David Bowie hides behind a new documentary. But's that's ok.
David Bowie suggests in this new documentary on ABC2, that he was the first to “use rock and roll”. That seems a little hubristic as its clear the world was onto pop’s utility before Bowie spiked his orange hair and put on a pair of knitted tights (I submit: The Monkees. Hang on, Bowie’s real name is David Jones…Hmmmm). But maybe that’s just another trick, another creative fib in a freezer full of Bowie red herrings. Using rock and roll has certainly been perfected by subsequent generations of pop stars, from The Sex Pistols, to Madonna to Lady Gaga, so he was certainly on to something.
This documentary from the BBC – which seems designed to capitalise on his return to the big-time after a 6-year hiatus and a wave of new interest in his work – doesn’t really seek to answer such idle questions surrounding the culture of popular music. But it does offer a pretty useful soundtrack to a career spent making itself up.
The set-up of Five Years is to break the Bowie journey into five signpost yearly periods, marked by classic album titles, strewn amid his 24 studio albums. From the personas of Ziggy, Major Tom or the Thin White Duke to various incarnations of what he says is himself (Bowie or Jones?), from the high concept, avant-garde 70’s to the harder Berlin years, then the suited years and the dance period and then the move off the scene in 2007, this one hour run is a fair introduction to the Bowie phenomenon, re-ignited with the release of his 2013 albumThe Next Day.
An introduction, yes, but not a lot more. The alignment with albums ensures the man himself gets hidden a little behind the fashion, the image and the output. Which, given his career to date, is probably something Bowie was quite happy with. While Bowie himself contributes snippets of vocal comments, and his quotes are texted throughout as chapter headers, the man remains shimmering behind the veil he has worked hard to maintain.
Part of Bowie’s brilliance as a cultural icon, a fashion plate, a list of pop culture statements as long as the list of those he has influenced, is his ability to tap into great minds around him, those he knew to be riding the wave of zeitgeist. From producers like Brian Eno, Tony Visconti or Nile Rogers, all of whom have starring roles in this film, to a host of great musos – think Robert Fripp’s wailing guitar on “Heroes” – Bowie is a genius at flitting between the millions of orbiting worlds of pop and into other universes, fluttering like a moth around that place beyond the music, that place we all sometimes go.
As one interviewee puts it, Bowie essentially crafted his own destiny by creating the pop icon Ziggy who became the model for Bowie and indeed his inspiration, essentially an act of self-actualisation. It’s a neat trick and one which seems somehow authentic, for all its trickery, in comparison to today’s industrial grade fakery and cynicism. At least Bowie had an artistic integrity to his manipulation (Bowie never fixed his tombstone teeth to fit the paparrazzi’s need for extreme whiteness and order. Even Keith Richard has fixed his teeth…)
This film seems designed to establish Bowie for those for whom The Next Day has no back-story, no context, for those who haven’t been on the journey outlined in this film. For that, it’s a worthwhile experience.
Whether Bowie was the first to “use rock and roll” is perhaps not important. It’s not a race. But the Great Chameleon certainly got really good at it. In doing so, he was able to extend the range of popular music beyond its former world, taking the focus off the music and onto the image, the look, and even further, into the cultural and even political subtext. For Bowie music was just the vehicle, not the trip and it was a trip that, as this film proves, has many scenic lookouts. The BBC has collected a few and made a pretty good doco.
Title – David Bowie – Five Years in the Making of an Icon
Makers – BBC Worldwide
How to Catch it – ABC2 on July 24
Couch Time – 60 Mins.
High Point – Good Bowie primer
Low Point – Limited input from Bowie himself
The Australian pub rock scene in the 1980′s still had a purity about it as it wasn’t tarnished by the feeling that it was just a stepping stone to something bigger, like an artistic version of reserve grade. It was the something bigger. Bands like Cold Chisel, the Angels, the Hunners, Oz Crawl owned the pub scene and that was enough. And, in that world, the Sunnyboys were definitely up there.
Their music surged along on a classic four-piece garage sound, evoking 60′s surf music and soaked in the sweaty, sticky-floored pub scene into which it fit snugly. All jangly and frenetic, pogo-dance friendly and littered with Jeremy Oxley’s teen angst shadowed lyrics, the Sunnyboys wrote the sound track for many a uni toga party and for countless late nights lost in the thrum of a Marshall stack pounding the walls of any one of a million boozy, Winfield-smoky, toilet-sized pubs in the ‘burbs.
Days they were. But they are no more and the Sunnyboys, like many a legend from those days, never made it out of the maze of Euro-pop synth that sprung up around them. So be it. But, as we’ve seen too with The Angels’ Doc Neeson, rock star burn-out is real, and there’s a compelling personal story, a struggle with oneself and the wider world to be told.
The band’s singer and lead songwriter Jeremy Oxley is the subject of The Sunnyboy and in that, it is a study into what is branded as mental illness, Oxley’s that is. It is well documented that Oxley has wrestled with the demons of insanity for some decades and perhaps with the fading of his rock star livery. It emerges he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that this manifests into delusions and hearing voices. He also has diabetes and an irregular heart-beat. The film’s title becomes ironic.
Clearly an authorised version of his story, Oxley’s voice is present throughout. At times, that voice is narky, annoying, sweet, confused and poetically lucid. Most of all, it’s defiant. This is a guy who shot bullet holes his gold record, then framed it. There’s a lot of wheels turning in that bull head.
But Oxley’s unwillingness to be boxed by diagnosis becomes a kind of question mark dangling like a hook in the film; is it denial or is he not really mad at all?
If Jeremy Oxley didn’t want his art to be industrialised, became disillusioned and bored and moved on into middle age, drinking and falling apart, is that mental illness? Can a diagnosis inform behaviour, can it become self-fulfilling? Is his a good fight, or is it just making the job of those around him to get him to find the core of himself again much harder? Is he a dickhead or a genius? Is he sick or just confused?
Such a tension, planned or not, adds to The Sunnyboy’s power. This is a study of a man who found success in his field perhaps too young and who was, it seems, ill-equipped to face its consequences. Like Icarus, he got burned for his efforts. Or he burned himself, drenched in alcohol and rough living.
As an artist it seems he was shocked at how the industry worked and he cadged against his creations being sullied by the business monster they spawned. But, as a person, something deeper seems to exist. A brilliant grommet surfer, winner of a national schoolboy title, success seemed to come easy to Jeremy Oxley. Maybe too easy. He seemed to question its providence, its intentions, not to trust it. It’s a common enough view for those of us from modest backgrounds: why me?
Shimmering just behind the light of The Sunnyboy are the deeper implications of Jeremy’s relationship with his brother Peter – the band’s bass player. These are hugely complex and multi-layered. There’s some kind of love/hate thing going there between them, and for Jeremy, Peter comes across as both his nemesis and his best friend. They are, in effect, like two parts of the one mind, struggling to find a path through the labyrinths of their shared genes.
Director Kaye Harrison seems willing to allow the bigger questions of Jeremy’s and Peter’s relationship to remain implied, and it’s a little disappointing it isn’t further explored. It is as if the darker, more jagged truths that lie on the path between Jeremy and Peter are folded into an explain-all term like “mental illness”, to be solved with needles in the butt every two weeks and a label around Jeremy Oxley’s neck. It seems like there must have been something, somewhere that may give a clue to just what is going on between Jeremy and Peter beyond Jeremy’s own journey. Perhaps it was found, but it was too painful or personal to include. Either way, a mystery remains at the heart of The Sunnyboy.
There’s a lot to like in The Sunnyboy. The producers have clearly approached this project with sensitivity and delicacy. Oxley is given room to create himself in the eyes of the viewers and he seems to relish the opportunity to both antagonise and charm us. Those around him speak openly, honestly and emotionally about being in his turbulent orbit. This is a troubling story of a man suffering, a story made more poignant against the measurement of just how far he has fallen. It’s also the story of mental illness, the cruelty of its punishing arc, and its many shades of black.
Title – The Sunnyboy
Makers – Treehouse Productions and Jotz Productions
How to Catch it – MIFF 2013, August 9 and 11. Further distribution TBA
Couch Time – 90 Mins.
High Point – A complex character study of a compelling subject
Low Point – Perhaps misses an opportunity to dig deeper
Jul 11, 2013
A few upcoming TV docos peel back the layers of modern existence and modern culture.
Questions surrounding the sustainability of modern existence are perhaps the most common theme in contemporary documentary making. The Food Factory series which is scheduled to kick-off on SBS One tonight (July 11) takes a squizz at just what it takes to produce various forms of packaged foods. While it doesn’t perhaps take a political line of sustainability issues, the series implies, subtly and perhaps unwittingly, that modern food processing is really just a clever act of removing food from food and calling it food.
Overtly, however, it’s about being clever more than about nutrition, and more about quantity than quality. It sounds like it might be a yawn, but the production values take their cue from Myth Busters, with a kind of gee-whizz excitement at the thrill of life and a child-like awe at making things that go bang and make a mess and make the camera shudder and the host giggle. The science, bleached of any political colouration as it is, is interesting nevertheless.
In the first program of the series, dried tomato soup, orange cordial and sea salt are put held up to the bright lights of investigation. The odd conceit of getting B-grade British celebs to try and manufacture these products on various jerry-built contraptions gets a little tedious, but the insights into just how close these foods come to being obliterated in the process of becoming packaged are a little troubling.
The emphasis on the gung-ho aspect detracts from the more interesting aspects – such as the providence of some of the ingredients used and their footprint – which are ignored in favour of a “gee isn’t science great and aren’t we clever” kind of frippery. I watched this while doing something else, as an occasional heads-up background, which seems about right.
In Truth to Tell‘s quest to find useful knowledge from documentary formats, it ranks ok. Just.
No Impact Man is ABC2’s Sunday Best offering for this Sunday (July 14). Here we follow a year in the life of Colin Beavan, the man of the title, who vows to leave zero footprint on the earth for one year. The fact he lives in New York, works, has a wife and young child, makes this quest extremely difficult, if not superfluous and counter-intuitive, but adds the effort a degree of relevance for most of us.
Less scientific and information-laden than you might expect, this film ends up becoming more about the personal struggle rather than saving the world. Colin’s less than enthusiastic wife and his own questioning move his and his family’s efforts away from the global and focus on the personal. While the intent to bring sustainability home clearly drives the movie, this intimate study surprises in its emphasis on heart more than mind, even if it wanders into Reality TV territory occasionally.
The early stages of the No Impact period are rule-laden and uncomfortable, driven by Colin’s seemingly gentle but firm obsession with his project. His wife Michelle struggles but comes to open to the No Impact concept. The family is criticised even by greenies for giving sustainability a weirdo factor it doesn’t exactly need. There’s certainly something to the criticisms in that the whole thing becomes something of an oddity or an individual challenge – like swimming from Florida to Cuba – and less a statement on sustainability. The moniker of No Impact Man ends up becoming a cartoonish caricature and the line of ‘No’s’ the year of no impact entails look like a kind of torture than a liberation.
Holes in the project, such as the fact that the family still uses a computer (by which he produced a blog and a book and an on-going project. The former of which had its last entry in November last year), an oven, mass produced products like bikes, recycled things which require someone, somewhere to buy new stuff and the irony of Michelle working as a journalist with the magazine Business Week are not lost, nor are they ignored.
However, the personal angle leads to a deeper conclusion. As Colin says himself, the future of sustainability is built on the strength of personal networks and relationships. As such, the tensions and wobbles between Colin and Michelle act as pointers to a larger concept: that sustainability is not so much about setting rules as about building and maintaining equal and mutually respectful relationships. Without this all the sustainability rules or sacrifices in the world won’t work. Moreover, any approach to sustainable living is an issue that is not just about politics and sacrifice but about testing the limits of one’s personal values in relation to those around.
Finally, series 5 of The True Story, starting on ABC2 on July 27, takes us behind the scenes of popular culture to find what is purported to be the reality. In the episode I saw, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is put on the slab and its veracity and its connection to reality are under the scalpel. Stone’s first movie was based on his real-life experiences as young grunt in Vietnam and Platoon and is considered one of the most realistic Vietnam war movies. This appears to justify such as examination.
What emerges is that Platoon was perhaps more of a model for the 2008 Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder than I thought with actors wandering about in the jungle in a kind of two-week long game of Skirmish, a Vet advisor acting like Patton and an OCD approach to gritty realism. In parts, this ends up being a documentary on the war itself, with Platoon acting like a loose narrative thread dangling somewhere off to the side. The device of Platoon is clever as it adds a new twist on the usual ‘Nam story, but it tends to hollow out and falter nevertheless.
Once again, the ubiquitous Boy’s Own stylistic influence of Myth Busters is evident, even if the tone is more sombre.
The faint connection to the subject underlines a possible weakness in the concept. The selection of subject matter is crucial as the popular culture shine can’t last throughout the entire program. Also, it’s important for the viewer to have not only some interest in the topic, but a pretty close understanding and interest in the popular culture vehicle being looked at. For instance, my preview DVD also had a episode on Star Trek and, not having any interest, why would I watch it?
As such, this series looks likely to be a little hit and miss.
Title: Food Factory
How to Catch it – SBS One, weekly from July 11
Couch Time – 30 Mins.
High Point – Home science made accessible
Low Point – Grating talent and cheesy host
Title: No Impact Man
How to Catch it – ABC2, July 14
Couch Time – 120 Mins.
High Point – Layered narrative on values and sustainability
Low Point – Can be too personal and lose focus
Title: The True Story
How to Catch it – ABC2 from July 27
Couch Time – 50 Mins.
High Point – Interesting if the topic is right
Low Point – Flimsy concept
Jul 3, 2013
A new documentary on Wikileaks offers more questions than answers
When Wikileaks became the cause celebre around the world – somewhere in between the “Collateral Murder” video in 2007 and the Iraq War Logs of 2010 – the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifted. At the same time, the GFC was pulling the world apart in a similar way. Lots got exposed then. Sure, the plates shifted. But then they went back to where they were. To achieve this monumental recovery of the status quo, a campaign undertaken by vested interests was a lesson in managing perception.
The founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, noted that “The propagandist must treat personality as he would treat any other objective fact within his province.” In the Age of Celebrity, the art of playing the man, not the ball as a means of discrediting an uncomfortable truth is even more pronounced. And easier. Thus the attack on Julian Assange as a means of attacking the Wikileaks portal to power – the focus of the story on him, not the issues he raised – is part of that shift of the tectonic plates back into position. And thus We Steal Secrets-The Story of Wikileaks.
While purporting to be about the organisation, this film is really about its founder and public face. It is also about the tortured soul, Bradley Manning. The focus on personality and character seems to sum up the current shape of Wikileaks in the broad scope of public perception, in that it appears to be more about faces that facts. It’s hard to say whether this approach in the film is meant to be ironic or is just evidence that the film-makers inability to separate Wikileaks from Assange’s crazy-brilliant personality. Either way, what is clear is that the plight of Assange and the fate of Wikileaks is part of a vast chess game in public perception the likes of which, in scale and impact, we have probably never seen.
Julian Assange is certainly a fascinating study. At times funny, calculating, naive and highly intelligent, he is presented here as a complex soul carrying the burden of a sharp mind and a troubled conscience. From his pimply, long-haired hacker persona, Mendax (and the possible involvement in one of the earliest big hacks – the NASA/WANK hack in 1989) to the impoverished global rock-star of no-fixed-abode, Assange seems to have manufactured a means of capturing the public mood for a hero, a messiah, and to have found the means of digitising his path to folk glorification and notoriety.
But, this binary path to super-stardom laid by Assange has spiralled increasingly inward, away from his apparent audience and possibly away from Wikileaks itself. We Steal Secrets argues that there is no evidence of any CIA conspiracy to frame Assange for the sexual abuse accusations that hang over him in Sweden. The film further contends that Assange could have nipped the Sweden case in the bud and worse, that by tying Wikileaks’ work to his own plight – despite advice to create a distance between the two – he has rung the death knell of a brilliant idea and of an important force for good. The CIA and its cohorts have clearly taken every opportunity to use this case to smear Assange and, given the unbreakable connection that Assange himself has seemingly guaranteed, Wikileaks itself. He is losing the The Perception Play.
Post-Sweden allegations, it’s surely Vested Interests: 1 – Assange/Wikileaks: 0
The character studies in We Steal Secrets means that a lot of the Wikileaks story is missed. The role of the newspapers, which published much Wikileaks material, is only lightly touched upon. The movie asks the question as to why these organisations have not been vilified like Assange and Wikileaks, but doesn’t offer any answers. One telling point missed, for instance, is that New York Times have sought to distance themselves from Assange himself, suggesting he is not a journalist, in a possible attempt to expose him to implication under the Espionage Act (under which journos have some protection).
There’s the fact that the Swedish prosecutors are able to come to the UK at any time to interview Assange and that there is no legal need for him to go to Sweden. Indeed, Assange has invited this arrangement. Why do they need him to go to Sweden?
Finally, there’s the fact that the US doesn’t appear to have a legal case against Assange, despite the bombast from Fox and the Tea Party loons. Does the threat of extradition really exist? Could he really be renditioned to Gitmo?
A true “story of Wikileaks” might have usefully included such material, clearing up the many confusions around them, rather than building pop psychological constructs of Assange or Manning (the latter has never had any actual connection to Wikileaks beyond allegedly dumping a record amount of secret data into their dropbox). In leaving these gaps, director Alex Gibney, leaves himself open to criticism. It’s an opening unhesitatingly rushed into by Wikileaks itself, which has launched a list of apparent errors.
But, while the focus on character appears to make the title a misnomer, and the movie misses opportunities to provide a more complete picture of the eponymous organisation and its impact, perhaps there are deeper points to be drawn.
There seems some conjecture, for instance, over the title We Steal Secrets. It’s a line actually uttered in the film by Michael Hayden, former director of the US National Security Agency and former head of the CIA. He says it about states in general, which do, he admits “steal secrets.” It’s hard to suggest Wikileaks stole any secrets. The organisation is, as it is quick to point out, a publisher of material passed on by whistle-blowers.
So who does “We” mean?
Perhaps the “We” is us. All of us. Secrets are a valuable commodity in human society. We all want others people’s and we all want to protect our own. Once Assange became a global figure, we all wanted his secrets. We encouraged their theft and the rape case in Sweden was perhaps the juiciest one. This documentary is part of the very chase it seems to highlight. Even in its extreme close ups of the interviewees, the film seems to suggest that secrets, any secrets, are wanted; pimples, yellow teeth, cracked lips; the use of transcripts of highly personal emails and legal records. It’s detail, detail, detail. In the Age of Celebrity – a phenomenon Assange has seemingly tapped into quite consciously – we lust for such insights, such titbits of personality. Secrets extract vulnerability and inconsistency. Secrets are the greatest levellers.
In this light, is Assange part of a much bigger, and potentially much darker scenario? Is he just a disposable conduit for our obsession to know things we are not supposed to know. Who steals secrets? We all do. If states do that’s because they purport to represent us. And, if that’s so, what does that say about us, we who let them?
A second underbelly theme is the investigation into the nature of truth. Wikileaks have become the masters of equating information with truth, pushing the line that more is better and all is best. Their persnickety rants against the film underline this approach, coming across as shrill and paranoid, seeking to quash every point that Wikileaks isn’t comfortable with. But, all the world is not hanging on every factoid. Truth, we might safely say, tends not to be some objective – conveniently digital – object floating somewhere in space, or on top of a pile of facts, to be identified by Wikileaks and its hard-working volunteers. It is something more chaotic, more complex and more malleable. Moreover, most human beings are not equipped to consume mounds of data and to extract rational and defensible conclusions from them. Truth is a reflection in a mirror. It is not, as in the Wikileaks World, the mirror, the one that it holds. Truth is the sum of perceptions in a given space, in a given time. If there are any truths at all, perhaps that is one.
Finally, we can see the omnipotence of statism and the power of the corporate-industrial myth. Its force is in its denial of all that it doesn’t favour and its construction of banal tropes called undeniable truths – the nation-state, the market and so on. How can Wikileaks ever, truly, be understood while the very nature of what it is saying is against the logic of the system it must speak to? In many ways, the organisation may as well be talking in Martian. And how can one individual like Assange – as flawed as any of us – withstand the barrage unleashed by such a force? As such, Assange’s and Wikileaks’ only real hope was to change public perception, alter the frame of truth, so radically that a new logical paradigm emerged. That doesn’t appear to have happened – the tectonic plates got shoved back into place – and it might take another documentary (at least) to explain why.
We Steal Secrets is not definitive, nor is it ephemeral. It is part of the great dialogue of perception that Wikileaks has generated and has become. It may well be that Julian Assange and/or Wikileaks (if they can ever be separated) wins the long game and changes those perceptions enough for the victory of transparency to be known and for the defeat for ignorance and greed to be manifested. In this continuum, in retrospect, We Steal Secrets may be seen as a vital point, one where the deeper meanings of the Wikileaks phenomenon were laid out. As a documentary it is intriguing and thought-provoking. But it falls short of the goal denoted in its title. As an artefact, it is a part of the debate, part of the hopefully changing landscape, part of the never-ending Game of Perception.
Title – We Steal Secrets – The Story of Wikileaks
Makers – Focus World, Global Produce and Jigsaw
How to Catch it – In cinemas from July 4
Couch Time – 130 Mins.
High Point – Raises lots of think-points
Low Point – Too character oriented
NOTE: A good discussion between host Paul Barclay and investigative journo Andrew Fowler that was held after the screening I attended in Brisbane will be broadcast on Big Ideas on ABC Radio National tonight (July 3) and on Big Ideas on ABC TV (channel and date tba).
America still has the power to shock. In a nice way. While manufactured, ersatz versions of the good ol’ rags to riches story abound in shows like American Idol, and even in various “reality TV” vehicles, genuine bolts from the blue still happen. Charles Bradley is one and thankfully someone with a camera followed him while it happened.
At 62, Charles Bradley must have thought whatever blue was left in his life had lost its bolt long ago. Gigging in hole-in-the-wall night clubs in his native New York, wailing in front of small crowds of talking, boozing punters as a James Brown impersonator (stage name “Black Velvet”), Bradley’s career was not so much heading into a cul-de-sac as paying off a mortgage there.
A chance meeting with an executive from the always excellent Dap Tones records, an invitation to lay some tracks with that label which has become adept at spotting authentic talent perhaps at the back-end of its arc (think Shirley Jones) and a breakthrough album – “No Time for Dreaming” and Charles Bradley makes the moves from Projects to Prospect.
The “Soul” of the title refers, of course, to the bottom-ended, entendre-ridden, brass-driven genre of music popularised in the 1970’s. This is indeed Bradley’s universe, even if his performance sytle sometimes tips too far towards James Brown parody and the 1960’s version of it (Memo to Charles: ditch the jumpsuit, man. It ain’t cool). But the title also refers to Bradley himself. Here’s a man who’s love of life and of humanity is clear and despite the knocks and the set-backs – family rejection, poverty and the loss of loved ones – there is a spirit that rises above. He is indeed the kind of soul that America sadly needs.
This film follows Bradley as he is about to launch his first album. We are introduced to his ailing mother, for whom he cares devotedly, and are shown his room at her house, which is in the basement. It’s a mattress on the floor, surrounded by water pipes and concrete. His own apartment is in one of those towering public housing monstrosities in the Bed-Stuy area of New York, reached by a graffiti-stained and piss-smelly stairwell. He stays at his mom’s when it just gets too hairy at the Projects. The “rags” part of his story are about as threadbare as you can get in the land of the free.
The “riches” part is building. The launch of his album is of course a massive success, with sales pushing for record-breaking status at Dap Tones and his subsequent tour – replete with cheering fans and full houses – is a triumph.
For all the gold of his story, “Soul of America” sags a little in parts. The dramatic ellipse, so easily established, falters and the opportunity to build to a crescendo is rather lost, especially given the story and the thumping Dap Tones-soaked soundtrack at director Poull Brien’s disposal. The final scenes, which ought to be full of power and passion, fade off into the distance a little too much like the songs on the edges of the vinyl records Dap Tones still proudly press out.
Other technical issues grate a little, such as the thick, occasionally impenetrable Brooklyn and Harlem accents which are aided by text sub-titles in part, but not, inexplicably, in others.
But, for the story and the soundtrack alone, “Soul of America” soars like a Charles Bradley high note. His story embodies the belief in life’s joy, no matter how late it arrives, captured in one of James Brown’s own iconic lines; “I feel good. I knew that I would.”
Title – Soul of America
Makers – Sam Connelly and Ovasen Post
How to Catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 74 Mins
High Point – The music
Low Point – Dramatic line never takes off
In the Black Plague years, people initially thought the disease was connected somehow to behaviour, like it was God’s vengeance. It was only when members of the clergy started dropping that it was seen as something more arbitrary and random. In some ways, that realisation pulled back the suffocating veil of The Church and probably helped the emergence of the Reformation and the breakdown of The Church’s moral if not political authority. When young, mainly gay, men started falling ill and dying from AIDS in the US in the early to mid 1980’s, things went backwards. Once again, a disease was seen as evidence of God’s own natural selection, and the fact that homos and faggots were the victims only proved how reprehensible their lifestyle was, or so believed empty souls like Jesse Helms. We went back to the Middle Ages.
You could take AIDS victims and re-dress them, see their Karposi Sarcoma discolourations as Plagueish bubos, their gaunt faces as signs of medieval poverty, and you could be right there; anywhere in Europe, 1410. But, this was New York, 1987, the technological and wealth centre of the world. The richest place in the richest time in human history. Those dying weren’t peasants but some of the most creative, educated, successful, warm-spirited hearts and minds of a generation. But they were gay. And they had it coming to them, or so it was thought. Turning back that view would need a Reformation of its own. We had one. And “How to Survive a Plague” is its story.
The start of this award-winning film focusses on a cluster of mainly gay activists who are trying to save the lives of their community. In a bunker like room somewhere, heated debate is captured in blurred images and muffled voices. Tension is fizzing like lightning in a bottle. War is raging.
In those early days, HIV sufferers were often not diagnosed so as hospitals wouldn’t have to treat them and the numbers wouldn’t be noticed. The gay community, the most ravaged by the disease (along with drug users, a group even more marginal and easily blamed for their plight) took action. The group Act Up was born and soon evolved to become one of the most successful activist groups of its generation. Fronts were established: political activism, civil activism, calls for funding and treatments, fund raising.
Act Up’s tactics were aggressive, emotive, provocative, media-savvy and targetted. As such, the movement did a lot to bring modern civil activism into the mass media age. It was probably one of the first to truly harness the power of modern communications and PR tecniques and also through its influential Treatment and Data Committee (later to develop into an elite within the group and split to form the even more politically connected TAG) it set a new standard of professionalism and rigour to claims they made and issues they were raising.
Act Up was probably one of the best informed activist groups ever to that point – and by doing their political homework and working the corridors, Act Up made activism a force to be reckoned with. Other successful activist groups, like Greenpeace and more lately Sea Shepherd, have built on their legacy.
But what strikes most about “plague” is the power of fear as a political force. It was from this time that police on picket lines started wearing rubber gloves, for fear of being bitten and infected. Politically there was a fear that saving faggots and homos (terms of insult that were adopted as badges of honour by the gay community, an act similarly utilised by African Americans with the use of the word “nigger.”) would be seen as a waste of public resources by the white-bread right led by Helms and pandered to by the two presidents in the spotlight in this era (Reagan and GHW Bush).
In 1993, an eleven year old Australian girl named Eve Van Grafhorst died of AIDS in New Zealand. Her death hardly rated a mention but when she was a few years younger, she was rarely out of the headlines. For the simple act of wanting to take their daughter to the local school, the Van Grafhorst family was hounded out of the NSW town of Kincumber. Because she had HIV. Every attempt to take her to school was a gauntlet run through media and angry parents. She was forced to wear a plastic mask at school. Finally, she was effectively exiled across the ditch. We shouldn’t ignore society’s ability to victimise. While Act Up may not have known of her story, it was people like her who now benefit from their work. Such discrimination is now rare (perhaps its just been redirected to asylum seekers. But that’s another story).
In the recent Rugby League State of Origin game, NSW player James Maloney sported a bloodied lip through most of the game. In the early 1990’s, he would have been forced to leave the field on the Blood Bin rule. This rule was brought in to protect fellow players against HIV infection. While the rule still exists, its far more lax in being enforced. In that simple fact, we can see the value of Act Up and the work it has done not only in relation to HIV/AIDS and education, but in the culture of activism. The fact that gay marriage still falters in this country confirms the war has still not been won.
And, let’s not forget, there are around 34 million AIDS sufferers worldwide. Most of them cannot afford treatment and don’t have access to alternatives. Many are not gay. Many are women. Some haven’t even been diagnosed. The plague still exists. Like many ills of Western society, it’s just been off-shored.
Title – How to Survive a Plague
Makers – Public Square Films and Ninety Thousand Words
How to catch it – ABC2 on June 23, at 8.30pm
Couch Time – 120 Mins.
High Point – Brilliant story-telling with dramatic archival footage
Low Point – No real balance from anti-Act Up angle
Extras – Not on my DVD, which is a review copy, but presumably on a commercial copy
It’s hard to know sometimes what constitutes an historical movement. You would think there should be some sense of cohesion or at least commonality. But there probably should be an actual movement or an attempt to progress via a defined set of principles or ideals. The so-called No Wave film-makers who emerged in New York’s lower East Side in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s may or may not make the cut in these terms. A documentary about them suffers by assuming they do.
Well-known figures like Nick Zedd, Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie all started off in the fairly anarchic world of No Wave cinema (aka The Cinema of Transgression). The basics of No Wave were a super-8 (often hand-held) grainy imagery, bad acting, worse props and scenery, marginal themes, street-wise sensibilities, taking the piss and lots of drugs. Narrative was often eschewed and many standard models for conventional movie-making were discarded. These were kids, we are told, responding to crisis at the cutting edge of culture.
Sure. Maybe they were. But they were also kids who, as with any generation, were looking to challenge their older peers and progenitors, just because they were kids. Because that’s what kids do. Not every generation gets away with with taking on the status quo of course, but these kids had technology on their side. The relative cheapness and portability of super-8 cameras and, later, video camcorders, gave them an edge and provided a fillip to their microcosm of marginal society in the worm holes in the formerly shiny Big Apple.
But, the equation is surely bigger than kids + technology = movement, at least one worth making a feature film about. It’s hard to find a narrative thread that holds in this collection of now aged and somewhat wasted figures from this era. It’s too easy to see them as boring old farts talking about their wild days, and most are of course more than that. But the flimsy line that ties them all together, apart from their friendships and their tiny whorl of artistic activity that spread outwards, seems to falls short as a subject for a feature doco, without better grounding.
What did this movement aim to achieve? If it was just about making B grade splatter, zombie flicks and snuff movies, then does this raise them to the level of a movement like say, Expressionism, Cinema Verite or Film Noir? Sure, it was fun. Sure there emerged some truly fine talent and even a few good movies like “Downtown 81”, but if they weren’t all pretentious smart-arses from the centre of the universe, would anybody give a flying Roger about some kids throwing together rubbish movies just to piss off their parents and city authorities?
To answer this, we need to look more at the context of No Cinema. At the time, New York, hitherto the world’s most prosperous city, was deep in debt. Mayor Abraham Beame had to rely on a union super fund to pay the city’s obligations as the then President Gerald Ford told the city he wouldn’t bale it out. Crime was rampant. The 1977 blackout was a low point as darkness unleashed the city’s fury against corrupt and bumbling officials and a city out of control. It was also the era that marked the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan through California state politics to the national stage and of a new era of social conservatism characterised by the attempts by authorities to turn a blind eye to the spreading horror of HIV/AIDS, largely because it was only killing “marginals” like gays and artists.
In No Wave’s reactions to all this, their applied antagonism and their railing against power gone horribly wrong and bordering on the comical, perhaps we can say a movement was born; one of reaction and the search for new boundaries, or perhaps old ones.
But, Blank City, while touching on these issues, rather skirts the more compelling details and links between them in favour of the more salubrious details of the lives and times of the drug-addled, angry young souls of No Wave, or those that survived at least.
For Film buffs and fans of B Grade, this film may be a perfect genuflection to an era and a style of movie-making. Fair enough. But for someone coming at this cold, without much knowledge of film culture (in my case not extending beyond a communications elective at uni that was largely spent in the campus bar), Blank City lacks the depth and context to offer much of real interest.
Title – Blank City
Makers – Insurgent Media
How to catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 91 Mins.
High Point – Jim Jarmusch’s wall of hair
Low Point – Fragmented narrative
Extras – Yes
It wasn’t a good time to watch this film. A few financial issues had surfaced at home and so watching how a super-rich family in America spends millions – the wife admits doling out up to $1 million a year in clothes – was not cheery viewing.
However, things changed. The family’s fortunes dive and soon the family dream home is foreclosed and dad is holed up in a dark room, surrounded by piles of bills, muttering about lights being turned off to save money. A life most of us know too well becomes theirs too.
This award-winning doco – it won last year’s doco prize at the Brisbane International Film Festival among other garlands – follows the mega-wealthy Seigel family through something of a journey for our times. The patriarch, David, founder of the world’s biggest time share company, appears in the early sections, when the money is still flowing, as a smug, vapid, (Republican) Presidential king-maker. His wife Jacqui, looks all trophy bride with her solarium tones, pumped up boobs and pillowy face of the botox addict. The kids – I lost count how many – are nanny-cosseted and brattish.
Jacqui is in fact the eponymous star and as the money starts to disappear faster than the banking industry’s credibility as the 2008 financial crisis hits, she rises above the crisis. Kind of. Coming from a dirt poor background, she reverts to the Stand-by-your-Man credo of her clap-board culture and begins giving things away to a charity she sets up. Her spirit is touching, if a little cheesy, and it is credit to the director Lauren Greenfield that this character study allows for such contradiction and complexity.
David Seigel’s fortune was/is reliant on banking. To ease the selling of millions of time-share accounts, his business model was to take just a 10% deposit up front to seal the deal. The remaining 90%, which actually is the company’s cash-flow, is advanced by banks on future payment via various corporate paper programs. And like paper, it is no good at building a business on, especially at a time when punters are defaulting and banks are pulling in old loans and demurring on new ones.
As such, it is an iconic business, built on cheap money, slick sales and consumers with porous brains. It’s demise is the demise of a certain form of capitalism and the family’s slow decline into relative penury – they are still well clear of outright poverty – marks a paradigmatic shift in the culture of consumerism and modern economics. It’s like watching dinosaurs die.
The film engenders complex feelings in the viewer. There is the feeling I felt initially, a kind of grumpy envy. And there is a schadenfreude, a nasty delight in seeing the fall and fall of these over-rich parodies of contemporary Western society. But, there is an identification too. We can see our own attachment to material things, to image, to pretending we can beat nature. Whether it’s in the shape of a $100 million mansion – the Versailles of the title – or a pile of stuff we don’t use but feel we can’t get rid of, we all carry our own shit.
Title – The Queen of Versailles
Makers – Magnolia Pictures and Evergreen Pictures
How to catch it – DVD and on ABC 2 on June 9 as part of the Sunday Best season
Couch Time – 97 Mins.
High Point – Identifying with central characters
Low Point – Identifying with central characters
Extras – Yes (on the DVD version only, of course)