The best film I’ve seen so far at the LAFF filmfest is Bastien Duboi’ Madagascar, A Journey Diary, an animated short set in that Indian Ocean island off of the African continent. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the “exotic” subject matter exploring the culture, flora and fauna of this onetime outpost of French colonialism, what thrilled me most about it was the 12-minute picture’s unique style.
How often do you go to the movies and see something totally new that you’ve never seen onscreen before? (In stark contrast to, say, the predictable clips screened during the June 23 conversation with Sylvester Stallone from his forthcoming The Expendables, full of the typical murderous mayhem one associates with most of this purported draft dodger’s violent flicks.) Madagascar’s film form looks like the animation is done not by CGI, et al., but via a watercolor-type process, along with some impressive looking 3D-ish imagery.
This refreshingly formal elegance compliments Madagascar’s content, as a visitor is invited by Natives to witness and participate in some sort of indigenous rituals that have to do with something like raising the dead. The short reminded me a lot of my time in another French colony, Tahiti, in terms of its delightful ukulele-sounding music, “bizarre” (to outsiders’ eyes) customs, language, local people, etc. I had the joy of discovery watching this one of a kind cinematic spectacle about the joy of discovery. Bravo, Mssr. Dubois. Formidable!
Madagascar played on a double bill with , a motion picture meditation on picture taking by tourists in Laos. This documentary is somewhat similarly themed, in that, like the far superior Madagascar, it deals with how foreigners interact with and see the people, culture and nature of this beautiful Southeast Asian nation. Camera’s style veers from avante garde formalism to conventional narrative techniques (I guess Murray and writer Michael Meyer wanted audiences to actually see their work), as it looks at how Westerners perceive and live with Laotians. Along the way it reveals much about tourism, as Westerners romp in a low-cost rural society.
Some are enthralled by Laos’ Buddhist culture, largely unspoiled tropical beauty, inexpensive prices ($2 per night for a thatched bungalow over the Mekong River!) and/or, but of course, sexually affordable and available people (perhaps including children). At a series of bars along the Mekong Western youths frolic, swinging Tarzan-like over the water, wrestling and playing tug of war in mud pits, like female mud wrestlers or hippies at Woodstock.
Camera is self-reflexive: filmmakers with far superior gear film tourists shooting digital photos and some video of the “exotic” Laotians and their society. It made me think that perhaps there’s something to that old saying regarding Westerners photographing Third World people (especially without their consent): “White man’s magic steals souls.” This doc has a very American sensibility in that it shows people traveling abroad to get away from it all, only to bring “it all” with them.
This especially includes the filmmakers. They are thousands of miles from home, apparently by their own admissions breaking that country’s laws with unauthorized filming, and instead of really focusing on the society at hand, the film is, but of course, primarily about us. How we react to “foreigners” (when we are really the foreigners there), in particular by incessantly taking digital snapshots of them. It is fixated on self, like so many narcissistic Yanks, instead of on the other, even when we are in the other’s homeland. We learn little about Laos, such as, for instance, does it still have some of the characteristics of a socialist state? If you want to find out, don’t look for the answer regarding this and so many other questions in this self-absorbed doc. Its sensibility reminded me of that early 1960s Marlon Brando movie, The Ugly American.
Sylvester Stallone may have made Ugly American movies promoting U.S. imperialism and adventurism in another Southeast Asian nation – Vietnam – but he looked dapper and handsome. For someone about to turn 64 Stallone could pass for a 40-something. Although I enjoyed some of the Rocky flicks, including the 2006 installment Rocky Balboa, Rampell hates Rambo and its militaristic messages. So I have to admit to having been inclined to consider him stupid him prior to Stallone’s sold-out conversation with the excellent dreadlocked critic Elvis Mitchell at the Downtown’s Regal Cinemas.
However, Stallone revealed himself to be quite bright, thoughtful, and an excellent raconteur.
The 90-minute or so talk was extremely entertaining as a screen legend discussed his life and career with a topnotch film journalist. The conversation was preceded by Stallone’s “reel,” with clips from his various films, and later included, as mentioned above, clips from his newest action production to reportedly be released this August, the typically bloody mercenary movie The Expendables, which Stallone directed, co-wrote and co-stars in as Barney “The Schizo” Ross, along with other actions stars such as Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke plus Eric Roberts, etc.
The clip looked ugly and awful by the way, and during the Q&A that followed Elvis’ interview, I didn’t get a chance to ask Stallone my question, alas. So for the record, here goes: “Yo, Rambo, what is your Vietnam War record? Is it true that during the Indochina War you were a draft dodger at a Swiss boarding school where you worked as a security guard? And is it true that instead of preventing the girls’ boyfriends from sneaking into the school, you found it was more profitable to let them in, pocketing $10,000-worth of bribes in one year? (A small fortune back then for a young man.)
If this is essentially true, what does it say that Rambo was – like John Wayne’s similarly pro-Vietnam War themed The Green Berets – made by an actor who never actually served in the armed forces? And why did you turn down the lead role in Hal Ashby’s 1970s antiwar classic Coming Home and decided instead to make the pro-war Rambo flicks – even though you yourself avoided fighting in that war?”
I’m just asking, Sly.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”Click here for reuse options!
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