[13 October 2011]
This year the New York Film Festival offered an opportunity to see how two internationally renowned directors approach music documentaries. Martin Scorcese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which had its US premiere at the Festival and is currently airing HBO, favors the familiar approach of talking heads and archival footage, while Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Music According to Tom Jobim, included as a “special event,” is almost wholly made up of television and filmed concert performances of Jobim’s songs.
Both documentaries focus on musicians who were contemporaries of the directors and both projects were instigated by the families and foundations of the deceased subjects. The Jobim documentary suffers from a bland and, frankly, seemingly lazy pandering to the family’s wishes (it was co-directed with Jobim’s granddaughter Dora). Dos Santos simply strings the concert footage together in rough chronological order. He occasionally layers some additional footage on top to give scant background information.
This approach is successful in making more abstract points—Jobim’s influence on jazz is apparent in performances by Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzie Gillespie; his influence on international pop with a clip of “The Girl from Ipanema” played on a Japanese variety show. But unidentified clips of his family or Jobim at a Brazilian music festival with Chico Buarque will be meaningless to those who don’t know the context. There are some great performances and I could listen to Jobim’s music all day, but the lack of any footage of his collaborators Stan Getz or João Gilberto (unavailable or unsuitable, according to dos Santos at a post screening Q&A) leaves a film that is too often mystifying and full of holes.
Scorcese’s movie elevates the standard bio-doc formula with a moving organizing structure that emphasizes Harrison’s struggle between the physical and the spiritual. He uses little seen archival footage, interviews, and Harrison’s home videos and letters to his parents to cast a fresh light on the history of the Beatles. Like dos Santos, Scorsese had access to the family’s personal archives and lets the footage speak for itself—we get that Harrison hit a bad period with drugs in the mid-‘70s via concert and backstage footage, not through some sordid anecdote related by a third party. Scorcese’s devotion to technical excellence made it worth seeing this lengthy film in a theater and many of Harrison’s songs were illuminating on the Howard Gilman Theater’s exceptional speaker system.
Crucially, Harrison’s widow Olivia granted the filmmakers reign to divulge his darker aspects—the drug use, the infidelities—and in a post screening Skype interview, she admitted she found parts of the documentary difficult to watch. If the film does occasionally fall victim to the faults of the bio-doc, the sometimes plodding insistence on tracing every stage its subject’s life, one at least has the satisfaction of watching a fairly definitive document of Harrison’s life and work, as well as the sense of that life lived by a boy and a man, not a hallowed celebrity.
The need to balance the material and the spiritual is apparent as well in Shame, which takes the idea to a physical extreme. As a portrait of sexually maladjusted, intimacy-averse man with an unhealthy relationship with his sister, the film is a worthy follow-up to director and video artist Steve McQueen’s Hunger. As a portrait of a sex addict, it’s ridiculous. The movie is curiously of two minds, patient and nuanced one minute, ham-fisted in the next.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful businessman who likes pornography and the occasional prostitute. The arrival of his suicidal lounge singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sends him into a severe spiral of self-abasement. He tries to instigate a more serious relationship with his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). When the relationship between Marianne and Brandon flounders and Sissy sleeps with his boss, Brandon goes on a sex bender and we duly watch him hit rock bottom with the necessary glimmer of hope at the end.
The scenes between Beharie and Fassbender are lovingly rendered, wonderfully acted and written portraits of two damaged, suspicious yet interested people circling each other. As in Hunger, McQueen shows great skill in reproducing the halting rhythms of drawn-out conversation. But too often in portraying Brandon’s world, McQueen takes seriously many of the same visual cues that American Psycho used as satire: in his Manhattan apartment, all white with stainless steel appliances indicate his shallowness. We catch bits of conversation so that they spell out the themes and subtexts in bold ink—a voicemail message intones, “Brandon, where are you?” over and over. Likewise the song cues, “Rapture” and “I Want Your Love”, and the framing of subway signs in the background so words relating to Brandon’s predicament stand out.
Though McQueen blessedly never tells us what exactly happened to Brandon and Sissy in their suburban childhoods that screwed them up so much, the scenes of Brandon sobbing while staring at the New Jersey skyline do little to dispel the suspicion that Shame is a clichéd tale of addiction dressed up in high art clothing.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are masters of the quietly redemptive ending, and in quality (as well as subject matter), The Kid with a Bike stands in sharp contrast to Shame. It opens with Cyril (Thomas Doret) frantically trying to call his father while fighting a guidance counselor. He rarely settles down during the course of the movie. Cyril is about 10 years old and lives at a school where he was dropped by his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier). The child remains determined to reunite with his father, and favors a red jacket and T-shirt, emphasizing his fiery temperament and also recalling the lonely boy in The Red Balloon, as well as Eliot in E.T..
Samantha (Cécile de France) befriends him and helps him to track down Guy, hoping to rescue him from what seems a dire fate. But Cyril remains resistant and Doret, pent-up and impulsive, captures the boy’s feral prepubescent energy while subtly conveying his subconscious scarring.
Despite the “realism” of the Dardennes’ style—the hand-held cameras and non-professional actors – at the heart of nearly all their movies is a standard melodramatic conceit. Though it alludes openly to Oliver Twist, The Kid with a Bike doesn’t overstate this conceit, and doesn’t close with a heartwarming embrace between Cyril and Samantha, but instead, with a more enigmatic consideration of guilt and forgiveness.
The Dardennes essentially tell one story repeatedly and well, in which a child is offered a reprieve from his or her worst instincts and a harsh milieu. Previously, Renier played versions of this protagonist in both La Promesse and L’Enfant. I couldn’t help but wonder if his presence here, evoking the young father who reluctantly accepted his baby in the end of L’Enfant, might be something of an answer to criticisms of the Dardennes’ sentimental or Christian themes, suggesting that redemption might be a matter of hopeful possibilities but not eternal certainties.