Sunday, May 10, 2009

Too Little, Too Late

Let's not kid ourselves, we all do it. Whether we hold off on paying bills, make a mad dash to the airport, or wait until the last minute to finish an assignment, procrastination is as American as apple pie. Some of us have become experts at it. Others, like Scarlett O'Hara, believe that extending a deadline is as easy as saying "Fiddle-dee-dee, tomorrow is another day!"

The lengths to which we will go in order to ignore reality can range from amusing to infuriating. 
  • Some men cling to the Peter Pan complex, assuming there is no need for them to ever grow up and act like adults. 
  • Some people cling to immaturity as if it were a lifesaver.  
  • Some people become gym rats late in life.
  • Others rely on facelifts, BoTox, and a wide variety of treatments to keep themselves looking, if not young, then at least somewhat younger. 
For the truly young at heart, aging does not mean the end of useful living. Consider this delightful ditty from Sandy Wilson's 1953 musical, The Boy Friend.

* * * * * * * *
Unfortunately, at one point or another the clock runs out on all of us. Nobody has beaten the system yet. But the growing extinction of species on Planet Earth raises continuing alarms about mankind's future. Many scientists are now pointing to the year 2015 as the tipping point beyond which we may no longer be able to prevent the total annihilation of life on earth. Although Franny Armstrong's latest film, The Age of Stupid, attempts to cast a new perspective on earth's environmental crisis, its premise keeps losing steam as the film format's gimmickry starts to overwhelm her argument. In her director's statement, Armstrong notes:
"Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, did a fantastic job of bringing the public up to speed on the science of climate.  The Age of Stupid takes the baton from Gore and examines the moral, psychological, and human consequences of our current way of life.  The original plan, back in 2002, was to borrow the structure of Stephen Soderbergh's movie Traffic -- six human stories on all sides of a complex international issue. Traffic was fiction/drugs and Crude was going to be the documentary/oil [film]. In May 2007, we held some test screenings of a rough cut and it was a disaster -- only people obsessed with climate change could understand all our subtle links.  To everyone else, it was a hodgepodge of random stories. After despairing a while, I decided to introduce a fictional character, living in 2055, when the planet has been devastated and hundreds of millions of people killed.  He is trawling through "archive" footage from now, trying to work out why we didn't stop climate change when we still had the chance."
The centerpiece of Armstrong's film is the angry founder of The Global Archive (played by Peter Postlethwaite) who lives alone in a mysterious fortress near the North Pole where he has gathered samples of every species, records of every culture, and artifacts of every type to preserve a record of what life on earth once looked like.  

In the year 2055, the archivist is looking back at archival news footage from the first decade of the 21st century and wondering "How could we have been so stupid?" As he reviews film footage of Hurricane Katrina, he compares all the warning signs about global warming to:
  • the furious determination of Indian entrepreneur Jeh Wadia to bring low-fare air service to the subcontinent 
  • the musings of Fernand Pareau (an 80-year-old hiking guide who has witnessed Alpine glaciers melt by as much as 150 meters)
  • the refusal of rural British NIMBYs to allow Piers Guy to erect a wind farm in Cornwall that might spoil their view of the countryside
  • the predicament of Layefa Malemi, a poor Nigerian who dreams of being a doctor but must try to fish in waters that have been heavily polluted by the Shell Oil Company

Although Armstrong certainly deserves an "E" for effort, even with the addition of the fictional archivist her film remains a disappointing hodgepodge. The viewer can easily find the technology at the Archivist's fingertips far more interesting than the archival news footage she has amassed. The "crowd funding" technique Armstrong used to raise money for her film is far more inspiring than the product it underwrote. According to the program notes:
"In one of the most terrifying experiences of the film -- scarier even than being held in a kidnap village in Nigeria -- Franny stood up and explained the idea for the film to 30 punters in a screening room in Soho.  They sold the first thirteen shares that night, which put £17,500 in the kitty, more than enough for low-budget filmmakers to get started. The complete budget of £450,000 was raised by selling shares to individuals and groups who care about climate change (we later realized that one of the key advantages of crowd funding is that you do not have to wait to secure a complete budget before you start).  Our 228 investors gave between £500 and £35,000. Each owns a percentage of the film's profits as do the crew (who worked at massively reduced rates), the organizations that supported it, and the people who appeared in it. This way the production not only remains editorially and distributionarily independent, crowd funding leaves us in the powerful position of owning all the rights. We calculated the film's carbon footprint by recording every journey -- by foot, bicycle, motor boat, rowing boat, plane, train, car, rickshaw, and helicopter -- as well as all the electricity, gas, food. and equipment used. It added up to 94 tons, which is equivalent to four Americans for a year or 185 patio heaters for a month. I definitely think our film is worth 185 patio heaters."
* * * * * * * *

Many people attend live performances or film festivals eager to be entertained but return home disillusioned, disappointed, and depressed by what they have just seen. In some cases a play or film that was supposed to be "daring," "brilliant," "trendy," or "cutting edge" turned out to be nothing more than pathetic.

On numerous occasions in recent years, as soon as Michael Lumpkin (the former executive director of Frameline's San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) started gushing about how much he loved a particular film, audience members would quietly begin to cringe in anticipation. While some of my friends have reacted to artistic disappointments by grumbling about how they'll never be able to get back the two hours of their life they felt was lost to poor programming, I tend to take a more laid-back approach to artistic disappointments.
  • Sometimes there may be cultural issues or a lack of basic skills that result in a substandard artistic product. 
  • Sometimes I am not -- and never will be -- the target audience for a specific kind of show.
  • Sometimes the artist who delivered a truly putrid cinematic mess had less to say (and less skill with which to say it) than a festival's programmers may be able to admit.
  • Sometimes I wonder if festival programmers needed the money from the filmmaker's submission fee so badly that they couldn't bring themselves to say no.
  • Sometimes I wonder if a festival's programmers had a time slot that needed to be filled on the festival's calendar.
  • Sometimes a festival's programmers may have a great fondness for a particular artist whose latest effort is a dud. 
  • Some festival programmers have lousy taste. 
I rarely walk out on a film, hoping that there may be something to be learned from the experience. But there are limits. On numerous occasions, this song from A Chorus Line pretty much sums up my feelings:

With that in mind, mention should be made (albeit briefly) of two movies screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival that proved to be major  disappointments. Argentine film director Gabriel Medina's The Paranoids was most notable for its poor lighting, dramatic inertia, and inability to arouse any sympathy for its protagonist. After more than an hour of waiting for something -- anything -- to happen that might grab my interest, I left the theater in order to make sure I met the deadline to pick up my press pass for a different screening.

Liang Ying's Good Cats was even less successful as a film.  Having seen his previous effort, Taking Father Home, I remained in my seat until to the bitter end because
  • I had plenty of spare time,
  • I kept hoping there might be some payoff at the end of the movie to make the ordeal worthwhile, and 
  • my foot was swollen and hurting.  
Listening to another attendee describe Good Cats as "a massive snoozefest" reminded me of the basic wisdom of erring on the side of caution. Don't waste a precious moment of your life on this film.

No comments: