For whatever reason, singer/songwriters are always applauded for being ‘truthful’ in their work: honesty, authenticity, and heartfelt confessions about private lives are often more valued than engaging music. In contrast, actors and filmmakers live their entire lives underneath a veneer of artifice, an essential element of cinema even in documentary. Yet, nearly all of the most acclaimed songwriters are constructions of artifice too; how many know the real Bob Dylan or Tom Waits behind the constructed persona? What is a truly great acting performance without a degree of honesty? In 20,000 Days on Earth, a quasi-documentary about Nick Cave, directors Ian Forysth and Jane Pollard have both understood that inherent contradiction (as has their subject), and have crafted a film around it. By revealing very little biographical detail and instead exploring his persona, the film gets a damn sight deeper into the inside of Nick Cave’s head than any standard biographical documentary has done for its subjects in the last decade or so.
One day, a man passing himself off as renowned Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf managed to earn the trust of a well-off family and convince them he was considering shooting a film in their house, with the family as actors. On being discovered, he was arrested for fraud. When Abbas Kiarostami heard about this case, he managed to convince the family, the man, the judge, and even Makhmalbaf himself into taking part in a re-enactment/surreal fictionalisation of events. Close-Up emerges as not simply a film about a strange case that occurred in Tehran one day, but a film that strikes at the very heart of the power of cinema through the curious, wounded figure pretending to be Makhmalbaf at its heart. A truly unique, powerful, subtle, and lovely work.
Video Art: films made by people who were too rubbish to make real films.
Two Years at Sea: a film made by someone who managed to avoid being tainted with the awful tag video art and thus managed some discreet level of distribution in which the film went to cinemas and received a audience, no matter how small. Presumably this audience intended to see it. Hell I intended to see it. Fuck me I’m an idiot.
Well, I’m not that much of an idiot. I’m pretty sure I saw through this film’s bullshit. If it is a film. I don’t know. Is 90 minutes of an old man wandering around the Scottish wilds doing fuck-all a film? I’m pretty sure that’s video art. Why wasn’t this in the Tate Modern alongside a banana peel someone accidentally dropped and wrote about in the Guardian? I can just about picture the director Ben Rivers now. I imagine he lives in some scraggly flat in London; Shoreditch or Hackney or something or other. He drinks craft beer which costs £6 a pint because he enjoys it, but his tastebuds are burnt out because of all the boiling hot crap he talks, and the twat who makes the £6 beer has no fucking clue how to make beer, but he has a beard so its presumed he knows what he’s doing. Y’know, when I eat corn and it passes through my system and I shit it out, staring at the corn in my poop provides a more entertaining viewing experience than this film. At least I can poke it with a stick and see if it’s alive, or marvel at the inefficiency of my stomach.
Do you think I’m over-exaggerating? I’m not. There is no film here. This is 90 minutes of a man walking around the wilds of Scotland. Yes, I suppose it’s pretty, but it’s not hard to point a camera at a mountain and go “oh look, isn’t that nice?” Naturally, because digital is the medium of philistines, Two Years at Sea was filmed on real film, and not just any real film but 16mm film! Yes, the really small one, just to get that proper vintage, worn-out look, and to do it the hard way. That’s how you know the director is serious. He doesn’t just add the sepia filter to his Instagram photos. He actually takes them on real cameras with black-and-white stock, develops them in his darkroom, then scans them into his computer and then he puts them on Instagram, like an authentic person.
The saddest thing is that there are positive reviews of this film by critics and people I respect. They talk of a “deep mediation on the nature of isolation”. There is a skill to making films in the vein of Two Years at Sea, which I suppose you can label as ‘drone cinema’. Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr is a master of it, with his ultra-long, ultra-slow films like the 7-hour-plus Satantango and the shorter but no less brilliant The Turin Horse. His films are fiction, but in the world of documentaries we also have the brilliant Leviathan from 2012, a superb work shot with tiny handheld cameras. There is no dialogue, just extreme close-ups of life on an industrial fishing trawler. That film is such a unique cinematic experience because it is active in its passivity. You feel the force and thunder of life upon the boat, the clanking of metal, the squirming of fish, the loneliness of it all. In Two Years at Sea we get a 15 minute unbroken shot of Jake Williams, the isolated individual at the heart of the film, lying down on a small raft in a lake and not moving at all. We also get a 10-minute shot of him simply staring into a fire which I fast forwarded because I have a life to get on with. There is no film here. There is no message. There is nothing.
I presume Ben Rivers or Jake Williams aren’t actually that bad or anything but I still can’t get over how bad, boring, and utterly pointless Two Years at Sea is.
Peter Watkins’ The War Game, made in 1965 and banned from television viewing on the BBC for 20 years, is a more horrifying film than most horrors. Though the film is less than 50 minutes long, it uses every minute to brilliant effect in an attempt to predict what would happen to Britain in the event of a nuclear attack. Severe radiation poisoning, mental trauma, societal breakdown, and many dead bodies paint a terrifying picture of the potential destruction wreaked by nuclear war, and the grainy documentary-style staging of such events combined with the lack of music ensures that the coldness of such a future is put across with full force.