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Of the Airborne and Avant-Garde

A glimpse into Ken Jacobs' RAZZLE DAZZLE The Lost World

By Eric Kohn

With less than a month to go before Michael Moore unveils Sicko at Cannes, the entries at Tribeca that carry a contemporary angle look relatively tame. But looks can be deceiving, and while I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne sports an awful title, it provides far more insight than the majority of recent nonfiction offerings dealing with the current generation of troops. Following a team of young American fighters from training to overseas incursions and back again, director John Lawrence strikes a unique tone that’s both interrogative and sentimental.

Shooting on low grade video and primarily employing a classic verite technique, Lawrence reveals the specific military mentality that breeds a patriotic killing frenzy. “You are looking for the prey,” one instructor tells his men (and they are all men). There are plenty of memorably awkward moments that suggest the Army lives in an alternate universe of spin, including a late scene that finds a top advisor presenting the troops with a flag from the World Trade Center (they’re in Iraq, for crying out loud). Despite including such incredulous sequences, Lawrence never condescends to his subjects. Allowing them to directly address the camera and guide the viewer, his movie refreshingly avoids exploring why the troops are there in the first place (we’ve heard that rant enough by now) and settles, instead, on cultivating authenticity. We’re left not with a justification of militaristic brutality, but a better understanding of it.

A much more familiar perspective on the war in Iraq hovers over the abstract imagery of RAZZLE DAZZLE The Lost World, veteran avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacob’s curious Tribeca entry. Those unfamiliar with Jacob’s work -- or not too keen on experimental cinema in general -- won’t get into his radical style, but there’s no question that it’s undoubtedly his trademark and no one else’s. Jacobs generally uses a strobe light effect as he toys with archival footage, creating immersive 3-D imagery (and seizures, for those prone to epilepsy). His latest foray into this terrain stays in line with the tradition he cultivated several decades ago, but his transition into the realm of digital filmmaking is a slightly awkward one. Toying with the images and movement of early Kinetoscope films and other material, Jacobs explores contrasts the dreamy tranquility of daily life with the insanity of violence (the latter concept arises from an audio sample of Thomas Edison giving his two sense on war). The images eventually create a fascinating interrogation of Cubism, but you’ve got to sit through a hefty 20 minutes or so before the approach pays off. When I spoke to Jacobs recently, he told me that last year, the festival gave him a copy of Final Cut editing software, which he used to create RAZZLE DAZZLE The Lost World. I find that there’s something intrinsically funny about a guy from the Beat Generation toying around with digital technology, but it’s not the sort of humor that makes the entire movie worthwhile.

One artist whose work bears no sign of dicking around with digital effects: John Canemaker. The Oscar-winnning animator, whose finest shorts receive a terrific retrospective in The Animated World of John Canemaker, creates majestic worlds with infinite layers of depth. Canemaker has written books on the history of the medium, but he doesn’t rip off the early masters; he builds on them. Combining exaggerated physicality with a tendency for sentimental storytelling, Canemaker’s shorts make him seem like a sweeter version of Bill Plympton. He’s actually more like a contextualized Walt Disney, spinning simple yarns that overflow with metaphor. In The Wizard’s Son an aging magician grows despondent over his boy’s insistence on becoming a jazz musician. It’s at once hilarious (drawn like a low budget Saturday morning cartoon) and sad, a classic father-son conflict. Canemaker is clearly culling from his personal life, as the recent The Moon and the Son demonstrates. The short, which won Canemaker an Academy Award in 2006, tells the story of an older man who engages in internal dialogue with his dead father. Narrated by John Turturro, the anguish of family turmoil gets graphically realized.

As Canemaker’s book on Little Nemo creator Windsor McCay proves, the animator acknowledges that graphic media don’t necessarily need to move in order to get brought to life. He’s one of the few voices absent from Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, a crash course on the evolution of the seminal comic book auteur, who created The Spirit in the Forties, coined the term “graphic novel” in the '70s, and just died last year. Exploring the trajectory of his life through the memories of colleagues like Jules Feiffer and the late Kurt Vonnegut, Andrew Cooke doesn’t bring anything new to the table -- but that’s clearly not his intention. Eisner’s innovations prove that genuine creativity requires constant reinvention.

That revelation was still in my head as I sat through the mediocre Mexican drama Two Embraces, which uses an interlocking stories device mildly reminiscent of 21 Grams, and it relies on a similarly (and excruciatingly) obvious gimmick: A young boy falls for a troubled teen at the local grocery store. A lonely cab driver helps his cranky passenger and falls for the guy’s daughter. Both threads lead to the hugs of the title. Music swells. If drama were this easy, movies would’ve gone extinct ages ago. A better foreign offering that delves into human tragedy is Tuya’s Marriage, a gorgeously shot narrative about a fierce Mongolian woman forced to divorce her aging husband and find a new suitor. Torn between allegiances to the slightly misogynistic culture and her own individuality, she never sacrifices her ideals. Now there’s some tough drama.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne
The Animated World of John Canemaker
Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist
Two Embraces
Tuya’s Marriage

Posted at April 28, 2007 11:10 AM

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