11 April 2009

Late film festival reviews

Julia - Not a remake of the 1977 drama but a re-imagining of the 1980 thriller Gloria. Tilda Swinton is an alcoholic who has regular blackouts; she meets a woman who's lost her son in a custody battle; Julia undertakes an adventurous scheme; and a series of ever more improbable happenings ensues. I mean, I say improbable, but I really was never forced to suspend my disbelief -- somehow everything followed, all 140 minutes of it. Maybe because much of the last third of the film was in rapid-fire Spanish. I thought it was a fine thriller, and I enjoyed it thoroughly (as the end credits rolled I found I'd been sweating). My only complaint would be to ask whether the resolution was supposed to show Julia accepting that a woman's true role in life and the only path to total feminine fulfillment and satisfaction is to be a mother. That would be a tiresome message, and one that's out of character for her. However, it's a role she rejects at the beginning and one she appears to take on in her last line, so I fear that it's what the film is trying to say. Damn.

Sita Sings the Blues - I remember seeing Nina Paley's comics years and years ago in Seattle's alternative weekly, The Stranger, and I'd heard the copyright buzz about this film, so I was very interested to see it. Now that I've seen it . . .  well, Paley should have had a filmmaker finish it. Blasphemy, I know! Everybody else in the world loves this movie! But honestly, didn't you think that the modern-life sequences with the Paley stand-in and the partner stand-in were just a little bit ploddingly slow? And did we really have to have the message hammered into our heads (that her story paralleled the Ramayana) by seeing the Paley stand-in reading the Ramayana at the end? The dialogue during the Rajput-style sequences was more stilted and slow-paced than seemed intentional; better writing or better voice acting would have improved them. And finally, you know, frankly the musical interludes got a little old after a while. The film is a neat, innovative idea, but it's not as well executed as it could have been.

No one will believe me when I say this, but my lukewarm review of the film is not influenced by my position that I disagree vehemently with Paley's views on copyright, in 2 major ways. First, she says that "[her] personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists," concluding, it appears, that artists will magically be paid enough to support themselves, nay, thrive, even, without having to actually charge people to experience their art. But this is not what happens when you aren't Nina Paley. Remember that she's coming from years of experience, exposure, and relative success with her previous work. She's an unusual case. For every Nina Paley, though, there are hundreds of very talented artists who can't sell a single piece or get a single gig despite years of training their talent and flogging their work. They shouldn't be economic victims of Paley's lofty "[f]rom the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes" ideals.

Second, dude, she took all these songs without permission and ripped off the estate of Anne Hanshaw. (Or maybe Hanshaw had a lousy deal with the music publisher, never saw a dime from the recordings, and was left with no rights to revert to her estate and heirs. I don't know. But bear with me anyway.) Maybe Hanshaw would have been happy to know, before her death, that in the next century her recordings would live on, repurposed in a modern retelling of an ancient story. We can't and don't know; but we do know that it certainly wasn't her mindset when she cut these tracks that she shouldn't get paid for her work because she's adding to "shared culture." Crediting her as the star is sweet and all, but it's not enough. Paley's protesting that she's happy to give the film free to the masses, in the name of "shared culture" and "trust" is very high-minded; but it won't pay anybody's bills.

And a final snark: "Some of the songs in Sita Sings the Blues are not free, and may never be," notes Paley. In fact, this is an incorrect statement of the law of copyright. The songs and the recordings (which are separate things) will all eventually fall into the public domain. Paley's biggest mistake was to use music that had not already done so.

I'll finish on a positive note, though. As an appreciator and former maker of experimental film, I very much enjoyed the rotoscoped dance sequence after the intermission (that said, I'm not sure why an 85-minute film required an intermission. And that said, I'm not the only one who didn't like the movie; some people left during the intermission and didn't return). The piece reminded me of Martha Colburn's work.

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