Listen to Me Marlon by Stevan Riley

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Listen to Me Marlon is an intimate tonic of observations, moments of being Marlon Brando, culled from tape recordings that the actor made himself, left behind to his estate. Taken up eloquently by director Stevan Riley, an entertaining narrative construct is fabricated, along with extensive archival footage. I’ve never understood an actor more-in-depth than in this fashion, of Brando telling himself, listening to himself, and one is privy to this self-commentary, self-hypnosis.  Through the recordings, one perceives Brando’s truths about underlying conflicts:  being able to survive one’s great talent, and being able to trust and love along the way.

The documentary is bookended by a digital scan of Brando’s face, done late in life, which brings his vital living presence into the archival landscape. One feels that he is with us, or just round the corner of his house, that it turns out, has been rebuilt as a set on which to illustrate the tapes, along with the bulk of archival footage. Through the recordings, we meet Brando reflecting on his childhood, finding peace under the soft leaves of an Omaha tree. He guides us through his impressions of his mother, his early fame as an actor, his abusive father, and his unpredictable personality. The acting comes through masterfully, and Brando distinguishes when he is acting and when not, and what acting is, and how everyone is an actor, lying all the time. In this way, he becomes intimate and real with us, not for anyone, but for the sake of being intimate and real. He is pursuing this journey for himself, for perpetuity, and it’s so much more direct than letters to provide the treasure trove for this documentary work. Brando’s cry for Stella in “Streetcar Named Desire” will have new meaning when his mentor Stella Adler is revealed to be such a rock in his development as an actor and as a person. The film goes into deeper aspects of his disenchantment with acting, specifically in Mutiny on the Bounty. His love of Tahiti, and his purchase of a nearby island grew out of that need to go to a place where he could study people and not guess their expressions. In Last Tango in Paris, we find Bertolucci playing the same game as Brando, so much that Brando feels truly exposed, and, not acting. Riley takes us into the genius of “The Godfather,” and the conflicts and controversies around Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” with Brando changing the script, and with his direct point of view on the production.  He had to become every role, and becoming the Heart of Darkness was by method acting. That he took his acting seriously is true for all his roles, even 12 days of work on Superman. Brando had the gift of time, as an actor, to be able to work once a year. Of the 300 hours of material found,  100 minutes is edited into seamless (un)narrative.  We fall in love with Brando again, and are concerned for him and with him.  There are spots unresolved of course.  He glosses over fathering many children with many women, and seems both oblivious and aware of possible consequences. He had been hurt by his own alcoholic mother, and though supposedly there was one woman he was significantly drawn to, it was another tragedy that director Riley had to leave out to provide the balance the film contains now. There are already the tragedies of his children. The murder by Christian Brando, and the suicide of Cheyenne Brando, which led Brando never to return to Tahiti, his beloved island. He died in Westwood, Los Angeles, but left us with the greatest monologue ever to be edited after death, and in that, brought himself back to life in a way that will never be forgotten or rivaled. He directed in a sense, his own story, and Riley was the right director to piece Brando back together, digitally, emotionally, enduringly.  Listen to Me, Marlon is self-reflexive, as stunningly as it is a directive to a present audience.  We hear you out, Mar.

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Amy by Asif Kapadia

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“Love,” Amy Winehouse says, “is like a drug.”  There is the underlying theme in Amy, in What Happened Miss Simone?, and in Listen to Me, Marlon, of being able to survive one’s great talent, and being able to trust and love.

This reviewer has the same birthday as Amy Winehouse, though unlike Amy, I am not a natural genius at jazz singing. Still, I wondered how I might identify with Winehouse. I found I related to her honesty in the songs she wrote, and her desire for certain love. Her relentless battle with herself as an addict was the thing that took her down. “Amy,” is a doozy of a documentary that escalates chronologically with the ascent and descent of one beautifully talented star on the rise who bursts before she can get grounded. Her life literally burns out, but what a shooting star she is along the way, cheeky, street-smart, and dazzling, if fairly obnoxious about her drug use.

The film is composed of so much paparazzi material that one gets the same strobe-like effect that she must have.  Her twists and turns on and off drugs and alcohol just as she was becoming a Grammy winning pop star made me feel woozy and shipwrecked. Winehouse covers up her pain with drugs and alcohol, and then gets real and tells it like it is, personally, in her songs-which only made her more famous. What documentaries are great at showing, are essential contradictions in character, breaks and cracks that one cannot patch up. It is up to the character, the performer, the person, to be reached, to help themselves, and it is finally when they fail that it is so heartbreaking to witness. The archival footage puts Winehouse close to us, unforgettably so, a big voice with a big face, and a big heart, though compromised to self-sabotage and self-destruction by bulimia and addiction. Winehouse clearly needed an escape hatch, and though she achieved so much as an artist, she never seemed to gain the grounding she needed earlier in her life. Her heart bore her out until it could buoy her no longer. Unbearably sad, this documentary brings it all to life, from her early beginnings, with all the people she was close to, with a husband that would become the black key to her Grammy success, and the stake in her downfallen heart.  As a woman you would have hoped she would gather strength from other women, her friends, but once she steps into addiction, she doesn’t have the support of those same friends. Her final days come down to contact with two early childhood friends, who stuck by her when clean, and a bodyguard. Everyone else just wanted a mug shot of sorts, camera flashes to her eyelashes, including her father. Winehouse spoke to not understanding why she couldn’t get pregnant or have her period, things that when watching, one wishes it had been clearer to her, that the drugs and the stress would impact her hormones to such a degree. Especially when someone is so much watched, so hounded, it is astounding to see how a powerhouse musician like Amy Winehouse can slip away.

We are left with her powerful voice, which sang with Tony Bennett, and the voice lives on. In one scene, Winehouse holds the microphone in front of her throat, her voicebox, waving it around there, as if a gesture of warming it up. Probably nothing, but she points to the magic right there, the treasure of Winehouse. If only we could be listening to that next album. Somewhere along the line, she blurred her belief in herself with her addiction.   Amy is a haunting encapsulation of a great young talent who sings big, and yet can’t find the balance point of that delicate line, living past 28, having created undeniable celebrity. Asif Kapadia lets her tell her story mostly in her own words, though it is often through people grabbing moments of her being in various stages of limelight and behind the scenes. The strength of the sound mix is key here because a lot of the archival footage is not much to watch. It does capture the tragic trajectory of Winehouse’s early teenage innocence and chutzpah among friends, and the not too much later Sid and Nancy like impenetrability of her very vulnerability on her face.  The use of identifying narrators when not pictured is key to understanding who is telling Amy’s story, who is shifting our perspective. The most haunting part of the film is in the song lyrics that appear line-by-line as sung on screen, so you can see, feel, and hear them from the beautiful voice and the mind that you know no longer exists. Her song lyrics are aware, and even sometimes border on Shakespearean spoken word rhyme meets hip hop/pop, however graced by the golden jazz musician behind it. She is able to make a happy birthday song embellished to the max, long before she ever moved out of her family house into her own flat. No one gave Amy a sense of how to hold her own space in all of it, because no one knew how to be her. She went inside to write her songs, but couldn’t seem to sustain that space elsewhere. The brilliance of Winehouse will indelibly endure, though Amy is gone beyond.

“Its always a bit sad at the end, isn’t it?” she queries after recording her grammy winning hit.  Devastatingly true.

Gold Hill by Ed Bowes

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“Yes I do, I speak to myself all the time” says a young self-possessed girl, as if Alice-in-Wonderland. There are many Alices in Ed Bowes’s latest sublime work, Gold Hill, a thirty-minute exceptionally visual palette of colors, faces, utterances, and landscapes, with contemplation beyond. His composition is “near to sentences” (a line in the film), approaching a narrative, but eluding it. Bowes’s palette is conscious in every framing, sometimes focus/unfocused, reality’s edges softened. Other visions appear through re-proportioned perception.

Bowes speaks to the “uninhabitability” of all matters. A young girl speaks followed by a woman working. They are graceful, yet intent, self-possessed, serious, and unafflicted. One woman played by Jade Lascelles, is placed in profile, and one can be startled to make likeness to a Jan Van Eck painting. There are eight characters, or models, all female, extensions of each other, yet distinct, as humans are. There are six contributors to the text, and three locations, set in Gold Hill, Colorado. The text is wise, whispering, and at times almost gibberish. Language is sense and sentience: “And the body moves towards decay and the mind still dancing and the eyes gone astray.”

Faces are land, landscape, ground. Two girls explore speech, utterance, innocent and knowing: “B-b-b-bundle,” says young actor Eva Hunt. The fire-haired actor Toni Oswald walks through a dry field like a shepherd, and ruminates on the element water, her hair like the texture of the wheat/weeds. A cup is poetry, an interlude of contemplation. A hand grabs cash by the cup, and the still life is utterly changed, the cup alone in a greater stillness. Bowes always captures the light on every face in a distinct way that illumines the qualities in that face. An unfocused figure lay on a wood floor. It is poet Anne Waldman, Bowes’s collaborator and wife, her voice taking the form of shamanic query.  “How does the mind go observing?” Waldman inquires. This question may be the at the crux of the film.  A girl tells a story about a dead bat, a bit hauntingly. There are these private intimate moments of speech and utterance and breath that belong to Bowes specifically, in the ways he captures them. There is subtext/no subtext, context/no context, simultaneously. The dream-like compositions help us to hear sound, speech. No story. “Sexual shapes perhaps.” Woman’s voices only. A red thread while speaking creates movement. A paper glides to stillness on the floor. The open flap of a shirt is a image sifted through our consciousness as viewers. What’s in frame is never mundane, even as the person, object, scene is revisioned. There is a sense of the in between, of passage, of observance.

“Isomorphic” tableaus of one, become a duet/duel of conversation; “Monica is an extension of Verena.” The beauty of reality is untrammeled, accentuated in faces, profiles, waves of hair. Bowes gives the endless expression of real reflection, and“pre-language.” He gives us the texture of fiery red hair against a green hilly valley.  The faces look into camera at us calling us out/in.

The internal shone on the face through utterance. Soothing on the eyes, Bowes’s sense of time as a code of character is accessible.  There is a luscious quality to the look, like film.  Eva Hunt: “If you lived in a little village, you might want to tame a wolf…I alphabetize.” There are these riddles and ruminations.  The play of “gravity or heaven” is always operating in the film.  In sepia-toned or painterly stillness, full, half or quarter frames, we meet eight speakers who may be the “capricious girls” created out of six text contributions. Bowes plays applies his deeply developed aesthetics here with a light touch, gracing us with the presences of Gold Hill.

What Happened Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus

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Unlike Liz Garbus’s film about Marilyn Monroe, she does not use subs to stand-in for the legendary artist Nina Simone. She weaves archival footage of Nina Simone, with Simone’s own narrative, in performances and interviews, with angled testimonies by Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, and Simone’s ex-husband/producer. Simone herself is a fiction to behold, self-created from Eunice Kathleen Waymon, become “High Priestess of Soul.” Garbus takes us forward and back to learn more, creating the realization that we can only have Simone in the present via her immortal songs and recorded performances.

Like Love, Marilyn, What Happened Miss Simone? focuses a lot on Simone’s worklife, via the interviews, performance footage, and regards the creation of her songwriting. Simone suffers a lot in her life, her success hard won, lost and regained, but to what end? It is a stunning, startling, haunting, sorrowful, illuminating, and triumphant portrait of the artist. Simone created herself real and then can’t uncreate herself. She moved among great friends, among them Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, most of whom were gone in her later life. We can’t see everything about her time in Liberia, which seems to regenerate her after she leaves her abusive husband. We can’t see everything about her King Lear-like loss of bearings that seems 360 degrees from her essential successes, destitute in Paris, the very city that should have upheld her, and then it did. She started working again, with the help of persons and pills, that may have in some ways taken the live wire out of her, and left her neutral, to work, though without her usual fire and soulful brimstone. The archival footage is, even as a seasoned Simone fan, footage that no one would have ever seen before. It is pieced together such that we get the impact of each part of Simone’s life, the consequences of her success and the way life never let up for her. She was as strong and true to herself as she could be. Lisa Simone Kelly does not pull punches, since Simone neglected and may have abused her, but she clearly reveres her mother’s talent, and refers to her as a genius. She gives her due honor with love’s intention true. What Happened Miss Simone? is also about the people that stepped in to help her and those who hurt her. Sometimes Simone herself stepped out and who could blame her? It is a riveting documentary of a persona that one feels is still here, and one values her music all the more, knowing the trajectory of what happened, and how it imprinted her songs, how they were written, and who she was writing them for. Simone wrote her songs for, as she said, “my people.” She wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” for Lorraine Hansberry. She wrote the four girls killed in a Mississippi Church in “Mississippi Goddamn!”   If only Simone were here to write about this year’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and a song about “Black Lives Matter”. She wrote about all the injustices she lived through or witnessed firsthand; she wrote directly to her politics and she lost commercial currency on that choice. She handed what she felt back to us, and like it or not, she provided us with the medicine, the freedom of her songs. What happened in her life was what happened to her songs. Simone lives in the throbbing heart of music history. Given time on a desert island, I’d still only take Nina Simone’s music.

Casa de Lava by Pedro Costa

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Pedro Costa introduces Casa de Lava (1994) with the note that he discovered he doesn’t want to continue to film large-scale landscapes in nature, from making this production.  It’s true that he now favors illuminated faces framed by small dark spaces. In fact, the cinematography is breathtaking, volcanic rock everywhere underfoot (lead character Mariana exchanges her shoes for the right kind to tread on it). Casa de Lava astounds with its feet meandering along this volcanic ground, Cape Verde-where lively nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros), roams about, seeking the source benefactors of her comatose patient Leão (Isaac de Bankolé). This land becomes her land as she asserts her path between villagers, never losing her alertness, except for a bout of lovemaking with the son of the most alluring and mysterious villager, Edite, played without a mask(Edith Scob), and with such a wild face! Most of the time Mariana sleeps in a hammock and wakes to a bowl of mysteriously placed fruit. Leão is held captive by his comatose state, and because no one has come to claim him. Mariana has been left with him by soldiers, for a week, and then she doesn’t seem to want to pursue leaving the volcanic archipelago, though assaulted by a young boy on the first night she tries to sleep on the beach. Mariana becomes bound to Leão, and by turns is welcomed, assaulted, accepted, rejected, lusted after, respected, sought after, and scorned. Her courage and agility save her in most cases. She wants to do what is right, tending to babies, with the medicine she brought. What becomes almost understood, but impossible to comprehend at the same time, as in other Costa films, is the preposterousness of the Cape Verde culture, embedded as it is, with its own human nature. Perhaps that’s what Costa meant, that it was hard to film human nature, a whole village of characters.  Nothing seems to survive on Cape Verde but humans, singing, dancing, casting spells, drinking. The characters all have hewn faces which Costa mines, a severity and struggle in their serenity and spirit. Spontaneity, gaity, spunk, humor, sorrow, secrets, mystery all predominate and play out on this volcanic stage. Costa brings us close in, and leaves the mysteries intact. Our resident Mariana becomes outsider turned insider, but then is she? When Leão reaches for Mariana on the volcanic rock, it is like a scene in Vertigo, classic. The final scene brings to question which character is most at home. Casa de Lava is built for a character that we don’t meet fully until the very last scene.