Thursday, 24 September 2009

Visiting Uwe

Visiting Uwe (subtitled: The Uwe Boll Homestory, 2008), is director / presenter Fabian Hübner's sit-down chat with the notorious German film director Uwe Boll; a contentious figure, best known to most viewers for his continually derided videogame adaptations, such as House of the Dead (2003),BloodRayne (2005) and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007).

Although the current vogue amongst cinephiles of the World Wide Web is to dismiss everything Boll has been involved with, not even agreeing to approach it from the perspective of the so-bad-it's-good variety of cinema's guilty treasures, Hübner's film presents itself as a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man; offering Boll the platform to defend himself against the criticisms and accusations that have been thrown at him throughout the course of his career, while also giving the audience a chance to get to know the man behind the myth; establishing a personality beyond the provocation, or the outlandish stunts that have been used to undermine the integrity of Boll's work or the legitimacy of his filmmaking intent. It also allows Boll the opportunity to elucidate on the topic of film, something he seems genuinely passionate about; and although many of his opinions run contrary to my own, I was nonetheless surprised at how interesting Boll could be when discussing his cinematic likes and dislikes in this relaxed and impartial environment.

Presented in sparse black and white and cluttered with elements of split-screen and inter-titles to keep the individual segments of conversation on track, Hübner's fifty-minute film is the kind of documentary in which the actual filmmaking apparatus is allowed to intrude upon the scene; making the process of recording this "event" - the meeting of two filmmakers for the basis of cultural curiosity - a kind of film about filmmaking in its self. Of course, we can assume that this particular aesthetic - very hip, but also deliberately nostalgic; looking back to the period of cinéma-vérité or the nouvelle vague for the purposes of fly-on-the-wall observation - is part of Hübner's general modus operandi as established by his work on the web serial AVANT*GARDE (2008), the particular decision to conduct the interview with this approach in place has a more interesting effect than simply appearing cool or cutting-edge. Specifically, it reinforces the image of Boll as a serious filmmaker largely by framing him against a background of the general paraphernalia of his profession: film cameras, microphones, light-stands and monitors, etcetera.

By placing the filmmaker in this environment, Hübner is able to legitimise Boll's opinions; misdirecting the audience away from the obvious points of controversy and disarming us with a constant reminder of the difficulties and dishonesty of cinema production at its most bare and basic form.

Visiting Uwe directed by Fabian Hübner, 2008:

In the first part of the film, we have a sort-of credit sequence, in which we see Hübner leaving his apartment, heading to the airport and boarding a plane to his required destination. This sequence is somewhat unnecessary; edited like a low-budget hip-hop video and scored by some generic emo-rock band - which is hardly representative of the film as a complete piece of work. From here, a brief wander around the Boll family kitchen stressing the importance of the cappuccino machine, before the two men (and Hübner's accompanying camera operator) get down to the business at hand. From this point on, the film is structured primarily around a series of back-and-forth interview sequences inter-cut with more general scenes of Boll showing the interviewer (and the audience) around his home and offices.

Although on-paper, such a description could call to mind something as vacuous as Cribs (2000), the MTV-produced series, wherein a variety of tasteless celebrities encouraged the cameras into their homes and played up to a crude "nouveau riche" persona, the location and the particular emphasis on the objects found in Boll's home, and more specifically his personal archives, help to further develop the reality of the filmmaker away from the hype and the hatred, to create a more human portrait, in which the man, with his hopes and aspirations, is given a kind of perspective by the framing of Hübner's film.

In this sense, I'm reminded of a quote by Jean-Luc Godard that I've used before: "Objects exist, and if one pays more attention to them than to people, it is precisely because they exist more than the people. Dead objects are still alive. Living people are often already dead." It seems apt given the further significance of the subtitle, The Uwe Boll Homestory, as in the "home-story", as in every home tells a story (perhaps?), which gives the film its added weight. These objects that we discover - film canisters, posters, sleeves for forgotten VHS cassettes, promotional material, trailers and teasers, etc - define the Boll persona; reaffirming it, again, away from the negativity or the endless complaints of gamers of the "Uwe Boll destroyed my childhood" variety, and convinces us that the line between a director considered great and a director considered to be (essentially) without merit, is faint.

When Boll pours through the archives, finding the original 35mm print of his first film, the spoof comedy experiment German Fried Movie (1991), or treats the director (and again, the audience) to the newly edited trailer for his then-most-recent film, the Vietnam War drama Tunnel Rats (2008), we begin to see the emerging image of a man who lives for his work, is proud of it, and more importantly, sees it as a real privilege to be able to make a living in a profession that he's dreamed about since the age of ten.

Visiting Uwe directed by Fabian Hübner, 2008:

In approaching the film in such a way, the audience can see Boll as a filmmaker first and foremost. The notion of the director as the most hated in the world "ever" becomes subdued, and we can see and ultimately accept a man who is passionate about what he does and confident enough in his own opinions to know exactly what he wants, regardless of what anyone else might think. He's been nominated for three Golden Raspberry awards thus far (unfairly, in my opinion, but such "awards" are meaningless from any perspective), but when he discusses the nature of cinema, and how in the grand scheme of things it is genre cinema that prevails over the art-house, we buy every word of it. When Boll dismisses Tarkovsky as "refined tedium", Hübner rolls his eyes (no doubt) in tandem with the audience.

However... does Boll have a point? When Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Juno (2007) can bring in blockbuster style box-office on a $9 million budget, is there really a growing audience for something like Silent Light (Stellet licht, 2007) or The Man from London (A Londoni férfi, 2007); or are these films destined to play to the same niche audiences - never breaking out of the art-film ghetto? In describing the situation, Boll defines his position: "You have to be realistic; in the USA, 90% of people have never heard of Fellini, Antonioni or Bertolucci. Now, you could tell them about La dolce vita (1960), or Marcello Mastroianni, and perhaps a few would understand the reference, but they don't really care."

Statements like this are bound to provoke a response, but is Boll correct in his opinion that the films of John Ford will endure beyond the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard? After all, people like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Leone, who were often dismissed by the majority of mainstream critics at the height of their creative success, are now seen as absolute masters of the medium, more so than any erstwhile-hip, avant-garde deconstructionist or poet of the silver screen. He also points the finger of judgement at directors like Michael Bay and Eli Roth, who are in the position to make challenging, subversive work with a relevant social and political message, but instead produce insipid, generic nonsense designed to woo fans or score points at the box-office.

Whether or not we agree with Boll's statements, there is no denying that there is an element of his personality that seems intent on challenging his detractors by offering them fodder, either by taking on his critics in a boxing match, or through statements of knowing self-deprecation; claiming that his career will be over in fifteen years, or that the secret to winning an Academy Award is to produce the film that kills the most Nazis. It would seem to be part of the Boll persona; this notion of playing into the (negative) expectations of the critics, and then backing away from it, doing something quite radical and arguing your case from the perspective of a misunderstood genius in a way that makes the whole thing appear to be some kind of situationist-inspired stunt. How else can we explain the career trajectory of a man who is set to follow a serious, documentary-style drama about the situation in Darfur with a film called Zombie Massacre?

Visiting Uwe directed by Fabian Hübner, 2008:

Hübner's film is broken up into a series of specific talking points: "idols", "cinema", "art-house", "filmmaker", "critics", etc, in which the filmmaker attempts to draw a more clearly defined picture of Boll and his particular reputation. His answers to these questions are often surprising, from his admiration for Orson Welles, who Boll describes as "the most interesting director ever, not only as an artist, but as a person as well" before reeling off a list of films including Macbeth (1948) and F for Fake (1972), to an interest in the work of John Ford, Lars von Trier, Martin Scorsese and Luis Buñuel. In describing his inspiration for becoming a director, Boll talks about seeing Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) while still in elementary school, and assuming that the life of a film director was comparable to being a ship's captain - like Trevor Howard, steering his crew into uncharted waters in search of new adventures. It explains some of the reckless ambition evident in Boll's work; the image of this small-town kid, pulling together enough money to make a film, setting his sights on Hollywood, and then using tax-breaks and independent investors to set up his own production company operating out of Frankfurt by way of Vancouver. He now has the kind of control and freedom of independence that most directors can only dream about; even though the situation has its downsides - he's generally despised and pre-judged on every film, with the vast majority of critics pre-rating his work a 1/10 on sites like the Internet Database months before the movies have even been released.

For the most part Hübner keeps his distance, allowing Boll to present his side of the story with only the most minimal of argument and interjection. If anything, this could possibly be described as the film's biggest flaw, with the interviewer never forcing the interviewee to explain his opinions in any kind of greater depth. It would have been interesting to see how Boll, as a fairly headstrong and confrontational character, might have worked with a more aggressive approach, but then there's always the risk that the proceedings could have become another adolescent piece of Boll-bating; complaining about the supposed Ed Wood quality of films like House of the Dead or Alone in the Dark (both mediocre films at best, or worst), but offering no real insight or sense of critical worth. Instead, Visiting Uwe positions itself as a rare insight into a genuine pop-culture phenomenon; a director who in less than a decade, has established a reputation as being one of the worst filmmakers in contemporary cinema, and yet, despite the constant protests and online nitpicking, has continued to work prolifically and independently, tackling everything from horror movies, to action films, to state-of-the-world polemics, and even a low-brow comedy.

In this respect, Visiting Uwe is of interest mostly for the perspective that it offers in placing Boll's diverse and often eccentric career choices into some kind of greater context; illustrating that the roots of a film like Postal (2007) can be seen in the German Fried Movie, or how something like Stoic (2008) or the soon to be released Rampage (2009) can be traced back to his earlier exploitation films, such as Amoklauf (Run Amok, 1994).

Visiting Uwe directed by Fabian Hübner, 2008:

Postal directed by Uwe Boll, 2007

Stoic directed by Uwe Boll, 2009

Occasionally the infamous Boll bitterness creeps in, dismissing the criticisms of BloodRayne start Michael Madsen by shifting the focus on to the actor's alleged alcoholism, as well as presenting a lengthy rant against the aforementioned Bay (which had to be censored for legal reasons). However, even here, when Boll reacts with the unfocused venom of a spoilt Victorian child, we can see the tragedy of the man behind the legend. That level of bitterness that runs deeper than any kind of stunt or simple attention seeking; the kind of bitterness prevalent in someone who has achieved so much by their own limitations but still not enough to gain the respect of their public and peers.

Personally, I respect Boll. I can appreciate the work that he puts in to his films. As someone who tries, on occasion, to wear the hat of a film director, I know how hard it is to get funding - to a get a film off the ground without giving away control to the producers who care only about financial success. When you're from a small town, with no family or connections with the industry, such attempts to get a film made, and more importantly released, is an uphill struggle. As Boll protested in a 2007 interview with Chris Kohler of the website Wired; "You should admire that nobody else did what I did in the last ten years. Not one filmmaker out of Germany was able to raise money. All the German money went to the Hollywood studios; I was the only guy doing it. I did one movie after the other, not anybody else. I do my own distribution, my own project development, my own financing and everything. Nobody else did that. But in the opinion of the Boll bashers, I'm a talentless idiot! And you see it exactly the same."

At the end, can we even be sure of the motives for making this film, for interviewing Boll and allowing his personality to dominate, either as a work of ironic opposition - "Boll sucks so we think he's cool", etc - or a private joke between two men smart enough to know how the industry works and how both could benefit from the obvious publicity. Either way, Visiting Uwe is a fascinating interview that works well, precisely because of its unique position. Right down to the title - first name basis, as if visiting a friend; and indeed, between the more important stuff, there's some playful humour between these two characters which feeds back into the feeling that Boll is pulling the strings; manipulating the events to his own advantage, to create his own legacy and his own persona that defines it - like a modern-day Andy Kaufman – which, for me, makes the experience all the more rewarding.