Friday, June 28, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010; dir. Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov) is about the small town of Bakhta in the middle of the Taiga in Siberia, isolated by geography and weather from the rest of the world, accessible only by helicopter and boat during the summer, and much of the year completely inaccessible.  Here is another of Werner Herzog’s studies in humankind.  Though he narrates, this film lacks the characteristic irony of his other documentaries.  It takes a more sober and objective approach to documenting its subject than I’ve seen in his other films.  This does not mean that the film is uninteresting—it’s fascinating—but at the same time it may be more conventional in its method.  This may be because Herzog took a four-hour documentary on which the film is based and edited it down to 90 minutes and provided his own narration.  In doing so, he imposed his own sense of shape and form on the content.[1]  This means the cinematography, the choice of subject matter, the general documentary approach were set by the original Russian filmmakers.

The focus is mostly on a trapper who lives with his family in Bakhta and who spends much of the very long and cold winter making his way from one trap to another, looking for ermine pelts to sell and for food to keep himself alive.  It’s difficult to imagine the solitude, the severe conditions, the social and physical abnegation he and others like him suffer.  The film makes you feel it.

Interestingly, although the film shows people whom we assume to be the trapper’s wife and child, they are hardly paid attention to.  They seem ancillary to him, at least in the film’s view, willing to carry out their roles but otherwise to be faceless and unnamed.

Herzog’s interest lies in the pride the trapper takes in his work, the skills he applies, his opinions of what makes a good and bad trapper (greed makes a bad trapper).  He is an intelligent man who thinks in a fundamental but sophisticated way about his life and his fellows.  But his sphere of existence is limited.  There’s no condescension in this film’s treatment of its subject.  There’s also no suggestion that the people of the Taiga lead in any way necessarily better or worse lives than people in other parts of the world.  (We are free as viewers to reach our own conclusions).  What Herzog admires, as his voiceover explains, is their self-reliance, their independence.  Yet they’re not really independent after all.  The trapper uses fuel to power generators and lanterns and the snowmobile that takes him from one trap to the other.  The village Christmas celebration (which occurs on January 6) resembles in many ways an American holiday celebration.  The trapper himself is an educated man who came to the Taiga back in the 1970.  The outer world may be far away, but it is there, nonetheless, and the village depends on connections with it for survival.


Caveats:  Mud (2012; dir. Jeff Nichols) makes some unwelcome compromises.  As dark as it is, it ends in a way that allows us too much satisfaction--the visceral pleasure of watching the bad guys blown away, the happy discovery by Ellis that even though his parents’ separation may be permanent they still love him (sentimental).  Then of course there is the final revelation that Mud himself has survived.  The defeat of the Bad Guys in particular, a gang of hapless and ineffectual thugs hired to kill Mud by the father of a man he killed out of jealousy is unlikely.  They are heavily armed.  They know exactly where Mud is.  They blast repeatedly through the flimsy walls of the house where Ellis and his family live and no one (no one!) is hit.  Mud himself suffers injury only after diving into the water.  Conversely, all the gang members are shot to death by Mud or Ellis’s father or the old man across the river (reputed to have been a military assassin or sniper) with his high-power long distance sniper’s rifle.  It’s all just improbable.  And the final cliché—that of the ne’er do well Mud who finally asserts moral and physical heroism—well, it’s too predictable.

In the film’s larger context these reservations are minor.  Characters are the film’s strength, along with the Arkansas background, which changes back and forth between the seediness of a languishing small town, the riverbank life of fishermen still trying to earn a living by their catch, and the island where much of the film takes place.  Change infiltrates everything.  Ellis and his friend Neckbone are both entering adolescence and puberty.  Ellis is already attracted to older girls and shows signs of being a future ladies’ man.  His parents’ marriage is deteriorating.  People who live in rickety shacks and trailers along the river are gradually moving to town.  We find here the same static small town atmosphere evident in Nichol’s first two films, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011).  The atmosphere can be suffocating, closed in, and you sense that characters want to escape even if they’re not aware of it themselves.

As a young adolescent male Ellis is a passionate romantic.  He can’t understand why his parents would drift apart--because they are supposed to love each other.  He takes up the cause of Mud and his girlfriend because they are “in love.”  He’s unaware of complexities, and part of the poignancy of the film is the outer world of adult reality that the boys know little about.  Things are going on, problems being worked out, issues addressed—all beyond their ken.  Thus it’s difficult for Ellis to understand his parents’ breakup, or why Mud and Juniper, both of whom have put each other through the wringer for years, might need to part ways despite their love for each other.  In particular, it’s Mud who the boys understand and connect with on one level and who on another level they don’t understand at all. (I’m tempted to draw a connection with What Maisie Knew (2012) but will refrain (I haven’t seen it yet); however, the child characters of Faulkner’s early novels, especially The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying do come to mind).

Matthew McConaughey as Mud is as good as he’s ever been—certainly better than the Southern Bible-thumping preacher he parodies in Bernie (2011; dir. Richard Linklater).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Star Trek into Darkness

Waiting for Star Trek into Darkness (2013; dir. J. J. Abrams) to begin, I watched six trailers, each of them presenting a film about the apocalypse.  There was apocalypse by alien invasion (Superman: Man of Steel), by blowing up the White House and Washington Monument (White House Down), by war between planets of the 1% and the 99% (Elysium), by zombie takeover (World War Z).  I was exhausted and paranoid when the main feature began.

The new riff on Star Trek is a riff on the second film of the Star Trek franchise: Star Trek: Wrath of Khan (1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer), which a recent poll conducted by someone who had the inexplicably free time to carry it out revealed to be the most popular of all the Star Trek films.  This new film is not a new version of the older one, but it presents the usual array of beloved characters confronting a younger version of Khan himself, in a similar plot, but with unanticipated twists.  It carries forward, in a certain way, with a particular element of the 2009 Star Trek and echoes the 1982 film and the television series as well.

Star Trek into Darkness is certainly entertaining.  Kirk and Spock and the others work their way into one of those impossibly tight spots well known to the franchise and then, though hijinks and maneuvers that defy logic and the laws of science (at least 2013 science) manage to extricate themselves.  Certain scenes from the 2009 film are replicated—a free fall scene is one.  Khan crashes his space ship into San Francisco, an event which obviously kills thousands of people, but the film (as reviewers have noted) barely takes note of the carnage. 

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan, and as good as he is, he never quite measures down to the gloriously cheesy overacting of Ricardo Montalbán in the 1982 Wrath of Khan—the best Star Trek villain ever.  (I did not like how the 2013 film transformed Chekov into a bumbling clown). 

Most of these younger actors do a good job of inhabiting roles familiar from the television series and the early films.  Chris Pine as Kirk and Zacahary Quinto as Spock are especially convincing.  Those original actors are either dead now or well into their 70s and 80s.  I’ve enjoyed contemplating the possibility of a geriatric Star Trek film where all the old cast reunites in a final episode, cf. Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  But no possibility of that now.

Fans of the Star Trek series, and especially of the 2009 Star Trek, will probably enjoy this new installment.