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A Walker Wonk's Wet Dream

The namesake of Stephen Kijak's documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

By Vadim Rizov

If you're not a music geek and the thought of watching Jarvis Cocker issue a string of bons mots doesn't get you all hot and bothered -– especially if you don’t know or care who Jarvis Cocker actually is -- you might as well skip down to the rest of the reviews. Like most music docs, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man preaches to the converted, rolling out a seemingly incongruous coalition of musicians and music geeks united only to praise its subject as one of the most influential. Musicians. Ever. Other highlights of the film include: listening to excerpts from Walker's songs; watching goofy screen-saver-ish illustrations accompany Walker’s songs; and listening to Walker talk about his songs. In other words, pure cinematic value disassociated from the subject is at a low premium, although the doc is as well-assembled as these things get.

Director Stephen Kijak's main task is to locate the roots of Walker's formerly deep-buried sadness and weirdness in his pop-star days with the Walker Brothers, and he succeeds admirably. There's no messing about in the interviews with said admiring subjects (who include Cocker, Damon Albarn, David Bowie, and, uh, Sting), just quotable bits, and the archival footage is all on point. Kijak moves swiftly from Walker's early days with the Walker Brothers to his first interpretations of Jacques Brel, making him look positively foolish by intercutting between footage of a sweaty, consumptive-looking Brel contrasted with Walker at his '60s sex idol prime singing the same songs. But the heart of the documentary –- the entire latter half -- is about the last 12 years and the ultra-controversial Tilt and The Drift (the latter of which my sophomore year roommate claimed to dislike because it was just too frightening). To ease the transition, Kijak offers generous strong excerpts with goofy CGI that seems like a third-grader's attempt to imitate 2001. This actually turns out to be a good idea, forcing viewers to actually focus on the songs rather than try to process visuals at the same time. I can’t recommend the film to all but the most hardened music geeks, but I had more fun watching it than the vast majority of the slate.

Watching The Detectives is as inoffensively middling as would-be quirky indie comedies get, but its premise is extra-special-annoying. Video store clerk/owner Neil (Cillian Murphy) is the archetypal stunted geek, obsessively watching movies and passing time with a bunch of equally amiable stunted co-workers. Enter Violet (Lucy Liu), a cute Asian hipster who comes into the store and wins Neil over with her apparent hostility. Neil and Violet become a couple, but he can never get comfortable. Violet is a role-player (non video-game/sexual category) who doesn't watch movies, sports or generally engage in any kind of passive activity; instead, she pranks her boyfriend(s). Her less innocuous pranks drive Neil to the brink of insanity, but of course the audience is supposed to find it endearing and fascinating, and the inevitable happy ending awaits.

Even by the low standards set by Natalie Portman in Garden State, Violet doesn't just strain credulity, she breaks it. Her stunts play like particularly cruel episodes of Punk'D, like when she sends in two of her friends dressed as cops to interrogate and threaten to rape Neil. If the romance made up the main plotline, the movie would be tolerable; at least it has a decent feel for what it's like to work in the kind of video store that's perpetually about to go under and seems to be populated by the weirdest film geeks in the world. (At one point, Neil's friends have a long argument about the merits of Japanese snuff anime vs. Korean torture anime.) No, what's really annoying is that Violet's frustration with Neil's film obsession turns into a long lesson about how you should stop watching so many movies and just "live life," whatever that means. (Like all magical indie pixie girls, Violet appears to have no job or commitments to detain her from constant game-playing.) Why in the world would you make a movie about how you should be less passive and watch fewer movies? And for the love of God, why would you screen it at a film festival, let alone host a press screening? I mean, Jesus.

After viewing more than three dozen movies, I sat down to carefully examine Beth Schacter’s Normal Adolescent Behavior and provide the same reasoned, measured judgments as for the last 41. Ha. Ninety minutes later, I still didn’t know what it was about. I can’t think of a way to summarize it without making it sound ridiculous, so: This is a film about six BFFs who have group sex. Repeat: not about a casual group of friends who hook up on and off, but who deliberately exclude everyone not in their club (three guys, three girls) and copulate exclusively with each other. Their reasoning actually makes a lot of sense: They’re not interested a world of drunkenly hooking up at parties and scheming for casual sex. Or, as Wendy (Amber Tamblyn) puts it, avoiding “texting some guy who’s gonna cum on my shirt.” Wendy loses the faith fast, though, falling for new jock in town Sean (Ashton Holmes) and getting torn between the potential disillusionments and pitfalls of monogamy and sticking with her friends.

In a weird climate that simultaneously markets and condemns teen sex depending on who’s watching, most films that try to take the subject seriously lapse into hysteria and unintentional camp. Which is to say that Normal Adolescent Behavior isn’t Thirteen Pt. 2 –- it’s far too becalmed and boring for that -– but it doesn’t cohere tonally. Is it a satire of the modern teen world, where girls who want to have relationships that involve first kisses and the innocent holding of hands are reviled as unnatural? The title’s would-be irony points in that direction, but it ultimately seems like the group has a point -– that is, until Wendy asks Sean to spank her and he freaks out. So is the message that teenagers need to be more open-minded about sex and less scared of their own desires? No clue. The movie itself is dull, filmed in would-be artful long takes that enable thespian showboating, but the implications are fascinating, as with any film that tries to seriously address a semi-taboo. The premise is ludicrous, but trying to figure out if it’s a satire of what adults think kids are doing or just a metaphorical way of dealing with high school sex could keep you up all night.

If you were thinking that a Serbian film titled The Optimists might be ironic in its intentions, you would be correct. Goran Paskaljevic's omnibus is divided into five vignettes reflecting his view of humanity, and -- for reasons too complicated to delve into here -- his vision of us is summarized in a final image of a bunch of people wallowing in a filthy lake and covering their bodies with mud, trying to convince themselves that this will cure cancer. At first, Paskaljevic seems to be hedging his bets, mixing tepid satire with pieties; the second segment tries to depict a brutal rape and follow it up with a scathing depiction of how the rich perpetually screw over the poor. The result is -- not to be impolite –- is a little too heavy on the rape emphasis to succeed as satire and a little too smirky to be taken seriously.

Soon, though, Paskaljevic takes the leap from realism to sheer absurdity. The best episode concerns a traveling cardiologist called in to the farm of a pig slaughterer whose son is a compulsive killer of animals, so much so that he's been locked in the room. You haven't lived until you've seen a pre-pubescent child informing his dad, "I can take over the business for you. Don't worry, you can die." The Optimists is, to be sure, heavy-handed in its persistent emphasis on the gap between rich and poor, but it's bleakly assured in its jokes. Filmed in another tone, it might be insanely depressing; as it is, it's kind of bracing, if only 60 percent successful. Three out of five ain’t bad.

Takva: A Man's Fear of God has heavy-hitter Fatih Akin (director of Head-On) as a producer, but it's a non-starter. Every year, American films demonstrate repeatedly that anyone devoutly religious is a hypocrite at best, and probably some kind of rapist or murderer in the bargain. Takva's main achievement is to extend that characterization to Islam, giving us Muharrem (Erkan Can), a devout and celibate Muslim whose sinful dreams consist of regular wet dreams and near-rape fantasies. But it's not just Muharrem who's denying his own true nature: his religious sect adopts him as their go-to financial manager, sending him out to collect rent and balance the books. Of course, Muharrem soon goes crazy when he discovers that the sect is perfectly OK with leasing out spaces to non-religious afternoon drinkers but simultaneously not OK with placing their money in a bank, because the interest raised might be sinfully contaminated. Someday, someone will make a movie about people of faith who aren't terrible human beings and/or aren't driven insane. It will not be a smirkingly liberal indictment of the hypocrisy of religion (always a known given in this type of film). This is not that movie.

The Man From the Embassy is the rare movie that is so low-key it actually has no impact. Herbert Neumann (Burghart Klaußner) is a mid-level German bureaucrat wh works in the Georgian embassy. Herman is only half-dysfunctional by arthouse standards: He spends most of his evenings staring blankly at RPG games on his LCD projector, but he's also carrying on an affair with a married co-worker (Marika Giorbani). Still, not being completely sexless isn't enough for Herbert, who strikes up a friendship with 12-year-old Sashka (Lika Martinova) and puts her up at his place. Herbert seems to be interested in playing a benevolent paternal role with Sashka -- whose mom spends her days discussing how easy it is to turn tricks as a hooker -- but the world understandably assumes pedophilia is involved.

The real problem with this movie isn't its low-key mode, but the fact that Herbert acts in a completely implausible manner. Emotionally constricted movie characters are typically reticent in disclosing key information, but Herbert's refusal to simply explain why he's hanging out with a 12-year-old is beyond the pale. His friendship with Sashka steers admirably clear of cranky old man redeemed by cute child cliches -- neither half of the pair actually fits into that sub-genre -- but its hero's unnatural silence eventually incites active annoyance. Being victimized by a cruel and non-understanding world is one thing; being downright clueless and helpless is another.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
Watching The Detectives
Normal Adolescent Behavior
The Optimists
A Man's Fear of God
The Man From The Embassy

Posted at May 4, 2007 7:16 AM

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