Wondrous gifts

Dupont quote

I just finished watching the last episode of Tales by Light, a series originally produced by National Geographic but released in Canada on Netflix.

The series follows several different photographers (mostly of nature), and at least in the first season, spent a lot of time discussing their personal journeys of exploration and processes of photography, a subject close to my heart.

Although my personal interest is in nature photography, with a dabbling in other forms such as sports photography, the final episode of Season Two was particularly poignant, focusing on Stephen Dupont‘s exploration of death.

A documentary photographer, Dupont has covered many war zones and had developed something akin to PTSD from his years surrounded by carnage and mayhem. To cleanse himself, he set out to explore the more honoured rituals of death and the celebrations of lives lived.

I have no intention of photographing war zones, but one thing that struck me in Dupont’s episodes was a comment he made about photography and his reverence for his subject matter. The comment epitomizes my approach to photography, and I feel blessed to have heard it described so eloquently.

I’ve always seen photographs as gifts. You do not take them; they are given to you.

I agree and am eternally grateful.

Nap

I am routinely blessed by my subjects, who give me their time and patience as I fumble to capture a moment.

Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

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I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

de-palma

And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

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This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

The Last Laugh – review

Last Laugh poster

As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

Elly Gross-Ferne Pearlstein-Renee Firestone

Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

Life is Beautiful

Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

Man vs Snake – a review

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I like pinball. I played Pong when it first came out. And I can count on one hand the number of video games I have played in my life…including Pong (others involve Star Wars or strip poker).

Thus, when I was asked by a friend to review the documentary Man vs. Snake: A Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler—recently released on Netflix—I seriously questioned our friendship.

nibbler

If Centipede and Pac-Man had a child

For the uninitiated, like me, Nibbler looks like the bastard love-child of Centipede and Pac-Man, and essentially involves an ever-lengthening snake that courses around obstacles gobbling energy packets while trying not to bite its own tail. In short, a joy-sticker’s wet dream and yet a game from the heyday of arcades that few knew existed.

What set this game apart from the others, however, was that its scoreboard included nine digits, so a score of one billion was possible. Yeah, this set my spine tingling as well.

The man in question is actually four men.

Back in the early 80s, teenage Tim McVey—not the terrorist, the documentary points out—played two days on one quarter and broke the billion-point barrier, under the watchful eye of local oddball and arcade owner Walter Day. Woohoo!! And for years, that was the end of the story; McVey’s singular claim to fame.

Until an Italian man claimed to have broken McVey’s record as a boy, holding the unofficial record for 25 years. Day refused to acknowledge the record. McVey refused to acknowledge the record. But to clear the slate, McVey determined to break the Italian’s score and make the whole argument moot.

And this is where the meat of the documentary takes place…McVey’s desperate attempt to reclaim his title, and quickly coming to grips with the fact (and joy-stick) that his body is not what it was as a teenager.

Oh, and the fourth man is Canadian gamer Dwayne Richard, who kind of joins McVey’s journey as sparring partner.

As documentaries go, this one is pretty well constructed. It has a strong narrative stream in the redemption story and the sparring that becomes a bit more personal. It has strong personalities in the four men and their support networks.

Unfortunately, it was too reminiscent of my own late teens/early 20s watching friends play Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc. Boring.

It was like the movie 127 Hours, but with your hand stuck on a joy-stick rather than under a boulder.

Intellectually, I get the various stories here…the archetypes. But I cared not a single whit as to whether these guys broke the records, and therefore never invested in the players emotionally. They were simply too abstract and surreal for me to care, and the stakes were meaningless.

Note: The documentarians did a very good job of highlighting these eccentricities while being respectful of the people.

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Game competitions have changed in 20 years

I understand that the video game world has completely changed in the last decade to become very much an international spectator sport. Nibbler is very much NOT of that era.

But if you want to watch a handful of middle-aged men obsess over an arcade console for 90 minutes or so, this might just be a documentary for you.

Documentaries can change the world

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back near the water, SeaWorld announced that it will phase out its world-famous—and more recently, infamous—killer whale shows. The decision comes after months of pressure from community and animal-rights groups outraged by scenes depicted in the documentary Blackfish.

To further show the power of documentaries, however, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it would phase out the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, transferring its remaining test subjects to an ape sanctuary.

NIH officials have given numerous reasons for the decision, citing the weakness of animal models for human disease and technological advances that make such animals less necessary. Many, however, suspect the government agency is bowing to pressure from community groups fearing the post-apocalyptic world highlighted in the documentary series Planet of the Apes.

In particular, the actions of former laboratory test subject Koba scared the shit out of everyone.

There is no doubt that this trend of documentaries changing animal policies will intensify. For example, it is anticipated that the 2016 release of Ice Age: Collision Course will prompt the U.S. government to change its policies regarding the Scrat…whatever the feck that is.

Hot Girls Wanted documentary (a review)

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Watched Rashida Jones‘ documentary Hot Girls Wanted about the amateur porn industry and can honestly say I have no idea what I think of it.

Part of the challenge is I have no idea what the point of it was other than to document the experiences of several young women (18-25 y) as they approach and experience the lifestyle. We can argue day and night about whether the lack of an overt agenda or POV is a good thing, but to my mind, it presented the women as neither victims nor empowered…simply as women who made a choice.

To be blunt: These women chose to go to Fuck Camp to make money and escape home.

It is interesting to watch the impact of their decisions on their lives and particularly their relationships with families and boyfriends. And I had to laugh at the irony of one woman who was clear in her rationale about her decision until it came to talking to her father about it.

And I must admit that I was surprised at how cavalier (my biased standards, not theirs) the women were about what they were doing, the potential hazards of the situations they found themselves in, and any thoughts as to how this might impact future life decisions beyond the 3-6 months they made money (not a typo…a woman’s “marketability” typically only lasts 3-6 months).

One of the few images I'm willing to show

One of the few images I’m willing to show

Over its 82-minute span, the documentary drags a little in places and often covers the same ground, no doubt to reinforce some of the more graphic elements. And it is graphic, stopping short of showing the actual sexual acts, but giving you enough of the rest (e.g., nudity, bondage, choking, vomiting) to bring across the essence of what these women are doing.

And in the end, the take-away is whatever you take away from this story.

No matter what your opinion going in, this will only reinforce that opinion. It doesn’t seem to be aimed at making you change your mind about the merits or evils of this industry. The same woman who feels exploited in one scene expresses a sense of empowerment in the next, and in some cases, about the same act.

Adult women making adult decisions about the adult industry. Good or bad is for you to decide for yourself.

An actress and a producer discuss the documentary

An actress and a producer discuss the documentary

Music and the soul

Alive Inside movie poster from the Sundance Film Festival

Alive Inside movie poster from the Sundance Film Festival

I am not a musician. I do not play an instrument, nor do I sing (not well, at least), and I do not understand how music is constructed. I do, however, like music and firmly believe that if we ever discover proof of a human soul, it will translate itself to us in the form of music.

I have, of course, no evidence to support this belief, although a recent experience at the Nashville Film Festival suggested I may be on the right track. The event was the showing of a documentary called Alive Inside: A story of memory and music.

The film, directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett, follows the story of social worker Dan Cohen who has spent the last several years bringing iPods to nursing homes across the United States. Cohen has found that even with the most neurologically shut down senior (e.g., clients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia), revive when they music from their youth.

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett (l) and social worker Dan Cohen (r)

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett (l) and social worker Dan Cohen (r)

Slowly, as the story plays out, we are introduced to human husks that reside in these homes and palliative care centres. People who had once been husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, but who have been reduced to masses of barely interactive biological matter by their medical conditions.

And yet, when the headphones are placed over their ears and music pours down thin white wires into ear buds, those husks are infused with life. Like a balloon that only shows its true form upon inflation, the inert bodies and death masks take the form and substance of the human beings they once were.

Henry comes alive again as the music reaches inside

Henry comes alive again as the music reaches inside

Eyes glow with life, spines regain flexibility, paralysis becomes movement, and disengaged spirits connect with the world. If only for a few hours, the catatonic fog lifts and a human is reborn.

The science—discussed in part with Dr. Oliver Sacks—suggests that the familiar, beloved music of the individual’s past activates that part of his or her brain as yet left untouched by disease, effectively relinking the connections between their worlds within and without. That may be true, scientifically.

What was certain to me was that the music either reignited the spark that makes us human or provided the fuel that converted a seriously diminished spark into a sputtering flame. The results were miraculous.

Even in cases where disease hadn’t erased the person’s individuality but dampened it with manic-depression or multiple sclerosis, the music seemed to quieten the internal maelstrom enough for the person to re-emerge. The woman immobile without her walker, shoved it aside to dance to Spanish guitar.

The story of Alive Inside had a personal connection for me as I immediately thought back to my now-deceased grandmother Dorothy who fortunately had maintained her mental faculties except at the very end. Her apartment, as I remember it, was constantly filled with music, her CD player rarely turned off. New CDs coming into her home every Christmas, every birthday. Elvis, Michael Buble, The Mills Brothers, Motown and light opera. She was at her most contented when listening to music.

The caregiver...

The caregiver…

...becomes the care-receiver.

…becomes the care-receiver.

But the world was completely different when she was in the hospital—a life of cardiac issues catching up with her eventually. In the anemic, lifeless wards where wonderful warriors did their best to stave off the inevitable, I could see Dorothy’s spirit wane with each passing day. Even if I didn’t always think she was physically ready, my happiest days were knowing she was going home.

When something upsets the norm, ceases to function correctly or goes completely dormant, it is easy to set it aside and forget about it. When that something is a loved one, setting them aside is never easy but it is often easier than coping with the problem. And once set aside, forgetting becomes that much easier.

Seeing that a person is still inside that morbid husk of a human, however, changes everything. Knowing that we have committed a living, breathing, connectable loved one to solitary exile becomes less palatable, less conscionable.

Music isn’t the solution. It doesn’t reverse what has happened to the person biomedically. Within minutes or hours of the music ceasing, the individual typically deflates to his or her former shell.

But we who have witnessed the transformation, we have been permanently changed because we can never see that human shell the same way ever again.

We know that shell is not lifeless, and once we know that, there is no going back.

If you get the opportunity to see Alive Inside, please do. And be sure to bring plenty of facial tissues.