Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Favorite True/False Films

It Felt Like a Kiss, dir. Adam Curtis, 67 min.

Adam Curtis, whose earlier True/False Film Festival entry was The Power of Nightmares (2005), this time has brought a film he describes as much more experimental than his usual style: It Felt Like a Kiss is a frenetic, hour-long nonstop montage of historical footage, pop music, and social, cultural and political critique of America and its role in the world in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rock Hudson and Doris Day frame this story of America’s national psychosis: at home, misogyny, domestic violence, homophobia; abroad, CIA-sponsored coups, the effects of which have been felt most strongly decades later. Curtis’ premise is that every day, thousands of events happen to thousands of people; at the time they may appear meaningless, but later we tell the stories. History looks very different in retrospect.

The film has no voice-over narration; instead there are some (very crucial) subtitles, but the images mainly stand on their own. Curtis uses the montage technique to great effect, with radical juxtapositions: shocking footage of a child receiving electroshock therapy, followed by footage of Andy Warhol joking with a cameraman. The child receiving electroshock was one of the most horrific images I’ve seen in a film – it’s practically like watching a snuff film. The idea that parents would subject their child to such treatment – which was prescribed to him as a cure for “homosexual feelings” – is unimaginable. That American society was so barbaric as to permit this treatment is tragic. This is part of the meaning behind Rock Hudson appearing so prominently in the film, à la Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (the queer reading of Rock). We are then told that Lou Reed, future lead singer of the Velvet Undergrounds, received electroshock therapy at age 17 for just such a “sickness;” he reported that it left him unable to feel empathy.

Here’s another shocking secret about American culture: the title of Curtis’ film is taken from the title of a song by Carole King, which was written about her babysitter Eva who was being regularly beaten by her boyfriend. “He hit me…and it felt like a kiss.” The song is about domestic violence as an expression of love. Eva became “Little Eva” and had her own hit song, “The Locomotion.” And Tina Turner wanted to have a hit song so she could have a solo career and escape being beaten by her husband. The film is interspersed with scenes from the Miss America pageant, cosmetics ads, a woman talking about “sex appeal,” women reacting to simulated violence, and repeated imagery of a little girl (4 or 5 years old) strutting back and forth as if practicing for a beauty pageant while Mom smiles on (and Dad is presumably behind the camera).

The Manson family, Richard Nixon, and Enos the Chimp – the first chimp to orbit the earth – are all tied in as well. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys admitted to hearing “loud shrieking screams” in his head, which he could only drown out by writing happy songs; and Nixon admitted to seeking psycho therapy to treat “feelings of doom.” The director of CIA’s covert operations went mad and killed himself. All the stigma against mental illness and those who seek help was, perhaps, a contributing factor in America’s insane foreign policy of the Vietnam years. I felt a great deal of empathy for Nixon, believe it or not, as I watched this film.

All this montage is held together with an upbeat soundtrack of rock, folk, and pop music, including songs from Motown, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, and Peggy Lee. As strange as the song "It Felt Like a Kiss" is, Peggy Lee's song "Is That All There Is?" is even more bizarre; it captures the extreme psychological detachment of this period "right before the hippies came in," as Curtis likes to say. This was one of my favorite films at this year’s True/False Film Festival, and I liked it so much that I watched it twice. But don’t look for this film to get distributed; Curtis made is as part of an enormous art installation that was put on in Manchester, England, where it was at the center of an interactive art exhibition / “experience” that sounds pretty wild. (Curtis described it to the audience before each screening here in Columbia.) The installation belonged to the genre he calls “immersive theater.” He also said that he made the film “for his own amusement,” and I heard that he has not sought permission to use any of the music. It’s a shame, but this probably won’t be shown much in the U.S.; in fact, this festival appearance was the first time it’s been shown outside of Manchester.

And Everything Is Going Fine, dir. Steven Soderbergh, 89 min.

My favorite film at the festival was And Everything Is Going Fine, the documentary about monologist and actor Spalding Gray, who committed suicide in January 2004, two years after a serious car accident left him in a state of permanent physical and mental pain. According to his wife, Kathy Russo, he had attempted suicide 8 times in those two years. The film does not focus on the tragedy of his life’s end, but rather on the brilliant life and career of this amazing individual.

If you are a Spalding Gray fan, you have to see this film; it’s amazing. We see Spalding Gray “up close and personal,” as they say, telling us the story of his life, in his own words and in his own inimitable style. The film combines clips from his performances as well as interviews conducted for the film. We learn about this shy, awkward kid, middle son of a loving but repressed family, and the mother’s tragic struggle with mental illness. For that reason the film resonated for me with It Felt Like a Kiss; the tragedy of our culture’s inability to understand and care for depression and mental illness has had such tragic effects. For Spalding Gray, this meant he spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of his mother’s emotional detachment and suicide; we see his obsession with suicide in these interviews. Gray made a career based on revealing and exploring his own neuroses, which he succeeds in making compelling to others, primarily through his humor.

For me, And Everything Is Going Fine also resonated with other films at the festival, particularly Enemies of the People, the Cambodian documentary about the genocide of 1975-1979, because Gray acted in the film The Killing Fields (dir. Roland Joffe, 1984), and in one of his monologues, Swimming to Cambodia (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1987), Gray described his experiences making the film.

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