MFF 2012 DAY FOURTEEN: Old Dog – Little Red – Five Star Existence

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

10-10 W
14/15

I’m seated in a packed Starbucks outside the Fox Bay Cinema after viewing this afternoon’s matinee, Old Dog, a 2010 Tibetan film. First of all, apparently I blinked and when my eyes opened teenagers had become Starbucks’s primary patrons. Second, I think I can count the number of films that come out of Tibet on one hand – not unlike I can use the same hand to count the number of people I’ve met who are from Wyoming. I make the comparison because Old Dog takes place in a town so far removed from civilization that the story cannot help but be a western. We follow middle-aged Ganpo and some old man who live in a generously-termed ‘town’ consisting of one main drag a mile-long and composed of a single row of identical old government buildings. On the muddy, puddled, unpaved road directly in front of the town’s police station is an outdoor pool table where a good amount of time is uncompetitively killed by the locals. This version of the old west feels totally authentic – because I’m sure it is – except that in America, even if western towns may have been hundreds of miles from civilized cities, the spirit of Manifest Destiny and western expansion helped citizens feel they were part of something. This town feels like a place where momentum goes to die – it is rusted, decrepit, always overcast and would be gloomy if not for the breathtakingly splendorous Himalayan panorama that no shot can avoid. What is there to do around here? Slowly smoke a cigarette. Get blind drunk. Laze about the house watching glitchy Chinese daytime television that seems utterly alien even to native speakers. It is a place without hope. The old man tends to sheep with his old dog, a Tibetman Mastiff of an ancient regional variety. Few commodities existing in the area, this thirteen year old dog is sought after by local Chinese, but, no, the old man will not sell. Will. Not. Sell. God, I would love to spoil how this film ends for you. It caused four audience walkouts! Up until the last shot, it just feels like a plotless Umberto D., but there is a laugh to be had (I may be in a minority there). I should just say it because this is a film you will never, ever hear about again. Ooh, the suspense!

“Once upon a time… on a very cold day… in a very boring land…” Well, Tate, let’s just say ‘you had me at hello.’ Tate Bunker is a local cinematographer and filmmaker who won MKE Film’s 2010 Filmmaker-in-Residence program (for which I am transparently envious) and used the program’s generous perks to make an otherwise no-budget loose adaptation of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, staffed and cast with rank Milwaukeeans. Bunker’s short film Studies in Space was also presented, winningly, along nine other short films seen in The Milwaukee Show (a showcase for local filmmakers), and beyond this I was attracted to the affair because I heard his name dropped about a hundred times during the first week of the festival. Little Red seems to have been met with a good amount of positive acclaim thus far. It was shot at the beginning of 2009 on the Red camera and is Bunker’s first feature, though you have to wonder if he submitted it to MFF because he mistook the category title for “Creep City Cinema.” Joshing, of course.

Wholly self-reliant 11-year-old Ruth (Hannah Obst) should really be more careful. Nothing stands in the middle-class pre-teen’s way when she capriciously decides to lie to her guardian, catch a bus to the airport and fake-ID her way straight to Jacksonville, FL, where the plane seemingly dumps her straight onto the beach (a smart primary location for a no-budget film). Her destination is the nearby Cumberland Island “where the horses run free” and where she can demonstrate her inexplicable appreciation of the tiny chapel which saw wedded JFK Jr. Ruth handles her affairs relatively well until her indefinite beach dereliction is interrupted by the continuous popping-up (pun intended) of a methodical old lech pedophile named Lou and played by Mark Metcalf, seasoned television actor and Milwaukee area resident whom you will most likely recall as Seinfeld’s “Maestro.” The non-submersible unit where Lou first works to seduce Ruth all alone on the beach is, first, the film’s best scene, and is sure to give all attending mothers nightmares for the rest of their lives. But really – Ruth, capable enough of acquiring a fake ID at 11 yrs or younger, doesn’t see the supine, speedoed sexagenarian for what he is? Not when he’s brushing the non-existent sand off her flank, offering to apply suntan lotion or straddling her with a camera? What a big _____ you have. Tsk tsk, Ruth. Lou is healthily threatened by the appearance of Paige Bunker (Tate’s inspirational niece), local teenage beach bum who befriends and looks out for the homeless redhead. They frolick a bit, cleverly scam some suckers and circumnavigate the ever-rising Whack-a-Creep (Metcalf indulges Lou with lots of fun salivatory gestures) and then make their way to the magical dream island off the coast of Georgia. And they live happily ever after. Or do they?

“Welcome to the Machine”

This was an accident. It was the only thing I could see that evening, and the prejudice I kindled was validated upon screening the over-produced film. This element of production turns out to be a revealing one, at least I think so, and may explain the entire affair. The source is Finlander Sonja Lindén and this is her first feature film. From what I could glean from the internet, Sonja has been working in film professionally since about 2000 and has primarily produced documentary shorts and eventually some documentary features, and in 2006 she founded Avanton Productions. She is an attractive 40something woman, wife and mother. “So why don’t I feel free..?”, Lindén dejectedly muses to her audience. Lindén parlays these feelings into an impossibly broad-ranging essay on the distracting and dehumanizing influence of technology in our lives whose exponential evolution seems like a force of nature in itself. But after learning where Lindén’s experience lies, I have this to say: Is it possible that you feel somewhat enslaved to your computer and your cell phone because… you’re a producer? Any successful producer absolutely is attached to a cell phone like it’s an IV, and now that we live with email the job is doubled. This sort of explained everything for me. But it doesn’t help that I am really not at all sympathetic to films like Five Star Existence… I see NPR, lattes, a very generalized sense of pantheism – which runs right into strong fanhood of Terrence Malick (Lindén’s cover was blown after I witnessed a low shot of a hand gently running across long grass). I see an audience of sensory input addicts, all of whom very actively utilize modern technology and will not cease after viewing the film. I found myself wondering, “Does Lindén actually use technology any less after making this film?” There’s no evidence of this; she speaks with the resignation of a guilty addict. I can empathize with Lindén’s skepticism, but the powerlessness she seems to feel sort of baffles me; the simple phrase “Put it down” kept echoing through my mind. But of course, this film could be a chronicle of a burgeoning race of addicts who will not ‘put them down,’ who have no wish to do so. Nobody said being the most advanced creatures in the known universe was easy.

Five Star Existence has been referred to as a contemplative essay (no wonder I was prejudiced) and works hard to show the human faces of its subjects, who are briefly interviewed, with disciplines ranging from logging and dairy farming to ‘futurist’ (yes, in quotes) and Professor of Evolving Media and Technology (now there’s a new field). The images you see are all over the place, falling right into the now-genre of films like Baraka and other Philip Glass-composed works: images of offices, assembly lines, e-waste, security camera monitors, urban landscapes and more, sometimes juxtaposed with nature. Yes, there are patterns in nature, but it does not provide me with the erotic excitement it seems to afford some others (it’s my pet theory that such sentiments have more to do with the misty fringe realm of the limits of human comprehension than with anything transcendental). Actually I found the images and sounds presented by the film to be something of a sensory overload, flashily and quickly edited and certainly not comforting (such pacing does not define the whole film – it has everything, you’ll recall). Lindén spies sweat shops of teenage video game addicts, internet addiction/counselling centers in South Korea, a paraplegic who utilizes a really cool invention called a forehead mouse. Every now and then you’ll hear digital sound effects unrelated to the images, such as the unexpected ping sound that Windows makes when you mis-click. Like the morning alarm clock sound, I must say this sound effect inspires in myself a feeling of aversion so powerful it may as well be genetic. Nails on a chalkboard. And the rest of the film is littered with the absurd digital sound effects that have become the white noise of modern existence. The platitudinous nature of the work did not help but goes part and parcel with Contemplative Pattern Films (my new term!). “A small bush doesn’t compare itself to a big tree. Both are fine as they are.” Boy, you said it. And a musing like “We spend all our time looking in…” conflicts with a line we hear later, “We never look inside anymore.” So there, Lindén. Caught you.

The best thing about Five Star Existence, which I cannot deny despite myself, is that it makes you think. Any film so dense with input and so grand in its ambition cannot help but inspire you to question where you fall on the hierarchy of slavery. And this is great (what I thought about most seriously are the health implications of our collectively atrophying posture and the effect this has on breathing, and of course if the brain is not getting enough oxygen it all goes down the tubes). The worst thing about Five Star Existence is that it addresses a problem too large to comprehend and spends time that should’ve gone to research into high-minded rumination, usually via the plaintive running narration of Lindén. The film seems to be primarily aimed at current high-volume tech users who feel guilty and wish to simplify their lives. And there is one big thing this film lacks: Africa. There’s still quite a lot of the world which is not [yet] “on the grid,” and while life in Africa may not be any easier than life elsewhere, I do not imagine that dropping 30 million iPads into the continent will make things better. So in summation, I suppose I am glad I saw this film and thought about its content and I do realize that I may be unnecessarily prejudiced against such works.

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
Romancing in Thin Air
Elena
The Imposter
5 Broken Cameras
Goodbye
High Tech, Low Life
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Off White Lies
The Milwaukee Show
Las Acacias
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Policeman
Quartet
No God No Master
Mourning
As Goes Janesville
Blackmail (w/Alloy Orchestra)
The Ambassador
The Invisible War
Klown
Old Dog
Little Red
Five Star Existence

Ranked:
Sans Soleil
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Inland Empire
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Goodbye
Elena
5 Broken Cameras
The Invisible War
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
Mourning
Policeman
Las Acacias
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Ethel
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
High Tech, Low Life
Come As You Are
Off White Lies
Five Star Existence
V/H/S
As Goes Janesville
Klown
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
The Imposter
Quartet
Starbuck
Romancing in Thin Air
Little Red
Old Dog
No God No Master
Dead Weight

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