Kurt Brokaw's New Directors/New Films, Part Two
"We Live In Public." When a documentarian as young (36, Yale class of '94) and fiercely dedicated as Ondi Timoner spends ten years of her life shooting and assembling a 90-minute biography on one man from five thousand hours of footage, you're curious to see how she'll protray him in the opening scene. After all, Timoner has directed commercials for big league marketers and knows as well as anyone that, as those Crest ads used to say, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." And so, when we initially encounter the early webcaster and streaming video launcher Joshua Harris, he's making a tape for his immediate family concerning his mother, who's dying of cancer and who he's not going to visit. Director Timoner intercuts Harris' remarks--which feel embarrassed, uncaring and even cruel--with later comments by his brothers, who express their hurt that Josh would not want to join them with their mother. One brother remarks that Harris later sent a condolence tape that was "cold." This scene, as it must, sets a tone for the movie and its subject--Miss Timoner first stickers Harris as selfish, self-absorbed and remote, and her expert, objective documentary keeps building that impression a dozen different ways.
Harris is positioned by the filmmaker as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," and while that's a shrewd marketing ploy, most Madison Avenue Journal readers who were exploring the World Wide Web in 1985-86 will remember Harris as the founder of Jupiter research, one of the first high-tech market research firms. (Jupiter was newly acquired last year by Forrester.). But as a lonely child and avid TV viewer ("Gilligan's Island" was his favorite, and his tastes never rose much above that), what Harris wanted to do more than research content was create it. The core of Harris' career and the heart of Timoner's exploration is in the successive startups that followed. First there was an internet channel (Pseudo Programs) that blended contemporary music, a Prodigy-linked chat room, fun and games, sports and girls galore. That morphed into a four story Soho warehouse which introduced banquet-table dining, pods for sleeping and sex, plus showers and toilets without walls--all covered by multiple cameras. And that launched Harris into his "Truman Show"-styled six-month experiment of living an online existence with a girlfriend 24/7. The smarmy intimacy of many of these scenes is voyeuristic and hardly pleasant to watch. You may feel you're trapped in an XXX-rated zone, somewhere between the old Plato's Retreat and Manhattan videographer Ugly George's "Boob TV." Josh Harris is not Jim Carrey.
Still, there are different sides to Harris. When NYPD police and fire departments close his anything-goes warehouse, Harris goes up the country and runs an apple farm. The restless entrepreneur has most recently migrated to Sidamo, Ethiopia, where he heads the African Enertainment Network and is shown teaching basketball to local youths. He's older and heavier and quieter. Timoner includes a brief instructive sequence on the realities of Google, YouTube and other social networks, and you'll wish it was longer and better linked to Harris' original views on the Internet's transforming potentials. The complex and enigmatic inventor is kind of a footnote to the realities we live and work in today, and it's no surprise in the film when a top officer of MySpace tells an interviewer he's never heard of Harris, either. "We Live In Public" is the Closing Night selection of this year's New Directors/New Films, on April 5. It is, to be sure, a sobering look into the ether and a man who never found his kingdom in cyberspace.
"Home". If you're a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker who's made the wise decision to see the debut feature premiere of Ursula Meier's testy and witty new drama, you have a choice. It's showing April 2 at the Walter Reade Theater and April 4 in The Museum of Modern Art. Take the showing in MoMA's Titus 1 theater in the museum's lower level. From time to time you'll be aware of subway trains passing beneath you. They're never loud enough to distract from the movie, and cinestes have long grow accustomed to their muted rumbling. But "Home" is the perfect film to view and hear with the live reminder that when it comes to noise, Manhattan and "Home" are all about our same nightmare.
Somewhere in the French countryside, Isabelle Huppert, her devoted husband (Olivier Gourmet), their teen daughters and button-cute son lead the quietest and most tranquil of lives. Director Meier goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate the closeness of this family--playing a makeshift soccer game, working on a sideyard swimming pool, making the kids' bathtime a genuine frolic. We see their home is twenty feet from what appears to be an unfinished and thus empty four-lane superhighway. Except, of course, the highway suddenly gets finished and cars start whizzing by at 70 mph day and night. And the family starts to go bonkers.
In a way this is what we're waiting for, because no one in French cinema today does suffering and paranoia like the indefatigable Ms. Huppert. Wise, exhausted, empathetic, sexy, Huppert is starting to look like Caroline Kennedy. She'll probably play Caroline Kennedy some day, but for now she's the perfect mom who anchors the family until she sinks into the slippery malaise formerly secured by Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes' "Safe." What happens is yours to discover. Suffice to note that if your big city oasis has ever been punctured by a neighbor-from-hell, an endless street excavation, or a high-rise across the way that takes two years of construction before it starts to block your views forever, you'll take "Home" to heart. Seeing it in the subway-friendly MoMA theater will give it that extra touch of urgency.
"Paper Soldier." In the past year, two of the most corrosive and moving films shown in New York have had their premieres at local festivals--Andrzej Wajda's "Katyn" from the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, and Steve McQueen's "Hunger" from the 2008 New York Film Festival. Both are unforgettable films of war. "Katyn" dramatizes the massacre of 14,500 Polish military officers (including Jews, Ukranians and Georgians) in prisons and open pits by Russian army officers in 1940. "Hunger" re-creates the painful story of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands and 10 fellow inmates who starved themselves to death in Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. This year's New Directors/.New Films have given us a third mesmerizing and not-to-be-missed drama, also with a military bearing but far, far easier to watch. "Paper Soldier" has the completely original premise of taking us into the medical corp of doctors who prepped the first Russian cosmonaut troop for their pioneering space flight in 1961. The setting is a cold, wet, muddy set of buildings in the Kazakh flats, and the countdown is six weeks to launch. Out of this unlikely setting director Alexey German Jr. has fashioned one of the most absorbing and dense dramatic narratives imaginable. Think "E.R." welded into a Russian "Apollo 13" with the kind of filmic sensibility Robert Altman fused into "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." Does that perk up your interest?
The lead physician and his wife, also a doctor (Mereb Ninidze and Chulpan Khamatova) come under intense pressure as they train, monitor and mentor the young cadets, many of whom are frightened at the approaching mission. The husband takes a woefully young lover who confronts his wife, depressing him further. Truckloads of equipment splash onto the rain-saturated grounds. A peasant hauls around a lighted portrait of Stalin for sale. An adjacent Stalinist prison camp is emptied out to avoid embarrassment so close to the launch pad, releasing more lost souls who wander around. A large camel stands neglected and stoic in the rain. One of the cadets is trapped in a building fire and dies. Frenetic days slip into boozy nights. Director German Jr. constructs a multi-layered, intricately blocked series of scenes with overlapped dialogue and bits and pieces of characters and actions that demand your close attention. When the doctor's health begins to fail, he pedals a bike around and around an outdoor shack in the mists--this has the staggering impact of Werner Herzog doing those 360-degree circles around Kinski and the monkeys on the raft in the closing moments of "Aguirre The Wrath of God." We are watching worldclass cinema in this bold and utterly captivating Russian import. There is also a final scene, a coda, ten years after the launch, that's deeply Chevkovian in its implications and impact. "Paper Soldier"will be shown March 28 at MoMA and March 31 at the Walter Reade. This time the choice of theaters is yours. "Katyn" and "Hunger" are both masterpieces that will endure the test of time, and "Paper Soldier" demonstrates anew that screen classics know no borders.