The very name of the Philadelphia Film Festival & Cinefest is a testament to the wrangling that went into fusing what would have been two separate festivals from two separate factions. Still, you would not have known this for the wealth of offerings, no different than any other year for the level of curating. For my part, a new address and a newborn meant a slightly leaner diet of flicks this year, but there's still plenty to talk about…
If Don Draper has given the general public a new respect for advertising professionals, Art & Copy provides a non-fiction basis for those props. Doug Pray's doc looks at a variety of creative professionals responsible for everything from the "I Want My MTV" campaign to the "1984" Apple ad. We get the inside scoop on Nike's "Just Do It" (originally inspired by the last words of a death row inmate) and "Got Milk?" (an exec balked at first, declaring, "That's incorrect. It should be, 'Do you have milk?'").
More importantly, we're shown the impact of these advertisers' work on client and consumer alike. Tommy Hilfiger credits George Lois' audacious campaign with forcing him to work harder than he ever had in his life to live up to the hype. A man confesses that he asked out his date to the prom based on the "Just Do It" ads.
Pray reveals the true artistry of his subjects. We assume that an advertiser simply meets the demands of his or her client with no regard for their own artistic oeuvre, but these creators, like any artist, have motifs. Hal Riney (captured here not long before his death in 2008) in particular, creator of the Reagan "Morning in America" spot, invests a little bit of his own childhood yearnings for hearth and home into many of his ads.
What's more, these advertisers (and I specify these advertisers because even according to them there is a very thin slice of advertisers who work this way) aren't looking to simply meet the demands of their clients but strive to unleash the potential for what that company could be.
If you've been paying any attention at all to the festival circuit, you don't need me to tell you about Steve McQueen's (not that one) Hunger. If you haven't, here goes. Hunger tells the true story of Bobby Sands' 1981 hunger strike in the HM Prison Maze. The short backstory is that IRA prisoners there wanted political prisoner status and the British government did not want to give it to them. This led to "blanket" and "dirty" strikes on the part of the prisoners and increasingly brutal treatment at the hands of the guards.
McQueen's depiction of this episode is impressively even-handed, if weighed a little bit in favor of Sands. In an audacious narrative stroke, he doesn't truly introduce Sands for a good 20 minutes or so. First we meet a guard. Then we meet a new prisoner. Then we meet the conditions of the prison. And this is where the term "uncompromising" comes into play in a number of reviews.
Remember the strikes I mentioned earlier? So, part of political prisoner status is that you don't have to wear the usual prison uniform reserved for garden variety criminals. So the IRA members went on a clothing strike and chose to wear only blankets. When beatings escalated they escalated to a dirty strike which meant that the walls of their cells were covered in shit and piss, the latter of which they would routinely pour into the hallways of the prison. You. See. Everything. There is, in fact, not a single bodily fluid that is not at least implied if not shown during the course of the film.
None of this comes off as gratuitous. It's presented matter-of-factly. Other traumas are presented in a manner that makes you play closer attention rather than recoil. When first introduced to one of the guards we see him washing his bruised hands. When we see this image again later in the film it is in a completely new context that undermines our previous assumptions. That's good storytelling.
For his next trick, McQueen basically spends the first half of the film merely setting the stage for the hunger strike, and introduces it with a tour-de-force single take conversation between Sands and a priest in which Sands outlines his reasons. This in a movie that up until that point (and after) has almost as little dialogue as WALL-E.
What you're left with is truly a jumble of emotions, and I believe everyone will react differently. Personally I was ruminating on the fact that here's a guy who's subjecting himself to a state of decay that others have inflicted upon them involuntarily, and it's a little insulting, especially when it seems he's fighting for mostly symbolic victories. Why did I have this reaction? In part because the depiction of Sands' deterioration is so realistic (seriously, this flick is as gory as any horror film you care to watch) that I was instantly reminded of video of starving Africans. Your results may vary.
Of course, there's the issue of the IRA. Why should we care about a bunch of terrorists? To be sure, the film doesn't let us forget why many of these prisoners are in jail. We are given a brief (but unforgettable) taste of the violence that put some of them there. But McQueen really isn't interested in judging. He's interested in an unflinching depiction of the experience. In one take, he shows us a prison worker mopping up the urine the prisoners have spilt on their cell block. He starts at the end of the hall in the distance and works his way towards us at the other end. McQueen shows us the entire five minutes (I didn't time it, but it's gotta be at least two). He wants us. to. feel. it.
Not that McQueen wants to go completely without subtext. This feels like what would happen if Kubrick directed a prison film. There's the animal brutality hiding beneath a refined veneer. In one extreme closeup we see a guard brushing off the crumbs from his perfectly pleated pants before going to work. And there's the idea of the elite working out their ids through their underlings (think of the way the ghosts use Jack in The Shining). Here we have the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher echoing primly while her policies are carried out by borderline unwilling guards and Bobby Sands and his crew carrying out the missives of their unseen political bosses. It is in fact this lack of self-determination that Sands evokes when he explains his reasoning for the strike, which has not been sanctioned by his handlers.
So if none of that turned you off, go check it out. You won't soon forget it.
Here's a truly inspired idea: Take a class of 5th graders and task them with designing and building a functional chair using only glue and cardboard. Self-taught lessons in design and dedication ensue in Paul Hunt and Julie Kaufman's doc, as do some kick-ass designs. Unfortunately, the whole thing takes longer than it should to get where it's going, and doesn't justify its 96-minute run time with any deeper insights into education or socio-economic implications (these are public school students in Lancaster County, PA. Would this same experiment work in Philadelphia?). Even slices of the students own lives, while interesting at first, seem kind of random by the end.
Next: What if they made an Iraq War film that didn't suck?