Thursday, March 4, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Heavy themes for heavy times

Screen Grabs: Heavy themes for heavy times

New movies: Social media manipulation, voter suppression, deportation, white nationalism... Oh, and Suzi Quatro!

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With two months to go before the election—and god only knows what further chaos will ensue before, during or after—we seem to be getting more documentaries of pressing political relevance released every week. Last January at the Sundance Film Festival, what looked like it would most likely be the most important such movie to urge on audiences by November was Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma. Yet with our POTUS already making it clear he won’t accept an unfavorable outcome, while simultaneously encouraging racial tensions and armed militia types, the manipulative influence of social media no longer seems a Top 3 concern. Once again, this administration induces awe at their ability to crowd out even the most daunting crisis by opening a whole new can or three of toxic gas.

Still, The Social Dilemma should be seen, as there may never be another documentary that does such an accomplished (and entertaining) job of summarizing the fiendishly diverse, complex issues related to political exploitation of the Internet’s still relatively-new, under-regulated capabilities. Stealth propaganda from foreign powers, and the every-which-way privacy violations of “surveillance capitalism,” are just tips to one iceberg that isn’t melting anytime soon. Its busy audiovisual attack mimicking (even parodying) the addicting ADD nature of online experience, the film encompasses its subject’s impact on children’s socialization (bad) and critical thinking skills (worse), plus its flattening of ethical boundaries and annihilating effect on civil (let alone educated, factual) discourse. 

That Orlowski sees social media as destructive to society even beyond political influence (and ignorance) is illustrated by dramatized sequences in which an all-American suburban family goes off the rails in every way—absorbing both extremist ideologies and troll-bred low self-esteem—and others in which Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser plays multiple algorithm determinants in one vulnerable user’s online “command center.” These segments are cartoonishly broad to illustrate serious concepts in a hurry. And they work, in no small part because Orlowski also interviews many real-world formative shapers of Twitter, Facebook, Google etc., who are almost invariably horrified at what has become of their initially idealism-fueled babies. (Unsurprisingly, pretty much all those interviewed are former employees of those companies—no current staff will risk such public statements.) 

Cogently sketching a very big picture in just 93 minutes, The Social Dilemma covers a lot of familiar terrain, but provides more than enough revelations and connections to surprise just about anyone who’s not a professional media analyst. It debuts on Netflix Wed/9.

That same day sees the release of several other urgently pertinent new documentaries. Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes’ All In: The Fight for Democracy (which plays San Jose and Sacramento drive-ins on the 9th, along with other theaters nationwide, then goes to Amazon Prime Sept. 18) looks at America’s history of voter suppression—the issue nobody imagined would be more relevant than ever well into the 21st century. On a more hopeful note, Hannah Rosenzweig and Wendy Sachs’ Surge (premiering on Showtime’s plex channel SHOxBET) chronicles the 2018 midterm election, when an unprecedented number of first-time female candidates ran for public office. It was a movement fueled by anti-Trump reaction that will hopefully reshape Congress and other institutions indefinitely. 

After the coming election we may have particular need of Peter Hutchinson’s Healing From Hate: Battling for the Soul of Nation. Already opening gradually at cinemas (virtual and otherwise) nationwide, it focuses on an organization formed by ex-Skinheads and neo-Nazis to help others leave white nationalist groups and un-learn indoctrinated racial intolerance. Of a more balming, nostalgic nature is Mary Wharton’s Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, which profiles that admirable ex-POTUS’ fan-friendship relationship to acts from Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson to Gregg Allman, Paul Simon and the Carter-Cash family. It opens at CinemaSF and the Rafael’s virtual cinemas on the 9th, the Roxie following on the 11th.

Other titles new to streaming:

Fall PFA programs: Experimentation and Immigration

The Pacific Film Archive is starting to have regular series (in addition to individual virtual-cinema films) again, albeit for viewing online rather than shown in its Berkeley auditorium. Already in progress through November 4 is Alternative Visions 2020, the latest incarnation of a long-running avant-garde showcase that this time encompasses Latin American animation (available Sept. 15-17), the 1972 guerrilla RNC documentary Four More Years (Oct. 20-22), four decades of Yugoslavian experimental shorts (Oct. 27-29), and Sky Hopinka’s recent feature Malni—Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore, about Pacific Northwest Native American identity, land and language (Nov. 4 only). More info here.

Two extensive new series start this Tues/8. Ism, Ism, Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America (through Nov. 12) surveys a great breadth of that terrain in three themed programs that encompass work from over half a century, as well as South, Central and North American nations. More info here.

More feature-oriented is Exit West: Immigration on Film, whose selections are mostly available through its entire span, though Nov. 20. They include Logbook_Serbistan, about the Middle Eastern and North African refugee waves that have washed ashore in Serbia; the similarly focused Those Who Jump, set in a Moroccan relocation camp; The Infiltrators, which pries open the well-guarded existence of undocumented immigrants held in a Florida detention center; and Lynne Sachs’ Your Day Is My Night, an impressionistic glimpse at Chinese emigres living in “shift-bed” situations (sharing their sleeping quarters on a prearranged schedule) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. More info here.

Suzi Q
Near the beginning of this documentary about musician Suzi Quatro, it’s noted that she’s sold over 55 million records worldwide—which may seem a preposterous claim to those who really only know her as Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days. But as Liam Firmager’s film makes clear, this Detroit-bred “quintessential rock ’n’ roll chick” was a very big star in the U.K., Europe and Australia—practically every rock market, save her native US.  

Raised in a musically inclined family, she performed in a band with her sisters from the mid-1960s at age 14, dropping out of school as a fulltime showbiz professional two years later. There was a rift not long after when she (and she alone) got an offer from industry tycoon Mickie Most to get molded for stardom in London—which actually worked, making her a sole hit female rocker (and not just a singer, but an expert bassist) at the height of glam and cock-rock. 

A role model for others to follow, some of whom are interviewed here (like members of the Runaways, Debbie Harry and Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth), Quatro was influential at least as much for her image as her music. Explaining her androgynous leather jumpsuits and shag haircuts she shrugs “I don’t do gender.” The movie skims over her post-70s career (which encompassed a fair amount of musical theater), doesn’t explore her personal life in any depth, and frankly does not make a huge case for her recorded canon (of two dozen albums!) being anything you really need to investigate asap. Still, as a cultural footnote, she’s an entertaining one well worth the feature-length acknowledgement. Suzi Q is currently playing the Rafael’s virtual cinema program (https://rafaelfilm.cafilm.org/suzy-q/ ).

Measure for Measure 

Though familiar to any Shakespearean festival-goer, this “problem play”—neither precisely comedy, history or tragedy—has seldom been filmed, beyond TV versions of stage performances. This very loose modern-language adaptation from Australia has crime boss Duke (Hugo Weaving) forced into “exile” when a crazed drug addict’s shooting spree draws a little too much police attention to his operations. They are temporarily left in the care of enforcer Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter), who is ill-equipped for such responsibility. Creating further problems is the forbidden love that blossoms after aspiring musician Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson) rescues Jaiwara (Megan Smart) from the nutjob’s bullets. He’s under the Duke’s protection, but she unfortunately is tied by blood relation to a rival crime syndicate. 

Actor Paul Ireland’s second feature starts out well enough translating the play’s basic elements to the melting pot of modern-day Melbourne. But it loses energy and credibility as it becomes clear this milieu doesn’t really work so well for what’s left of Shakespeare’s narrative skeleton. We’re primed for a violent urban action thriller, yet Measure gets more dully heavy-handed as it goes on, variably well-acted characters failing to achieve tragic grandeur or even much gritty urgency. In the end, this is neither good Shakespeare or a very solid addition to the annals of Australian crime dramas. It’s available On Demand and in digital formats.

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