the board. She barges into his
personal life, befriending his wife and inviting herself to parties at his
child's school and to his house on the holidays. During a business trip to
When Parker Posey was crowned "queen of the indies" in the mid-to-late '90s, the title referred to her Sundance-dominating ubiquity. But it could just as well have applied to the Parker Posey type — powerful and wonderfully imperious, with a habit of cutting her underlings down to size.
That's the Posey who turns up in Michael Walker's tense comedy Price Check, where she plays a relentless corporate climber who shakes up a sleepy regional office. She inspires. She terrorizes. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
Posey dominates Price Check, mostly for the better:
She's the conqueror of the boardroom, bold and visionary and castigating when she needs to be, but there's a subtle note of uncertainty that seeps through the cracks. Professional triumph for her seems certain, but what will it mean in the end? Just a few more units sold?
The story is told from the considerably blander vantage of Pete
Cozy (Ugly Betty veteran Eric Mabius), an utterly defeated middle
manager at the
When Susan Felders (Posey) turns up to replace the long-standing supervisor of the pricing department, she instantly recognizes Pete's potential and offers to double his salary for a sharp increase in responsibility. While the money allows Pete and his wife to pay off their debtors and seriously consider a second child, it comes at the cost of nights and weekends and other predictable consequences. For a passive guy like Pete, being put in an intimate working relationship with a voracious go-getter like Susan is a recipe for disaster.
Pete's moral journey — from stand-up married guy willing to
shelve his dreams for family to glad-handing slickster who loses his way — has
been taken many times before, and
Posey, again, is the real heart of Price Check, an
ambiguous figure who introduces chaos into the
Beyond writing a plum role for Posey, who makes it impossible to
fathom anyone else in the part,
Because after all, it's just a carrot.
Sound On Sight Lane Scarberry
Slant Magazine R.
Hollywood Reporter Justin Lowe
Los Angeles Times Barry Goldstein
Chicago Tribune Nina Metz
aka: Young at Heart
Does watching a singing
group that averages 81 years of age sound appealing? What if they choose rock n roll songs, or
even more absurd, a few punk songs to perform?
One could easily find fault with this film, as outside of an amusing
premise which is revealed in the film trailers, what more is there to stick
around for? There’s no real
groundbreaking cinematic material here, nothing particularly novel in the
director’s style of filming a documentary where the camera is nearly incidental,
and the subject matter dreadfully sounds like the sort of thing especially
designed for The Price is Right game
show contestants. Send them on a trip to
Led for 25 years by a strict taskmaster, the 50 something Bob Cilman, who is described by one member as “Tough as nails. He breathes rust,” they are practicing some brand new material for a local performance, among which includes some Talking Heads songs, also a couple that are really tripping them up, “Yes I Can,” a song that was a hit with the Pointer Sisters which features the repetitive use of the word “can” 71 times in the song, and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” which has them all shaking their heads and holding their ears. Cut to a few face shots where members are asked to name their favorite music, which inevitably turns out to be classical, with opera hitting the top of their list. From my perspective, listening to Sonic Youth’s version with this group was a real leap of faith, as one wondered if perhaps this wasn’t beyond their reach. Then we learn a little health background about a few members of the group, a few who have been pronounced dead but survived, several who have overcome what was believed to be terminal illnesses, one who survived 5 bouts of chemotherapy, but somehow they survived. Every man and woman in the group attributes it to their participation in this group, which forces them to focus beyond themselves but to a larger goal. What they have in this performance group is one large support network where they all reach out and care about one another.
Inevitably, members succumb. In the entire history of the group, over 100 members have died. Suddenly, what was a silly movie about octogenarian rock singers turns into a poignant study about impending death. When one of the members dies, which was reported to the group off camera where the audio was still rolling as they sat in a yellow school bus, his death was honored an hour later in a performance at a local correctional facility of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” When they finally perform to a sold out house in their home town, the same situation happens again, where one of the guys who was sharing the lines to the Talking Heads song “Life in Wartime,” the guy who just nailed it in the rehearsals, died shortly before the concert. In tribute, Fred Knittle, a barrel of a man connected to an oxygen tank for the rest of his life, who was introduced in the film singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” at his kitchen table, sings an eerily haunting and supremely touching version of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” easily the seminal moment of the film, as it’s quiet enough that you can hear the pumping rhythm of his oxygen machine. Death doesn’t come much closer than this, particularly in a live performance. Knittle’s acutely apt rendition is perhaps the singlemost outstanding cinema sequence I’ve seen all year, as the raw authenticity emanating from that moment is simply unforgettable. We hear another woman sing an astonishingly beautiful rendition of Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares to U.” And yes, the group brings the house down singing a wild version of “Schizophrenia.” Apparently the group used to tour singing show tunes and old cowboy ballads, songs from their era, until onstage one night one woman in the group inexplicably broke into the Manfred Mann song “Doo Wah Diddy” and the audience went crazy. The rest is history.
There are a few previously produced rock videos made by the group for the TV show which admittedly don’t have the same spontaneous impact as their live footage, but it does include a hilarious rendition of the Ramones “I Wanna be Sedated,” a group travel video where they’re actually lost on the side of the road in the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere,” or a cheesy Saturday Night Fever spoof of “Staying Alive” shot with background singers and dancers in a bowling alley. But one of the more memorable moments in the film was one man’s utter inability to get the 7 word lyrics right in the James Brown song “I Feel Good,” where even in rehearsals, he was never able to sing “I feel nice, like sugar and spice.” But the song brought the house down anyway, kids were jumping in the aisles, as it’s the idea of rockers on parade having fun that simply makes people feel good. Cilman does an excellent job choosing material for the group, as the lyrics truly resonate beyond the stage into the audience.
While the film is somewhat amateurish, brilliant production values alone do not make a great film, but this film does find its audience by simply showcasing a marvelous group of people who live with the close proximity of death every day, where the mortality in the film is so real, yet throughout it all the group maintains their composure and lives the remaining years of their lives with a great deal of dignity by having a rollicking good time at rehearsals or on the road with a group of their peers, where they all commiserate and work through their losses through music and song, but also still find a wonderful joy in being alive and still feeling appreciated. The emotion in this film may feel a bit raw and raggedly unrehearsed, but since it took 8 decades developing, at this point it’s hard-earned and genuine, and in a youth dominated culture where it’s all about teenage angst and maintaining your youthful appearance, this is a film that makes the rest of us sit up, take notice, and appreciate the elderly.
a partial list off songs:
Bob Dylan - Forever Young
Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated
Talking Heads – Life in Wartime
Talking Heads – Road to Nowhere
James Brown – I Feel Good
Fix You – Coldplay
Sinead O’Conner – Nothing Compares to U
Sonic Youth – Schizophrenia
David Bowie – Golden Years
Bee Gee’s – Staying Alive
Clash – Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Yes I Can – Pointer Sisters
Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze
I just saw this movie at the Philadelphia Film Festival. This was an excellent feel good movie. I highly recommend it. It's the type of movie (documentary really) that more Hollywood Studios should make. In the Q&A afterwards, the director commented on how hard it was to get musical releases for the various songs. When you see the movie, you will understand why because the songs were sung by many famous performers and the producers got all of the releases but one, U2's One. During the scene in which one of the characters is in the hospital the scene was supposed to show the character singing One in a past performance interlaced with the current event. Alas, since U2 didn't agree to release the rights, it will never be shown. The director commented that so many people on the production staff would stop in the editing room just to see it. Once you see the movie, you will understand why I say, U2 sucks!
Village Voice Scott Foundas
From the washed-out images to the twee voice-over (courtesy
of director Stephen Walker), this British television documentary about the
titular Massachusetts-based senior-citizens' chorus so slavishly embodies the
creakiest clichés of British television documentaries that you begin to wonder
if it's not all a big put-on—if Christopher Guest didn't direct the damn thing
under a pseudonym. Fortunately,
Don Argott's 2005 crowd-pleaser Rock School illustrated how tough, unsentimental documentary filmmaking can undercut the sentimentality of even the most oppressively adorable subject. School explored the career of Rock School proprietor Paul Green, a mercurial, foul-mouthed teacher whose life goal entails bringing the rock to adorable tots and sulky teens. Young@Heart explores a similarly crowd-pleasing story from somewhere at the opposite end of the age spectrum—it tells the story of Bob Cilman, an iconoclastic teacher brave or foolish enough to teach a chorus of senior citizens songs from artists like The Clash. But any hope that Walker will steer clear of sap vanishes when he guilelessly gushes early on that documenting the choir was like picking up dozens of new grandparents. Walker undoubtedly means well, and his affection for his subjects is palpable. But the "Aren't these geezers adorable?" approach ends up diminishing his subjects rather than honoring them.
Walker's film follows the "Young At Heart" chorus as it tries to learn tricky new songs by Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, and others for a climactic performance. The singing seniors turn out to be a gregarious lot delighted to have an appreciative audience for their corny jokes and rambling tales. The film's first half is human-interest-story peppy, but as one chorus member after another stares down his imminent mortality, the film grows darker and more heart-wrenching.
Cilman looks to be almost as intriguing a subject as Green, but Walker unwisely maintains a respectful distance from him and avoids asking tough questions, like whether teaching confused seniors a Sonic Youth song is broadening their horizons, or imposing his own arty taste on folks who'd rather sing the Irving Berlin songbook. Walker similarly stumbles in including homemade Young At Heart "music videos" that come off as cheesy and condescending instead of cheeky and irreverent. Which is a shame, because there's a wealth of great material here, especially a shattering performance of Coldplay's "Fix You" by a soulful mountain of a man named Fred Knittle. In this transcendent, goosebump-inducing moment, the facile gimmick of senior citizens performing the music of their grandchildren's generation disappears, giving way to something truer and more profound: a great singer connecting on a primal level with the heart of a terrific song. It's a wonderful sequence that deserves to be in a deeper, better film.
Anyone who’s ever faced a birthday with a sense of impending
doom, or stared bleakly in the mirror at a causeway of emerging wrinkles, knows
we could all stand to be reminded, now and again, that there are benefits to
growing old, even beyond the obvious (it’s a whole lot better than the
alternative). Thankfully, just such a reminder has arrived in the form of
“Young @ Heart,” an exuberant, affectionate documentary by first-time
filmmakers Stephen Walker and Sally George.
“Young @ Heart” follows the eponymous chorus (average age 80) as they prepare a new repertoire of songs for a springtime tour, putting their signature spin on the classics. Classics like The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads and, naturally, that old chestnut, “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth. You can’t truly appreciate the absurdity of certain lyrics (Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” for example) until you’ve heard them read painstakingly aloud by an octogenarian with a magnifying glass.
Led by chorus director Bob Cilman—a wry, passionate candidate for Ultimate Mensch of the Universe—the troupe is populated by a range of characters, many who seem straight from central casting. Irene, a 92-year-old coquette, carpools to practice with sweet Joe, who’s survived multiple rounds of chemotherapy and memorizes lyrics after just one reading, and the irascible Lenny, a World War II pilot drives like a 16-year-old but can’t quite remember the words to “Purple Haze.”
While their vigor and enthusiasm makes it easy to temporarily forget, or at least ignore, the realities of the chorus’ collective age, there are inevitable, harsh reminders. Two members died during the filming process, and another came awfully close (but survived to deliver a truly astonishing rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You”). Director Stephen Walker does a remarkable job of respecting his subjects’ grief even as their experiences inform and enhance the film’s emotional canvas. Movie death, even in documentaries, can feel like a cheap shot. Here, the emotion, like everything else about the project, feels categorically genuine.
After persuading the initially reluctant chorus to let a film crew trail them for months on end,
There may be people who won’t fall in love with this movie, people who aren’t captivated by its motley cast of characters. I just hope I never meet any of them.
When we were kids, all we wanted to do was grow up to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever we wanted. We don't know when adulthood hits. One day we wake up and have a job and responsibilities. Suddenly, aging terrifies us, as if our lives our end at 50. And then there's Young at Heart, a chorus with members ranging from 72 to 92-plus years old belting out rock classics from The Clash to Talking Heads.
From frame one, we giggle, as 92 year-old Eileen Hall screaming The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" with a grandmotherly British accent. But we aren't laughing at her. We laugh because we're surprised. Surprised by the grit and fire in the voices. Surprised by the vitality of rock and roll. Surprised because old age has never been so alive. The documentary follows the geriatric rockers as they prepare for a new tour. And director Stephen Walker lucks out because there's nothing he could have done other than point his camera and shoot to make the film any stronger than it is. As a documentary, it's raw, unpolished footage. But for its lack of tact, it allows the strength of the chorus' personalities to come alive onscreen.
Every moment of laughter and tears is created by the choir
(not the filmmaker), from Lenny Fontaine driving with the reckless abandon of a
teenager with Eileen and Joe laughing in tow to Fred Knittle channeling Johnny Cash
when singing a duet-turned-solo after the chorus loses a member.
To keep the pace brisk and the mood light,
The spirit of rock and roll is embedded in the singers, but
that's not what we connect with. We connect with their passion and honesty --
two emotions that are rarely found in life, let alone cinema. Where popular
documentaries present a reality filtered through a filmmaker, Young at
Heart allows reality to play out as it happens. The movie could show
audiences that documentaries don't have to be stuffy, politically-driven
creations, but rather can be touching stories of everyday people that are
potentially more moving and enjoyable than any
For me, anything having to do with screening a film, reviewing it, consulting with filmmakers or even doing my own production work, is a labor of love. But today, with YOUNG @ HEART, writing this review goes even beyond that. I had the privilege of screening YOUNG @ HEART when it premiered last year at the Los Angeles Film Festival. From the opening frame, I knew this was something special. Many of you may have read my raves last year. as I screened it, not once, not twice but three times. And obviously the LAFF audience had the same love affair going with this documentary film as I, for it walked away with an LAFF Audience Award and garnered standing ovations and cheers at each screening and the closing night ceremonies. This film and its subjects, speak to your heart and as you will see for yourselves, comes from the heart and is filled with heart. My respect and admiration for the members of the Young @ Heart chorus is unparalleled but for that which I have for their choral director, Bob Cilman, and the film’s writer/director, Stephen Walker, whom I am privileged to know.
Many of us have long been consumed with a fear of aging....and to
a large degree, rightfully so. For years, the mantra was “don’t trust anyone
over 30", then 40 and 50 became feared and dreaded, “wrinkle” became a
watchword and a curse, and by the time one got to be 60 or 70, they were put
out to pasture. And let’s not even think about what happens when you are 80 or
90 or even 100+. For me, age was never something I thought about and thanks to
blessings of grandparents who were vital and active well into their 90's (and
beyond) and a father who in his 70's still works more than full-time in
broadcast television, activity means longevity and vitality. But that’s not how
it is for many who are beyond their golden years and left to their own devices
or, put out to pasture. And luckily, for the good folks of
Back in 1982, Cilman, a passionate musician and artist, became
involved with the
A 25 year work in progress, the chorus has gained international
Getting Bob Cilman to agree to
What Cilman and the group are doing with these songs is extraordinary. They give totally new meaning to songs well familiar to most of us. When Lenny Fontaine sings about “Purple Haze”, it’s no longer about drugs, it’s about dementia. When they sing “I Want to be Sedated”, it becomes the ultimate punk song as the chorus sing sit angrily in an “old people’s home” and the meaning now becomes how people can get treated in those places.
Shot with two cameras around
The prison performance piece one of the most powerful in the film
was a challenge. According to
Editing, key to the success of this project, in and of itself was
a challenge or as
And for those wondering about Academy consideration, take note. There is enough difference between this version and that shown on then BCC to qualify YOUNG @ HEART for submission for Oscar consideration, not to mention, grab Oscar gold as Best Documentary in 2009. Different in look and texture, it is filled with even more joy and emotion, but retains the integrity, spirit and heart of not only Stephen Walker’s vision, but that of Bob Cilman and the essence of the chorus.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll stand up and cheer. You’ll leave the theater with a song in your heart and a spring in your step. But more than anything, you will always be young at heart once you see YOUNG @ HEART. This is the single most powerful and personal moviegoing experience you will ever have.
REVIEW | Old Joy: Stephen Walker's “Young @ Heart” | IndieWire Nick Pinkerton from Reverse Shot, April 6, 2008
Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice Mark Bell
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Andy Speltzer
New York Times (registration req'd) Stephen Holden
BFI | Sight & Sound | Western Special: Eli Wallach - The Gun ... John Exshaw from Sight and Sound, January 2006
Western special The latest in our Actors series celebrates a veteran performer who often played the heavy against starrier names. His signature role is one of the great Western rogues: Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Stepping out of the elevator I find a short corridor with two identical doors at either end. I look left and right; neither is numbered. I continue to look one way then the other, like an idiot at a street crossing. A line spoken by Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly flashes through my mind: "There are two kinds of spurs, my friend. Those that come in by the door, those that come in by the window." Not very helpful: there aren't any windows and I'm not wearing spurs... This deranged line of thought is interrupted when the door on the left opens to reveal Wallach himself - Broadway legend, Hollywood character star and Brooklyn's greatest gift to the Western. We shake hands and he welcomes me in, grinning as if at some shared joke.
This is not our first meeting. In May, at New York's National Arts Club, I had watched as Wallach, together with his wife of 57 years and frequent co-star Anne Jackson, performed readings of two early one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. In the second - Me, Vashya! (1937) - Wallach played Vashya Shontine, a European arms manufacturer who has been selling munitions to both sides in an ongoing war. Though Me, Vashya! turned out to be poor-man's Chekhov, it was nonetheless vintage Wallach. Cunning, wheedling, threatening, bombastic and vicious by turn, the actor was in his element, his sly, peasant's eyes darting about, his right hand clenched, index finger jabbing upwards in a gesture that immediately recalled his gallery of great movie villains: Silva Vacarro, the oily seducer in Baby Doll (1956); Calvera, the rapacious bandit in The Magnificent Seven (1960); and, most memorably, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez ("known as the Rat") in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Afterwards he signed copies of his newly published autobiography The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage for an orderly queue of theatre aficionados, each of whom seemed eager to share a special memory of his distinguished Broadway career.
This afternoon, in his spacious Riverside Drive apartment on New York's Upper West Side, he begins by reminiscing about the time he spent in London in 1954 when The Teahouse of the August Moon transferred from Broadway to Her Majesty's Theatre, with RADA students Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole earning £1 a night as stagehands. Wallach is smaller than I'd expected, maybe 5'6", and looks fit and compact in a blue shirt and dark slacks, a slightly jerky gait the only evidence of two hip replacements. His white hair is cropped short and his close-cut moustache and goatee give him the air of a well-preserved Spanish don, an appropriate look for an actor whose best-known roles have been Mexican bandits or sinister Italians (think of the doddering but deadly Mafia boss Don Altobello in 1990's The Godfather Part III), despite his real-life Polish-Jewish background. Or perhaps because of it? The Union Street area of Brooklyn where he grew up was predominantly Italian and he can remember as a child being terrified by a bloodthirsty puppet show, the pupi siciliani that would later influence Sergio Leone's development of the picaresque Tuco.
Wallach worked as a Broadway actor for a decade before making his movie debut in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), a film constructed from two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. (The playwright has figured prominently in Wallach's life: it was during a production of This Property Is Condemned in 1946 that he met Jackson; in 1951 he won a Tony Award for his role in The Rose Tattoo; and he and Jackson continue to stage their show Tennessee Williams Remembered.) Baby Doll, with its hothouse plot of two older men fighting for the attentions of Carroll Baker's titular nymphet, brought Wallach his only major film-acting award in a career encompassing some 50 feature films. "After Baby Doll I won the British Academy Award for the best entrée into film," he says. "In America it was condemned by the Church, and Time magazine said it was probably the most pornographic movie ever made, filled with Priapian details that would make even Boccaccio blush. But the British film industry recognised the performance."
Wallach's striking debut came courtesy of 'the Method', an acting technique distilled from the psychology-based teaching of Konstantin Stanislavsky which encourages actors to use "emotional memory" to bring their personal experiences to a role. In 1947 Wallach and Jackson had become charter members of the Actors Studio, the famed rehearsal group co-founded by Kazan which embraced the Method with missionary zeal. Among their fellow members were Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Patricia Neal, with later disciples including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Montgomery Clift, Jack Palance and Rod Steiger. Wallach himself remains closely identified with both the Actors Studio (which he describes as "a gym for actors to work out in") and the Method, which makes his opening remarks on the subject surprising.
"There is no 'the Method'," he growls, index finger thrusting upwards. "Everyone says, 'the Method' - it's like mumbo-jumbo. Each teacher or director develops their own method." Having already encountered Stanislavsky's theories during his studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Lee Strasberg (who would become artistic director of the Actors Studio in 1949), Wallach soon realised that Kazan and his colleagues were putting their own spin on what 'the Method' should be. "I wasn't convinced that this Method knew the answer to it all. A good actor steals. I take from what's given, the rules of the game, and I sift it through my machine. I take what I need and what I think I can use."
I ask if the technique, combined with his family background, were of help when he made Romance of a Horse Thief (1971), the only film I can think of in which he plays a Polish-Jewish character. "No," he says after a pause. "I played a horse thief. I didn't think in terms of playing a Pole." He then goes on to describe The Wall (1982), about "the uprising of the Poles in Warsaw, which we shot near Krakow, near Auschwitz. There I had the experience of thinking what would have happened. My father's and mother's families were wiped out. It's a part of history that you think could never have happened, and yet it's repeatedly done. To quote Yip Harburg, who wrote Finian's Rainbow: 'We learn this after every war/That life is not worth dying for.'"
Wallach has frequently been cast as a spokesman for the Method, on one occasion participating in a 'Method versus Classical Acting' debate in London organised by Kenneth Tynan in which Wallach and Kim Stanley were pitted against Rex Harrison, Wendy Hiller and Robert Morley. "We were insufferable," he recalls. "We had found the key to great acting and we were a pain in the ass." After the debate a furious Rex Harrison rounded on Tynan, accusing him of trying to destroy the British acting system, while Wallach was taken aside by Harrison's wife Kay Kendall, who said: "Eli, don't mind Rex. We English are so square we have to smuggle our tits past customs." Wallach throws up his hands, still delighted by the memory. "What a sentence! What a thought!"
The most famous proponent of the Method was, of course, Marlon Brando, for whom Wallach acted as both rent collector - when Jackson sublet her apartment to him - and sparring partner at the Actors Studio. He was also to encourage Marilyn Monroe to attend the Studio and she soon became a family friend and occasional babysitter. Wallach first met her during the New York run of The Teahouse of the August Moon, when she visited his dressing-room and asked, "How do you do a whole play?" She was subsequently his co-star in John Huston's troubled production of The Misfits (1961) alongside Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. The film was an adaptation by Monroe's then-husband Arthur Miller of one of his own short stories, but by the time of filming in 1960 the marriage was in crisis. As Wallach recalls, "What was happening in that movie was the undercurrent of what was happening in real life. Her marriage was dissolving. She felt that the cameras were like X-ray machines, and they'd go right through her eyes into her brain so they'd know what she was thinking. It made it terribly difficult."
Monroe's problems increased as filming progressed: her reliance on sedatives resulted in her forgetting her lines, turning up late on set and causing production to be halted. The arrival of Montgomery Clift, himself reliant on painkillers and suffering from depression after being disfigured in a car crash in 1957, briefly lifted Monroe's spirits - she described Clift to Wallach as "the only person I know who's in worse shape than me" - but the effect was shortlived. Wallach, who was committed to begin a play in New York and had become friendly with the beleaguered Miller, got increasingly irritated and by the time production ended (at a cost of $4 million, making it the most expensive black-and-white film since the silent era) he and Monroe were no longer speaking.
He has happier memories of working with Clark Gable, whose character in The Misfits competes with Wallach's Guido for the affections of Monroe's Roslyn. "The first day I worked with Clark he had sent his assistant to come and talk to me, to read the scene we were going to do. Evidently he'd heard about this Method, and these strange blackhaired guys from Brooklyn who were doing it. So on the first day of shooting I'm in my truck, he leans over the window, and John Huston says 'Action!' And Clark is looking at me, thinking 'Who the hell is this guy with his Method?' And I'm looking at him, thinking 'This is the King of the Movies! I hope he doesn't know I haven't seen Gone with the Wind.' Both of us are mesmerised, like animals checking one another out. And Huston said, 'Cut! What's the matter? I said action!' Then, 'Props, bring on the drinks.' We each had a shot of Jack Daniels and then we went into the scene and for the rest of the movie we bonded."
New York actors are not usually noted for their contributions to the Western. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart provoked universal mirth when asked to saddle up for The Oklahoma Kid (1939) and Bogart compounded the error with a distinctly embarrassed turn as a Mexican heavy in Virginia City the following year. Certainly most stage actors of Wallach's calibre would have rejected out of hand the role of a Mexican bandit who appears mainly in the first and final scenes of a big-budget Hollywood Western, and indeed that was Wallach's initial reaction on reading the part of Calvera, the flamboyant predator he played with such relish in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven. Yet Wallach could see that the role was short on screen time but long on impact; throughout the film, the audience keeps wondering, 'When's he coming back?'
Wallach had certain advantages over Cagney and Bogart when it came to riding the range. A photograph of him aged eight shows him seated on a pony pretending to be William S. Hart or Tom Mix, the leading cowboys of the silent era. After completing high school in 1932 he was dispatched to the University of Texas at Austin, where he learned to chew tobacco and ride polo ponies and wrote Western sketches when he worked as a summer-camp counsellor. Once cast, he proceeded to bring the Method to bear on the role: what, he wondered, would a bandido jefe do with his ill-gotten gains? Conspicuous consumption seemed the likely answer, and so Calvera was fitted out with silk shirts, gold teeth and a silver saddle. Every morning of the shoot Wallach led his gang of 35 muchachos on long rides through the Mexican countryside, arriving on set sweaty and in character to menace the hapless peóns with lines like, "If God did not want them sheared, He would not have made them sheep." His only regret is that he didn't hear Elmer Bernstein's score before playing Calvera: "Otherwise I would have ridden my horse with more authority."
A one-armed gunslinger bursts through a door and begins to gloat over a grime-streaked figure in a bath. Four bullets erupt from the bubbly water. Tuco Ramirez stands up, covered in suds, and dispatches the gunslinger with a final shot. Wagging his pistol reprovingly, he says: "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk!"
It's a line Eli Wallach has had to say only twice - once on set in 1966 and once in the dubbing studio a year later - but he's had it quoted back to him a thousand times by fans of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach had assumed it was his performance as Calvera that had caught the attention of director Sergio Leone; in fact it was a moment in Henry Hathaway's 1963 film How the West Was Won. As Charley Gant, Wallach mimes the shooting of George Peppard and his two children before exiting cackling. Leone recalled: "People said to me, 'Keep away from him - he comes from the Actors Studio,' but I knew he would be a great clown."
In a Hollywood Western Tuco would have been a villain of the darkest hue, his list of transgressions enough to make even Calvera blanch, but in Leone's vision and Wallach's playing there's something heroic and moving in his raging against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". Leone encouraged Wallach to develop the role: Tuco's frantic crossing of himself was an exaggerated version of a gesture Wallach had seen among Italians back in Union Street, while the lines - "You are the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you! And your mother it is better not to talk of her!" - were often adlibbed. Wallach particularly enjoyed the scene where Tuco bursts into a store and begins to assemble a gun to his own specifications: "Leone said, 'Well, go in and put the gun together,' and I didn't know how. But he left the camera on and let me toy with it and imagine what it would be like." When it came to the bathroom scene, Wallach recalls, "I said to Leone, 'I'm in the bathtub, in the nude, and this man is going to shoot me and I shoot him. Isn't the water going to get in the gun?' He says, 'Eli, it's only a movie. Shoot him.'"
At one point in the film Tuco says to Clint Eastwood's character Joe, "Blondie, you realise we might be risking our lives?" And indeed Wallach remains grateful to Eastwood for warning him, "Don't be daring. Don't be brave with stunts." For instance, it was at Eastwood's insistence that he and Wallach moved to a position of greater safety during the set-piece dynamiting of Langstone Bridge; after it was blown up they realised that their initial position, chosen by Leone, was deluged with falling rocks and debris.
Wallach seems both surprised and pleased by Tuco's lasting impact: "Even today I sometimes park in a garage where every time I approach the owner whistles the music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and then offers me a special price. I don't get residuals for Italian movies, but this man who runs that garage gives me a break!"
Unlike Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson, who all became major stars as a result of their collaboration with Leone, Wallach peaked as a film actor with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. When I ask him if he regrets that Tuco didn't lead to bigger things, he replies: "No, I never thought of it in those terms. I used to go into agents' offices and they'd have pictures of these handsome movie men and I knew I'd never be up there. I'm a journeyman actor. I didn't think about stardom." So Wallach returned to the stage and television, occasionally enlivening otherwise dire Hollywood films with sharply etched character studies.
As the end of our two-hour session approaches, the 90-year-old actor seems as full of energy as he was at the beginning. Looking back on his long career, he says: "See how lucky I am? As a little boy I used to see these movies where the villain would always heat the sword and he was going to puncture the hero. And here I am in Cambodia [for Lord Jim, 1964], in Angkor Wat, heating a sword and I'm going to puncture Peter O'Toole. I mean, how can you have a better life?"
"A Master of His Craft: Eli Wallach" an interview by Paul M. Riordan from Images
J.T. Walsh Obituary Jim Emerson from cinepad
Underground Films"A Bit of Male Truth" - Commentary Magazine Manny Farber, November 1, 1957
Raoul Walsh • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema Tad Gallagher from Senses of Cinema, July 19, 2002
Fairbanks' Arabian Nights spectacle presents American silent cinema at its most flamboyant. The collection of sets were said to extend over six-and-a-half acres; the designs, partly by William Cameron Menzies, are a dizzy conglomeration of Manhattan chic, Art Deco, and rampant Chinoiserie, guaranteed to amaze the eyes. Fairbanks leaps and grins through them all, the personification of American 'pep'. Korda's version of 1940 has the quirks and the luscious colour, but this one has the electric energy.
only by the awesome Babylonian segments of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance,
Douglas Fairbanks’ lavish, extravagant The Thief of Bagdad ranks as the
very pinnacle of silent-era spectacle. Yet The Thief of Bagdad’s blend
of Arabian Nights magic, storybook romance, mythopoeic fantasy
travelogue, and sense of wonder and fun is incalculably more entertaining and
joyous than even the best moments of
Taking as its theme the edifying precept
"Happiness must be earned," The Thief of Bagdad introduces
Though at first the thief is a cheerful infidel who believes only in taking what he wants, the path to redemption begins when he falls in love with the caliph’s royal daughter (Julanne Johnston). Initially impersonating a prince to win her hand, the thief winds up scourged and humbled, ultimately seeking the advice of the "holy man" he earlier mocked, who advises him that if he loves a princess, he must "become a prince."
The ensuing pilgrimage takes the thief on a fantastic storybook odyssey ranging from the depths of the sea, haunted by sirens and giant spiders, to the world above the clouds, where he finds the abode of the winged horse and the citadel of the moon. The magic of this mythic journey outstrips anything in the highly regarded, possibly overrated 1940 remake.
With its unprecedented special effects and imaginative sets, The Thief of Bagdad is perhaps the first great achievement of cinematic epic mythopoeia, and the forerunner to the likes of The Lord of the Rings.
Bad Arabs: How
DVD Times Anthony Nield
Walsh: The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Billy Stevenson from A Film Canon
Images (Gary Johnson) capsule review reviewing 10-video Douglas Fairbanks: King of Hollywood
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] Kino’s 5-disc The Douglas Fairbanks Collection
Walsh's epic Western has gone down in cinema history as the film that made bit-part actor Marion Morrison into leading man John Wayne (though it needed Ford's Stagecoach to revive his career a decade later). Originally made simultaneously in normal 35mm and a short-lived 70mm process called 'Grandeur', it has recently been restored to its spectacular wide-screen glory. The saga of a wagon trail, the film is more striking now for its wide shots - vast landscapes, wagons being hauled up impossibly steep cliffs - than for the knockabout humour of the character scenes.
The Onion A.V. Club dvd review Keith Phipps
Though the plot of the 1930 Western The Big Trail is one steady march from the banks of the Mississippi to Oregon territory, it's otherwise a film of false starts. Director Raoul Walsh, who enjoyed considerable success in the silent era, and experienced a second golden age from the late '30s on, thanks to films like They Drive By Night and White Heat, employed 70mm film and a then-new widescreen process called "Fox Grandeur," an early form of what would later be known as Cinemascope. As his star, he plucked from relative obscurity a baby-faced, wavy-haired young actor named John Wayne. Trouble was, with the onset of the Depression, few theaters had the technology to show the film as it was meant to be seen. The Big Trail flopped, and Wayne labored on in B-Westerns until Stagecoach made him a star in 1939.
Did audiences miss much? Yes and no. Like a lot of early talkies, The Big Trail struggles to incorporate dialogue gracefully, even breaking up the action with old-fashioned title cards that are more expressive than the exchanges between characters. And even with all the new technology, the story must have looked tired. While traveling cross-country, Wayne seeks revenge on a pair of buddy-killing nogoodniks (Charles Stevens and the much-less-handsome-than-his-son Tyrone Power Sr.) while romancing the spirited Marguerite Churchill. Between the action scenes, El Brendel provides ostensible comic relief as a slow-witted Swede.
Fortunately, film is a visual medium, and Walsh provides one breathtaking vista after another as the scenery shifts from river to desert to mountains. Beyond and above the drama of Wayne's quest for vengeance is the drama of a graceful, committed man moving against landscapes whose magnitude and danger are matched only by their beauty. As a movie, it's only so-so, but as a dramatic travelogue of the American West, it's a treasure.
Key features: Time critic Richard Schickel provides a typically insightful commentary track. A second disc supplies a 35mm version of the film.
A heroic young trail scout leads a
large party of pioneers along THE BIG TRAIL to the West, with Indian attacks,
natural disasters & romantic complications all part of the adventure.
As sweeping & magnificent as its story, Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL is a wonderful film, as entertaining as it was more than seven decades ago. With very good acting and excellent production values, it lives up to its reputation as the talkies' first epic Western.
John Wayne, pulled from obscurity for his first important movie role, looks impossibly young, but he immediately impresses with the natural charm & masculine authority he brings to the hero's role; he quietly dominates the film with the attributes which would someday make him a huge star. Marguerite Churchill is fetching as a lovely Southern belle who slowly warms to the Duke's attentions. Dialect comic El Brendel is great fun as a Swedish immigrant beset with mule & mother-in-law woes; his appearance in a scene signals laughs for the viewer.
Looking & sounding like a human grizzly bear, Tyrone Power Sr., vast & repulsive, makes a wonderful villain. Slick cardsharp Ian Keith is a sophisticated bad guy. (His famous physical similarity to John Gilbert is very apparent here.) Silent movie character actor Tully Marshall is impressive as a wily old mountain man who helps guide the wagon train. Corpulent Russ Powell, as a friendly fur trapper, puts his vocal talent for making nonsense noises to good use. Sharp-eyed movie mavens will spot Ward Bond as one of the
What will surprise many modern viewers is that THE BIG TRAIL was filmed in an early wide screen process, called Grandeur. More than living up to its name, the picture looks marvelous, with Walsh showing a mastery of the new technology. He fills the screen, every portion of it, with action. Notice during the crowd scenes, how everyone is busy doing real work, which adds so much to the verisimilitude of these sequences. Walsh deserves great credit for being one of the first directors to use wide screen. In addition, the film is blessedly free of the rear projection photography which blights so many older films. It should also be stressed that it is only natural that the soundtrack sounds a little primitive; talkies were still in their cradle. That Walsh was able to use a microphone at all, with most of the scenes shot out of doors, is more kudos for him.
THE BIG TRAIL was not a box office success. In 1930, William Haines' comedies were the big money makers and the public was looking for fare other than intelligent Westerns. Most of the cast slipped into obscurity, including
:: THE BIG TRAIL
Film Freak Central dvd review Travis Mackenzie Hoover
Digital Bits capsule dvd review [Special Edition]
Needcoffee.com - DVD Review Dindrane
This is actually a
remake of several earlier Silent film versions, all based on the 1898 Bret
Harte novella Salomy Jane’s Kiss,
from William Nigh and Lucius Henderson’s SALOMY JANE (1914) starring Beatriz
Michelena, and George Melford’s SALOMY JANE (1923) starring Jacquelyn Logan, to
this early 1932 Pre-Code Raoul Walsh version starring Joan Bennett, where all
three versions are adapted from Paul Armstrong’s 1907 four-act stage version
called Salomy Jane. Set out West after the Civil War during the
mid 19th century, it takes place entirely in the redwood forests of
This early talking film shows how effortlessly Walsh made the transition from Silent to talking pictures, using the opening credit sequence with photograph album photos introducing the cast, but the characters come to life on camera humorously introducing some little tidbit about their character, “I'm Salomy Jane, and I like trees better than men, because trees are straight,” a clever and charmingly amusing aural and visual cue that not only introduces sound, but enhances the audience’s appreciation for the cast even before the movie begins. Another clever device is an optical page-turning effect, where each transitional dissolve into the next scene is a rarely used technique reinforcing the storybook aspect of the movie. And the opening of this film is a true delight, somewhat dated with a black Mammy character, but there’s never the least inference of bias or mistreatment, as she becomes the mother figure, best friend, and playmate of Salomy Jane, Joan Bennett as a feisty young frontier woman who is something of a tomboy in perfect harmony with the natural world around her, at home among the trees, the creatures in the woods, and playing with little children. When she sees the stagecoach arriving, she waves to the driver before running home through the woods, grabbing Louise Beavers as Mammy, where the two have to fend off a half a dozen or more live bears en route, which is a dazzlingly filmed sequence as they are all in the same frame together, no computer graphics, making this a most impressive opening. Eugene Pallette as stagecoach driver Yuba Bill is another revelation, as he’s a hearty old soul who loves to tell stories, something of a Shakespearean Falstaff character with his rotund girth, his gift for gab, his embellishments of stories making him the true hero, and of course, his ultimate cowardliness. Again, when making the transition to talking pictures, it helps to have such a natural born raconteur and scene stealer who is as thoroughly entertaining as Pallette, who eventually became too physically large for screen roles, building a secondary career just doing voice effects. His best scene here is when he describes a conversation between horses, using hysterical voice inflections to describe the different animal’s sound as well as their intentions. If that’s not inventive enough, Bennett, alone in her element, even goes skinny-dipping in the river showing her bare backside where of course she’s discovered by someone she knows only as Man, continually calling him that until the final frame of the film, turning out to be Billy, aka the Stranger (Charles Farrell), who in the opening credit sequence indicates he fought with Robert E. Lee.
A stranger in the midst
is enough to arouse people’s suspicions, as it matches the unusual occurrence
of the stage getting robbed, so the sheriff rounds up a group of men folk to
hang by a tree whoever the culprit is before the night is done. That’s quick and efficient justice in this outland
Western frontier. And if that’s not
enough trouble, Jane is constantly pursued by an assemblage of men competing
for her affections, including card shark Jack Marbury (Ralph Bellamy), the man
in black always seen curling his waxed moustache, or a contemptible swine Rufe
Waters (Irving Pichel) who believes he has an early claim on her, or an overly
pious man running for Mayor who secretly molests women, Phineas Baldwin (Morgan
Wallace), none of whom really catch her interest. But when she hears the handsome Stranger
Raoul Walsh’s other release this year was Wild Girl, which I saw in 1966 and commented: “Beautifully photographed and robustly directed adventure set in the West, centering around a backwoods girl, delightfully played by Joan Bennett, and her dealings with several men: a good-hearted gambler, a hypocritical, lecherous politician, a two-faced rancher, and a young stranger who fought with [Gen. Robert E.] Lee and has come to kill the politician because he wronged his sister. The location shooting much improves the film, and Walsh’s unpretentious handling, speedy pace and sense of humor---as shown in the amusing stage-driver Eugene Pallette scenes---keeps things going even when the script bogs down in plots and sub-plots.”
CINE-FILE: Cine-List Julian Anton
If Raoul Walsh's 1932 film WILD GIRL had any
kind of a reputation, its title would probably have pigeonholed it as just
another steamy Pre-Code film, perhaps something like BABY FACE only set in the
woods. Fair enough: WILD GIRL does have plenty of Pre-Code sensuality; but it
really has more in common with Disney's Silly Symphony cartoons (complete
with storybook-style optical effects, skinny-dipping youths, and friendly
woodland creatures) and its truehearted contemporary B-westerns. It's also an
extraordinarily textured, funny, and sensitive look at a dysfunctional (as in:
Eugene Pallette is in charge) Civil War Outpost in
Wild Girl : The New Yorker Richard Brody
This turbulent and tangled Western, from 1932, directed by
Raoul Walsh—and filmed on location in Sequoia National Park—portrays a rustic
post-Civil War outpost in California in all its sordid, violent, yet romantic
energy. Salomy Jane (Joan Bennett), a barefoot backwoods maiden, innocently
arouses the lust of the neighboring town’s local grandee (Morgan Wallace),
whose predatory past catches up with him in the person of a
On Friday at ,
The film tells follows a rough-and-tumble young woman (Joan Bennett) from
In her biography Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's
Legendary Director, Marilyn Ann Moss writes that the director didn't think
very highly of Wild Girl—or much of his early-30s output, for that
matter. Walsh started the decade with The
Big Trail, an epic western shot in a process called Grandeur, a
predecessor to the 70-millimeter format. It was one of his most ambitious and
self-consciously artful films, though it turned out to be a commercial flop
that nearly brought Fox to bankruptcy. (A major contribution to this failure,
Moss writes, was that only two theaters in the
It was around this time, Moss notes, that Walsh began to rely on a practice that he'd maintain for the remainder of his career. "[A]fter he put in place a particular camera setup, he walked away instead of looking in the camera . . . But he had good reason: he preferred to hear how a scene sounded; he already knew it by heart." The approach might account for the unique tone of Walsh's entertainments, which feel laid-back in their overall pacing and abuzz in their moment-to-moment characterization.
Raoul Walsh • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema Tad Gallagher from Senses of Cinema, July 19, 2002
Raoul Walsh - Senses of Cinema Print the Legend – Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, by Marilyn Ann Moss, December 2011
"To Save And Project" and Raoul Walsh's "Wild Girl" (1932) Glenn Kenny from Some Came Running
Overview for Raoul Walsh - Turner Classic Movies biography by Shawn Dwyer
Wild Girl Block Films
When skinny-dipping didn't violate the Code 1/2 Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune
This is an amusing but lightweight
comedy/musical vehicle for Dorothy Lamour in the early years of her stardom.
Dottie plays a Broadway star who is forever cast in
An epochal rise-and-fall epic of the
gangster cycle, Raoul Walsh's skittering, impetuous The Roaring Twenties
(bookending the glorious ascent of James Cagney's bootlegger with a cold
reception for soldiers returning from overseas following WWI on one side and
the '29 Crash on the other) hits the ground running, but a couple lengths
further back on the track than one would expect. Mark Hellinger's story begins
not with the green-eyed and spry neophyte chump tripsying his way into the
stage door of a hotbox revue, but with the same kid stumbling his way into a
blown-out crater in
Walsh's swift camerawork is almost an extension of Cagney's swift gait. Both seem to be landing each step on the front side of their feet, and the effect is that the camera is anticipating the catharsis between nitroglycerine crime partners Bartlett and Hally to tip the scales of moral alignment back to zero. In the same way, Walsh's punchy interludes in which a radio announcer and cross-fading montages four images deep detail the sociological background of the era (approximating the zingers between page turns in a pulp novel) almost seem to ludicrously trivialize the same economic plight that was played for sympathy in Hellinger's opening credits scroll: "The characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred." Climaxing with a tableau that is as iconic as it is melodramatic, The Roaring Twenties revels in a relativism that keeps its momentum fresh and elusive.
It's not clear who's to blame for the
schizophrenic structure of Raoul Walsh's They Drive by Night, but
there's no denying that this overlooked 1940 gem is essentially two films in
one. The first half is a socially conscious depression-era film in which
down-on-their-luck truckers attempt to make an honest living despite their
exploitative bosses. George Raft turns in a solid (if typically one-note)
performance as Joe Fabrini, an upbeat big-rig driver who dreams of becoming his
own boss, and Humphrey Bogart—still a year away from High Sierra and
leading-man status—as Joe's sleepy sidekick brother Paul. Walsh gives detailed
attention to the particulars of the trucking industry, and his tender,
empathetic portrayal of the indignities these working-class stiffs must endure
makes the film's opening feel somewhat similar to a jazzed-up, wisecracking
version of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. The brothers, fed up with
their employer's refusal to pay wages, strike out on their own, but—typical of
film noir-–their decision to improve their lot in life results in tragedy: a
near-fatal accident destroys their truck and leaves Paul with only one arm. Yet
just as things look insurmountably bleak, in steps gregarious shipping magnate
Ed Carlson, who likes Joe's moxie and gives him a cushy white-collar job
running his firm's trucking operations. Unbeknownst to Joe, however, he's been
hired at the urging of Carlson's gold-digging wife (Ida Lupino), a sexual
predator who's desperate to have Joe as a lover no matter the price. Mrs.
Carlson attempts to woo Joe, who strives to stay true to his friend and his
tough-talking waitress paramour Cassie (Ann Sheridan), and here the film
becomes a flipside The Postman Always Rings Twice in which the plebeian
man refuses to entertain the boss's sexy wife. This jarring shift in focus
unfortunately relegates Bogart to the backburner, but the film continues to
work thanks to Lupino's Mrs. Carlson, whose rapturous sensuality and conniving
insanity turn everyone else on screen into a mere afterthought. Driven mad by
the memory of killing her husband (which she accomplishes via a plan involving her
newfangled electric garage door), Lupino breaks down while testifying in the
climactic courtroom scene, and the performance's brazen lunacy—Lupino's eyes
glazed and makeup askew, incoherent, mumbled words tumbling out of her mouth—is
a testament to overacting virtuosity. They Drive by Night never
coalesces into a coherent whole, but as far as sturdy '40s
They think they got Cody Jarrett…they haven’t got Cody Jarrett.
—Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), just before his inevitable demise
By the late 1940’s, James Cagney was sick of making gangster movies like THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), films that made him a star, but also typecast him as a tough guy, where he begged Warner Brothers to offer him more variety in his roles, the most successful of which was, of course, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), where his range as a song and dance man and American composer was utterly remarkable. But his career floundered after that, making only four films between 1943 and 1948, so by 1949 he had a new contract at Warners and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie, but this time he hadn’t played a gangster in over a decade and he was 50 years old. With that in mind, they created an iconic role in WHITE HEAT that will forever be associated with him, Cody Jarrett, an outlaw every bit as ruthless as the characters he portrayed earlier, but also energetic and humorous, perhaps a bit savvier, though he’s more of a savage brute here, a seriously disturbed criminal, a deranged psychopath with a mother complex and debilitating fits from migraine headaches, the predecessor to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in PSYCHO (1960). While poverty was the driving force behind criminal behavior during the Depression of the 1930’s, with gangleader Cody Jarrett it’s a massive ego and a feeling of invincibility. He’s indifferent to the needs of anybody else except himself and his mother, Ma Jarrett, Margaret Wycherly, who played Gary Cooper’s saintly mother in SERGEANT YORK (1941), the only person Cody can rely upon and trust. Loosely based on the life of Ma Barker and her boys, another outlaw gang that gripped the American public during the 30’s, Ma is hard as nails, but overly protective of her boy, basically running the gang during Cody’s absences, handling the money and giving out orders.
WHITE HEAT is designed to be the last of the gangster pictures, the end of an era when career criminals could generate any public sympathy, where instead they are seen as disturbed, antisocial sociopaths living on the fringe of society, where policework was becoming more in vogue with the public, showing signs of more modern and sophisticated methods that were highly popular with the public, especially with the advent of the television series Dragnet (1951 – 59). While the late 40’s is the height of film noir, this film is often mis-categorized as noir due to the blatant criminality on display. Despite the eccentric psychological implications, which are never explored, and the over-the-top performance from Cagney, this is really just a formula gangster picture, where Cody Jarrett is an apocalyptic character already out of step with the times, the last of his era. Cagney indicated he never told Margaret Wycherly how he intended to play his migraine fits, where even in the film the audience is not sure whether to laugh or cower in fear, as his onscreen behavior was just so unexpected to 1949 audiences. A childhood friend of John Barrymore in New York City, director Raoul Walsh was probably the most competent craftsman under contract with Warner Brothers, a director who knew how to utilize outdoor locations and drive the action with an unrelentingly fast pace through editing sequences, an example of classical Hollywood filmmaking, including the musical scoring by Max Steiner that never stands out, but matches the mood onscreen. Even the impressive opening train robbery sequence is a skilled example of setting up the tension by matching the speed of the arriving car (carrying outlaws) with the approaching train (carrying money), where the outlaws, especially Jarrett, are trigger happy, leaving no witnesses.
The film spends an inordinate amount of time and effort attempting to highlight modern police methods, especially radio tracking technology, not so interesting today as it slows down the pace and removes some of the built-up tension. Admittedly, some of the side characters never rise above type, including Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s well dressed but perpetually complaining wife Verna, or Steve Cochrane as Big Ed, the slick haired man supposedly making a bid to take over the gang, or Edmond O’Brien, an undercover cop named Vic Pardo who becomes chummy with fellow inmate Cody Jarrett while in the slammer, trying to get him to reveal information to help build a case against him. Next to Cagney, O’Brien is really bland and boring, of questionable moral character himself, though there are tense moments when his true police identity might be discovered, but the prison sequences really drag after Jarrett cunningly turns himself in for a lesser crime with the knowledge he’d be out in a year or so. While there are a few moments, such as an attempt on his life and a memorable prison visit from Ma, who’s intense stubbornness seems to run in the family, it’s her later demise (happening offscreen, discovered by Jarrett through a line of convicts whispering what happened into the ear of the convict sitting next to them at dinner) that leads to a major scene of Cagney having a manic fit on the floor of the prison, taking out half a dozen guards in the process, leading to a departure from the originally planned jailbreak. Once Jarrett is out, he has to set matters straight, especially with Big Ed and a guy that nearly kills him in prison, an inmate Cody makes sure comes along during the breakout. As the equilibrium among criminals is being restored, the police obtain the upper hand through Pardo’s ability to tip off the cops and then place a homemade electronic honing device on the truck being used in their next big heist. What makes this film iconic is the legendary finale, expressed with a kind of psychotic glee rarely seen elsewhere, as Cagney simply operates on another level as everyone else. When the cops surprise his gang with numbers and chase him up the steps of a fuel refinery storage tank, hopelessly surrounded and wounded but not out of it, it’s his refusal to go out quietly that we all remember. With flames shooting up all around him before the self-inflicted final blast that has atomic age written all over it, Cagney shouts out to the ghost of his dead mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”—a fitting epitaph for Cody Jarrett.
This film may suffer from star power, much like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956), where the audience tends to over-identify with Cagney, despite his murderous, psychopathic tendencies, as they do with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a known Indian hater, where it seems hard to believe that when the film was made, Warner Brothers, who produced both films, felt audiences would identify with Edmond O’Brien’s Vic Pardo, thinking he was the hero of the film. But Pardo’s character is too morally conflicted, as the mere concept of a jailhouse spy is not anyone’s idea of a hero. Pardo was treated well by Jarrett, and was privy to a more human side of him, as Jarrett actually opened up to him, which makes his double cross all the more demoralizing, especially his escape, where the police actually use excessive force, never even attempting to bring in any of the outlaws alive. Instead they were all killed, the entire gang, except one fellow inmate who surrenders near the end. This may be a case of writers and studios thinking so highly of themselves that they actually believe they know better than the public, but audiences loved Cagney and Wayne, where they have become American icons with a longstanding public adulation, where despite their association with violence in pictures, they are beloved family idols where kids at an early age actually look up to them as role models. This is not to suggest either Cody Jarrett or Ethan Edwards are role models, but kids, especially at an early age, are conflicted over this issue, as onscreen they appear to be the heroes. They’re the strongest characters onscreen and they always carry the action. So for kids, if there’s any movie character to emulate, it’s the Cagney or Wayne figure. Their hateful or murderous tendencies are secondary to the power of their performances, where even for adults, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer manic energy of Cagney’s Jarrett as he eats a chicken drumstick in one hand while shooting the rat who finked on him in prison with the other. He’s as entertaining as they come, and his sheer willpower dominates the picture, which is what endears him to audiences even as they know he’s a loathsome psychotic killer who probably deserves the electric chair.
Adrian Martin from 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE:
“Do you know what to do?” barks Cody (James Cagney) at his sidekick at the start of a daring train robbery; when the guy starts replying, Cody cuts him off: “Just do it, stop gabbing!” This headlong, action-only attitude sums up the drive of Raoul Walsh’s films, which (as Peter Lloyd once remarked) “take the pulse of an individual energy” and embed it within a “demented trajectory out of which is born the construction of rhythm.” Few films are as taut, sustained, and economical in their telling as White Heat.
Walsh is a relentlessly linear, forward-moving director whose work harkens back to silent cinema—as in that exciting car-meets-train opener. But he also explores the intriguing, complicated possibilities of 20th century psychology. On the job, Cody kills ruthlessly. Once holed up like a caged animal with his gang—as he will later be imprisoned—his psychopathology begins to emerge: indifference to others’ suffering, fixation on a tough mom, and searing migraines that send him beserk.
Cody, as immortalized in Cagney’s powerhouse performance, embodies the ultimate contradiction that brings down movie gangsters: fantastic egotism and dreams of invincibility (“Look, Ma, top of the world!”) undermined by all-too-human dependencies and vulnerabilities.
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] The Warner Gangster’s Collection
After four versions of a single
story, White Heat serves as a "10 years later" epilogue. The
'30s gangster pictures were stylish and set-bound, with snappy visual
storytelling derived from silent-movie grammar. White Heat is more in
the vein of film noir and documentary realism, as it takes to the streets of
From the daring and brutally violent train robbery that opens the film, this
gangster flick has a relentless trajectory that ends only with the incendiary
finale-de-resistance. Director, Raoul Walsh, and cinematographer, Sid Hickox,
have produced one of the tautest and most electric thrillers ever to emanate
Jimmy Cagney as the criminal psychotic Cody Jarrett dominates the screen in a bravura performance that is as dynamic as it is intense. Broderick Crawford as the undercover cop Fallon, is no match for Cagney, and appears flat and almost irrelevant. Cody’s razor-sharp intelligence, and unflinching decisiveness and brutality propel the action – Fallon and the other cops can only follow in his wake. Virginia Mayo is well-cast as Cody’s slatternly wife, and is as cheap and conniving as any gangster’s mole before or since. Only Ma Jarrett matches her in evil guile.
The film-making team conspires to hold you not only in awe of Cody but also to perversely empathize with him. Strange to say he is the only genuine character in the motley crew organised for the final disastrous heist. Even Fallon comes off looking lifeless and less than honorable. The mise-en-scene is calculated to subvert your moral compass. Cody is decisive and acts without hesitation or qualm, while Fallon’s actions are reactive and ponderous. When Fallon tries to sneak out of the gang’s hide-out on the eve of the heist to alert his superiors, he is way-laid and has to concoct a story about wanting to hook-up with his ‘wife’ for the night, as Cody talks intimately and almost poetically to him of his grief for his dead mother, and how he was just ‘talking’ to her when wandering in the brush outside.
In the final shoot-out Cody is pinned atop a gas storage silo at an LA refinery, while Fallon from a safe distance takes pot-shots at him with a sniper’s rifle. Cody won’t go down, and only when he wildly shoots his pistol into the silo is his fate finally sealed. Fallon looks far less heroic…
gets a lot of credit for revolutionizing screen acting with his performance as
Stanley Kowalski in "actors' director" Elia Kazan's 1951 A
Streetcar Named Desire. After five AFI specials, one could reasonably argue
that his reputation as the lynchpin between the era of Nelson Eddy and the era
of Edward Norton has been etched in stone. And so it's sort of ironic to
consider the possibility that James Cagney's last truly iconic performance in
the post-gangster era pastiche White Heat (directed by Raoul Walsh, not
exactly the type of director whose reputation was built on a fastidious
fixation on the Actors' Studio ethic) predates the stripped-down implosiveness
of Brando's display of pectoral scratches and flubbed inflection by two full
Cagney (whose years were finally and discernibly catching up with him, and seemingly all gathering within his much more melonlike head) plays the unhinged Cody Jarrett, a mid-level criminal mastermind who's a big enough threat to have a fat FBI record, but small and fallible enough to still depend on the psychological (and suggestively sexual) support of his devoted mother. As Walsh's film opens, Jarrett is executing a train heist with a small clan of almost-inept henchmen, all of whom seem capable of sullenly reminding Jarrett of the size of their cut and inadvertently taunting his slouching sense of masculinity. Their slovenly indifference to anything but the payoff results in a sloppy heist that only goes downhill from the moment one poor stooge gets his face exfoliated by a busted steam engine. One of the mugs mentions Jarrett's name while he's holding two crusty train conductors at gunpoint, and just as soon as one of the two geezers shoots his mouth off about the slip, a two-bit holdup becomes a bloody, homicidal crime spree, forcing the clan to hole up in a remote cabin with no fire in the fireplace (the smoke will attract attention) and no shortage of sparks between Jarrett's floozy wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his flinty-featured Ma. At one point, Jarrett collapses in agony on the floor (he has chronic headaches that, one character later explains, were his only means of attracting his mother's attention as a kid) and is hoisted upon Ma's lap for a sinister neck massage.
Walsh's characterization of Ma as a filial lamprey, driving her son batty with the uncontrollable power of her love and her surreptitiously emasculating prods for Jarrett to make it to the "top of the world" may provide actress Margaret Wycherly with a spitfire role (check out the smug expression on her face as she evades three cop cars on her way home from buying her son strawberries), but it's also nothing more than dime novel psychological hooey, and a far too hasty peek into Jarrett's twisted mental state. The Oedipal overtones of the relationship don't pay off until Jarrett goes behind bars (surrendering to the police for a minor heist that would also conveniently provide him an alibi for the botched train robbery) and unwittingly befriends an undercover cop planted as a mole to spy on Jarrett in the hopes that he'll make some verbal slip-up that will implicate him in the murders he's committed.
Once again, the most denigrated angle of a Walsh picture is the perception of his ostensible disinterest in the motivation of his "good" characters, and Edmond O'Brien's portrayal of the undercover inmate "Vic Pardo" is no exception. Without bothering to quote Manny Farber again, I'll merely counter that O'Brien plays as crucial a role to the film's success as a cornerstone of Cagney iconography as Cagney's own bravura tantrums in the mess hall upon learning of his mother's death. To accept the film's stabs at Freudianism, take note of the transference of custodial duties between Ma and Pardo in the scene in which Jarrett collapses in the middle of the jailhouse assembly line. Pardo drags Jarrett behind a set of shelves and pulls the writhing mass of shaved nerve-endings up to his lap, urgently massaging the back of his neck in a shot that immediately recalls the earlier moment of familial lust when Ma invites Jarrett onto her lap. It's over nearly as soon as it started (I can only presume that in those days the Production Code set a strict limit to the number of seconds two males' bare skin could be in direct contact), but the psychological shift informs the crux of the final betrayal, when Jarrett learns of Pardo's true identity and nearly dissolves into bitter crying jag. White Heat's ultimate message: love's a bitch…even crypto-incestuous love.
White Heat - Film (Movie) Plot and Review ... - Film Reference Ed Lowry from Film Reference
White Heat - TCM.com Rob Nixon
White Heat (1949) - Articles - TCM.com Rob Nixon
Film Court Lawrence Russell
eFilmCritic Reviews Doug Bentin
DVD Journal Mark Bourne
American Cinematographer DVD review by Jim Hemphill
digitallyOBSESSED.com Jon Danziger
DVD Verdict Steve Evans
DVD Talk Matthew Millheiser
DVD MovieGuide Colin Jacobson
DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, the Warner Gangster Collection
Big House Film Roger Westcombe
TCM's MovieMorlocks.com Not for Nothin’, by Richard Harland Smith
The Spinning Image Graeme Clark)
That Cow Andrew Bradford
The New York Times Bosley Crowther
THEATER OF WAR B+ 90
“We all live off the war, whether or not we acknowledge it. She’s just more dirty and in the trenches. But we all live off the war.”
—Meryl Streep on Mother Courage
This is a sprawling, multi-faceted documentary on the making of a free 2006 Shakespeare in the Park Public Theater production of Bertolt Brecht’s play MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN in Central Park, with a new translation of the play by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and with Meryl Streep in the role of Mother Courage. Streep has always been hesitant in allowing herself to be seen in early production stages of any work, for it’s easy to find fault while clumsily searching for the right character, claiming: “Process looks like bad acting. Process is not anything you should let anybody see.” But here the cameras are rolling during the first read through, shown after a brief flurry where we see her onstage in full drunken despair. While it’s hard to doubt Streep’s commitment and prowess, her real-life persona of being such a sweet and good hearted person, especially as seen in Robert Altman’s last film PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006), is at odds with the play, where she has to get lowdown and dirty, where she tells us early on, “I’m the voice of dead people. I’m the interpreter of lost songs.” There are surprisingly few sequences from the play itself, most of them short and still evolving, which might seem disappointing, yet this film is full of discussion about Brecht and his family, including a surviving daughter recollecting stories as well as Carl Weber, an assistant director of Brecht’s own 1949 Berliner Ensemble production of the play in Germany starring his wife Helene Weigel. Kushner offers his own views on Brecht, recalling much of his poetry, as does director George C. Wolfe, while writer Jay Cantor places the work in a scholarly Marxist perspective, claiming Brecht discovered Marx late in his career when the only apparent hope for this war ravaged writer was discovering there were strength in numbers, as otherwise, from his disturbing view, mankind was doomed.
The beauty of this film is the continual search for the meaning in Brecht’s life and works, using archival home movie footage that presents a portrait of a lost childhood, as his parents were forced to flee Germany after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 when Hitler declared martial law and then continually remained on the move to avoid the Nazi’s, from Denmark to Stockholm (where he wrote Mother Courage) to Finland to Zurich to Moscow to Vladivostok, eventually coming to the United States where he was subject to the questioning of the post-war House Un-American Activities Committee so intent on weeding out communists from every nook and cranny of the country, in this case Hollywood artists. Brecht’s testimony is given an amusing spin as the consensus was he was giving a performance, accentuating his supposed inability to speak English well, thereby lying through his teeth while reveling in the senseless futility of even being asked such useless questions, the committee knowing nothing whatsoever about the circumstances people were forced to endure in Europe in order to survive the war. Brecht left America for Europe the day after his testimony, setting a pattern later followed by Roman Polanski who was similarly hounded by an overzealous press. In between bittersweet, profoundly moving songs (newly scored by Jeanine Tesori), Streep can be seen on black and white video interviews offering her own compelling views on the play and why she chose the role, which requires an extraordinary grasp of dialogue, as she’s onstage for the entire 3 and a half hour production, while people around her drop like flies, including the loss of all of her children, the price one pays for war. Briefly seen as an outcry to America’s occupation in Iraq, where a play is not likely to end a war, but as perhaps the greatest anti-war play ever written, a new production does have resonance placing war in a different perspective, offering the audience a sense of connection to the multitude of deaths that have come before, from the thousands and millions of people of all faiths, countries, and continents, who throughout time have anguished in despair over senseless losses they could not understand.
More important, however, is the discussion by some of Brecht’s more ardent admirers, namely theater people, from the directors to the costume room to the props department to the actors themselves, we hear people speak of their roles in this upcoming production while also getting a knowledgeable discussion on the relevancy of Brecht and his works, thought of as the ultimate outsider, writing nearly all of his plays in German while exiled outside his country, knowing his style was a radical departure, but never knowing if his plays would ever be presented before a German audience in his lifetime, never knowing the impact of what he created, while continually remaining an enigma wherever he went. Mother Courage is the ultimate nightmare on the horrible impact of war, where one never knows just how small and desperate people can feel until they are removed from any semblance of the world they once knew, or the people they once loved, where events seem to spin out of control, as if by accident where people can only sit on the sidelines and watch helplessly, seeing “Injustice everywhere, and no rebellion.” Brecht captures loss like no other, where in his plays, characters break out into song, capturing intimate, personal, and demoralizing moments that defy human comprehension, a moral abyss where God is no longer answerable or applicable, where all that’s left in your rotten decrepit life is to be alone, engulfed in a deafening silence.
Von Stauffenberg expressed his political outrage by
attempting to blow up Adolf Hitler at a war summit; George C. Wolfe, Tony
Kushner, and Meryl Streep express theirs by exhuming Brecht’s Mother
Courage and Her Children, adding a few anti-Bush jabs, and putting it on
in Central Park. John Walter’s documentary Theater of War alternates
rehearsal footage with (cleaned-up) stories of the life and times of old
Bertolt. As a onetime dramaturg and Brechtian, I enjoyed the chin-wags and the
glimpses of Streep in rehearsal—especially her quivering admission that she
can’t bear the thought of anyone seeing her process. The movie throws in a
cogent Marxist primer and reminders of all the collateral damage (economic and
physical) generated by our war machine. All I missed was a hint that
Chicago Reader Andrea Gronvall
A longtime admirer of Bertolt Brecht, documentary maker John Walter goes behind the scenes at the Public Theater's 2006 staging of Mother Courage and Her Children in Central Park. Meryl Streep, who starred in the production, and Tony Kushner, who supplied a new translation, discuss the play's importance and their creative processes, yet Walter (How to Draw a Bunny) reaches past these marquee names to other engaging experts: Carl Weber, a Stanford University professor who was once Brecht's assistant; novelist Jay Cantor; and Public Theater creative director Oskar Eustis. Rare home movies show Brecht and his happy family in Germany before they fled in 1933, and the end of his American sojourn is marked by archival footage of the playwright, a committed Marxist, testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Engrossing and timely, this crackles with ideas about art, politics, religion, and the terrible costs of war. In English and subtitled German. 96 min.
Chicago Tribune Michael Phillips
Three years ago a heavyweight collection of theater artists,
including Meryl Streep,
playwright Tony Kushner
and director George C.Wolfe, entered the ring with Bertolt
Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children." Documentary
filmmaker John Walter enjoyed unusual access to the preparation and rehearsal
of the 2006 New York Public Theater revival. The result is fascinating: part
fly-on-the-wall, part symposium on both Brecht and those who were weaned on his
eternal, granitelike truths regarding the war machine.
At the time of the production, which was staged at the outdoor Central Park Delacorte Theater,
The film sets up subtle connections between Brecht and Kushner, both blessed with great success at a relatively young age. Similarly, commentary on Marxian theory regarding the value and meaning of work from scholar Jay Cantor is intercut with interviews with production associates, including the prop master. Looking splendid in Walter's black-and-white interview sequences, Streep speaks eloquently of her craft. She did the play, she says, because she needed an outlet for the rage she felt every time she saw another Iraq War widow on the TV news, wailing and asking the heavens: Why?
He conquered the World Trade Center - Salon.com Andrew O’Hehir from Salon, April 28m 2008 (excerpt)
Moving from one famous playwright, and one political extreme,
to another, we come to one of Tribeca's central niches: the kind of New
York-centric film that's likely to play almost nowhere else, or at least that
will only play to audiences who wish to bask in reflected light from the glow
Actually, there's a great deal to be said about Brecht's life
and work that isn't in "Theater of War," which perhaps, again, is not
precisely the filmmaker's fault. How and why did Brecht's plays, so carefully
constructed to combine popular forms and avant-garde techniques, become the
exclusive province of the left-wing intelligentsia? Is his influence on the
film world purely a question of a bagful of facile formal tricks or something
more profound? (It strikes me, for instance, that Brecht's desire to divorce
the audience from the action and compel rational reflection, rather than draw
the audience into the story and compel catharsis, marks an unresolved division
in the history of dramatic art that still troubles us today.) Given Brecht's
courageous artistic defiance of Nazism and McCarthyism, how do we understand
his accommodation with the postwar regime in
Still, OK, let's be fair. For those interested in the continuing relevance of theater in a society dominated by momentary electronic impulses, in the responsibility of artists in wartime and in the greatest anti-capitalist, anti-government, antiwar and anti-romantic playwright of the 20th century, Walter's cool, capable, stimulating exploration is a must. The scenes of star Meryl Streep, director George C. Wolfe and Kushner rehearsing "Mother Courage" are tremendous, as are Walter's wry, Brechtian digressions into the backstage work of the costumers and prop-makers. None of which stops me from suspecting that if Brecht were alive today he'd be working in reality TV or producing viral video.
I saw this on
So, with that rather severe academic assignment to myself, off I went on a dreary chilly late morning to see this movie.
The movie is strong, strong, good, good. It is a lesson in politics; a summary of the life of Brecht; and a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at a staged production of the play "Mother Courage and Her Children." The significance of the two world wars on Brecht's life is clearly the basis of the Play "Mother Courage," but the opportunity to understand why Meryl Streep (lead in the play), George Woolf (director), Oscar Eustis (director of the Public Theatre), and Tony Kushner (playwright and translator of the play) wanted - needed - to bring the play to the stage refreshed my memory of the cycle of horrors of war and abuse of authority that our present office holders are responsible for. The play is anti-war, even espousing a communistic view of the world, understandable for its time and for Brecht's experiences; but the play produced in 2006, in the midst of a new war is a scream for an end to war.
Best interviews are with an aging man who worked with Brecht in
The movie is standard in many ways containing interviews, images, historic footage, and moments at relevant locations, but is an excellent introduction to the huge tragedy of war and to the relevance of art in civic life.
SEE THEATRE ON THE STAGE! it is alive, as Dr. Frankenstein would say.
PS. Seeing Meryl Streep sweating it out on stage two summers ago in
Courage and Her Children - Review - Theater - New York Times Ben Brantley from The New York Times,
If you ever wanted to watch one willowy human being lift a 12-ton play onto her shoulders and hold it there for hours, even as her muscles buckle and breath comes short, join the line of hopefuls waiting at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for cancellations to see Meryl Streep burning energy like a supernova in the title role of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.”
This production in search of a tone, which runs through Sept. 3, is not great, to put it kindly. Nor is Ms. Streep’s performance, dazzling though it is, on a par with her best work.
Yet with “Mother Courage,” which opened last night in a Public Theater production directed by George C. Wolfe, the ever-surprising Ms. Streep has achieved what, to my knowledge, is a first in her virtuosic career. Ms. Streep is that rare chameleon movie star who never just plays variations on her own personality. You don’t leave “Sophie’s Choice” or the current “Devil Wears Prada” confusing the haunted concentration camp survivor or icy fashion editor onscreen with the actress who portrays them.
But embodying a tireless entrepreneur of the Thirty Years War — determined to survive with her business and family intact, whatever the cost — Ms. Streep so blurs the lines between Meryl and Mother that for once it is hard to distinguish the dancer from the dance.
For what Ms. Streep does onstage is pretty much what Mother Courage does on the battlefield: thinking fast on her feet, moving with the quick diversionary gestures of a boxer in the ring, pulling out every art and craft at her considerable command to keep alive an enterprise — in this case, a notoriously difficult play that goes on for more than three hours — that otherwise might collapse altogether.
Ms. Streep rattles through her character’s business transactions and homespun philosophy on practical morality and economics with the souped-up patter of a Catskills stand-up artist who fears her act will go dry if she ever slows down. Mr. Wolfe’s interpretation, cued by the jocular and uneven new translation by Tony Kushner, emphasizes the gallows vaudeville of a play that has an all-too-reverberant relevance in these days of war.
Picking up on this barbed make-’em-laugh spirit, Ms. Streep’s line readings recall comics as far-flung as Lucille Ball, Sophie Tucker, Henny Youngman and — in the “heh-heh-heh” chuckles with which she fills nervous pauses — Beavis and Butthead. Heck, there are times when she appears to be channeling all the Marx Brothers at once. She even adopts, to bizarrely appropriate effect, Groucho’s bent-kneed catch-me-if-you-can walk. As for how she looks in her military cap and boots, think of Marlene Dietrich, playing down the glamour to entertain the troops.
For a connective tissue of credibility, the actress throws in vintage Streep-isms, including the folksy verbal and physical punctuations of the repeated, affirmative “yep” and frequent nose-wipings. And when the script approaches tragic terrain — when Mother Courage’s children bite the dust — Ms. Streep provides a master class in the art of electrified stillness.
Do these elements cohere into a fully integrated and affecting portrait? No. The performance becomes a seamless, astonishing whole only when Ms. Streep sings the Brechtian songs that have been newly (and effectively) scored by Jeanine Tesori.
But when a smitten army chaplain (Austin Pendleton) observes, “Often I sit back and watch you, amazed,” he is speaking for the entire audience at the Delacorte. By rights, “Mother Courage” should open for Ms. Streep the same future in advertising endorsements that awaits grand-slam sports champions. I, for one, would love to know what vitamins she takes and how to get them.
As for the rest of the production, well, you can see what the brilliant Mr. Wolfe is going for and speculate on what he might have achieved with more time. “Mother Courage,” written in 1938 and 1939 and first performed in 1941, is one of those great plays that almost never play great — at least, not in English.
The necessary combination of detachment and engagement is as hard as anything in modern theater to get right. (The National Theater’s current production in London of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” directed by Howard Davies and starring Simon Russell Beale, comes close.)
Mixing ingredients from the music hall, the lecture hall, the beer hall and the melodrama, Brecht’s epic theater is by design disjunctive. The design elements here — especially Riccardo Hernández’s battered wooden framework of a set and Paul Gallo’s focus-shifting lighting — establish the right come-hither, pull-away tone.
But there has to be an equal consistency of style among the cast members (who here include no less a star than Kevin Kline in a supporting role) — the feeling that they are all working toward the same end, O comrades of the arts, as they step in and out of the action, shifting among dialogue, monologue, songs and authorial annotation.
Such solidarity of spirit isn’t much in evidence at the Delacorte. Even the performers playing Mother Courage’s three grown children — Frederick Weller, Geoffrey Arend and Alexandria Wailes — appear to have emerged from different acting schools. Some of the cast members, especially those playing military figures, seem to have been inspired by the cartoonish warmongers of the film “Dr. Strangelove.” Others, like Mr. Pendleton, go for an “I’m like you” naturalism, pitched complicitly at the audience.
As the libidinous army cook, Mr. Kline, who has appeared memorably with Ms. Streep before, seems to be performing by rote, as if he were still waiting for an inspired approach to tap him on the shoulder. And Jenifer Lewis, as the wily camp follower Yvette, often plays her role as if she were doing a broad-stroke Madea movie comedy (she has appeared in one). But Ms. Lewis also provides one of the high points that reclaim your attention just when the Thirty Years War starts to seem like the Hundred Years War. Her interpretation of Yvette’s bitter song of remembered love is a stunningly calibrated blend of smoothness and harshness, of filigree irony and primal emotion, that suggests what Brecht was trying to achieve. (Ms. Tesori, the composer of Mr. Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” demonstrates admirable skill and confidence as a musical mix master, and the show’s band is first-rate.)
To an even greater degree, Ms. Streep finds her best Brechtian self in song. “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” which Mother Courage sings at the end of the first act, is one of the most artful and intense musical performances to be found on a New York stage, as Ms. Streep flutters, fights and wallows her way through her character’s philosophy of life.
Desperation, cynicism, passion that should have died long ago but still flickers against the odds: all this is implied in every gesture, every note. For one luminous moment, you understand what this play is meant to be. By the way, with every song she sings, Ms. Streep suggests that, in addition to endorsing vitamins, she could become a queen of the Broadway musical, should she ever choose.
It's a seafood-couscous Christmas! - Salon.com Andrew O’Hehir, December 24, 2008
Slant Magazine review Eric Henderson
Meryl Streep Stands Out as Musical Theater Great in Theater of War James C. Taylor from The Village Voice
Theater of War Facets Multi Media
NewCity Chicago Ray Pride
Boston Globe review [3/4] Wesley Morris
Director Interview (Filmmaker)
Director Interview (IFC) Interview by Steven Saito, January 2009
Variety news [2006-08-15] Liz Smith
Meryl Streep Leads Mother Courage and Her Children ... Playgoer from BlogCritics magazine,
The Burning of the Reichstag Shoah Education
New book by Bahar and Kugel based on Gestapo archives from Moscow The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created, (864 pages), book review by Wilhelm Klein from the World Socialist Web Site
Documentary about Reichstag fire and Marinus van der Lubbe 90 minute film, WATER AND FIRE (1998) may be viewed online
Mother Courage Wikipedia
Past Productions: Mother Courage Gideon Lester on the evolution of the play from The American Repertory Theater
Theatre at UBC:
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht ... historical notes from The
ArtScope.net: Mother Courage and Her Children historical notes by Sandra Marie Lee from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater
Bertolt Brecht biography
Bertolt Brecht biography
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) biography
HSC Online biography and extensive analysis of his works
Brecht study guide
Essay on Brecht and Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo from Symposium, by someoneisatthedoor
FBI Files on Bertolt Brecht while in the United States, 369 pages
Poem of Brecht on the street in Portland General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle, by Bertolt Brecht, stenciled onto the street pavement
IBS: Berliner Ensemble history of the
/ Auf Wiedersehen Brecht?: The Berliner Ensemble has ... Aaron Hicklin from The Independent,
Brecht’s War Primer - 21st Century Socialism Simon Korner from 21st Century Socialism, August 14, 2006
Chicago Reader Dave Kehr
Light-headed MGM musical, with Gene Kelly as a bankrupt Broadway
producer-director who brings his cast and crew to Judy Garland's farm to
rehearse (1950, 109 min.). The director, Charles Walters, is a man of modest
but real virtues who was generally overlooked, unfairly but understandably, in
favor of Donen and Minnelli. His clean, straightforward style has its
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] also reviewing IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER
The movie musical's greatest era lasted from roughly 1944 to 1958, and by the end, the genre's top directors, stars, and choreographers had figured out how to use the form to create ethereal poetry one moment and off-the-cuff social commentary the next. The five-disc box set Classic Musicals From The Dream Factory contains one of those late-period masterpieces, It's Always Fair Weather, co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, and starring Kelly as one of three World War II buddies who meet up again a decade after the war, only to find they have nothing in common. The song-score by Betty Comden and Adolph Green contains only one really memorable number—"Baby, You Knock Me Out," sung by Cyd Charisse with a chorus of pug-ugly boxers—but It's Always Fair Weather is an excellent showcase for dancing, marked by innovative, impressionistic routines that have Kelly tapping in roller skates, then with a trashcan lid attached to one foot, then in the middle panel of a three-way split-screen. Throughout, the movie maintains a mood of sorrowful post-war disappointment, as the men who opened the movie dancing together spend the rest of the film dancing alone.
The bulk of the Dream Factory set is taken up by lesser musical biographies: 1946's Till The Clouds Roll By and Ziegfeld Follies, and 1950's Three Little Words. Each has its highlights, but none is as consistent as It's Always Fair Weather or 1950's Summer Stock, which stars Judy Garland as a bachelorette farmer who lets Gene Kelly's theater troupe rehearse in her barn. Director Charles Walters keeps Summer Stock's singing and dancing grounded in real spaces, unlike the revue-style films of the '30s and '40s, where theater stages seemed to stretch to infinity. Here, Walters and company make magic on small, bare stages: Kelly with just a squeaky board and a piece of newspaper, and Kelly and Garland inside a tight circle of square-dancers. Summer Stock has its dry spots, but its highs rival the best of the MGM golden age, especially in the show-stopping finale "Get Happy!", where a stocky, sensual Garland single-leggedly kicks the musical into maturity.
MediaScreen.com Nick Zegarac
Crazy for Cinema Lisa Skrzyniarz
Musicals: Mass Art as Folk Art Jane Feuer from Jump Cut
DVD Times Eamonn McCusker reviews Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory
DVD Verdict [Bryan Pope] reviews Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory
Born in 1967, Wang Bing is one of the foremost contemporary documentary filmmakers. His films are about important moments in Chinese history, focusing special attention on the small and great stories of those who personally suffer the tragic consequences of specific historic events. He began his career as a photographer at the Department of Photography of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts (1992) and at the Department of Cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy (1995). He made his debut as a film director in 2001 with the documentary Tie Xi Qu (West of the Tracks), a project conceived at an epic scale, which tells the story of the most ancient of Chinese industrial districts, Shenyang: the final version is a trilogy that lasts a total of 9 hours, transformed into the fascinating saga of a people and a nation. In 2007 he made He Fengming (Fengming, a Chinese Memoir), a documentary in which the director conducts a series of interviews with an elderly Chinese woman who reminisces about the critical moments in her life, and the short film Baoli Gongchang (Brutality Factory), an episode in the anthology film State of the World. His next project was another documentary of significant length, Yuan You (Crude Oil, 208) about a group of workers at an oil field in the Gobi Desert. In 2009 he filmed the documentary Tong Dao (Coal Money), presented at the Cinéma du Réel in Paris. In 2010 he participated in the Venice Film Festival with his film Le fossé (The Ditch), which was screened In Competition as the surprise film. It tells the true story of thousands of Chinese citizens who were accused of opposition to the regime in the late 1950’s, and were deported to the camp of Jiabiangou, in western China, and is based on the eyewitness accounts of people who lived through this experience. He returned in 2012 to win the Orizzonti Award with San zi mei (Three Sisters) about three sisters who live alone in a small mountain village in the Yunnan area.
Wang Bing is a leading figure of the exciting and unprecedented documentary movement that has been gathering vital momentum within the Chinese cinema over the last decade. Wang’s epic documentaries West of the Tracks, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir and Crude Oil define the brave political outspokenness, tenacity and artistic sophistication that continues to inspire a new and ambitious generation of young Chinese filmmakers. From the vast, nine-hour panorama of a dying factory town meticulously crafted by West of the Tracks to Fengming’s transformation of the Cultural Revolution into a gripping first person narration and Crude Oil’s real time portrait of the grueling fourteen hour working day of oil workers, Wang’s formally daring films offer profound meditations on history and the paradox of the industrial ruin and human suffering caused by the inexorable “progress” of modern China. A different, more dedicated, mode of spectatorship is required and infinitely rewarded by the awesome scale and sheer length of Wang’s features, which treat time as almost a sculptural element, using their intense duration to give a solidity and presence to the crumbling factories, shantytowns and lonely rooms that they explore and cohabit. Forging a rare intimacy with the workers, widows and chronically unemployed whose voices and struggles are made poignantly real within his films, Wang takes the observational ideal championed by cinema verité to a radical and important new level. Using no-frills digital video equipment, Wang creates intensely cinematic films that draw a raw, tragic beauty and power from the world of slow time defined by decaying industrial infrastructure and landscapes imploded by the steady exploitation of their resources. In his latest, shorter documentaries, Happy Valley and Coal Money, Wang has embraced a more essayistic mode of inquiry that condenses the hierarchy of labor and regulated capitalism into stubborn and fascinating riddles. Wang’s contribution to the omnibus film State of the World marks his first foray into fiction filmmaking and points towards his greatly anticipated narrative feature, The Ditch (2010).
Wang Bing - Cinema Scope Chris Fujiwara
If there is a science-fiction element in Wang Bing’s work, an attempt to imagine unimaginable (though real) conditions for human life, there is also a war-movie element, a working-over of the terrain, together with the becoming-mineral of humanity that recalls the hard-bitten, antiheroic sagas of Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Miklós Janscó. But even more than Janscó, Wang steps back from what he depicts. For Wang, there is always the need to locate human figures in space and to allow the audience to locate itself in relation to that space. This double process requires time, and it might be said that the subject of Wang’s films is mainly this, how space becomes a screen of time, and how the paths of people through the space—across, toward, in, out, or simply dwelling within (as in 2007’s sublime Fengming, a Chinese Memoir)—write duration.
The recovery of history that is central to Wang’s project is also an investigation into the deposits left by time. The Ditch (2010) is a pocket of time that is abandoned, desolate, horribly pitiful, and that has intentionally been left unfinished: a route of history that the Chinese government has designated as a route to nowhere, and that the film undertakes to recover. When history changes course, what happens to those who are stuck on a previously determined route whose destination lies somewhere off to the side of what is decreed to be, henceforth, history? The same question is asked in West of the Tracks (2003). The answer to the question is the form of the film itself: the framing of the image, Wang’s reluctance to dictate when enough is enough, and his insistence on the letting-be of details that may or may not be immediately expressive, but whose potential value lies in their belonging to a hidden reality rather than to an order of mise en scène.
We can give this reality a name: labour. Everything in Wang’s films is labour: a woman narrating her own biography; a man cleaning, paring, and cutting a vegetable or assembling some bedding (Man with No Name, 2010); the derisory struggles of the condemned men with the land in The Ditch; the industrial labour to which Wang devotes so much artistic energy and care in West of the Tracks and Coal Money (2009). If Wang’s cinema is dedicated to uncovering the past of labour, it is also a search, in the middle of an era when labour is being disavowed, disgraced, and denied, for the possible futures of labour.
The 100 best Mainland Chinese films: contributors - Books & Film ... Time Out Shanghai, April 1, 2014
Wang Bing's 'Til Madness Do Us Part: An Apprenticeship in Seeing Joseph Mai from Lola Journal, December 2015
Wang Bing Films Souls: On Ta'ang and Other Recent ... - Cinema Scope Shelly Kraicer, 2016
Interviews | Ghost Stories: Wang Bing's Startling New Cinema ... Rober Koehler interview from Cinema Scope, 2007
Art & Culture Maven: TIFF Interview with Director Wang Bing ... Anya Wassenberg interview, September 16, 2010
Wang Bing: Filming a Land in Flux. New Left Review 82, July-August ... New Left Review interview July/August 2013
WANG BING – Father & Sons - PRIVATE magazine Véronique Poczobut on a photographic art gallery, May 9, 2014
Galerie Paris-Beijing presents Wang Bing's latest documentary “Father ... Sue Wang from Cafa Art Info, September 19, 2014
History of documentary [Matteo Boscarol] review of Jung Sung-il’s documentary on Wang Bang, Night and Fog in Zona, November 23, 2015
Cinema: Film Brut - Magazine - Art in America Travis Jeppesen from Art in America, November 1, 2016
MUBI [Daniel Kasman] interview with the director, September 23, 2013
MICHAEL GUARNERI / «I am just a simple individual who films what ... Michael Guarneri interview from La Furiaumana, April 9, 2014
Wang Bing: The Mystery of a Fact Clearly Described | Interview | The ... Alan Bett interview from The Skinny, June 26, 2014
Wang Bing's Observations | DOK.REVUE Videotaped Master Class by Wang Bing and moderator Marek Hovorka at the Jihlava Festival, October 26, 2014 (1:53:20)
WEST OF THE TRACKS (Tiexi qu)
China Netherlands (551 mi, divided into 3 parts, “Rust” (240 Minutes), “Remnants” (176 Minutes), and “Rails (135 Minutes) 2003
One of the most important filmic events of the decade was Wang Bing’s monumental West of the Tracks, which changed the way we look at documentary, social reality, and Chinese cinema. From December 1999 to the spring of 2001, Wang and his sound engineer Lin Xudong stayed at their own expense in the Ti Xie industrial district in Shenyang (Liaoning Province) to document the slow death of an industrial complex that had been a temple of China’s triumphant advance toward industrialization. As the factories are closing and the workers laid off, Rainbow Row, a working-class neighbourhood, is being slated for demolition and its residents forcibly displaced. To complete the film, Wang had to break free of his promising career as an award-winning television documentarian, learn how to spend time within a given architectural and social space, and eventually find his way to the international production/exhibition/ distribution circuit. West of the Tracks received completion funds from the Hubert Bals Foundation, was shown by about every significant film festival, and was even blown up to 35mm and released theatrically by the French distributor MK2.
Going beyond the tropes of the Sixth Generation, West of the Tracks nevertheless defines the apex of a trend that developed in the post-Tiananmen ‘90s: independent art films produced in China which received praise abroad but were shown neither theatrically nor on television in their home country. However, due to the proliferation of illegal DVDs and the use of the internet, West of the Tracks has had an immense influence upon Chinese filmmakers. Wang Bing helped redefine the use of small, portable digital cameras in an epic context, especially through his reinvention of the tracking shot: simply walking about while carrying his camera. An intimate extension of the body of the filmmaker, the camera keeps him offscreen, but tantalizingly close to the frame. At the same time, Jia Zhangke, the second most influential Chinese indie filmmaker, was writing essays to champion DV as a way of liberating Chinese cinema—at the time, digital works were not subject to the three-tier censoring system of the Film Bureau (the situation is currently in flux)—and started producing the work of young filmmakers.
West of the Tracks takes its time, for the message it delivers is grave: not only is the “orthodox” socialist mode of development, based on heavy industry, obsolete, but the new groups in power are actively betraying those who built socialism in the first place. Building “New China” has been replaced by the politics of chaiqian (demolish and move), and young filmmakers followed suit to document the ruins which emerged in its wake. Wang Bing’s post-socialist heroes are the workers who keep going to a derelict factory where there is no money to pay them, or the residents of Rainbow Row stoically clinging to their dwellings after water and electricity have been shut off. Jia’s protagonists are kids pursuing their Unknown Pleasures (2002) while factories in their small town are closing; displaced workers who help demolish the soon-to-be-flooded cities of the Three Gorges area in Still Life and Dong (2006); and airplane engine builders who witness the crumbling of their dreams in 24 City (2008).
Even in fiction, filmmakers show real ruins, which in turn echo the dislocation of post-socialist lives. Shooting out of Sichuan, Ying Liang and Peng Shan go deeper and deeper in exploring the interaction between real estate/corporate greed and the destruction of the social and ecological environment in Taking Father Home (2005), The Other Half (2006), and Good Cats (2008). Emily Tang goes from a melancholy meditation on empty university dorms after Tiananmen Square in Conjugation (2001) to a sharp mise en scène of the uprooting of young women in Perfect Life (2008). And it’s no accident that the beacon of a new queer culture, Cui Zi’en, would spend months documenting the efforts of a school for migrant children to survive on a construction site in We are the… of Communism (2007). From the cinematic representation of ruins, new groups of filmmakers are emerging—beyond the numerous documentaries chronicling the effects of chaiqian on specific neighbourhoods, women and gay filmmakers as well are asserting their voices, not only helping to salvage scrap from the rubble but opening new perspectives as they do so.
Bérénice Reynaud teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, where she is also co-curator for the Film/Video Series at REDCAT.
IFFR 2010 extra: Wang Bing's WEST OF THE TRACKS (Tie Xi Qu ... Matthew Lee from Screen Anarchy
How do you write about something like this? (Other than 'at length'.) Wang Bing's West of the Tracks is unquestionably a masterpiece, yet it's one that - understandably - few people will ever see. It's the kind of staggering achievement completely beyond marks out of ten, yet at the same time this is a nine hour, three part documentary (yes, that's nine hours) about the decline of Chinese state-run heavy industry. Those currently running for the exits are certainly missing out, but one could argue both ways about how much.
So, to clarify; in 1999 Wang Bing, not long graduated from Beijing's Film Academy, arrived at the Tie Xi industrial district of Shenyang with little more than a tiny DV camera he didn't even own. Tie Xi (the name literally means 'west of the tracks') was at the time China's oldest and largest industrial centre, built by the Japanese in World War II, nationalised come the end of the war and subsequently taken over by the newly-founded Communist party.
Once Tie Xi was a beacon of socialist progress, but by the end of the millennium the machinery was falling apart (having gone without any significant upgrades for decades) and the administration was haemorrhaging funds day in, day out. Over the next three years, Wang Bing watched the district implode; factories going bankrupt, workers laid off, buildings torn down and the population relocated.
It took him a further two years to edit the footage he'd shot (more than three hundred hours of it) into three distinct parts; these cover the workers themselves, their homes and families, and the aftermath once the district was left little more than a ghost town. The finished documentary was aired on the festival circuit to widespread acclaim, but little subsequent exposure other than a limited DVD release in France, various one-off screenings in the US and Europe and the Rotterdam International Film Festival's (IFFR) DVD release (they partly funded and were first to champion the film) under their Tiger Releases label, which remains the only available edition with English subtitles.
Rust is the first part of the trilogy, where Wang Bing follows the metalworkers at the Tie Xi smelting plants, trailing them through their daily routines, their break times and their off hours. Right from the lengthy opening shots, with the camera mounted on the front of the goods train that runs through the district, the overarching sense of things winding down is established - the place is largely empty, too quiet and blanketed in snow.
Once inside, the factories are a ruin of rusted metal, peeling paintwork and obsolete technology clinging to life. Down on the floor, smoke, steam and loose particulates from the machinery billow across the camera, while the workers' breakrooms resemble every dank, crumbling portrait of the death of socialism ever put to film.
Wang captures every moment, from the mundane to the industrious. The workers laugh, argue, complain bitterly about their future prospects, spar drunkenly with each other or simply ramble about nothing much. They take little if any notice of Wang filming, beyond an occasional 'are you getting this?'. When one of the factory bosses lays out the scale of Tie Xi's debts, another moves to shut him up. 'No, it's okay. He's a friend', the first insists.
The director rarely speaks, and only off-camera. Snow, dirt and condensation settle on the lens. There's neither voiceover nor any music beyond the diegetic, and only brief explanation of who someone is or where we are. On that note, we see only wherever Wang Bing happened to be - with one camera there's no multiple simultaneous perspectives and little overt sense of a narrative beyond general chronological progression.
But then part of the genius of all three sections of the film is how, despite being about as objective as it is possible for a documentary to be, they can still prove frequently riveting. Even allowing for the temptation to romanticise such an alien existence the workers come across for the most part as genial, admirable and not a little humbling. Their worldview comprises a blend of wry fatalism, cynical bitterness and stoic camaraderie; what else can they do? Where else can they go? Tie Xi may be collapsing around them, but it's a job. It's their home.
One man sets out how well the factory ought to be running, all things being equal; another describes how the state let he and scores of other workers fail themselves (many of them theoretically qualified yet practically speaking, barely literate), but there's no malice in any of this, just weary black humour. Even when the owner turns up in person to announce fresh redundancies, someone jokes about seeing his chauffeur waiting with the engine running - 'I don't blame him' is the general consensus.
Wang also turns out to have an eye for the found image - presumably those three hundred hours contained a good deal of dross, but the final running time frequently proves visually stunning for all its technical limitations. Shot with a tiny handheld camera it may be, but much of West of the Tracks is honestly astonishing, the kind of imagery most filmmakers would happily kill for.
Wandering almost everywhere, before, during and after the collapse, the director captures some extraordinary moments; slow pans across the skyline; tracking shots from the goods trains; the factories, first crumbling hulks busy with motion, then later abandoned; demolition crews pulling the wreckage to pieces, and a worker picking through the deserted buildings for anything he can carry away.
Remnants drags these death throes out to a stupefying degree (the trilogy grows notably darker as it moves on). The second instalment follows the population of Rainbow Road, one of the many housing estates dotted across Tie Xi. The workers' children are equally aware of what the future holds - Wang follows groups of young people as their parents come home jobless, followed by notices going up the estate is about to be demolished and all residents have to leave.
Watching the kids engage in perfectly ordinary teenage horseplay even as they acknowledge their world is on the verge of ending is heartbreaking enough but to subsequently see this happen goes beyond that. Again, there is little conventional structure here and neither overt melodrama nor consistent sense of closure. Wang never once imposes himself on events - sometimes he sees residents go, sometimes people he's followed for months simply disappear from the narrative without warning, with even their friends left wondering what happened.
Their houses are tiny, multiple generations crammed into a single room, and word swiftly goes out the prospective new homes are smaller still. Several die-hard squatters band together to try and coerce the government into offering a better deal. Wang stays with them as utilities are cut and winter descends yet again, watching while people huddle together for warmth, cooking by candlelight, reduced to melting snow for extra water.
And yet Rails, the final part of the trilogy, is harder still thematically and emotionally. The shortest instalment (Rust totals four hours, Remnants three, Rails two) it follows the same goods train from which Wang took the very first long shots in the film. Even after Tie Xi has been left mostly wasteland the train is still running. The director trails the small, tightly-knit crew from some time near the end (they discuss the ongoing demolition seen in Remnants), riding in the cabin as they pass long, monotonous journeys round and round the district with amiable wisecracks and endless card games.
Two of the scavengers who now roam the district travel with the train; the wiry, one-eyed Old Du and his teenage son. Like the workers in Rust and Remnants walking off with their own tools, the crew are quite blasé about the two men claiming what little they can risk pilfering from the supply sheds. They may talk down to the old man at times, yet they're not shy about praising his dedication - 'Him and his son are the only people who know how to get things done around here any more', one of the crew remarks.
Old Du proves voluble enough once Wang focuses on him, happy to explain what led him to Tie Xi - he turns out to be one of the 'sent down generation' banished to work camps in the country at the tail-end of the 1960s, hopping between menial jobs before working security for the railroad ('All the police know me... otherwise I'd be arrested. I've got connections', he claims). He's clearly smart and resourceful for all his meagre existence, but a scavenger's guile can only accomplish so much. Hard-working or not, Old Du and his son are still squatters carrying off government property, and Rails' inevitable climax is utterly gruelling stuff, not least after spending so much time in the old man's company.
There's no agenda here, at least no more than standing witness implies. West of the Tracks doesn't outright condemn either capitalism or communism, it just notes - calmly, impassively - that progress carries a terrible cost for all those left behind, a haunting pragmatism that evokes fifth and sixth generation filmmakers' approaches to dramatising social upheaval and the plight of minorities or the dispossessed.
Is nine hours really necessary? The film could be cut, but Wang Bing's patient editing is a marvel - nothing stands out as superfluous and again, the individual sequences are phenomenal. There is a definite sense of working through a unified whole and a narrative arc, despite the slow, meandering progression and the way the film goes against conventional pacing in many respects. The problems come more from the sheer length of the thing - nine hours is far more than the vast majority of people (prospective viewers or not) could ever reasonably be expected to give up in one go.
Yet West of the Tracks is a masterpiece regardless. It's slow going, but it grips, in its own way; few if any features, narrative or documentary, have managed to immerse the viewer so completely in a vanished place and time, to say nothing of giving such an enterprise devastating contemporary relevance. Perhaps you know the things it's trying to say - again, Wang Bing's messages are fairly simple - but unless you've followed in the director's footsteps you haven't seen them presented like this, delivered with such jaw-dropping craft and devotion the film goes completely beyond any idea of grades, success or failure.
Any distributor would be taking a staggering risk picking it up, yet arguably the film would be best suited to a wider release on home video. While it is fantastically self-contained considering its length, it still works taken an hour or so at a time, almost as if it were shot for television. Bear in mind Wang Bing is obviously aware of the demands he's making on his audience; his most recent documentary The Journey of Crude Oil runs a colossal fourteen hours (he has two films that qualify for entry on Wikipedia's list of longest films ever released) and when screened at festivals it ran more as an art installation than an actual cinema viewing, with patrons free to wander in and out at will.
For anyone with the slightest interest in sitting through West of the Tracks who gets the chance it simply has to be seen. Of course it doesn't compel the viewer's attention for nine hours straight - that's arguably not physically possible. Does it elicit boredom? Very likely, if someone watches too much of it in one go, but that doesn't imply the film is boring. Given patience and commitment it is both every bit as captivating and as aesthetically outstanding as any top-tier blockbuster. Few people will ever see this, as it stands, yet more people definitely deserve to.
For those able to get their hands on it (the boxed set does not appear to be widely avilable online [unless someone can qualify that for me?]), the Tiger Releases DVD is about as good a presentation as the film could hope for. It seems to be taken from the same master as the French release - amusingly, the commercial DVD censors the frequent male nudity where the original festival screener left it intact - though there is one sequence of a crowd of workers silently watching a pornographic movie which remains untouched.
Still, given the limitations of the source footage (and the level of compression necessary even with four DVDs) the picture (in 4:3) is still clear, crisp enough and very watchable. Sound is adequate, though nothing happens to test anyone's speakers. Removable English subtitles are clear, concise and perfectly readable (Dutch is also available), though they appear to be taken from the festival screener, meaning they seem to be glossing over some amount of the dialogue.
The IFFR release also carries the interview with Wang Bing from the French DVD, confusingly included on the first disc (along with part 1 of Rails). This is a nineteen-minute clip which still has the original French title cards - plus Wang Bing speaks directly to camera for the whole clip, but a French narrator translates over the top of him. The interview also comes with English or Dutch subtitles, though while these are still perfectly well presented and readable they are unfortunately written rather poorly in several places.
At the time of writing Wang Bing is supposedly planning his first foray into feature film-making, Hometown, after an earlier experiment filming a narrative short (Brutality Factory) for the 2007 anthology The State of the World. His place in cinema history is practically assured as it is; given his keen artistic sensibilities and talent for dramatic, unconventional storytelling, should he try his hand at regular film-making it promises to be quite an event.
Unspoken Cinema: Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks Srikanth Srinivasan (Just Another Film Buff), July 30, 2010
Unspoken Cinema: Tiexi Qu - Chinese Indie Doc (1) Ouwang Feng, July 30, 2007
West of the Tracks — salvaging the rubble of utopia Jie Li from Jump Cut, Spring 2008, also seen here: "West of the Tracks" by Jie Li - Jump Cut
This was China: Wang Bing's West of the Tracks | Sight & Sound | BFI Adam Nayman, April 1, 2014
ChinaFile China Through An Independent Lens, Six Experts Recommend Their Favorite Chinese Documentary Films, by La Frances Hui, May 1, 2012
DVD Review: West of the Tracks (Tie Xi Qu) | Blogcritics Kenneth George Godwin, also seen here: Rough Cut
Wang Bing: cinematic bard of the Chinese working-class and peasantry Louis Proyect, May 10, 2013
Time Enough at Last: The Long History of the Long Film | 4:3 Jake Moody, July 14, 2014
YIDFF: Publications: DocBox: #23 Behind the Scenes: Documentaries in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, by Maggie Lee
NOTABLE AND RECOMMENDED CHINESE INDEPENDENT ... Facts and Details
Landscape Suicide: Distance(s) #4, or: Industry film images
The Best of the “Noughties” – Offscreen Peter Rist, listed as #3 of 2003
Cahiers du Cinema: Top Ten Lists 1951-2009 - Caltech listed as #2 in 2004
Review: 'Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks' - Variety Scott Foundas
New York Times Jeannette Catsoulis
FENGMING: A CHINESE MEMOIR (He Fengming)
China Hong Kong France (186 mi) 2007
The old woman, He Fengming, treks through the snow, enters her apartment, sits down in a leather armchair, and proceeds to tell us her story. As a student in the late 1940s, caught up in the fervor of Mao's revolution, she abandoned her plans to study English at Lanzhou University and took a job at a provincial daily newspaper. But after Fengming's journalist husband published several texts critical of Party bureaucracy, the couple was pegged as subversive "rightists," separated from their young children (and each other), and sent off to separate re-education camps, thereby beginning a decades-long journey toward hoped-for "rehabilitation." Speaking in what is essentially one breathless monologue, interrupted only by a phone call, a bathroom break, and a few elegant fades to black, Fengming recounts those years as if they were still unfolding right before her eyes (which they may well be)—a devastating odyssey of false accusations, starvation, and youthful idealism shattered by experience. In his masterful, nine-hour documentary, West of the Tracks (which surfaced at Anthology last year), director Wang Bing used a rural freight railway as a conduit into China's uneasy transition from a planned to a market economy. In this equally remarkable follow-up, he finds in a single room, and in He Fengming's harrowed eyes, another uncanny metaphor for individual lives undone by the dreams of nations.
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir - The New Yorker Richard Brody
This heartbreaking, scathing documentary, directed by Wang Bing, is composed mainly of a nearly three-hour-long interview with an elderly woman, He Fengming, who recounts the persecutions that she and her family endured during China’s Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and then, again, during the Cultural Revolution. Sitting in her home in waning light, she is filmed in fixed-focus shots (the first one runs an hour and keeps running even when she gets up to go to the bathroom). She and her first husband, Wang Jingchao, were journalists and devoted socialists, who were nonetheless subjected to fearsome “struggle sessions,” publicly denounced and humiliated, separated from their young sons, and sent to labor camps—from which Wang Jingchao did not emerge alive. Fengming describes horrific privations as well as lifesaving acts of kindness, painfully recalls her family’s devastation, and tells how she put her life back together again and again. The film has a moral authority similar to that of the Holocaust documentary “Shoah,” to which it ingeniously alludes. The long first shot, the only one set outdoors, follows Fengming as she walks—silently—home. In China, which (unlike Germany) is still ruled by the same party that committed the crimes being recounted, the truth, Wang Bing suggests, can still not be spoken in public; his film brilliantly, bravely brings that silence to light. In Mandarin.
WANG BING HAS a predilection for the documentary as an epic form. His film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) spends over nine hours with laborers at a declining mining concern in northeastern China, and his latest project, Crude Oil (2008), a visit inside the everyday grind of workers on an Inner Mongolian oil field, clocks in at a daunting fourteen hours. These video monuments, which he has presented both theatrically and as installations, speak to the colossal scale required to envision even a fragment of China’s millennia-deep history, its imperial geography, or its billion-plus people.
At a mere 184 minutes, Wang’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) is brief in comparison but nonetheless communicates its own sweeping saga—though it records just a few hours in the life of one elderly woman in her cramped apartment. The film begins with its subject, He Fengming, shuffling across icy pavement to her modest flat, as Wang’s camera hovers patiently behind her. Once settled inside, He narrates a harrowing testimony spanning five decades, from her idealistic youth as an eager Communist Party journalist to the drawn-out hell of starvation in labor camps, where she spent years being “rehabilitated” after she and her husband were spuriously denounced for right-wing tendencies, accused in Maoist “struggle sessions” of fronting a “little black clique” of counterrevolutionaries that never existed. During the first hour of her account, the sun slowly sets outside, gradually bathing the interior of her home in darkness.
He’s body barely moves as she recounts her tale within a static fixed frame, but her storytelling proves gripping; Fengming stands alongside first-person precedents like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) and Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2004) in its ability to wrest powerful effects from the deceptively simple setup of a lone raconteur. Filled with paranoia, thought-policing, and opportunistic struggles for power, the world that He describes could have been lifted from Orwell or Kafka, burning with a tragic romance at its center. In the face of forced collectivity, the love between He and her husband, she says, “was all the more precious because it belonged only to us.” The same consequence applies to He’s life story, which she has evidently honed over the years into a finely wrought autobiography, retaining memories a new China would rather forget.
Interviews | Ghost Stories: Wang Bing's Startling New Cinema ... Rober Koehler interview from Cinema Scope, 2007
As the winter night begins to swallow up what little light remains in the sky, an old woman trudges up a pathway toward a block of flats. The camera follows her at a respectful distance, acknowledging her importance but never wanting to be so close that it encroaches in on her space. Soon, the woman is in her flat, settling into her favourite living-room chair, with her guest—the camera—watching her from across her coffee table. She begins to speak…
After this deceptive opening movement, Wang Bing’s second film, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, proceeds to unfold as a cinematic oral history that tells of the full horrors of the worst of Maoist China. He Fengming, former university student and fulltime journalist, relates her personal account of the 1948 revolution’s powerful tide, and how heady excitement gave way to spasms of recriminations and paranoia that led to mass denunciations, show trails, persecutions, and deportations to labour camps where politics was irrelevant: “Survival,” in her words, “was all that mattered.”
Partly because of the large gestural movements of his camera in his monumental Tiexi District: West of the Tracks (2003)—is there a more sublime debut in recent history?—and partly because he steadfastly refuses to allow his attention to wander anywhere else in the flat except directly upon Fengming while she speaks for over 170 of the 184-minute film, Wang delivers a shock to anyone who assumed they had a bead on his art after just one film. Given that West of the Tracks, all nine-hours-plus, was so all-encompassing in its recording of the eradication of the Tie Xi Qu industrial sector of Shenyang in northeast China, and seemed such a definitive statement as documentary art in extremis and on the physical reality of China’s economic reforms, it seemed to define Wang’s cinema.
The intensely ascetic form of Fengming demands disciplined viewing and listening, which seemed in sync with its single, unassuming Cannes appearance. By the time Denys Arcand had ignominiously fled the Palais on closing night, there could be no denying that Wang had not only made one of the few Cannes films that mattered, but that this, combined with his stunning short, Brutality Factory (as part of the Gulbenkian Foundation-supported The State of the World), made Wang the best-of-show director at Cannes.
Rather than appearing as detached and independent projects made under two entirely distinct sets of circumstances (which is what they are), Fengming and Brutality Factory tell the same fundamental saga from differing vantage points. Fengming’s story, which she wrote in the early ‘90s as a published memoir titled My Life in 1957, is told from the standpoint of an intellectual who had fully embraced the revolutionary ideal, but whose husband, fellow journalist Wang Jing-chao, perhaps took the fervour of Mao’s pitch to reform the country’s stifling bureaucracy too much to heart. Wang’s three essays, published in the Gansu Daily where the couple worked, rubbed certain cadres the wrong way and earned him the label of a “rightist.” In one of several waves of actual and pseudo-reform that reached a fever pitch with the Cultural Revolution, the anti-rightist movement eventually persecuted and imprisoned nearly 553,000 Chinese—including Fengming, who was put on a humiliating show trial and sent to a brutal labour camp merely for being Wang’s wife.
Fengming describes her suicidal urges (she even swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills, but to no effect) as well as her dogged efforts to stay alive in the camps. The attempts to collect or steal small batches of raw cottonseed and flour to fill her empty stomach become the stuff of extraordinary suspense, just as a chilling passage as she’s trying to stay alive in a cave and thinking of the spirits of those who hadn’t survived in the camps suggests that what’s actually playing out in Fengming is something of a ghost story.
The same awareness of spectres hovers over Brutality Factory, which begins with vistas of massive hulks of old factories quite similar to those in West of the Tracks, and then peers inside one of the forbidding complexes to reveal a so-called “struggle session”: Revolutionary guards torturing a woman to give up information on her husband. Because he’s imagining a story he had been told—much in the way that Fengming sits across from him in her living room and talks—Wang departs from his stance as a non-fiction filmmaker and stages the grisly, deeply inhuman incident. It conjures up the dead—both those inducing death and those victimized—while hinting at the sort of dramas that may be in Wang’s future.
Coincidentally, Wang had originally wanted to capture the essence of Chinese intellectuals in a dramatic feature, but instead found his ideal form of expression in Fengming, whose account—which easily ranks in power alongside those of other survivors of the worst terrors of the 20th century like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi—speaks for the living and dead of a period of China that may gradually recede with time, but continues to haunt the mind.
CINEMA SCOPE: What compelled you to contact He Fengming and how did you meet her?
WANG BING: Being that I’m a member of the younger generation and may not be aware of the thoughts and feelings of older people, I wanted to try to find the best way of addressing a number of issues that concerned me. At the same time, I wanted to tackle some issues as well as solve a few questions I had about what path I wanted to take for my next creative project. Basically, when I made West of the Tracks, I followed my instincts and didn’t set out an approach to the technical side of the filmmaking ahead of time. I hadn’t looked for any rational filmmaking strategy. When I finished West of the Tracks, I felt as if one period of my life was over and a new period was starting, and I started thinking about how I could take a more structured approach for what I wanted to work on next, which was the life of the older generation. So I wanted, in a very conscientious and targeted way, to contact intellectuals of this generation. This was during 2004 to 2006, when I did my research.
SCOPE: When you say that filming West of the Tracks was more intuitive, and that you wanted to change direction, does that mean that you wanted to have a clear and direct approach with the intellectuals you decided to film? Or did you arrive at this manner in which you filmed Fengming during the time that you got to know her?
WANG: Before I started filming Fengming, I spent a good deal of time getting to know her, so we became pretty close. I’d often pay her visits, take her to dinner, talk about her life and about others who she knew. At first, I had no specific plan to make this particular film. Then an opportunity presented itself when the Kunsten Art Festival in Brussels contacted me and asked me to contribute. I couldn’t think of what I could really do, and then the idea gradually started forming that I could make a film with He Fengming. At first in October 2005 I planned a 50-minute film of her talking. The actual filming started in January 2006. After I finished filming, I realized that I couldn’t squeeze it into 50 minutes. In the end, I expanded it two hours and ten minutes. After we showed it in Kunsten in May 2006, I found that the narrative wasn’t quite complete, so I went back to Beijing to round out the story, which meant filming an additional hour. We finally finished this phase by September 2006.
SCOPE: It’s interesting that the conversation took place during two periods, because the impression when watching the film is that it’s one continuous session of her talking, almost non-stop, with the sun setting, the lights in her living room turn on, and then it’s on into the next day. It’s as if she never stops. Did you want to create this impression? And where is the placement of the two-hours-plus section, and the subsequently filmed hour-long section?
WANG: Obviously, I thought a lot about how to portray the narrative process. I observed her and visited her a lot during this process. At the same time, I was asking myself how I could show her as she lives today, alone in that house, and conveying this atmosphere on screen. I thought about various approaches before I adopted the technique I chose. In fact, the whole process stretches not just over one day, but three. The first shot following her into her apartment takes place during the evening of the first day.
SCOPE: That’s what I call the West of the Tracks shot.
WANG: Yes, I can see that! Then most of the story is told over the expanse of the second day, from the morning into the evening. Her story goes right on through to 1978 and the end of the Cultural Revolution when she’s rehabilitated. The third day is when she talks about 1991, when she looks to find her husband’s grave, and then ends in the evening.
SCOPE: When she talks on the phone to another survivor.
WANG: Yes. So there are basically three sections. Her story from 1949 to 1978 is a complete self-contained segment without break. The second segment is in 1991. There’s also a break in history, so we decided to break it up this way, and film it the next day. And then the final segment is when she’s walking through her flat and takes the phone call. I wanted to include this little piece to show her life now, and use more traditionally cinematic means to convey that.
SCOPE: Did that phone call just happen in the moment, and is it typical that she gets phone calls from survivors?
WANG: The call just happened to come in when I was there. In fact, He Fengming has had a lot of contact with people who had the same experiences. It wasn’t contrived at all. She’s mentioning actual names, phone numbers, and addresses. Of course, I excised the phone numbers and addresses from the soundtrack! The call is quite accurate, and does reflect the kind of contact she has with the outside world. It kind of wakes you up—you realize that this is her real life. The ring itself hits our ears like a bolt out of the blue. We’re deep inside the waves of history and stories of life and death, and then this happens.
SCOPE: A surprising effect of watching Fengming through your fixed, distant camera is the eerie, unsettling mood that gradually settles over everything. Did you find that this came purely out of the circumstances of being with her in that space?
WANG: The choice of cinematic technique was in order to produce a direct feeling of her actual existence in this flat. She’s an old lady, with slow movements and with a body that’s physically twisted, even deformed. There are certain effects that give this impression. For example, her home looks very small and dark. Effectively, it suggests a lonely life, and she’s very happy to have someone visiting her. I wanted to capture her life now right alongside her thoughts of her past; in that sense, she’s actually living in the past to a real degree. I got the feeling that her home is like a tomb, buried in the ground. That comes from the lack of light; what little of it comes from different levels. Her living in this tomb space is a bit like a ghost sitting down or moving about. With her movements and the changes in light, I was trying to give this impression and atmosphere.
SCOPE: Because the shots are so long, the eye begins to wander about the frame and the space inside the frame, and lands upon objects in clear sight. There’s a bag with a few oranges on a sofa, stuff like that, and the perspective is as if the viewer is her guest seated in a chair across her coffee table. It seems amazingly useful to capture these everyday objects in the frame, while noting that they’re there purely by happenstance. Were these details kind of wonderful to see, like a still life?
WANG: Well, I’m concerned that I don’t impose a message, as I don’t want to visually force anything on viewers. In other words, I want to make it as loose and open as possible, and to create the circumstances to maximize the possibilities of the audience directly experiencing and following her story, and eliminating any possible obstacles, especially those that could be created by the filming itself. That was my main concern. I wanted to use fairly wide angles, to have the field open to let the audience freely roam and observe details at their own leisure. So they feel at home and get closer to her. There should be nothing standing in the way, least of all the director as a screen between the subject and the audience.
SCOPE: You’ve said that as a member of the younger generation, you wanted to learn about the stories of the older generation, your parents’ generation that lived through the era of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the aftermath. You also note that this experience and history has been lost on the new generation. This seems a central reason for making the film. Is the younger generation forgetting their history?
WANG: The education that my generation received didn’t reflect reality. Suddenly, as we entered our 30s—I’m turning 40 in November—we began to realize this discrepancy between what we’ve been taught and the truth. We’re realizing we’ve been living in unreality, that the world we’ve been living in hasn’t been true. The history taught in the classroom was so disconnected from actual history. So this was one motivation. The other was that today in China people are generally reluctant to look back. If you don’t look back on your history, it seems to me that you can’t observe clearly which way you should be headed in the future. People only think forward, what they want tomorrow. Yesterday is irrelevant and today’s quickly going to become irrelevant. If this kind of thinking persists, it’s very troublesome. That kind of life seems suspended in empty space, detached in a kind of illusion, without any grounding. This creates an uneasy feeling, a psychological discomfort in me that’s hard to describe.
SCOPE: Is this concern for reality behind the basis for your making non-fiction cinema? You have yet to make narrative films—although there are interesting hints of this is in Brutality Factory.
WANG: I haven’t made fiction films because the conditions haven’t been right for me. The second reason is that in China, social changes have come so fast and been so massive, that the opportunities for documentaries are considerable. In documentary, you have to operate extremely quickly and record what’s immediately in front of you. Comparatively, making a feature is a slow, sluggish process. Before taking the step to make dramatic features, I think it’s better to look closely at reality, and in order to do this, I have to take a close look at myself, and how I’m experiencing reality. I’m hoping by going through this period of filmmaking, my takes on reality will be all the more powerful when I decide to make dramatic features.
SCOPE: It does seem, as well, that He Fengming’s story and how she relates it to you and the audience is a political act and a brave one. Even though her memoirs have been published, there seems to be something even more political about her story being put on film. Were you thinking about how this film is for the record and will ideally be shown worldwide.
WANG: As a filmmaker, I didn’t think I was making a political gesture. My main concern was to show how this woman has lived her life and lived through all these calamities, and how she’s living today. As far as the political impact is concerned, it’s outside my scope. If it does have a political impact, whatever that may be, it’s because of the political situation itself. It would be totally due to the politics at the time, and not because of my work as a director and Fengming telling her story.
SCOPE: What I was thinking is that her story is now being heard around the world, and will have a more international audience. I’m also thinking of the impact of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
WANG: I honestly can’t consider that. It depends entirely on who sees it and how they experience it, view it, and then discuss it. It then takes on a life of its own.
SCOPE: While watching the film, I pictured you sitting or standing beside the camera, and how you were feeling about listening to Fengming talking, and what your emotions might have been as she tells this story where tragedy is piled upon tragedy. It’s almost too painful to listen to. This is something that’s exceptionally rare for the viewer to consider: What is the director thinking right now? It’s a remarkable kind of space that the film allows for.
WANG: It’s so hard to answer that, I’m actually a little embarrassed. My feelings were very complex. First, I had a feeling of real unease and malaise hearing her story. And second, I felt a mounting determination to get this film made and show it to as many people as possible. The third strand is a feeling of thinking about one’s own life in (Chinese) society. What makes this more complex for me is that these three sets of feelings are intertwined, and difficult to separate.
SCOPE: Do you plan to make any other accounts of survivors, or is Fengming’s story enough? Will your next film be as different from this one as West of the Tracks was?
WANG: Filmmaking to me is a process of making a film, and then taking a break to think about what to do next. At the moment, I’m taking that break and can’t say what I’ll do next. I would like to make a film about my own family, my life in my early childhood in northwest China in the village where I grew up. Show my thoughts and feelings about that, and also about my mother’s life today. So it would be autobiographical.
SCOPE: Thinking of what you had to say about how Fengming began to seem like a ghost in a tomb, your director’s note for Brutality Factory remarks on the presence of ghosts in the torture chambers of the “struggle sessions” that you staged.
WANG: I can’t really say how other people prefer to see it. After Pedro Costa asked me to contribute to The State of the World, I had such a short time to make Brutality Factory that I couldn’t think about it very much. In fact, I made it in a few days. You could say that others spent more time thinking and talking about it than I did making it!
SCOPE: It’s the first time that you’ve directed actors. Were you getting a glimpse of what it was like to make a dramatic narrative film, even as you were blending certain visual aspects of West of the Tracks?
WANG: The choice of that location, I have to say, was because we didn’t have very much money. I figured the ruins of a factory would be easily within the budget.
SCOPE: Although it’s also a historically true location, related to the site of tortures.
WANG: Those events did happen many times in many places, in factories, in institutions, in offices, even schools. I know that from stories that have been passed down and told. I never witnessed or experienced it, but absorbed the stories passed through the grapevine. So, it seemed best to dramatize one of those stories that I found interesting.
SCOPE: Something that both Fengming and Brutality Factory share in common is that they offer two examples of telling stories about the horrors of the period from the late ‘50s into the ‘70s, and its systematic persecution and torture.
WANG: In neither case, I feel, were these films made fully under my control. There was a lot of happenstance in how each film came together. We didn’t know until the last minute that we were going to Cannes, so a final cut of Fengming had to be done in about ten days. A lot of unexpected factors went into each project, which makes anything that links them almost purely accidental. Every film is a hard and painful process, and very tiring and difficult. And even when it’s finished, I never really feel, “This is great, I’m happy and satisfied.” With West of the Tracks, I never felt great satisfaction when I was done. The hard truth is that for me it’s very hard to actually get a feeling of relief and satisfaction from completing a film.
Thanks to interpreter Robin Setton and producer Lihong Kang.
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir - Reviews - Reverse Shot Andrew Chan, December 3, 2008
Tativille: New Film: Fengming: A Chinese Memoir Michael J. Anderson from Tativille
China's Gulag - The New Yorker Richard Brody, September 9, 2010
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir | Indiewire Robbie Freeling
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir | Village Voice J. Hoberman
Fengming, a Chinese Memoir | IFFR Rotterdam Festival
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir | Variety Robert Koehler
A JOURNAL OF CRUDE OIL (Caiyou riji)
China Netherlands (840 mi) 2008
Not least because of rarely scheduled appearances, there is good
reason why Wang Bing's Crude Oil has generated extremely little writing on it,
online or elsewhere. It almost goes without saying that much commentary offered
about it will be revelatory of the different kinds of mental strategies
employed to overcome the total experience of it, rather than recording one's
surrender to it. Its 14 hour length alone unequivocally demands no less than
that, and explicitly signals Wang's intention for the project as documentary
installation art — strictly encountered in a gallery or dedicated space —
rather than via conventional film, video or digital monitor presentations,
which fail to transcend limitations of the passive consumer experience. Outside
the safety of those largely capitalist-designated parameters, his presentation
is devised to provide a devastatingly intimate entrée into the conditions of
human working life (here, at a remote oil rig in China's Gobi Desert), while
implicitly asking: what does it mean to watch images not designed for hedonic
My experience of Crude Oil took place at the Brooklyn media space Light Industry, during a 2009 limited five-day run. It was a rather overwhelming encounter with Wang's work to say the least, seeing separate presentations of his (then) newest work Coal Money, and his panoramic 9-hour masterpiece, West of the Tracks. My three successive daily visits had a life-changing impact akin to being on a retreat; the factory loft was a temporary space, and with a small heating unit among the few chairs, benches and floor mats that didn't do much to dispel a November chill, it was far from producing a passive experience. Having missed the first two hours, remaining for the rest was ordeal enough in itself (even split over two days and 6-hour sessions), demanding determination and confidence in Wang's enterprise, mostly made possible by his ethical sensibility.
To describe the overall impact, even separating out these extra conditions, is difficult because Wang's approach is so simple and yet uncompromising in itself. The individual shots are massive in length, important for establishing one as visitor (not just viewer), and his camera angles are largely from real or potential perspectives of his subjects, who remain unselfconscious throughout, hence effectively negating any sense of voyeurism. The recording sound was intentionally set at a naturalistic level, and scenes where the workers spend time indoors in the bare recreational living room register effectively. But when we're moved outside to the rig platform itself, with the relentlessly active workers, the deafening maelstrom of machinery sound engulfs one, and for an indefinite amount of time.
A key scene indicative of Wang's simple yet powerful sound design: two workers share a smoke break well away from the rig, trying to relax in the sun and the immense desert surrounding them. When we follow alongside as they return to work, the faint sounds of the machinery gradually grow louder until we begin to tighten up, thinking we've assessed the limit and preparing to hunker down for the duration of the shot, but the sonic assault continues, becoming truly devastating. As one begins to numb in order to accommodate, even trying to take refuge in movement by walking around the gallery to avoid becoming pinned down by the roar, the realization of Wang's intentions becomes more piercing — and one probably elusive to those who think a more conventional access (e.g., a bootleg DVD trip modulated with remote control) can provide the same result, while fast-forwarding beyond the meaning which can only come through a direct head-on engagement with Wang's setup.
The challenges which were implicit in one's original intention to bear witness become activated from moment to moment in multi-fold; many realizations arise, and not merely of one's discomfort as potentially one of many Western subjects who endlessly consume vast amounts of oil and commodities, at a great distance from their source. Wang confronts us existentially, forcing us to relinquish our comfort zones as the prerequisite for a further inquiry into reality of work, how our political views are incomplete and even suspect if they do not encompass a direct witness of what work itself actually means to us — what is its true cost, not just economically for those who benefit the most from the labors of others, but the emotional, psychological and the extreme physical cost for those whose labor is exploited. This is the direct head-on view of what such exploitation looks like — moment by grueling or boring moment (even the workers' down-time doesn't exactly feel like relief) — in the course of one day, a day like many other endless days for them. The longue durée of this exposure, in which our witness becomes alternately more embarrassing, more frustrating, more numbing, more claustrophobic, the longer we submit to it — ultimately provides us with an unparalleled ethical reckoning well beyond our normally posited limits of engagement or resistance.
Questions around how much mediation occurs in the filmmaking process itself eventually disappear, as one becomes simultaneously swallowed up by time, as well as a product of it, and through actual witness even its accomplice. Wang has commented on the difficulty of capturing or attaining "truth" in his art — although in this work, perhaps he may have realized that "truth" becomes transparent to context, to what is taking place… simultaneously on-screen and off, within our experience… in the encounter arising between the meaning-potentials discerned and our willingness to make ourselves available for their discovery to change our life.
With Crude Oil, Wang Bing has not turned out something anyone could be comfortable with, clearly demonstrating that film buffs need not apply, and reminding that Kafka once said we should only read the books that wound us... What do you see? How do you see?
Roughly ten hours into Wang Bing’s 14-hour documentary Crude Oil there’s a single shot that runs 107 minutes– longer than the entirety of Casablanca, Dr Strangelove or Annie Hall. And what does this almost unbroken segment, filmed from a single tripod-fixed camera-position, depict? A bunch of blokes watching films from DVDs on a bedroom telly, during a break between their punishing shifts as Gobi Desert roughnecks. They trade occasional small-talk (“The Sword of Justice – more boring shit”); colleagues come and go; daylight slowly fades; not much happens; illumination is elusive; the drillers’ zonked-out lassitude osmoses its way steadily through the screen and envelops the viewer in a miasma of torpor. Dozens of minutes ebb into the void.
In what our culture regards as a conventional narrative film (like the Oscar-winning Hollywood pictures mentioned above) the inclusion of such an episode would be unthinkable; a gross dereliction of duty on the part of director Wang and particularly his editor Guo Henqi. But there’s the rub! Crude Oil isn’t a conventional film at all. It wasn’t even made with the intention of ever being projected in a cinema; rather it was commissioned as an installation (initial provisional running-time… 70 hours) by Rotterdam Film Festival, where it was unveiled in January 2008 at the city’s former Fotomuseum.
Despite Wang’s steadily-growing international acclaim over the intervening period (he’s routinely ranked among the world’s most important documentary-makers) further exhibitions of this colossal work have been few and far between. And it wasn’t until March 2014 that Crude Oil finally washed up on British shores, when it was included in a selection of Wang’s ‘industrial films’ that formed one key strand of north east England’s sixth biennial AV Festival, this year built around the theme of ‘Extraction’.
For those unfamiliar with Wang’s extreme methods and results, perusing the AV catalogue–which included details of the 840-minute Crude Oil as well as the 534-minute, three-part West of the Tracks in addition to three much shorter works–might cause them to ponder just what was actually being extracted here. Perhaps ‘the Michael’ or even ‘the urine’.
The commitment to watching the entirety of such uncompromisingly ‘durational’ pieces is no mean undertaking, and while AV displayed all the other Wangs in cinematic settings, Crude Oil got special curatorial treatment. Mirroring the 2×7-hour timetable of that first Rotterdam presentation, it was screened from 10am to 5pm, in a draughty upstairs room at the Stephenson Works, behind Newcastle’s central station: first half one day, second half the next (with one or two quirks of the calendar to complicate the sequence a little). A pair of functional sofas was positioned a few yards away from the ‘screen’–actually a blank white wall on a partition temporarily erected to divide the decidedly un-dark, un-cinema-like room.
The choice of location was of course no accident, AV being a festival acutely attuned to the realities and ironies of post-industrial cultural practice. The Stephenson Works is one of the last remnants of the world’s first purpose-built locomotive ‘factories’, opened in 1823 by the pioneering brothers George and Robert Stephenson (with three partners) and birthplace of the legendary ‘Locomotion No 1’ and ‘Rocket’. A former office block and boiler/plate works comprise the premises today, a somewhat unprepossessing building, occupied by small creative firms and located down what’s essentially a glorified back-alley.
For those without GPS the Works aren’t easy to locate, and the maplessness of AV’s catalogue further exacerbates the intrigue. Indeed, by the time I actually tracked down the entrance–the only sign indicating its presence only feet from the door, and almost invisible from the main road–and bounded up the stairs to the projection space, the “movie” had been running for nearly a quarter of an hour. Sweat-prickled and furious, I suddenly felt like Woody Allen in Annie Hall when he refuses to enter the Manhattan cinema showing Bergman’s 114-minute Face To Face because he and his date have missed the opening two minutes (“That’s it! Forget it! I can’t go in…. We’ve blown it already. I can’t go in in the middle. You wanna get coffee for two hours or something..?”)
Common sense prevailed, however, and I settled down for the duration with my supplies (big lump of Cheshire cheese; Mars bar; tuna salad sandwich; ‘flat cake’ bread; two bottles of water; thermos flask of tea) and the tools of my film-critic trade (notebook; pens; customised torch; stopwatch). I say ‘tools’ and ‘trade’ because in my mind what I was doing at the Stephenson Works was labour, of a kind. Never mind the fact that I’m not getting paid by Tribune for this article (the publication has been pro bono since its inception in 1937; what’s good enough for George Orwell is good enough for me).
Locating the entrance to the Stephenson Works had involved a frantic tour of the immediate vicinity, much of which is a vast building-site that will at some point become the Stephenson Quarter–a 10-acre zone which, according to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, “will include new commercial, hotel, residential and retail facilities”. Wandering to the back of the projection space afforded, through two sets of very old windows, a panoramic view of the construction–a tough environment on these chilly, windy, rainy days in March. Standing at certain positions allowed the viewer (i.e. myself) to see the Newcastle labourers and their Gobi Desert counterparts at a single glance. The film’s many longueurs provided numerous occasions for such improvisations and speculations.
With no voice-over or captions provided, we have to work out what’s going on for ourselves, simply by observation over extended periods of time. We soon learn the drill, in more ways that one, particularly regarding a huge and crucial bit of kit that swings into place, and into view, to screw and unscrew pipes together and which in its daunting, bygone floating massiveness looks like a cross between an outsize toilet-seat and an electric chair. Indeed, it could easily pass for a commode used by the villainous Harkonnen clan in David Lynch’s epic, desertine $40m folly, Dune.
Crude Oil is, in its way, no less ambitious than Lynch’s career-derailer: inevitably intimate in its implicit fly-on-wall camaraderie with the workers, but deliberately, even ostentatiously demanding of its audience to an almost satirical degree of excess. The diametric opposite of Hollywood slickness, Wang’s film was shot on medium-grade digital video using equipment that is, we deduce, of an strictly-functional nature.
The result–suitably ‘raw’ and ‘unrefined’ as it is–runs longer than all six of the Fast and the Furious movies combined. But in cinema size isn’t everything, and it’s important to avoid the trap of overlooking quality while lauding width. As an installation, Crude Oil can indeed transfigure space and time: an interior wall of a building on Tyneside (for example) becomes in effect a portal, allowing us extended peeks into the unvarnished reality of a particular spot in the Gobi Desert, in the first decade of the 21st century. How marvellous it would be to have a whole library of such 14-hour records–of a Burmese farm in the 1867, perhaps, or Guatemalan church in 1937, or a Finnish school in 1954–anthropological, sociological, economic records, more valuable than any written word…
After considerable prevarication I returned to the Stephenson Works the next day for part two, coffee in my flask, two sandwiches, another Mars bar. More longueurs; more sympathetic surveillance of Men At Work (women are very occasionally heard, never seen); more unexpected grace-notes, all the more rejuvenatingly jarring for their brevity and unforced poetry: the very final image [spoiler alert!] is of the moon, seen through clouds, its white orb refracting into liquid streaks, phasing in and out of visibility until the final fade.
A justifiable way of spending two whole ‘working’ days of a life? Perhaps. Fourteen whole hours, gazing at a bloody screen that isn’t even a proper bloody screen?! But there’s a lot to be said for assessing and confronting one’s limits, whether in art, work, or life in general. And so long as I could put my habitual professional practices to the side, I got through it painlessly enough. As the tagline from Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left almost puts it, “to avoid fainting, keep repeating: ‘It’s not a movie! It’s not a movie! It’s not a movie!'”
THE DITCH (Jiabiangou)
Hong Kong France Belgium (112 mi) 2010
Cinema, Virginity, and Swans: The Abu Dhabi International Film ... Robert Keser from Bright Lights Film Journal, October 31, 2010 (excerpt)
The Ditch/Jiabiangou, a powerfully disturbing record of forced labor camps in 1960s China, during the three-year period of dire famine when political activists found themselves accused of right-wing deviation and then condemned to servitude in underground holes in the unimaginably vast and barren Gobi Desert. Long rows of men dig an endless ditch as their only activity, not only a pointless one but thankless as well, the only reward being a spoonful or two of pitifully thin soup, never mind the occasional feasting on a stray rat, not to mention disturbing hints of cannibalism.
Men who collapse and die throughout the workday are pulled out of the way for the wagon that picks up that night’s corpses at dawn. Gathered around a fire, the half-dead prisoners speak in exhausted whispers: “My whole body is still very swollen,” “My situation is desperate.” It’s a no-exit situation, with the question of submission to authority long ago decided, as any plans to escape seem doomed by their debilitated physiques, and the entire country seems on alert to trap them as renegades. Their faces remain shadowy as befits their ghost-like existence, and it’s half an hour before the camera moves in for the first close-up.
Amidst the expanses of reddish sand, as dust flies into shafts of sunlight, one prisoner’s wife unexpectedly arrives in the booming wind and blowing snow, but the men discourage her from searching for her husband (“There are hundreds of graves. You’ll never find him”), but she continues with mounting hysteria that pushes misery to the extreme. Indeed, the director, best known for 1999’s marathon four-hour documentary West of the Tracks, wrests intense, committed performances unhampered by vanity, to match the harrowing depiction of this gulag existence. Is this the most depressing picture made in the fifty-plus years since De Sica’s Umberto D? Perhaps, but the joy is in the art as it’s also a film freighted with humanity and immaculate clarity.
TIFF 2010. Day 8 on Notebook | MUBI Daniel Kasman, September 17, 2010
Renowned documentarian whose documentaries I have never seen Wang Bing has made a tremendous, compacted, and pressingly physical fictional debut with this digital film. Set in 1960 in a worker re-education camp in the steppes of the Gobi desert, work in the camp, on the titular ditch, is halted at the onset of the movie as the worker-prisoners are so infirmed and starving they are no longer able to continue construction. The camera quickly descends into their domiciles, which are essentially dirt pits underneath the level emptiness of the parched landscape above. We then watch in the meager lamp light at night and in the daylight straining to reach these putrid home these men swathed in crumbled blue uniforms sleep, starve, and die. It is an utterly wretched film—in effect, not in quality. Wang has transitioned to fiction most successfully by focusing on the space of the dormitories, the rectangular corridors of dirty blankets covering weary skeletons. Bedridden or barely shuffling around, the immobility under all that empty space is incredible; the most moving moments are when the men grasp others, pulling themselves closer to hoarsely express final wishes, or tearfully recite a letter home, buried under blankets. The film impresses immediately the importance of eating to such a degree that a major event in the film is the on-screen revelation of a bowl of noodles, which looks positively lavish and absolutely delicious after following the crawling, stumbling men with their sack-like weight barely holding onto life. Midway through the matter of fact observance of this suffering the film starts to inject some fiction, some melodrama in the proceedings, starting with a wife who shows up to find her husband dead and the body abandoned in an unidentified grave. Her singular instance on not leaving and finding him and her continuous wailing at first rings false against the minimalist picture of those straining for life and those fading away, but quickly her explosive emotion takes on a extra-cinematic quality, acting as a kind of witness and release valve for the spectators, venting oceans of angst and frustration in place of the men who are too weak to do it themselves. Like Michael Mann and David Fincher before him, Wang is shooting a fictional period film in highly contemporaneous-looking digital. His bare, undramatic camerawork, which creates continuous space between desert and dorms, workspace, livingspace and deathspace by moving between them all in single takes, and then breaking away with awkward but often pointed edits, like the image of the wife collapsed on her husband’s corpse with piles of corpses clothed in fading colors splattered across the background, is so physically grounded that the film retains a profound, ambiguous quality of documentary. The video-film then becomes both an act of preservation—reconstructing and keeping alive these experiences already fading in memory—and an act of intervention, a reminder to the most basic forms of human suffering, its unforgivingly simple pain and pathos in the unfailingly now appeal of its pitiful, exiled hardships.
The Ditch | Reviews | Screen Lee Marshall from Screendaily
A grueling ordeal of a film, documentary maker Wang Bing’s first fictional feature tells the story of China’s gulags – primitive reeducation camps in the Gobi desert for those of its citizens branded by the regime as ‘Rightists’ in the late fifties. Unveiled at the last minute as the surprise film in this year’s Venice competition, it’s a stark, powerful but also unremittingly bleak work that plumbs the misery of what man can do to man in the name of an ideology.
Though possessing a savage life force, and images of cruel and harsh desert beauty that stick in the mind long after the lights have gone up, this is a grindingly austere drama that makes serious demands on its audience’s resilience. It seems destined to play only to the toughest arthouse audiences, though it’s also a work whose historical relevance – plus Wang Bing’s growing stature and reputation as a Chinese auteur – should give it a long-tail shelf life after a brief theatrical outing in a handful of cineaste territories.
One of the most impressive, but also chilling, things about the film is the way the Gobi desert setting becomes a harsh mother. The camp prisoners perform senseless manual tasks in the cold, sand-laden wind – like digging the ditch that gives the film its title. They sleep in underground dormitories excavated in the compacted sand, and when they die – as they do in droves – are wrapped in their own bedcovers and buried in graves so shallow that they are exposed by the wind before long, leaving the desert slopes littered with mummy-like corpses.
Based on survivors’ memoirs – some of them gathered in Yang Xianhui’s book Goodbye, Jiabianjou (the name of the camp featured in the film) – The Ditch was shot in secret, bypassing official film-board channels, and has the tang of accuracy. But its dramatic strategy, close to melodrama for all the minimalism of the film’s style, is to start off with a terrible situation and make it worse. As the Chinese famine of 1960 takes hold, already skimpy rations dry up, and prisoners are reduced to crawling across the desert to glean some sustenance from spiky wild plants, or catch gerbils and eat them raw. When one throws up, another eats his vomit; there are even cases of cannibalism. The prisoners’ loss of energy and humanity is charted unflinchingly.
Characters like Xiao Li – one of the few to maintain a semblance of humanity even at the darkest moments – emerge from the grayness. At a certain point one of the wives of a prisoner turns up to search for her husband – and then when she discovers he recently died, begins a desperate search for his body in the desert.
There’s no doubting the director’s indignation at one of history’s great injustices. Some of the most telling moments come in the rare moments when the film is not trying to pile on the misery – like one prisoner’s revelation that he was sent to the camp because during a party meeting he had the temerity to suggest that the formula “dictatorship of the proletariat” should be replaced with “dictatorship of the people”.
Sheng Yun reviews 'One Child' by Mei Fong and 'China's Hidden ... Little Emperors, Sheng Yun book reviews from The London Review of Books, May 2016
Gems at the Venice Film Festival - FT.com Nigel Andrews from The Financial Times, September 10, 2010
Venice 2010 Review: THE DITCH; the "film sorpresa" that couldn't live ... Robert Beames from What Culture
The Ditch | The House Next Door | Slant Magazine Guido Pelligrini, June 11, 2014
Wang Bing | The Seventh Art Srikanth Srinivasan (Just Another Film Buff), December 4, 2011
What does it mean to take reality seriously? - World Socialist Web Site David Walsh, October 14, 2010
Chinese film on 1960 labor camps cheered in Venice | Reuters Silvia Aloisi from Reuters
Wang Bing: Filming a Land in Flux. New Left Review 82, July-August ... New Left Review interview July/August 2013
The Ditch -- Film Review - Hollywood Reporter Deborah Young
The Ditch | Variety Dustin Chang
Chinese Documentaries: an Inside Look | Etheriel Musings: A Journey ... Grace Wang from the Ebert site
THREE SISTERS (San zimei)
France Hong Kong (153 mi) 2012 Official Site [United States]
TIFF Day 1: La cinquième saison | I Declare War | The Iceman | Jayne Mansfield’s Car | Looper | More Than Honey | Mushrooming | Paradise: Love | Shanghai | Three Sisters Shelly Kraicer from Cinema Scope, also seen here: Three Sisters • New Zealand International Film Festival
Wang Bing confirms his mastery of the documentary form with his new film Three Sisters. A work of sustained observation and exquisite empathy, the film takes us deeply into worlds most of us have barely imagined. In the high mountains of the remote western Yunnan province of China, Wang and his two cameramen discovered a family of three little sisters. The eldest, Yingying, is ten; the middle sister Zhenzhen is six, and the youngest, tiny Fenfen, is four. Their father is away working in a distant city; mother seems out of the picture. So it’s just these three girls who make up a complete functional family. Living in utter poverty (their home is a cave-like dwelling—dark, dirty, littered with root vegetables, shared with their few scrawny domestic animals), they work hard, constantly, in dirt, exhausting themselves with the daily labour of subsistence agriculture. There is a neighbouring grandfather and aunt with whom they sometimes eat. But what we see is close to a pure world of little children forced prematurely into the most difficult kind of premature adulthood. The film’s tone is anything but despairing, and the absolute opposite of condescending. There is a kind of invincible energy, a life force that pushes our three heroines to survive, and Wang captures their world with unimaginable beauty and a compassionate, engaged, committed eye.
The eponymous siblings of Three Sisters, Shaanxi-born director Wang Bing's seventh feature, don't lead an enviable life. As their father toils and scrounges in a nearby city, the three girls—Ying, Zhen, and Fen—collect potatoes, haul dung, and tend to various livestock in their small village in China's Yunnan province. Their extended family makes up a notable portion of the village's population as well, but the difference between family and neighbor remains largely indistinguishable in Wang's observational long takes, even as the relations are clearly denoted by titles. The villagers, who sustain a potato plantation and some livestock, share in their collective work's meager rewards, which is often little more than a hot meal and a roof over their heads.
A decade after Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, his towering vision of China in social, economical, and industrial transition, Wang finds the faintest pulse of a genuine socialist economy and community, seemingly light years away from the hyper-modern advancements of the People's Republic that have been documented so invigoratingly by colleague and fellow countryman Jia Zhang-ke. And just as Jia's inimitable, deeply fascinating style, a rousing blend of observational documentary and shrewd narrative inventiveness, mirrors China's complicated state of being, Wang's no-frills style of documentation visually echoes a preadolescent trio's simple yet unforgiving world and its sense of labor as life.
This comes through most clearly in the film's pivotal sequence, in which the sisters' paterfamilias takes six-year-old Zhen and four-year-old Fen away to the city by bus, leaving 10-year-old Ying to tend to their small household under the gaze of her grandfather. As father and daughters make their way up to the bus, Wang's heavy breathing becomes increasingly noticeable as he makes his way up the steep hill to the bus stop. We're consistently aware of his presence, even more so as he serves as his own cinematographer, and the filmmaker spends much of the doc simply following Ying as she goes about her work. The director's brilliant editing gives a steady, inviting pace to Ying's seemingly mundane existence and the banality of her surroundings.
Though this small spot of Yunnan geography seems initially stuck out of time, dubious progress lurks in the mists that often cover the mountainous region. At one point, the village's mayor discusses the inevitability of rising “fees” in the area with his constituents, as nearby areas are being converted and rebuilt in a more modern fashion, even as they live with touch-and-go electricity. It offers a small window of scope, one that's sadly only ruminated on for a few minutes, and suggests that the poverty of the village will only get worse. That Ying's father ultimately returns, unable to make ends meet in the city, underlines the unerring desperation of their station, but also confirms their perseverance and ability to enjoy small things. Their poverty is to blame for Fen's rampant lice infestation and Ying's worrisome cough, to say nothing of the state of their schoolhouse, but the elemental joys become bolder, whether it comes in the form of an apple or a moderate amount of TV time. In essence, Three Sisters serves as a measured epilogue to West of the Tracks, luxuriating in the tremendous hardships and miniscule triumphs of tradition.
Cinema Scope | Fire in Every Shot: Wang Bing's Three Sisters Thom Andersen from Cinema Scope
“Films have no interest unless one finds something that burns somewhere within the shot.”—Jean-Marie Straub, Cahiers du Cinéma, October 1984, p. 34
Wang Bing’s Three Sisters (2012) tells a simple story. Three sisters, aged four, six, and ten, live like orphans in Yunnan province, in the village of Xiyangtang (elevation: 3,500 feet; population: 80 families). Their mother has abandoned the family. The father, Sun Shunbao, has gone to the city to work. So they fend for themselves, cadging meals from their aunt, who tolerates them so long as they work. The father returns, but only briefly, bringing new shoes but taking the two younger sisters to live with him in the city and leaving the eldest, Yingying, to stay with her grandfather, Sun Xinliang. He tends his sheep, and she is left alone, and lonely. She even turns a sheet of cellophane into a toy. She asks a friend, “Can I come to your house to play?” He responds, “Why?” The grandfather takes her to an autumn feast in a nearby village. Afterward there is a town meeting. The mayor tells the assembled villagers that the government is intent on collecting the health insurance fees they can’t afford to pay. The people also complain about the government’s “rural revival” program: “They’re building these fancy new houses, and meanwhile the villagers can hardly afford to eat.”
Some months later, the father returns again, this time to stay. He was unable to support his family in the city. The family is reunited, except for the mother. In her place, Sun brings a “babysitter” and her daughter Yanyan. The final words belong to Zhenzhen, the six year-old sister: “Kids who have a mommy are the happiest in the world.” Then the final shot: a long tracking shot, without words, follows the babysitter and her daughter as they walk through the snow-pocketed mountains. There is no title at the end to relate the subsequent fortunes of the family.
This is direct cinema, and so there are some gaps in the narrative. The “city” is unnamed, and the father’s struggles there unspecified. The story begins sometime in 2010 and ends sometime in the winter of 2011, but its precise duration is uncertain. The fields are green at the beginning. Is it spring, perhaps? Or summer? How long is Yingying left alone between the father’s two visits? What is the reason for her persistent coughing? What happened to her studies at the village elementary school we see her attend with great enthusiasm for at least one day in November 2010? Did her work in the fields take precedence?
A simple story, but as Straub demands, there is fire in every shot. In many shots, this is true in the most literal sense. All the huts have open fires at the centre for cooking, for heat, and for light. Wang keeps these fires at the bottom margin of the frame just as he places the open doorways that blast a white light into the shots of dark interiors and the unshaded light bulbs that emit an intense yellow light at the top edge or side of the frame. These literal and metaphorical fires must not dominate the frame; otherwise their intensity would be diminished.
But fire also burns in the face of Yingying, the dutiful, stoic eldest daughter who yearns to read and write and study, to discover something unattainable in this tiny, remote village. There is fire even in her dirty, white-hooded jacket with the words “Lovely Diary” on the back, a jacket she never takes off throughout the film. She never demands anything, and she barely speaks, yet she is one of the most compelling, most affecting figures in all of documentary cinema.
It burns in the division between land and sky, which is particularly stark here. The horizons are always placed high in the frame. The earth has been graded into simple terraces, turning it into an almost abstract landscape. Wang further emphasizes these horizontal divisions by making startling cuts between extremely dark interior shots and extremely bright landscape shots, or between day and night. Even the grey skies have a penumbra of blue and violet along the horizon, separating them from the fields below. A hard life, but a big sky.
Straub’s admonition was inspired not only by Cezanne, who famously said of Mt. Sainte-Victoire, “Look at this mountain, once it was fire,” but also by Giotto, the Giotto of the Scrovegni Chapel frescos, which Straub discovered by chance when he was 18. There it is the blue that burns, that penetrates. Wang’s colours are closer to Giotto than to Cezanne: the blues of the sky and the smoke, the golds and reds of the fires in the huts that are like the halos and the crimson robes in the frescos. Like Giotto, Wang finds a clear, almost transparent skin colour, and he sets off the faces of the sisters against the darkness that envelops their hut outside the vicinity of the central fire.
But they are not “Straubian” shots. Wang’s camera is always handheld. (It should be noted that there are two other names in the camera credits, Huang Wenhai and Lei Peifeng; I don’t know the division of labour among them, but I have assumed that Wang directed the camerawork.) The camera height must be low so that he doesn’t look down on the three young girls. When Wang follows them as they walk through the village and the surrounding fields, the camera must be behind them. Consequently we see the vistas before them, but I found myself more engaged by their work, whether it be herding sheep or collecting dung. Sometimes the camera wavers violently as the land becomes particularly uneven; apparently Wang made do without a Steadicam.
But like the Straubs, Wang searches for the “strategic point,” the single position from which all the action of the scene can be recorded. Caroline Champetier, who worked with the Straubs on Class Relations, has aptly expressed what is at stake in this search: “All the work comes in attempting to respect the existing space, as intelligently as possible, to render account of its lines of force; it is important not to falsify the lines.” The difficulty for Wang was discovering this point in the cramped rooms of a small hut. What are the lines of force? They are defined, first of all, by sources of light, the fires, and the doorways, the television set in the aunt’s house. Beyond these, the camera finds slight diagonals that emphasize the same few possessions, bowls, a stool, or a basket. Outside it is a matter of finding the right distance from the people and knowing when to stop to let them move off into the distance. For Wang, the camera must not be too close: the people are always shown full figure. Only when they stop will he sometimes move in for a closer shot, and these shots provide the strongest sense of exhilaration in the film.
I’ve tried to praise some aspects of Three Sisters, but for all that I’ve thought and written about it, I still can’t explain why I have the feeling that I could watch these people forever, although the more I watch the film, the more Yingying breaks my heart.
A Touch of Sin Arun with a View
Three Sisters Is an Affecting Look at Provincial Chinese Life | Village ... Aaron Cutler from The Village Voice
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Three Sisters | The House ... Jordan Cronk from The House Next Door
Three Sisters – An unrelenting documentary from great Chinese ... Tony McKibbin from List Films
Three Sisters (2012) Movie Review from Eye for Film Michael Pattison
How do you tiff that up? - The Academic Hack Michael Sicinski
Three Sisters | Variety Jay Weissberg
'Three Sisters,' a Documentary by Wang Bing - The New York Times Jeannette Catsoulis
China Hong Kong France (89 mi) 2013
Wang Bing | Documentary in Japan March 23, 2016, also seen here: ALONE (Gudu/孤独), Wang Bing and immanent cinema | Documentary ...
Alone is the shorter version (89′) of Three Sister, a documentary about three little girls living alone in the mountains of the Yunnan province in China, a movie that was entered at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. Both of them are directed by Wang Bing, one of the most prominent filmmakers working today in non-fiction. Here’s the synopsis, taken from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam where the movie premiered in 2013:
Ten years after Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, which documented China’s transition to a modern industrial society and the growing pains this involves, filmmaker Wang Bing finds three sisters aged four, six and ten living with no parents 10,000 feet above sea level, in a small village in Yunnan province. Their mother has disappeared, while their father works in a nearby city and comes home every now and again to bring them new clothes. Family members and other villagers help keep the three children alive – efforts which, along with the communal vegetable garden, evoke the old days of socialism. This oscillation between modernization on the one hand and older values on the other is reflected by switching from long, patient observation by the camera to sudden accelerations and questions from the filmmaker, who operates the camera himself while recording the silent desperation and deprivations of this fragmented family. The mist that surrounds the village almost daily gives the impression that it has withdrawn from the rest of the world – although this proves an illusion. The surrounding areas are modernizing, the mayor explains, so the cost of living will have to increase here, too. All this escapes the children completely. They are too busy collecting food and delousing one another to notice.
More than a review of the movie, I’m sure you can find them out there in the vastness of the internet, what I’d like to do today is to throw some thoughts on the technical and aesthetic aspects of Wang Bing’s filmmaking, elements that make his movies – specifically Alone and by extension Three Sisters – a cinema of immanence (the definition is of course taken from Deleuze, you can read something about Wang Bing and the French philosopher here, while this review in Italian gave me the idea for this post).
I think it’s not far fetched to say that it is because we, as viewers, are compelled and fascinated by the visual quality of Wang Bing’s works, that we also feel so engaged and moved by the stories he depicts in his documentaries. Remarkable is for instance the use he does of light, natural when shooting in the big expanses of rural China, and artificial -diegetic – when the filming takes place indoor; it’s something really impressive, but that often goes unnoticed because the subjects filmed and the stories told, socially and politically relevant, capture and consume the viewer attention. Every scene shot inside the shack where the three sisters live feels in fact like a painting, and this happens for a series of technical reasons: use of light, camera position, framing, duration and time of filming.
Something I’ve noticed when I was watching Night and Fog in Zona, the beautiful documentary on Wang Bing by Jung Sung-il, something very simple but at the same time a sort of revelation on his movie making style, is the way Wang Bing holds his camera (if I’m wrong I hope some readers will correct me). Rarely on his shoulder, and this is true especially when shooting indoor or outdoor while sitting, the camera often rests on his lap, or at least below his head, static and almost devoid of movements, it forges images that are less distant and thus more engaged with, and almost merged, with what he’s shooting. Wang Bing is crafting a cinema of immanence, an immanence made possible by the digital, and this is all the more true when he is filming people and their faces. It’s in these shots and scenes that the sound design gains its importance, the camera is gazing at the sisters from such an extreme proximity that we can literally hear their breathing, swallowing and sniffling, adding an element of almost tactile sonority to the movie. It is through this style and aesthetics that Wang Bing is able to convey the poverty and miserable destiny of the sisters, but at the same time their playfulness and innocence, everything here is depicted against the background of mountains, villages and shacks, deep inside the cold desolation of rural China, landscapes of absolute beauty and absolute indifference.
Mydylarama Coco Green
‘TIL MADNESS DO US PART (Feng Ai) A- 94
Hong Kong France Japan (228 mi) 2013
I wasn’t sick until you locked me in here and made me sick.
Truly one of the saddest, most bleak experiences one could possibly imagine, as often documentary films may be evaluated based on the unfamiliarity with the territory, where here Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing takes us inside a locked Chinese mental institution in rural Zhaotong, located in China’s southwest Yunnan province, offering no commentary whatsoever, where in this film there’s little need for explanations. Instead, he allows viewers from all over the world exclusive inside access to one of the world’s most troubling aspects, what to do with a country’s undesirables, where a nation may often be judged on how it treats its lowliest citizens. Is there such a thing as auteurism in documentary film? If there is, this kind of grim look at the raw edge of humanity is a rare human endeavor, as few would walk this same path. What elevates this film is the uncompromising nature of the artist who made it, much like American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, as he continually holds himself to the highest standards, refusing to allow even a hint of artifice, creating a challenging and thoroughly demanding experience, which makes the film all the more relevant. Admittedly the film is not for everyone, but it’s a beacon of light in the commercial wasteland of slight entertainment films that aren’t really worth a damn. The degree of difficulty encountered is what sets this film apart, as it starts out with major obstacles to overcome. Except for one brief sequence, the entire film takes place inside the cramped, claustrophobic confines of a locked institution, where few if any of the inmates would be considered certifiably crazy, but instead they remain locked up due to the difficulty they pose to their families or to the state, where it’s simply easier to remove them from conventional society and place them out of harm’s way. It’s a frightening prospect, where few if any of these individuals feel they actually belong here, as all feel victimized by a terrible injustice to be involuntarily placed inside a locked facility that resembles a prison compound. What crime did any of them commit to get there? There are no lawyers or judges seen arguing their cases, or even therapists or counselors found anywhere on the premises. For that matter, there are frightfully few doctors. Instead the inmates are medicated daily by a medical team so that they are not a burden to the staff, where they are drugged to intentionally make them more compliant, spending much of their time sleeping, day and night, where there’s absolutely nothing to look forward to or feel good about, as these are the throwaways of Chinese society.
Some 200 men and women are housed in this enclosed facility that resembles a concrete prison block, men and women on separate floors, with open space in the middle, with inmates kept behind giant iron bars staring off into the distance, where the men house the top 3rd floor where there are sometimes 5 and 6 to a room, a chamber pot placed beneath each bed, where they are free to roam aimlessly through all hours of the day and night, circling the narrow grounds over and over again with no real place to go, as they are confined to one floor where they are largely ignored unless they’re found causing a disturbance, at which time they may be temporarily removed from the floor. While other inmates suggest beatings take place off camera, one man is returned in handcuffs placed behind his back which clearly limits his ability to sleep it off or even go to the bathroom, contending his arms grow numb after awhile, but he is left to stew in his own discomfort well beyond the appeasement point despite his incessant pleas with authorities, signs of a sadistic, old-fashioned practice that remains thoroughly barbaric. Indifference is the state of mind one constantly confronts, as inmates calling out for doctors are routinely ignored, while those sitting in a common TV room show a similar state of apathy and personal detachment, perhaps the most common affliction on the premises. Another receives a potent shot that leaves him dazed and zombie-like afterwards, where at one point he remains fixed to the floor, barely able to move, despite constant ribbing from other inmates who tease him on his passivity, claiming he can’t handle the medicine. What we see are men in soiled clothes, sleeping under heavy comforters in wool caps and heavy jackets, never once seen changing their clothes, where there’s no concept of personal hygiene, no one seen washing their hair or brushing their teeth, where we never once see any evidence of soap. On the floor there is a common spigot of water for the entire floor to use, where at one point we see a naked man stroll past others to fill his chamber pot with water and splash it over himself, leaving a giant puddle on the floor, which is the closest thing we ever see to a shower.
Mostly we see men huddled under heavy blankets, which is where they spend most of their time, where heads pop up from time to time to see what the commotion is all about, as the presence of a filmmaker on the floor does generate attention, where some in the TV room just stare straight at the camera, where there isn’t an ounce of emotion expressed on their faces, instead they are simply blank, expressionless faces. The men hardly seem human much of the time, as the length of time spent with these inmates feels like an eternity, where the duration of their endless purgatory is an indicator of how their lives are spent, literally wasting away in this hellhole, where the facility is seen as a way station for ghosts passing in the night with no outlet or release. The only director comment is the written identification of the name and length of time various inmates have spent in this facility, which are occasionally seen alongside certain individuals, where some have been there for as long as ten or twenty years. Perhaps the ones that have it the hardest are the newest inmates, as they can’t believe how they ended up here, utterly stupefied by what lies in store for them, where one man stands alone looking out over the empty space whimpering in tears all night long. One man is heard to confess that most men end up here due to fighting, where the police or a family member may have them permanently sent away. One never sees any assessment of their sentences, instead they seem to be forgotten souls who are locked up and forgotten about, languishing alone for years or even decades. One woman is seen regularly visiting her husband, but he’s so outraged that she would do this to him that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, remaining belligerent throughout each visit, though clearly he’s aware of his thought process. The man simply can’t forgive her for what she’s done. She’s immune to the plight of his dehumanization, claiming he’s better off here, bringing him fresh fruit, then making him share with other hangers on, even some that he obviously despises, but what can he do? In this facility, each inmate uniformly has no possessions. When a package arrives from home, others hover around these lucky few like vultures, just waiting for their opportunity to take what they can, where the men are forced to guard and consume nearly everything all at once for fear it will be taken away from them. There is simply no concept of privacy, instead what’s yours is also mine.
What remains off camera are the sexual practices of the men, where one would expect a great deal of forced homosexual sex, especially taking advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable among them. One can only imagine the extent of this practice, which is likely identical to a prison population, as adult men of all ages are seen on the grounds. One inmate has a regular conversation with a female inmate on the floor below, where they discuss sex regularly, often initiated by the woman, where he is able to walk down a stairway to a locked entranceway where she is housed, and they can kiss and touch each other through the iron gates, presumably even have sex. The tip-off that this is happening is he removes the light bulb in that corner, where they can fondle each other under cover of darkness. Throughout this lengthy film, lights are seen turning on and off in distant corridors, seemingly at random times, where one wonders how much of this is related to similar behavior. No one ever seems to sleep in the dark, as lights remain on even at night while everyone’s sleeping, though one might expect lights are a necessity for filming, revealing the filth and constant grime, where part of the brutality is the stark ugliness, including the graffiti written on the walls. Occasionally men cohabitate under the covers, where it appears some are regular partners, which are among the only moments of tenderness or affection seen throughout the film, while at other times men wishing to climb under the covers are soundly rejected. In a rare inexplicable moment, one man goes home for the New Years holiday, which feels so out of place as inmates are routinely seen talking about family visits, but this feels like wish fulfillment, as no one ever actually leaves. It’s the only moment where the viewer is spared having to share confined space with the inmates, feeling like a breath of fresh air, but once home with his wife, living in what looks like an open aired, abandoned building, they have absolutely nothing to say to one another. Instead he’s forced to take long walks, where it’s apparent the camera is expanding the existing space, opening up to a world outside, but one that has little to offer, as his wife nags him that it might be time for him to return to the asylum. Instead he walks away, obviously with no place to go, but he walks anyway, seen walking down a desolate highway late at night, where even in freedom, his only destination is to lose himself in utter oblivion. Returning back to the facility afterwards, we briefly follow what appears to be a couple, showing an awkward, unorthodox nature, but also a unique closeness, where even in this dumping grounds, friendships develop. In scrolling intertitles at the end, we learn that some of the men confined were caught murdering friends or family, yet they co-exist with alcoholics, men brought in by the police, or those with physical or mental impairments, including one who is obviously a mute, yet they are all treated with the same indifference and disdain, as the state doesn’t recognize a difference in their criminal history other than they are all considered undesirables, unfit to mix with society.
A Tale of Two Festivals - Film Comment Olaf Möller, November/December 2013
Few noticed and commented on the nixing of the Orizzonti section’s documentary wings, or that the documentary competition had been done away with, relegating films like Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part, and Anna Eborn’s docufiction hybrid Pine Ridge to out-of-competition status.
Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part brings us into a world that consists entirely of restrictions: an asylum at an undisclosed location in the People’s Republic of China. Wang focuses on one wing whose inhabitants are forced literally to run in circles, with little else to do except watch TV and cuddle up in bed. Where are they from and why are they there? The end titles suggest that cops, doctors, or simply family members can send just about anyone who behaves unconventionally to this Ninth Circle.
Cine-List - CINE-FILE Chicago Ben Sachs
Only at the end of 'TIL MADNESS DO US PART—Wang Bing's epic, challenging, and frequently astonishing documentary—do the filmmakers properly identify where the action takes place and how many of the subjects wound up there. Before then, they simply immerse the viewer in the sights and sounds of a Chinese mental institution that appears to be decades, if not several generations, behind Western standards. Indeed the institution seems designed to cause madness rather than cure it: violent and catatonic patients roam the corridors unsupervised, human waste is everywhere, and doctors employ brutal methods to force patients to follow orders. Even after several hours of viewing MADNESS, one never acclimates to the settings, despite the fact that repeated shots of iron bars and narrow corridors burn the settings into your memory. "The borders between hospital, asylum and prison are highly permeable in this multi-use warehouse for depositing the poor who are also socially, culturally and politically intolerable," writes Joseph Mai in the online film journal LOLA. He continues: "We have enough information about individual inmates to know that their incarceration is linked to outside forces: to family lives, economic conditions, even to political dynamics... There is no flight from politics, as Wang reminds us that the images are anchored in a world that includes ourselves, no matter where we are from. We know that such places exist; Wang brings us into one. This intimacy is perhaps the biggest emotional hurdle for viewers, for what we see is often disturbing... The camera is stuck in an insomniac state, recording people acting strangely at all times of day and night. This will repel viewers, including many who will ultimately be sympathetic to Wang's work, until they are ready to see as Wang sees them." And how does Wang see them? With an unflinching curiosity that never devolves into pity and a sharply honed sense of irony. MADNESS is rich in gallows humor, as the plight of the patients/inmates is so shocking that at times one can only respond with pained laughter. Wang's manipulation of duration is just as impressive as his control over tone; the "insomniac state" to which Mai refers yields a film that feels weirdly liberated from time. The director-editor moves freely between day and night, creating the sense that time no longer makes sense for his subjects. (The film doesn't feel long so much as endless—you experience it in a sort of temporal free-fall.) In this context, the outbursts of the patients can be rousing to behold; they feel like acts of protest against a world deprived of order.
Shot with detailed precision and in unobtrusive HD, ’TIL MADNESS DO US PART documents daily life inside of an isolated mental hospital in the southwest of China.
Home to about a hundred men, the decrepit institute, with its intimidating fences, houses its patients in grime and seclusion. Aged between 20 and 50, these men are detained for various reasons and disorders. Some have killed. Some are simply outsiders, forsaken by the local government for having upturned the rules. Lonely, abandoned by relatives who seldom visit, they look for comfort and warmth; they look for physical affection. They kiss and touch each other’s bodies and often, at night, they look for someone to sleep with; someone to share incoherent dreams of affection on cold winter nights." - Sydney Film Festival 2014 PR
In the fall of 2003, I randomly discovered a mental hospital near Beijing. There was nobody outside. It seemed empty. I walked alone inside it.
I began to feel very strange. All the doors and the windows were closed and sealed. The walls were falling apart and all mottled. I was attracted by the strangeness there. Suddenly behind a locked door, I got myself facing a group of men. They were wearing blue and white gown. A nurse came and told me that they were the patients of the hospital. I talked with her. She said many of them have been living there for ten to twenty years. I felt something very strong towards them, which made me want to make a film. But the hospital refused to let me shoot.
In 2009, I went to the hospital again. Some of the patient I had seen had passed away. So I keep thinking that I should make a film about the life of the men inside Chinese Asylum.
n 2012 I went to a new mental hospital and this time they let me get inside with my camera. So I started ‘TIL MADNESS DO US PART.
There is no freedom in this hospital. But when men are locked inside a closed space, with iron wire fence and no freedom, they are capable of creating a new world and freedom between them, without morality or behavior restriction. Under the night--light, the bodies are like ghost, looking for their needs of love: physical or sentimental.
This film approaches them at a moment where they are abandoned by their families and society. The repetition of their daily life amplifies the existence of time. And when time stops, life appears."
Wang Bing Films Souls: On Ta'ang and Other Recent ... - Cinema Scope Shelly Kraicer, 2016
The violent convulsions in the Middle East and Africa and grotesque asymmetries of wealth and poverty between north and south have put fundamental pressures on wealthier, conservative, defensive societies of Europe and North America. Refugees are everyone’s problem; they represent the fulcrum around which debates on the shape of our evolving societies rage. So it’s for good reason that cinema currently has refugees on its mind. The 2016 Berlinale jury awarded the Golden Bear to Gianfranco Rosi’s refugee crisis documentary Fire at Sea, and the perennially political festival offered several approaches to the subject, including Philip Scheffner’s experimental Havarie and the prize-winning shorts Anchorage Prohibited and A Man Returned.
China, though, has plenty of its own issues—political repression, environmental degradation, distortions of a modern post-capitalist economy—and Chinese directors, like the great independent documentarian Wang Bing, have generally maintained a laser-like focus on internal affairs. But Wang’s cinema, from its spectacular beginning with the epic West of the Tracks (Tiexi Qu, 2003), has always been in some vital way about people needing refuge. Refuge from a terminally decayed post-socialist system crashing down around them in West of the Tracks; refuge from a series of terror-ridden campaigns of violent political repression for Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2007); refuge from brutal poverty and family disintegration in Three Sisters (San zimei, 2012); and refuge from both the external world and from madness in the internal exile of a sanatorium cum prison in ’Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng ai, 2013). A brief look at the last two titles can suggest how Wang’s latest film, Ta’ang, prolongs and refines his thematic concerns as well as his stylistic methods.
Three Sisters is about three young girls, living high in the mountains of Yunnan. They have been abandoned by their mother and virtually left to their own devices by their father, who is forced to earn a living away from home. These sisters have no place of “refuge” other than home, but home in this case is a desperately poor, bleakly un-nurturing place, where the girls are left largely to their own devices. Though a neighbouring aunt feeds them, they essentially take care of each other. They live, play, and sleep in dirt. Their home is a cave-like dwelling—dark, dirty, and littered with root vegetables, shared with their few scrawny domestic animals. Under Wang’s compassionate gaze, though, this is no study in cinematic miserablism: the girls (ten-year-old Yingying, six-year-old Zhenzhen, and little four-year-old Fenfen) have fully realized personalities and emotional lives. They play and work at the household tasks necessary for survival.
The most basic refuge, the family, is here broken, incomplete, barely sustaining. Yingying is mother, father, and sister to her two younger siblings. She carries this burden with efficiency and a kind of stoic determination and strength that the situation forces upon her, and that her indomitable character sustains. Their father does return from time to time, to bring some clothes and share a meal before he goes off to work again. Towards the end of the film, his new girlfriend and her child come to join the three sisters. Though an ad hoc newly constituted family group forms, Zhenzhen articulates for us its continuing inadequacy. With sustained observation and exquisite empathy, Wang locates something that is without shape or form, but that is even more real than the mere hardscrabble details of a wearing struggle for existence: he makes visible a kind of invincible energy, a life force that pushes our three heroines to survive.
The inmates of the Yunnan hospital cum prison of ’Til Madness Do Us Part can also be seen as living a kind of broken life in an inverted refuge. The space Wang portrays is a Chinese state mental hospital where the inmates-patients are mentally ill, socially deviant, criminally convicted, or sometimes merely ill-adapted to social life. The Chinese official medical-penal apparatus has isolated them from society by dumping them in this closed system of medical care, incarceration, and punishment. We see a full and complex range of patient behaviours, from compassion to brutality, gentleness to abuse, longing to violent estrangement, both in the relationships among the patients and between them and the hospital officials. Forced from the open, everyday world into a microcosm of surveillance, treatment, and punishment, these prisoners are the negative image of refugees, though their plight captures plenty of a refugee’s terror, subjection, displacement, and confinement.
As usual, Wang offers a visual critique that goes much deeper than a simple microcosm of a larger authoritarian society, and provides nuance and ambiguity as rich and as perplexing as the world itself. He is always interested in minutely detailed observational research into individual behaviours in a group context and discovers how people behave when external circumstances impose severe restrictions on their ability to survive in the ways they are accustomed, or how they can even sometimes thrive in ways that accord with their hopes or dreams. Rather than a depressingly bleak tale of suffering under incarceration and punishment, Wang’s powers of observation and synthesis reveal uncanny, minor epiphanies amidst the general squalor. He finds capacities for happiness and freedom that many of the patients create under their bleak conditions. Over the film’s almost four-hour running time, we learn how various kinds of companionship and association can thrive (and sometimes break down) when wounded souls are thrown together, left to their own devices. These refugee-prisoners, isolated from the outside world, forge relationships which can embrace companionship, partnership, longing, erotic tenderness, imaginative romance, and mutual support. The film’s Chinese title, after all, is Feng ai, Love-Madness.
With his new documentary Ta’ang, which just received its world premiere in the Berlinale Forum, Wang literalizes the subject of refugees and puts their plight at the centre of his film in the persons of Burmese Ta’ang ethnic minority refugees who have crossed to China’s Yunnan province to escape a violent insurgency raging near their homes in Myanmar. As the Burmese Army fight against armed ethnic minority forces, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Ta’ang villagers are either forced from their homes (suspected of supporting the TNLA) or flee the violence by crossing the nearby, seemingly unguarded border with China. This subject is unprecedented for Wang: his previous films have all been located firmly within China, their subjects generally ethnic Han majority Chinese. Here Wang goes, if not international, then at least to the border, joining his fellow independent documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang’s By the Edge of the River (2006) and Crime and Punishment (2007) in filming along China’s margins with the rest of the world.
But Ta’ang is at the same time utterly of a piece with Wang’s previous work, not just because it puts at its centre disempowered people who are victimized by social circumstances beyond their control. More central to this film’s success, and what accounts for its quasi-incantatory power, is Wang’s shooting style. As usual, he stays near his subjects, in generally longish takes that doggedly but respectfully stick with the person under observation, at a medium distance that permits their situation to be framed within an environment rendered in great detail. His camera seems to melt away, as, paradoxically, his subjects become accustomed to his intimately distanced presence. They look at the camera, but they also act as if it’s not there, divulging with absolutely natural authority not only their physical presence but also something like their “souls.”
“Wang Bing films souls” could be a rough approximation of the impossible magic he regularly weaves in these uncannily “realist” documentaries. He accomplishes this thanks to a combination of extraordinary sensitivity to his subjects’ body language and an uncanny ability to choose just the right distance. Not too close, so as not to intrude on and disrupt the aura around their autonomous dignity and existence; not too far, so as to preserve an extraordinary intimacy that allows us to feel as if we’re seeing right through their skins, as if they were made transparent via their bodies and words, revealing the complex emotions, histories, and social relationships that make up the essence of one’s personality. (Maybe that’s the “soul.”) This is accomplished solely through observation, as Wang rarely interviews his subjects on camera: typically they reveal themselves through conversations with others, telephone calls with spouses or relatives on the other side of the Burmese border, or through long nighttime confessional conversations with fellow refugees, villagers, or family members, around dimly flickering fires in their temporary campsites. Even barriers of language (Wang doesn’t speak Burmese or any of the local border dialects) don’t seem to be an obstruction to Wang’s hyper-sensitive observational skills.
Ta’ang is structured as taking place over four days and three nights. The film’s first day takes place at a refugee encampment at Maidihe, Yunnan, about 500 metres from the border with Myanmar. Several Chinese flags in the background announce under whose nominal authority the refugees are situated. This sequence, following several Ta’ang minority refugees, boys, girls, women, and men setting up their rudimentary lean-tos, contains the only direct representation of authority in the film. Wang has chosen to open his film with a shot of what I take to be a camp guard (he’s wearing a military-style camouflage uniform, but is most likely not a PLA soldier) kicking a woman refugee who is sitting on the ground, rudely warning her (presumably for her own good) to move with her children to a safer area, since the wind has blown some tarps off the roof of their shabby tent. Violent confrontations with figures representing state authority are one basic constitutive element of “refugee cinema,” and in fact such images feature in the most memorable representations we’ve seen of Syrian refugees making their way through hostile borders in Europe. But Wang, after this opening shot, never shows us another.
Mainstream refugee documentaries usually give us a second kind of standard scene: friendly authorities who assist the refugees, typically UN or other NGO staff who alleviate their suffering and guide them to places of refuge. None of these appear in Ta’ang. Though there are occasional indirect signs that they might be there (a UNICEF backpack; flashlights and coats seemingly issued from the same source), Wang chooses never to show us officials or volunteers helping the Ta’ang, just as, with the exception of that opening shot, he never shows border guards or soldiers impeding their movements or threatening them. What Wang constructs with these choices is a set of images of self-sufficient communities, drawing on their own meager to non-existent resources to survive, relying on pre-existing relationships of family, clan, village, or sometimes just on basic human sympathy. Where the “standard” European-North American refugee documentary is obsessed with authority, Ta’ang is singularly focused on the refugees themselves. They form a complete system. All the resources they have are internal. There is no “rescue”: they either support each other and save themselves, or they don’t survive.
The first night takes place at this camp. The second day moves to a crowded temporary indoor refuge, in a tea factory in Dayingpan. These refugees are slightly more settled: they are able to work, stripping and bundling sugar cane. We find out later that the young woman worker’s pay is delayed, if it materializes at all. The second night introduces the film’s unforgettable visual motif. At first, small fires illuminate the refugees with a red glow that seems to invite the camera through their skin, into their thoughts and feelings. Then Wang reveals immense fires behind the refugee camps, probably burning sugar cane leaves. We see a young girl illuminated from a small red glowing fire in front, while simultaneously silhouetted by the enormous yellow fire-and-smoke conflagration behind. Light articulates this refugee’s being: impassable flame and destruction behind her, the soft glow of shelter and perhaps a glimmer of flickering hope in front of her.
The third day introduces a trek from camp to town, as an extended family rides a pickup truck that dumps them in a small Chinese town where they temporarily squat, helpless and passive, eyed by curious Chinese passersby, waiting for their next lift to their next destination. The following night is the film’s tour de force, a combination of several sequences, separated by fades to black, of refugees sitting and sleeping around fires, sometimes exhausted from their trek, sometimes sleepless with anxiety or uncertainty, as they unburden themselves of the fears of separation from their husbands and relive the terror of fleeing their homes at the approach of Burmese soldiers. (We usually listen to women talking, and watch their children at play, eating, and rest; Wang’s camera relatively rarely rests long on men in Ta’ang.) Once, in an eloquent close-up, a woman’s hand shelters a candle.
The film’s final section, the fourth day, is an extraordinary “on the road” set piece. This is another larger rhythm within the film, as it moves from opening stasis to tentative forward motion. A group of co-villagers are fleeing up Chinese mountain roads from artillery fire that we can hear on the Myanmar side of the Chinese border. Unlike the refugees in the previous sections, these people seem to have just arrived in China and have no idea where they are going. They are stalled on a steep roadside, their oxen secured by stakes driven into the ground, as they try to figure out where they can spend the night. Finally, a more enterprising group of about a dozen young women and children (and one tirelessly spry older “aunty” who outpaces them on their strenuous uphill climb) head out to a “shelter” they have heard about, which turns out to be a shabby roof supported by poles—better than sleeping in the open, apparently. They set out to sweep the underlying dirt and prepare for the evening, as Wang’s camera moves unusually far back, glimpsing the refugees as small moving specks against a landscape of unwelcoming hills, the echoing sounds of Myanmar army artillery never far away.
Though Wang’s key films all, to some extent, depict variations of people seeking refuge, it’s important to avoid an overly systematized or schematic view of his documentary practice. In a way he’s engaged in something like scientific research, sensitively gathering data that most others would miss, and then applying his acute sense of discrimination and proportion to assemble the data into a meaningfully shaped and organized report on an aspect of “reality.” Of course, the reality effect that documentary art strives to achieve is always, consciously or unconsciously, an ideological construct, a production of certain specific techniques of cinematic manipulation and creation (or re-creation) that take raw observational material and shape it through editing into something that convinces viewers that what they are seeing on screen represents something like direct, unmediated access to the “real.” Wang’s genius lies in his ability to get extremely close to this ideal and to generate a reality effect that seems to elide the boundaries between what is depicted on screen and what exists in the world. He convinces us of this with his acutely judged sense of the proper and revealing distance between camera and subject; his finely calibrated moral sense of when to shoot and when not to; and especially his unparalleled ability to situate subjects visually and aurally in a spatial-temporal field. The meaning that accrues to Wang’s subjects originates precisely in this relationship between person and environment through time. They are who they are, and we see who they are, through the changing matrix of history and geography that Wang evokes with his shots.
But more than that, Wang is a visual and aural poet. Ta’ang is unforgettable for the sounds and images it leaves burned into our memories. The film’s large-scale rhythm is built around dusk and nighttime. Three nights impose themselves on the refugees’ days. Three times the skies darken, and Wang finds the natural light of fires at dusk and then fires in the blackest night. This natural, flickering, red-orange glow shines on the refugees’ faces, revealing and crafting its own unique, magical, and sublime juxtapositions while evoking Georges de la Tour’s single-candle illuminations or performing Caravaggesque astonishments of lightning-like illumination amidst dramatic darkness. A young girl against raging background fires seems fixed in a terrifying space between safety and horror; a circle of mutually supporting villagers trade intimacies bathed in the soft, safe, warm glow of a single fire. It’s hard to avoid seeing self-conscious symbolism in that close-up of a woman’s hand repeatedly shielding a flickering candle from gusts of wind that threaten to blow it out. Wang works with sound, too, in ways that both situate and reassure, fixing the refugees in the unsettling natural world and allowing us to feel intrusions from man-made perils from outside: crickets, dogs, the rustling of wind on one hand, rumbling motorcycles and trucks and artillery bombardment on the other.
In Cinema Scope 54, Thom Andersen wrote that in Three Sisters Wang Bing locates a Straubian “fire in every shot,” a phrase that equally applies to Ta’ang. There is light for these Ta’ang refugees, abandoned by social support systems—families, homes, villages, social groups, tribal allegiances—and thrown to their own devices. The light also comes from within, from the strength that Wang regularly uncovers, buried deep within their humanity, to find life and hope, to move forward, and to insist on survival in the face of the worst objective conditions. This luminous strength also emerges from the connections between them, provisionally forged bonds of social solidarity, from the associations of mutual sympathy and aid, from the physical and emotional sustenance that the three sisters, the inmates of the mental hospital, and the Ta’ang people develop when thrown together in seemingly unendurable conditions that have to be endured. Wang’s cinema unearths the Prometheus in all of us: we give ourselves fire, we give each other fire, and life becomes liveable.
MUBI [Daniel Kasman] interview with the director, September 23, 2013
Wang Bing's camera nearly becomes a prisoner alongside other Chinese in 'Til Madness Do Us Apart, a documentary with rare access to a mental hospital cum prison dedicated to an incredible spectrum of patients cum prisoners, ranging from those in genuine need of care to those picked up for brawling, committed by family members, or simply unknown miscreants found and locked away. With only two exceptions the nearly four hour film remains trapped along with the male prisoners in the top floor of the building, which has a square patio in its center and as such the single hallway, open to that center but barred, traces a shape around it which the patients—and the camera—wander, as there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. This lone, looped hallway opens only to spare, cramped bedrooms, one bathroom, and a single TV room; except for the TV to watch, all the activity the patients have available to them is to shuffle around, talk to one another, or, like Wang's camera, simply watch and follow their fellow man.
In this spare edifice with the color and texture of worn sandpaper the living conditions have a terrifying equalizing effect: nearly all patients/inmates look and act the same, and only truly erratic behavior suggests some might be mentally ill and others not, some very sad and others not, some very upset and others not. Treatment is limited and evaluation is not apparent, the doctors only occasionally hovering around the frame's edge. As such, the film is given to the sustained sense of resignation that permeates the punishing, monotonous limitations of the space (other floors can be seen, including one for women, as well as surrounding buildings outside the windows of the complex) and the passive demeanor of the inhabitants, who only rarely act out and seem to spend most of their time, day and night, trying to sleep. A lone revelation of the lower level feeding floor seems like a godsend, especially as the men are so constantly trying to obtain more and different food from their visitors, whose rare appearances and surprisingly lengthy stays likewise seem like mana from the heavens even to those who just get to spectate awkward or moving reunions. The sole chance for the camera to leave the complex—following a prisoner granted leave to go home to his parents' hovel—shows us an exterior world of options for these men as desolate and bleak in its openness as the hospital-prison is in its claustrophobic, false shelter.
I had the chance to sit down with the director at the Toronto International Film Festival and talk to him about his new documentary. Special thanks to Alexandria Fung for her excellent translation.
NOTEBOOK: I was wondering if you could talk about how you found this hospital.
WANG BING: It has been quite a few years in waiting. We've always tried to look for one. Almost no hospitals or institutions would want you to come in and film them, so it has been a long time. It was just a very accidental opportunity that I bumped into the subject matter. I was editing my film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks that's about a section of Shenyang. I was almost finishing the editing Beijing. I was in a remote area...it was almost like an empty field with three buildings, so I went to check out what they were, and it turned out each building was full of people, and each floor, full of people. It turned out they were institutions. I wrote a script for a fictional feature after being in that institution, because I was allowed to go into it but not allowed to film, which is why I wanted to do a fictional feature. Actually I went to Cannes and was actually saying this was going to be my project. But for various reasons that didn't happen. I went back to that institution in 2009 and a lot of people I had met earlier had passed away; a lot of the people had been institutionalized for 20, 30 years. The actual, physical organization of that institution and the one I ended up filming was different, but the way they lived in each was actually very similar. Then, last year this opportunity came because a friend had talked to someone there and they said they were willing to support our idea, so this hospital is very willing to let us in and do what we want to do.
NOTEBOOK: What was it about the project that appealed to this particular institution?
WANG: The staff there, the doctors there, have a very—in a word—hopelessness, a helplessness in their attitude. It is their job to manage and facilitate the treatment of the patients and they have lots of difficulties doing that. At the same time, they also feel that the patients there, the people who are institutionalized there, have such a difficult life, so the doctors have such feelings both towards their work and the people. By being there, by doing the filming there, by spending time with the doctors and the staff members there, you realize that they are not treating the people badly, they are not bad to these people. But them as individuals, each doctor, each staff member, doesn't have any way to change how that these people are living there.
NOTEBOOK: My impression was—and I don't know if this was due to strictures laid out by the staff, or realities of the space, or your choices—that the doctors have a very minimal presence at the institution, they don't seem to do much.
WANG: I wasn't deliberating avoiding their presence. The doctors are present mostly at meal times—they have three meals a day—and they also have two medication times, and sometimes they'll have visits. But those are the times the doctors actually have a presence.
NOTEBOOK: It seems more like a prison in the sense of the doctors monitoring things than a hospital where they are treating people. There is very little “treatment” and no evaluations shown.
WANG: There's a little bit of that impression, there, but they are treating them. They are trying to treat them by medication. But as we all know, mental illness is very complex and the way treatments are nowadays are still very limited. The complexity of the illness and the rather limited ways to treat it do not make it likely to cure them. So, yes, the institution has a feeling that is sort of a “shelter” of some kind.
NOTEBOOK: I would imagine, since the range in types of patients is rather high and not everyone there has a mental illness, some are just troubled, that instead of treating them radically different as individuals with individual problems, it's easier to treat them all the same.
WANG: Yeah, they do not separate their patients. They do not manage and treat them differently. But I think it's because this particular institution doesn't have the ability to do it.
NOTEBOOK: Nor any available space...
WANG: Space, funding, various things. They have very limited everything.
NOTEBOOK: So are the administration of the hospital hoping the film will serve an activist purpose and draw attention to their own problems?
WANG: Of course there's that.
NOTEBOOK: Was the structure of the film, following around individual characters, an idea you started with, or developed from editing the footage?
WANG: That was a choice made early on during filming.
NOTEBOOK: I got the sense there was no private space in the hospital. Everyone's on view and has access to everyone. Eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom: nothing is private there.
WANG: That's right.
NOTEBOOK: Why was the film limited to the one floor, the top floor, the men's floor, I guess (the others being a women's floor and one other one I couldn't identify).
WANG: Because it's not easy to go to the second floor, the female section, as a male person, the access was difficult.
NOTEBOOK: The limitation was interesting because you could only stay on that top floor, the film never leaves that space, the camera almost feels like a member of the community. A combination of the length of the film, the camera's attitude, and the limitations of the space meant that it doesn't feel like the camera is following people around, but rather is, like everyone else, just watching people.
WANG: Yes, so you feel like you are one of them. You are in there.
NOTEBOOK: Was the camera and crew an invasive presence for the patients?
WANG: There was just two people, me and the photographer. Just the two of us, and sometimes just the one of us filming, so I might be in a different room and he would be filming, and I would tell him what to film. Sometimes it would be me filming and he would be resting somewhere. So that doesn't actually create a lot of presence, because it was so few people.
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever get the sense the patients were performing for the camera, showing off or acting up?
WANG: The first three days, yes. But then afterward there was none of it.
NOTEBOOK: What was your working process like, determining what to shoot? Would you sit in a room for a while waiting for something to happen, or would you wander around looking for things?
WANG: We were basically filming continuously, because of the time. We were on location for 72 days, and of those days we filmed during 60 of them. We had very limited access so once I was there I was filming continuously. Actually, of the 60 days, there were 15 days filmed outside. So actually inside the institution was about 45 days. So during that 45 days we did 250 hours of shooting, so we have that much footage. You can then calculate we filmed about 5 hours each day. We actually spent about 7 or 8 hours each day inside the institution. During that time most of our time was spent filming. In order to get 5+ hours of filming you basically have to be continuously filming during those 7 or 8 hours there. To me, each hour that I'm there is very precious. How I felt was that, okay we might have a very smooth process today, we got everything done, but we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, whether we're going to be allowed to do, so I was really trying to do as much as I could each day.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like the access is so rare, you would want to shoot everything, consume everything—maybe even without planning—and then find a shape for it later.
WANG: If you do that then you really would ruin the film! Because that would be a news report. To do a film you are supposed to portray a character, so you really have to get into the character. So even though the time of it was very limited, it just meant you have to get into the character that much more quickly.
NOTEBOOK: Do you mean the “character” of the film, or the characters, the people, in the film?
WANG: The characters of the people.
NOTEBOOK: I would assume you'd have to be thinking very fast, with such limited access. Did you do preparation work before shooting to get to know the people or did you have to discover their stories as you shot them?
WANG: We actually had to decide and learn for about a week at the beginning. After a week we've pretty much decided which characters we wanted to follow.
NOTEBOOK: Did you always want to include a section that left the hospital?
WANG: Yes. We followed four characters leaving the institution and chose to leave that one in.
NOTEBOOK: The hospital seems a genuine community, people are accepting and supportive of each other. There's not much patient fighting or self-imposed isolation.
WANG: There are some people, because of their mental state, or mental illness, that would not want to socialize, so at the beginning there were people standing alone in the corridor. So there are people like that. But most of them are not like that, most are acting like normal people in a normal Chinese culture, which is very much that they feel like they are in a group and have that group behavior and spirit.
NOTEBOOK: I was shocked at the end by the title card revealing the spectrum of inmates at the hospital, since I had assumed all that we were seeing were mentally unstable people. But that card reveals some are genuinely sick and some are genuinely healthy. In the film itself it's very hard to distinguish between those two kinds of patients.
WANG: Some people there are quite normal.
NOTEBOOK: I was also shocked, throughout, that some families apparently had to financially support this incarceration of family members. That they had to pay something like room and board, or hospital fees. That it wasn't a State supported.
WANG: That depends. If it was the family member who had tried to commit a person, then the family has to pay. But if it's some government institution or some government branch that put this person in there, then the Civil Administrative Bureau of the government would pay for it.
NOTEBOOK: In a line of dialogue from the family of the guy who was released they say something about him coming back after his allotted leave, that the family was having the hospital hold his spot for him, that despite how this hospital looks, access to it might be a luxury for some families.
WANG: There are other mental institutions in the area, and their conditions are similar. In any event, this particular person was not able to go back anyway.
NOTEBOOK: So the conditions we see here aren't unusual or specific to this particular hospital?
WANG: This is a pretty average condition. In China there are two types of hospitals: one is strictly a hospital, so there the focus is on treatment. That is a hospital-hospital. Then there is the other one, which is administrated by the Civil Administrative Bureau. That is also a treatment center, but is also has the ingredients of a shelter.
NOTEBOOK: Is the hospital-hospital also for mental health? Not an asylum but a regular hospital for treatment of mental illness.
WANG: The hospital-hospital, that is administrated by the Administrator of Public Health, are different. There are ones that are strictly mental health hospitals, and there are ones that are general hospitals with a mental health department.
NOTEBOOK: So why are these people in the one administered by the Civil department and not the Public Health department?
WANG: There is an “old system, new system” ingredient in it. The ones run by the Administrative Bureau, those are the older version. Then, later on, when there was more focus on mental illness, then hospitals had more mental illness departments and they would have wards for mental illness patients. So this one is more an older-earlier establishment.
NOTEBOOK: I was curious about the sexual activity portrayed in the film. Because of the lack of privacy there seems to be a level of tenderness and human contact, both heterosexual and homosexual, that verges on sex. I was wondering if that was very present around you.
WANG: Yes, because I'm not trying to avoid that. If it's there, I will shoot it.
NOTEBOOK: Were people were actually able to engage in sexual activity, or if they had to maintain a certain distance due to community scrutiny?
WANG: It's a very different environment there, so what is restricting us now, and what are behavioral norms, no longer apply. The boundaries are not there any more. So in terms of sexuality, that's actually quite normal. People no longer think of it as something to moralize. So they are really more thinking about need. Some people there, there will be two people who will sleep together and they will sleep together each and every night for many years.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this place more as a prison or as a hospital?
WANG: That I can't say. I do think of it as a hospital. It's not a regular prison, but it is a place that is very restricted. Society still doesn't have a way to appropriately deal with these people.
Wang Bing's 'Til Madness Do Us Part: An Apprenticeship in Seeing Joseph Mai from Lola Journal, December 2015
Nick Pinkerton on Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part Nick Pinkerton from Artforum
'Til Madness Do Us Part | 4:3 Jeremy Elphick
TIL MADNESS DO US PART Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion
Aaron Cutler on the 2013 Indie Festival in Brazil - artforum.com ... Aaron Cutler from Artforum
REVIEW: 'Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing - 2013) [Brisbane ... Lawrence Barder from Graffitti with Punctuation
"The Horror and the Humanity: Wang Bing's 'Til Madness Do Us Part ... Sarah Ward from Metro magazine
Explore China of the Past and Present In Trailers for Films from King ... Nick Newman from The Film Stage
Wang Bing's ''Til Madness Do Us Part' - Brooklyn Magazine Benjamin Mercer
Wang Bing's 'Til Madness Do Us Part Immerses ... - Village Voice Michael Atkinson
International Film Festival Rotterdam review 2014 - Senses of Cinema Daniel Fairfax, March 2014
CAPTURING UPHEAVAL MoMA's Documentary Fortnight 2014 | The ... Ela Bittencourt from The Brooklyn Rail
Review: ''Til Madness Do Us Part' Finds Hell and Humanity - The New ... Ben Kenigsberg from The New York Times
FATHERS AND SONS (Fu Yu Zi)
China France (97 mi) 2014 Mubi official site
Father and Sons opens with a single, remarkably complex image. It’s evening in a small apartment in Fumin, China. Two boys sit back in bed, the flickering light of an unseen television barely visible on the left side of the frame. The shadow of a man, their father, rises up and dominates the screen. The light is warm, the walls bare. Things remain still a long while, until the parent decides that it’s time to turn off the TV and go to sleep. Like an overture, this first shot contains the kernel of what will grow into a taxing meditation on adolescence in the 21st century.
At least that’s what it seems to be about. Director Wang Bing, famous for his three-part industrial epic West of the Tracks, doesn’t offer much in the way of interpretive help in his newest film. After the evening prelude, Father and Sons consists almost entirely of stationary shots inside this small apartment. Stonemason Cai Shinhua lives there with his two sons, Yongjin and Yonggao, each of whom spends most of his time either passively watching television or actively staring into his smart phone. With the exception of a few brief glimpses out toward the urban landscape of Fumin, Wang points his camera at that same, unchanging bare wall. The room is cramped, with a large dent in the floor and no visible windows. The floor and the shelves are cluttered with various boxes and bags, three well-behaved dogs and the ever-present but always-unseen television.
Wang began shooting on February 2nd, 2014 and was forced to stop on February 6th, when he was threatened by Cai’s boss. It is unclear whether Father and Sons is footage from one day or all of them, but the final cut of the film is edited to resemble a single afternoon and evening. Usually only one of the boys is in the room, silently texting away or playing games, listening to but infrequently watching the TV. Individual shots last for minutes on end, the stationary camera capturing the remarkable stamina of Yongjin and Yonggao to do nothing at all with their time. It is at once intriguing and mundane, taking the common sense fact that teenagers do nothing but look at their phones and forcing an audience to address this issue directly, without even the slightest distraction. The ultimate interactivity of the smart phone has been upended and morphed into an almost completely static experience.
All the while it is somewhat unclear how Wang feels about this himself. As night falls, it begins to resemble satire. Each successive time one of the boys charges his phone becomes a visual joke, commenting on how their only physical movement consists of standing up and walking over to a power outlet. It’s like a remake of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, except instead of viciously poking fun at the Mexican bourgeoisie, Wang is applying a much duller knife to China’s tech-savvy millennial generation. The observational approach, because of the rigor of this editing, loses the calm feeling we usually associate with that style of filmmaking and becomes more of a formal experiment. If its moments of comedy are taken as such, it’s easy to read as an unfair critique of China’s youngsters, and by extension youth worldwide. Yet that’s never made particularly clear, which is what makes Father and Sons a slightly more interesting project. There is much room for interpretation and contemplation. And, given the structure of the film, plenty of time to think it over.
Shadows of the Opus Magnum: Wang Bing's "Father and Sons" on ... Michael Guarneri from Mubi Notebook, January 22, 2015
Over the past decade Wang Bing has established himself as one of the most prominent figures in documentary cinema, recording the real lives of ordinary people being the safest, most economical way for an independent filmmaker like him to realize personal film projects in China without the State's approval and financial support. These somewhat difficult conditions of production must always be kept in mind when discussing his output, which also includes two fictional reenactments of actual events—the short film Brutality Factory (2007) and the several-year-in-the-making feature film The Ditch (2010).
Another crucial thing to Wang's work is that his primary interest lies in human emotions, not in political opposition. As he told me in April 2014, he does not consider himself a “political filmmaker” or a “dissident”, because he has no political claims, no political program, no political agenda to put forward. Rejecting two possibly hackneyed labels and keeping a low profile, he strives to show concrete, real-life situations, rather than preaching:
"I am interested in the personal, inner life of the individuals who live in Chinese society. What I try to do is just to look at life and put my personal experience and my past in relation with other people's personal experiences. I look at human everyday life and of course, by doing so, I bring to the screen everyday life issues, some of which are the so called "problems of society". I repeat: personally, I have no political purposes and ambitions. It is true that in my films there are moments in which political affairs are discussed, but this is normal, because in China a lot of things are directly influenced by the Communist Party and politics is everywhere. If I decided to omit the relation between political context and everyday life in my films, then I'd be a "political filmmaker": in fact, in the China of today, the real "political films" are those that carefully avoid mentioning anything political."1
With its 87 minute runtime, Wang's latest documentary Father and Sons (City of Lisbon Award for Best Feature-Length Film at Doclisboa 2014) offers a concise example of the modus operandi sketched above.
At the genesis of Father and Sons there's a meeting between Wang and three fellow-countrymen—stonemason Cai Shunhua and his teenage sons Yongjin and Yonggao—during one of the filmmaker's trips to Yunnan Province, where both Three Sisters (2012) and 'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) were shot. This is not at all unusual for Wang, since Crude Oil (2008), Man With No Name (2009) and Three Sisters were all born out of fortuitous encounters with workers and peasants that took place while the Beijing-based filmmaker was traveling around the country, working on other film projects.
Lacking a detailed statement from Wang himself, one can only guess what got him interested in the lives of Cai and sons. However, Wang's lonely and troubled childhood as recounted in New Left Review n. 82 (for economic reasons, he spent several years in the countryside with his paternal grandfather, away from his parents and siblings; his father died in the workplace when Wang was 14) allows us to hypothesize that the filmmaker might have felt an emotional connection both to the teenage boys missing a parental figure and to their father doing his best to keep what's left of the family united.
As a matter of fact, broken homes are often to be found in Wang's oeuvre: the third part of his 560-minute debut film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) chronicles the relationship between factotum "Old Du" and his affectionate son, missing a runaway wife and a mother respectively; Three Sisters follows three little girls living alone in a mountain village because their father works far away "in the big city" and their mother abandoned them; 'Til Madness Do Us Part dedicates a great deal of screen time to problematic young men put into a mental hospital by their families.
So, as the daily struggle of the Cai family perhaps resonated with his personal history and emotional issues, Wang set out to employ his usual tactic of spending time with his new acquaintances and filming their lives without interfering, with the aim of collecting hours and hours of footage to be condensed and shaped during the editing phase.
However, as Cai's employer-landlord didn't take kindly to having a camera snooping around his property, the shooting of the film lasted only a few days: “We began filming their life on February 2nd 2014. On the morning of the 6th, we received threats from the boss and had to stop filming.”
What's left, as the above statement by Wang quoted in Doclisboa's program notes suggests, is an aborted film. There simply wasn't enough time for Father and Sons to grow and come into being: possibly not enough time for the three protagonists to overcome the initial awkwardness and shyness one instinctively feels in front of a camera, and most certainly not enough time for Wang to closely observe their everyday routine and record it in minute detail. Hence, there wasn't enough filmed material to work on in the editing phase in order to provide the spectators with a comprehensive cinematic reconstruction of the real life of all three family members.
The result is that, contrary to the "usual" Wang documentary film, we are locked out of the inner world of the protagonists and we are simply left to contemplate a taciturn kid hanging around in his hut, mostly in bed: he watches TV, drinks tea, texts someone with his cellphone, chats with his brother, plays with puppy dogs. In spite of the sense of closure achieved through a well-executed "24 hours in the life of..." montage, the feeling is that we are watching some rushes for a film-to-be.
Nevertheless, there are several glimpses of how far richer and more profound Father and Sons could have been, had Wang and his collaborators been given the chance to keep on filming. For example, the movie opens with an amazing shot of Yongjin and Yonggao lying in one single bed, their father's shadow falling on them from off-camera space—a very simple but tremendously effective introduction to the movie's two main themes: the "ghost father" and the absence of personal space in the hut. Coherently, almost every shot in the movie frames said bed, because, in dramaturgic terms, this piece of furniture is the "center of tension" of the family's life: "[Cai Shunhua] sleeps during the day, when his sons are out. The three of them live in a four-square-meter room. Within this tiny space there are an oven and a bed that is actually smaller than a couch. They all sleep there, there's no personal space nor privacy. During the night, the father leaves the bed to his sons and goes to work."2
At a closer look, everyday objects and domestic appliances also play a paramount role in this Chinese working-class, claustrophobic chamber drama about people avoiding and at the same time missing each other. For instance, the constant buzz of TV and cellphones highlights both the paradoxical lack of communication between human beings living so closely together in a cramped room, and their desire to somehow break such silence and isolation. Another interesting yet unfortunately underdeveloped aspect is the parallelism between the Cai family and three dogs (two puppies and, presumably, their mother) that seek shelter in the already-crowded hut: could it be that the dogs are having a better family life than the human beings?
For reasons mentioned before, Father and Sons is far from matching the dissection of human emotions Wang achieved in his previous features, and, in the end, the Cai family and its dynamics remain as impenetrable as the silence of the man with no name from Wang’s homonymous 2009 video installation. One proof is that most of the fundamental biographic and contextual information that the Chinese filmmaker usually manages to "deliver" through real-life dialogues and situations had to be squeezed into a title card before the final credits: Cai's being a migrant worker, his reunion with Yongjin and Yonggao in 2010 after years of absence, and so on...
As this time the material conditions of production curbed the creator's ambitions, the hope is that some day Wang will have the chance and the financial resources to come back to this project, resume the shooting and turn actuality footage collected at his own risk into the full story of a hardworking father and his two teenage sons. For now, Father and Sons functions only (but it is certainly no small accomplishment) as a raw filmic document of the miserable living conditions the title-characters have to face, scraping out an existence in the outskirts of Fuming.
Simple Stories: An Interview with Wang Bing — Cineaste Magazine Aaron Cutler interview, Fall 2015
Two adolescent boys sit on a small bed watching television; they look down from time to time to play on mobile phones while the machine’s white noise continues. Their father’s shadow appears on the wall as he bids them goodbye before leaving for work and tells them goodnight after the day concludes. The boys stay reclining inside the cluttered hut during the hours that pass in between.
The Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing’s most recent feature-length film, Father and Sons (2014), takes place almost entirely inside the cramped, factory-owned living space that has been given to the worker Cai Shunhua for him and his sons Yongjin and Yonggao to inhabit. Wang’s level gaze stays in the room with the boys over the course of a few days, during which very little seems to happen. It watches them as, in the absence of things to do in the industrial area outside their home, they find ways to pass the time indoors.
Father and Sons grew out of Wang’s earlier feature, Three Sisters (2012), in which the two boys appeared in their native Yunnan Province village in southwestern China (shared by the title characters) several months before their father took them to live with him. The film’s patient, attentive manner of presenting people has belonged to Wang’s filmmaking ever since his debut film, the three-part documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), a depiction of a dying factory district’s residents’ efforts to keep functioning while their homes and jobs vanish. Throughout his films, Wang has worked in close proximity to the people he records, most of whom come from Chinese society’s lower levels. Wang builds his films by studying how they interact with their surroundings over time.
These observational films employ long, steady shots that encourage viewers to adapt to the rhythms of a person’s daily life. A theme that emerges throughout them is the ongoing effort people make to find freedom within material confines. The rural girls in Three Sisters, for instance, have been essentially abandoned by their parents at story’s outset, forcing the ten-year-old Yingying into the position of having to raise her two younger siblings. The camera unobtrusively follows the girls while Yingying leads them in performing chores such as feeding and tending to farm animals and making fire with which to cook potatoes. As time passes and the seasons change, they also roam across wide fields and ease their loneliness by finding moments to play.
’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013)—which Wang shot in Yunnan Province in between the makings of Three Sisters and Father and Sons—takes place primarily on one floor of an unnamed mental hospital. The film’s viewpoint shifts among several inmates, some of who have been locked up for more than a decade for reasons that remain unclear. Over and over, isolated men appear sprinting around the floor’s narrow corridors until returning to shared quarters. In many cases, the person’s family has abandoned him, and he lacks and longs for tenderness. Mundane activities such as dressing and undressing oneself, lighting a cigarette, and lying beneath a blanket with another inmate come to seem like peoples’ declarations of their own humanity.
Wang was born in 1967 (shortly after the start of the Cultural Revolution) and raised in a rural part of Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. As a teenager, he took over his deceased father’s job in a construction design firm, where he performed various duties while unsuccessfully aspiring to become an architect. He eventually studied photography at the Lu Xun Arts Academy in Shenyang—a large city close to the Tie Xi district that he would eventually film—then cinema at the Beijing Film Academy. He graduated at a time when inexpensive digital filmmaking tools were becoming readily available, and after trying and failing to gain steady work within the Chinese film and television industry, set out on his own as a documentarian. He has since worked prolifically and won a number of international festival prizes; he has also (like many Chinese independent filmmakers) failed to have his films shown commercially in his homeland, and often struggled to finance his projects.
In chronicling individual, present-day lives, Wang gives a sense of his country’s recent history. The films rarely delve directly into discussions of government policies, with works such as 2007’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir and 2010’s The Ditch (which recall the fates of victims of the Cultural Revolution through documentary interviewing and fictionalized re-enactments, respectively) proving more exceptions than rules in this regard. Political critiques are instead largely left implicit, and made through Wang’s act of allying himself with people that have been pushed onto his culture’s fringes. The films suggest that China’s transition from Maoism to an assimilation of capitalism has not only failed to improve, but actually worsened the lives of many of its citizens, who survive in spite of it.
The people that Wang records are ones who move him, as evidenced by his willingness to let them guide the films. I interviewed the director at this year’s edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where he had come to present Father and Sons. Annelous Stiggelbout translated his answers from Mandarin Chinese into English.—Aaron Cutler
Cineaste: How did you become a filmmaker?
Wang Bing: I have made Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks and many other films, but I have never really thought of myself as a filmmaker. Often in life you don’t know what you should be doing. For me, making films is a way to avoid wasting my time. Nobody needs me to do anything, so I need to do something for myself. My first film premiered thirteen years ago, when I was thirty-five years old and still had many ideals. But actually, there are many things in life that we want to do and that we never get around to doing.
I don’t think that my films have much to do with my background. I had never planned to do this. For about a decade I worked in a construction design studio and was very interested in architecture, but I was never able to acquire the education necessary to be allowed to design the buildings. I applied for several architecture university programs and was never accepted, so I had to do other tasks. In the end, I decided that it would be easier to get into a good school for cinema than one for architecture. I succeeded in entering university and studied first photography, then cinema.
After I graduated, I had a hard time finding work. In China, to procure work in the film industry you need the right contacts, which I didn’t have. I thought that I would make a documentary for myself, without knowing anything about documentary filmmaking—in university I had only been given fiction films to study and hadn’t thought at all about documentaries. (There are very few classes in Chinese films schools that include documentaries in their curriculums.) So I just filmed however I thought would be good. I filmed however I wanted.
The result was West of the Tracks, which I filmed in a district near the arts university that I had attended in the city of Shenyang. What made the biggest impression on me in that area was the snow. In winter it snowed constantly. In that film there is a lot of snow, and throughout my films, I pay attention to the seasons and their passing. The reason for this is that I don’t want the audience just to see a small part of a person’s life, but rather a person along with his or her background. I tend to film people for quite long periods of time. If you show somebody’s life over a long period, then you come to understand him or her better.
Cineaste: How does filming over long periods impact your storytelling?
Wang: I think that the most interesting thing to do in films is not to create a story—in any case, I’m not the kind of director who sets out to create one. I prefer to look at people. If you look at an interesting person for a while, then you will realize that in that person’s life there is a very interesting story. When I meet someone and his or her story really attracts me, then I decide that I would like to make a film about him or her. When I decide that there’s something really beautiful about that person, and that his or her life really touches me, is the moment when I want to film.
In a person’s life, of course, many big things happen, but the moments of tenderness are what most interest me. The relationships that people have with their family members and with friends are the most important things in their lives. Those relationships are what I want to show. Usually I just film, and then I edit, and then I present the results. My films are often very simple and tell very simple stories. If I lay out a plot structure beforehand, then I will have imprisoned the story. I prefer instead to let it develop and grow outside of my control.
Cineaste: How do you approach the people whose stories you tell?
Wang: The approach I take is very simple, really. I go to a place and meet someone. I suddenly feel that that person is interesting, and from there, my crew and I begin to film. I ask technicians to come work with me when they have time and jobs that don’t pay very well, without really considering their levels of experience. (The pay that I can offer them is so low that I can’t really do so.) I tell them how and where to film, and often I hold the camera myself. I use lightweight digital equipment, so the process of filmmaking becomes a lot easier than it would have been in the past. And I tell very simple stories.
I have found in my work that people at all levels of society are basically the same. They’re all very complicated. I keep my distance from them during the period of filming in order not to disturb them emotionally, or to change any of their moods or habits. At the same time, when I film them, I can’t help but get close because there’s something about them that attracts me and that I really like. So there is always a tension. On the one hand, I don’t want to disturb them; on the other hand, I have my own feelings towards them.
I can talk about the girls in Three Sisters, whose mother had left them when they were quite small. Their father had gone out to another town to work and left them on their own to live. By the time that I began making the film, Yingying was the oldest of the girls at age ten and had to take care of her two little sisters, Zhenzhen and Fenfen, who were six and four. Although Yingying was young, she was very mature.
When I came by their house and saw them playing in the courtyard for the first time, I saw something in them that made them seem different from other children. Despite my being a stranger, they invited me into their home. They were cooking potatoes over a fire because that was all that they had to eat. The sight of them cooking made a deep impression on me. This made me want to film them, and so I did.
Their father eventually returned to the village for a short time, and then took the two younger girls back to the town where he was working. Only Yingying was left. At first, she didn’t have anyone to play with, then she eventually found two brothers with whom she got along well, especially the older one. They would go into the mountains, play together, herd sheep, and collect manure to burn. They had a lot of freedom. Their life at that point was very simple and innocent, and even romantic in a rural way. These two boys had also impressed me, but the film we were making focused on the girls, and so there was no time to give much attention to them.
The boys’ mother had also left when they were young, and their father was working elsewhere. The father later came back and took them with him to live. In December of 2012, I was working in the Yunnan Province in southern China, and I passed by their home in order to see them. I felt very bad for them, because it was a rather hopeless situation. When I came into their house, I saw that they shared a tiny bed that was only slightly larger than the table at which I am sitting right now. Three people had to sleep in that bed, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how.
That little bed was the thing that made the deepest impression on me. We didn’t have much money or time to work with the family, so I thought that I would make a piece of video art, rather than a proper film. When I decided that I would make Father and Sons I thought, “Well, I’ll film this father and his two sons and their small bed.” That would be enough. Initially, it was intended to be shown only as an installation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, but after it showed there, several film festivals also invited it to play as a film.
Cineaste: How did the making of ’Til Madness Do Us Part coincide with those of Three Sisters and of Father and Sons?
Wang: It actually began in 2002, while I was still editing West of the Tracks. I went to visit a psychiatric hospital in the suburbs of Beijing. When I arrived there, it was very windy and all the doors were open, but I didn’t see any people—just lots of fallen leaves. I walked around until I arrived outside one building, within which I could hear many voices. I entered and looked through a glass door. It was very dark, but I could see skinny people on the other side. I opened the door quietly. The nurse on guard thought that I was a family member of one of the patients, but I said that I was just visiting and asked if I could look around. She saw that I had no bad intentions and let me in.
I talked a bit with the patients, most of whom were very thin and very old. I learned that they had been placed in the hospital in the 1960s and 1970s. Their household registrations had been transferred to the hospital, which meant that they were officially registered as living there and so could not move. They may have been sick, but they still acted like normal people, and they really wanted to make contact and to talk with me. I afterward often went to the hospital, and I asked its directors if I could make a documentary there. They continued to refuse up through 2009, at which point I gave up that plan.
Then, early in 2012, when I was filming Three Sisters in Yunnan, the director of a psychiatric hospital in the area told me that I could film inside his complex. I thought that this was an important opportunity, but we had just shot Three Sisters and I had no budget left. I asked some producers who had previously worked with me if they could find money to finance a new project, and they all said no except for a Japanese producer who gave me twenty thousand American dollars. In January of 2013, I returned to Yunnan to film ’Til Madness Do Us Part.
The hospital staff in Yunnan gave me the freedom to film wherever I wanted, but I didn’t feel very good and had doubts about whether I could do it. If you shoot in a place without knowing anything about it, then your film can easily become very bad. Additionally, we were given only three weeks to film there, and in my opinion that was not enough time. So every day, we worked from seven or eight a.m. until midnight or one a.m. There was no time to relax or to do anything else.
By the end of the first week, it had become clear to me how we should make the film. By the end of the three weeks, though, I still felt like there were some stories that we had not told fully. As our money was almost finished, I had no choice but to return to Beijing. I stayed there for a month, and then eventually returned to the hospital and shot for another week, which allowed me to wrap up the film.
I wanted to emphasize, both in the filming and in the editing, things that I had wondered while spending time with psychiatric patients. How had they gotten their illnesses? What did their illnesses do and mean? How did the people feel? How can you separate a person from his or her illness?
A problem of psychiatric hospitals is that the patients are basically cast out by society and by their families. Nobody really cares about whether they can recover from what they have. Of course, there were some cases in that hospital where you didn’t know if a person was actually ill at all, but had still been locked up. Some people are in there because they have mental illnesses, and some people have something else going on. Most of the men were in there because they had moved from their villages to urban locations in order to work and had had mental collapses as a result of doing so. Most of the women had been diagnosed and interned after having had babies under China’s family planning policy. The patients have very complicated histories and backgrounds, and every day they are just in there, completely separate from the rest of the world.
Cineaste: What do you think about the direction in which Chinese society is heading?
Wang: Throughout China these days, the family unit is less stable than it used to be. Partly for economic reasons, there are many more broken homes now than there were in the past. Many people don’t have complete families or fixed places to call home. Their lives are much more unstable than before and are much more floating now.
It’s very difficult to say in which direction China is developing. It’s not that I don’t want to say. It’s that it’s really, really hard to say. Of course, what I can offer is completely my own opinion. It doesn’t count for more than that. I think that China is changing very little right now, especially in its politics. In places like the former Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe, for example, many things have changed over the past twenty years, but in China during this same time I think that very little has changed.
The reason why change is happening so slowly, I think, is that the people who want China to change don’t represent the ideas and thoughts of the majority of the population. Most Chinese people don’t know what the future will be, their own or that of China, because they just haven’t developed any opinions about it. Some people at the higher levels of society have done so, such as intellectuals and some businesspeople, but people like those I film—who don’t have much education, who don’t have any money, and who live very poor lives—think differently. So I don’t believe that there will be much change in my country.
Cineaste: Do you have a goal in mind when you begin making your films?
Wang: No. When I see something that really interests me, I simply go and record it. I shot many films at the same time and none of them are finished yet. For example, I met a woman and was filming her. Next to her was sitting another woman who I felt was a really interesting character, and even while I was filming the first woman, I felt the story gradually moving towards the second. Her husband was clearly beating her, but she hadn’t left, even though there was no hope for her family. Through her story, you can see problems facing people at the lowest levels of Chinese society. They’re not secure in their marriages and family lives. They lack direction. They exist only in a state of worry.
I think that stories like hers are good stories to film. In the story of such a real person, you can see something true. I don’t like stories that are overly designed or made up. I think that a story should not be limited in the way that it grows and in how it develops. That is the way I think that movies should be made.
Cineaste: You have made one fiction feature—The Ditch. Do you believe you will return to fiction?
Wang: A big difficulty I face in making fiction films is that I don’t have freedom—no freedom in different aspects, from political to financial. I can’t make fiction films right now and don’t really want to, so I make documentaries to pass the time instead.
FILM DIRECTORS IN CORRESPONDENCE: WANG BING AND JAIME ... Zhao Yu from Leap magazine
Documentary Fortnight at MoMA - The L Magazine Aaron Cutler, Februry 13, 2015
MICHAEL GUARNERI / «I am just a simple individual who films what ... Michael Guarneri interview from La Furiaumana, April 9, 2014
Hong Kong France (147 mi) 2016
2016 TIFF Wavelengths Michael Sicinski from The Academic Hack
China’s greatest documentarian is an artist in transition. Although he became known for grand, highly formalist undertakings such as Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Fenming: A Chinese Memoir, and Crude Oil, Wang’s recent work has shown more and more interest in following some of the broader practices of the Chinese Documentary Movement. It’s not that recent works such as Three Sisters or (especially) ‘Til Madness Do Us Part exhibit any less of the power and stringency of his finest films. But Wang’s earlier taste for ultra-rigor is now tempered with other values. Those recent films adopt Direct Cinema’s penchant for mobility and self-imbrication within uncertain, existential moments. He does not know how any given situation will unfold, but much like Frederick Wiseman or the late Allan King, Wang now has a repertoire of cognitive strategies that he can draw upon based on his intuition of the unfolding emotional, sociological, or political nuances of a given event.
Ta’ang is very much a transitional work. Here we see Wang adopting what is probably the most observational, least reflexive attitude of his career thus far, and while it generates a higher degree of drama than one finds in, say, Three Sisters, it also raises a few red flags. This 2 ½ -hour project is an in-depth look at the refugee camps along the China / Myanmar border, where the Ta’ang ethnic group have been displaced by the violence of the Myanmar civil war. Whole villages are repeatedly packed up in trucks and moved further and further into China, while the skirmishes and artillery just spills over into Ta’ang territory with no concern for their safety. We spend most of our time with mothers, working to keep society intact, although occasionally a young man will return from an area closer to the front, describing what they’ve seen and recounting the number of family members killed or simply lost.
The camerawork and overheard discussion makes it clear that Wang is “imbedded” with the Ta’ang, and that as women and children flee, carrying whatever they can while trying to find shelter from raining bombs, they ignore the documentarian in their midst. This is not just formally problematic. I find myself wondering, was Wang carrying anything other than his camera? He’s stronger than the five-year-old girls dragging bags of rice. And, since Wang has already completed another film, we know that this caravan survives. This is hardly the point, of course, but for a filmmaker who has worked so hard to reshape our notions of what nonfiction cinema can do, I find Ta’ang somewhat unconvincing. Their story must be told, but will it spur us to action when it feels so familiar?
'Ta'ang': Berlin Review | Reviews | Screen David D’Arcy
In Ta’ang, Wang Bing follows families from a population fleeing the war which has been smouldering on the border between Burma and China. In this portrait of despair, Wang finds some radiant humanity in an unseen people. Any film by Wang Bing makes a serious demand on its audience. By the standards of this director, who made Crude Oil (2008), a 14-hour documentary on petroleum extraction, Ta’ang is short, not even three hours. It also has moments of stunning beauty as it sits and walks through the mud of war – rather than the fog — with victims of a brutal conflict. The subject matter – the plight of these refugees - is as current a topic as anything in the news, which could keep it in festivals for a long time. After that, this documentary will be seen more in museums than in art houses.
The Ta’ang, also known as the Palaung, are a displaced people, fleeing from their own war with the Burmese government. We encounter women in flight with their children, dressed in distinctive greyish skirts and jackets, wearing hats held down with silver bands. They don’t carry much more property than those clothes, although some have mobile phones, and there’s an occasional man with a motorcycle.
Cinema can’t get more iconic than this, as the Ta’ang, made itinerant by war, create shelter with whatever they can find, which usually means sticks and stones. Wang watches as a group tries to build a frame for a tarpaulin roof with bamboo poles scavenged from what grows along the road. The poles tumble into a pile before any improvised structure can stand. It’s the myth of Sisyphus, in Southeast Asia.
As the sounds of fighting get closer, the Ta’ang are back on the road again, marching from a camp to destinations inside China’s Yunnan province. Sometimes they harvest sugar cane, but they are essentially the walking poor. Wang’s signature contemplative shots make Fred Wiseman’s seem hurried. His extended observations remind us of a perennial truth about war. For combatants and for the refugees that Wang watches, time is experienced with long periods of inactivity and sudden bursts of urgency that force them to move immediately.
It’s an odd paradox here that Wang’s camera, viewing the Ta’ang at tactile range, is remarkably steadfast, capturing moments of mothers talking, children playing, and conversations halting when artillery fire in the distance gets louder. The longer Wang looks at the Ta’ang, the more human this seemingly undifferentiated stream of refugees becomes. And the closer we get to mud, filthy bowls of rice and open streams, the more universal the images are. In the film’s deliberate pace, and in its dignified fatalism, Robert Bresson comes to mind.
Wang shoots one long section around a campfire, as a Ta’ang refugee, Xiaoman, sits on a hill above an active road, preparing to spend the night. While Ta’ang women talk warily with a Chinese man who enters their camp, the camera shifts between Xiaoman and her two hungry children, who listen and watch for signs of the next surprise. The firelight gives the long scene the shades of intrigue, but the children look as innocent as any victims of conflict. Through Wang’s patient eye, improvised cinema with minimal means in the most remote of locations can have the intimacy of a painting by Georges de la Tour.
Editing by Wang and Adam Kerby gives an improbable narrative pace to the observation of groups of people fated by war to do nothing most of the time. But something is happening as the camera hovers over all sorts of banal activities. The Ta’ang seem to be letting go of their culture – wearing Western dress, planning their next moves on mobile phones, contemplating long absences from home and long treks to safer places.
Like Wang’s other films, Ta’ang is about people enduring circumstances beyond their control. War is the extreme version of that, although we never see the conflict itself. Here Wang gives us collateral damage, family style, one step at a time.
Although it was one of the best films at the Berlin Film Festival this year, Wang Bing’s Ta’ang wasn’t selected for the main competition of the Berlinale, but the “Forum” experimental category — confirming that program’s foresight and taste for great films. The exodus of women and children through mountains and forests amid the sound of crackling gunfire tells the story of our times and the violence of war. It throws us into a faraway reality that peers deeply into each of us, though this experience belongs to people unfamiliar to us.
The Ta’angs are an ethnic group living in the mountain region between China and Myanmar. In February 2015, the civil war forced 100,000 of them to take shelter beyond the border. Wang filmed their odyssey. The plight of refugees proved to be a central theme in Berlin, with Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (“Fire at Sea”), a documentary set on Lampedusa, winning the Golden Bear.
Wang’s film picks up dramatically from its first sequence. “Get lost before I kick you!” The man who is about to keep his promise is wearing a military uniform. We are not told his name, and we never learn it. It’s the film’s first shot. He will soon disappear from the scene never to be seen again. But we continue to hear about those of his kind: men, soldiers. The woman suffering his blows, treated like a dog while she tries to feed her three babies, is a Ta’ang. Sitting in the middle of the refugee camp, among the chaos, she stubbornly ignores her oppressor.
One might almost say that, in this very first scene, Wang has found his film. Where exactly? In the rustic elegance of the woman’s clothing? In her stoic resistance? Or in those three children, who remind us of the three protagonists in Three Sisters? All of Wang’s films find their roots in the mastery of structure. Without going through his whole filmography, it’s enough to think of the industrial complex in West of the Tracks, where this cinema was born, and more recently of Fen Ai‘s psychiatric hospital. Wang needs a structure because his cinema longs for a totality.
But what is totality? It’s not a concept. Totality is made out of parts, of concrete pieces coming from real life. It’s not “violence.” It’s not “the refugees.” It’s not a blurry whole. In that wholeness there has to be this woman. And the violence that, as a refugee, she suffers at the hands of a man in uniform, in that place, in front of those kids. Nevertheless this is a specific case, not yet everything. It’s how the film starts its journey.
From here it follows the wanderings of a refugee group — mostly women and children. It sleeps with them in the forest, between the mountains, in a green nowhere filled with the noises of a war always closing in. In these wanderings things are found and lost. People are found. Little by little we learn their names, their family bonds and their problems — some have left behind their mother in running away, some have brought with them their neighbor’s children. But in the very moment we start living among a group, Wang ruthlessly uproots us and takes us to the next. It’s a way to show the spectator the war’s violence, which constantly creates and undoes every bond. And far more than this.
Wang knows no series of examples will ever be a totality. This jumping from one situation to another deserves credit for tiring the viewer’s preconceptions. As soon as the eye gets used to something, a reference point starts blooming and the shadow of a rule starts taking shape, Wang immediately breaks the scheme and moves on.
But then, where is totality? Wang finds it in another image. The image of fire, of the night, of women sitting around the flickering glow sharing a meal, feeding their children, trying to overcome insomnia and cold. Night and fire in particular, by length and structure, hold an exceptional status in the film. Straub used to say that nothing is more difficult than filming a fire. Wang has done here something unprecedented. In the impossibility of understanding what was being said (Ta’ang language is nothing like Chinese) he allowed the fire to guide him. Switching off the camera when it died out. Switching it back on when some bystander would revive it by blowing on the embers.
The fire, as we know, is never the same, the light changes, and with it the way in which those speaking reveal themselves to the others. It takes us from the anecdote to a simpler and more true word. At the end of the night something invisible — that we didn’t know or didn’t want to say but nevertheless was there from the beginning — emerged. By the end of the night everything was said. And Wang was there to film it.
Ta'ang | 4:3 Jeremy Elphick
In the last decade and a half every documentary that Wang Bing has released has acted to challenge the nature of the format he works within; testing the limits – and often, going on to break them – of documentary and its modes of expression. His films have worked within seemingly set narrative boundaries yet they’re targeted at an audience often unwilling to engage with the length of many of his works. There’s always going to be a certain rigidity and inaccessibility to the work of a filmmaker who makes their debut with the nine-hour Tie Xi Qu. With Ta’ang, Wang continues his long trend of covering moral issues; shifting away from specific issues of how labour has been manipulated, spread out, and subsequently neglected throughout China, and continuing his move into various areas of intersection. Just as he intimately covered the desolate and mismanaged health system in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, he does so in Ta’ang with his focus on the refugee crises stemming from China’s particularly complex geopolitical situation in the last century.
Wang’s film tracks a group of refugees, the titular Ta’ang ethnic group, who want to leave Burma after an armed conflict in Kokang forced migration to China. Opening in a Madihe Refugee Camp, on the border between Kokang and China’s Yunnan province, Wang follows and participates in a portion of the group’s journey away from conflict. Wang trades the claustrophobia of ’Til Madness Do Us Part for an overwhelming sense of space in Ta’ang; as we move from Kokang, through various refugee camps, to the city of Nansen; all without Wang letting a trace of his presence appear on screen.
Wang’s documentaries are easier to face with growing familiarity of his work; languishing in long – often initially tedious – takes; not out of a sense of indulgence but more one of emotional transparency and honesty. Ta’ang operates within a certain frame of temporality, as an excerpt of time – inextricably tied to the space in which it is shot. Rather than aiming for overwhelming scope as he did with Tie Xi Qu and ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, there’s something that feels remarkably compact and focused for a 150-minute piece. Wang makes his commentary through implications. The director’s trademark impressionistic editing style is at the heart of this, with an aim to let scenes play themselves out. It creates a work where – scene after scene – the temporality of the circumstances depicted, alongside the fleeting nature of what is played out on screen, creates a document that conveys emotion in the most remarkably human sense.
In this focus he has always put intimacy and honesty at the forefront of his work, however, certain scenes in Ta’ang – particularly those of campfire conversations – have a sense of momentum to them that the more harrowing and confronting shots in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part clearly were unable to provide. Wang’s ability to add mystique to mundanity – or perhaps even, to challenge the audiences perception of ‘mundane’ – is remarkable. At one point Bing captures two men smoking out of handmade bamboo sticks in front of the fire. Their conversation – “You smoke really fast!”, “Really?”, “You do three puffs for every one of mine” – feels revelatory and emotional within the carefully established pacing. In the Daiyingpun Tea Factory we see the process of bamboo harvesting, but Wang follows the effects of this labour – in a scene where two women fall asleep on one another in front of the fire after the short exchange: “I’m tired, but there’s no place to sleep” – “I’ve never felt this sick before.”
Throughout Ta’ang, Wang maintains a sense of pace through his cinematography; from a slower meditative shot of a man smoking expressionless and still through his bamboo shoot – framed by exciting people talking in the foreground, to perhaps the most memorable take in the film: Wang riding in the back of a truck with the family of some of the refugees he has been travelling with into the city of Nansen. Throughout, this ability to remain unseen, to maintain this ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique, is astounding. It’s difficult to speak about Ta’ang without focusing on how much this trademark approach from Wang has been refined. With such a degree of Wang’s work resting on the process of editing hundreds of hours of footage into a relatively short piece, the technical procedures he follows in removing any remote indication of his presence throughout filming demonstrate the discipline that defines the directors highly defined approach to documentary cinema.
The final scene, shot walking through the hills, is filled with a sense of impermanence, with the vaguely hopeful statement “there should be some shelter up ahead” quickly punctuated by shots in the distance. The intimacy is fully played out; this story, subject and world – initially rigid, slow, and difficult – becomes surprisingly hard to let go of, especially as it concludes with the commentary: “Some of the women and children seen in this film have returned to their homes in Kokang. Fighting in that area continues, bringing new waves of refugees across the border into China.”
With a single title card at the commencement and conclusion of the film, Ta’ang offers itself up as a brief snapshot – and in this, it trades Wang Bing’s more typical sprawling documentaries for a remarkably succinct and fulfilled work. His cinema has always navigated a certain relationship between a humanist, experimental and sociopolitical approach to documentary cinema; as an artist concerned explicitly with intimate portraits of larger moral issues. Like any of his documentaries, Ta’ang is uncompromising. At the same time, the clarity of what Ta’ang wants to be as a film – and the degree to which it achieves this – results in one of Wang’s most memorable and impressive works to date.
Wang Bing: The Mystery of a Fact Clearly Described | Interview | The ... Alan Bett interview from The Skinny June 26, 2014
In advance of the UK premiere of Wang Bing's latest feature at Edinburgh International Film Festival, the master documentary filmmaker looks through his back catalogue and discusses the relationship between truth and imagery
In a wonderful scene from Doctor Zhivago, Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay) schools Yuri (Omar Sharif) on just how the world has turned. “The private life is dead,” he lectures. “History killed it.” Yet the reverse is so often true to cinema. History is dead and filmmakers hold the bloody knife. Their representations of past realities are only that, a reflection. In documentary this confrontation is even more acute and is one which is being constantly addressed by Wang Bing, a man sitting at the forefront of modern documentary filmmaking.
His 2012 feature Three Sisters (San Zimei) won the Orrizonti Prize at Venice that year, and this year his new film 'Til Madness do us Part has its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival. His epic truths of China’s past and present include the harsh reality of street capitalism in Coal Money; intolerable persecution in The Ditch; a shattered soul glued together by strength and dignity in Fengming: A Chinese Memoir. But these truths are distorted as soon as they travel through a lens. The camera is the viewer’s eye and we see only from its point of view. For documentary, then, it’s so important that this eye is unwavering.
“Language is the weakest element in cinema,” says Wang, “But I can’t avoid using verbal ways to tell the story.” Unusual then that his epic Fengming: A Chinese Memoir is basically a three hour monologue, a life laid bare. As a young journalist in the new Chinese Republic, its subject, He Fengming, reveals, “We felt so free, like skies were blue for the first time.” Yet those skies turned bruised and lachrymose as Mao attempted ‘to achieve great order under heaven by creating great chaos under heaven.’ Her story of inhuman humiliation, cruelty, suicide and hardship is rendered face to face, straight to camera – it’s like a disturbing afternoons visit to grandma.
This approach “gives Fengming a very free space at her home so that she can walk in and walk out. She goes to the toilet, she picks up the phone and she does her own thing.” Her comfort and ease closes the gap between the subject and viewer, an eternal problem in cinema. “Every filmmaker uses different ways to solve the problem,” Wang says. “For me I am trying to let characters be freer in the images, so I don’t let the space of images constrain the movement or actions of the characters.” The film opens by tracking behind Fengming as she walks home with shuffling gait. The legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle once said of Maggie Cheung that “if you’re Maggie, the way you walk tells us where you came from.” On an opposite scale of poise and grace, but with obstinate dignity, Fenming also proves this true. This is a hugely prolonged opening shot, not included for aesthetic purpose but simply to allow us to see her walk, as Doyle suggests, to tell us where she came from.
The accolades for allowing this extended scene should go to digital technology. Philippine cinema’s enfant terrible Khavn De La Cruz said of digital film, “If you want to see how technology has democratized cinema, here is the tip of a massive iceberg.” For Wang it provides freedom. He chose the methods originally for financial reasons. “It’s cheap to make digital films,” he observes, “but it shouldn’t look cheap.” What it does is sever a link between filmmaker and sponsor. Without the need for high level funding there is less danger of the opinions of financial backers seeping on to the screen; truth travels through one less distorting prism. “The condition in China is very different from the situation in Europe because there is no state support for filmmaking and so people have to do this independently by earning money themselves. Digital filmmaking makes it possible.” Digital provides freedom for both the filmmaker and subject. Reality need not be cut to fit budget, it can be captured naturally and in this way truth can be maintained.
As a filmmaker Wang has worked almost exclusively in China but has moved geographically around its borders. When reaching the north-west he decided to tackle history in place of the contemporary. The area of the country west of Beijing borders on the Gobi and it was this arid, inhospitable landscape where outspoken voices were sent in the 50s to be silenced under the guise of re-education. The Ditch is Wang’s harrowing telling of these ectopic bodies, displaced and destined to perish. He filmed this as his first full non-documentary feature, a brave move. There was a certain furore when Jia Zhang-Ke presented his wonderful 2008 feature 24 City, a merging of documentary and scripted scenes telling the story of a collapsing state factory. There was never a claim that this was purely a captured reality but some audience members felt manipulated.
On whether truth and fiction can coexist harmoniously, Wang states, “they don’t supplement each other. They are independent. The real images of documentaries are the real images of