Vision Of History Is It Anyway?
Sundance ended as
it started for me... with Brett Morgan. It started with his film,
Chicago 10, on opening night and ended with a chat over orange
juice in The Eating Establishment. (It's funny how we all develop our
Sundance habits... I am a Morning Ray person, Brett, apparently, an
Eating Establishment guy.)
My Brett Dance began
on opening night, when I ran into him at his film's party for just long
enough not to discuss what I thought of his film. (One ever-funny journo
walked away as we met, worried that he might witness me degradingly
squirming in the pursuit of being nice. It didn't happen.) But when
we got a chance to sit down, he, not unexpectedly, had a lot to say
about what his intentions were and how they were misunderstood. One
interesting detail was that after Opening Night, his pre-screening comments
included a clearer note to the audience that they should be ready for
an acid-trip of a film and that they should feel free to laugh. The
response to the film in each of those subsequent screenings was, he
felt, much better than Opening.
I kind of wish I
had written the following before sitting down with him, because it happened
before then, but the truth is, in spite of all of my issues with the
film, I have to admit that I ran into an awful lot of people, from teenagers
to rather smart adults, who loved the film... each of them previously
unaware of the story of the Chicago 7/10. And the most virulent critics
of the film were those who have strong memories of that period. (In
that group I include myself.)
But the answer to
all of this from Brett was clear... it was his intention to reconsider
history, not repeat it in yet another journalistic doc. He didn't say
as much, but I got the impression that the trial itself became a bit
of a yoke around his movie's neck, though he quite likes his Cliff Notes
version of it... more the Abbie Notes, since it is Hoffman's energy
that so dominates the film and especially the trial. The goal was to
recreate the energy of the moment and not the detail.
And I am all for
that. I believe in POV Doc and I love the idea of reconsidering a historic
moment in time from a new point of view.
A big part of what
made the film so hard to swallow is that we/I knew so much going in.
Here it is, the opening night at Sundance, a doc from an acclaimed documentarian,
a very specific trial, and it felt like a cartoon layover on history
to no great end. (By the way, the film was done in motion capture, not
rotoscope like Waking Life.) But I think from Mr. Morgan's perspective,
the history was a layover on the cartoon.
It also seems there
was some conflict internally on just how far to take the film. Morgan
offered some possible variations on how the film might otherwise have
started... variations that would signal the audience not to expect anything
remotely conventional or traditionally narrative. And I hope that he
puts these ideas into the film before I next see it on release. One
should not have to chat with the director to know what he was up to.
He also mentioned
how much he would have preferred that the first audiences seeking the
film had no idea there was animation involved. And I think his instinct
there is exactly right. Had the animation been a surprise, it probably
would have made the "this is something different" message
more clearly as it would have been so shocking.
The issue involved
is pretty basic to a lot of film... what does thing film tell you about
its intent and how much should that matter to the audience?
At Sundance this
year, this was also an issue with Nanking (westerners as heroes
in a Chinese/Japanese conflict), Hounddog (how successful artistically
does the on-screen rape and objectification of an 11-year-old have to
be to be art instead of exploitation?), Teeth (is a man's vagina
dental fantasy comedy feminist or misogynist?), Zoo (does the
film exploit a sexual deviance, condone it, mock it?), etc, etc, etc.
The genius of Brett
Morgan and Nanette Burstein's Bob Evan doc, The
Kid Stays In The Picture, was its absolute lack of objectivity.
The lack of objectivity created an objectivity, which is to say that
it was so direct about the fact that Evans could be spinning anything
at anytime, that it became about that personality flaw/fun and so informed
the audience in a way words never could. You were charmed and yet, not
terribly trusting throughout.
Here, the thing
that seems to have stood in the way of Morgan's intention is only restraint.
A pastiche of images, ideas, words, characters, and history could be
very, very cool. It could, indeed, speak more effectively of the past
to a new generation. I can imagine it based on what I saw in the film.
If Brett Morgan
goes back into the editing room as swings as freely as the ideas he
seems to have, I imagine it will.