22 June, 2010

Revenge of Suspense, Laughter, Violence, Hope, Heart, Nudity, Sex, Happy Endings... Mainly Happy Endings

So here's the thing.

It is rather an impressive feat to manage to be a jerk even when you are explicitly trying not to be.

Last year, I posted about my experiences while queueing for film festival tickets, and my annoyance at these two guys who parked their car on the forecourt in front of the ticket office, sat in their car for a couple of hours, and felt that this entitled them to take the front position in the queue. I also mentioned how angry I was, both at them for being jerks, and at myself for letting them take that front place in the queue. So this year I was ready, I've spent the last few weeks psyching myself up for this. If they did the same thing this year, I would wait until they left their car and tried to claim front place, and then I would refuse to accept their claim. I would send them to the back of the queue, with (I assumed) the support of those around me. (I would have discussed it with people ahead of time.)

So it was 6am, I was walking to the ticket office, I could see it at the end of the street, and it was empty. Not a soul was visible, no cars, nothing. And then, as I watched, a minute away from the ticket office, a car pulled up, but not on the forecourt. A guy got out and put some box-shaped object on the ground in front of the ticket office, then went back to his car and brought another out to stack on top of the first object. As I walked up, I saw that he had two stereo speakers, one on top of the other, and he was putting a jacket around the speakers. And sure enough, this was one of my mortal enemies, and look, there's my other mortal enemy sitting in the car.

So the guy looks at me and comments that this was their "person," that they decided "not to be jerks" this year by parking on the forecourt, and rather they had made this person as their stand-in holding their place while they sat in their car in the car park a few metres away. Well, I wasn't expecting this exact situation, but I was still mentally prepared to take a position on this issue. "No," I said, "you cannot save a place with a stereo. If someone wants to wait in the queue and save a place for someone else, that's one thing. But inanimate objects do not get to save places for people." I told them how annoyed I was at their actions in the past, and I felt that their actions this year were just a further example of inappropriate behaviour.

So they tried to defend their actions.
"But it's cold," they said.
"I know it's cold. I know because I'm cold."
"Well you could bring your car and wait in it if you wanted," they said.
"No, because that's just not how you queue. Plus, if everyone queued in their car then pretty quickly we'd have thirty cars and a bicycle lined up in front of the ticket office inconveniencing everyone."

So they went, and they sat in the car. Meanwhile I stood out in the cold, standing by the two speakers. I had made my position clear - I did not accept their scarecrow saving their place, and I was planning on moving it out of the way, but I wanted to wait for someone else to come along before I did so. (I felt that I wanted someone else in the queue to support my position that their claim had no validity.) But after five or ten minutes, they must have had a change of heart. One of the two got out of the car, put the two speakers side-by-side to form a makeshift chair, and sat down, where he stayed until the ticket office opened. "Victory," I thought.

Here's the point where they actually became jerks. Since the guy sitting outside was now not in the car, he couldn't listen to the music they had playing. So the other guy opened the doors, turned the stereo up, and proceeded to play some really bad music really loud (certainly much louder than should be allowed at 6.30 in the morning). So here I am, trying to listen to episodes of This American Life on my iPod, but since the show is mostly just talking, even with the volume turned right up, it was hard to focus on Ira Glass's voice with the constant barrage of noise coming from the car. The guy who wasn't in the queue started doing something around his car (I wasn't paying close attention, but it seemed like he was cleaning the windows, which seems like a weird thing to do), before eventually driving away about 7am, only returning shortly before 9am to pick up the speakers and then leave again.

Meanwhile I waited, happy in the knowledge that I had actually won, and at 9am, I bought my tickets. This year I'm going to either 22 or 24 films (depending on how you count them) which makes this the most films I've been to during the festival however you count them. I'm going to be seeing:

* The Concert
* Animal Kingdom
* Four Lions
* The Housemaid
* Once Upon A Time In The West
* Exit Through The Gift Shop
* Cell 211
* Please Give
* The Most Dangerous Man In America
* A Prophet
* The Ghost Writer
* Oceans
* The Two Escobars
* Farewell
* Winter's Bone
* Cyrus
* Splice
* Carlos (Parts One, Two, and Three)
* The Double Hour
* The Red Shoes

There's a lot of films that I'm really excited about. I'm probably most looking forward to Once Upon A Time In The West. I've actually owned it for about five years, purchased solely on the basis of reputation, but just never got around to watching it. But I recently watched Once Upon A Time In America (another film I've owned for years but never actually watched) and loved it, and that reinforced my need to actually start watching Leone. And now I have the opportunity to see one of his best films at the Embassy? That is exciting.

And speaking of classic films, I've also never seen The Red Shoes, which is supposed to be extraordinarily beautiful, and with a new restoration should be a great experience.

I'm also excited to see The Illusionist, the new animated film from the director of the incredible The Triplets of Belleville. That film was quite openly inspired by the comedy movies of Jacques Tati (indeed, in one scenes the characters watch a Tati film), so it's especially exciting that in this film Sylvain Chomet is working from an unused script written by Tati.

I will admit that I am conflicted about including Polanski's new film The Ghost Writer. A friend and I had a debate last week about the film - my friend saying that she would take a principled stand against Polanski (who has, admittedly, done some rather unsavoury things in his lifetime) and refuse to see anything he does. I'm not a big Polanski fan in any case (although Chinatown is really is phenomenal), but The Ghost Writer (which had most of its post-production undertaken by Polanski while on house arrest) has a great cast and has received some really excellent reviews, and if the film were from anyone else, I wouldn't hesitate to see it. And so I don't really see the point in refusing to see the film. I don't really think Polanski cares whether one person in New Zealand refuses to see his film because of something that happened thirty years ago, and for me to refuse to see it would deprive myself of a film that I might enjoy in order to make a point that no-one would notice or care about. And what would be the point in that? So I'm seeing it.

The Two Escobars is a film I would never have thought about seeing but for a coincidence of timing. Although it's not mentioned in the programme listing, the film was produced as part of a highly-acclaimed series of 30 sports-based documentaries intended to commemorate ESPN's 30th anniversary, and the day before the festival programmes came out, my favourite TV critic previewed the upcoming screening of the show in the States with the comment that "It's an incredible film, arguably the high point so far in a series that's been full of award contenders."

Similarly, the programme description of Winter's Bone doesn't sound too fascinating, but a week ago I heard several highly-praising references to the film, first a brief reference in the Firewall and Iceberg podcast, and then an entire segment dedicated to the film in the AV Talk podcast, so I'm excited about that one.

I was toying with the idea of seeing Predicament, the New Zealand film that is having its world premiere as the official opening night film. But when I realised it would clash with Inside Job, the documentary about the recent financial crisis (because yes, I am that boring), my decision was made for me. If Predicament turns out to be any good, I'm sure I'll have other chances to see it.

Then there's the Carlos the Jackal biopic, Carlos. I was uncertain about seeing the film - it's actually three films totalling 5 1/2 hours, and a film at that length can be daunting, especially if the film doesn't work for you. But a quick Google search brought up a lot of rave reviews from the Cannes festival, so it should be good.

Back in 1999, Vincenzo Natali's Cube was one of my favourite films of that year's festival. I don't think I've seen anything of his since then, so it will be interesting to see Splice and get an idea of how he's developed as a filmmaker, especially now he's working with (I assume) a bigger budget.

And then there are the rest. A Prophet is supposed to be incredible, The Double Hour sounds fascinating (although I am anxious about seeing it at the end of a day that features the marathon Carlos), Exit Through the Gift Shop is supposed to be a lot of fun (although I know even less about the film's subject, graffiti artist Banksy, than most people), and the rest of them just sound like they should be enjoyable movies. And then there are all the films I wanted to see but can't get to because of time clashes (a lot of those this year) or just needing to keep the number of films down to a reasonable level. It's been a particularly hard festival this year to make my film selections - and that's a good problem to have.

For me there are two real disappointments around the festival. Having attended the Live Cinema event the last few years (where they screen a silent film with live musical accompaniment), I was a little disappointed by this year's Live Cinema film, which doesn't interest me at all. Still, I wasn't too disappointed until I discovered that, in Auckland, they are showing Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr - one of the best films from one of the masters of silent comedy. Now that would be a great film to see, but sadly the Wellington festival isn't getting it.

The other disappointment is around a film that isn't screening anywhere in the festival. The first time I ever saw Metropolis, it was at a festival screening of the then-new restoration back in 2003. Of course, since then, the complete uncut print of that incredible film has been discovered and, with it currently screening in US cinemas, I had my fingers crossed for a festival screening of the complete Metropolis. Sadly, the film is nowhere to be found in the programme. I was hoping for my first viewing to be on the big screen, but it seems I'll probably need to wait for the Blu-Ray release later this year.

Still, with such a wealth of potentially enjoyable and possibly great films ahead of me, I can't be too disappointed. I'm anticipating a good festival this year. I have my tickets, now I just want it to start.

19 June, 2010


So here's the thing.

I think I may be a monster. I'm worried that I may be a horrible, cruel, unsympathetic person.

Let me explain: this whole thing has arisen out of an episode of the This American Life radio show. I've written in the past about my love for the show, and two years on from writing that post, I remain utterly fascinated by it. I look forward to hearing each new episode, I'm still working my way through the 400-odd episode backlog of the show, and it still hasn't lost its hold on me. I love it, and if you've never heard it, I strongly encourage you to go to the website and just start listening. It's really great.

There's one story in particular that I would encourage you to listen to. It's from episode #363: Enforcers, and the story runs from 5:30 to 35:30 in the episode. So it's a long story (half an hour), but it's worth it. Feel free to go away, listen to it, and then come back.

Okay, so hopefully you've listened to it. If you haven't here's a quick summary. These three guys run this reverse-scam on someone running a Nigerian email scam. The three guys pose as a church, and then when the person running the scam (who incidentally really is Nigerian) asks for money, they tell him that if he travels to the neighbouring country of Chad, the representative from their church's mission will be able to meet him there to give him the money. Now, bear in mind, as far as the scammer knows, he's stealing from a church, taking money that is intended to help the people of the region. So the scammer travels across the border into Chad. But then the church's representative supposedly has difficulties getting to to where the scammer is, so the scammer has to go further to find the representative. And so slowly they draw the guy deeper and deeper into Chad, further and further away from home until finally he's 1400 miles away from home, in a city on the edge of Chad less than 100 miles from war-torn Darfur. In other words, this is a bad situation for the scammer. And then they left him there. For weeks, months even, constantly emailing him "it won't be long" to keep him around in this very dangerous situation. And he was apparently in real danger, but still he waited and waited for his money to come. Eventually the three guys got bored with him, so they emailed him and told him they had heard that his mother was dead. The scammer no doubt had a few moments of horror, but eventually got in contact with his family and discovered it was not true. And so the story ends, the scammer knows he's been played, goes home, and resumes scamming people.

Anyway, I loved that story, I genuinely think it's a fascinating story. In fact I told it to a few friends of mine, none of whom expressed any concerns about the story until I reached the part about the dead mother. Then people tended to speak up - "Oh, that's gone too far, that's not funny at all." Which I don't understand - I mean, I realise that hearing that your mother is dead is not good news, but it's not like she's really dead, and as soon as he gets in contact with his family (which you know became his first priority on receiving the news) he'll discover the lie. But the other thing I don't get is why it's the dead mother story that goes too far. I mean, why didn't my friends say anything when they abandoned the guy in a dangerous town right beside a war-torn country. Now, my friends all claimed that they had been concerned at that point, they just hadn't said anything. Maybe. But it was the dead mother story that prompted them to speak up, which would suggest that they thought that was worse than leaving the guy in Chad to begin with. And that I don't get. I don't see why telling an easily and quickly disproved lie, even one as personal and upsetting as "your mother is dead" is that much worse than putting someone in a life-threatening situation.

Anyway, there a reason why this has come up again, a couple of years after the episode aired. An interview that TAL host Ira Glass recently did has been posted on the show's website, and there's one point in the interview where they ask about instances where someone thinks they'll be the subject of a positive story, and it turns into a negative story. Ira's response?

It was a story we did about those guys who - you know those Nigerian e-mail scammers? There are guys who reverse-scammed those scammers, and a bunch of them got in contact with the radio show, saying "we're doing this really funny reverse-scam against those Nigerian scammers", and the reverse-scam basically involved - they tried to get one of those guys into a war zone in Sudan, and he nearly died, and it wasn't funny at all, and the guys seemed like monsters. But they didn't seem able to tell.

I remembered the show well, and I remember that at the time Ira wasn't entirely impressed with the guys - he clearly felt they had gone too far - but "monsters"? Really? Had the story been that unsympathetic to the reverse-scammers, had they really been presented that badly, and I completely missed it because I was on their side? So I listened to it again, and indeed the reverse-scammers really were presented very negatively, pretty much as monsters - laughing as they read his emails about his difficulties and troubles in Chad. And I missed that, because I had no problem with anything that they did.

Now, it's not like I'm entirely devoid of sympathy. Admittedly I don't have any sympathy for the scammer, nor to be honest do I have any sympathy for the scammer's victims (most of whom are, to be honest, fooled by their own greed). But listening to the story, I felt a lot of sympathy for a lot of people, chiefly the people who have to live in the town normally, whose lives are in this horrible dangerous town. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to have to spend your life there, knowing that the prospect of a violent death is that close. So I do have sympathy, I just don't feel any sympathy for the scammer. This is a guy who came to the town, and then chose to stay there knowing it was dangerous, because of his own greed. The three guys baiting him didn't force him to stay, they just held out a choice, "our money or your life," and he wanted the money. He could have left at any time, but he chose to stay because he wanted to steal from a church money that was intended to help people. And he made it out alive - I would probably feel differently had he died in this situation, but since he didn't, so I don't need to worry about moral issues about responsibility and can just enjoy the story. So I can't understand why this guy gets any sympathy. Why are the three guys baiting him monsters, am I a monster to being on their side, and why is the thieving bastard trying to steal money intended for charitable purposes not a monster? I honestly can't understand it.

I mean, there's a little coda to the story where the scammer actually manages to do worse than try to steal charitable money from a church. Some time later, the guys are contacted again by the same scammer, and this time they pose as a father with a sick child. At one point, the guys tell the scammer "I need the money for an operation to save the life of my child," and the scammer says "give me your money, and the money you make will pay for the operation." The scammer was actively trying to steal money believing that without that money a child would die. And I don't see any ambiguity about that. That is evil. Pure evil. And from my point of view, someone as evil and hateful as that deserves everything that he went through. Every single moment of terror, of pain, of grief, all deserved. And I find it bizarre that anyone would argue that there is anyone else in the story that deserves the label of "monster". And yet the guy who makes the show that raised the whole issue thinks I'm viewing this story from the entirely wrong point of view.

So this is what I'm grappling with. Who are the monsters in this story, and if it's the three guys (which it seems is the position of both Ira and those friends that I told the story to), then what does it say about me that I am on their side? Does that make me a cruel and unfeeling and vindictive monster because I can't see how terrible they are? I like to think I'm a generally good nice person, and while I occasionally joke about hating all of humanity, I don't think I'm that bad. But who knows, perhaps my grumpy-old-man act isn't as much of an act as I thought it was. Perhaps it's hardened me to the point that I can easily dismiss the suffering of another person with a response of "he deserved it, the end." And the thought of actually being that person scares me.