Monday, February 28, 2011

Youth, Speed, Trouble, Film*

Wasted on the Young, for all its deliberately overblown genre conceits, is the best observed high school set film I've seen in a long time. It's also a rare example of a piece of modern commercial cinema with a highly distinctive visual language devised with more ambitious intentions than simply creating pretty pictures. If it stumbles occasionally it is nonetheless a worthy attempt to blend "social commentary" with "genre sensationalism".

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Form and Function: A short observation on The Puppetmaster

The Puppetmaster is a rather singular film. It is certainly the most direct translation of the literary memoir form into a visual medium that I can think of. Its frequent use of narration from the film's subject (Tianlu Li), accompanied by either associational visuals or by a medium shot of the narrator, emphasises the importance of the spoken word and gives precedence to the recalled experiences of the speaker rather than the film maker's visual interpretations of his past. Similarly the past tense of his reminisces emphasises that the events of the film are historical. There is very little of the immediacy granted to history by more conventional biopics and more of a sense of a very particular, and now vanished, time and place.

This assertion of a historical past jibes well with the narrative's attention to such detail, which often takes precedence over the personal. While the family's visits to the opera and puppet shows could be inferred to have infused the young Tianlu Li with a love for the arts there are never any close-ups on his rapt face to emphasis this. Indeed in the first opera scene the most salient object is the soldier who is placed in the centre of the frame and obscures the figures on stage. The scene is more concerned with Japanese efforts to force their subjects to renounce their connection to the Qing dynasty and embrace Japanese culture than with any personal developments of the young puppeteer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Catfish: Secrets and Lies

The veracity of Catfish has been thoroughly interrogated but after seeing it I'm find it difficult to credit that it is a deception. Nonetheless I can understand why people might question it. Firstly the the film-making is very accomplished despite the cruddy look of the digital footage. The film-makers' system, of using a mini-cam for close-ups and another for wider shots works very well and their resulting images are not only well framed but also make good use of natural light. Secondly there is the fact that it is itself the tale of a deception - the fact that this unlikely hoax succeeded for nine months makes the viewer aware that they may be being taken in by a meta-lie. 

Thirdly the hoax appears quite transparent. People have argued that while the events may be be broadly accurate they must have been re-staged to create a more exciting narrative. How else, it is argued, could these guys have been fooled for so long? I would argue that it is not unusual for people to be deceived by ostensibly silly claims. I think humans tend to be quite trusting of information unless given a very salient reason to be suspicious, particularly when some sort of reward is offered. How else to explain all those people who happily send money to Nigeria on the strength of an unsolicited E-mail? Then there is Occam's Razor. Which is the most likely explanation - that one person has created an elaborate web of Facebook profiles and is contacting him on multiple phones using multiple voices or that he really has been contacted by a real family?

Furthermore Nev seems rather vulnerable to this scheme. I suspect his big city upbringing leads him to be more credible about 8am whole family breakfasts and other such unlikely tales. His astonishment that a chicken lays an egg every day, while probably included for incidental humour, is nonetheless pretty revealing. It's clear that Nev doesn't have a whole lot of understanding about how life goes on outside of New York. There is also the suggestion that he's a pretty lonely guy. There's a rather telling interview sequence where he appears to grasp on to just about any suggestion of a connection with his new pen pal.

However despite all this rationalisation my belief in the basic honesty of Catfish (I say basic because it's obviously very well edited to create a three act structure) comes from the little details of human interaction in the piece. The way that Nev responds to his brother's accusation that he was fooled strikes me as very true to life. It's patently obvious that he was indeed tricked but his reaction; a vigorous but incoherent denial, is something I recognise. No one wants to be seen as naive and  there's always a sense after one has been tricked that the other party didn't play by the rules. Similarly the characters reject certain documentary clich├ęs. Nev asks, "Did you want to be found out?" in an echo of prepared talking heads talking about pathological liars and Angela dismisses this pat bit of pop psychology instead of confirming it.

Of course the story is an incredible one and the extraordinary woman at the centre of the film's final act - who offsets her sense of wasted potential and her demanding home life by living out her fantasies - is a rare, astonishing find. The claim that this happened, and that a pair of capable documentary film-makers were on hand to capture it, is ostensibly pretty astonishing. But given the number of people that use Facebook and the potential for distortion that it allows (I doubt that the woman who serves the film-makers is the only one with such a story) one suspects that this was likely to happen, sooner or later.