From Baltimore to Berlin.
For our third edition, the journalist David Blot brings us into a unique world, that of the documentary. True or False. Always original and fascinating.
Putty Hill (2011)
We are in Baltimore today. Putty Hill is a fictional documentary about a group of teens and their proletarian families in Maryland. Nothing is different in appearance from 2011’s Kids or from any of Larry Clark’s other films made fifteen years prior: the characters have more or less the same look, there are the same broken families, the same spliffs to smoke, even the same skate parks as their activity of choice, and the same ‘it girl’ in the starring role (Chloe Sevigny at the time, Skye Ferreira here). The setting and characters are the same, yet the film is the antithesis of Clark’s: no trash, no violence, no voyeurism. With some very elegant staging, the image you see across the screen is often beautiful and even more remarkably, very polished for a (fake) documentary. And then, the more time goes by, the more Putty Hill comes into its own, very softly, very quietly, too depressed to be depressing, becoming almost serene.
House of Bamboo(1955)
We are in Tokyo in the 1950s. House of Bamboo, a classic film noir, however, is not really a ‘noir’ like all the others. Primarily because the ‘black’ here only refers to the genre, because the film itself is done in absolutely gorgeous colours. Secondly, because the setting is Japan, a post-atomic 1950s Japan, before technology dominated everything, where even the most criminal of Americans victors ran a whole section of their society. And third, because it is directed by the wild and feared Samuel Fuller, but here we find a pacified Fuller, focusing on the traditions of another culture and producing a true mini documentary in Technicolor by way of a thriller, which also happens to be beautifully filmed, including some breathtakingly audacious shots and a spectacular Hitchcock-esque finale.
La vie à l’envers (1964)
We are in Paris during “The Glorious Thirty”, with plenty of jobs and full of hope for the 1960s. And yet it is in an ode to depression that we meet the elusive Alain Jessua (only nine films to his name, this one being his first) and in which we come across most of the essential themes of his work to come. Charles Denner, a nihilism enthusiast, has only one mission: to ignore his wife, his family, his work, and then people in general, crowds, nature and even the furniture that surrounds him. And he does it. Happily. It is perfectly written and directed by Jessua and of course perfectly played by Denner, with Jean Yanne as a bonus. Available in full on the site lesintrouvables.blogspot.com and highly recommended.
Pumping Iron (1977)
We are all around the world. In the world of muscles. Pumping Iron is a fascinating 1970’s documentary about international bodybuilder competitions, which produced stars such as Lou Ferrigno, the future television Hulk, but not least, the six time winner of the Mr Olympia title, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The latter quasi demi-god plays the main part of the show with all the cunning of an Austrian rascal, winning the competition even before going on stage by intimidating, his opponents psychologically – like poor Lou Ferrigno who he made short work of. Except for Arnold, the bodybuilders here end up seeming like big teddy bears of unfailing kindness with disproportionate levels of determination, spending their lives examining themselves in the mirror for a crypto gay competition of fleeting vanity. One would almost want to have a drink with them if we did not fear that a simple, friendly pat on the back would knock us to the floor. And Arnold reigns supreme in this strange, small world. When we understand the career of this man it reinforces the totally stupefying, or rather anabolic, aspect of this totally unique film.
Moi, Christiane F., 13 ans, droguée, prostituée… (1981)
We are in Berlin in the dark, heroine-chic 70’s. Christiane F, based on a hugely successful best-selling autobiography, is much better than its smutty reputation. Its true the cliché is really difficult to avoid when it comes to portraying heroin addicts (de facto…), yet nothing is sugar-coated in this cold and devastating film, not even the age of the actress who was the (true) Christiane F. And we must note that the original German title (Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, which can be translated as “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo “) is far less catchy than the French translation. Finally, that the film had a considerable public impact when it was released does not change the fact that it is still damn good today. It lies halfway between the More by Schroeder (1968) generation and Larry Clark’s Kids (1995). Ps: the live appearance and soundtrack by David Bowie, who, if he ever made any original piece, allowed the director to pick from the top four albums by the Thin White Duke, namely the period from 76/78 of Station to Station and Heroes. The music is, therefore, perfect.