Tag Archives: indie

Kill List (2011)

9 Feb

Ben Wheatley first came to the public’s attention with online videos like ‘Cunning Stunt’, which went viral in short order. Wheatley quickly progressed to TV, directing ‘Modern Toss’, ‘The Wrong Door’ and the fifth series of ‘Ideal’. In between all this Wheatley also had time to direct his first feature, ‘Down Terrace’ (2009), a slow-burning thriller that is equal parts ‘Sexy Beast’ (2000) and ‘The Royle Family’, or a Shane Meadows crime saga. ‘Kill List’ takes a similar tack to ‘Down Terrace’, framing the action in a domestic setting, exploring themes of masculine identity, of battle-hardened men struggling to come to terms with the quotidian world.

‘Kill List’ tells the story of Jay (Neill Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two soldiers-turned-mercenaries who are still reeling from a botched job eight months prior. Jay and Gal are offered a new assignment by a shady group, requiring them to dispose of a series of seemingly unconnected targets. The realities of the job test the limits of Jay and Gal’s friendship as they and their loved ones are plunged into a morass of corruption and uncertainty.

There is a sombre efficiency to the – no pun intended – execution of ‘Kill List’ that perfectly fits its subject matter, an absence of irony that harks back to a time when crime films strove to deliver something more than empty thrills and knowing homage. There is a refreshing lack of flashy set pieces designed to outline the director’s technical prowess, occurring seemingly independent of the overall narrative and removing one from reality; the violence in ‘Kill List’ is integral to story and character progression and exists to underline the ugliness of taking a life.

Because ‘Kill List’ is violent. Very violent. Almost unbearably violent at times. But the overall effect, much like Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’ (1989), is to inure the viewer to what they see and make the actions of Jay and Gal seem run-of-the-mill, enabling us to see it with the same distance as they do. It is a bold approach; playing with our expectations and forcing us to examine our responses when the dust settles. There is also some elemental horror of early ‘70s vintage that delivers genuine tension and peril, a rare commodity in the Torture Porn epoch.

Smiley, best known as the mercurial bike courier Tyres in the cult ‘90s sitcom ‘Spaced, proves himself to be an accomplished dramatic actor; bringing ease, assurance and economy to his interplay with Maskell, who is a revelation as a man succumbing to his bestial impulses, for whom reality is grey and uninspiring after all he has seen and done. The film’s success hinges on the lingering tension between Jay and Gal, an enduring bond that is both sustained and undermined by their knowledge of each other, and it is brilliantly played out.

‘Kill List’ is at turns bleak, nihilistic and elegiac, examining with grisly clarity what soldiers do when they are rendered ‘extraneous’, when there are no more honourable battles left to fight and they are left to the harsh realities of the market. Wheatley succeeds in deconstructing two genres without recourse to the usual tropes, creating the most compelling British thriller for some time. There really is no telling where Wheatley will go next.

 

This is significant.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

5 Jan

Film directing remains a steadfastly male domain, retaining the taint of macho adventurism long since passed. In the past, talented female helmers like Ida Lupino and Elaine May were judged by a higher standard than their male counterparts; expected to be twice as good to be considered equal. But this gender imbalance is slowly being rectified by a new generation. Inspired by trailblazers like Mary Harron, Jane Campion and Jodie Foster, the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay have made compelling award-winning work that hasn’t become trapped in a gender ghetto.

Glasgow native Ramsay made a string of stellar shorts before her debut feature, ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999), a searing portrait of life in her hometown during the turbulent early Seventies, garnered critical acclaim. Next was ‘Morvern Callar’ (2002), a vivid adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel which served to cement her reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting emerging talents behind the camera. Then things took a turn for the worse.

In 2001, Ramsay was slated to direct the adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller ‘The Lovely Bones’, but walked away from the project in 2004 after ‘creative differences’ with the film’s producer – and eventual director – Peter Jackson. There were whispers that the passionate, plain-speaking Scot may have burned her bridges with Hollywood’s power elite, that she was destined to be yet another flash in the pan; a notion happily dispelled by this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling, Orange Prize-winning novel.

Ramsay’s most ambitious offering yet, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ exhibits Ramsay’s gift for taking a familiar, popular literary property and putting on it her own artistic imprint. The film centres on Eva Khatchadorain (Tilda Swinton) in the aftermath of a school massacre committed by her son, Kevin. Ostracised by the community, Eva struggles to rebuild her life; though in the eyes of those around her she is complicit in the crime, the anger and grief transferred onto her, as imprisoned by the act as her son. The narrative flits back and forth, recounting the endless battle of wills between Eva and Kevin; a war of attrition that intensifies as Eva comes to understand that her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), doesn’t share her sense of foreboding about their offspring.

After eight years in the wilderness, ‘We Need to Talk…’ reaffirms Ramsay’s standing as a singular cinematic voice. Ramsay handles the emotionally dense source material with poise and self-assurance; placing herself at the service of the story, her compositions designed to articulate the fraught nature of the characters’ relationships, never succumbing to vulgar displays of technique. The sound design ably conveys Eva’s inner tumult, isolating lawnmowers, clocks et al. to create a cacophony of the everyday that mirrors Eva’s fuzzy mental state. The livid red and orange that figures throughout the production design, combined with recontextualized saccharine pop songs and Jonny Greenwood’s original score, create a palpable unease that can best be described as ‘Lynchian’.

Swinton has matured from Derek Jarman’s primary muse into one of the elite character actors; as her worth is not predicated on her physical allure, Swinton has been afforded the opportunity to evolve beyond the onerous constraints of conspicuous glamour. Her performance in ‘We Need to Talk…’ is so astounding because so little of its strength is verbal; there are no showy soliloquies, but the role is a gruelling physical challenge to which she rises with aplomb. So much of the drama rests on gesture, inflection, brief flickers of what lies behind the eyes, multiple layers of frustration, exasperation, resentment and desperation, and the rest of the cast proves equal to the challenge.

Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller both succeed in tracing Kevin’s growth from burgeoning sociopath to fully-fledged psychopath; Miller is chilling in his evocation of perspicacious teenage nihilism, while Newell portrays the vindictive relish of the solipsistic child with a conviction that is amazing for one so young. Reilly occupies a tertiary role, a position traditionally taken by female characters; separate from the unfolding drama, there to provide moral support and play devil’s advocate, a thankless but crucial contribution to the overall effort.

‘We Need to Talk…’ has more to say about the relationship between violence, environment, adolescence and the mass media than Oliver Stone/Quentin Tarantino’s grandstanding take on the subject in ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994), any of Michael Haneke’s numerous discourses – ‘Benny’s Video’ (1992), ‘Funny Games’ (1997) et al. – or Gus Van Sant’s voguish examination of the issue in ‘Elephant’ (2003). The film weighs in on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate with commendable subtlety, and explores the role of our increasingly passive society – a paradigm where we are reduced to the status of consumers and observers, experiencing life through a variety of filters – in fostering feelings of powerlessness and its concomitant rage. Executed to perfection by all involved, hopefully we won’t have to wait another eight years for Ramsay’s next effort.

Swinton and Reilly: the happy couple.

  

Melancholia (2011)

9 Dec

Lars Von Trier is a provocateur in the grand tradition of European martinets; continuing the lineage of wilful creative tyrants who revelled in furthering their mythology, bridled against the restrictions imposed on them, posed awkward questions and relished the discord, disquiet and discomfort they created. While his comrades in the pseudo-movement that was Dogme ‘95 have floundered, Trier has managed to remain a vital, divisive figure. Love him or hate him, he’s an artist who continues to evolve. Winner of Best Film at this year’s European Film Awards, ‘Melancholia’ is disarmingly beautiful; displaying an elegance that Trier abandoned in favour of the studied harshness that characterized his Dogme films, and the Brechtian rigour of his as-yet-unfinished ‘America’ trilogy.

On the day of her wedding, ad copyrighter Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is in the throes of a full-scale manic episode, retreating to her room and struggling to maintain her thin veneer of composure. As Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), struggles to help her through this breakdown, Claire’s stentorian husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is watching the skies in anticipation. A planet called Melancholia that had been previously been hidden behind the sun is due to pass by Earth; and though the scientific calculations confidently state that the planet will leave Earth unscathed on its journey, creeping doubts remains as Melancholia draws closer.

This existential disaster film features a bravura opening sequence: loaded with gloom and foreboding, it encompasses Resnais’ surrealism, Dreyer’s pictorialism and Kubrick’s epic scope to create a heady melding of celluloid depth and digital crispness. This effect, moving forward while cognizant of the past, is achieved with the help of Manuel Alberto Claro’s stunning cinematography, Jette Lehmann’s detailed production design and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s stirring arrangements of Wagner. But Trier hasn’t totally jettisoned the stark neo-realism of old; he uses natural light and handheld cameras throughout to track events in the imposing mansion straight out of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961).

For all his alleged misogyny, Trier treats his female characters with the utmost compassion; conversely, their male counterparts are callow, craven, pompous and overbearing. From Udo Kier as the comically highly-strung wedding planner, to Stellan Skarsgaard as Justine’s hard-nosed ad exec boss, to John Hurt as Justine’s raffish father, to Sutherland as the uptight social climber; they serve to embody the worst male traits, and their performances border on caricature when placed next to the complexity of Dunst and Gainsbourg’s contributions.

Like Hitchcock, Trier takes pleasure in putting the starlets of the day through the emotional ringer; working with Trier is an endurance test, a battle of wits that is a gateway to instant credibility if it works. Dunst is an actress in the process of transition; no longer able to portray the all-American girls with which she made her name, she must spread her wings or face an uncertain future. Dunst throws herself into the maelstrom of Justine’s mania, laying herself bare without recourse to overheated theatrics: in the context of Trier’s universe, performances work best when they are unadorned, and Dunst rises to the challenge with assurance and maturity. Charlotte Rampling, whose career trajectory provides the perfect model for Dunst, plays Justine’s iconoclastic mother with her usual poise, and Gainsbourg provides understated support to Dunst’s mercurial turn.

 The ‘doomsday writ small’ scenario is not a new one, but the majority of films that explore cataclysmic events from a single perspective or confined environment often feel like the story is subservient to the conceit. ‘Melancholia’, on the other hand, is a fully formed dramatic work, imbued with the Animistic spirit that first found its voice in ‘Antichrist’ (2009) and has much in common with Terrence Malick’s recent work, albeit laced with Trier’s usual sly humour and grandiose gestures. Trier deals with the subject unencumbered by mawkish sentiment, asserting that the prospect of impending doom won’t bring out the best in us, but serve to expose us for who we really are.

A warning issued by a Toronto cinema.

Terri (2011)

18 Oct

John C. Reilly belongs to a school of actors who have managed to circumvent the beauty bar that Hollywood operates, breaking through the aesthetic glass ceiling by dint of their offbeat charisma. Like the great character actors that preceded them – Robert Duvall, Peter Boyle, Bruce Dern, et al. – they are called upon to play the parts the stars balk at, using their unorthodox magnetism to their favour. Alongside the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and William H. Macy, Reilly has risen through the ranks of indie cinema to become a recognisable face to drastically opposing audiences; equally at ease as a player in big-budget projects like ‘Chicago’ (2002) and ‘The Aviator’ (2004) as when portraying the demented Dr. Steve Brule in Dadaist comedy duo Tim and Eric’s ‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’

‘Terri’ is director Azazel Jacobs’ sixth feature, having built a formidable reputation with films like ‘The GoodTimeKid’ (2005) and ‘Momma’s Man’ (2008). Its eponymous central character is an overweight fifteen-year-old boy (Jacob Wysocki) who cares for his manic-depressive uncle (Creed Bratton) between dealing with the ridicule and isolation of high school. Terri is taken under the wing of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the school’s unconventional principal, who is concerned by Terri’s constant tardiness, slipping grades, refusal to participate and insistence on attending school in pyjamas. Through his weekly counselling sessions with Mr. Fitzgerald, Terri meets Chad (Bridger Zadina), a fellow troubled teen, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with an ostracised member of the popular clique, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia).

‘Terri’ is notable primarily for Wysocki’s central performance, which ranks amongst the best of the year; all the more startling for coming out of nowhere. Wysocki exhibits uncommon sensitivity and acuity in his depiction of Terri, laying himself bare as a young man who is painfully attuned to his emotions, lacking that crucial layer of skin required to endure the daily battle, cripplingly self-aware in the face of his tormentors. The sadness and resignation etched on his face, his posture slumped and defeated, Wysocki conveys the full extent of his character’s inner torment. Though his choices will obviously be limited by his appearance, Wysocki has all the attributes to carve out a niche for himself in the indies.

The exchanges between Wysocki and Reilly are the film’s highlight; like Officer Jim Kurring in ‘Magnolia’ (1999), Fitzgerald struggles to exude an air of authority in light of his discovery that ‘life is a mess’. The antithesis of Sean Maguire in ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997), Fitzgerald is not an inspiring figure; he doesn’t possess the key to unlocking Terri’s potential; he can’t make everything better; his advice is often ill-conceived; he can see what lies ahead for Terri, but knows he is powerless to prevent it. Zadina ably taps into the fragility and insecurity that drives the unhinged Chad, and though her character is amongst the least defined and rewarding, Crocicchia convincingly delineates Heather’s fall from grace. Elsewhere, Tim and Eric’s own Tim Heidecker makes a single-scene appearance as a snide, sadistic gym teacher; and stand-up Eddie Pepitone is afforded the opportunity to briefly showcase his poetically acerbic brand of comedy.

Mandy Hoffman’s saturnine score is affecting without providing emotional signposts, as is so often the case with film music; Julia Shirar’s sound design adroitly elevates ambient noise to great effect, and the nebulous soft focus articulates Terri’s absorption. Jacobs’ camera replicates Terri’s languorous gait, limiting itself to gentle pans and zooms, frequently hanging back as if embarrassed by what it is capturing. While there are comic elements to ‘Terri’, its humour is such that those looking for belly laughs will be left wanting; if, however, you enjoy a well-observed, perfectly paced and deftly performed study of the marginalized, then ‘Terri’ will satisfy. Patrick Dewitt’s screenplay skews the mawkishness that holds sway over the classroom drama, breathing new life into its tired conventions with its echoes of ‘Kes’ (1969). Though it flags somewhat in the final third, ‘Terri’ is a commendable effort from Jacobs; positing that we are all buffeted by the capricious tides of approval, that we never stop being scared children.

 

Director Azazel Jacobs on the set of 'Terri'.

  

Hesher (2010)

3 Oct

As Hollywood is generally chary of admitting the genuinely ugly into its ranks, the ability of its stars to ‘ugly up’ is a much cherished one. The paradox of fame is that the adulation brings with it a nagging urge to be viewed as a ‘serious artist’, a quest for authenticity and legitimacy that inevitably leads to a brief holiday from the glamorous trappings. And it often reaps dividends: Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman all picked up Oscars for their ‘bravery’, resorting to unflattering prosthesis in Kidman’s case. Action alpha males Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel tried this tactic with less success in ‘Copland’ (1997) and ‘Find Me Guilty’ (2006); Sly developing an impressive gut and Diesel donning a conspicuous toupee for nought. Ironically, Natalie Portman goes the other way in ‘Hesher’, forsaking the high-camp paranoia that earned her the plaudits in ‘Black Swan’ (2010).

T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), are struggling to come to terms with the death of their mother and wife (Monica Staggs). Paul is crippled by his grief, living in a pharmaceutical fog, meaning that T.J. is being raised by his ailing Grandmother (Piper Laurie). On one of his many lonely bike rides through the neighbourhood, T.J. encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a pyromaniac misanthrope squatting in a derelict house. T.J. encounters Hesher on multiple occasions over the next few days as he tries to evade the attentions of the school bully, Dustin (Brandon Hill), and obsesses over Nicole (Natalie Portman), a decorous grocery store clerk who saves him from a beating at the hands of Dustin. Hesher slowly insinuates himself into T.J’s family life, providing some salutary life lessons in his brutally candid manner.

Spencer Susser’s debut feature channels the spirit of ‘Gummo’ (1997) and ‘Slacker’ (1991) in its blunt evocation of fringe culture, veering away from the whimsical explorations of suburban malaise that have deluged indie cinema – it hardly bears repeating that suburbia is not what it seems, and the awkward formality of the family meal is as trite now as it was in ‘American Beauty’ (1999). There is not a single moment when Susser’s wish to illustrate his abilities with a particular technique or stylistic flourish detracts from the naturalism; a trap so many young directors fall into. The screenplay – written by Susser and ‘Animal Kingdom’ creator David Michod – abandons the easy course in favour of a more nuanced, rewarding tack: Hesher could so easily have been a stoner caricature, but the character is imbued with such venom and menace as to negate any suggestion of that. Metallica’s music punctures the silence that holds sway over the violently banal backdrop; offering a portal into Hesher’s nihilistic mindset, the sudden bursts of ‘The Shortest Straw’ acting as his signature.

Levitt has developed from a fresh-faced sitcom star to one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, breaking away from his anodyne past and making difficult choices to amass a formidable body of work – we should relish him before he is lost to the franchise film for good. Levitt succeeds in delineating the character’s complexities, the rage and dislocation that fuels him, embodying the complexities of adolescence: the boorishness and hypersensitivity, the aggression and vulnerability. Brochu delivers the best breakthrough performance since Paul Dano in ‘L.I.E’ (2001), carrying the film with a poise that hints at a very bright future; while screen veteran Laurie is quietly devastating as the befuddled mater of her damaged clan. Wilson is mercifully lacking in affectation; while he can’t match Philip Seymour Hoffman when playing a wounded, ineffectual lump of a man, he exhibits laudable restraint. Portman proves to be the sole disappointment; she dons oversized glasses and frumpy clothes, but is never able to overcome her fame. She is never anything other than Natalie Portman, and as such her character’s battle between self-perception and reality carries little weight: a common problem for those striving to balance their public profile with creative contentment.

‘Hesher’ offers us a Generation X fable: Hesher is a harbinger of T.J’s impending adulthood; a spectre of chaos; a spirit of mischief. There is a strange sort of heroism to Hesher’s stance; he knows all the shortcuts within his circumscribed realm, exuding a Zen-like calm as he unleashes carnage upon a world he despises; grasping its harsh logic and taking it as his credo. But Hesher doesn’t heal the family’s wounds and enrich their lives, which would no doubt have been the case if this were a mainstream take on guardian angel lore. Refreshingly devoid of sentiment or irony, ‘Hesher’ plays it straight; which is not to say there isn’t humour, it just isn’t allowed to consume the film’s serious core and undermine its intent. ‘Hesher’ offers a vibrant, visceral alternative to the slew of identikit indie films being churned out by the Sundance factory system.

 

Portman: shy, retiring wallflower

 

Route Irish (2010)

10 Sep

Ken Loach has doggedly ploughed his own furrow since ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966) shamed a nation; though he continues to be more highly regarded amongst cineastes in the rest of Europe than on his home soil. Whether you agree with his ideological leanings or not, the sheer breadth of Loach’s oeuvre has to be admired: his work encompasses subjects as diffuse as the Irish war of independence – ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006) – the present-day troubles – ‘Hidden Agenda’ (1990) – the machinations of rail privatisation – ‘The Navigators’ (2001) – and the plight of undocumented workers – ‘Bread and Roses’ (2000) – as well as raft of films that deal with the struggles of everyday people. For better or worse, there is a political bent to everything Loach does.

Which makes it all the more surprising that ‘Route Irish’ is Loach’s first feature to address the ‘War on Terror’ – he provided the British segment for the film ‘11’09’’01 September 11’ (2002) – though he comes at the subject from an oblique angle here, delving into the murky world of ‘private security contractors’ and their role in the Great Game.

Fergus (Mark Womack) is one such contractor; he returns home for the funeral of his old friend and fellow contractor, Frankie (John Bishop), with whom he was as close as a brother. Frankie was killed in Iraq on the infamous Route Irish – the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ from Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone – in the employ of a contractor who lauds him and his kind as ‘unsung heroes of our time’, ‘patriots’ and ‘soldiers of peace’. Fergus, who recruited Frankie, isn’t convinced by the contractor’s explanation of how Frankie met his death. He comes into possession of Frankie’s mobile, which unearths a video that contradicts the official story and forces him to investigate further.

‘Route Irish’ is shot with the subtle, egalitarian élan for which Loach is rightly lauded, pulled off with the easy assurance of a master. Once again working with cinematographer Chris Menges and writer Paul Laverty, Loach has fashioned a gritty conspiracy thriller that lies somewhere between Alan J. Pakula and Roberto Rossellini. Loach’s camera hovers in the middle distance throughout, this unfussy approach ceding centre stage to the story and its message.

Actual footage of the carnage in Iraq is used to ground events in reality: bodies dragged from buildings and pulled from rubble, ripped apart by gunfire from above and brutalized on the street. Menges’ photography brings home the horror of the mercenaries’ activities and strips the violence of its rhetorical power, while Laverty’s screenplay is typically well crafted, strenuously researched and brimming with angry insight; the dialogue has a firm grasp of the argot but lays down an informal pitch, the narrative pregnant with cumulative presentiment.

Loach has never had much use for stars – unless you count Eric Cantona – preferring instead to cast actors who fit the roles. Womack is a familiar face to British TV viewers, appearing in many long-running series, and his gutsy performance here hints at greater things to come. Fergus was the facilitator of Frankie’s happiness and pain, and Womack devastatingly conveys the weight of remorse and recrimination Fergus must carry; living in a sparse, unfurnished apartment that is a perfect metaphor for his desolation. Stand-up comedy’s current flavour-of-the-month Bishop brings his everyman charm, and surprising intensity, to a brief role, and Andrea Lowe provides impressive support as his widow, her grief quickly transitioning to anger.

‘Route Irish’ articulates the toll of PTSD on military personnel, and the difficulty its sufferers have in readjusting to civilian society, with greater lucidity than ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009); which, for all its acclaim, veers towards bathos at times. There is a danger of the Iraq/Afghanistan paradigm being reduced to a handful of hackneyed tropes, its survivors reduced to sitcom stereotypes like the ‘Vietnam Vet’: there are a lot of essentially good men trapped in impossible situations, their sense of duty exploited, which makes this and the ever-dwindling number of films like it crucial to our understanding.

‘Route Irish’ is an important story, well told; something in increasingly short supply, positing that our kneejerk, strong-arm strategies to curtail extremism are guaranteed to lose hearts and minds, mutually assured destruction. Iraq is shown to be a Wild West where cowboys of all stripes operate with impunity, blinded by the spoils of occupation; the Cradle of Civilisation debased by an efficient, quotidian death machine. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, Loach has lost none of his fire, and long may he continue to hold power to account.

 

Route Irish Premiere, Cannes, 2010

Documentary Double Bill

15 Aug

The advent of cheap, lightweight technology has been a boon to the documentary; in the last ten years the medium has undergone a renaissance both commercially and creatively, in stark contrast to narrative cinema. Spearheaded by innovators like Nick Broomfield and Errol Morris, and thanks in large part to the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the possibility of reaching a mass audience with a subject that resonates has increased exponentially; the designation is no longer an impediment.

Inevitably, this has led to some ‘creative’ uses of the format; ‘documentaries’ like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ (2010), ‘I’m Still Here’ (2010) and ‘Catfish’ (2010) stretching the definition to breaking point. Whether staged or genuine, the new school of documentaries frequently take as their subject people who would struggle to be taken seriously if they were presented as fictional characters, such is their compelling strangeness. Though wildly different, the following films typify this approach.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2010)

Heralding from the deceptively bucolic town of Boone County, The Whites have a fearsome reputation in the community. A prologue details their convoluted family tree; from the disciplinarian head of the clan, D. Ray, a well-known exponent of ‘mountain dancing’ who was killed in a shootout; to his grandson, Brandon, who when the film begins is awaiting trial for the attempted murder of his mother’s boyfriend. D. Ray’s oldest daughter, the redoubtable Mamie, reels off a litany of tragedy and violence as she introduces us to the rest of the family; focusing on her ailing mother, Bernie May, the ‘miracle woman’ who raised twenty-four children; her brother, Jesco, who inherited his father’s dancing shoes at a heavy price, local fame bringing with it a crippling addiction to ‘gas huffing’ that has left him with severe brain damage; and Kirk, a single mother who tries to get clean in an attempt to regain custody of her newborn. Intersecting these central story strands is an array of other family members with an equal disregard for themselves and others.

On learning that Johnny Knoxville and other members of the ‘Jackass’ crew acted as executive producers, one would expect ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ to be a tawdry exercise in schadenfreude; but the film actually strives to place the Whites in the pantheon of Southern rebels, outlaws pursuing a form of freedom particular to the region’s isolationist principles and traditions; with Hank Williams III as their primary cheerleader. In actuality, there is nothing remotely heroic about the Whites and their ilk, and however genuine the veneration of them may be, the Whites have embraced their standing as ‘white trash’ with commendable self-awareness, in a way that nullifies any attempt to humiliate them. Of all the family, only Kirk and Poney – the one White who got away from Boone – seem to have any inkling as to where their dissolution is leading.

Director Julien Nitzberg makes an attempt to place their fatalism into some kind of socio-economic context, briefly outlining how West Virginia has been treated like a colony, its resources drained and its workforce exploited; but this takes a backseat to bolstering the White’s hell-raising mythology. The Whites pursue a strange type of entrepreneurialism, from D. Ray’s mastery of the social security system to his progeny’s subsistence on ‘hustling, rustling and bustling’, flourishing in the shadow economy of the perennially dispossessed. In detailing the Whites’ excesses, Nitzberg has stumbled upon a family who pose some pertinent questions illustrate some striking points; asking whether the behaviour of the Whites is genetically pre-determined or a product of  their environment, and outlining that ‘urban problems’ exist wherever there is extreme poverty.

One public official points out that a local boy was recently admitted to MIT; asking, ‘why isn’t anyone following him around?’ It is one of the film’s most important questions, as we now live in the ‘Jersey Shore’ paradigm, where the least deserving members of a community are lionized for cheap laughs. ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ presents a milieu where ersatz piety, endemic drug abuse, petty vengeance and easy access to firearms conspire to create an atmosphere of simplistic distinctions and circumscribed identities. Though it seeks to strike a light-hearted note, portraying the Whites as lovable eccentrics, ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ makes for grim, if compelling, viewing. These ‘drug-addled, gun-toting, redneck hillbillies’ are not ‘Appalachian royalty’ or counterculture icons, they are people who have been ground down by generations of poverty and left behind by society, and the film is frequently guilty of trivialising that fact in its attempt to further the White folklore.

Marwencol (2010)

Mark Hogancamp was put in a coma for nine days after being brutally attacked outside a bar by five people: his face had to be rebuilt, his memory was completely wiped and he had to learn everything from scratch, looking at his old life through a stranger’s eyes. When his health insurance expired, Hogancamp’s physical and speech therapy was cut off and he was left to seek his own treatment. Losing his gift for drawing in the attack, this took the form of a miniature village constructed in his garden called Marwencol populated by warring World War II-era armies of action figures and dolls bought from a local hobby store; many of them representing his friends, acquaintances, family members, and even his attackers. Hogancamp’s painterly photographs of the ongoing 1/6-scale saga come to the attention of photographer David Naugle, and his coping mechanism is brought to the attention of the art world.

‘Marwencol’ is a poignant, understated meditation on loss and obsession, devoid of the flashy visual ticks that often plague modern documentaries. Some artfully constructed tableaux aside, ‘Marwencol’ is a joyfully shabby experience; handwritten title cards are conspicuously placed in the hands of the dolls, the lighting is often uneven and the shots have a hurried, spontaneous feel – the story is very much the focus here, capturing Mark’s actions and observations without overemphasis on technical concerns. ‘Marwencol’ is everything an effective documentary should be, placing the audience firmly in the protagonist’s life and doing nothing to detract from its authenticity.

The dolls articulate Mark’s inner combat zone, waging war with the Nazis that lurk in his subconscious; the narrative he spins an attempt to impose order on and make sense of a cruel, chaotic world, placing him as the heroic figure at its centre. In Marwencol, everyone adheres to Mark’s inunctions and behaves predictably, villains are punished and fortitude is rewarded. Mark’s compulsion  has intriguing parallels with the mood that permeates the online domain; an environment where everyone can be whoever they want to be, a godlike figure who can bend their idealized proxy world to their will, the distinction becoming increasingly blurred and the disparity more painful.

The temptation must have been there to focus on some of the more salacious aspects of Mark’s life, but director Jeff Malmberg pulls back and treats him with laudable sensitivity and discretion, keeping this as a genuine celebration of outsider art as opposed to a snide, reductive exploitation of abnormality – much like Mark’s work, ‘Marwencol’ was made for the purest of reasons. But as inspiring and affecting as the film is, it leaves one feeling a little wistful. As Mark’s work reaches a wider audience, it simply serves to accentuate his crippling loneliness and alienation, a fact reflected in the darkening tone of events in his stunningly detailed and realised empire. The film ends on a tentative note, hinting that it may have been better for Mark if his work had never been discovered and he had been left to play out the story to its conclusion in peace.

Jesco White: The Dancing Outlaw