Thursday, February 18, 2010

549 - You Aught to Know - Philip Tatler

When I made my list of the 100 best of the decade, I employed a semi-scientific mathematical system (loosely modeled on Mike D’Angelo’s patented “retarded 100-point system”) to come up with an objective rendering of my subjective passions. The resulting list hewed depressingly close to critical orthodoxy. This means I either march in lockstep with the cool kids or that there IS some collective, unconscious standard by which one can measure these movie things (despite Big Hollywood’s recent grade-school jibber-jabber).

I’ll stay away from any further analysis of the Big ‘Uns (Mulholland Drive, Yi Yi, Von Trier’s output, etc.) and highlight one of my heterodox favorites, Stevie.

Thanks to Bowling for Columbine (and, perhaps, reality television’s stranglehold on ratings) , 2002 was the year documentaries became a viable commodity. The Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock model of essay doc dominated the decade’s high-profile nonfiction releases (with the Iraq-umentary subgenre a close second). The documentary’s market value peaked (arguably) with Borat, a film that disillusioned the public about how much influence “reality” filmmakers had over their ostensible subject.

Two weeks after I watched Moore accept his Oscar for Columbine*, I saw the actual best doc (if not the best picture) of 2002, Steve James’s Stevie (#16/100 on my list). James -- most famous for being half the team that created 1994’s epic Hoop Dreams (also snubbed by the clueless Academy) -- shot the film over the course of seven years -- an amount of time almost unheard of for a lot of today’s high profile documentarians. While it’s not a social essay film in the Moore mode, it delves deeper than most into the favored subject matter of political documentary: marginalized America, social justice, the power (for good or ill) of religion, and the responsibility of the state.

Stevie begins with James’s rather simple ambition to check up on the eponymous kid he was assigned in college for an advocate big brother program. James finds a grown Stevie, still living with his grandmother, barely eking out an income, partying too hard, engaged to a golden-hearted handicapped naïf, and stewing with anger at familial and societal wrongs committed against him. Stevie is also charged with committing a particularly heinous sexual crime against a six-year-old niece.

What follows is a document of James’s quest to help Stevie and the filmmaker’s own self-examination about how much aid a troubled pederast warrants. Think of a Ross McElwee-type journey of self-discovery mashed up with To Catch a Predator and a dash of Gummo. James manages to be compassionate without being blind to the truth, exposing his own foibles and tracing Stevie’s psychic disfiguration back to its roots. Few films in the aughts pushed and pulled my emotions/allegiences like this one and even fewer are as stuck in my head.

(* To be fair, I wasn’t a Columbine hater. It smacked of all of Moore’s usual asininity (lazy fact-checking, agit-prop montages, rhetorical questions worthy of a sleazy As-Seen-on-TV lawyer, exploitative use of tragedy footage) but it was engaging as an essay film. The cinematic equivalent of a dubious trashy tell-all.)

Other unheralded (for the most part) items on my list:

#7 - Shotgun Stories – Jeff Nichols’ debut combines folkloric family feuding with an impeccably anthropological formalism that pushes this vengeance tale beyond mere rednexploitation. The same poetic style/biblical heft that I love so much in Malick can be found here.

#9 - Old Joy – A transcendental meditation on male friendship and the disconnect between youthful idealism and mature practicality (see also HUMPDAY for a more comedic, less beautifully rendered version of a similar tale).

#21 - No Direction Home – Martin Scorsese’s best film of the decade and possibly the closest we’ll get to dissecting Dylan’s self-made enigma.

#25 - Lake of Fire – Another wholly ambitious, seven years-in-the-making documentary opus. I’ve heard it (convincingly) argued that the anti-abortion stance is represented here only by kooks (Nat Hentoff notwithstanding). I don’t think that’s fair. If nothing else, the unblinking look at the abortion procedure (and aftermath) should give any card-carrying member of NARAL pause.

#35 - DiG! – One of the most quotable and entertaining documents of willful self-destruction (and mad genius) ever committed to film. Possibly my favorite rock ‘n’ roll movie of all time. “I’m looking up there at the penthouses and then I’m looking down here at the gutter and I’m thinking, ‘eeny meeny miney moe.’”

#37 - Stone Reader – Visually capturing the love of reading is pretty difficult (even with an abundance of naked Kate Winslet). Mark Moscowitz’s obsessive trek to find a recluse author comes as close as I can think to translating the wonderful, and often insane, pathology of book lust.

#55 - The Brown Bunny – Like Von Trier’s Antichrist, Vincent Gallo’s melancholy odyssey is a difficult film completely eclipsed by the hysteria surrounding a notorious scene. For anyone who’s ever had too much time to think behind the wheel.

#57 - The Aura – Like Jules Dassin’s Rififi, this heist film contains a dialogue-free midsection that painstakingly details the frustrating, nerve-wracking, nuts-and-bolts process of committing a crime. Unlike Dassin’s film, The Aura (sadly, director Fabian Bielinsky’s swansong) exists almost wholly in a dream state. The crime itself becomes a metaphysical transformation for the main character, a taxidermist who may or may not be day-dreaming the whole thing.

#59 - The Heart of the World – Just go watch it. Guy Maddin reanimates the Silent Era in six of the most vital minutes of ‘00s cinema.

#67 - Bubble – Steven Soderbergh’s small town crime story was his most formally daring and satisfying work of the decade (though my esteem for GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is gaining). Close-ups of piled doll parts are as important as the murder itself, if not more.

#69 - Down in the Valley – Channeling Travis Bickle and Kirk Douglas’s obsolete cowboy in Lonely are the Brave, Ed Norton gives one of his finest performances as a modern day cowboy living on the edge of L.A.

Worst theatrical experiences of the 00s:

- I remember literally fleeing the theater following a midnight screening of the second Star Wars prequel. I ran across the street, bought a pack of cigarettes at a 7-Eleven, sat down on the curb, and commenced to fuming. After the even-more-horrid third film, I’m pretty sure I hit the bottle upon first arriving home. As a child, I wanted to be Han Solo when I grew up. George Lucas’s first trilogy made me want my own light saber or a blaster. His second just inspired the need to self-medicate.

Best theatrical experiences of the 00s:

- If revivals count, then it’s a four-way tie – a newly struck print of Lawrence of Arabia at the Cinerama Dome, seeing Ace in the Hole for the first time at the Skirball Cultural Center (a discussion on the film’s merits with Neil LaBute inexplicably followed the screening), seeing 9/10ths (I was sick for one) of the Decalogue at New York’s sadly defunct Screening Room on Varick Street, and catching Dark City (1950), They Live by Night, On Dangerous Ground, and Kiss Me Deadly at the 2003 L.A. Noir Fest. If these don’t count, then both P.T. Anderson films were probably my most anticipated, giddy, and expectation-satisfying stints in a darkened theater.

1. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch, 2001

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik, 2007

3. Yi Yi, Edward Yang, 2000

4. Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier, 2000

5. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

6. Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007

7. Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichols, 2008

8. Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki, 2001

9. Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt, 2006

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Peter Jackson, 2002

Philip Tatler IV's only web presence is the occasional asinine remark on Twitter ( and the frequent silence at his Facebook account. Feel free to contact him there with offers to read/buy his screenplays.

Next time on You Aught to Know: The last gasp of humanity


MJC in BKLYN said...

Glad to see a mention of The Brown Bunny. I was a fan of Buffalo '66, but the end of this film caught me completely off-guard--almost unbearably poignant.

PhilipTatlerIV said...

Yeah, the end is as emotionally naked as it is, erm, naked in other ways. And the fact that the poignancy comes from an apparent sociopath is all the more impressive.