Sensory Enthnography Lab

First heard about what was going on at this place from this Vulture article:

The most exciting documentary films being made today come not from a brand-name auteur or even some up-and-coming, Sundance-anointed visionary. Rather, they come from a place called the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which sounds more like somewhere an ophthalmologist might send you than a source of great filmmaking.

Less a lab and more a collection of like-minded individuals, the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s (SEL) first widely distributed release was the experimental documentary Sweetgrass, an observational, immersive, quietly lyrical portrait of a 150-mile journey involving a group of Montana cowboys and a massive herd of sheep, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. The film didn’t contextualize; it didn’t feature talking heads; it didn’t try to inform, as so many nonfiction films try to do. Rather, it just let us soak in the experience of this grueling, majestic journey.

Reading The Boston Globe while back home, all the movie critics included Manakamana on their top tens:

On the one hand, grateful they called my attention to this movie.  On the other: kind of bullshit to get me excited about a movie that it’s not exactly easy to see.  Serves me right I guess for not following the ethnographic documentary scene a little more closely.  Maybe I never shudda left Cambridge at all.


Kon-Tiki

Who was it who recommended this to me?  Hayes?  Thanks!  It’s on Netflix Instant.

Heyerdahl’s third wife was Miss France 1954:


Wild

Contains WILD spoilers! 

1) This movie has a high degree of difficulty.

I read 2/3s of the book Wild – abandoned it before I finished, but I did the same thing with Eat Pray Love and then years later started over and found it very impressive.  Perhaps a similar fate awaits Wild & me.

At least two top-notch women I know swear by Tiny Beautiful Things.  I like reading interviews with Cheryl Strayed, she seems like the real deal.

In books you can get into somebody’s head.  That is their killer advantage, and why I don’t think books are going anywhere anytime soon.  You just can’t do that in a movie.  Wild the movie does a pretty good job of this, but it’s sort of just doomed, imo.  This is a story about a person’s journey from one mental state to another, with most of the work done internally.  Very hard to dramatize.

While there are good tricks towards doing that in this movie, it comes up a little short on the radical innovations needed to tell that story in a movie.  Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay: a dude who is good at this kind of thing, his books make excellent movies, but maybe a true writer-director could’ve worked the solutions even tighter?

[One particular note: it seemed to me like all the cutaways should’ve cut a few beats earlier.  You’re always like, “ok, here we go, we’re about to cutaway to Cheryl’s childhood.”]

2) The story has a motivation problem.  

Cheryl decided to do this, herself.  No one made her, asked her, even cares if she accomplishes her goal.  So when she faces difficulty or problems, it easy to think “well, you’re the one who decided to hike the PCT, dumdum.  Why should I care about this?”

In a story, a person sets out to do something and arrives at a win/lose/draw (thanks to John Gardner for articulating that for me).  What would count as a win in this story?  Getting to Ashland?  No, who cares about Ashland, nothing but hippies in Ashland.   The goal of this story is: Cheryl restoring herself (whether or not she knows that’s the goal at the start).

But: that’s an internal goal, how will you show it in a movie?  It’s easier to answer these questions in a book, where Cheryl can articulate her reasons and get you with her and make you see that this particular journey is important even if nothing tangible’s at stake.

3) Still, pretty good movie.

Despite all that I thought the ending was pretty satisfying.  It’s hard to make a pretty good movie.  When Reese Witherspoon yells “FUCK YOU BITCH!” I thought that was good acting.

Sometimes I think all the hugely successful actresses [Reese, Anne Hathaway, etc.] are such intense people that when they act like normal people their instinct is to be way too intense.  I would argue Julianne Moore might be the best at not doing this.  Think how hard that must be: to act intense but not at your full-bore intense because you somehow intuitively understand that your own “full bore” is too strong for the screen.  Acting is crazy hard.

Like all criticism should, let this come with a disclaimer: it’s easy to be a critic hard to make a thing, makers > critics x1000!

4) Interesting sex stuff in this movie.  

I do remember in the book being jarred by the period of sexual degradation and heroin, hadn’t realized that was part of the tale.  It was new territory, I felt, in exploring a woman’s sexual… could we call it addiction?  self-punishment?  Cheryl’s not not in control at that point, right?  But she also isn’t having a great time.  It’s fucked up, she knows it’s fucked up.  But it’s not fucked up because she’s a slut, it’s fucked up because she’s not being the woman she wants to be (right?).

Whatever, it made me think/was also slightly titillating/made me feel kind of bad for the husband she was compulsively cheating on.  What are the nice guy husbands of America to make of Eat Pray Love and Wild, two biggest women’s memoirs of the last ten years, that both start with a woman leaving her nice guy husband for sexual adventuring?

How often in a movie do you see sex that is intended to be not rape but also not fun?

5) The music in this movie is kind of good but also kind of sucks.

That’s my take anyway.  What if I told you that in 2014 we were making an epic movie about a woman’s adventure across America?  Would you say that scattered samples of Simon & Garfunkel is the best we could do?  Fuck no!   Why didn’t they get some awesome woman to make a badass score like Eddie Vedder did for the man-equivalent, Into The Wild?

6) There’s a weird shoutout to REI in this movie.  

Where Reese calls them to get new boots and is like “you’re my favorite company ever.”  Maybe Cheryl really felt that way.  I have a bunch of stuff from REI, but sometimes I think their business model is based on making you think going outdoors is more expensive and complicated than it really is to sell you more junk.  Which, weirdly: in the same scene where Cheryl learns about REI’s return policy, the dude is like “you don’t need all this shit.”

Former REI CEO Sally Jewell is Secretary of the Interior.

Strikes me as a very Obama kind of pick: on the one hand, kind of hip and modern and innovative, but on the other hand she was still the CEO of a huge corporation.

7) Wild and Eat Pray Love are in long American literary tradition of spiritual narrative.

If I were a grad student at Yale I’d write my Ph. D. on this, trace it all back through Emerson and Puritan religious narratives and captive narratives of 18th century New England and I’d be the smartest boy in the seminar.  Since I’m not in grad school though I can make my point in one sentence which is that things that seem radical and new are often just new versions of an old tradition, we’re not so different from the past or as wildly inventive as we think we are, etc.

8) Is this how women go through life?  Constantly having to wonder if a random dude is a rapist?

Damn, that might be the most important aspect of Wild, seeing the world through a woman’s eyes, showing that tension of life.  When I walk around at 11pm or so in my neighborhood and I see women walking their dogs it always feels very tense.  My instinct to somehow indicate I am not a rapist usually just seems to make the problem worse.

ANYWAY: one reason I was excited to see Wild is I’ve been to many of the settings along the Pacific Crest Trail on fishing trips.  Here, for example, is a photo of Kennedy Meadows:

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Kennedy Meadows is like a plateau high up in the Sierras.  To get there you drive up a crazy 27-mile twisty road up from the 395.  If you find yourself there, be sure to stop at The Grumpy Bear:

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They’re happy to teach you about jerking meat:

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Don’t get it confused with the other Kennedy Meadows up in Sonora.

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While I was up there I crossed the PCT and wondered if it would be interesting to film a couple seconds of walking on it:

If you’d like to see Wild, but only have ten seconds, my film gets at similar themes but with more nauseating camerawork.


The Fault In Our Stars

Man, I’ll give it up to this movie.

They nailed this movie.  Just crushed it.

If there’s a problem with this movie, it’s that the character August “Gus” Whippledorp sucks.  Shailene Woodley blasts the poor dude playing him off the screen.

On the other hand, Shailene Woodley is so good at acting that you buy she loves him, so the problem solves itself.

The name of the guy who directed this movie is Josh Boone.  Jesus Christ, of course it is.  The confidence, the earnestness – “Josh Boone.”  This is the Josh Boone of movies.

At one point in this movie, the main characters are in Amsterdam.  (Won’t apologize for that spoiler).  A shitty thing happens.  So the kind woman decides to cheer up our main characters by suggesting they all go to see the Anne Frank House.

I saw this movie in the UTA screening room at 12:45pm (thanks Halps!).  The audience was mostly UTA assistants I guess, 24 year olds in their suits.  You could hear audible, heaving sobs.  Just weeping and struggling to breath through sobs.  People were losing it worse than at any funeral I’ve ever been to.

(Someone at CAA is gonna read this and think “signs of weakness at UTA… time to pounce?”)

 


I have a pretty good bit of standup comedy worked up that depends…

…on the audience having seen the “pitiless and uncompromising”* Australian western The Proposition (2005).

This movie was written by Nick Cave, who along with Warren Ellis did the soundtrack.

I would like to see Nick Cave perform live again sometime.  He was truly demonic.  The girls I was with did not care for him as much as the guys I was with.  Eventually they walked away.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis also did the soundtrack to The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007).

That is a good trailer.  From IMDb:

Warners’ wasn’t entirely in sync with the pacing of the movie, or the length. Dominik was thinking more like ‘Terence Malick’ in examining the relationship between the famous outlaw and his eventual assassin, Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck. Warners was in favor of having at least a bit more action. Ultimately, Warners went with Dominik’s version, even though Dominik didn’t have final cut as part of his contract. Part of the reason was that Pitt, who produced the movie through his Plan B shingle, backed Dominik. At one point along the way, Pitt and exec producer Ridley Scott had put together their own cut. When it tested to only so-so results, they went back to Dominik’s. The original cut of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was nearly four hours long. It was edited down to two hours and forty minutes, its current runtime, at the studio’s request.

The first few pages of Ron Hansen’s novel are pretty mind-blowing, I recommend reading them.

* Roger Ebert.