#2 The White Ribbon
Somehow I got the notion that The White Ribbon is meant as an explanation of Nazism, probably because I’m an idiot. It isn’t that, but it does provide some food for thought about the relatively recent roots of authoritarianism and oppression. Set in the Greater Fatherland Area around the turn of the century, our thoughts naturally turn to Hitler, who the kids in the story would likely grow up to support. With rigid totalitarianism on the brain, we notice nuances of life in German village upon which we might not otherwise immediately focus. Particularly, when authority becomes pernicious in such a setting, there isn’t really anywhere to appeal. Dad is diddling the daughter? She will just have to deal with it. The alternative is to create a modern, liberal social structure, establish a child welfare agency, invent the telephone and use it to call them. And even then, she will still have to deal with it.
At the center of the film is an unsolved mystery as the village is afflicted by several acts of naked cruelty. The mystery remains unsolved and is meshed with other acts of negligence, malice and abuse of power. For variety, there is a charming, old world love story set under the guidance of a kind and benevolent patriarch. Loving Dad, Rapist Dad: it’s all in the luck of the draw. One of Haneke’s big points is that the abusers of power and freelance sadists will almost invariably get away with it, because it is so difficult to produce a suitable response. Without going into detail, several of his films seem to involve the ease with which we can destroy someone and the near impossibility of justice, if justice is action that restores some kind of equilibrium. From the Nazis down to one sexually terrorized daughter, whether some of the perpetrators are hanged or they live to beat off to the memories of their crimes in old age, there isn’t any way to really counterbalance irreparable harm.
We can, however, fuck things up even further by reinvesting in still greater authority, hoping that the newly strengthened social hierarchy will finally protect us or at least make things right again. In this film, that means a culture based on severe Protestantism that comes with more abuse. When the kids grew up, they’d try to double down on dad yet again. The historical context is only one of multiple, conflicting sources of tension in this film that provide the quality of a complex thriller. The cinematography is so impressive that you could use it as a tiebreaker in determining this to be the best Haneke film. Maybe Haneke uses disabled children because they represent the most basic level of injustice, but some of the shots of a retarded boy in this movie just seemed like a cheap way to be unpleasant, which is my only complaint.
#1 Big River Man
Matt has been singing the praises of John Maringouin’s earlier work, Running Stumbled, since he saw it at some festival. But because of legal concerns, it’s very difficult to track down a copy by hook or by crook. I did find Big River Man, however, though I’m not sure if it was by hook or by crook. Whichever the bad one is. It’s lucky that I did so, because even though I haven’t seen all that many of 2009’s films, I can award first prize with total confidence. Willie, you can throw out the other projects.
My first inclination is to just copy down this entire move word for word and post about 150 screen caps. Like this:
Many Slovenians are drunk and drivers. We are top in Europe by statistics. And my father, Martin, is one of them.
But I’m pretty sure that is illegal, and it is certainly unethical and the last thing I want to do is provide you with an excuse for not seeing The Best Film Of The Year (keep an eye out for it on The Discovery Channel). Maybe even The Next Step In Documentaries. The film is about a Slovanian endurance swimmer, Martin Strel, and his attempt to swim the length of The Amazon. Strel has repeatedly shattered his own endurance records, including swims down the polluted Mississippi and the horribly polluted Yantze, where he was sharing the water with corpses. Given that Strel is in his 50s, quite overweight, an alcoholic, subsists largely on horse burgers and has an old country, slavic way of thinking, the entire film is basically one great quotation, abundant in the kind of hilarious idiosyncrasies that recent “independent” films have failed so badly, so frequently to simulate.
“If piranha, for example, start attacking or something like that, we would threw bucket of blood, or whatever, on the other side and the piranhas will just redirect there.”
Comparisons to Herzog are pretty obvious, as this is a doc focusing on an unusual individual, struggling against nature (Grizzly Man) and the Amazon in particular (Aguirre, etc.) and I don’t think there is any disputing His influence. Also, like Herzog, Maringouin intentionally leaves his fingerprints all over the subject and it is anyone’s guess how much of it he has orchestrated. But this is an Anglo version of Herzog’s approach with a layer of self awareness and and playfulness of which the mirthless German mind is incapable (see The White Ribbon). Martin claims that he is largely motivated by promoting environmental awareness, which leads to one of the film’s masterstrokes. One reason for the destruction of the rain forest is the value of mahogany, often used in musical instruments. As this information is shared, Marnigouin mixes deadpan documentary technique and an ironic juxtaposition of images that could well be rooted in this very same internet, to solemnly accuse rock stars with over-sized guitars of being a major cause of deforestation.
Another stroke of genius has a deeper impact on the film. Rather than narrate the film himself or God fucking forbid, have a celebrity handle the job, Maringouin has Martin’s son, Borut, narrate, a decision that adds tremendously to the film with maximum economy. Instantly, the film also becomes a study of a father son relationship and we have a narrator with extensive, firsthand insight into the other elements of the story. We learn that Borut is the one man PR maven behind his dad’s enormous local fame, which makes him a natural for the role, explaining, for example, how Strel’s status allows him to park on sidewalks, or anywhere else he likes, while driving around hammered, practicing breathing exercises, eating and listening to instructional English tapes without fear of a ticket. Given that Borut’s English, while good for general purposes, is a cut below the normal standard for narrating a 100-minute documentary, there is a whole new level of humor and charm brought to the narration. This is like a great Simpsons episode. It’s so entertaining and it nails all of the glib elements so hard that most people will overlook the fact that this film is enormously sophisticated and that Maringouin as a grand master at this particular game of discourse.