The New World by Terrence Mallick

Pop Zeitgeist Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.

 

About the Author

Sean "Smiles" Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sean “Smiles” Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan, who contributes the bi-monthly Pop Zeitgeist column to HESO. His website of writing & photography is here.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

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Best Documentary Films of 2011 (HESO Magazine)

Best Documentary Films of 2011

Best Documentary Films of 2011 (HESO Magazine)
 

Even as it becomes more mainstream, the lines of modern documentary film are ever blurring. No longer is documenting, “what is real?” the most apt, but rather, how do we instill the viewer with a big enough sense of awe at the world (and universe) around them to get them to become activists themselves? Take the fictionalized, The Tree of Life. Does it matter that it’s not technically a documentary? With his fifth directorial effort Terrence Malick went with Big concepts (Life, The Universe, Everything), big stars (Brad Pitt), and big organic visuals that stun with their naturalistic analogue feel rather than digitally deceptiveness. Despite president of the jury Robert De Niro declaring it difficult to choose a winner,The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival competing against such notables as Pedro Almodóvar’s La Piel Que Habito, and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Creation of the Universe Film Still from the Tree of Life (HESO Magazine)

Creation of the Universe Film Still from The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Shot in straightforward 35mm, Malick’s Waco, Texas is a visual poem to 60s Americana, depicting a lenitive south where shirtless boys roughhouse and light firecrackers, run chasing the billowing smoke from the DDT truck just around the corner from a rhubarb pie cooling on the window sill. The cinematography (done by visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull) sweeps us through the wistful memory of a slower era using hand-held POV (which tends to exert a certain sentimentality) of naturally lit moments of discovery: bright prisms of sunlight stabbing through stately elm trees on wide avenues without sidewalks, barefoot redhead mother dressed in white gown prancing in slow motion lead us through a fractured five-part journey of the creation of the universe down to the death of Mr. O’Brien’s son and what lies beyond.

Magic Trip (Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney) looks at the 60s from another perspective. Co-starring the self-dubbed Merry Pranksters, and based as it is on his writings and recordings, is a portrait of the summer of 1964 in the life of Ken Kesey, when he embarked on the fabled road trip in Further, the bus, across America in search of a cool place. This was before the term hippie had come into colloquial use and predates the easy-rider phenomenon. This busful of exuberant youth were on the bus, as it were, ready for anything, fearless and full of enthusiasm for what was to come. Yet instead of waiting for it on Kesey’s Oregon farm, they decided to go and see for themselves. See what? Practically speaking, their goal was the 1964 World Fair in Queens, New York, but when that turned out to be a bust, when Kerouac turned out to be an antisocial drunk, when Ginsberg’s introduction to Timothy Leary’s people at Castalia in Millbrook turned out to be a letdown, what did they turn to? Exactly what was in the Kool-Aid they had been drinking all the way across the face of America: LSD. If taken at face value, the more than 30 hours of archive footage shot by the Pranksters themselves (although sadly the audio was not synced, which is why it has been so long in production), plays as a kind of hippy-dippy day-glo soap opera that doesn’t necessarily end in the happiness that they were seeking, but in the larger context of the sacrifices made by the Pranksters as guinea pigs and by Kesey himself, we see the beginning of the era of the expansion of the mind begin to take shape.

The same time that Kesey was enlightening America, the Beatles were taking over the world. Like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven, the persistent popularity of the Beatles thrives today, yet how well do you know the third Beatle, George Harrison? The one that kept John and Paul from killing each other. The one that had a much-talked about love triangle with Eric Clapton. The one that wrote “Here Comes The Sun” and was the impetus behind The Traveling Wilburys. In George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) we tag along on a journey interspersed with George telling the story of his own spiritual awakening and a treasure chest of new interviews (Paul, Ringo, Yoko) as well as archive material of friends, family and associates of the musician addending the little known story of his life. Great footage of Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi accompanies this two-part HBO film named after his 1973 album Living in the Material World. If only we were all so blessed with such maddening interference in the form of screaming teenagers who indirectly fund the explorations George took across the world in search of the kind of inner peace attainable only by coming to terms with the screaming teenager within.

Film Still from "American: The Bill Hicks Story" (HESO Magazine)

Film Still from "American: The Bill Hicks Story" by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

What George Harrison is to music, Bill Hicks is to comedy. The Georgia native toured the United States parodying, satirizing and openly mocking the wannabe opulence of the coked-out 80s with little success until he was finally “discovered”–as is so often the case with avant garde Americans—in England. Through interviews with his family, friends and other comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story(Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas), looks at how Hicks’ punk-centric diy ethic went from frenetically straight edge to embody the drunken banality of all he abhorred. Yet through it all he maintained a crystalline gaze into the dark heart of superficial American society: the rampant consumeristic rise of pop culture meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic” while keeping a third eye on the bigger philosophical picture and persuading people to question authority. Visionary. Genius. Outlaw. These are the words that people use to describe his work. And as with too many visionaries, their flame, burning too brightly to begin, flickers out all too soon.

That flickering flame by which our dreams are guided is often locked within the very rock itself. In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog allows us to peer into the distant past, into a limestone landscape known as Chauvet Cave, which houses the oldest cave paintings known to humanity. Now a tourist spot for hikers and kayakers, the Southern France river valley best known for the Pont-d’Arc—a natural bridge formed by the Ardèche River—once was populated by Cave Lions, Wooly Rhinos, Cave Bears, Wooly Mammoths, Panthers, Neanderthal and yes, homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic period some thirty thousand years ago. In order to preserve these fragile representations (peoples’ breath causes mold to form thus degrading the site) the French government allows almost no one inside the 1300 foot cave of calcified bones, glittery stalactites and stalagmites, yet Herzog was given permission to take a very limited crew with hardly any equipment to document the cave paintings. According to scientists studying the cave, no humans ever lived within, using it only for drawings, and perhaps for ritualistic purposes. In a film that transcends the medium—due to the ubiquity of the filmmakers and their equipment in such a limited space—we witness something awe-inspiring which, like walking on the moon, the majority of humans will never get to experience firsthand.

Film Still From "If A Tree Falls" (HESO Magazine)

Clearcut Film Still From "If A Tree Falls" by Marshall Curry

What is awe-inspiring to some is merely toilet paper to others. The tall majesty of a Giant Redwood stretching its ancient limbs toward the puffy clouds floating across the bright blue sky. Now a forest of Aspen, creating an ecosystem of life, an interconnected network communicating across thousands of miles, providing myriad species of flora and fauna—including humans—the fundamental ability to sustain life. Now imagine it all gone, gutted, gored out of the ground for the remarkably short-sighted goal of ephemeral profit. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation FrontWhat happens when so-called tree-huggers shake off their hippy-dippy tie-dye for a more militant approach to fighting back against the wanton destruction of the forest. Marshall Curry tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of an ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members.

Being connected to the world from which we come, rather than manipulating it for profit, is the underlying message of Forks Over Knives. Written, directed and narrated by Lee Fulkerson, himself a subject of study in the controversial 95 minute long exploration into what scientists Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have discovered through painstaking research: “that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” How will history view us? As the Age of Diabetes? The Age of Heart Disease? Or as the age that had a chance to change repeated bad behavior but did not do so in order for the few to profit from the many? It may be the most important film of the new decade, but who will actually watch it?

The tagline to Transcendent Man by Barry Ptolemy is “Prepare To Evolve” and if futurist Ray Kurzweil has any influence in the matter, we will all live forever. Or at least those that can afford nanobot surgery to repair dysfunctional organs, the hundreds of vitamins taken on a daily basis to sustain human health, and the acceptance of Transhumanism—the mixing of machine and human—into the mainstream. The film follows Kurzweil across the globe as he talks to thousands of people about his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and what it means to transcend biology. The post-biological world will solve world hunger, disease, aging and even “cure death”. He doesn’t, however, comment on how to cure all the rich psychopaths that always seem to end up running the world. Maybe in version 2.0.

American Grindhouse Film Still (HESO Magazine)

American Grindhouse Film Still from "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"

John Landis puts it succinctly when he says, “In the terms of the business, a profitable picture is a good picture.” American Grindhouse(Elijah Drenner) focuses on the history of the B-movie, the rise of the exploitation flick, the slasher movie, and pornography to merge with Hollywood film-making to become the epitome of modern American Cinema. The concept of a grindhouse is based upon the hey-day of studio-owned theaters—some running non-stop 24 hours a day—in a big city which would show anything to keep the customers entertained. This predated the current MPAA rating system and other rating laws, and thus gave the public a window to see the societal taboos that they really wanted to watch: sex, violence and antihero on the big screen. Once legally separated from their studio backers, a true free market reigned at the theater , giving rise to a larger independent film movement and helping create the modern American film industry. Talk all you want about what should and should not be filmed, but leave it to film producers to capture the zeitgeist of a pop culture clamoring for (yet another) female jail flick / slasher movie.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)
It’s a good thing that Conan O’Brien is one of the funniest people on the planet, because he’s kind of a dick. Not a Dick Cheney kind of dick, but the inevitable kind that comes from everyone wanting to meet you all of the time and your show has just been hijacked and you can’t be on TV for one year and you’re a dad and that means you’re tired, and everyone still wants to chat you up—even celebrities (they who should understand)–like you have all the time in the world while putting on a massive mostly-one-man cross-country show. It must be said, this documentary on Conan O’Brien’s comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada after leaving his post at “The Tonight Show” and severing his relationship with NBC, cements O’Brien’s standing as Comedian of the People.

Honorable Mentions go to:

Film Still from "General Orders No. 9" (HESO Magazine)

Film Still from "General Orders No. 9" by Robert Persons

  • Prohibition Ken Burns & Lynn Novick invite you to toast a tipple to the teetotallers while watching the history of how to royally screw anentire country.
  • General Orders No. 9, writer-director Robert Persons cinematographically stunning tale of Man’s interaction with Nature in the Deep South is enigmatically told through experimental usage of poems, music and images.
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times Andrew Rossi is given
  • unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom, yielding a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity.
  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock is a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that is financed and made possible by brands, advertising and product placement.
  • I Am is a 2011 documentary film written, narrated, and directed by Tom Shadyac. What happens when a director best known for directing Jim Carrey vehicles Ace Venture: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty has a life-altering bicycle accident and sees the light: a feelgood Choose Life documentary of the year.
  • Life in a Day is a crowd-sourced documentary film comprising a series of video selected from 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube, all taken around the world on July 24, 2010. The 95 minute “film” includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations.
  • Miss Representation from Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
  • The Captains is a feature length documentary film written and directed by William Shatner in which he, the original Captain Kirk searches out the lives of other captains of the USS Enterprise and interviews them. He’s also got a new album coming out soon.
  • These Amazing Shadows, Paul Mariano Producer / Director Kurt Norton Producer / Director
  • Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton is a documentary on DIY producer/director Roger Corman and his alternative approach to making movies in Hollywood.
Secrets of Sumo

Freakonomics The Movie

A Magnolia Films presentation of a Green Film Company production, in association with Cold Fusion Media. Produced by Chad Troutwine, Chris Romano, and Dan O’Meara. Executive producer: Seth Gordon, Damon Martin, Jay Rifkin, Michael Roban. Segments written and directed by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Rachel Grady. Written by Peter Bull & Alex Gibney (Pure Corruption), Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock (A Roshanda by Any Other Name), Eugene Jarecki (It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life), Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?), Seth Gordon (Intro & Segues), Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner (book).

With: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

Secrets of Sumo

Secrets of Sumo © Manny Santiago

In the recently released documentary film version of Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner find their written musings on “the hidden side of everything” skillfully brought to the screen by an all-star team of modern young documentary film makers: Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).

Despite the quirky popularity Freakonomics has found, trying to create excitement and recommending this film to potential viewers can be difficult:

“Sure, it’s about economics, but it’s kind of fun too…”

Freakonomics Film PosterThe reason that Levitt and Dubner’s effort in bringing this seemingly arcane minutiae to screen is successful mostly depends on the same success the book Freakonomics found in 2005 in selling four million copies worldwide. The book is well-thought out and well-researched, and slim, parsed up into easily-navigable bitesize niblets of esoteric economies, which rather than drag on, end with the reader wanting more. The film too manages to pull this aspect off spectacularly, especially Alex Gibney’s segment Pure Corruption, which switches emphasis from the almost impossible-to-detect cheating ways of teachers and sumo wrestlers Levitt and Dubner describe in the book, and focuses solely on the sly corruption of modern day sumo wrestlers and the larger story of the stoic association that backs them.

Illustrating the numbers game of sumo wrestling by interviewing experts who delve into various mini-lessons on Japanese culture–Shinto, Tatemae and Honne, hazing in the sumo stables–Gibney asks, “What happens to markets when people cheat?”

Roughly a twenty-three minute long expose, the skilled director is forced to break out the big guns early in a not-so-veiled shot at the Tower of Babel that is the Nihon Sumō Kyōkai (Japan Sumo Association). Riffing of of Levitt’s economic breakdown of Yaochō (match fixing) as not only evident, but rampant in the secret world of sumo, this is a perfect forum to showcase Gibney’s talent at exposing corporate greed and government collusion (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the recent Casino Jack and the United States of Money). “What keeps us from seeing corruption is the illusion that our economy is a rational system, a free market, open to all. The fact is that rigging markets, and matches, is good business, if the rigging is hidden from all but a few.”

Although he does tenuously stab at the recent Wall Street financial meltdown with allusions to Bernie Madoff and other crooked CEOs, showing that as in “the realm of high finance and the world of sumo both demonstrate that the illusion of purity can not only hide corruption it can help to make it possible,” the segment does not allow enough time to fully explore any real connections, the gaping flaw of the film itself: none of these subjects could support much more than 30 minutes of hardcore film documentation.

Freakonomics is about being short, sweet, and up-to-date. Featuring footage of recently retired Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Asashoryu and current Yokozuna Hakuho (who just won his 18th Makuuchi Division title), Gibney interviews former Yokozuna Akebono and Ozeki (Champion) Konishiki, who talk about the rigors of the twenty-four hour a day lifestyle that being a sumo wrestler entails: training morning to night six days a week for six yearly tournaments while nursing injuries, caring for other higher ranked wrestlers, and maintaining the tough exterior necessary to rise from the depths of the lowest pool of wrestlers to the top, an almost impossible feat for the vast majority who undertake it.

Rikishi taking a morning break outside the stable in Tokyo

Rikishi taking a morning break outside the stable in Tokyo © Manny Santiago

Each tournament lasts fifteen days with each rikishi (wrestler) performing once a day for a possible record of 15-0. If at the end of the two-week exhibition an athlete has a winning record (8-7) he advances in rank, which brings more money and respect, whereas a losing record (7-8) will bring demotion, and its associated humiliations. Therefore the difference between winning and losing is as huge as some of the wrestlers themselves and many who teeter on the edge of the precarious line may be willing to do that much more to advance.

Yet no matter how much the rikishi on the outside of the ring looking in wants to win, it takes two to wrestle. Levitt points out that “two wrestlers I would expect to have an even match, when one of them needs the eighth win and the other one doesn’t, the one who needs it wins 75% of the time, rather than 50% of the time. That is a huge deviation.”

Dubner states, “A rikishi entering a tournament’s final fifteenth match with a 7-7 record has far more to gain from a victory than an opponent with a record of 8-6 has to lose. The next time those two wrestlers meet, lo and behold, the 8-6 wrestler almost always wins those matches.”

Gibney talks to more than skeptical westerner researchers. Surprisingly, his team uncovered a few Japanese experts to testify to Sumo Association ills. Freelance journalist Yorimasa Takeda muses that Yaochō is rampant and match fixing rates can run from as little as a carton of cigarettes in the lower ranks to 1-2 million yen or more for bouts that decide championships. Former editor of the Shukan Post Akihiko Takeuchi states that the continued denial of the existence of Yaochō by the Sumo Association is an example of Honne and Tatemae, the Japanese terms for truth and facade, respectively. Ex-CIA agent Barry Eisler explains the importance of these ideas to Japanese society, “The tatemae is going to be a great spectacle of honest competition, but in the service of creating that pleasing facade the actual players are engaging in a form of corruption. To have the honne exposed produces discomfort.”

Dohyō-iri - Ring Entrance Ceremony

Dohyō-iri - Ring Entrance Ceremony © Manny Santiago

Few and far between, whistle-blowers are reticent to talk to outsiders for fear of being cast out of the village world lifestyle of sumo wrestling, which does not allow for rocking the boat, but only going with the waves. Other insiders who talked have either been discredited and stripped of the only community they know or have wound up dead. The fact that Gibney can only assemble a freelance journalist, an ex-newspaper editor, an ex-cop and a foreigner–all individuals without ties to the establishment–goes to show how powerful the forces of Tatemae are in keeping in check those who speak out against societal corruption.

Takeda says, “To come out and expose everything was shattering a taboo in Japan’s shadow society…Not only the police, but Japanese society as a whole tend to view the Sumo world as untouchable, as if they are somehow outside the law.”

But in 2007 when the Tokitsukaze stable hazing scandal came to light and onetime Sumo hopeful Takeshi Saito’s corpse was found mutilated and littered with bruises and cigarette burns, and the Tokyo Police said the boy died of natural causes, something had to be done. The boy’s father came forward, demanding an autopsy, which found he had been beaten to death. The Sumo Association elite seemingly had to come clean, yet despite public opinion turning against the Sumo world, they countered with lawsuits against Takeda and proclaimed their Shinto-based purity.

Hiromasa Saikawa, ex-police officer, speaks out against the ever-widening gap of Honne and Tatemae in regards to Japan’s unbelievable conviction rate (96%), “This number does not reflect reality and every single police officer is aware of this. In the case of both police officers and athletes, their efforts are measured in numbers…As long as he’s producing impressive numbers, there’s a tendency not to dig deeper to find the truth. They employ all sorts of schemes to raise those numbers.”

Retired Komusubi (fourth-highest rank) Keisuke Itai publicly admits to partaking in Yaochō and adds that, “If the rikishi are really taking Sumo seriously, there is an element that is sacred to the sport. Even now, if I see a good match, it moves me. And if I see yaochō, I am disappointed. All of us in Sumo can tell just by looking.”

Despite the the depressing truth of the regimented hierarchical reality of Japanese power structure’s unflinching dedication to living a superficial lie, it is heartening to know that not just western economists, journalists and other like-minded outsiders, but some individuals living inside the beehive collective nature of Japanese society are brave enough to risk coming forward to decry not just the overwhelming numbers of match fixing in Sumo, but the human cost of corruption as well.

“The only way to undo corruption is to change rules to undo corrupt incentives. The irony of our analysis of Sumo wrestling was when it became public, the Sumo wrestlers stopped cheating. Not for good, but that is the answer of how you stop cheating. As Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.’”

Watch the Trailer.

2010 Documentaries

2010 Documentary Film


2010 Documentaries

A selection of great 2010 Documentaries

 

As 2010 comes to a close, and a large part of the world is on holiday to celebrate the end of another year, the only thing slowing down should be us, to ask the simplest of questions: What is going on with Reality?

Reality television is more popular than ever. Stand back from Mongolia copying the U.S. copying the U.K. (Insert Country Name‘s Got Talent) and delve into the depths of Talk shows, Dating shows, Cooking Shows, Self-improvement and Makeover, Renovation, Social experiment, Hidden cameras and Hoaxes, Paranormal, YouTube and it quickly becomes apparent that, for good or ill, we are obsessed with documenting our triumphs and (more often) our defeats.

The dominant form of film has become the Documentary. The times that we live in now are so wild and drama-filled that mere fiction and fantasy films cannot compete, thus pushing producers to make them even more far-fetched (as well as pushing our production of animation through the roof). It seems that the more implausible and fantastic the story the screenwriters write (or as often is the case, remake) can not even get into the lobby, let alone get a room in the hotel of people’s desire to go behind the scenes of “what really happened.” Alternatively there is the “Dan Brown Syndrome”, which is if you write something, anything really, that is likely more true than false about Catholicism or the Mona Lisa, the Pope will denounce you and you’ll sell a trillion books. Likewise Salmon Rushdie’s fatwa for The Satanic Verses. There seems to be a genre starting to take form.

Imagine the current Wikileaks saga as a made-for-television miniseries starring David Bowie. Now imagine it as a documentary film. Now a documentary film denounced by the Dalai Lama (though I think he would be for it, but I’m running out of world religious

figures) and, hopefully, you get the picture.

It’s a great thing for the documentary genre and for film in general. The men and women that make these films are generally so involved in the process of doing it, so passionate about what they are, often times, risking their lives capturing, that they will go to far greater lengths than mere studio blockbuster money can provide. These Director / Activists are dedicated to their craft like no other: Adam Curtis, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Stacy Peralta, Louis Psihoyos, Kazuo Hara, Laura Poitras, among countless others. This year was not only no exception, but rather an exceptional year for documentary film.

As War takes up a larger and larger part of our collective consciousness, so too do documentaries about war and all its hellish and absurd injustices make up more and more what we see and are barred from seeing. Awesome in its ability to lay truth bare before the audience, the honest viewer might be more embarrassed about what they don’t know and the blind acceptance of the mainstream media’s account of the state of the world. Nothing does that more than The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev’s (My Kid Could Paint That, Fighter) film of the cover-up of the death of Corporal Patrick Tillman, ex-NFL defensive player, who left millions of dollars worth of contracts on the negotiating table to fight in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, 2001.

So to does the approach of Restrepo, from War photographer Tim Hetherington, and journalist Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm, 1997, W.W. Norton), who decided to leave the interviews and political spin for the network journalists to cover. Words pale in comparison to the film shocking you dumb with raw footage of one year in the life of a soldier in Afghanistan.


Armadillo © Lars Skree

Armadillo ©_Lars_Skree

 

It takes a lot to shock the Danish out of their collected stoicism, but Armadillo (Janus Metz, 2010) might be the film to make even Lars Von Trier blush (unlikely) at perceived controversial behavior of certain Danish soldiers during a shootout with Taliban fighters while stationed at an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. This year’s hard look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan should give heart to those seeking an end to the nine-year campaign (now longer than the Russian occupation): It was three or four years before anyone made a film about Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq, showing a definite impatience with a money and life-sucking foreign policy agenda. Not enough? There’s plenty of discontent elsewhere.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money asks, “What happens when you turn the United States Senate over to market forces?” Captain Jack and the Capitalist revolution. By focusing his keen eye on the megalomaniacal personality of Jack Abramoff, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi To The Dark Side) has cornered the market on the corporate takeover of America and laid the

groundwork for understanding the reality American politics in the 21st century. All you have to do is get involved. Maybe texting that number at the end of the film is enough?

Where Gibney’s Captain Jack leaves off, Inside Job by Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq) picks up with a scrutinizing eye on the various little reported pieces that led to the ongoing financial crisis. Ferguson was an Internet software entrepreneur before metamorphosing a la Michael Moore from everyday schlub to writer to documentary activist. There is hope stirring.

But don’t get your hopes up too high when you watch Lucy Walker’s Participant Media-driven production of the state of the world of nuclear weapons, Countdown to Zero. Documentary film-making at its sleekest could double as a horror film. It’s certainly not an hour and a half update by Valerie Plame Wilson, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Robert McNamara, among others, on how all things nuclear are just peachy. The reality is shocking and not about to go away with President Obama’s nuclear disarmament treaty signed in April.


Waiting for Armageddon © Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi

Waiting for Armageddon © Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi

Exit Through The Gift Shop © Banksyfilm

Exit Through The Gift Shop © Banksyfilm

 

Where the rational fears of Countdown to Zero leave off, the hyper-rational fear of those portrayed in Waiting For Armageddon (Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi, 2010) happening onto a loose nuke within sight of Jerusalem picks up. Should we worry that there are more than 50,000,000 Evangelical Americans who support an open war with the Islamic world? Depends on who you pray to.

While some of us wait for the rapture, others merely are impatiently tapping their foot for education. In examining the failure of the American Education System to teach our children, Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) Waiting for “Superman” illuminates the truth on what can be done to help fix the problem. Someone should give Jack Abramoff a call when he gets out of prison. O, if only education were profitable…

The Fence sounds like an accompaniment to Ben Affleck’s The Town, but the two are worlds apart. In 2006, the U.S. government decided that, instead of investing in education, building a 670 mile fence along its 2000 mile-plus border with Mexico was worth alienating the Latino vote–and the money. Three years and three billion dollars later, Rory Kennedy asks, was it all worth it? The cynical viewer half expects the contractor to hire the illegals he is trying to keep out to get this boondoggle done on time and under budget (a la the Palestinians who work on the West Bank Barrier).

As someone who has been to the West Bank Barrier and left his mark, British artist Banksy knows the value of context. The tagline for his first film Exit Through The Gift Shop, which features a number of prominent graffiti artists, is “this is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide.” The mere fact that Banksy is still going means that something in the world is still right, still working.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child may epitomize the spirit of this selection of documentaries: not War and Peace, but War and Art. Having sat on this footage for many years due to not wanting to have seemed to have “cashed in” on his celebrity and death, Tamra Davis’ film succinctly sums up the beauty of Basquiat’s Samo persona and the ugliness of his brutal addiction. As with most great works of art, it’s not obvious, but it’s there.

William McDonough often asks the question, “When you throw something away, where is away?” It might very well be at the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In Waste Land Lucy Walker (yes she of Countdown To Zero was busy last year) follows artist Vik Muniz as he photographs the “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, who turn from artistic subjects into inspiring collaborators, recreating photographic images of themselves out of garbage, proving that where art is concerned, as McDonough suggests, there is no such thing as “away”.

Los Angeles Times Film reviewer Kenneth Turran suggests the Kings of Pastry (“16 chefs. 3 days. 1 chance.”) to cleanse the documentary palate. True Angelenos might prefer a little rock and roll idolatry with their New Year’s wishes. If so you would do well with Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange, a very strange look itself at The Doors.

If our constant desire for “reality” programming is any indication, could this year’s films (without even look at the plethora of Nazi documentaries), signal the beginning of The End…?

UPDATE: Steven Soderbergh’s film of Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine is as good as anything Gray himself ever did.

High & Low - Akira Kurosawa (HESO Magazine)

Classic Old School Flicks: High & Low

“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off. Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

— Tsunetomo Yamamoto 山本常朝, Hagakure 葉隠


High & Low - Akira Kurosawa (HESO Magazine)

High & Low - Akira Kurosawa

By the time 1963 rolled around for Akira Kurosawa, he had already directed Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood (the Japanese MacBeth), The Hidden Fortress (known to have deeply influenced George Lucas’ Star Wars scenes on Tatooine), Yojimbo (the scenario for which Sergio Leone would later base A Fistful of Dollars aka The Man with No Name Spaghetti Western Trilogy opener) as well as 17 other films, earning himself the nickname “Tenno” (meaning emperor), before taking on his next challenge, High and Low.

Toshirō Mifune starred in 16 of Kurosawa’s films, almost always playing the samurai he came to epitomize to the world. In High & Low, Mifune plays Gondo, a hard-working executive of a shoe company whose son becomes the target of a kidnapping plot. The kidnappers mistakenly nab his chauffeur’s son, yet Gondo still vows to get the child back. He fronts his own money despite the possibility of a ruined business transaction and personal financial shame. In truth, Mifune’s Gondo is still very much the character he mastered in all of those bushido-era films, tough and pragmatic, austere and sentimental, a samurai warrior in businessman’s clothing. Very Musashi Miyamoto (a role he portrayed in the 1954-56 Samurai Trilogy – directed by Hiroshi Inagaki). Kurosawa said that Mifune could display in three feet of film what it took others ten. That is possibly why his career spans six decades and over 150 films. Often playing a ronin, that is to say a samurai with no retainer, what his portrayals represent is a sense of the outsider’s role in society. Yet behind the characters he played there are the very real similarities he brought to his films, experiences and actions he could call on to deliver in a film so different, at least on the surface, from his usual character. In life, as in his art, it seems he always understood the Samurai mindset that “death is always at one’s door, (so) one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

Born in Qingdao, China to Japanese parents who had emigrated to Dalian under what were likely the auspices of Imperial Japan’s attempts to Japanify “Manchukuo” via the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, he was as outsider from birth. As a non-Buddhist (he had ties to Methodism) and an actor he had little chance to marry well after returning home from working in the Japanese aerial photography unit during World War II, yet he managed to convince the parents of a respected family to do just that. It seemed he threw himself into everything he did, full force: his marriage, his mistress(es), his children, his films, roles, smoking, and what eventually became a three decade rift between arguably the greatest director / actor collaboration in film history.

High & Low (天国と地獄), the second to last film the pair worked on together, is arguably one of his most interesting portrayals of stratified class systems in Japan, though in reality a story that transcends race and borders. Focusing on the beginning of Japan’s economic boom in the early 60s, it is filled with stark contrasts ranging from the monochrome film stock itself to the societal hierarchies Kurosawa portrays with his brand of bare-bones cinematography, a kind of harsh tenderness set to filmstock, letting the story unfold naturally.

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring Toshirō Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring Toshirō Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

The film plays in two parts, juxtaposing the worlds of rich man and poor man, high and low, heaven and hell. Kurosawa exposes the grit of everyday life on the low side: the squelch of the train, the annoying voices of the passersby, the view of Gondo’s hillside mansion from our perpetrator’s shack-like window. Compare this to the relative silence of Gondo’s comfortable house, its usual peace interrupted only by the feverish though somehow inept police and the ringing of the phone: the squawk of the low intruding into the aerie of the high. Kurosawa masterfully blends his trademark elements together to create an intensity of development in which these two worlds inevitably collide. The deeper theme is the stratification of an emerging capitalist economy; there are those who rise and those who fall. Gondo is a shoeman who comes from a long line of shoemen. In old Edo, shoemen, tanners, and blacksmiths were of a cast known as Hisabetsu Buraku or Burakumin, the “Discriminated Communities”. Gondo, who came from this low class and jumped to the high ground, is an example of a new era of discrimination based not on race, creed or religion, but on money and the corporation. It takes someone like Gondo, who has more than likely lived in both worlds, to not allow mere money to determine the fate or honor of both men.

This is also emblematic of the rift between Kurosawa and Mifune which began a few years after the filming of this movie. Despite their success together they grew apart professionally and philosophically in a way which ominously mirrored their careers. Mifune continued to rise and gain international acclaim while Kurosawa, though he directed many more films, never again captured the magic of Rashōmon or Seven Samurai, largely due to Mifune’s absence as the Kamikaze presence Kurosawa’s often slow, maudlin screenplays required to achieve proper balance between arthouse introspection and hollywood extravaganza. They made up, but not before Mifune portrayed Yoshi Toranaga in the televised version of James Clavell’s Shōgun. High and Low indeed.