Sunday, March 28, 2010

“Deep Inside Clint Star,” Clint Alberta, 2000

The title of the film by Clint Alberta speaks two-fold; not only is Alberta making his own pornographic film, but he’s also granting the audience permission into internal conversations and conflicts within himself and his subjects.  Aside from being of the Canadian persuasion, they call have several things in common: they are Native American, sexuality issues and identity issues.

Clint Alberta, born as Clint David Morrill and also credited in his films under the surname Torangeau, was known as a filmmaker for his quirky-nouveau approach to making documentaries.   For example, Alberta had his cameramen use several cameras of varying quality because he believed that the grittiness of it could help his fellow Natives feel as though it was made by one of their own.  He also made painstaking efforts ensure that any technical problems, such as camera focusing issues, visible booms and microphones, and even several verbal altercations with crewmembers over how he wanted to be portrayed in a shot, were captured in the film.   Alberta may have been using his massive ego to try to emphasize his thesis of the crisis of identity among modern Natives, but it more often played off as making him look like an insecure, amateur director.   His unique choices were obviously successful; the film, financed by the National Film Board of Canada, was shown in 2000 at both the Vancouver and Sundance Film Festivals.

Alberta’s film, which is just as ethnographic and introspective as it is kooky and innovating, aims to drive home the struggles of being “native” in Canada by presenting the film as a cheaply made porno starring his alter-ego Clint Star.  Alberta allows this imaginary film to grant him artistic license to add sexually evocative music, cheesy intertitles and haphazard video edits.  He also uses this “deep inside” theme as a synthesis for the honest conversations he engages in with his subjects.  In this fantasy context, Alberta introduces nearly all his characters in sexually suggestive situations: sleazy hotel rooms, at a café, and lying on a picnic blanket in a park.  His efforts at making a seriously film about serious issues are downplayed in this forum until he starts talking to his subjects outdoors.   His presence in his interviews, with subjects and himself, are comical and amateurish – especially the one involving Tawny Maine where they are sitting on a park bench talking about her personal history.  Instead of engaging with her in a sincere conversation about her past as a native adopted into a white family, Alberta stares off into the distance, his face and body stone cold as though posing for a long exposure.  Unfortunately his vanity distracts from the overall tone of the piece, which continues on from this point wavering between deeply intellectual and borderline childish.

Despite its flaws, “Deep Inside Clint Star” manages to create an open dialogue about the troubles Canadian natives have with adjusting to modern society.  Alberta’s subjects talk liberally about suicide, sexual abuse, self-loathing, child molestation, sexual identity, death, physical abuse, racism and drug and alcohol problems that plagued their lives and those that surround them.  With his subjects facing the same set of problems, Alberta asks the audience to take this knowledge and try to determine why, after “500 years of oppression,” natives are still the victims of imperialist standards.  


(And on a lighter note, I was frequently distracted throughout the film by the all subjects’ teeth.  No offense to Clint (R.I.P.), Becky, Tawny, his mom and the boys, but this is Canada – the premiere standard of socialized medicine that has been frequently used as positive PR for the free-medicine-for-all movement in the U.S. for the past two decades. Just sayin’.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“August: A Moment Before the Eruption,” Avi Mograbi, 2002

Avi Mograbi is an interesting character.  Known as a filmmaker for his innovative techniques, “August: A Moment Before the Eruption” is truly a unique film about Israeli people and their reaction to conflict.  Shot over the course of a month, Mograbi’s pseudodocumentary shifts between self-indulgent YouTube-style commentary, auditions for a failed film project, images of men, women and children on the street, and news clips.  His end product provides a global conversation on the lack of cooperation between divided parties and how the people in this region thrive on conflict.

The Middle East is a troubled place.  The conflict between Israel and Palestine seems never ending and becomes more hostile and deadly as each year passes. Media coverage relishes on violent marches and daily protests.  In August, above any other month, terrible things happen at every turn.  Mograbi, just like his camera, puts on an act as an independent enemy: a menace and instigator of trouble on the streets of Tel Aviv.  

The filmmaker expresses his discontent with the content of his own documentary through the musings of his wife, whom he pretends to be by wearing a towel on his head.  “Terrible things happen at every turn,” she says, “but you can’t seem to film them.”  A great deal of the film becomes Mograbi filming normal people doing normal things.  While she may have been correct, what he pastes together from his interactions with Israelis is just as effective, if not more, as footage of actual violence.

The word “August,” as the film progresses, begins to take on new meanings.  August, as Mograbi says early on, is “cruel,” “unnecessary” and “leads to nowhere.”  The month of August becomes symbolic with the irrepressible discontent and misappropriated hate that fills the people of Israel.  At first, people are only curious is Mograbi is a journalist.  They ask him why he finds it necessary to stand on a street corner and shoot images of people talking and engaging in average daily functions.  They tell him he can’t film and start aggravating Mograbi, whose counter attacks only further prove that tension is inescapable.

Mograbi uses his fictionalized tiff between his business partner and wife as another example of the elevated tensions in August.  The two characters bicker over Mograbi’s documentary – she thinks it’s a foolish decision because she finds the month to be delightful and can’t understand why he is so highly critical of his own people.  His business partner Ronny, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Mograbi is working on the doc instead of the film about the Hebron massacre of 1994 that they’re putting together. Through her confrontation with his business partner, his wife begins to understand why Mograbi can’t find anything good to say about August.

Mograbi’s off-beat sense of humor goes to extreme of saying that the citizens of Israel enjoy sexual gratification from their heightened state of anger and hate.  His split-screen madness escalates on a parallel timeline with his man-on-the-street interviews, climaxing as Mograbi begins to fight with people and his wife and Ronny’s shouting match turns sexual. The title of the film takes on a more apparent meaning as his wife is literally penetrated with anger and as she and Ronny exclaim moans of joy and frustration, the film abruptly ends, leaving the audience in as much of an aggravated state as the subjects of his film.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

“The Good Woman of Bangkok,” Dennis O’Rourke, 1992

Before writing this article, I did a search on the internet for background information on Dennis O’Rourke, the maker of the film we watched in class this week, “The Good Woman of Bangkok,” and stumbled upon this quote by Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times: “The film itself is an act of love: its ardor, evasions, hypocrisies, idealism, its unhealable wounds... nakedly open, non-exploitive and truly harrowing... a great film.” 

Wilmington’s critique as a commercial film is completely understandable.  On the surface, the film appears to be an open window into the Thai prostitution circuit.  O’Rourke brings his camera into the go-go dance clubs and shows us the faces of unhappy women forced to dance topless and even perform lewd acts on stage.  Paired with Opera music, we find these images of false love to be tragic and disgusting.  In a separate article, Wilmington goes on to assert that “those who denounce this movie for its displays of nudity or conversations about sex will have foolishly missed the point.”

But as far as approaching the film from an academic standpoint, Wilmington couldn’t be more wrong.  O’Rourke throws objectivity out the window, creating a mildly scientific film that is a heavily dramatized, idealistic disapproval of the Asian sex industry as a whole.  Aoi’s statements on the complicated life of a sex worker are as contrived as they were depressing.  Her constant cries of “I hate men” and “I hate sex” were only amplified by the conversations with the despicable and disillusioned white western clients, which O’Rourke was able to procure because he could so easily identify with them (not so much despicable, but just as disillusioned).

O’Rourke, at the time just reeling from a nasty divorce, decides to travel to Thailand, like many men, to seek the comfort of a Thai prostitute.  What makes the women of Bangkok so desirable is the blasé approach the city has to the sex trade and the eagerness at which they aim to please foreigners.  O’Rourke meets Aoi, a 25-year-old prostitute and divorced mother of two who has come from a neighboring rural town to make money to support her family.  He finds disappointment, heartache and frustration in her tale and chooses to keep her on as a paid companion for the duration of his filmmaking.  In return for access to her life story, and the ability to film her daily functions such as riding taxis to meet clients and who knows what else, he promises her a rice farm so that she can make a new life for herself.  Unfortunately, O’Rourke makes a mistake that no Anthropologist should ever commit – he failed to understand that most Thai people believe that one’s job, one’s family situation and/or one’s social position is final and cannot be changed; and also that a divorced woman – or worse, a prostitute – is tainted and can never live a normal life.  So while his gesture seems genuine, it didn’t surprise me when he revealed at the end of the film (spoiler alert!) that Aoi did not accept his gift and continued to work as a prostitute.  

At this point, he makes another grave mistake for a scientific, objective observer: he passes judgment on a woman who, with this understanding of Thai culture, has fully accepted her terrible fate.  O’Rourke doesn’t just offer to the audience that she refused to live on the farm and instead chooses return to her life as a sex worker – he says that she works at a “sleazy” dance club in the city.  His micro-investment fails and his efforts to hammer home the demoralization of Thai society instead makes O’Rourke look like a scorned lover who finds his selfish efforts at rehabilitating a broken woman unsuccessful.  Though he warned us at the beginning of the film of his involvement with Aoi, O’Rourke’s subjectivity became more suspect with this statement.