This week’s reviews: Apocalypse Then and Now

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

This week on DCist, I interviewed Washington photographer Frank Hallam Day, winner of the prestigious Leica Award. If you count the 1200 or so words of transcription that entailed, my word count this week approached 5K. I’ll nap now.

I wrote full reviews this week for the pulp historical fiction Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter  and the romantic Armageddon of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (which should be live later this afternoon).

This week’s blurbs featured Baby Doll, Bollywood, and Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind.

I also covered nine titles for this week’s Silverdocs festival at the AFI, starting with last week’s review of the opening film, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,  about Arnel Pineda, plucked from YouTube obscurity in Manila to front a veteran rock band.

Here’s a roundup of my other Silverdocs reviews, all of which originally appeared on DCist.

Catcam

Juergen Perthold, a German engineer, and his wife adopted Mr. Lee, a stray cat who came around their South Carolina home but disappeared for days at a time. Perthold devised a camera to hang from Mr. Lee’s collar to take still photos and, later, video, with surprisingly artful results.

Mr. Christmas

For more than 30 years, Bruce Mertz has illuminated his Concord, Calif. neighborhood with an ever-growing display of Christmas lights, at last count 51,000 strong. If that isn’t American enough for you, he inaugurates the proceedings every Thanksgiving night blasting Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” Mertz grew up in a town without electricity, and his seasonal $700 electric bill may fill a void of the heart as well as the grid.

Meet the Fokkens

Meet the Fokkens

Sixty-nine-year-old twin sisters walk down the streets of Old Europe as accordion music plays. The long shots, charming architecture and playful music would not be out of place in a Jacques Tati movie. But Louise and Martine Fokkens are prostitutes in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Directors Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schröder gently shift their tone from funny—the sisters coo over the latest on sex-toy technology—to disturbing when they service their tricks and finally to tragic as they tell how they ended up plying their fleshy wares.

Time Zero: The Final Year of Polaroid Film

Analogue shutterbugs are still recovering from the end of Kodachrome, but director Grant Hamilton’s film reminds film loving togs that they were that close to losing not just a single film stock, but an entire image-making process. In 2008, Polaroid announced that it would cease manufacturing the instant film that for decades had defined the company. New management who had little regard for the pioneering developments of founder Edward Land, and forecasts showed that digital cameras were quickly rendering the physical image obsolete. Or was it? Photographers know what’s coming next but Hamilton builds suspense for those who don’t know about the Impossible Project and the inflated prices that Urban Outfitters charges for the resurrected Polaroid film (as well as for Fuji Instax products, which are mentioned only in passing). Testimonials come from teary-eyed baby boomers who grew up on shaking prints to scruffy hipsters being hip. A must see for photographers, though I should point out that the beautiful compositions of this documentary were shot digitally.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei received international attention in 2011 when he was arrested in Beijing on trumped up charges of tax evasion. But did you know he used to work at New York’s Second Avenue Deli? Alison Klayman’s documentary takes its name from the sardonically named exhibit Ai Weiwei: So Sorry, which plays with Chinese stereotypes in the same way that Weiwei plays with and even destroys Chinese antiquities in the name of art. But his bad boy attitude strikes not just at artistic norms but at a repressive and opaque government. In the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Chinese officials refused to release official counts of the thousands of schoolchildren who died when their “tofu-skin” schools collapsed. Weiwei conducted his own investigation into the names of these children and based one of his most expansive works on this research. Weiwei’s art, which is currently on view in Washington at the Hirshhorn Museum and Freer and Sackler Galleries, may be in your face, but so is his life.

Photographic Memory

The character of the aspiring documentary filmmaker, capturing his every waking moment with a camera, is by now a familiar trope in the 21st century coming-of-age movie. But do these budding young directors, fictional or real, know how much they owe to director Ross McElwee? In the mid-1980s, McElwee set out to make a film about one of the most devastating periods of the Civil War, but a personal breakup changed his direction and career. He became inseparable from his 16-millimeter camera and filmed life as it was happening. Yes, his subjects often ended up asking him to turn off the camera. But the resulting film is one of the great American documentaries, Sherman’s March. McElwee’s subsequent work has rarely made it out of the festival circuit, but he has continued to examine his life and the lives of his loved ones. Photographic Memory begins with the troubles of parenting as he looks at his brooding, obnoxious 21-year old son Adrian and wonders what happened to the cute kid he used to take fishing? McElwee realizes his own relationship with his father at that age was even more fraught, and is inspired to return to the French countryside where he spent time as a lost young adult, the age his seemingly lost son is now.


Tchoupitoulas

Will and his two teenage brothers cross the Mississippi to get lost in the nightlife of New Orleans’ famous Tchoupitoulas Street. Directors Bill and Turner Ross shot footage in New Orleans for months before meeting Will and his family, and although the teens were filmed on several occasions, the Rosses play against the cinema verite feel of the film by structuring it as one night’s journey across the river and back. The directors’ well-regarded first documentary, 45365, looked at life in the zipcode of their hometown in Ohio, a subject more mundane than New Orleans but also more unknown. The Rosses capture a nocturnal New Orleans atmosphere of music, food, and sleaze that is vivid yet doesn’t have the sense of discovery of their previous film.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

In May 2010, devoted fans camped out overnight for the final chance to be close to a star. One young woman took her clothes off to reveal her naked body to her idol, although she was quickly surrounded by building security. But this wasn’t the scene with some rock star in the arena. The subject of this fervor was the final day of performance artist Marina Abramovic’s blockbuster show at the Museum of Modern Art. Directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre presents an overview of Abramovic’s work and a behind the scenes look at the exhibit and performance piece that shares its name. Abramovic triumphantly notes that performance art wasn’t always held in such high esteem. Her work frequently puts her body in the most vulnerable and tense of positions, whether she stands with her lover holding a bow an arrow tensed and aimed at her heart, or cuts a star into her stomach with a razor (repeatedly, over the course of seven hours). She revived that last piece, and performed “cover versions” of other performance artists’ pieces, in a 2005 Guggenheim residence documented in the DVD Seven Easy Pieces, which I wrote about here. For her MoMA retrospective, Abramovic hired dedicated dancers to recreate her own pieces, and presented a new marathon piece of a more sedate nature. For the entire three-month run of her show, museum patrons lined up to sit across from her. Just sit. However you feel about Abramovic or performance art, The Artist is Present is most interesting when it goes behind the scenes. A New Yorker profile that appeared before the MoMA exhibit tells her story at length. When that article appeared, Abramovic’s relationship with long-time collaborator and lover Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) ended with a piece performed on the Great Wall of China, where they walked from opposite ends towards each other until they met and said goodbye. Spoiler alert: that wasn’t the end of their story.

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