Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We Were Here

PCMR Verdict: Understated, powerful film-making. This account of the AIDS pandemic in 1980's San Francisco is given from the perspective of those who, as the title suggests, were there.

The eyewitness accounts are eye-wateringly detailed, intensely personal and completely compelling. It's brilliant, and you should try and see it (if you can find it)!

PCMR Rating: 9/10

I first became aware of this documentary in a Mark Kermode Guardian article, entitled 'Hidden Gems of 2011'. (Which prompted two instant DVD purchases, and a third is on the way!)

As a piece of entertainment, 'We Were Here' hits its marks, in that it will bring a tear to the eye of the of the hardest heart, and a lump to the throat of the surliest soul. More than this, however, this film is also relevant in a number of other, possibly more important ways. It is in equal parts historical document, cultural relic, and cautionary tale. You might be a child of the 80's, but I'll wager good money you've not seen this story told from a similar perspective.

The film tells the story of the AIDS pandemic in 1980's San Francisco, told from the perspective of five people who were at the epicentre. Guy was - and still is - is a flower salesman in the Castro for the last 28 years. Eileen was a nurse in 'the 5A', a ward in San Francisco General Hospital where AIDS patients were treated. Paul is a political figure, trying to lobby for research and aid, while fighting propositions to quarantine and isolate sufferers. Ed is a gay man whose friends were dying, so he volunteered to help isolated sufferers, and ended up working in the 5A. And finally Daniel is a HIV/AIDS sufferer - still living with the disease - who lost many friends and, tragically, two long-term partners to the disease.

The stories begin with the rise of the gay community in bohemian, post-hippy San Francisco at the end of the 70's, with each person giving a separate account of how they ended up there, and what it meant to them to be part of it. The participants' words are interlaced with incredibly rich archive footage from the time, starting in the late 70's and working through the 80's.

The rise of the virus itself is particularly chilling, and the suddenness with which it spread is compared repeatedly and aptly, to a warzone situation. In 1982, people realised that something was out there, but by then it was already too late. Awareness of how it was transmitted, how to prevent it, and most importantly how to treat it did not develop until thousands had already died: more than 15,000 would eventually die. The symptoms of the disease were particularly horrific and sudden, with sores and lesions, and rapid wastage among the more viscerally visual signs of the virus's hold.

However, underpinning the historical relevance of this story is the personal accounts of the contributors. As their individual stories unfold and develop, gradually the different ways each of these people experienced the outbreak hits home. The choice of contributors is inspired, as they are all eloquent and likeable and, as their stories can coalesce and commingle, their different perspectives consistently inform the same coherent narrative.

Each story is so rich, I can't possibly do them justice in this format, but take one example. Eileen Glutzer was a nurse in ward 5A of San Francisco General Hospital, where hundreds of Aids sufferers were essentially given treatment which amounted to palliative care, and a place to die in peace. At a point in the pandemic where field research was desperately being conducted in the search for a cure, her role involved asking sufferers if they would donate their eyes after they died. As she puts it herself, not an easy question. Also, she would get to know these people, as they could remain on the wards for weeks or months before the virus took their lives. Really, I cannot imagine how difficult that job must have been. But as she says herself when describing a conversation with her mom, "I didn't choose this, it chose me."

Apart from the powerful stories of the personal tragedy associated with AIDS, the movie really focusses on the sense of community that began to develop at this time of great tragedy. Volunteers began offering their time to help isolated sufferers of the virus. Lesbians, traditionally no great friends of gay men, rallied in their support through blood donation drives and political lobbying. Artists collaborated and opened a store where people could buy products such as t-shirts to support local sufferers. (Interestingly, the original name suggested for this shop was 'Aidsmart'!)

The contributors' words are all their own, and their stories are uniquely powerful. The archive footage and photos that are cut with the stories are fascinating, and really get across the palpable sense of dreadful fear and terrible personal loss that were so pervasive at the time. And yet, the rallying of the community leaves the viewer with a sense of the possibility of people to survive, and rise above any tragic event.

You won't see a better documentary this year. Go buy it if you can.

  1. Kermode's Hidden Gems of 2011
  2. We Were Here on play.com (€12.49)

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Invention of Lying

PCMR Verdict: Unashamedly intellectual, and admirable for being so, but it's not very funny.

Honestly, I might have chuckled only a couple of times, which is pretty unforgivable considering the cast of this movie.

PCMR Rating: 5/10

Love him or hate him, you have to admire Ricky Gervais' work ethic. The Office made him a household name, and the syndication will guarantee him financial rewards for the rest of his life, but since then, he's done a few successful stand-ups (Politics, Animals, Fame, Science), made Extras, another successful TV Series (which PCMR controversially prefers to The Office), developed a children's book called Flanimals, which will now also be made into a TV series. His record breaking podcast with regular collaborator Stephen Merchant and best mate Karl Pilkington has been made into an animated HBO Series, and spawned an excellent spin-off series called 'An Idiot Abroad'. And most lately Gervais' gleefully irreverent appearances as the host of the Golden Globes have copperfastened his global celebrity status.

Somehow, with all of this going on, Gervais has also managed to make a couple of Hollywood movies. Now, not all comics can survive the jump to the big screen, so this is a bold move for Rick. The most obvious comparisons to draw from his foray would be with the attempts of Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Although this duo have enjoyed huge success on television and on stage, their Hollywood careers are not exactly glittering, so the expectations for Ricky are probably not too high.

Low expectations or not, Gervais' first attempt at a Hollywood movie is a bit of a mess. The premise is so straight-forward, it could apply to a Jim Carrey vehicle: it can be easily Hollywood Pitched in the gravelly trailer man voice. Just like this. (Ahem).

In a world.
Where everyone tells the truth.
One man.
Has just invented...
The LIE.
*cue hilarity*

The movie certainly starts out on those lines, but unexpectedly, in this lie-free, truth-only world, people don't just avoid lies, they constantly blurt out painful home truths about themselves and others. Indeed, in the opening scenes, Mark Bellison's (Gervais' character) first date with Jennifer Garner is punctuated by painfully honest observations on everything from masturbation to Gervais' slim chances of a second date.

However, after inventing the lie, Gervais suddenly finds himself in a world of gullible fools who will believe anything he says. Then, he finds that he can tell little white lies to make people feel better. Each of these revelations present their Bellison with different dilemmas.

Gervais' script diverges from the Hollywood premise rather sharply however, when he lies to his mother on her deathbed about the existence of heaven. Some doctors and nurses overhear, are amazed, and demand to hear more about the existence of this magical place. Bellison becomes an overnight celebrity, known for having a direct line to the 'man in the sky', and the movie enters a more philosophical act.

Gervais actually has a degree in philosophy, and the ideas in 'The Invention of Lying' are good ones. You can only admire his genuine attempts to make a smart movie, rather than opting for the easier, more lucrative Adam Sandler route. The only problem with his execution is that I sat down in front of this movie expecting a good laugh, and there isn't enough comedy to balance out the clever ideas. The movie can only be disappointing as a result.

I certainly admire Gervais' ambition with this movie. He recognises that he needs to do more than just be funny (which by itself ain't easy), that he needs to leave the audience with something to think about. The only problem with this movie is that the balance favours philosophy, and comedy is neglected as a result. So, next time, more comedy please Rick!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

La Joven (The Young One)

PCMR Verdict: Pre-dates 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Lolita' by two years, but could conceivably have inspired both movies.

Bunuel's multi-layered tale sins and sinners touches a lot of raw nerves, but the theme of race must have been particularly controversial in 1960. It's 50 years old and still holds up, although it's arguably not an all-time classic.

PCMR Rating: 6/10

'La Joven' (aka 'The Young One') was made a full thirty years after l'Age d'Or, and is an entirely different kind of movie. For one, it is in English, one of only a couple of movies Bunuel ever shot in the language. For another, the surrealist influence is almost entirely absent, so at first glance Bunuel could appear to be making a 'studio picture', or taking a job for the paycheck.

On the surface, 'La Joven' is the story of Traver, a man on the run from a crime he claims he didn't commit, namely raping a white woman. It's important that the woman is white, because this is 1950's America, and Traver is black.

Traver stumbles upon a game reserve island operated by Miller, a grizzled bear of a man who would shoot intruders on sight, without requiring any prior knowledge of their character. But if the intruder was black, his trigger finger would no doubt get a little itchier. Miller's only companion on the island is young Evalyn, whose age is never revealed, but she is certainly no more than a child, perhaps thirteen years old. As the film begins, Evalyn's former guardian has just died, and Miller starts to notice how she is becoming a woman...

So Traver certainly arrives at a dramatic moment, but his arrival is the catalyst for a series of events that may end up revealing Miller's dark secret, and if Traver's own secret is revealed, it could mean his death.

On the surface, this is a straight-forward racially themed drama, but look a little deeper, and Bunuel's subversive themes are there as well. The hypocrisy of Miller's conduct is plain when we see how he treats Traver. In particular, his disdain for the crime Traver is accused of is in stark contrast to how he expects to get away with his own transgression.

The arrival of a reverend on the island is an interesting addition, and he certainly reveals who is the guiltier of the two men. "Let he who is without sin..." and all that.

The Young One isn't populated with many likeable characters, bar Traver. Played with relaxed charm by Bernie Hamilton, he's smooth, almost to the point of being a 60's cliché, but manages to retain his cool nonetheless. Miller is fundamentally a bit of a cunt, and is played well by Zachary Scott. Perhaps a little one-dimensional, he is at his best when he is broodily threatening, with either Evie or Traver on the receiving end of his menacing presence.

The best part of the film is the dialogue, especially when Traver and Miller are shooting the breeze. It's extremely well written, with hardly a wasted word, and each discussion revealing more about the characters. Bunuel's skill and influence here cannot be understated, as the dialogue is remarkably fresh for a fifty year old movie. Also, in Hollywood in 1960, there can't have been many Hollywood movies evangelising black characters and vilifying their white counterparts. In this context, the film is also subversive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, where 'The Young One' falls down is in terms of this reviewer's expectations of the director. It's a million miles away from his initial movies of the 30's, and perhaps reflects the stage of life Bunuel was at when he made it. Exiled from Spain since the Spanish Civil War, he had been working in Hollywood and Mexico for some years, but he actually lived in Mexico, where he also made a lot of his movies. (I'm working on getting a copy of 'Los Olvidados', and will include it in this retrospective if I do get it)

So, in brief, it's a 'straight' Bunuel movie, and in English. Might be a good starting point for the Bunuel-curious out there, a gentle one to dip your toe into before starting into the Spanish surrealist stuff. I think I was a little disappointed by the Young One because it's the surrealist work what I'm looking forward to!

Next Bunuel review: The Exterminating Angel
(Sounds awesome! - Ed)

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