Saturday, May 30, 2009
Originally published in the April issue of SOMA
Break on Through to the Other Side
Text Jesi Khadivi
Tom DeCillo has never made a documentary film before. The New York based director, who gave Brad Pitt his first leading role in the film Johnny Suede back in 1991, generally leans towards dreamy, darkly comedic filmmaking. Genre jumping is no easy feat and directing a film about The Doors, one of the most beloved rock bands in America, is a baptism by fire. DeCillo has emerged unscathed, however, presenting a fascinating look at the men behind the music, comprised entirely of archival footage and excerpts from Jim Morrison’s little seen feature film, Highway. “I wanted to make the film without talking heads,” DeCillo explained, “sitting in the editing room for months looking at this footage, I felt like I was truly experiencing The Doors and I wanted the audience to share that direct experience.” DeCillo spoke with SOMA via telephone from New York City about his new film and the respective challenges of narrative and documentary filmmaking. When You’re Strange was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and played to a packed house at the Berlinale in Germany. Since the film’s premiere on the festival circuit, Johnny Depp has signed on to do narration.
Where did Morrison’s Film Footage Come From?
Morrison went to UCLA film school back in 1965. He loved film, but his sense of it completely experimental and free form. Years after leaving film school and well after he joined the Doors, Morrison got some money together and went out into the desert with some old classmates from UCLA and a 35mm camera to shoot a short feature called Highway, based on a script that he wrote. What I loved about the film is how it portrayed a mythological loner figure wandering through the American landscape. Most people cannot believe that it’s Jim Morrison. We had a bizarre reaction to the film at Sundance. One distributor got up in outrage after and stormed out because he was convinced we used an actor.
Did he receive any recognition for the film within his lifetime?
Morrison was very proud of Highway and had real aspirations to be a film maker.
He went to two film festivals with it, but it was not very well received. Highway is a difficult film. As specific as Morrison with his music and the image he created, he did not quite understand that the same need applies to the visual medium. The film is like an extended tone poem that doesn’t make much sense, but I respect his effort. It’s the film he wanted to make.
Did you encounter any sour grapes or any resistance to telling the story of the Doors? Many former band members of these 60s bands are very bitter about their leaders stealing the spotlight and they resolutely want to avoid perpetuating their myth.
Each of the remaining band members had a different thing that they wanted to make clear and I had to honor that, but Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robby Krieger all effortessly praised Jim Morrison as a great friend and had no resentment for him in any way. That being said, I didn’t want the band meddling or editorializing what I was doing. There is a possessiveness about the story that bugged me a little bit. One of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the past ten years is Some Kind Of Monster, about Metallica. They hire a shrink because the band is falling apart. I didn’t want to just make a puff piece about The Doors
It seems rare for an LA band in that era to praise each other as you describe, especially a flamboyant figure like Morrison. It was stereotypically the San Francisco bands who lived together and played together while the LA bands got together only to play gigs and fight.
Morrison was addicted to jumping out into the void and not knowing where he would end up. The group was an amazing safety net for him. They allowed him to go out into outer space and always have a place to land. I think they really cherished each other.
There were times when they got famous that the announcer at a gig would introduce them “Jim Morrison and the Doors” and Jim would get so angry that he would refuse to go on and would make the announcer reintroduce them as The Doors.
Your films Johnny Suede and Delirious feature performances by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello. Did working with musicians in your narrative film making influence your decision to work on a musical documentary?
I have a great love of music. The combination of music and the moving image is an incredibly powerful mixture. Nick Cave was in Kreuzberg living with my friend, who was in a German punk band named Die Haut. He had read my script because it was sitting on my friend’s table and he called me saying that he’d like to be in my movies. He had a larger than life presence that many serious actors never quite attain. The same goes for Elvis Costello.
Do you find that there are any parallels between your narrative film making and documentary film making?
I like the documentary film, but I’ve always been drawn to the documentaries that resist categorization, like Errol Morris. They have a mystery to them, a slightly surreal quality that isn’t just a presentation of fact. I discovered early on that the best thing for me to do that would help me artistically was to think of the film as a narrative feature with an epic angle. It is ultimately a tragic story. I don’t mean that in a depressing way, but every one knows what happened to Jim Morrison. A lot of my films feature characters that are struggling to understand something about themselves.
Can you speak at all to the respective challenges of documentaries versus narrative film making?
There was a sense of relief that I didn’t need to exhaust myself trying to eke out performances that were crucial to the success of the film. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with actors like Catherine Keener and Steve Buscemi, who relieve that pressure a little bit, but it can be quite difficult.
While the footage was a given, there were moments of terror trying to tell a story with a dramatic arc: surprise, revelation, joy, all of the things that go into a real film. I didn’t want to paraphrase everything that I had read about The Doors. I needed to find something truthful in it, my own perspective. Ultimately, I came to the realization that I just wanted to show the band as human beings. The footage of Jim Morrison just laughing at times or being like a young boy is, to me, one of the most beautiful moments in the film.
originally published in the April issue of SOMA
Open Rights Group: The Big Picture of Big Brother
By Jesi Khadivi
In the wake of 9/11 and the wave of civil liberties violations that followed, ordinary citizens around the world have become accustomed to being viewed as guilty until innocent. Airports, bridges and monuments quickly become proving grounds of innocence when a slip of the tongue, snap shot, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is construed as a dangerous activity. This system of surveillance and the performative gestures it inspires quickly spread to more intimate places, like telephone conversations and internet searches. While some view surveillance as an unfortunate, but necessary step in protecting other freedoms, an increasing number of concerned citizens are not willing to sacrifice their privacy to participate in the theater of innocence, claiming such violations damage the very fabric of democracy.
Citizens around the world celebrated Freedom Not Fear Day last October, a day of peaceful protest intended to counter some of the challenges facing democracy today. The response was especially spirited in England, a country where there is one CCTV camera for every 14 citizens according to the BBC. Londoners gathered beneath a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament square to unveil a 4m x 5m collage comprised of UK surveillance images citizens uploaded to the website of the Open Rights Group, a grass roots technology collective dedicated to protecting an often over looked area of civil liberties, digital rights. Thumbnail surveillance photos coalesced to form an enormous portrait of UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, against a background of barbed wire and double helices. The Open Rights Group says, “Our message was clear: although as individuals we only see incremental invasions of our privacy, put together, these creeping changes constitute a wholesale shift towards a society predicated not on freedom, but on fear.”
originally published in the March issue of SOMA
European Highlights from the Berlinale
By Jesi Khadivi
The usually tame Potsdamer Platz came alive when journalists, film executives, international a-listers and movie lovers descended upon Berlin’s postmodern quadrangle of hotels and movie theaters from February 5th through the 15th for the 59th annual Berlinale, one of Europe’s longest running international film festivals. While Berlin’s grey skies and frigid temperatures don’t leave much room for glamour (some stars were actually shivering on the red carpet), the festival is an industry favorite because the breadth of its competition films range from quirkily salable films like Mitchell Lichtenstein’s family drama Happy Teeth, starring Demi Moore and Parker Posey to films like Katalin Varga, a sumptuously shot revenge film set in the Carpathian mountains by British, Budapest-based director, Peter Strickland,. Although Hollywood favorites like Michelle Pfeiffer, Blake Lively, Renée Zellweger, Steve Martin, Gael García Bernal all walked the red carpet, the Berlinale provides a forum for international cinema that is less Hollywood-centric and swag oriented than Sundance and more manageable than Cannes. Keeping with the spirit of the festival, I offer my top four European film picks.
4) Hilde (Kai Wessel)
The disarmingly beautiful Hildegard Knef went to acting school as a teenager during World War II, had a romantic entanglement with a Nazi official and fought against the Russians to remain by his side, married a Jewish American solider after the war, and (with different lovers in between) went on to make fifty feature films and record 23 albums. Kai Wessel’s film delivers a portrait of a talented and complicated individual with a level of artfulness few biopics ever achieve.
3) An Education (Lone Scherfig)
Sixteen year old Jenny sneaks Gauloises and sings along to French records trying to escape from the dullness of her tweedy prep-school-life. A bigger distraction comes from a charming older man who whisks her away from Twickenham and cello lessons to art auctions, horse races, and a Paris vacation that changes her life.
2) Alle Anderen (Maren Ade)
Maren Ade’s sophomore effort chronicles the fall out of a couples’ Saturn Return. While vacationing in Sardinia, the idiosyncratic lovers are grapple with their respective uneasiness about identity, success, aging, gender and social codes. The result is a hilarious, yet deeply felt journey into the heart of the 20s and all its discontents.
1) Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland)
Strickland captivates with a sparely elegant story about a woman who sets out on horseback seeking revenge for a crime that occurred 11 years prior. Mark Gyori’s camera conjures a primordial atmosphere for a timeless story to unfold. An impressive and intelligent debut.
originally published in the May issue of Dazed and Confused
By Jesi Khadivi
The moral landscape mirrors the physical in Katalin Varga, a minimal and elegant revenge film shot in Transylvania’s Carpathian mountains. The plot is straight forward: Katalin was raped before the film’s action begins, resulting in the conception of her son Orbán. 11 years hence, her husband learns her secret and Katalin sets off on horseback, seeking vengeance. It’s a timeless tale, set in primordial landscape of rolling hills and dank mist. Inspired by Werner Herzog’s unsentimental view of nature, Greek born UK director, Peter Strickland, has crafted a gripping feature-length debut brimming with complexity, intelligence and ambiguity.
Although the project was five years in the making, actual shooting time was only seventeen days and Strickland’s budget was less than 30,000. The film was made with his own money and without any professional backing “The fear of failure was huge,” Strickland admits. Katalin Varga premiered to critical acclaim at the Berlinale Film Festival in February. However, critics looking for pat commentary on rape or Hungarian-Romanian tensions were frustrated to find few answers from a director more interested in exploring the twin themes of revenge and redemption.
“The idea of revenge is quite compelling,” first time director Peter Strickland told me in a Potsdamer Platz cafe , “There are no resolutions. Revenge is the one crime we can all relate to.” The recent popular resurgence of genre filmmaking confirms Strickland’s point; its explosive popularity is largely due to directors like Quentin Tarantino, whose Kill Bill films mash-up elements of martial arts, western and revenge films. “I wanted to take a pulp genre and transport it into another context,” Strickland says, “You don’t need to be Tarantino to do that.” As a pulp inspired film, Varga has little in common with Kill Bill. Revenge is rendered in broad strokes and explored through ideas of causality, redemption and forgiveness. Varga’s characters are more morally indeterminate than their pop-revenge films counterparts. Throughout the film, the boundaries between right and wrong and justice and injustice are continuously blurred. Like the best noir anti-heroes, Katalin and Antal, the man who raped her, have complicated, fractured psyches. Katalin has suffered a grave injustice, but is also a murder. Antal brutally raped Katalin, violating the sanctity of another human being, yet over the course of a decade he evolved into a sensitive man and a loving husband.
Though Strickland says the story could be told anywhere, its Transylvanian setting is inextricably linked to the film’s artistry. Strickland wisely chose a location capable of evoking the beauty and terror of personal and spiritual transformation. However, he’s careful to point out that the film’s themes are universal. “This could never be an authentic Transylvanian film,” he told reporters after the film’s premiere, “I’m English. I didn’t want to go the Kusturica route, which is a bit bombastic. I wanted to make something more like a ballad.”