Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Fascinating, Rashomon-Style Meta Investigation

Kate Plays Christine (2016) - Greene
 photo e04d1de5-061e-4994-a45c-a9300e5ad8d7_zpsfxt2wsvg.jpg
Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, killed herself in an apparent suicide on live television in 1974.

Because it took place way before the internet age, and the only existing original videotape of the actual incident is thought to be lost, Christine and her provocative action had largely been forgotten. Robert Greene, whose film Actress made a splash at Art of the Real 2014 -- a film series that showcases boundary pushing non-fiction films -- takes an interesting approach to the subject. Kate Plays Christine plays out like an investigation, intimately documenting an indie ingenue, Kate Lyn Sheil, as she prepares for playing the role of Christine in Greene's fictional production about her.

Even though Christine's act can be interpreted as a protest against the sensationalism on TV, as her station was all about "Blood, guts and in living color," without the fateful videotape in circulation, there isn't really much information available on her to make sense of why she committed suicide for Sheil to really bite into the role.

Christine was good looking and good at her job, but socially awkward and didn't have any friends. She was apparently a lonely, depressed person who might have been a virgin when she died at 29. But these bits of information are completely dependent on whom you are speaking with, as they are vastly different. So Sheil is left with a Rashomon-style tale of a complicated woman no one really knew.

Even in casting Sheil to play Chubbuck, Greene took an interesting approach. The two women are physically very different: Christine was a dark haired, dark eyed Joan Baez-like beauty, whereas Kate is a soft featured, pixie girl type. It wouldn't surprise me if Sheil gets to play photographer Cindy Sherman in her biopic. We get an all access pass to Kate physically transforming herself for the role, getting a tan on a tanning bed, trying on a raven haired wig and putting on brown-eye contact lenses to get into character. Kate still doesn't resemble Christine, though. Kate's left with a fake tan and badly fitting raven hair.

Greene documents Kate doing her research for the role down in Sarasota. She talks to a local historian, former TV station workers, a local gunshop owner and actors who are portraying parts in the fictional movie. But she is having trouble relating to her subject and what her motives were. With an information that Christine was a good swimmer, Kate tries to swim with the wig on to get closer to her subject. But the wig keeps falling off in the water, ominously floating in the green ocean water off the coast of Florida.

Things doesn't get better for Kate even after finally seeing Christine in one of her interview clips. The pressure of representing the mysterious dead woman accurately becomes too much for Kate. Full of doubts and frustration, Kate starts to resent Greene and the whole project. As the crew prepares for the final moments of Christine's life, with the blood squib and blood pump on the side of Kate's head, and sitting at the news desk, Kate muses if this sick curiosity, the voyeuristic sadism, is what audiences are after.

Much as Greene did in Actress with Brandy Burre as he documented the trials and tribulations of her real life acted out by the actress, in Kate Plays Christine, Greene also takes an ambitious, meta approach to the subject. Sheil is faced with a difficult task here, to play the role of herself as an actress investigating a role. With the apparently shabby, low-budget fictional movie Greene is making, Sheil intentionally pulls an affected acting job as Chubbuck in a movie-within-a-movie, I'm-frustrated-as-hell context. And it's a fascinating watch.

For me, as far as American indies go, Greene stands out as the most daring, formalistically invigorating director working today. It's not really recreation of the event that Greene and Sheil are after. It's not even a character study. They are after the process of an actress trying to connect with her subject. It's also about the nature of performances and giving another layer of complexities in portraying real life characters.

This would make a fascinating companion piece to Antonio Campos' upcoming Christine, a more straight forward, narrative take on Chubbuck's life, starring Rebecca Hall in the title role, which coincidentally premiered with Kate Plays Christine at Sundance this year.

Kate Plays Christine opens theatrically on Wednesday, August 24 in select U.S. cities.

Interview: Uncertainty Principle- Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine

 photo f2505005-20a7-4b8b-be81-46e5400709fe_zpsg47zwtqk.jpg
I first encountered Robert Greene's inventive and daring filmmaking at the Art of the Real film series in 2013.

Actress, his film starring Brandy Burre playing herself in a documentary-style portrayal of an aging actress in upstate New York, was decidedly refreshing in a documentary world inundated with straight up character studies that are as predictable and boring as reading someone's short bios on wiki. With his new film Kate Plays Christine coming out in theaters, Greene's adventure into meta filmmaking continues, digging deeper into the very nature of performance and also of the filmmaking process. It is a densely layered, thought provoking, endlessly fascinating piece of work that is very rare in the American Indie cinema landscape.

I got a chance to talk with Greene on the phone recently. Fiercely intelligent and always searching, Green talked at length about his approach in his unique filmmaking process.

So you are in Missouri now?

I am in Missouri, yeah. I’ve been living here, going on two years now.

Do you teach at the University of Missouri?

I do. The university got a big grant from Jon Murray, the guy who started The Real World and is a graduate of the the journalism school here, and we started the Documentary Journalism program. They hired me as a Filmmaker in Chief, so I get to do my own classes and they encourage me to make films. It’s not like I have to do my films on the side. It’s part of my job, so it’s great.

How’s it been going for you there?

I like it. I like teaching. I like being here and having a family. We are happy being in this small town and my wife was ready to get the hell out of New York. So we were happy to go. And I quite like teaching, actually.

The first time I saw ACTRESS was at the Art of the Real Film Series here in New York. I thought it was really interesting that you were one of the few American filmmakers presenting in the series. I really got a lot out of that film series. By far the best film series even in New York standards. It just blew me away.

Yeah, it’s a cool series.

I was wondering how you ended up choosing the Christine Chubbuck’s story after doing ACTRESS?

I had heard of her story about 10-12 years ago for the first time. This was before I made my first feature, even. At the time, I was probably in the mindset of listening and looking for possible stories. But the immediate feeling I had was that ‘this is not a story that I can tell’ because of what happened and details around that story bring a lot of questions about representation and about depression and why we try to tell stories about people who did things like what she did. I guess the feeling that I had for the last 10 years or so was that I shouldn’t do that film -- which is a weird feeling to hold on to.

But after Actress, I saw the possibilities in filming a documentary about an actor. With that I saw an opening to not only investigating THE Christine Chubbuck story but also expressing that feeling of anxiety about telling the story. So it opened up a pathway for me to see how I’d do it.

I thought the way you went about the film was really interesting. You are working closely with another actress here again. This time, it’s Kate Lyn Sheil. How was the collaboration? I am curious about your method in working closely with actresses.

Well, we are old friends. We needed to all be friends -- me, Kate, our cinematographer Sean Price Williams, our producers. We are all an extended family in a way. It’s kind of the only way we could make this movie, with a deep sense of trust, because, you know, when I went to Kate and said, 'OK I have this concept: I’m gonna document you while you are trying to make a film that shouldn’t be made.' In doing so, we know it’s going to fail on purpose. And it’s gonna be bad on purpose.

That’s something you can easily say, “oh, that sounds interesting” and yes to. But in practice, it’s quite exhausting for Kate to go through that. It’s very difficult for an actor to act badly. It just goes against all your instincts. So that whole thing, ended up very difficult to navigate. Kate was becoming so attached and so connected to Christine’s story and just the feeling of responsibility to portray Christine was overwhelming for her.

Ultimately she trusted me and I trusted her. But the contention really was, we would roll these reenactments and she’d say, “ That was terrible,” and I’d say, “That was great.” (Laughs.)

That's a weird place to be. Beyond that, Kate isn’t exactly comfortable with being documented in general. And it's a part of the reason why we did it. The original idea was for Actress was it was going to be a triptych with Kate, Brandy and an older actor but Brandy’s story just took over as it should.

Oh, I see.

I thought I was breaking Kate’s heart by saying we aren’t making a documentary about her but she said thank god.

I knew that there would be some tension on the screen just with filming her. And also, going in purposefully inadequate reenactments and then also even with the documentary process I knew that she would eventually turn on me, you know. For me that was part of it.

But a lot of times I had so much trust in her. By virtue that she knew where the film needed to go, which even created sort of an extra layer to her performance. She was basically playing up emotions she already had, all of which is in the film.

You are meant to be questioning all these things as you are watching and hopefully put your mind together to read her motivations, the way we tried to read Christine’s motivations. It’s all meant to put you in a psychological space of trying to read through what you are watching.

There certainly are a lot going on in the film. Going back to your creative process, how much of it was scripted and how much was improvised?

The feeling that I wanted, I wanted to make a movie within movie scenes to feel like they are a documentary of a fake movie and I wanted the documentary scenes to feel fictional. We shot them to feel that way.

The way I like to look at it is that I built sort of a conceptual box and within that conceptual box, we filmed a documentary. So that means, we were there for three weeks; we came in with certain things I wanted to get. I wanted her to be writing down the differences between her and Christine and reading them out loud. I wanted her to potentially tackle things like running into the water.

These things are what I wanted to happen. So these things are ones that could be scripted. But I would say they are not any more scripted than, you know, a standard documentary that does things like, hey we are gonna go here now and film this kind of thing.


So I would set it up and we watch what happens. So I was basically instigating situations and observing what was happening. There's also a level of performance that Kate brings to the table naturally when there is a camera on her, just like when there is a camera on anybody -- she's going to be performing. The difference is that she’s an actor so she is aware of that performance on a higher level. So even when we were filming her walking down the strip mall, going to a store, or when we were filming her interacting with a real person, there is an element of acting.

For me, the question of what’s real and what's non-fiction is only interesting as a starting point, It’s only interesting when we present that as a central question of the movie. Rather than revealing that at some point as 'oh it’s this or that', or 'we were tricking you', it’s really trying to drive you into the narrative, sort of the psychology of not only Kate but in some ways Christine, because when you’re looking at it going I don’t know what’s real and what’s being motivated and don’t know why — if it works properly, it could work as a psychological thriller and drives you into the story. You are left with trying to figure out what you are watching.

That also has a metaphorical parallel with Christine’s life and the sort of performances she was giving and there is this relationship between the performance and depression that she was constantly trying to balance, I think. Hopefully, the form that we created -- sort of questioning fiction or non-fiction things -- drives you deeper into something real.

I guess Werner Herzog put it as the Ecstatic Truth, or something like that in documentary.

Yeah, I just come at it from the angle of… that the documentaries are a staging ground. The myth of the documentary, whenever you say documentaries aren’t reality or documentaries aren’t objective, everyone says 'of course, of course' but when they start watching, they set it to be that way.

And I prefer to think of it as sort of a launching pad for something else. What that means is that you are dealing with the real thing -- you are dealing with things you can’t predict. We went into the process with something that we wanted but almost everything you see was totally unpredictable and risky to even try and capture it.

To me what makes a documentary is that everything was discovered, found with a great deal of uncertainty. You need to have pillars of stories that you can grab onto, but the driving energy of the film is in its deep sense of uncertainty.

The performance aspect of your filmmaking, from FAKE IT SO HARD to ACTRESS to now KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE, is that everything you see in your films is about performance somehow that is imbued in real life. Is that a fair assessment?

Yeah. I very much believe that the cliché or the maxim, however you want to call it, that the world is a stage. I am very interested in social performances as a social phenomenon, as things that define our daily interaction that we are performing roles -- we dress a certain way, we talk a certain way that we are performing our identities every day and we know that right?

But when you put a camera in there, we can intercept that performance and it becomes something else. When you can kind of make it so viewers can sense it and can see it then you start to read into things in a way that is productive and layered. Then you have a capacity of creating on-screen tension and real revelations about human behavior by capturing these performances and presenting them in a certain way.

That's what I love about Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman would not say he was getting performances but when you watch his movies you know they are carefully crafted. They are depictions of real life people, usually at their work. With a movie like Welfare, you have to perform the duty of an welfare officer but you have to perform the duty of someone receiving the welfare and you see the battle of these performances.

If we detect them as performances, we can do a better job of understanding what they mean in the bigger context of society and how to make the world work better, you know. You have to act a certain way or behave a certain way to get things done. Acting and behaving are really linked and I think it’s very interesting to put them in the movie, at least as a springboard for other questions.

Fake it so Real was about switching up the idea of what you thought of as a documentary performance and Actress was really about the role that we get trapped in. In Kate, performance is a springboard for a deeper investigation in some ways.

Do you think you and Kate are in any way close to finding out who Christine was after this experience?

I don’t know. So much of the process was just bewildering, which I think you see in the film. All I can say comfortably is that she was an incredibly complex person. Some people saw her as hard and distant, some thought she was funny and graceful, some thought she was deeply empathetic and a good friend and some thought she was very weird and off-putting. That’s honestly what we all are being described as.


If we take three or four facts of her life that made her commit suicide the way she did, I think it would be an inadequate portrait of who she was. So I feel very very comfortable saying that I don't know who she was. I feel touched by her story because I spent a long time thinking about it but that’s got nothing to do with her. It would be irresponsible for me to say I know her better now.

As you know there is another film, a fictional account of Chubbuck called CHRISTINE by Antonio Campos coming out. Not that I am dismissing his film but you think there is any way to portray a human being as complex as she was in a narrative format or is it that you are just going from a different angle?

It’s just gotta be a different angle. First of all, these sort of critiques of the movies they are presenting, they are all pointed inwards. They are all pointed to me and Sean and Kate and our producers. We are wrestling with ourselves. Me, I am much more in dialog with the documentary world as anything.

But they are not meant to be critiques of someone else’s vision at all. Having said that, the only way to make a fictional narrative is to conflate things to an extent you as an artist are comfortable doing. I don’t know if I am comfortable doing those things.

But I’ve seen the film and Rebecca Hall’s performance is incredible. I think what she did was, she created a new character out of the very limited information she got. And that new character is what Rebecca Hall and Tony Campos and their team created -- what they think is Christine Chubbuck. I think that’s just limited as anything but that doesn’t mean there is no value in it.

So you are OK with their representation of who she was.

I think there should be a long discussion to be had about anyone’s representation of the story. What I like about the fact that there’s two movies coming out about Chubbuck, people will have that discussion. I think the nature of our film and the nature of their film is going to create the conversations about representing the story in a way that I think will be very interesting.

Has Campos seen your film?

Yeah. I think we both feel the same way which is, 'not how I’d do it but more power to you' kind of way. It’s so personal for both teams, so it’s hard not to see it that way but I’m all for the conversation that it's going to create.

So what’s next for you?

I have this film I want to make about this event of a labor history that happened a hundred years ago. I want to sort of reenact it. It will be a reenacted ghost story that takes place in the present in a documentary setting. Kind of staging a performance in a real space in the southwest. So we are going to be making sort of gonzo, Western, documentary ghost story.

It was called the Bisbee Deportation where twelve hundred striking miners were forcibly removed from their homes and beaten and shipped to the New Mexico desert to die, pretty much.

That's great. I am pretty familiar with the labor history of the United States around that period. I can't wait to see that!

We have to raise the money, but hopefully we will get to reenact that in the centennial year of 2017.

Kate Plays Christine opens at the IFC Center in New York on Wednesday, August 24. A special preview screening will be held tonight (Tuesday, August 23) at 7:30pm at IFC Center followed by a discussion with the filmmaker.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Herzog's Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is the Best Film about the Internet

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) - Herzog
 photo 0bcc047b-497d-4d07-b0c1-ae49515a3fcb_zpsc9guzyiw.jpg
A weak internet signal at my job caused massive delays in our daily operation the last couple of days, making us bang our heads against the table in sheer panic mode. This is where the internet got us: We are completely dependent on it, to the point that many of us can't even imagine life without it.

The integration of the internet into our lives was so swift and so complete, we didn't have time to reflect on it properly. There have been films about social networks, gaming, interactive technology, addiction, piracy, technology pioneers and privacy issues regarding the internet. But it's hard to believe that there hasn't been a comprehensive, contemplative take on it until now with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, directed by none other than Werner Herzog!

It makes sense that only Herzog, 73, a self-confessed neophyte to everything internet -- his internet use is limited to email and occasional Skype, he started using a smart phone not too long ago and very recently discovered the joy of cat videos on Youtube -- can lend a fresh take on such a vast subject with his unencumbered eyes. Only Herzog can turn a hired-gun informercial project (supposed to be six short webisodes on Youtube, produced by NetScout) into a deeply meditative, Herzogian masterpiece.

Honestly, who could be better suited to make a film about the internet than Herzog, one of the master storytellers of our time, who's been continuously documenting vagaries of human life in such a meaningful way?

From its humble origins in the shabby UCLA computer laboratory to robotics engineers to famous hackers to victims of trolling to addicts to astronomers to radiation sufferers to explorers, the famed director leaves no stones unturned. This fascinating inquiry needs no slick graphics nor derring-do camera movement. He relies soly on his usual dry sense of humor, simple but direct questions and amusing observations. And it's as usual per a Herzog film, a hugely entertaining and deeply meditative revelry into quite possibly the most significant invention in modern history.

With the familiar sound of Wagner's Das Reingold in the background, we start with UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, explaining the first communication between the two closet-sized computers from UCLA to Stanford, a few hundred miles away, in 1969. The failed signal that ended up LO instead of LOAD explains the film's majestic title.

Herzog hops through different segments talking to many eccentric subjects who are genuinely amused by the filmmaker's almost naive yet inquisitive questions and observations. Some of the famed interviewees here are early internet innovators like Bob Kahn, Tim Berners Lee, Ted Nelson, Danny Hillis, entrepreneur/inventor Elon Musk, roboticist Sebastian Thrun, astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, and physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss.

Periodic massive solar storms, natural disasters and cyber attacks cause widespread blackouts all over the world. Many of the interviewees warn us that future blackouts are inevitable, that the question should be not if but when. With the food delivery system, power stations, and sewage treatment plants all relying on the internet, any prolonged blackout will cause a complete meltdown of the society as we know it.

These informal 'conversations' Herzog holds with his subjects, how he puts them together side by side for meaningful and sometimes humorous effects, are perhaps the best moments in the film. As Internet pioneer Ted Nelson explains how he got the idea of the web from the flow of water and questions his own sanity in his way of thinking, Herzog exclaims, "You are the sanest person I've ever met!" They laugh and Nelson proceeds to take a snapshot of Herzog and his crew, saying, "What a team!"

Many of his subjects are dumbfounded when he asks, "Does the internet dream of itself?" We see astronomer mega-babe Lucianne Walkowicz, revealing her Chauvet cave animal painting tattoo (Cave of Forgotten Dreams connection anyone?) on her arm, explaining why we should concentrate on conservation of our planet rather than on space exploration. Then Herzog cuts to Elon Musk, CEO of Space X -- a space exploration company, poised to have a human colony on Mars in the near future -- thinking, his eyes furiously searching for words for a good half a minute before he answers about the director's 'the internet dreams itself' riddle.

Herzog finds himself in Las Vegas for Hacker's Convention. There he meets forever elusive hacker legend Greg Mitnik. The buildup to reveal Mitnik is very dramatic, so when the famous hacker is finally revealed -- a middle-aged, schlubby Jewish guy with bad teeth -- you can't help but be amused by it. It's Herzog's unfazed attitude that makes this moment so hilarious. Him being a total neophyte on the subject works to his advantage.

The dark side of the internet -- trolling -- is gracefully summed up in one segment, focusing on one family who suffered the loss of a daughter in a fatal car accident. Within days, someone sent the family the pictures of the crash anonymously, making them available everywhere on the internet. In the guise of anonymity, people can hurt others with impunity.

Thoroughly comprehensive and often humorous meditation on our connected world, Lo and Behold is yet another masterwork by a master chronicler of human experience. It stands alongside Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's string of great documentaries. And it will go down as one of my favorites of the year. Kudos to NetScout for letting the master filmmaker do what he wanted to do with the project.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World opens in theaters and on demand on August 19.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Metaphysical Thriller Set in Afghanistan

Ni ciel, ni la terre/Neither Heaven, Nor Earth (2015) - Cogitore
 photo 65cb1dbe-6824-4fbe-a461-4185c20e7087_zpsparxbujd.jpg
Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an effective, minimalistic metaphysical thriller set in a battlefield of Afghanistan from a French visual artist/filmmaker, Clément Cogitore, in his feature film debut.

It tells about French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan valley, an arid, remote mountain somewhere in Afghanistan, headed by Capt. Antares (The Dardennes Bros. regular Jérémie Renier). Through an army interpreter, they are keeping an uneasy relationship with nearby village folks, mostly sheep herders whom they are supposedly protecting from Taliban elements.

First it's Antares's trusty German Shepherd, then two soldiers who were keeping the watch on the top of the south hill, who disappear without a trace one day. The platoon goes on a full alert; it could be the untrustworthy villagers who ominously keep leaving sacrificial lamb tied to a stake nearby or it could be enemy combatants' doing. The paranoia overtakes the post. Antares, a man of reason, tries to keep everything together until another soldier gets taken right in front of an already paranoid soldier who's expecting a baby back home any day.

Then there is another unexpected development. A Taliban leader in the region, known as Sultan, wants to negotiate with Antares, assuming the French troops have their men, who also disappeared. After initial confusion, Antares OK's Sultan and his men's safe passage, despite objections from the soldiers, to the village where they ransack the place in vain, looking for their men. So after that, it is pretty clear that it wasn't Taliban nor the villagers who took the soldiers. There are some other forces that is in the works. The relationship between the village and French soldiers gets even more strained.

The villagers who are caught on crossfire, finally speak up about the place soldiers are disappearing. It is a sacred ground, known as Allah's Valley. People and animals have been disappearing if they fall asleep on the ground. It's been happening long before the soldiers came. Soldiers report strange dreams where all the missing people are sleeping in a cave. After sending an unhelpful military chaplain home, equipped with night vision goggles and thermal detection cameras and with an unlikely aliance with the Sultan, Antares tries to get to the bottom of the phenomena.

It's hard to believe the war in Afghanistan is still going on after 15 years. The Middle-East is a clusterfuck and the world is in total chaos, thanks to the destablizing effects of the whole region unequivocally caused by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. With Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Cogitore creates an intriguing allegory of an unwinnable war.

The film is a beautifully drawn, almost religious allegory that suggests there is a higher power looking down on us. Thankfully, Cogitore doesn't take the preachy route to do so. The film works well as a thriller, while its feet are firmly planted in real situations, with some striking symbolism thrown in.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an unusual, elegant Afghan war thriller that gets its message across and even gives a salute to the hardworking military servicemen without any heavy political rhetoric.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth opens on Friday, August 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with other cities to follow.