Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 5

Nothing makes this cinephile happier than a good movie about movies—I’ve watched Z Channel and The Celluloid Closet and A Decade Under the Influence and This Film Is Not Yet Rated more times than I’d care to count, and Blank City may not quite approach the five-star quality of those films, it is still a stellar, well-constructed doc that vividly recaptures a very specific moment in underground cinema.

Its opening passages are its best; director Celine Danhier is skilled with montage, and she assembles a fast-paced, eye-catching collection of striking images that sucks you right in and throws you into New York’s East Village in the late 1970s. She’s also good with context, utilizing period footage and eloquent, often witty recollections of just about anybody who was everybody in that scene to help explain where America, New York, and Cinema were when a bunch of artists, writers, musicians, and misfits started picking up Super-8 cameras and making movies their own way, following their own rules.

The enthusiasm that they had, and still have, is infectious; everybody was being creative, everybody was working with everyone else, no one had any money, and they were having a great time. Danhier just grabs a line or two from this film, some shots from that one, but some of these films seem, candidly, just unbearable. At this point in time, the stories behind them may be more interesting than the films themselves; they were important, they made waves, and they gave a lot of important directors, actors, and musicians their start. And you can’t deny that even the worst of them had a genuine energy, a heedless abandon that this film shares—it’s got a great momentum.

Blank City only falters as it winds down; it runs just a little too long, and you can feel that in the last half-hour or so. The fact of the matter is, the second movement that rises from the ashes of the first isn’t nearly as interesting; they all just seem like annoying, truculent nihilists. I worried that my preference for the earlier sections was just because they were interviewing participants that I knew and liked (Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, Steve Buscemi, etc). Then I realized that there is a reason that I’ve heard of them and not the folks in the second half.

So it could use some tightening there. But Blank City is still a terrific documentary, with great clips, funny and insightful interviews (seriously, is there a movie that John Waters didn’t improve by sitting down to talk?), and a palpable love of the subject matter. “They may have been naïve, or badly made,” someone notes at the end. “…but they were passionate.” Indeed.

* * *

American Casino is a documentary so timely, it feels like they finished cutting it last night. It deals with the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent recession with such immediacy and clear-headedness, you’re willing to forgive it for perhaps taking on too much, for taking too many detours (interesting though they may be). It’s a solid, workmanlike piece of nonfiction craftsmanship.

The film’s first act is primarily spent on Wall Street, examining how deregulation enabled the investment “casino” to go into business. Director Leslie Cockburn talks to numerous experts, gets some candid commentary from an (anonymous) former Bear Sterns employee (“You have to follow the money,” he advises), and shares some shocking internal emails from the S&P, detailing exactly how diligently they were rating those bonds with all the dodgy mortgages in them. This section is smartly edited and mostly clear—Cockburn does her best to keep the language plain, although the film does occasionally get bogged down in the jargon (and the decision to occasionally use on-screen text during interviews confuses more than it helps).

We then move into the more personal stories of those who were hurt worst by the mortgage crisis (thankfully, Cockburn doesn’t trot out the already tiresome “Wall Street/Main Street” meme). American Casino’s most effective scenes are those where we’re told the more personal stories—they’re the ones that make it real and tangible. In a heartbreaking sequence, a high school teacher named Denzel takes the camera crew on a tour of his foreclosed home, which we see being auctioned (to an audience of one) on the courthouse steps that very day. We’re then shown exactly how his mortgage became one of the giant pools of money. “Nobody told Denzel that he was a chip,” we’re told.

The only real structural problem is that the film is occasionally too ambitious, getting off on occasional tangents that are of interest but ultimately don’t move us the way the rest of the film does. Some of this is valuable context, but what are we to make of the sequence at the end, where we see how untreated pools in abandoned homes are drawing mosquitoes that may carry the West Nile virus? It’s gross, yes (as are the big close-ups of rats floating in the pools), but it’s a strangely secondary matter to deal with so close to the film’s conclusion.

It’s hard to make too much of a fuss over these minor infractions, however (when was the last time you complained about a movie with too much information?). As it is, American Casino is a smart and frequently devastating dissection of a disaster—how we got there, why we got there, and what to know now that we are there.

* * * 

Tomorrow’s looking to be another all-documentary day, which is fine by me. Seriously, there is some amazing doc work out there, and it’s exciting to get to see so many of them on the big screen. For now, it’s off to get my 5 hours of sleep. 

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