Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gogol Bordello: Non-Stop

Gogol Bordello: Non-Stop (2008)
Dir. Margarita Jimeno

As far as I’m concerned, Gogol Bordello is the most important band alive today. There is not another band out there as passionately committed to both roving experimentation and rock-solid pop thrills. I can remember the very first time I heard them. How many bands can you remember the moment they first entered your radar? Not many. I mean, I don’t remember the first Radiohead tune I heard, or the first Clash song. But I remember this. My old buddy Tommy (of Ghost City Searchlight) and I were driving along the highway --I think it was route 66 out of Virginia into Washington DC. He’s always playing new bands for me, and they’re usually good. But this one was different. This one stirred something in me that hadn’t been moved by a new band in a long time. Excitement. That lighting crackle of, “woah, what’s this?” That white-hot quiver of energy that starts in your gut and works its way up through your spine, hits you in the heart on the way, and floods across your brain like a foaming pint of beer on the dance floor of some neon-lit punk dive. Excitement. That unmistakable flicker I felt back when I heard punk rock for the very first time (also thanks to the good Mr. Coupar, now that I think about it). “Woah, what’s this?

Gogol seems destined for the cinema; Songwriter/frontman Eugene Hutz actually got famous as an actor in EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (he’s great, the rest of the movie is serviceable) long before most people knew he was a musician. Madonna, who clearly knows a good thing when she hears it, cast Hutz and featured Gogol in her breathtakingly idiotic directorial debut FILTH AND WISDOM (which is neither filthy nor wise). Hutz is great in that, too, largely because he wisely (maybe that’s what the title is referring to?) ignored the script and made up his own lines. And their theatrical, over-the-top performances speak for themselves in terms of their obvious cinematic potential.

How is it possible that this hasn't been made into the greatest movie in the world?

But film has not yet served Gogol Bordello as well as it should. EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is decent, FILTH AND WISDOM is downright terrible. Hutz is barely in the NYC art punk doc KILL YOUR IDOLS (though he leaves an impression), and the less said about THE PIED PIPER OF HUTZOVIA, the better.* And unfortunately, we’re obligated to add GOGOL BORDELLO: NON STOP to that same list of films which somehow manage to completely strike out on capturing that Gogol magic on film. NON-STOP is a serviceable enough documentary with some enlightening moments for true Gogol fans, but unfortunately completely fails to capture the infectious energy and heady madness that defines the band.

It’s obviously a pretty low-budget affair; it looks mostly shot hand-held on video and the sound sometimes isn’t that great. That’s not a problem, though, as a scrappy cobbled-together aesthetic is essential to all great punk art. What is a problem is that the film is edited all wrong to build any kind of momentum. Too many mumbly over-the-shoulder long takes of unimportant encounters, too many slack sequences of people sitting around and not doing anything particularly revealing or entertaining, too many lengthy interviews with uncharismatic or unintelligible people who don’t have much to add.

Ultimately, the movie suffers from a lack of narrative focus. The director thinks that simply showing us footage of the band behind the scenes will be sufficient reason to create this document; unfortunately I can’t agree. Band docs are always something of a risky vanity project, but the best ones find a way to reflect their subject’s tone in a different medium, and find succinct things to communicate about the artists through what they choose to show us. This one simply doesn’t really manage that. Instead of reflecting Gogol’s anarchic electricity, it feels disjointed and meandering, talky without saying much and unfocused without being freewheeling. Basically, it’s a movie which seems to perpetually undermine the wild-eyed instincts of the manic seekers at its center, a film which is perpetually threatening to become a party which never actually happens.

A rare scene where you see Hutz having a little more fun, but unfortunately you can't understand anything he's saying because he's either a) incomprehensibly drunk b) speaking untranslated Ukranian c) badly recorded or d) some combination of all of the above.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some fun and even insightful material here; Hutz discussing his early life as a penniless Ukrainian immigrant in America has something telling to communicate about what led the guy to his fixation on crafting a new and multicultural identity and family. But there’s nothing else in the film which elaborates on that theme, so it just becomes one of several isolated incidents which appear and dissipate just as quickly. Nothing sticks, because nothing seems to connect to anything else.

Most troubling of all, though, is that the film completely fails to capture Hutz’s natural ebullience and magnetism. He’s clearly a guy who has thought a lot about his art -and that’s a good thing- but from what we see here, he sure doesn’t look very fun. He seems self-conscious and guarded, a guy who doesn’t really like being watched at work. He seldom smiles or seems to be enjoying himself very much. Maybe that’s the point, this purported party animal is really sort of a sad, thoughtful guy, a quietly calculating artist who lets loose only in the thick of a show. But if that’s the case, we need to understand him a little better for that knowledge to mean something. NON-STOP just makes him seem distant, distracted. They have better luck with violinist Sergey Ryabtsev and drummer Eliot Ferguson, who seem to be enjoying themselves a little more (in fact, Ferguson’s sardonic acceptance of his role as “band mom” to these drunken maniacs provides the film’s funniest moments), but neither of these guys is in it enough to provide the film with structure it desperately needs.

Without this sort of structure, the film feels rudderless, episodic, and a little dull. It suffers from being just a document about a bunch of stuff which happened, rather than an examination which forms cohesive whole. When we get to the end, we’ve seen the band plenty, but unfortunately don’t really know them much better at all. It’s an assemblage of sporadically interesting visual anecdotes, nothing more; a lot of data, without any real communication. The music is still great, but a band this musically and visually arresting deserves a better story. Oh well, maybe Madonna will make another movie.  

*OK since you insist: it’s a documentary made by this psycho stalker ex-girlfriend/one-night-stand, who follows an increasingly uncomfortable Hutz on a directionless meander through dismal Eastern Europe. It may well be the single most passive-aggressive film I’ve ever seen, as the director clearly assumed that this trip would be a romantic one and becomes increasingly hostile as Hutz tries to distance himself from her. The accusatory tone of the narration and obvious discomfort Hutz shows with being followed by this nutjob easily overwhelm a few nice moments which seem to have been captured against the odds, although I can’t deny that the film has a certain horrifying charm as ultra-awkward anti-comedy.

This may just be the hardest mothafucker in the entire world.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Dir. Werner Herzog

In what might be best termed a Werner Herzog Mondo documentary, our intrepid Teutonic connoisseur of the world’s more offbeat sideshows travels to the final frontier (Antarctica, not space. Probably saving that for the sequel.) Why? Well, a friend of his sent him some footage of under-ice scuba diving, so he figured he’d charter a plane and head South as far as you can go, just kind of check it out, see what’s what.

The charm of the film is its surprising cheerfulness, a welcome break from the unremitting grimness of INTO THE ABYSS and the quiet reverence of CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. There’s lots of big ideas in here, but they’re nicely balanced by Herzog’s obvious glee at going on an Antarctic adventure and meeting the other strange souls that have been drawn by the same sense of wanderlust. It’s a little unfocused, a little whimsical, and maybe even a little satirical? Certainly, it seems like Herzog is aware that speculating on the potential for insanity in penguins is not a normal thing to do. Does he also see the inherent hilarity in the training required for those who venture into the punishing wilderness, which resembles a conga line of blind people wearing buckets emblazoned with cartoon faces over their heads? I genuinely have no idea, but the movie has a lightness to it which suggests that at least he’s having fun, whatever that means to a guy like Herzog.

Great, now Buckethead's gonna have to sue.

At the very least, there’s significantly more of Herzog’s inscrutable personality here than you find in some of his heavier documentaries. He narrates the whole way through, sometimes expounding upon the beauty and majesty of what he’s seeing, sometimes cheekily expressing his disdain for man-made conveniences, sometimes just sort of free associating, sometimes (I think?) poking fun at himself, other filmmakers (he warns us against expecting cute footage of “fluffy penguins”) and the other weirdos he’s interviewing. In one interview, he cuts a lady’s mic off and starts telling her story himself, over top of footage of her talking. “Basically what she said is…”

It all seems sort of off-the-cusp and even chatty, just a kind of visual journal for Herzog’s Antarctic vacation. But gradually it becomes clear that there’s a little more going on here, subtle tendrils of theme which wind through and gradually ferment into some kind of subterranean implication. The title has a double meaning, obviously; Antarctica is the furthest South you can go and hence literally the “end” of the world, but the title also suggests something a bit more troubling. For all the fun he’s clearly having on and under the ice, Herzog is also aware that Antarctica is the most visible symbol of climate change and the planet’s uncertain future, and as such may also symbolize the literal “end” of the world as we know it. There’s an unspoken suggestion that the philosophical, adaptive oddballs he encounters at the South Pole may represent a new strain of humanity living in a much harsher future climate, and forced to survive without the comforts that we’ve become accustomed to over the course of the last century or two. And Herzog, for one, seems pretty OK with that. He’s always been a restless guy, an obsessive explorer of peculiar experiences. And maybe he figures it’s about time the rest of mankind got onboard, too. If this funny, strange, lyrical film is any indication, it’s gonna be a pretty great ride.

I probably need to get a tattoo of this scene.