Girl Walk // All Day
When you are walking through Central Park and run into a roving pack of modern dancers, there is normally only one option: flight. But Girl Walk // All Day has made me rethink my blanket policy on impromptu modern dance performances. Starring Anne Marsen as “the Girl,” Girl Walk // All Day is a 75-minute film featuring Marsen and two male dancers who stomp, flail, and pirouette through all five boroughs (yes, even Staten Island). We first meet Marsen in a claustrophobic ballet studio. But the classical music soon gives way to a soundtrack by Girl Talk as Marsen ecstatically breaks out of the studio’s four walls. This rupture of the public/private divide generates much of the humor, tension, and joy in the film. Although a vague narrative of “the Girl,” “the Guy,” and “the Creep” runs through the film, the “story” of each scene emerges when Marsen invades the private space of others. A few of the bystanders clearly recognize that they are being filmed, but the vast majority respond with genuine confusion, laughter, awe, and, only rarely, complete disinterest. In one particularly fascinating section, Marsen carries countless shopping bags as she stumbles through a hoard of Occupy Wall Street protesters. Some begin clapping, assuming she’s a performance artist denouncing capitalism, while others actually mistake her for a clueless shopper. Neither of these interpretations is entirely correct, but this is unimportant. What matters is that the private thoughts of the bystanders affect the public performance. Whether she is being championed by tourists on the High Line or being chased out of Yankee Stadium by security guards, Marsen is challenging our urban propensity to turn on our iPods and shut out the city. While NYC is known for its stoic citizens who could see a man change his pants on a subway train without reacting, NYC is also famous for forcing people to live their private lives in public: we make out in front of Grant’s Tomb, have screaming fights inside a Duane Reade, and then cry on the Q train all the way home. Girl Walk // All Day gets at this essential contradiction of urban living, celebrating the chaos of the city and the quiet lives of its inhabitants.
The documentary has become a bit tired. Outside of a few talented practitioners (e.g., Werner Herzog and James Marsh), most documentarians mistakenly assume that subject matter is all that counts. As long as you are discussing a profound subject, it doesn’t matter if your film is structured entirely around talking heads and a bit of news footage. That’s why Clio Barnard’s The Arbor doesn’t feel like a documentary at all. Recounting the life of working class British playwright Andrea Dunbar—a troubled but talented writer who gained a bit of acclaim in the 80s before dying of a brain hemorrhage—and her disturbed daughter Lorraine, Barnard’s film features the voices of Dunbar’s children, parents, and Dunbar herself. But the words are lip synched by actors. This obviously sounds gimmicky, but the technique results in a biopic/documentary hybrid that is modern, chilling, and fascinating. Dunbar’s plays were often drawn directly from her life as though she were transcribing words from her working class world and feeding them into the mouths of actors, so the documentary’s unique style befits the subject matter. Clio both apes the typical documentary format while also playing with it by including sections of Dunbar’s plays and reenacted scenes from her life. Be forewarned that Lorraine’s descent into drug addiction, prostitution, and abuse is difficult to watch; however, the film never feels exploitative. Instead of portraying Andrea and Lorraine as yet another set of self-destructive, poor women to be watched and pitied, Clio invites them into a larger discussion of art and life, language and its speaker, and a documentarian and her subject.
The Queen of Versailles
Lauren Greenfield’s acclaimed 2012 film was originally intended to highlight American overconsumption by documenting the building of America’s largest home—a replica of Versailles built by Jackie and David Siegel. But then the credit crisis hit, and the billionaire Siegel—owner of the world’s largest time-share corporation—began to swiftly descend tax brackets. Yet the film’s depiction of this decline only reinforces the existential emptiness at the heart of the contemporary desire to possess everything in ever increasing quantities. Filmed in a style familiar to viewers of reality television, Versailles follows the Siegel family through the minutiae of their daily lives. But Greenfield’s camera continues to roll where The Real Housewives would have cut away. When a pet iguana starves to death, the camera lingers on the dead animal’s cage as one of the sons says, “I didn’t know we had an iguana.” This forgetfulness isn’t surprising because the home is overflowing with neglected animals—whose feces continually marks the expensive flooring. Apparently, no one ever thought to train them. It becomes clear that the director is focusing on these bizarre images of roving, helpless animals in order to comment on the Siegel family. As Jackie leads a tour of her new home, she describes one wing as the place where she would “visit the children.” Accumulated like so many goods, these children, often unnamed and indistinguishable, move mindlessly throughout the house. In one particularly haunting scene, a few of the children, bored and listless, ride Segways in endless circles through their foyer. The parents are nowhere to be found. As the family’s cash dwindles, Jackie laments the fact that her kids may actually have to go to college. Raised only to be consumers, these children have no desire to achieve anything or even to imagine that achievement is a worthy goal. Although Jackie continues buying toys, food, and pets for her children, she is incapable of seeing what she has done. American abundance has never felt emptier.