Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mostly documentaries

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)

Recently it’s been possible to see a pretty good new movie every week without ever having to settle for mere fiction, if that’s not your bag. Here’s something for whatever grabs you. Architecture. Music. Crosswords. Torture.

Sketches Of Frank Gehry

I'm not knowledgeable about architecture, but Bilbao, Spain is fairly high on my travel wish list, and of course that’s all about one thing only – the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry. In the new documentary Sketches Of Frank Gehry, the building appears imposed on the city as if from another world, reflecting an entirely different relationship with light and space, and yet crafting some majestic synthesis with its surroundings. It’s almost impossible to imagine what its genesis could have been – it seems impossible that such a creation could have sprung from our cautious age. But the film confirms that it’s the work of man, and a fairly unassuming man too, showing us Gehry’s initial sketches, models and computer simulations. Director Sydney Pollack is clearly enchanted by these building blocks, no doubt savouring the parallel to his own medium.

As the title accurately indicates, the film doesn’t really provide a very coherent overview of Gehry’s contribution, despite a parade of mostly laudatory talking heads. I found myself wanting more of a sense of sweat and graft and the actual work that transforms a doodle into a vast complex reality. The recent documentary My Architect was more successful I think in evoking a real feeling for the buildings of Louis Kahn. Gehry provides Pollack with much access and yet remains rather opaque (his wife, for example, doesn’t appear at all). But ultimately, Pollack surely isn’t the architect’s ideal chronicler anyway. His instincts have always been neat and linear; I can’t think of any moments of real wildness in his work. So Sketches Of Frank Gehry ends up being overly referential.

Still, the film is valuable. Unfortunately, the only reference to our own forthcoming Gehry building, at the AGO, is to quote someone who dismisses it as second-rate. I hope not, for one of the film’s distinct impacts is to sensitize you to the wretchedness of so many downtown grey slabs. OK, we’ll never be Bilbao, but we need a first-rate Frank!

Music and Words

Another famous Canadian also gets his name into the title in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. The film alternates between performances from a 2005 Australian tribute concert, and interviews with the man himself, along with tributes from various directions, archive footage and the usual bric-a-brac. The film leaves no doubt about director Lian Lunson’s seemingly giddy enthusiasm for Cohen, but isn’t a particularly satisfying experience overall. The concert is populated mainly by second-tier performers, with no better than serviceable interpretations of Cohen’s songs (I know some people will throw this paper down in disgust when they read that), and Lunson seems overly infatuated by the whole event. We even have to sit through the introduction of all the background musicians. Meanwhile, we hardly hear any recordings by the man himself.

Cohen is allowed to ramble on though, apparently subject to no degree of interviewing rigour whatsoever, and the film provides little sense of his overall career, or of his importance – beyond the fact that people keep telling us how important he is. The presence of U2 is no doubt a coup of sorts, but their remarks about Cohen are so over the top that I suspected some kind of parody. This impression isn’t at all alleviated by the climax, in which Cohen finally gets onto a stage and performs “Tower Of Song” with U2 as his backing band. Laboured and geriatric, and horribly lit in front of a hideous red backdrop, it doesn’t exactly send the film out on a high. It’s a shame, because Cohen is a bit of a gap in my own musical knowledge – the only album of his I own is The Future, which isn’t even mentioned in the film. But I’m Your Man doesn’t provide much motivation to set aside my new Dave Frishberg disk.

I don’t do crosswords, and so Wordplay wasn’t very high on my must-see list – I was also put off by the memory of the spelling bee film Spellbound, which waved the Stars and Stripes too much for my taste. But Wordplay is a cute, unpretentious, nicely constructed little movie, deftly persuasive about the skill of the puzzle makers, and almost as convincing about the appeal of the surrounding (somewhat nerdy, obviously) subculture. It focuses on New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz (think Zeus, although modest about it), blends in such celebrities as Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart (who’s trying too hard here) and ends up at the annual tournament in Stamford, which provides a suitably nail-biting climax. At the end of all that, I still have no desire to do a crossword, although if that changes, I’ll start right here with The Outreach Connection. They tell me it’s a good one!

Prisons and Fashions

Somewhere at the intersection between documentary and fiction lies Michael Winterbottom’s The Road To Guantanamo, the story of three young British Moslems who traveled to Pakistan for a wedding in September 2001, strayed across the border into Afghanistan, and found themselves scooped up by US troops, leading all the way to the notorious interrogation base. The men tell their story direct to camera, intercut with reconstructions in Winterbottom’s familiar unprettified, chaotic but intensely direct, human manner. It’s effective from beginning to end, never less so than in evoking the grinding, soul-destroying rituals and restrictions imposed at Guantanamo.

The film only sparingly examines the broader context, through some familiar snippets of Bush and Rumsfeld, and the men’s specific case is so flagrantly abusive that the film isn’t particularly provocative as a contribution to the key underlying question – where do trade-offs of individual rights yield to a broader concept of the common good? Ultimately the men don’t express any increased anti-Americanism – they talk in more general terms about a world that’s less than they hoped. And they say they’ve become better Moslems. The film doesn’t explore further, but surely it should have.

Finally, just to mix it up a little, The Devil Wears Prada isn’t a documentary at all, although supposedly it owes a lot to Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. David Frankel directed this version of Lauren Weisberger’s bestseller, about a young woman who becomes an assistant to the fashion industry queen bitch. The film has an entirely predictable trajectory, staying tightly within generic moral challenges and emotional ranges. It gets in some effective, although soft-centered, digs at the fashion industry’s pretensions and neuroses. This would all be fine, nothing more.

But then there’s Meryl Streep. What can I say? The material is really beneath her, but she nails the character with enormous finesse, never becoming strident or chewing the scenery, and although we know all about her versatility by now, the difference between this and her other current performance in A Prairie Home Companion is still rather astonishing. Anne Hathaway is pleasant enough in the other main role, but she seems to me like too sunny a personality to be interesting. As if she thought the world she’s living in were all wordplay, and no Guantanamo.

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