The Artist in His Studio

The documentary Gerhard Richter Painting offers some consolation to those of us who don’t always “get” art. Working on a painting, the artist pauses, looks at his work, and wonders if he has just done something terrible. Likewise, an assistant describes looking at a painting and thinking it horrible, and then as days pass finding that the horrible sensation fades away, and the work starts to feel ok. Never again will I feel like a dope because I can’t instantly size up a work of art.

The film shows the German artist, now in his 80’s, creating a couple of abstract paintings. The canvases are large, maybe ten by six feet, and Richter first uses wide brushes (five inches or so across) to apply primary colors–yellow, red, blue, white, and black. He then uses a set of squeegees, from a foot wide to the width of the canvas, to apply additional paint, remove paint, or just generally smear the colors. It’s a multi-day process, and Richter doesn’t start out knowing what the final picture will look like.

Richter is also seen helping to plan exhibits of his works at major galleries, using scale models of the museums to help decide where individual paintings will be placed. He also spends time sorting through photographs from his life growing up in East Germany and from his adulthood there and in the West, to which he escaped as a political refugee in the 1960’s.

This documentary will not appeal to all–at times we are literally watching paint dry–but to the patient viewer it offers some rewarding insight into the artistic process.

Gerhard Richter Painting (reviews)
Directed and written by Corinna Belz
Languages: German and English
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: September 25, 2012

Leads

Alan Partridge takes the popular BBC television character through his paces in a feature film-sized story. Partridge (Steve Coogan) is a midmorning DJ at a town radio station which has just been taken over by a big corporation. Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), the nighttime DJ, is sacked in a decision that Partridge may have helped along. In retaliation, Farrell takes the station hostage and enlists Partridge as his negotiator, not knowing of Partridge’s role in his dismissal.

Not having seen the TV series, I can only assume that the character from the show is what we see here: a clever blowhard with a knack for saying or doing the exact wrong thing; a man, when made the center of attention, whose ego will blow up like an inflatable life raft. Some may find this character intolerable, but I am willing to indulge: The man means well, at least in those fugitive moments when he isn’t utterly absorbed in himself.

But the main reason for loving the film is Steve Coogan, who is on camera for almost the entire picture. He’s a great comic actor and improvisor. The comedy here is snappy and cringey, but not gross. There is a gag involving Partridge and a septic tank that would be disgusting in most films nowadays; here, it’s almost … antiseptic.

Alan Partridge (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Declan Lowney
Written by Neal Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, and Peter Baynham
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: June 10, 2014

* * *

Juliette Binoche is the lead of Elles, but her performance, fine as it is, doesn’t quite put the film over the top. She plays Anne, a journalist working on a story for Elle magazine about students who finance their education with earnings from prostitution. Anne is quite taken with the pretty, confident young women, and increasingly suffers from the dull routine of her own life. The story wraps around a day Anne spends preparing a dinner to which her husband’s boss and boss’s wife are invited. The film concludes with that feast, where frustrations come to a head.

The whole thing is just a bit insipid, and I found my mind wandering to another movie about a discontented housewife that ends with a feast. Say! A remake of Montenegro with Juliette Binoche in the lead–that might be just the thing!

The Inevitable Victory of Love and Loving

Sometimes a straightforward story, with clear-cut heroes and villains, is just the right thing. There are setbacks in The Loving Story, a documentary about the court decision that overturned America’s anti-miscegenation laws; but even if we didn’t know any history, we couldn’t imagine any outcome other than the triumph of decency over blunt bigotry.

Richard Loving, a crew-cut white man, not much inclined to conversation, and Mildred Jeter, a polite woman of mixed black and American Indian heritage, lived in rural Caroline County, Virginia. They fell in love, and in 1958 they were married in the District of Columbia. Upon returning home, they were arrested by the sheriff and charged with the felony of interracial marriage. They were sentenced to a year in prison, but the sentence was suspended for 25 years provided they leave the state. After several frustrating years living in Washington, they wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their situation; he referred them to the ACLU, where attorneys agreed to appeal their case. In April 1967 the case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and on June 12 the Court ruled unanimously that race-based restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional.

The documentary follows the Ken Burns model, with chronological storytelling and crisp section cards to keep the viewer on track. There was plenty of archival footage to draw upon–the case made national news when the couple were first arrested. The soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on mood-setting music; I could have done without the banjos underscoring an early man-on-the-street news interview. But the true good fortune of the filmmakers is the couple at the center of the story. The Lovings had just enough steel in them to continue to oppose this bad law, while at the same time they gently showed how much they belonged together, still holding hands after several years of marriage. No one else could have made Virginia’s law look more absurd.

The Loving Story (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Nancy Buirski
Written by Nancy Buirski and Susie Ruth Powell
Running time: 77 minutes
DVD release date: May 21, 2013

House Arrest

It was inevitable that Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and provocateur, would run afoul of his government, and in early 2011 he was grabbed and held incommunicado by the authorities for 81 days. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry documented his early career, ending with his release from captivity in June.

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case picks up where the earlier documentary left off, with a badly shaken Ai looking to recover in private. He is out on bail, severely restricted in his activities and fighting a trumped-up charge of tax evasion. Gradually he recovers his strength and his nerve, puckishly probing the limits of what his monitors will tolerate. The film follows for the year starting with his release, after which his travel restrictions are loosened.

I called him a provocateur, but that is an incomplete picture; more and more, he is a political activist, spurred especially by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and then his own arrest in 2011, fighting for freedom and accountability.

The second documentary is less eventful and personal than the first, but its account of a world-famous activist under the close scrutiny of tyrants makes it worth a watch.

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Andreas Johnsen
Languages: English, Mandarin
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: January 6, 2015

The American Dream in a “Shitty-Ass Place”

When the fracking boom hit North Dakota a few years ago, a flood of hopeful oilfield workers converged on the remote, dreary town of Williston, which had precious little available housing. Some of those applicants found jobs, unpleasant-looking work that paid well. Successful or not, many of the outsiders lived in their cars, and many of those without cars found refuge in a local Lutheran church. Thus the setting of the documentary, The Overnighters.

Pastor Jay Reinke is the main character here, host and shepherd to an adopted flock of last-hopers. He takes the mission of Christian charity very much to heart; plus, his own sense of brokenness bonds him with the out-of-towners, many of whom are fighting their own demons. But the townspeople, prompted by an inflammatory local newspaper, work up a lather of fear over the strangers in their midst.

The film is an emotional ride, playing out much like a narrative film (although there is a final-reel twist that is too sudden and ill-timed to fit into a fictional story). It examines the desperation of the marginal and the nervous xenophobia of the shaky middle class, with a strain of America’s fixation on sex thrown in for good measure. It asks worthwhile questions, and honors their complexity by not answering them.

The Overnighters (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Jesse Moss
Running time: 101 minutes
DVD release date: February 3, 2015

* * *

I had every expectation of loving The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary on Aaron Swartz, the Silicon Valley enterpreneur who took his own life at age 26. A computer prodigy, he made his fortune as one of the founders of Reddit. This allowed him to devote himself to improving the world through technology. One of his ideas was a free encyclopedia, edited by lay people (an inspiration remarkably close to Wikipedia); another of his causes was to make public information more readily available. In particular, he wanted to free up court records and academic articles, which he found to be locked up by monopolies behind expensive paywalls. His hacking into the academic system brought him to the attention of a federal prosecutor, who appears to have concluded that a brutal public hanging might be just the thing to discourage other hackers. The assault by this zealot may have driven Swartz to kill himself.

It’s a gripping story, but two aspects of the film’s tone turned me off. First, the movie is bathed in sentiment, with an extensive segment devoted to home movies of Swartz as a precious, precocious widdle boy, and a reliance on the narrative voice of his two brothers throughout. Second, and even more off-putting, is the overbearing score. Much of the story is fascinating, but even if you’re not paying attention, the score will tell you exactly what you should be feeling at all times. Ugh.

“I Whistle a Happy Tune”

Happy, Happy starts with a family–Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy)–driving through a Norwegian snowscape to a country home they will be renting. The owners live next door: Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) and Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen); they also have a son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø). Kaja greets the couple with so much warmth and such a broad smile that you wonder if she is (a) deceitful, (b) simple, or (c) in denial of something. For a few moments it appears the answer is (b), but with further exposure you realize she is massively insecure, and she is bullied by her husband and son.

But Kaja isn’t the only one in hiding. Elisabeth and Sigve haven’t quite dealt with an infidelity that prompted them to move away from the city in the first place, and Eirik has his own painful secret. As the two couples get to know one another, the happy masks slip off.

All of this denial and deceit is corrosive, but honesty doesn’t necessarily win the prize either. One character’s “honest” confession can only be seen as an act of cruel indifference. And the two boys, lacking adult social filters, play an ongoing innocent game of slave and master (Noe is from Ethiopia) that makes one queasy.

In fact there are lots of cringes in the watching of this film, as characters do bad things or have bad things done to them; but they show that the characters are drawn well enough that we identify with them. Eventually all this shattering of facades leads to an ending that is reasonable and satisfying.

Happy, Happy (reviews)
Directed by Anne Sewitsky
Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll, Mette M. Bølstad, and Anne Sewitsky
Language: Norwegian, with bits of Danish, German, and English
Running time: 88 minutes
Award: Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema–Dramatic, 2011 Sundance Film Festival
DVD release date: January 24, 2012

In the Bleak Larraín

Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem is a progression from gloom to despair; anyone looking for rainbows and happy smiles had better keep hunting. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is a funcionario (as he repeatedly describes himself) at a city morgue in Chile; he takes down the coroner’s dictated examination notes and enters them onto the proper form. Morose and awkward, he lives near a burlesque dancer, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), in whom he takes a romantic interest. But there is a greater drama underway: The democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, is being overthrown by the military, who are also rounding up and killing Communists and socialists. Members of Nancy’s family are among the potential targets, and Nancy goes missing. Corpses are brought into the morgue by the cartful, and examinations are simplified into the counting of bullet wounds.

The film’s colors are muted throughout, and the camera is generally still (using a very wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio), with long–almost overlong–takes. As the coup progresses, the buildup of horror is strongly conveyed, with almost the entire story seen as witnessed by Mario. This film gets under your skin and keeps digging.

Post Mortem (reviews)
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Pablo Larraín and Matteo Iribarren
Language: Spanish
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: August 24, 2012