This week's Doc Talk was inspired in part by Dennis Lim's recent New York Times piece on films that blur the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction. I love the opening paragraph, which through the ideas of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette states a belief I've always carried, that all movies are documentaries in some way or another. I'll forgive Lim for not addressing this year's three biggest question mark docs, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish and I'm Still Here (and salute Eric Kohn's lumping of these "elusive" titles), all of which have been met with doubt with regards to their complete truthfulness.
But I'm not concentrating on that topic now. Perhaps later once I've seen the Joaquin Phoenix movie. Instead, Lim's article got me curious about Ulrich Seidl's Animal Love and that subsequently put me in a mood for a triple feature focused on docs about pet owners. So I followed the Seidl with the Hurricane Katrina film Mine and the Errol Morris classic Gates of Heaven, which I'd somehow never seen before. I'm currently in the market to get a dog and I thought this trio would fit this perspective.
Afterward, though, I'm a tad fearsome of becoming an obsessive owner -- or at least afraid of the emotional attachment and possible sadness that would come if my dog is lost or dies. I wonder if you pet lovers are better off just renting Marmaduke when it hits DVD next week than viewing any of these documentaries.
Animal Love -- aka Tierische Liebe (Ulrich Seidl, 1995)
Despite Lim's adjective for Seidl's docs, "unflinching," I went into this bizarre Austrian film expecting something weird yet enjoyable. Maybe I should have first looked up the Village Voice write up from last year's BAM retrospective, and seen that Animal Love "may sound cute; it's actually one of the most disquieting films of the 90s." Yeah, it's a bit disturbing, and not just because the doc focuses more on the sex lives, or lack thereof, of certain subjects than it does on their dog or rabbit. Sometimes their sex life is implied to include the pet. There is no technical bestiality to be found on screen, but one woman comes awfully close.
There is also some actual sex between a kinky couple (both humans, I promise) and a shot of a man masturbating. As for the animals, there are some upsetting moments, such as when one large dog attacks another and draws blood. I also felt bad for the bunny being used as bait for the masturbating guy's panhandling scheme. But there are also pleasantly surreal and hilarious scenes, such as when a roomful of bedridden old people get to have rabbits jump all over them and a near-ending reveal of an afghan on a treadmill. I'm probably spoiling it for you, but unexpected that last one could have you in stitches. And maybe even let you leave the film with a smile.
The way I'm describing the film, though, you might not be encouraged to view it. I'm glad I watched it. You may be glad I watched it so you don't have to. It is really fascinating, like early Errol Morris meets early Werner Herzog (who is quoted on the DVD: "I've never looked so directly into hell"). It also reminded me very much of this odd Finnish film I saw at Silverdocs this summer titled The Living Room of the Nation. The blurring involved here is apparently just that Seidl stages scenes -- as in poses his subjects in the frame, though he might also direct and rehearse them, too. That shouldn't seem too uncommon for most doc enthusiasts, who along with fans of cult and avant-garde film are the only people who'll really like or appreciate this one.
Mine (Geralyn Pezanoski, 2009)
This doc will have you less unsettled by the pet owners and more outraged -- again -- at the handling of the Hurricane Katrina evacuations and the storm's aftermath. I don't have HBO and therefore couldn't (yet) watch Spike Lee's new Katrina film If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, so I marked the occasion of the disaster's fifth anniversary with the sad stories of people who lost their dogs, not because the pets died but because they were separated from owners due to frustrating rules and consequences. To simplify, they had to leave pets behind because hotels and shelters, including the Superdome, did not permit animals. Then, animal rescue teams saved many of the pets, but most were either later euthanized or placed with another owner/family.
Some of the questions raised in the film are now moot, since Congress passed a law requiring states to accommodate pets in such emergencies. But some of the debate regarding custody allows for good post-film discussion, as does the overall issue about pets being considered property when many of us think of them as family members, or somewhat equivalent. At times Mine is as heartbreaking as any other disaster doc, regardless of the fact the subjects are talking about animal rather than human casualties, or as gripping as any legal drama dealing with adoption and custody battles over children. It's ultimately a relatively heartwarming doc, however, with some happy endings and positive outcomes (that title about Congress' response especially) and a tone and structure well-suited for Animal Planet or some other appropriate cable channel (it's already aired on PBS' Independent Lens series). Also see Jette's review of Mine from SXSW '09.
Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)
This is that movie about the couple who pose as brother and sister while working on a Texas farm, right? No, but same year and easily confused. And even more boring (just kidding, Days of Heaven is NOT boring). It might just be that it followed the super disturbing doc and the emotionally engaging doc, but this extremely talky and for the most part static film about a pet cemetery is oftentimes as dull as docs get. At least in retrospect. 30 years ago this was likely more fascinating and more fresh that it appears now (it did help launch Morris' career, after all). Today it's more common an idea to bury your pet in a cemetery instead of sending it to a rendering plant -- the truth and history of which did hold my interest at first.
Okay, in all honesty, I loved a lot of the interviewees (like the lady above), many of whom would go off on tangents, apparently just needing to talk about anything as if Morris and camera were a psychiatrist or religious counselor. But I went in wanting to love it and think about as much as Roger Ebert, perhaps its biggest fan and champion. Maybe I'll get more out of it the next time, when I'm less expectant (Ebert's seen it at least 30 times, he claims). For now, I'm still more obsessed with the film's trivial history than with its contents. This is the movie that led to Werner Herzog having to literally (yes, literally) eat his own shoe, after all. Nothing in Gates of Heaven is as interesting as that.
One aspect of Morris' doc that is intriguing is the question of the director's view of his subjects. Is Morris mocking these people? I've seen so many films that are clearly in contempt of the subjects, so I want to say no, that this one isn't funny enough to not be genuine. Or, maybe again I'm thinking about it too closely to Animal Love, which I cannot accept as intending for favorable portraits. Mine on the other hand is quite shockingly even-handed in its objectivity, never once siding with a subject on custody or animal rights issues.