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Film Reviews

Simon Jablonski's Weekly Independent Cinema Reviews Column
Simon Jablonski , April 22nd, 2011 12:49

This week, Simon casts his expert eye over Sweetgrass, T33D, Beautiful Liverpool and Taxi Zum Klo

Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass is a beautifully serene documentary that follows a flock of sheep as they are escorted from Big Timber, Montana across the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer grazing. It is a documentary with a difference, in that it doesn’t seem to be about anything; sure, it follows the sheep and the herders around, but it does so in silence and without commentary with the camera, like an ignored ghostly presence in the journey’s path. As such, it takes a restricted stance on its subject, and even leaves it open as to what its subject is.

Far from being obscure, the journeying sheep offer a natural narrative to proceedings. The pattern of the migrating sheep set against magnificent Wild West landscapes that John Ford used to dream of plays out like a peaceful photo montage, as if it were purposely designed for people with high blood pressure. The stationary camera style enhances this photographic effect and draws attention to the hypnotic movement of the sheep. Despite their clumsy nature, from a distance, their patterns formed from their communal gravity give the sheep a grace similar to a flock of birds.

The lack of commentary or explanation goes someway to removing the anthropomorphic element that often emerges when studying animals. Their endless, moronic bleating seems completely capricious and pointless and eventually becomes strangely comical – occasionally sounding like a very drunk person determined to drawl out an explanation as to why they love grass so much.

Beginning with sheep shearing, the ranchers then take the 3,000 sheep on the arduous 150 mile journey over a mountainous countryside facing bear attacks, misbehaving dogs and the stupidity of sheep.

Unsurprisingly, the cowboys are often as fascinating as the marauding sheep. The last part of the journey is completed by an old chain-smoking cowboy whose mutterings gets ever more incomprehensible and a younger man who suffers an attack of acrophobia, yelling his vitriol for the mountains and sheep both at the animals themselves and also down his mobile phone – being involved in the journey is obviously a great deal less relaxing than watching it. The former also offers his own a cappella soundtrack, which brilliantly brings out the isolation of their journey.

Following the slowly dying voyage is a tremendous sense of nostalgia; in some way the serene old cowboy and the frustrated young herder poetically bring this transition out. The premise of Sweetgrass might not sound too exciting, but it's an amazing and original documentary that never allows for a dull moment.

TT3D

A well made documentary can take what you might otherwise find the most inane or uninteresting subject and leave you enthralled. TT3D pulls focus on the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, supposedly the most dangerous and exhilarating race in the world, boasting a consistent flow of fatalities over its hundred year history. Strangely, this doesn’t appear to ever deter any of the drivers at all.

When discussing the likeliness of their death – which could be caused by a 20 pence component suddenly giving up – drivers give a shrug and reel off some form of a ‘you’ve got to go sometime’ sentiment. Their unwavering passion for the sport despite the risk is profoundly compelling, and their stoic nerve is endlessly fascinating. As the film goes on, many of the drivers reveal deeper urges behind their obsession, with a major theme being a grasp for a sense of freedom and a mental ‘emptiness’, in a meditative sense, achieved whilst hurtling along at high speeds.

There is no one universal motivation, and the riders’ characters that come across in interviews are so distinct and bold it’s hard to believe the film isn’t a total set up. The strongest personality, and main subject, is bawdy Midlander Guy Martin, who bounds around with contagious energy and enthusiasm – off the back of this he was given is own TV show on BBC One, The Boat That Guy Built. With bike racing in his family, his entire year is set on this one event in the racing calendar. His passion makes him instantly likeable and you’re behind him from the start, even though his constant ramblings about masturbating get a bit weird (especially when bunk beds get involved).

On completely the other end of the spectrum, Guy’s biggest rival, though ever lovely, is so remarkably dull it’s quite amazing how he got involved in such a sport. In all this build up and back story, you’re instantly involved and swept up in the race in a way that you may never have been.

_TT3D’s subtle use of 3D showcases the expanding potential for the technology. Part of the development in 3D is to remove the showiness so that the audience aren’t being consciously reminded that they’re watching a 3D film - which, ironically, draws them out of the picture. Its use in TT3D isn’t so dramatic that you can’t imagine watching it in 2D, yet it effectively adds more depth to the position of the riders and brings out the curve of the road, all of which adds to the audience’s feeling of involvement.

Beautiful Liverpool

Following on from the Swansea Love Story series, Andy Capper and Leo Leigh’s (son of Mike) latest Beautiful Liverpool focuses on the obsession with a particular notion of beauty in the city. Its complementary perspective on an often ridiculed lifestyle is welcome, yet the underbelly of cosmetic indulgence is largely ignored in preference for plenty of shots of bronzed girls in bikinis.

So strong is the determination of both men and women for cartoonish perfection that intravenous tanning solutions for women and steroids for men are ubiquitous; despite a couple of gasping statistics, though, the first episode is rather tame. We meet a number of stylists, designers and models at a fashion show who talk mainly about clothes and hairspray. Each has such a chirpy disposition it’s impossible to take a dislike to them as people, yet like the disturbing calm of a horror film, you feel the disaster must be to come. But it doesn’t.

Where the series is most effective is in setting up what sounds like an exposé of the bloated side of vanity, but instead delivers a bunch of extremely happy and enthusiastic individuals talking about the wonders of their various products. In some ways, it’s a brilliant counter balance to the unending negative reporting of cosmetic surgery and products.

As the series progresses you’re introduced to an equally chirpy and ever more luminous bunch of characters, some more interesting than others. After a while, few add much to the discussion, which rarely moves further than: 'I like to look good, this is how I do it, and I’m not a bad person for doing so'.

The most drastic accusations are thrown at the effects of steroids, with an ex-user talking about his own mental and physical deterioration. This is put along side a gym full of oddly bronzed body-builders talking about how excellent steroids and weightlifting are.

The film’s focus mainly on adorably happy and frighteningly shiny people is in some way very liberating in that you offered a chance to readjust your own prejudices. Yet if you saw a documentary on cocaine that just showed a bunch of bankers having a right old laugh, you’d feel like an important wedge of the discussion was missing.

One of the interesting points brought up is when someone challenges the idea that it’s best to be natural, and the usual accusations that cynicism is rooted in resentment and jealousy, which is of course bollocks. But it’s hard not to be slightly envious at such buoyancy. The question in the last episode sums it up: ‘How do you tell them it’s a bad idea when, from their point of view at least, what they’re doing is taking something that will make them look better and feel horny?’ However, we’re not told why it’s bad – judging from this documentary, it’s very good. In fact, I might start jamming needles of tanning solution in my eyeball right now.

The idea of documenting this positive side of glamour on a platform you’d expect to take a more scathing view is moderately enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite maintain interest over an hour. By the end, you’re left thinking that you might as well be watching Britain’s Got Talent, or some other superficial clownery.

Beautiful Liverpool will be screened on VBS.com next week

Taxi Zum Klo

One of he more worthy re-releases of the year is classic gay culture film Taxi Zum Klo. Notorious for its explicit handling of the sticky side of love, it was seized by US customs shortly after its release and restricted to private clubs. This makes it sound like a backstreet guts and all gob-fest - yet, despite being graphic, it’s not indulgent and certainly isn’t seedy.

Taxi Zum Klo follows West German primary school teacher Frank as he cruises the toilets and cranny’s of Berlin for sex. He embarks on a romantic adventure when he meets kiosk worker Bernd. It’s little surprise that, in casting himself as the main character (also named Frank), director Frank Ripploh admits that the story is partly autobiographical. He even makes Frank a filmmaker – one such bizarre clip we see is a part fetish, part cathartic short about a boy who is molested by a stamp collector.

Part of the film’s allure is that the sexuality is never explicitly made a focus; the story exists within their lifestyle and the struggles of relationships. Nobody’s actions are vilified or vindicated in virtue of their sexuality, and so the film is allowed to stand up on its own merits rather than for some laudable cause.

Taxi Zum Klo is a gloriously colourful film, with immensely likeable and well-crafted characters. It takes on its subject matter with real emotional authenticity alongside an animated sense of humour. It would be a tragedy if Taxi Zum Klo were thought to be a film belonging solely to gay culture, when it’s a celebration of human will, passion and weakness.

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