Reservoir Wolves

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

For a form about voyeurism, cinema is very narcissistic. Coming up soon is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015), where the characters make their own movies, and there was Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007) and Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008), alongside all sorts of Hollywood satires and actors as characters.

Apparently Moselle saw half a dozen teens, dressed like characters from Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), in Manhattan. See spoke to them and found that they were part of a large family of children, all named for Indian gods, who had spent most of their lives locked in an apartment. Their father, Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian, had the only key to the place and strictly regulated any trips out — perhaps several a year, perhaps none. He wanted to protect them from the outside world of drugs and sex and violence and yet one cant’t help but feel this is another kind of abuse — especially given mentions of violence against their midwestern mother Susanne and his frequent drunkness.

And yet they were perfectly at liberty to watch Quentin Tarantino movies, indeed the apartment apparently had five thousand VHS tapes and DVDs. Not only could they watch these films, they could film their own versions of them with home made props. Movies within movies. A real life version of Gondry’s films.

As they reached adulthood, there was clearly going to be conflict — and finally Mukunda escaped, leading the others in turn. They go on a train for the first time, to Coney Island for the first time, to a cinema for the first time.

The documentary leaves more questions than answers and is not comfortable. We are given no indication as to how it came about and what access Moselle had, and how much her intervention made the story. It is not clear how the apartment is paid for — Oscar has worked but doesn’t seem to, Susanne has home schooled them with some payment, but they have no visible means of support. And you get the feeling you wouldn’t want them for neighbours. The abuse has clearly been normalised — the Angulo family seem curious happy and content, despite their imprisonment. It is as if the have been living in Plato’s cave their whole lives.

You can only hope that the world will live up to them.

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I ATEN’T DED

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (Julien Temple, 2015)

It’s a long time since Earthgirls are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988), a valley girl sf satire with roles for Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum and (a heavily-furred) Jim Carrey that is great fun in memory and yet sank at the time. This was Temple’s penance for sinking the British film industry with Absolute Beginners (1986). And he is is, doing television documentaries that get a cinema release.

Of course, that’s misleading. His heart’s clearly always been in documentary — The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1988) as one take on the Sex Pistols and The Filth and the Fury (2000) as another. His films Ray Davies: Imaginary Man (2010) and Rio 50 Degrees: Carry on CaRIOca! (2014) were part of Botney’s Imag!ne strand on the BBC, and The Ecstasy has a producer credit for Alan Yentob. (And, music aside, Requiem for Detroit? (2008) was a great piece of work.)

So, Wilko Johnson is a … rhythm and blues guitarist, in 1971 a founder member of Dr. Feelgood and associated with a range of musicians from or near Canvey Island, Essex. I will have heard his stuff, although not knowingly and I frankly cannot name a single track by the band. I’m either too old or too young and prog-rock of the Yes/Floyd ilk is what I listen to from that period.

I have no musical taste. But it’s my no musical taste. Get over it.

So any way, he was still going and still playing and in January 2013 he was diagnosed with inoperable, late stage pancreatic cancer and opted not to go through chemotherapy. The diagnosis was the making of him — there’s that classic interview between Dennis Potter and Lord Bragg of South Bank where the former discusses the blossom outside his window and the world and senses come alive. Wilko is saturated in Romantic poetry (and Shakespeare and Icelandic sagas and … studied a degree in English Literature and taught for a year) and has clearly had a Blakean epiphany. At one point he mentions LSD trips — but this clearly felt more vivid.

Temple had already interviewed him for Oil City Confidential (2009), a documentary on Dr Feelgood, so it seemed natural to go back. There was a great interview between Wilko and John Wilson — for Kaleidoscope Front Row? — and so he had proven he could talk feelingly about his own life, and not be maudlin or angry or depressing. Pretty well the only other voice here is Roger Daltrey, whom Wilko made an album with when he thought he was too ill to tour — oh, and a clip or two from Wilson and BBC news presenters.

It would make a great radio interview.

But this is a film — and I guess there aren’t enough bits of footage or archive photographs to eek out the talking head. The conceit of him playing chess against Death is appropriate — and Temple intercuts bits of Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)) to help us. His taste for Shakespeare mean he can quote Hamlet (and Temple can intercut footage of a film of the play — I *think* Richard Burton’s), although it’s less clear if he knows that famous soliloquy is about suicide not just death. Then there’s A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946), a classic film about an airman’s near-death experience, which obvious offers a chance for A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) for a rather more Kentish (and Canterbury Sound) take on neo-romantic landscape. Oh, and Nosferatu and La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)) and … Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). And something Italian with books and chickens.

Temple’s own footage, when he’s not content to film Wilko in a landscape is ploddinly literal — growing/decaying plants, sands in a timer, stars rotating around sky, time-lapsed.

EVERY THING ENDS.

Although, of course, spoilers.

A photographer and oncologist Charlie Chan saw Wilko and though, that doesn’t look like that kind of tumour. You need a second opinion.

So now we have a Wilko very much in recovery — but frankly more depressed than when he thought he was going to die.

Don’t go to this expecting to get a sense of what Dr Feelgood was — I guess you need the other film for that — but try and edit out the frankly sub-Jarman visuals in favour of one of those great English musical characters who is still very much alive.

Be Careful Out There

Precinct Seven Five (Tiller Russell, 2014)

We’re used from television programmes such as NYPD Blue and The Wire to the complex interrelations between cops, criminals, politicians and victims and the shades of moral greyness that are faced in policing the streets. Our news of the last couple of years has been filled with dubious shootings of African Americans — not that this is a new phenomena. And despite the fact that particular police forces are clearly — in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s term — institutionally racist, we keep ending up with the one bad apple alibi.

This account of New York police corruption in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a documentary, although you can imagine Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro playing the roles and the DEA guy is a double for J.K. Simmons. Thus it is mostly talking heads — with only one of the speakers shown in silhouette, one of the New York dealers — along with police evidence video, grainy reconstruction, archive photos and the inevitable skycam view of the streets.

But it begins with former policeman Michael Dowd giving evidence to some kind of enquiry and is taken up in talking heads. There had already been corruption in a nearby Brooklyn precinct, and several cops had resigned lest they be exposed too. Dowd, having reflected on the cynicism with which their ethical training was treated, began his shadow career by asking for a bribe rather than arresting a criminal and then started lifting cash from crime scenes. Soon he recruited his partner, Kenny Eurell, by giving him a hundred dollar bill from a crack dealer. Dowd appears the most dynamic of the speakers, the camera moves with him rather than staying locked off and it is clear there is next to no remorse.

We’re talked through his career — the bribes and thefts proceed to a working relationship with a local king pin to arresting the competition to a potential kidnapping of a debtor’s wife. The amounts of money involved are clearly vast — hundreds of thousands a week, devastating hundreds if not thousands of lives. The Dominican kingpin clearly admired Dowd, but still thought of Eurell as a cop and not up to it. (Meanwhile: cast Jared Leto?)

And inevitably it comes crashing down — we see his testimony — and we might reassure ourselves that criminals will not prosper. Dowd served his sentence. Only one female voice is heard — Eurell’s wife — and none of the consumers of crack. What is striking is that the real emotions come when you see Dowd and Eurell’s discussion of their feelings for each other — textbook homosociality. Clearly a cop’s partner is a blood brother, indeed when they discuss becoming partners you expect there to be a swapping of blood. You have to have each others’ back. You have to trust the other person won’t betray you.

And you get the sense that Dowd doesn’t regret a single moment of his career — only the betrayal.

What Goes Around

Der Kreis (The Circle, Stefan Haupt, 2014)

A minute or so into Der Kreis, a film I knew nothing about beyond that it was being shown as part of LGBT History Month, it struck me that the main two interviewees were coming across like an old married couple. This is not the world’s greatest observation, since Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp are married. Doh. It’s still not something you see that often on film.

Zurich, 1956, and not-yet-certified schoolteacher and semi-closeted Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbühler) is visiting the editorial offices of Der Kreis, a homoerotic magazine in three languages that is tolerated by the authorities. Through this he learns of the balls the magazine organises and at one of these he meets and falls in love with Rapp (Sven Schelker), who he at first mistakes for a woman. As the relationship between the two develops, a number of murders within the Swiss gay community leads to a crackdown on the magazine, the balls and the gay bars and Ostertag risks all by becoming more involved in the magazine.

I was a little torn, watching this, as I gladly would have watched more of the interviews with the surviving participants, and I gladly would have watched more of the dramatisations. The traditional disclaimer at the end of the film notes that some characters have been invented or tweaked, and I did wonder at a couple of moments how we knew X had happened or why we didn’t see Y.  At the same time, there’s a risk of tin bath nostalgia — an abortion scene in a Nottingham Playhouse production of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1964) was spoilt for me by the person behind me noting that they had that sort of bath once. If the mix of Der Kreis wasn’t quite right, I’m not sure what I would have sacrificed.

Like Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman, 1992), this is a testament to real lives that seem both a long way from now and all too familiar. The shift in attitudes in Switzerland show how easily public opinion and legal toleration can change. The cast is excellent, the talking heads instructive, and a little piece of history is preserved.