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.

Friday, 4 September 2009


A key example of Bergman's unparalleled ability to create a kind of cinema of alienation through the rigid and meticulous focus on characters interacting; albeit, not simply through the unblinking point-and-shoot interchanges of dialog, but contained within the seemingly inescapable boundaries of a situation that they've been confined to. In this respect, the confines are further illustrated by the practical presentation of the film itself, with those tightly composed images of faces, acting and then reacting to the events as they unfold, and the always brilliant interplay between light and shadow, which, as ever in Bergman's work, manages to maintain some vague semblance to the natural light that one might expect to find illuminating the area of your nearest windowsill, and yet still managing to offer an obvious visual representation of a kind of conflict that is necessary in a film so preoccupied with the clashing of personalities and ideas.

The most obvious and natural conflict at the pure beating heart of the drama is in the particular reliance on a certain kind of character-type: i.e. an individual with a singular point of view that is at odds with the world around them. In much of Bergman's work, this inability to see eye to eye with other human beings - even on such an intimate or entirely personal level - leads his characters to seek solace and escape; burying their heads in the metaphorical and creating a kind of block that allows them to break from the true psychological horrors that plague them. Alongside these particular concerns we find a number of parallel themes that would be further refined and developed in the series of films that Bergman produced during the same period of creative activity as the film in question, with projects like Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) and The Rite (Riten, 1969) continuing the idea of characters existing in a world in which the boundaries between the symbolic and the real, performance and actuality, have become blurred by the perspective of the filmmaker.

In keeping with such deconstructive ideas, this film, Shame (Skammen, 1968), offers the central depiction of war as a literal nightmare that explores (or exploits?) the psychological disintegration of its two central characters. It is in this presentation that the progression of the conflict and the breakdown in society becomes the perfect mirror to the breakdown of the couple's relationship; with each escalating scene of violence or atrocity creating the perfect visual, meta-textual reference-point to a jealous glance or a derisive put down, which wounds the fragile ego as fatally as a bullet to the head. It's a novel approach, with these two characters at war with one another and at war with themselves, further represented by a landscape of cold uncertainty, violence and turmoil. With this in mind, Shame is probably not the easiest of Bergman's films to appreciate on an immediate level, though it remains, nonetheless, one of his most fascinating; especially when we compare it to the similar elements presented in the subsequent Bergman-directed psychodrama, A Passion (En Passion, 1969).

A Passion directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1969:

Shame directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

As with that particular film, Shame offers a story about characters in retreat; in retreat from themselves and from the world around them. In Shame, the idea is given a further charge of dramatic weight by an approaching civil war set to eventually destroy the walls of cowardice and self-preservation that these particular characters have put up to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world beyond. However, as the walls begin to crumble, these characters begin to show certain elements of their true personalities that have remained hidden or disguised during the idyllic years spent safely hidden away amongst the island community; as the escalating horror of the world itself becomes secondary to the crippling emotional suffocation and psychological collapse of these characters as they strive to escape, both literally, as in from the horrors of war, and metaphorically, as in their own emotionally suffocating relationship.

There are, as one might expect, a number of other, more complex themes developed alongside this central concern, with the usual issues of jealousy, adultery, guilt, impotence, a lack of communication and the inability or unwillingness to see the world for what it truly is all featuring as motivating factors at various points throughout; allowing the audience to appreciate, or at least better recognise the sense of dehumanisation - as the machines of war destroy everything, including the human spirit - and the particular way in which these characters cling to a hope for a return to civilisation, when the actual chance of any kind of palpable reconciliation is plainly impossible. Of course, we can criticise this obvious reading as naive or simply skimming the surface of what is quite clearly a complex and exhaustive piece of work, it still, nonetheless, becomes immediately clear even from this initial single splinter of the film's true meaning; which could, in all honesty, be as simple as what is defined by the experience of viewing the film and the odd, accumulative aspect as each scene builds in intensity, until the rage and frenzy exhausts itself, leaving only a tattered, tired scream.

Shame directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

As one might expect from Bergman (and especially the Bergman of this period), Shame is an outstanding piece of work, both as an experience in the cinematic sense - as in to immerse yourself in the spectacle of the thing - and on a purely technical level too. The production design, editing and cinematography are suitably harsh and gritty, creating a very believable situation, though one that is again filled with a very deliberate form of cinematic abstraction that is formed by the use of the high-contrast black and white. Even so, these elements of artistic/cinematic expression never overwhelm the grain of realism that is filtered through our obvious experiences with TV war-reportage or the conflict in Vietnam, which is used as a kind of shorthand to many of the more confrontational or harrowing scenes featured herein. In presenting these sequences, Bergman is able to sidestep any potentially fatal moments of melodrama or shock-tactics, giving us the torture and insanity of war, without turning it into some kind of after-school polemic.

The film is also notable for what seems like an increased budget - or at least, increased by the standards of many of the filmmaker's more iconic pictures, which generally involve small groups of characters drifting in and out of a tightly-structured chamber-piece framework - with Shame instead offering the audience unforgettable images of aeroplanes spitting machine-gun fire and shells across the tiny island community, a procession of military vehicles stretching back through the village as far as the eye can see, thousands of extras, explosions and costumes, and all to establish this cold and nightmarish world that seems to exist beyond the clearly-defined boundaries of context and time. The fact that Bergman chose to leave the setting of this film a mystery is one of its most interesting aspects of the film and the one that makes it more fascinating to re-evaluate from a contemporary perspective; as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, or the continual reports of North Korea flexing its Nuclear weight, remind us that potential future conflicts are still lingering on the horizon.

Shame directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

Although the threat of civil war and some of the more heart wrenching depictions of abuse and degradation might suggest the era of the Second World War, the cars and costumes and central political or personal ideologies are all very much a post-war, 1960s affectation. No information about the war is given, other than the fact that it has split the country in half, and that both sides seem to be employing a regime of violence and threat to manipulate the locals into assisting their own particular cause. The fact that the actual war is seemingly secondary to the war that erupts between the two central characters is, again, a sign that Bergman is using this metaphor to externalise a largely internal story; with the inner-battle between two characters being projected out, against the landscape, and resulting in further elements of interpretation that sets the scene for that previously mentioned Bergman film masterpiece, A Passion.

At the end of A Passion we have a vague and enigmatic scene that not only contextualises the whole of that particular film - and the fate of its two central characters - but also the whole of the film in question. Quite what Bergman was suggesting by this break between the two is ultimately unknown, though naturally one always can speculate as to why things happen, and for what reason. Perhaps this final notion is something that is only truly felt when we watch the two films together, and can then begin to see Bergman's perhaps cruel mocking (or understanding, perhaps?) of his principal characters, and the subtle line in which one painful nightmare bleeds into the next.