Wednesday 24 June 2015

That Sugar Film

It’s impossible to watch That Sugar Film and not think of Supersize Me as an obvious progenitor and reference point.

Both are documentaries that see their director subject himself to a different diet for a period in order to chart the effects this has on his physical and emotional well being.

This said, there are sufficient differences between the two films to allow for the existence of both. In Supersize Me Morgan Spurlock took it upon himself to eat only at McDonalds and to always take the Supersize option if it were offered to him. As such he was taking in a lot more calories than he had under his pre-film diet. Here Damon Gameau, who had previously switched to a diet free from added and processed sugars, takes it upon himself to consume the same quantity of these as the average Australian. As such he takes in the same amount of calories as he had before, but just shifts the proportions of fats and sugars in particular.

If neither man’s new diet is one that the nutritional and other experts they respectively interview would recommend, Gameau’s is arguably more in line with dominant discourses. The film’s contention is that due to the debate over whether sugar or fat in the diet is (more) harmful having been won by the former lobby fats were removed from processed foods and replaced with sugars.

This leads on to another couple of points of differentiation. That Sugar Film goes into the science of food a bit more than Supersize Me, and increasingly brings in other voices besides the filmmaker’s.
So, for instance, Gameau visits an aboriginal community which began with its inhabitants following a traditional diet and then saw the introduction of western processed foods; as he community was alcohol-free changes in morbidity could not be explained away using that framework.

The science aspects are presented, like the rest of the film, in a light, breezy and undeniably slick way. This all keeps the film accessible, but also possibly a touch light on fibre.

Makeup Room

Makeup Room presents a classical unity of time, space and action, of one day behind the scenes on the shooting of a Japanese adult video (JAV).

The backstage aspect is important: though there are a number of (female) AV performers playing the roles of AV performers Makeup Room is not itself an AV. All of the filming of the sex scenes occurs off screen such that what’s said and heard, including discussions of rape and incest scenes, is more pornographic than what is seen, which amount to a few, naturalistic, flashes of breasts and buttocks.

Most of the comedy is based around the premise that anything which can go wrong will. If it is necessarily exaggerated it also comes across as having groundings in the experiences of the filmmakers.

So, for example, the performer cast in the Lolita/schoolgirl role did not anticipate having so many lines to learn for the part. She and the performer cast as the mother, who has considerably fewer lines, have been made up and costumed for their roles when the matter of the schoolgirl’s having a tattoo comes up. It turns out to be a back-piece impossible to conceal with makeup, such that the performers have to swap roles, appearances and costumes – the last of which, of course, don’t fit...

Or then there’s one performer having unknowingly been cast for a ‘lesbian’ scene and being reluctant to have her long fingernails cut seeing as she’s just spent several thousand Yen having them done. Her partner for the scene is correspondingly reluctant to be fingered by those nails...

The performers and, through this, the director’s handling impress.

Even if the film is maybe slightly over-long you also feel that this is deliberate, thought and worked through. A powerful dramatic scene between the makeup artist and one of the AV performers felt like a natural point of climax, but is followed afterwards by an anticlimactic coda as the community that has come together over the course of the day dissolves itself. Just another day at the orifice for most of those involved.

Friday 19 June 2015

Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD

No film or book should ever be described as the story or history of its subject, whether as a title or a subtitle. There is not The Story of Film, nor The Story of 2000 AD. Rather there are stories, histories, accounts, necessarily incomplete and intentionally or unintentionally biased.

One demonstration of this here is the absence of Alan Moore as one of the interviewees. His presence is felt, perhaps as a structuring absence, through comments from others, including his daughter Leah Moore and Neil Gaiman, on The Ballad of Halo Jones in particular.

Another, which makes Moore’s absent presence that bit more surprising, is that the filmmakers provide others associated with the comic plenty of scope to be critical of others, of one another and of themselves.

This, crucially, is in line with the anti-authoritarian mindset typical (or presented as such) of 2000 AD’s writers and artists. An irony here is that 2000 AD is shown as coming from the banning of its predecessor Action, whose mistake was to present its anti-authoritarianism in a contemporary rather than science fiction/fantasy guise. (Here I’d hope that in an extended DVD version Martin Barker was included amongst the academic commentators and that Battle's Charley’s War was mentioned.)

The most important question for 2000 AD’s creatives is presented as one of recognition. For whatever reasons -- likely worthy of a documentary in their own right -- most of those working in the comics industry were historically not acknowledged as the authors or given the rights according with this designation.

2000AD’s crediting of its creatives proved a triple-edged sword. For the creatives it meant the ability to move onwards and upwards to the USA, Marvel and DC if they wanted to. For the comic it meant talent increasingly using it as a stepping stone towards greater audiences and remuneration. For comics, especially in the US, it meant a greater breadth. (The influence of Japanese comics on 2000 AD, and/or vice-versa, if there are such, are not mentioned.)

The critical theme, and self-criticism, re-emerge. (In the spirit of self-criticism I don’t know if there is a chibi Dredd, say, but would like to.) One of 2000AD’s, and the comics industry’s failings, is given as the masculine focus. Halo Jones excepted the other key characters from the early days discussed -- Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Rogue Trooper, Johnny Alpha -- are male.

So too, however, do the limits of the critique: the 1995 Judge Dredd film is bad, the 2012 film good. Rebellion Developments, the current owners of the brand, are good.

Overall, though, a good documentary -- if you were not around in 2000 AD’s first decade you’ll likely learn something and, if like me, you weren’t around for much after that, you’ll likely also do so.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Remake, Remix, Rip-Off

This German documentary on Turkish popular cinema impresses in many ways, from the number of behind and before the camera personnel interviewed and allowed to speak for themselves by the self-effacing filmmakers in this age of the celebrity documentarian; the insightful remarks of well-selected academics, critics and fans; the wider context given and, above all, the number of films cited and expertly edited together.

The narrative begins with a number of luminaries from the Turkish popular cinema of the 1960s through 1980s commenting upon the finite number of plots that exist. They disagree on the exact number but together set up the titular three-R’s approach as inevitable and universal. There’s nothing new under the sun, indeed, though together those three R’s lead to others -- recombination, reinterpretation, reinvigoration, reflexivity -- when considered through an industry making 300 films a year on extremely tight schedules and low budgets.

What does it mean to watch a Turkish version of The Exorcist, Seytan, for instance, when the religious context is that of Islam rather than Christianity? Or Dracula in Istanbul, when there is the historical context of the Ottoman Empire and the Romanian Vlad Dracul? Or a superhero romp in which Spiderman, albeit in a green and purple costume, is a sadistic killer? Clearly in each case it’s going to be a very different experience from what the viewer is used to.

This said, there are plenty of reference points outside the hegemonic frameworks of Hollywood popular cinema and European/World art cinemas, with Bollywood, Italy, and Hong Kong being three that immediately come to mind.

The elements that suggest themselves, in varying quantities, from these reference points include the importance of the family film, of melodrama, and of pleasing the audience, and the unimportance of elite critics and copyright.

The discussions of the material realities of film-making in Turkey even into the 1970s are fascinating. Filmmakers did not have daily rushes and would instead only see what had been filmed after shooting had concluded. Film stock was in short supply, often only allowing for a one shot/take approach. If a filmmaker was supplied with 30 reels for each of five films, he might well opt to use 25 reels to enable him to make six films. If stock was bought on the black market it was liable to have different chemical characteristics, making colour matching an unpredictable business. Cinematographers rarely had filters to compensate for these vagaries and might improvise by using coloured gels derived from sweets -- which would then tend to melt under the heat from the lights.

In sum, improvisation was the name of the game with the real triumph that of actually being able to get films made full stop. Or, rather, not just to get films made, but also made without regular fatalities when untrained stars were generally performing their own stunts.

Though both a great introduction to Turkish popular cinema and a valuable guide for future viewing for those who’ve already seen some of the better known examples, such as Turkish Star Wars/Rambo/Star Trek/Wizard of Oz, there were a few niggles.

The dates given occasionally seemed off. For example there are clips from what is identified as a version of Dillinger, credited as 1971. The clips are also used an illustration of another important aspect of the Turkish approach, namely the re-use of existing scores, in this case that for The Godfather. However the Godfather wasn’t released until 1972 and John Milius’s Dillinger until 1973.

The discussion of how the political situation impacted Turkish filmmakers was a bit confusing. Though this could well be a consequence of the 1960s through early 1980s seeing a series of military coups and re-esablishments of civilian government, beginning this part of the narrative with the 1980 coup probably didn’t help.

Still, any film that can supply you with the frisson of Enter the Dragon’s John Saxon being mistaken for Kriminal’s Glenn Saxson, only for the interviewee to correct himself and the filmmakers happily including this, cannot but be considered a must see, if you know what I mean...