MFF 2012 DAY FIVE: Pink Ribbons, Inc – 11 Flowers – How to Survive a Plague

COMPLETE MILWAUKEE FILM FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE

DAY ONE: Starbuck – Opening Night Party
DAY TWO: Ethel – Come As You Are – Bones Brigade: An Autobiography – V/H/S
DAY THREE: Sans Soleil – Dead Weight – Andrew Bird: Fever Year
DAY FOUR: Inland Empire – Bad Brains: A Band in DC
DAY FIVE: Pink Ribbons, Inc. – 11 Flowers – How to Survive a Plague
DAY SIX: Romancing in Thin Air – Elena – The Imposter
DAY SEVEN: 5 Broken Cameras – Goodbye – High Tech, Low Life
DAY EIGHT: Big Boys Gone Bananas!* – Off White Lies – The Milwaukee Show
DAY NINE: Las Acacias – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
DAY TEN: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Policeman
DAY ELEVEN: Quartet – No God No Master
DAY TWELVE: Mourning – As Goes Janesville – Blackmail – The Ambassador
DAY THIRTEEN: The Invisible War – Klown
DAY FOURTEEN: Old Dog – Little Red – Five Star Existence
DAY FIFTEEN: The Sessions – Detropia

10-1 M
05/15

I am writing this review a full month after the festival ended, and I have learned a valuable lesson about how many films I can conceivably view and report on in a two week period. As such, I am giving the least attention to the reviews on this day, specifically Pink Ribbons, Inc., a Canadian-funded documentary with a relevant message but which left a very minimal impression on this viewer. The pink ribbons used to demonstrate support for breast cancer victims (it does sound silly when you say it like that) have also been abused by myriad corporations in what the film attacks as “for-a-cause marketing” (moving from silly to odious), a curious capitalist phenomenon which creates awareness without action, and which promotes what some women call “the tyranny of cheerfulness” (this I like). This docu details: the Reagan initiative which led to corporate involvement; an appalling level of ignorance on the science of breast cancer; the pink KFC bucket which ignited so much controversy; and some very useful facts about companies who promote breast cancer awareness while selling products that have been linked to cancer. Be scared about ingesting plastic, which is said to mimic estrogen.

To all future documentary filmmakers, hear this!: I am now quite sick of the utilization of statistics like “every 23 seconds a woman is diagnosed and every 69 seconds a woman dies,” alarmist statements which are quite impossible to fully comprehend (let alone prove). You could even say that such statements create an atmosphere of awareness while doing nothing to promote action. So there. This documentary, like so many others, can only mainly be successful if it communicates “stop the machine from consuming us before it’s too late.” Of course it’s an important message. An important message in yet another journalistic docu made by people with no aesthetic input to offer. Yes, I am being subjectively unfair.

“A Portrait of the Communist as a Young Man”

Surely you’re familiar with Wang Xiaoshuai… … …you’re not familiar with Wang Xiaoshuai? Oh, well, then. He’s made about ten films and has received some international notoriety which primarily started with Beijing Bicycle, and naturally I will mention his two films screened at Cannes in 2003 (Drifters) and 2005 (Shanghai Dreams). I had a vague collective recollection of the man, though had not viewed any of his films. And now I must review his autobiographical work, 11 Flowers, about his experience of growing up in a regular rural Chinese town during Mao’s cultural revolution, and focusing on a young 11 year old named Wang and his posse of pre-teen scamps. Already you might be wincing: autobiographical, children, hard times under government – not particularly funny or thrilling, right? Actually I found 11 Flowers to be surprisingly, maybe shockingly watchable, earnest and emotional and well-made and even utilizing child actors well. Thank christ.

I’m going to take this opportunity to opine on children in films. Just for a moment:
I don’t – rather, can’t – usually tolerate films which focus too much on children, for two reasons I’ll list. Primarily it’s because child actors are notoriously misused, miscast, misdirected, written off, simplified – this, however, is all a result of the way a writer treats and views children. Cameron Crowe, for instance, uses them as plot devices and fully exploits their tenderness and naivete (for his purposes this is generally fine, Crowe loves people). The polar opposite is, well, the first worst thing which comes to mind is young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I. The actors in Lucas’s despised canon additions all have free passes, say I, and do not deserve damnation. But call Lloyd to mind in that film – “Are you an angel?” – and see what I mean (Argh – I’m sure my mind only went there because Lucas was in the news so much lately…) My second reason for generally hating children in films is also because of the writers, in this case when we are plunged too much into a child’s perspective, view the world from their eyes, or from a perverted, absurdist perspective that a writer tells us is a child’s perspective; basically, giving children credit or sympathizing with them or making films for them. I find these concepts quite alien and, frankly, weird.

But Xiaoshuai’s kids are fine. They’re just little people. So there’s young Wang and only three days which pass in his town. During this time he is promoted within his class at school to Gym Leader, meaning he stands before about 100 kids and leads daily exercises – quite thrilling for him! His family is criminally poor, so much that buying Wang a single new shirt for his position is an unprecedented extravagence. Btw, another good way to describe this film to others in such a way as to make it sound exquisitely boring is to say that it’s about ‘the misadventures of a pre-teen in communist China and his precious new shirt.’ It’s like Italian neo-realism with more money and time, and without the sinuous beauty of grainy black and white photography (it’s a funny thing to say since film quality in our age is far superior. Digression after digression today, it would seem). Wang meets a activist criminal (the only sane man in the town, actually, and the only moral one) who steals his shirt – wouldn’t you know it? – only to return it at the film’s climax. There’s the very pretty gloomy girl who never says a word, and the really excellent scene where she disrobes and re-robes in the same room as Wang, all the while as Wang hears her father in the next room despairingly going on about the death of his son.

11 Flowers proved to me that Xiaoshuai knows how to compose a film, knows how to let time pass in such a way as to allow his audience of voyeurs to feel it. He directed kids well, didn’t milk for sympathy. In fact, he made me think, “Hm, he’s about a notch or two down from the Dardennes, but that’s still pretty good.” The only complaint I have with the film is that it goes on a bit too long. But it was a fine view, one I was happy to see.

Why is it called 11 Flowers? Goddamned if I know.

Well, folks, it was bound to happen: after 37 other reviews, I officially remember almost nothing from 2012 pro-activist docu How to Survive a Plague. I remember that it is about the horrible treatment of the gay community in the 1980s during the AIDS outbreak and way progress was only possible due to the heroism of an incredibly brave community. I remember that this important yet conventional documentary made me think of The Times of Harvey Milk and how much better that film was. I remember that this was broken up with clips of the growing population of corpses AIDS left in its wake during the 80s and 90s. I will not pretend this film’s message is not important. It was just one of those days. The least I can do is to leave the filmmakers with the message they wanted to leave with their audiences: I remember! (this is the most flip review I’ve ever penned)

Here, I will share some of the thoughts that I had during the film without manipulating them into prosody – just pretend you’re reading the endless, unorganized sprawl of Nietzsche…

-Why does no documentary in the world start with the filmmakers introducing themselves and explaining who they are and why they are conveying the information? Never happens. I’d like to know, among many other things, where the footage we’re seeing is coming from…

-It’s all good information, but it’s technically indistinguishable from 100 other documentaries. I have a growing beef with the myriad documentaries coming out, more every year… it’s journalism, it’s good. Don’t say it’s not. But since so many more people can make documentaries, there are so many more of them, and virtually nobody has the time or inclination to add a damn thing to the medium, or to take the medium into consideration at all. It makes me think of… television.

-Brings to mind Lorenzo’s Oil, which I think is just excellent.

-Sen. Jesse Helms is an evil, awful, ignorant fossil. Just phenomenally, blasphemously ignorant.
(I wrote this during the film, and a month later I admit that I cannot even recall who Helms is)

written by David Ashley

Seen so far:
Starbuck
Ethel
Come As You Are
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
V/H/S
Sans Soleil
Dead Weight
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Inland Empire
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague

Ranked:
Sans Soleil
Inland Empire
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
11 Flowers
Ethel
How to Survive a Plague
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Come As You Are
V/H/S
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Starbuck
Dead Weight

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