Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Post In Which I Defend Dave Grohl and Sonic Highways

Lots of backlash directed towards Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways doc on HBO.  The complaints seem to be:  
a) The Foo Fighters suck. 
    b) Dave Grohl conflates his importance in rock history by placing himself next to   those more worthy of adoration (e.g. Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen,  Buddy Guy).  

c) This documentary project is a nothing more than a cloying, self-serving attempt to sell records.

I can’t get behind the backlash.  

Though I’m not a fan of the Foo Fighters, I actually have a lot of respect for Grohl.  This is a guy who seems genuinely humbled by the success he has had.  He seems to have a clear sense of where he’s from and who were seminal influences in his life.  He seems genuinely interested in shining a light on and paying his respects to those who paved the way for his success.

What this means, is that you have a national show on HBO where a decent amount of time is spent talking about post-punk, hardcore, and the American underground scene of the mid-80s.  Why people from that scene feel a need to trash talk Grohl seems nothing short of bizarre.

I’ve only watched two episodes of the series so far, but the Chicago episode spends lots of time giving Steve Albini his props and showcasing the likes of Naked Raygun.  Let me say that again.  Naked Raygun!  Naked Raygun, a band that for all intents and purposes is a footnote in rock history, not only gets a ton of exposure on an HBO show, but they are afforded the same respect as blues legends like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.

So, why are we made at Dave Grohl? Because he’s successful?  Because he’s taken a different path over the last 20 years than a bunch of crusty old punks who didn’t have his success?  Whatever.  I don’t have a beef.  He’s making a doc about rock history and he’s doing it from the perspective of someone my age, who has a similar set of musical touchstones.  These types of big historical rock docs have always had too much of a boomer perspective for my likes, and I’m excited to see such an undertaking crystallized through a punk rock lens.

Is this doc just a fatuous sell-job for the new Foo Fighters record? Maybe.  But what do I care?  Selling records ain’t what it used to be. If this is Grohl’s way to stay relevant and move units, so be it.  Why get mad at an artists for trying a different approach to stay in the public eye.

Like I said, I’ve only seen two episodes so far.  Will they all be decent?  Who knows.  But I hear he jams with Joe Walsh at some point.  I can’t wait.  Ya dig!

Citizen Four

I’ve been fascinated by the Edward Snowden case since it broke in 2013. Snowden revealed a bevvy of NSA documents, showing the government’s far-reaching surveillance abilities.  Particularly disconcerting was the government’s ability to access phone records and internet communications. Snowden became privy to NSA documents while working for the consulting firm of Booz Hamilton. Disturbed by what he perceived as a government overstepping its bounds, Snowden turned whistleblower.  

Citizen Four, directed by Laura Poitras, documents the days leading up to Snowden’s revelations and the aftermath.  Snowden was not interested in publishing the documents WikiLeaks-style for fear that he would reveal info that would jeopardize legitimate intelligent operations and individuals involved in such operations.  Instead, Snowden contacts Poitras, whose documentary work he respected, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill.  Working as a team, they decide the best way to release the information.

Snowden is not only cognizant of the havoc his revelations will unleash, but also understands the personal risks.  Not only will he be cut-off from friends and family, but he’ll face treason charges under the auspices of the Espionage Act.  The film opens with Snowden’s cat and mouse courting of Poitras.  We see and hear a series of email exchanges.  Dribs and drabs of heavily encrypted information flow between the two.  Poitras is sucked in and the team assembles in Hong Kong, where Snowden has taken refuge, aware that Hong Kong is unlikely to extradite Snowden once his allegations are revealed.

This section of the film is fascinating.  The film’s subjects are strangers, undertaking a damning project, rife with danger.  Watching the group strategizing is a fascinating process.  Once the documents are leaked, Snowden is forced underground and his journey takes him from Hong Kong to Moscow.  From this point on we rarely see Snowden, most of his communication now coming in the form of encrypted emails. Snowden’s disappearance certainly has a chilling effect.  He’s at the center of the storm, yet is effectively silenced by his precarious political standing.  He’s granted asylum in Moscow, but that asylum seems tenuous at best. 

The Snowden story is fascinating on many levels.  As digital citizens, I think it’s important that we are aware of who has access to our communications. I think it’s important that we understand our conversations are not private.  We live in a digital age where we live so much of our lives on-line. I have a middle schooler. My son and his friends will live their entire lives sharing information on-line.  Their digital footprint will be huge.  What will these intrusions on privacy mean to them?  

One of the central concerns at the core of the case is whether we should be willing to give up some of our civil liberties for increased safety against terrorism. The film certainly addresses this, but if I had a complaint about the movie, it’s that due to the film’s vérité nature, Citizen Four is sometimes hard to read.  Clearly Poitras, along with Snowden, believe that the government’s surveillance and obfuscation of justice is detrimental to free speech, and that has far-reaching, negative implications.  That critique was clear to me, but I don’t know if that critique will hit home to those who might be skeptical to this line of thinking.  

Any filmmaker that takes on a controversial subject should be aware that their film has skeptics. Presumably you want to win over those skeptics, get them to change their opinions on a hot-button issue. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted. Many people watching this doc are probably anti-Snowden, anti-whistleblower, and fear terrorist attacks to the point that they would be willing to give up a certain level of privacy to prevent future attacks.  I’m not sure Citizen Four’s approach is enough to get them to change their opinions.  I return to my middle-schooler.  He’s not doing anything treasonous on-line.  Why should he care if the government has access to his email?  What are they going to find out?  That he’s mad at his math teacher?  I walked into Citizen Four thinking that this film would need to be required viewing for any young person navigating today’s digital landscape.  But I’m not sure that your average teen would be able to fully understand the socio-political critique. I wanted Citizen Four to have the impact of An Inconvenient Truth.  Direct and chilling.  Citizen Four doesn’t quite deliver in that way.  That’s not how it’s designed, but I wish it had been.

Still, it’s a must see.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Birdman, Leviathan, The Big Screen

There’s nothing like seeing an amazing moving.  Nothing like sitting in a dark theater, immersed into another world.  Images, sounds and words, pushing you farther and farther back in your seat.  Or pulling you to the front of your seat.  Someone’s visions burning bright. Seeing that brilliance unfold before you.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing some mediocre piece of crap.  How many people did it take to make that?

Last week I saw two great films.  Two in one week, that’s pretty good.  Renews your faith in the cinema.

Birdman.  Brilliant.  The Writing. The Camerawork. The Acting. The Score.  A drum score!!!! Wow. Who would have thought of that?  The acting! Everyone is talking about Michael Keaton.  He’s great.  Deserving of all the praise. But how about Edward Norton? Steals the show. The camerawork is insane.  It’s no gimmick.  It creates a dizzying universe, a world spiraling out of control.  Camerawork that throws caution to the wind, necessitates fearless performances from the actors.   A universe where editing won’t save you or hide subpar moments.  The writing.  I was letting out the occasional belly laugh…while the rest of the audience remained silent.  So many great lines.  One of the best films ever about artistic ambition and artistic insecurity.  Mamet-esque. Altman-esque. PT Andersen-esque. Gilliam-esque.

I worry about a world without theaters.  A world where we only see movies on our tvs and our devices.  Some movies need a big screen, better allowing you to sink deep into the images.  On the small screen it’s too easy to get distracted, especially if the movie is slow or challenging.  In the theater, you’re not going anywhere.  You’re not checking your phone. You’re not logging onto IMDB to see who that bit player is, or what the running time of the movie is, or what the reviewers are saying.  You’re in the theater. You have no choice but to surrender. 

Which bring me to Leviathan.  A doc.  On a fishing boat. Poetic. Experimental. Vérité. No interviews.  Nary a word.  Just beautiful visuals. Abstract visuals. Very long shots. Very, very long shots. Long shots that are hard to read.  Water on the lens. Distorting the images.  Lots of sound.  An industrial score. A mechanical score.  Cold. Menacing.  Brutality on the sea.  A critique? A reflection of life as it is?  However you interpret it, I found it fascinating. Energetic. Daring.  Would I have lasted through the first shot, had I been watching it on tv, at home?  I’m not sure. But in the darkened theater, on the big screen, I was mesmerized.