It has been a while since I had my official space here for film criticism since it’s been kind of a stretch to even get one column out of me and, after all, who really cares what I think? But if you recall any of my past accounts of excursions into the back of a theater, you will note that I did my best not to reveal key elements of plot and essentials of surprise so as not to dampen one’s viewing experience. These days around here, if one utters the words “spoiler alert”, it is generally because a vehicular rear wind directive device has been spotted whilst driving about, and all attempts are then made to grab the phone or other visual recording device so as to capture a photo and send it along to one of Wendy’s friends, who for some reason has an ever-expanding collection that puts on display the excesses of automobile aerodynamic accessorizing.
I would like to also mention that something along these lines has been firmly implanted in the back of my mind, along side of all those other dusty warning signs that hang out there, and that is the memory of a friend of mine from years and years past who went to see the first Planet of the Apes when it first came out (now you know how many decades ago we are talking here). For those who have lost the thread of where that was heading, we are back to talking about movie spoilers. My friend told me how cool Planet of the Apes was and all, and I don’t recall all that he expanded upon in those exclamations. But I do remember that he told me what Charlton Heston found on the beach at the end of the film. And since I hadn’t seen the film yet, the big reveal at the end was no longer big at all when I finally saw it a few weeks later. In fact, because the ending was no big secret for me throughout the entirety of the film, the grand reveal seemed like a bit of ole Charlton overacting again, instead of containing the gut punch to your reality that the film hoped to deliver, before one is allowed to step back outside into the light of the live-a-day world.
I didn’t hate my friend because of that. It just colored my perception of how one should talk about films. As it was, I also remember that my friend was big into making Super 8 movies in his basement. One in particular comes to mind that had flying saucers coming in on strings above his HO train set and setting things on fire- things that did not include their house. It turns out that he went on to run a big film company in Atlanta, and he made a documentary, titled Flying the Secret Sky, about the pilots that flew the bombers built by Boeing on their last delivery leg over the great circle route in order to get them to the RAF in England during World War II. As it was, his dad was also Winston Churchill’s private pilot during the war. We kind of knew that at the time, but it didn’t seem like such a big deal then. During that time- the time they lived next door- he was the pilot for the Johns-Manville Corporation. I can think of one time he invited me and my Dad to go for a short flight on the company plane on a Saturday. They were also the only family on the street to have a pool- sometimes we got invited over for a swim.
But I really digress. What got me going on this whole reality and spoiler thing was waking up this morning to the Oscar news. Normally, I don’t really care, or to be more precise, I could give a rat’s ass, whatever that means. But as I scanned the results, three things caught my eye that got me contemplative and curious, if not necessarily in that order. The first was that Nomadland won for best picture. The second was that My Octopus Teacher won for best documentary feature. Lastly I noted that Colette was chosen for best short doc, and was then reminded from somewhere in the recesses that it was last year in February that I had seen that film at the Big Sky Doc Fest in Missoula.
I mention all three of these in one sitting because in my mind they all lump together as documentaries. In truth, I have not seen Nomadland yet, but the first time I saw a trailer for it on the teevee it had the look of a doc, except until Frances McDormand appeared and the illusion of documentary reality quickly faded. In truth, I have thought that the wanderings of a group of RV road warriors might make for a good tale. Not, of course, born of the contrivance that is “reality teevee”, but rather a tag-along with a camera and a mic and the patience to see what happens. It is this exact departure point that has been a point of contention for me whilst wandering through the darkened venues of the documentary festival and elsewhere. There was a breaking point this past winter during the virtual Big Sky where I felt a bit betrayed in this manner. It was during the screening of the foreign language doc, Il Mio Corpo, when I found myself noting a familiar landscape and realizing that the two separate stories being told from two angles were about to converge on this one abandoned building and that the likelihood of that happening by chance was about slim to none.
A similar realization happened last year at the Fest when attending a workshop session with the Ross brothers, Bill and Turner. They had been featured artists at the festival with five of their films getting a screening. It was their latest film, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, that caused the biggest stir. The story being told by the film was that of an intimate look at the final, closing night of a dive bar in Las Vegas, and a collection of vignettes of a selection of the barfly regulars who were there to celebrate what might be their last night together at their favorite, neighborhood watering hole. It seemed legitimate enough, but as it turned out, the entire film was a scripted and improvised contrivance, filmed at a bar that was not closing and wasn’t even in Las Vegas. In truth, I felt a bit cheated when I found this out, having invested a lot of emotional energy into the spectrum of patrons who were there to reminisce and say goodbye. But on the other hand, it asked some interesting questions about how we see and respond to what is real and what is made up. And as it was, we were still three years into a so-called presidency, born of reality teevee, and uncertain of what were facts and what was fiction. I wasn’t totally pissed about finding this story to be a fiction while screening at a documentary festival, but there was one guy there who looked like he had just found out the truth about Santa Claus after forty six years of his mother telling him otherwise, and I’m not so sure he’s calmed down about it yet.
The definition of what a documentary film actually is still seems to be in flux, and one could easily point to one of the grand daddies of the art form, Robert Flaherty, as a seminal source for that confusion in terms. I was taught way back when that Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was one of the earliest examples of the documentary film. But as the credits roll, one can see that Nanook’s family and other inhabitants of this view of the great white north are not actually family members, but rather they are members of the film’s cast. Nanook’s “wife” was actually played by Flaherty’s common law wife, and Nanook’s name is actually Allakariallak, which isn’t anywhere as easy to say, nor does it mean polar bear, like Nanook does. Flaherty portrayed what was going on in the arctic, and the coast of Ireland and on the Louisiana bayou, but the stories always had a script, and in the case of the Louisiana Story, oil money funding it so that life there was as idyllic as could be, or so it was shown to seem.
Which brings us to My Octopus Teacher, which I will admit is a beautiful film. I sat with that thought for about a day, and then some things began to not quite work for me. A couple things from the start didn’t seem quite right, starting with the water. I did think it was noble of the main character to not wear a wetsuit even though the water temperature- given to us in centigrade- worked out to somewhere in the high 40’s to low 50’s. In truth, I have friends who have been in colder water, so I will give a little on that point. I didn’t, however, understand why the main character was using freediving fins in a basic, snorkeling situation. They do look elegant, and as it turned out I found that it was either the director or the writer (both?) who does freediving, which also explains the ability of the main character to stay down under for longer than normal sequences. Either that, or it’s the editing.
It is, of course, in the editing where we are able to anthropomorphize the octopus. As it is, one can scrape together a bunch of otherwise disconnected clips and arrange them to tell any story you want to since the animal itself has no say in it, while the story line of the narrator rules the show. I will admit, I sit here at home alone and talk to the dogs and the cat and they do all respond as if we are totally communicating- some times. And I did see the science talk on octopi up at the VCA a few years back, and it would seem that if there were one sea creature we could directly commune with it would be an octopus, or a dolphin, or an orca. At least I would like to think that I could. And so I will apologize now for ruining the illusion. It’s just that part of me is still wrastlin’ with what a documentary film actually is. Colette was a straight forward documentary about a 90 year old woman who was an active member of the French Resistance and who lost her brother to a Nazi concentration camp during the War, and wouldn’t go to Germany because of it. She probably otherwise wouldn’t have if the director of this film hadn’t convinced her to go back and maybe make some peace through the trip. I know she finally did go- I don’t know that she found peace from it. Maybe a Hollywood ending would have solved everything. But then, would it have been a documentary?