Film #283: Grey Gardens (1975)

directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
language: English
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 16 April 2017

I pretty much had this movie thrust in my hands, along with Drive, Sebastiane and a bunch more, with the promise that it was fascinating. I had never heard of it, but apparently it’s had quite an influence on filmmaking.

It’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary movie about two women – a mother and a daughter, both named Edith Beale and nicknamed Big Edie and Little Edie – living in their decrepit, falling-down mansion. They’d repeatedly had complaints about their overgrown garden and were threatened with eviction, which is how they came to the attention of the filmmakers, the Maysles brothers who were famous documentarians. They appear to be former rich folks who had fallen into poverty. Evidently they also were or had been socialites.

Their personalities are definitely over-the-top, and I’ve definitely seen these kinds of people as archetypes before. They’re very aware of the camera, but they’re also presumably acting as they would if the camera wasn’t there, and they occasionally stop each other and scold each other not to say something in front of the camera. They argue a lot throughout the film.

Little Edie is very strange for me – she wears a headscarf in every scene and often talks about her devotion to the Catholic church, although from a modern perspective that kind of headwear would definitely be more associated with Islam. She often dances around on screen and likes to show off her happy-go-lucky side. Her mother often disparages her, and she often stays in bed or sitting down due to age.

It’s definitely a fascinating look at a world I didn’t know existed. I kind of like how much they don’t give a shit about the squalor around them – she is literally dancing around in the filth of her house on more than one occasion, and she feeds the raccoons that live in the uninhabitable parts of the mansion. Apparently when the house was sold later it was just full of raccoon carcasses…

I think it’s worth a watch. Not my favourite that I’ve watched recently – I like the energy that the two women bring to the work, but it was a bit relentless. It’s also difficult to say anything concrete about it because it’s a fly-on-the-wall character-driven piece, and has no plot. It tries to stay neutral about its subjects, although the Beales try their hardest to get the Maysles to participate in their arguments. I tend to prefer my documentaries to have more of an opinion.

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Film #261: Tickled (2016)

tickleddirectors: David Farrier & Dylan Reeve
language: English
length: 92 minutes
watched on: 8 Jan 2017

I had a lot of trouble finding a suitably safe-for-work thumbnail picture for this movie. I hope this one works well enough…

I caught this movie almost by accident when I was browsing through gay-themed stuff online, and I was so amused and slightly intrigued by the concept that I just had to watch it. It’s a documentary by a journalist from New Zealand who’s famous (we’re told in an opening montage of his previous work) for doing documentaries on slightly weird topics. He comes across the sport of “Competitive endurance tickling” online and decides that should be his next topic. First he meets resistance from the company that makes the videos because he’s also well-known in New Zealand for being gay, and that the company doesn’t want to associate itself with gay people (despite the videos being very gay themselves), which only makes him want to keep digging. He ends up going over to America and digging up a web of exploitation over at least twenty years. It’s really quite fascinating. Of course the makers are being sued for it.

The whole thing is a bit televisual, especially to begin with, but every few minutes they uncover something more outrageous than before, and the whole thing gets more and more fascinating. Basically the guy behind the whole thing, who takes on false identities, harrasses the young men who don’t want their videos to be online, or exploits the young men until to do whatever he wants. And later it’s not even just tickling, it’s also mixed martial arts. It seems it’s just this hideously rich guy playing with his money.

I was probably most surprised that one of the listed crimes was email-bombing the White House in the name of one of these young men… basically this had been a big deal, and all the way back in the 90s. They actually interview several journalists who had been investigating it at the time, and they’re all a bit surprised to find out it’s been going on again since the guy got out of prison.

It’s just such a ridiculous story it’s almost hard to believe it’s true… but truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. I think it was a fascinating journey, and an incredibly creepy underbelly of society that’s being exposed. Perhaps a little dry at times, and it dragged on a bit towards the second half.

What’s actually more interesting is when I dug into the behind-the-scenes on the web a bit, I found some interviews and articles written by people close to the movie. The guy behind the whole thing, David D’Amato, and one of his lackeys, actually showed up to a film festival somewhere in America, and to Sundance, essentially to protest the film. That’s pretty rare, so they’re definitely taking it seriously… but they seem to miss the point of the movie, which is calling them out for exploiting countless young men. They keep screaming at the filmmakers, and they seem to be trying to get the film banned on technicalities: they didn’t get permission to film this or that, or something like that.

So it’s something that I don’t think anyone else will have heard of, and it was well worth my time. I recommend it if you can come across it!

Film #227: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

jdosdirector: David Gelb
language: Japanese
length: 82 minutes
watched on: 14 September 2016

I watched this at a friend’s house – we’d bought snacks from the Japanese discount store Don Quijote, and were going to put it on as background noise, but ended up getting engrossed in it. It’s a documentary about Jiro, the sushi chef in Ginza who was awarded with three Michelin stars a few years back. Ultimately, it’s food porn, especially the middle section, which is voices talking over images of perfect little bitesize nigiri-zushi being prepared. And there we were with our junk food sitting in front of a TV.

About halfway through the movie, I came to the sudden epiphany that this movie is the reason I “know” anything about Michelin star restaurants in Japan, anything about professional sushi chefs, in fact even going so far as the Japanese work ethic (at least before I came to Japan; my thoughts are more nuanced in some ways now) – I think a lot of what Westerners know about Japanese food culture come directly from this movie. And people like to generalize.

Some things I’ve heard include that all Michelin star restaurants are tiny little stores that are impossible to book, and where the master of the shop doesn’t have a menu, he’ll just serve you food in the way he sees fit, in the perfect order. I’m sure some other Michelin star restaurants do this too… but I’m not convinced that’s the norm. Or that sushi chefs must take a ten year apprenticeship – I’m now realizing that this is probably only the case with Jiro, as it would be an untenable industry if this were the case generally. Or that sons always inherit the family business in Japan. Or that Japanese people always have an extreme live-to-work attitude like Jiro… I could go on.

Jiro’s restaurant is undoubtedly in a dingy location, downstairs, tucked in a corner of Ginza metro station. But Ginza is very upmarket. His son’s almost-identical restaurant is in Roppongi Hills or somewhere nicer.

Certainly his food looks absolutely delicious. Not only the fish sushi, but also stuff like the tamago-yaki, which does not look like omelette, more like a cake. Apparently this is the thing that takes the apprentices the longest to learn. Even the rice looks more delicious than usual, and a whole section of the film was devoted to waxing lyrical about the rice.

But that’s what a lot of the film was: waxing lyrical. Not a critical word is offered to Jiro. It’s only positive words that we hear. He’s the best, he’s such an amazing chef, and so on. Never mind that he doesn’t seem to be very friendly, or that his children’s upbringing was less than satisfactory, or that his work ethic is positively toxic – it sounds like they’ve been forced into taking on the family business, after their father was absent most of their childhood working early morning until after midnight. A big part of what is wrong with Japan, the overworking culture here – although I’ve largely managed to avoid overworking per se, I do work unsociable hours, weekends and late evenings – is going to tip me over some kind of edge eventually (if it hasn’t already), and I’m going to want out.

I got bored of this, and started to switch off towards the last third of the film, when I felt the point had been laboured enough. They did go to Tsukiji fish market, too, which was interesting, as I’ve never been there. It’s a nice-looking movie, and the food porn sections are really well-made in particular… just take it with a pinch of salt. And if you’ve got this far, be sure to leave a comment! What’s the best sushi you’ve ever had? Mine is probably in Kichijoji with the really long eel (part of a cheap lunch set).

Film #207: Gayby Baby (2015)

gaybybabydirector: Maya Newell
language: English
length: 85 minutes
watched on: July 11 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 1/6)
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I got a bit confused this year because the Tokyo LGBT film festival officially renamed itself “Rainbow Reel”, but there wasn’t a well-publicized announcement of the fact. Actually, I could have probably found out at Pride this year, as they had a booth, but it was so overcrowded and hot this year, I actually couldn’t concentrate on anything. Anyway, whatever.

Actually, I was excited to go again this year, because I missed it for one reason or another over the last three years – I had been to one film in 2012, which wasn’t so good, but I was optimistic this year and wanted to get back into going to the cinema more. But in 2013, they changed the date to July from September, and I found out too late – then in 2014, I was working, and in 2015, I was back in the UK, so I kept missing it. This year, I could take adequate time off to see things. It was a bit expensive, because I didn’t take advantage of any deals (and I had to go all the way to Omotesando just to buy the tickets, because Ticket Pia adds a commission to every ticket, rather than the whole sale), but I bought six tickets to various movies, and this one was the first.

So, Gayby Baby is a documentary about families with same-sex parents in Australia. It was apparently made as a kind of protest about the political situation there, as for some reason, homophobic politicians are still prominent there. It was banned from being shown in schools, which is terrible, because it’s a pretty good and still important film. It focuses on four kids (the parents are basically background characters) – they never meet, or anything like that, so it’s telling four stories at once.

It quite effectively shows the variety and diversity of gay parenting, and as far as I remember, each of the families come to be parents by different means. It starts with a blond kid telling us he was a born from a donor, but he made me crack up almost immediately by mispronouncing “sperm” as “spam” (not translated in the subtitles, so I think I was the only one in a rather crowded cinema laughing at this point). He’s obsessed with wrestling – another kid is in the process of making up his mind about religion and clashing with his religious mother. A third is auditioning to go to a prestigious music school, but her mothers aren’t so well-off, and just getting her there is a challenge when she has a baby brother who often has seizures. The last is a bit of a mystery – he’s still learning to read and write at age 10, and it’s hinted that he and his older brother went through some abuse with their birth parents, and he didn’t learn to speak until over the age of 5. His dads struggle to teach him to read. And they move to Fiji near the beginning of the movie.

The movie is well-told, and the documentary makers stand back and let the stories tell themselves. There isn’t much in the way of judgement from them – obviously, there’s a very explicitly political motive to creating the movie in the first place, but the movie stands back from that as well. We just get to see these people in something close to their natural habitat.

It’s also obviously a very important movie, and it sold out at the festival – I later learned this was not the case for the rest of the movies I watched, and this one did particularly well by comparison. In a country which is only just starting to have these conversations, about what it means to be a family, but also in countries like my own which have been having them for some time, movies like this are always going to be important. I’ll admit I was skeptical going in, but by the end of it I will whole-heartedly recommend it. I think I’m basically preaching to the choir here – I don’t think I know anyone who’s explicitly against gay marriage and gay families, but if you are and you could be swayed, I want you to watch this. If you aren’t, I still think it should be watched.

Films #160-162: A London Trilogy by Saint Etienne

what-have-you-done-today-mervyn-day-2005-001-noah-kelly-shot-with-bicycle-in-front-of-houseDirector: Paul Kelly (and Kieran Evans)
Language: English

  • Finisterre (2003)
    Length: 59 minutes
    Watched: 17 Sep
  • What Have You Done Today Mervin Day? (2005)
    Length: 45 minutes
    Watched: 18 Sep
  • This Is Tomorrow (2007)
    Length: 54 minutes
    Watched: 18 Sep
  • plus DVD extras and other shorts: total 43 minutes

I got this… last year? the year before? for Christmas, and finally dug it out to watch over two days in September. I’ve been a fan of Saint Etienne’s music for a long time, and I’d seen the titles of these documentary movies floating around before, so it was nice to finally get to see them.

The first movie, Finisterre, was made around the same time as the eponymous album by Saint Etienne, and it’s a series of images of London set to music from that album with a voiceover that also featured on the album – the two are actually more intertwined than I thought. Like Saint Etienne’s music, it’s a love song to the city, but the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show the gritty side too.

The second is What Have You Done Today Mervin Day?, which has a very similar purview to the previous film, but focuses in on the Lea Valley in East London, on the eve of its choice as the site of the Olympic Village for the 2012 Olympics. It features more voiceovers from interviews with locals, but it follows a fictional character Mervin as he visits different dilapidated and abandoned places on his bike. It has a rudimentary storyline, as well, as he’s kind of on the run from his boss, but it’s obvious that none of that matters in the slightest.

The third is This Is Tomorrow, which has a very different feel and purpose, as it is more of a straight documentary about the rebuilding of the Festival Hall in central London. I didn’t connect so easily with this movie in total. However, I’d literally been there, to that hall, two months before watching this, so I knew where it was and had an idea of what they were talking about. But unlike the other movies, this one doesn’t show the random images of the city so much, so it wasn’t such a window into daily life in London. It did talk about the history of the area, which was interesting.

One of the most interesting things about the movies was seeing how London’s changed. Part of the reason I decided to watch it now was that I’d been to London in July, so my own impression of the city was still fresh in my mind. London’s skyline has changed a lot in twelve years – the Gherkin (or “butt plug”, as I like to call it) is conspicuous in its absence in Finisterre, such an integral part of the skyline is it now, and of course, more recently there’s the Shard and the Walkie Talkie and all manner of other ridiculously-named skyscrapers.

On a similar note, one of the extras was a remake of Mervin Day narrated by Sarah Cracknell which revisits the Olympic Village in 2012 to see how the Lea Valley’s changed in the seven years since they made the earlier documentary. Again, it was interesting to see that. I still haven’t been there yet, but I guess Tokyo is gearing up for similar transformations now. I don’t plan to still be in Japan in 2020, though.

I liked these movies, but I have a particular interest in the band who made them, so I guess they don’t have general applicability. But if you’re at all interested in Saint Etienne, or if you want to see something visual about London that has no plot, you’d do well to see this.

Book #78: The Perfect Storm (1997)

IMG_3337-0Author: Sebastian Junger
Language: English
Length: 565 minutes (9 hours 25 minutes)
Finished listening on: 19 Nov 2014

I wasn’t sure what to think of this book after I’d finished. It was a bit of an oddball. It was about a massively powerful storm in the Atlantic during the 80s or early 90s, a storm that happened in real life and caused many fatalities.

For whatever reason, what sets it apart is that it sets out to literally be a true account of the storm, called perfect because it’s a rare combination of several meteorological phenomena that combine to make something exponentially larger. It focuses on one disappeared ship, the Andrea Gale. As it is trying to be a true account, it takes on a documentary or journalistic tone, and tries not to fictionalize too much.

One reason I can find for this is that the author is actually a journalist, and not a fiction author. The uncharitable side of me wants to say that he did this because he has no imagination, or that he is obsessive in the level of detail he put into the research. Perhaps a more pragmatic view would be that the level of complexity in the real life story would be difficult to capture in a fictionalized account.

Nevertheless, whatever the reason, sometimes I wished the book would get on with the story, rather than going into yet another dry chapter about the mechanics of sea fishing or the intricacies of compass use. These were mildly interesting sometimes, but mostly couldn’t hold my attention.

On a more minor note, the book starts off with a key, telling readers that bold text would indicate direct quotes, or italic text would indicate what the characters probably said… but this was entirely lost on me, the audiobook listener. The narrator didn’t even bother to adopt significantly different tones or get someone else to read the direct quotes. Part of me doesn’t really care, as it seems like an unnecessary detail, but the other part can’t help but feel I’m missing out.

All that said, the actual story was very interesting, when it got to it. I did actually enjoy some of the science-focused chapters as well, and I liked the epilogue read by the author, discussing how the book came to be, and how it was appreciated within fishing communities in the United States. Evidently by writing in the journalistic style, he’s managed to capture some essence that a fictional tale would not have, perhaps because he went into great detail about the daily grind of the fishermen.

TV: Stephen Fry: Out There (2013)

38117language: English, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi
length: 2 episodes of 59 minutes each
finished watching on: 21 Oct 2013

This was heavily advertised by friends on Facebook – a mini-series about Stephen Fry going round to all the worst countries and confronting homophobes face to face. I guess there’s no hope if that synopsis isn’t even a little bit appealing. It’s not just that, to be fair: it’s also a look at gay/LGBT culture around the world. It seems like a very personal project that Fry had been sitting on for some time. He visits Uganda, America, Russia, Brazil and India during his travels.

I couldn’t work out what Fry was hoping to achieve by making the series, though. Every time he confronts a homophobe he fails to convince them that they’re wrong – more than anything, he’s seen as a Western cultural intruder whose views don’t and shouldn’t matter in the often ex-colonial countries he visits. We and he get a glimpse of what is going through the homophobes’ minds, perhaps, but as Fry admits with dismay, it’s always the same rhetoric about gays threatening family life … or something? What they say never makes sense.

It becomes a bit indulgent of Fry – in a masochistic way, naturally, but I had to scoff a bit when he started comparing his (non-anal) method of sex to the way the Greeks did it, first as if that’s going to convince the homophobe obsessed with anal prolapse of anything, but since the remarks were given in a heated discussion when Fry probably wasn’t watching his words as carefully as he would normally, it gives a fascinating insight into his own pretensions and self-image. Like I think I mentioned when I reviewed QI, I’ve gotten addicted to that program in such a way that I’m compelled to watch it without getting that much enjoyment out of it (because I started using it as a sleeping aid and now can’t stop), and I feel saturated with Fry’s TV presence sometimes, so that I’m definitely seeing straight through the outer veneer.

That said, his TV presence is still somewhat infatuating, and I very much enjoyed the aspects of the show that dealt more with world culture, and I certainly share in the questionable joy of shaking my head at idiots that presumably led to the program being conceived in the first place. It’s also incredibly brave of him to do some of the things he does, and even more incredibly brave of some of the young people in LGBT centres in Kampala and St Petersburg to appear on camera. I definitely applaud him for making the series. Word has it that he attempted suicide during the course of filming, and perhaps we should just be thankful that he is still alive as a result.

Also, he should lose the goatee. I at least say that unequivocably.

TV: QI Genesis (2011)

director: Ian Lorimer
language: English
length: 59 minutes
watched on: 11 Oct

I’m sort of part of the way through the latest series of QI on Youtube, although in truth I’m waiting for it to be finished so that I can download it and watch it all at once. But I did watch this little documentary that someone had also uploaded to Youtube which takes a look behind the scenes. It was rather interesting… there were interviews with most of the regular contestants and some who have only been on once or twice. I think the most surprising thing for me was that Alan Davies apparently took about 3 years to realise that he was meant to be the foil for the other contestants, which I don’t believe that much. I think he must have been exaggerating.

There isn’t much to add about this, though. If you’re a fan of the show, yeah, might as well watch it. That’s where I stand, anyway; I watch altogether far too much QI, because I have the episodes on my hard-drive and have watched them all countless times. If you’re not a fan, yeah, don’t bother. It’s not for you!

Film #31: I, Tintin (1980)

aka: Moi, Tintin
directors: Henri Roanne & Gérard Valet
language: French with English voiceover
length: 51 minutes
watched on: 5 October

I’m still working my way up to the big one – the new film. But this is a rather interesting documentary made a while back, which features a lot of very interesting footage about Hergé and Tintin.

It tells his life story again, which I’ve heard from many sources, so there wasn’t very much new in there for me. Yep, I know he’s accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and all the rest of it. I don’t really care about that; it happened a long time ago and he clearly did a bunch of stupid things at the time and apologized for them later. Let’s just leave that aside for the moment.

What was most interesting for me in this documentary was that it showed footage of Hergé meeting Zhang Zhong-ren, the Chinese man who was the basis for the character of Chang Chong-chen in the Tintin stories, for the first time in about 50 years; an emotionally charged reunion, albeit one in which the man was surrounded by people wanting to meet the man who had such an influence on Hergé, and was literally treated like royalty. I think he even had an audience with the Belgian queen or something ridiculous. It was sweet to watch them meeting again, however much he was treated like royalty.

The rest of the film didn’t really stay with me, to be honest. Again, it was good to see actual footage of Hergé himself speaking to the camera, and that’s about it; the rest of it I already knew.