Category: American Independents

Finding Fela (US 2014)

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

My initial response to this film was to query why I had forgotten so much of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s – and then wonder whether I had ever known about it in the first place. The latter seems unlikely since Fela Kuti, the subject of this documentary, was a prominent figure in both music and political struggle in Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. When I got home I discovered some of his music in my collection. I think perhaps I was more interested in Francophone African music or South African jazz at the time – in which case this film was instructive but also left me wanting more.

Fela Kunti was born into a middle class Yoruba family in 1938. His mother was a significant figure in the Nigerian struggle against British colonialism and his father became a prominent educationalist. His elder brothers trained as doctors but Fela turned to music, abandoning Trinity College in London and discovering jazz. He arrived back in now independent Nigeria in the early 1960s after developing his skills in high-life music in Ghana. From then on he developed his own style later dubbed ‘Afrobeat’ and his Afrika Shrine club in Lagos became a focal point for music fans and also for dissent in the face of oppression by the succession of military leaders in Nigeria – some of whom were well-known to Fela and his family.

Finding Fela is a documentary by the suspiciously prolific Alex Gibney who appears to produce two or three high profile documentary films each year. This one runs to 120 mins – which is both a tad long for my taste but also not long enough to explore all the potential stories crammed into Fela’s relatively short life (he died in 1997). (By African standards it was, of course, a relatively long life and the fact that he died of AIDS seems symbolic in some way.)

Gibney’s approach is to hang his story on the preparations for and extracts from the Broadway musical Fela! first seen ‘Off Broadway’ in 2008 as written by Bill T. Jones and  Jim Lewis. We are taken by Jones through the difficult decisions about how to stage the show and how to deal with Fela’s music and his lyrics – which basically recount his activities and what he made of their impact. Intercut with this is a chronology represented via archive footage and interviews with those closest to Fela, including his children, manager, band colleagues and prominent fans. There are also several interviews with Fela Kuti himself so he is able to speak to us directly.

The more I reflect on the experience of watching the film, the more frustrated I feel. The film is well made and its narrative flows easily so that I was never bored – but none of the stories were developed as much as I wanted. More on high-life and how it became Afrobeat would have been good. More background on the family and the politics of Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s would also have been good – but couldn’t have been achieved in a single feature. Gibney’s use of the Broadway musical and Fela’s American contacts gives the whole film an American or perhaps African-American feel. This is interesting, especially given the recent developments in links between Nigerian filmmakers and the diaspora audiences in the US. However, the film’s commentary offers the audience two assertions/observations that are more intriguing. One raises the comparison with Bob Marley – is Fela Kuti a similar figure as a ‘Third World Superstar’? Why is he more difficult for an American audience to understand? The second assertion is that Fela Kuti is second only to Nelson Mandela as an icon of popular resistance in Africa during the 1980s. I’m not sure about either of these observations but I am intrigued that my memory is that music from Francophone West Africa and from South Africa/Zimbabwe made more impact with me than the Nigerian/Ghanaian variety. Why? Fela Kuti sang in English for much of the time. Was he more likely to look towards the US? The documentary quotes his reactions to the racism he experienced in London in the late 1950s and how later he ‘re-learned’ African history after reading Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, writings introduced to him by American contacts. Again, I would have liked more on this.

Gibney has made his name with documentaries that focus on ‘fallen’ men (most recently Lance Armstrong) and Fela Kuti’s later career saw him increasingly interested in forms of African culture that eventually found him involved with a Ghanaian magician of doubtful repute. He was also criticised because of his approach to his marriage and his sexual adventures. This is covered in the latter stages of the film but I’m not sure about the way in which the transition from ‘heroic’ to ‘lost’ is handled in the film. There were a couple of clips from Channel 4 in the UK (Black on Black and a Muriel Grey interview) that weren’t properly captioned and that makes me think that this documentary was rushed. Overall, the view of Fela Kuti presented seems superficial, somehow less than the sum of the different parts of the film. I wonder what a filmmaker with more understanding of West African culture might have produced with the same access to the archives and personnel presented here. I suspect that they might not have used quite so much footage of the Broadway show and might have dug a bit deeper into the Nigerian experience.

The official US trailer:

Night Moves (US 2013)

NightMovesPoster

I expect that some audiences will be disappointed/baffled by Night Moves – because they won’t get the thriller they were expecting from promo material like the poster above. On the other hand director Kelly Reichardt’s fans will know what to expect and should ‘enjoy’ the film. I use the scare quotes because Ms Reichardt’s films are clever and satisfying exercises in constructing a certain kind of narrative around various themes. The big shock here is that Michelle Williams is not in the cast and, despite Dakota Fanning’s expertise, I did miss Ms Williams.

Night Moves is a film about ‘ecological activists’ and the title refers to a boat, a motor launch, with that name. If I understood the dialogue exchanges, ‘Night Moves’ does indeed refer to the Arthur Penn film noir from 1975 (there is a discussion of movie titles that I couldn’t completely follow but the previous owner of the boat was a film fan). I haven’t seen that film since it came out and I don’t remember much except that I think it was the film in which a character describes an Eric Rohmer film as being “like watching paint dry” – an ironic comment on some of the pauses in the Reichardt film? In this new film, the boat’s name might be seen as describing the central moment in the narrative when the three ‘eco warriors’ attempt to blow up a dam in Oregon (to protest about the excessive power usage in the US and the diverting of water for golf courses). This is the basis of the ‘thriller’, but mostly I think Reichardt doesn’t play it as a thriller. In fact, I think she plays it as a story about guilt with the central character Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) as a possible film noir hero, a form of  ‘doomed man’. Nick was with me and he disagreed – he didn’t like the film and was irritated by what Reichardt was doing with the thriller tropes.

This is a long shot I know, but at one point the location switches to ‘Medford, Oregon’. If you’ve seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, you’ll know that the witness who places Fred McMurray at the scene of the crime is a “Medford man. Medford, Oregon”. Since Reichardt used a similar kind of reference in Wendy and Lucy (a man reading a specific novel), I’m tempted to see these two references (i.e. with the boat’s name) to films noir as deliberate pointers. The three activists comprise Josh/Eisenberg, a worker on an organic family homestead, Dena (Dakota Fanning), a rich girl working in a bathhouse/hot tub establishment and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard), an ex-Marine whose ‘day job’ I didn’t catch but he is clearly the ‘professional’ here.

The trio on the road

The trio on the road

Kelly Reichardt sticks to her established methods in this film. She doesn’t explain everything about the characters. We have to slowly glean bits of narrative information. Equally she doesn’t spell out the theme and give us clear arguments to follow. We are shown the Pacific North West in all its Autumn glory in the forests, on the hills and in the valleys. We also experience the impact of the dams and flooded valley when ‘Night Moves’ is steered past the rotting tall trees whose roots are now deep underwater. When we get a debate about ecology and political action it is played obliquely at the breakfast table of the organic farm as well as via a campaign film screened on a sheet in a pop-up cinema. On both occasions, Josh is a silent observer – Eisenberg’s performance toned down and internalised so that it is hard to know what Josh thinks. The suspense in the film is evident in the act itself but don’t go expecting explosions the aftermath of the act happens off-screen. Instead, the real suspense comes afterwards and focuses on Josh – will he fall apart, can he go back to an anonymous life? I don’t want to give away any of the later plot points – suffice to say that we do get the ‘usual’ Kelly Reichardt ending which makes you think. I thought this one was especially effective.

I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film and it is interesting that different audiences can produce quite different readings. One commentator clearly didn’t like it and thinks it has a very old-fashioned feel in terms of its subject matter. She also suggests that Dakota Fnning is underused and that Peter Sarsgaard is ‘lazy typecasting’. I think those are good points. I’d add that the intriguing Alia Shawkat is also wasted in a minor role. Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond don’t seem that interested in the Harmon character who seems a little like a plot device (Sarsgaard is indeed typecast as a slightly sleazy character) and I did want to know more about Dena. Since Reichardt tells us very little about her three central characters, it is quite difficult to see the film as ‘character-driven’. Even Josh has no background, so we don’t know what he is giving up/can’t go back to etc. Is the film ‘dated’ in terms of its subject? Jonah Raskin, who was clearly around forty years ago expresses what might be a common response in some parts:

But the characters belong to a timeless time. I can’t imagine that an ecoterrorist in 2014 might do what Josh, Dena and Harmon do on screen. It’s also unlikely that they’d be able to buy hundreds of pounds of fertilizer to make a bomb.

Night Moves would have had a great deal more punch had it come out in 1970 at the time of the first Earth Day. Now, 44 years later, it feels like an artifact from another era.

Hmm! I can see what is being said here but I think that the 1970s feel is deliberate. I’ve already suggested that Reichardt is deliberately referencing a 1975 neo noir in Penn’s Night Moves. I think that she is also possibly evoking those paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as Pakula’s North West-set The Parallax View (1974), not in terms of similar stories but in that sense of a character who fears being followed and ‘found out’. I’ve not been to Oregon but I get the sense of a persistent possible alternative culture that has survived alongside US capitalism since the 1950s and possibly earlier. Reichardt and Raymond keep worrying away at how people behave in the region and this seems like a film that ‘fits’ a certain kind of auteurist take on the region. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and music composer Jeff Grace both worked on Reichardt’s earlier Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Reichardt does her own editing so there is a strong collaborative approach to the story. What will they choose next, I wonder?

Wendy and Lucy (US 2008)

Michelle Williams as Wendy

Michelle Williams as Wendy

Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.

Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.

Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.

At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.

The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).

Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.

Press Notes available here.

The official US trailer:

Welcome to New York (France-US 2014)

Sex part for M. Devereaux

Sex party for M. Devereaux

Few directors divide audiences quite like Abel Ferrara. I can remember having seen Ms 45 (US 1981) and Bad Lieutenant (US 1992). I think I might have seen at least one more. I wasn’t repulsed by these films as many critics have recorded. I was intrigued by this new film as I did follow the news story about Dominique Strauss-Kahn which provides the story details – although I didn’t follow every aspect of the coverage. That’s quite important because Ferrara provides no context or ‘back story’ to what we see and there were several references that I didn’t recognise until I researched the story after the screening.

The film opens with the usual disclaimers about being fictitious but ‘inspired by’ etc. What then follows is an interview with Gerard Depardieu, something like the pre-credits sequence of Godard’s Tout Va Bien, in which he says he doesn’t like politicians and that as an actor he doesn’t ‘feel’ for the characters he plays. All this is directed towards journalists – and at one point, I think, delivered straight to camera, something which happens again later in the film proper. This device leads to suggestions that Ferrara has created some kind of ‘meta text’ – a view supported by the inclusion at various points of video footage from the ‘real’ Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) news story. At another point later in the film the lawyer for the Depardieu character tells us that the whole trial in which his client is appearing is not happening in the ‘real world’ but, á la Baudrillard, is playing out as a media text/construction in which the real people involved are ‘playing’ roles. Add to this the very presence of Depardieu as a ‘tax exile’ and reviled superstar of French cinema, sometimes seen as prostituting his talent in unworthy projects, and we have a very interesting set of representations.

Depardieu plays ‘M. Devereaux’, a French banker of international standing who is passing through New York on his way back to Paris. He is introduced as the kind of man who employs young women to offer sexual favours to anyone who visits his office and who finds a sex party ready for him when he registers at his Manhattan hotel. We are then offered around twenty minutes of sexual activity in which the grossly overweight Depardieu satisfies himself with various call girls and then later assaults the woman from housekeeping who comes to clean his room – the crime for which DSK was arrested. There aren’t many ’18’ films around these days and the sex here seemed fairly explicit (much bearing of breasts and buttocks but no genitals) and it was only later that I realised it wasn’t anywhere near as explicit as Nymphomaniac. I’m not sure what I make of that observation. I’ve seen reviews that express disgust and others that see Ferrara as offering ‘soft porn’. I suppose that the latter is technically correct. My own reaction was to note that Ferrara and his regular DoP Ken Kelsch film the sex action in a very ‘matter of fact’ way. There is no attempt to make it ‘erotic’ – instead, it is left to the audience to create their own eroticism from what is shown. There is ‘violence’ in terms of spankings but I think that Ferrara distinguishes between the prostitutes who laugh and giggle after the event and the two women who are later shown to be very upset after assaults by Devereaux. The women playing the call girls (‘real’ prostitutes?) are treated as sex objects, but the amount of female flesh is almost matched by the acreage of Depardieu’s paunch (we would get more of a full frontal if the paunch wasn’t in the way). I’m not sure if this stops the film being sexist. The film also suggests that M. Devereaux has a sex addiction, or at least believes himself that he does.

Devereaux and Simone (Jacqueline Bisset)

Devereaux and Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) in the town house where he is kept under ‘house arrest’

I can’t really ‘spoil’ the narrative because the film follows the ‘real’ story – DSK was arrested and kept in prison on remand before being released on bail. Charges were then dropped. Clearly there is an opportunity for satire here – on the American legal system, the ‘equality’ of the law as it pertains to international bankers etc. What actually follows, I think, is a film which holds attention mainly through the performances of Depardieu and then Jacqueline Bisset as his wife who arrives from Paris, furious that she has to rescue him again. Bisset looks very good (is it really 46 years since I saw her in Bullitt?) and plays her role very well. (Her character has the inherited wealth and is concerned for her own status/public profile.)

Whatever critics might think about Depardieu he commands the screen and he exerts a certain kind of charm even as his flesh billows out all around him. The key scene here is when he is strip-searched in prison. The whole prison sequence is riveting. I read that Ferrara employed ‘real’ prison warders. It’s hilarious but somehow Depardieu keeps his dignity. The other prisoners, real hard guys, look bemused but respectful.

The ‘real’ DSK case fizzled out (the prosecutor decided that the victim would not be a reliable witness in court) with suggestions in the media that both DSK was being stitched up in the way the case was constructed but also that he was probably guilty. Either way he wasn’t able to pursue a political career and is now (according to Wikipedia) facing further charges in France. What does Ferrara’s film offer in response? Well, I enjoyed the film on several levels without condoning the behaviour of M. Devereaux. The audience I was with also seemed to enjoy it and one man on the front row laughed uproariously at regular intervals. Ferrara also showed that the story could be told without resorting to tabloid sensationalism. I’m not sure I learned too much about international banking or the US legal system but I do feel that some questions were raised and some positions/arguments exposed. Overall a good thing I think.

The film is released in the UK by Altitude Films: