Film

Giuseppe Andrews: Two More from the Trailer Park

A few years back, when it seemed like every mainstream media outlet was jumping on the Giuseppe Andrews bandwagon, the unpredictable auteur announced the unthinkable. After working almost exclusively in the domain of the trailer park, after focusing on the residents there and the relationships he forged, he was abandoning everyone's favorite surreal cinematic backdrop for 'greener pastures'. Having gained his regal reputation via his doublewide workouts, leaving behind the setting for something else appeared antithetical to his overall aesthetic. More disconcerting, where would he go next, and what would this new direction look like?

Fans needn't have worried. While recent efforts have indeed moved to motels and interesting homesteads for their locations, Andrews remains the Salem Cigarettes of the marginalized. In essence, you can take the director out of the trailer park, but you can't take the trailer park out of the director. Two new films - the vegan variety act Garbanzo Gas and the poignant portrait of one man's misery, Cat Piss, proves that even when devoid of an RV vista (as in Gas), there is still enough of the filmmakers' fascinating spirit to propel his passions forward. Indeed, as with the Americano Trilogy, these newer offerings suggest a growing confidence that is occasionally frightening to behold.

When a lucky cow wins an all expense paid weekend at a local hotel, it can't believe its good fortune. It gets to relax, unwind, and avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse - at least for a few days. Of course, it couldn't imagine the menagerie of madmen it would run into. Down the hall is a pair of drug addled dimwits who are desperate for something to eat. The cow becomes their main focus. Meanwhile, two different spree killers are wrecking havoc. One murders at the command of some erroneous bath linen. The other listens to a voice inside his shoe, the instructions resulting in even more dead bodies. All the while, our contented animal tries to accommodate everyone's needs, which typically revolve around a room service meal of meat and potatoes.

Garbanzo Gas is either the most brilliant pro-vegetarian film ever made, or the most maddening deconstruction of meat's magical allure since the Sawyer clan discovered the value in human hamburger. Centering on the mythical, mouthwatering promise of steak (and a fully dressed baked potato side dish), and using the actual source of such succulence as the pro/con catalyst, Andrews expands outward, taking on suicidal tendencies, homicidal madness, insanity, and fixation. Overflowing with the filmmaker's trademark deranged dialogue, and incorporating a tender performance from Andrews' staple Vietnam Ron, this well-meaning message movie is far more effective than a perverse PETA rally in reiterating the value of animal life, and the uselessness of human existence.

Every person we meet in this stunning celluloid statement is an asshole. The two tweaking lowlifes awaiting the hotel's check-out time to literally do the same are desperate dope fiends, foaming at the mouth over vending machine chips and in-room coffee. They are so hapless and hungry that they even go down to the seashore and try to catch some fish. On the opposite end are two serial killers - one driven to his deeds by a talking towel, the other who imagines he's mandated by a shoe promising chili cheese fries. While the premises seem laughable, the analogy is crucial. All man wants to do is kill - be it for sustenance, or to fuel some insane psychological desire. And thanks to the performance of Walt Dongo, Matt Dougal, and Tyree, we get that concept loud and lamentably clear.

On the other hand, Vietnam Ron's quiet, considerate cow is projected as the voice of reason and accommodation. Anything these vacation interlopers want, he is more than willing to provide. Even when faced with dealing out free versions of himself (not literally), he happily obliges. It's a brilliant casting step by Andrews. Ron is, without a doubt, a subversive superstar. But he's also an inherently interesting actor, and a man seemingly incapable of outright anger. Sure, he's been malevolent in the past, but it has always been a put on. Here, his genuine personality comes through, and it's a stunning display. It makes his last act conversation with a man from the slaughterhouse all the more emotional. Any other member of the Andrews' crew would not have worked. Garbanzo Gas needs Vietnam Ron to resonate.

And it really does work. While he avoids the standard abattoir shock treatment (no blood and guts here), Andrews uses shots of sunbathing bovine - and another one of his amazing songs - to finalize the attitude. Yet it's a cleverly confused conceit. Because of the main characters fascination with steak and all the trimmings, because of how dedicated they are to their misguided mastication, Gas seems to suggest that, while murder, meat is pretty damn tasty. Sure, the contemplative animals argue against the senseless slaughter of same, but when recognizable archetypes scream for slabs of cow carcass, the carnivore in everyone is tantalized. Of course, as a staunch vegetarian, Andrews would argue with that assessment, but when it comes to his art, Garbanzo Gas is more intricate than a standard protest piece.

If you're looking for simplicity, Cat Piss is the answer. Hailed as a literal return to the trailer park, it centers on Andrews' newfound friendship with resident Wally Lavern. Under the premise that he would live with the man 24/7 and record their "relationship", Piss provides the kind of retro-realistic view into the world of the marginalized that few films - let alone filmmakers - would ever dare discuss. As our director helps out around the decaying trailer, as Lavern has imaginary political debates with a broken TV, as flutes are practiced and cats are comforted, this is what the end of one's days really looks like.

Equally heartbreaking and hilarious, Cat Piss calmly revises our view of Andrews' environ. Where before, everything was scatology and sexual drive, the implied gimmickry of seeing old people prance around in the all together, here is the way things really are. Matter of fact, unexaggerated for the looming, omniscient camera, this is the very fringes of what we consider to be civilized society. Lavern is not viewed as a joke, or something to be pitied. Instead, Andrews uses his own goofball grace to turn his costar into a perturbing poster boy. It’s the kind of portrayal that we can feel - we can smell the dank air inside the trailer, taste the featureless food bought on a carefully controlled budget. If they were smart, political candidates would hire Andrews to create their pro/con economy ads. No one has a better eye for the travesties of retail existence.

Indeed, this is one of the filmmaker's most ideological offerings, perhaps even more than Gas. Since Lavern is allowed to rant at the blank boob tube, selling sentiments that may disturb a more liberal mindset, Andrews must counter said caustic conservatism with visuals: the unhappiness on the man's face; the docile pleasures of playing a plastic flute; the look on a friendly feline's face. It’s the haves vs. the always have nots all over again. While Gas may have taken the trailer park out into the real world, this is the literal landscape Andrews understands best. It makes what could have been maudlin and morose into an uplifting and quite special experience.

This is true of all of Andrews work, no matter how smutty or silly. His desire to delve beyond the limits of so-called "legitimate" cinema to seek art where it is ample is commendable. Painters know that the imitation of life - any life - is better than a faked foundation. Why shouldn't filmmakers follow the same inspiration rules? Giuseppe Andrews understands this all too well. This is why his oeuvre is so outstanding. This is why, no matter the pronouncements, he'll never fully leave behind his trailer town roots.

Scores: Garbanzo Gas

DVD

Scores: Cat Piss

DVD

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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