Best of the Decade Derby: What's the Best Documentary of the Decade? (Two Case Studies)

I rewatched Platform last weekend as the first of two Jia Zhangke films I consider truly worthy of "best of the decade" status - the other is his much overlooked and underrated documentary Useless. Over his prolific output this decade (six features), Jia has made some great cinema - at least one other film, Still Life, can be considered a masterpiece, and 24 City keeps deepening in its layers of meaning - aesthetic, cultural and historical - the more I think about it. But Platform and Useless are really the stand-outs in my book. I entered my re-viewings wondering if Useless was possibly better than Platform, but that possibility was quickly dispeled for me moments into my reviewing of Platform. Apart from being a monumental achievement, the film simply has too much personal significance for me to deny its inevitable place on my top ten list.

But that doesn't take anything away from Useless, which, after re-watching it this past week, I consider hands down one of the great documentaries of the decade.  I re-read my review from 2007 (never mind that 3 1/2 star rating, it should be at least four), which clearly reflected how much I was still processing this work in my mind. Seeing it again, the three parts work more fluidly as a whole, as if in dialogue with each other, both thematically and visually. Visual matches like the dirt on Ma Ke's haute couture (a desire to return to a natural, organic relationship between people and products) and the coal dust that blackens miners' bodies.  Or the mind-numbing shifts in the clothing factory, where workers pass away hours under repetitive movements without speaking a word to anyone vs. Paris fashion models getting undressed and dressed, idly waiting for their show to start, talking about the extreme physical demands of staying still for hours under the spotlight vs. underemployed small-town tailors idly chatting or passing time on a cellphone while waiting for a customer to show up. What links them together is Yu Lik Wai's incredibly attentive camerwork, which moves fluidly through spaces in masterful tracking shots or sits in a corner taking in the geometric properties of a given workspace and how it influences the dynamic of social interactions within that space.

This is observational documentary filmmaking of the highest order, yet graced with dramatic touches that speak to the director's inspired manipulations and fictional stagings in order to intensify the connections and bring this film into something more than straight verite (something he does to even more beguiling effect in 24 City). In light of Ma Ke's fashion show with its bizarre sense of art-as-showmanship in the film's middle stretch, Jia's deliberate fictional elements seem to link themselves with Ma Ke's attempt to dramatize sociological issues the presentation of her work.

Watching Useless again shifted the attention of the Best of the Decade project into the realm of documentary. I went through my screening logs of the past several years and jotted a list of significant documentaries to see if I could come up with a working list to delve further. One name gave me pause for reflection: Adam Curtis. If only because of David Bordwell's excellent essay reconsidering the definition of "documentary film" published earlier this year on his blog. When I first watched Curtis' The Power of Nightmares back in 2004, I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating documentaries investigating the reasons for the Iraq War and the war against Islamic terrorism; certainly more focused, reasoned and persuasive than the buckshot invective of Fahrenheit 9-11. The film does such a masterfully sophisticated job over its three hour running time of analyzing and intertwining the history and motives of neo-conservatism and radical fundamentalist Islam. By doing so it exposes the aspirations of both ideologies to control their respective spheres of influence by perpetuating a state of social paranoia that effectively terrorizes its citizenry.

Watch The Power of Nightmares on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But towards the end I felt something kind of lacking as the film makes its closing arguments. It doesn't entertain questions about what makes these ideologies so seductive and influential to John (or Muhummad) Q. Public, and more generally, what sort of ideology could take their place to provide for a safer, more peaceful world. Maybe such an ideology is implied in the film itself and Curtis' erudite and discerning, perpetually skeptical and subtly snarky narration. The most it seems to offer is that we must always be vigilant and exercise our better judgment whenever ideologies try to captivate us with their utopian visions concealing nightmarish outcomes.

The sensation of watching Adam Curtis' compulsively watchable films (I went through all ten hours of The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap within a 24 hour period - once you get sucked in, it's hard to look away) has been consistent for me through my recent viewings of each of his last three features: initial enthrallment and a sense of revelation, eventually giving way to a feeling of emptiness and even despair at the perpetual folly of human beings in trying to better their world. This was especially true in watching his most recent work, 2007's The Trap, a revelatory examination of the impact of Game Theory on modern economic and social policy.  For the first hour or so, it stays focused on defining Game Theory, and how economists and social policy architects alike derived grand plans for improving society based on the belief that people's inherent selfishness could become a driving force for increased innovation, freedom and prosperity for all.  In the second hour or so, its ambitions grow larger, opening into questions about the what defines individual freedom, how the indulgence of personal desire becomes a trap in itself, and the paradox of how institutions that tried to promote ideas of freedom ended up trapping people in systems that created even bigger disparities in wealth and social mobility than has been seen since World War II.  This film was made a full year before the economic meltdown that has put us where we are now, and today it looks downright prophetic.

Watch The Trap on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But by the time the film enters hour three, its steady project of dismantling the authority of a misguided ideology, as with The Power of Nightmares, leaves us with a vacuum. After giving a provocative account of post-invasion Iraq as the ultimate folly of establishing free market society, positing Liberation Theory with its values of revolutionary sacrifice as a sort of antithesis to the individualist underpinnings of Game Theory, and putting in a final warning against overzealous attempts to impose and promote freedom around the world, he leaves us with a hopelessly vague exhortation to embrace "positive, progressive freedom" without delving significantly into what such a kind of freedom is.

I think my key limitation with Curtis is summed up by a quote from an interview near the very end of The Power of Nightmares: "A society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by a society that believes in anything." Swap the first "society" with "filmmaker" and you get an idea of what Curtis' films seem ultimately to be about, and why I feel somewhat empty at the end of watching these films despite having my eyes opened and my brain troubled by so many fascinating provocations about the misguided agendas that have shaped our world. Curtis' films argue viciously against both ideologues who stand too much for narrow ideals and demagogues who stand for nothing, but the middle ground (which Curtis presumably occupies) remains frustratingly undefined. Maybe the point is to leave the audience with the necessary challenge of defining that middle ground for itself, rather than have the film presume to provide a convenient answer.

If that's the case, I consider The Century of the Self, the most satisfying of the three Curtis efforts of this decade. It is revelatory, exhaustive and cohesive in its four-hour argument for how psychological practices were co-opted by big businesses and governments as a way for them to target and exploit people's desires. But more than just fulfill its stated thesis, the film is more successful than Curtis' other films at engaging with the more philosophical questions that emerge from his social critique, in this case, nothing less than what the meaning of having a fulfilling life is about, and what sort of relationship we are to have with our impulses and desires. It doesn't engage that question directly, but its persistent critique of the many attempts of 20th century schools of psychology and self-help, from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Werner Erhard, attest to the frustrations and follies that arise in human beings' repeated attempts to liberate or govern themselves, asserting value systems that invariably expose their own limitations. In other words, it's like watching the BBC documentary version of a Luis Bunuel film.  Indeed, watching The Century of the Self, and Curtis' other monumentally ambitious works of this decade, I'm convinced that he is the Luis Bunuel of our time.

Watch The Century of the Self on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

This comparison may fit not just in terms of their worldview, but in Curtis'  awesome compilation of archival and original footage to create a brilliant montage that seems to take up multiple perspectives towards the image - sometimes it supports the point being made, sometimes it offers a snarky counterpoint, and sometimes it just seems to offer a stupefying depiction of humanity beyond description. Like video footage taken from a corporate market research video that illustrates different types of consumers: the interview subject labeled "societally conscious" is a bookstore owner so deep into the stereotype that he that we can't tell if he's an actor or not. It's those fluorishes of bizarreness that give Curtis an edge beyond the ostensible polemic of his projects, because they illustrate the persistent weirdness of humanity to defy its attempts to define itself.

So we have Jia's Useless, an exceptional observational documentary with intriguing elements of fiction, and the films of Adam Curtis, a master social documentary essayist. These are but two of the many forms of documentary that have thrived in this past decade.  The following are those that I consider the best of the decade that I've seen:

Capturing the Friedmans The Century of the Self The Gleaners and I Grizzly Man My Architect Los Angeles Plays Itself S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine Useless When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

I'm sure there are many titles I have yet to catch up with - I still haven't finished watching Wang Bing's lauded magnum opus West of the Tracks. But please submit your favorite documentaries of this decade in the comments. I'll be revisiting a select few over the course of the year, and fully expect at least one or two titles to make my list for best films of the decade.

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Platform (2000, Jia Zhang-ke)

brought to you by Glenlivet 12 year-old single malt Scotch. When you need some liquid courage for revisiting a personal landmark movie, go Glenlivet. BACKGROUND INFO:

FIRST SCRENING: Sunday, October 8, 2000, 1:30PM - 38th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

It was a month since I moved to New York to live with Julie [my future ex-wife], and a year since we completed two years of teaching in rural China.   The New York Film Festival was a point of entry into the city's formidable film culture (it's since become my annual ritual). I showed up too late to get tickets for marquee attractions like In The Mood for Love or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - but there were plenty of tickets left for the only feature from mainland China.

In that screening my Chinese past and cinephilc present were united, and two year old memories that were already boxed up in a dark mental basement were retrieved, given pride of place, monumentalized.   The way Jia Zhangke filmed those kids stranded in the boondocks, taking delight in the changes around them before the world robbed them of their naïvete, the way he acknowledged pop culture's influence on their dreams and identities, was the same way my students in China saw themselves.   But he also scrutinized youth culture's seductive qualities and lamented its inability to contend with the demands of the adult world -- and that's what really spoke to me, how I had left China, rootless and destitute. Now I knew what Bunuel felt when he smashed the projector at a screening of Rose Hobart and accused Joseph Cornell of stealing his unfilmed visions.

Who was this Jia Zhangke?   I had never heard of him and had no critical or popular reputation as a reference point - no Ebert, Kael or Rosenbaum review upon which to rest my certainty, only lukewarm, somewhat uncomprehending praise bestowed by the New York Times. Had I ever felt so bereft and tentative in formulating my own response? Even if a critic I respected had offered a review that I agreed with, what were the chances they would speak from the same experience that was vital to what I felt this film was really about?   There had been films in the past that I felt belonged to me in some way or another, but this was the first time that I felt a film had been entrusted to me - that I had something no one else had: a duty to make the film understood.

The prospect of fulfilling this duty was grim from the onset, because the one person who I had shared China with most found Platform to be an utter bore.   Tedious, self-indulgent, pointless, Julie said; the Chinese are portrayed so inexpressively, with none of the convivial close-ups of Chinese like in To Live , her favorite Chinese movie.   How could she not see what I saw?   Did it not reflect or validate a sliver of her two years in China?   There was no time to dwell on this rift -- I had already decided that it was the greatest Chinese film I had ever seen, a feeling reinforced when I finally saw that kung-fu blockbuster breakthrough by my college hero, Ang Lee.   Such a watershed in bringing Chinese cinema to the global stage, and yet such a dandified work of neo-Confucian anti-feminist spite, with no sense of specificity to a space, place or community - it was everyone's Chinese movie, and no one's.   Platform was mine, and that meant everything.


watching the shitty Artificial Eye 4x3 non-widescreen piss-poor transfer DVD. I can't find my New Yorker DVD copy (which sucks because it's the first DVD that I was ever cited on... a long story, which I've decided out of discretion not to include in this post, despite its immense significance to my life... I'll just say two things: that at one point in my life Jia Zhang-ke played a sort of matchmaker in absentia for me.  Imagine what it's like to meet someone you're attracted to and have them present you a printout of an essay you wrote three years ago with multiple passages highlighted and bolded.  I finally got to tell this to Jia last October, and he was flattered. Second, that I saw James Gray's outstanding film TWO LOVERS today and had a lengthy discussion afterwards about how youthful, go-for-broke romanticism, practically a symptom of arrested development, gives way to the sober pragmatism of adult relationships, achieved through a kind of spiritual death of youth.  It's worth bringing this up because PLATFORM itself chronicles this process in ways that few films this decade have - ALMOST FAMOUS tries to be about this but doesn't let you feel the full impact of innocence lost - really Philip Garrel may be the only director who can compete.)

0:00:02 - I didn't realize the opening sound was a squeal of what sounds like a speaker feedback - rhymes with the final sound of the kettle whistle at the end.

0:00:25 - coarse talk about illicit lovers, the kind you would never hear in a state-sanctioned Chinese film - Jia making a statement that this movie is going to tell you what you don't hear about elsewhere.

0:01 - "Platform opens with a performance of "The Train to Shaoshan" by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children's propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M's Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao's China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group's audience wasn't school children - it was a large gathering of adult male farmers...

As Deng Xiaoping's market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies." - Matt Parker

from an email to Matt:

The group has it's biggest audience in the beginning, presumably due to a village mandate that everyone attend typical of rural Chinese communist practices. And that the audience is somewhat aware of the kitschy inadequacy ofnthe simulated chair train, but they seem to enjoy themselves all the same, in contrast to the fistfight that erupts at one rock concert near the end. And little details like the song of the Tibetan girl (programmed as a kind of ethnic propaganda reassuring everyone that the gov is doing right by those people). Another favorite moment is when they're introduced to that song by Zhang Di ("I,Zhang Di, am often asked/ if the girls of Singapore are better than Taiwanese girls") Sure it's vapid pop like you say but it's the first encounter these kids have with a singular voice of individualism, the antithesis of the vapid groupthink and group culture you also described. I'm glad that Jia's film is more descriptive than prescriptive; as such it bears vivid witness to a crucial period of a world superpower in the making like no other film has.

0:03 - WTF! This version is missing the solo by the "Tibetan" girl. I wish Jia would release the 3 hour "directors" version of the print I first saw at NYFF - I still think it's better than the 2 1/2 hour version that hit theaters.

0:06 - Holy shit, the train sounds at the beginning - for a second feature Jia has his motifs laid out masterfully.  And the wild, collaborative teenage energy of it - this was what was missing from THE WORLD (unless you want to see that film as a depiction of a fascist state-as-theme park in which case the lack of youthful anarchy has a purpose, I suppose...)

0:09 - I've seen about 200 Chinese features in the time since I first watched PLATFORM. I've long attributed the evolution of Chinese indie cinema into the long-take slow-crawl conventions that prevail today to this film. But watching it so far I'm amazed by the goofy accessibility of this movie (at least relative to much of what has followed it) - the peasant performance, the hollering in the bus, the sight gags with the bell-bottoms, this is Judd Apatow compared to the opaqueness of its successors.

0:14 - Ah yes, the scene that made me seek out Raj Kapoor and AWAARA, another all-time favorite. I have this film to thank for that.

0:15 - Jia's rule of thumb with this film seems to be "have more than one thing going on in a scene - preferrably one expository thing and one piece of incidental cultural context, and lay it on like dressing on salad" - case in point, Zhao Tao's character Yin Ruijuan comes out to meet her father who scolds her for hanging out with the wrong crowd - then he interrupts himself to tell a group of delinquent kids to turn and face the wall - we learn that he's a police officer and we get to see how authority figures treat juveniles.

0:17 - I fucking love this city wall. City walls have existed in China for centuries, occasionally rebuilt, to defend against invading Mongols and such. Who would have thought it'd be the preferred site for romantic trysts and heart-to-hearts. Interesting how you can hear other people talking from some undefined distance, suggesting that privacy is never an absolute state.

0:22 - "Fengliu, fengliu, shenme shi fengliu?' I wish they had this poem at karaoke bars. Expositionally significant because the concept of romance was publicly taboo for decades - and it's to Jia's credit that he doesn't make a big deal out of that (taking a cue from late 80s Hou). Maybe it's to Western audience's loss, but it bolsters the integrity of the film.

0:30 - I remember discussing Platform with novelist-filmmaker Zhu Wen (Seafood, South of the Clouds), who criticized the film for trying to be too epic, for trying to make a grand definitive statement about an entire generation. May have amounted to professional jealousy. Looking at this film, I have no complaints with Jia trying to say as much as he could about his generation's experiences of life and its slow evolution over the course of a decade. Our sense of where this country and its people has come from is the richer for it.  What's especially great about it is how he's able to lay in a lot of these details incidentally, as if they just happen to pass by the screen. For sharp contrast, see how Scorsese handles trying to convey historical information in GANGS OF NEW YORK.

0:43- ah yes the wall scene. The use of space here really struck me when I first watched it. I'm not sure if I've seen Jia use this technique since. To be honest I'm not sure if Jia has exhibited this degree of playfulness since his first two features, and it goes without saying that I wish he would...

0:47 - Bad boy pop officially lands in central China. To this day I still can't find this song by Zhang Di about whether Taiwan girls are better than Singapore girls, or the "Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan" song. But this sequence sends a chill through my spine, because it's depicting the dissemination of culture in a way that feels historically authentic while capturing the spirit of exhilaration, like what it was like for me to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time, or the moment I finally got Guns 'N' Roses (October 1990 Future Business Leaders of America conference in Fresno, watching a roomful of suburban white boys slamdancing to "It's So Easy").  This is not an easy thing to pull off, as wanna-be time capsule movies like THE WACKNESS will testify.

0:54 - more playing with the space of the walls - exiting the stage, a quasi-homage to Lim Giong jumping out of the frame in GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE.

1:03 - to my knowledge this is the first depiction of abortion in any movie from China, the country where more abortions take place than anywhere in the world. Followed by subversive use of "official" radio broadcast, one of Jia's stylistic hallmarks, to be copied by many Chinese filmmakers (though it was Hou Hsiao Hsien's CITY OF SADNESS that first made prominent use of this device in a Chinese cinematic idiom)

1:17 - we're well into the Fengyang youth group's first tour of the countryside, a trip that takes on multiple meanings - an examination of emerging class differences between city and country Chinese, visible even in the nascent stages of post-Mao Open Door Era China; an '80s pop version of the Cultural Revolution compulsory "sent down" assignments that urban youths had to endure; the limited possibilities to live as free and easy artists/know-it-all hipsters in a Communist society.

1:25 - there's a scene from the original cut that's missing from this mining sequence - a really dark and sinister moment when the troupe manager tries to collect from the drunk mine bosses and the bosses retort by threatening to have the miners rape the women of the troupe. I think I'd have to say that the film may be better without it - we'll eventually learn of the troupe's hardships in less melodramatic ways.

Another thing that's missing - a road interlude where they're listening to a Chinese adaptation of Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" from the movie STREETS OF FIRE, translated in Chinese as "I Miss My Mom." (I may be one of less than a dozen people in the world who saw that scene and got the reference...)

1:30 - ah yes, the title song sequence. Brings back a memory of my first week in China as an English teacher and going to a tacky nightclub where this 30-something singer performed a one man musical revue with the help of several skimpily clad model-dancers. One of his numbers was "Platform" and I remember him singing this song with an eerie guttural rage ("My heart waits, waits, ENDLESSLY WAITING..."). Watching PLATFORM the first time I thought of this guy and the possibility that he could have been one of these kids, only grown up and still hacking away at his dream of bringing music and a little star power to the world. I wonder where he might be today...

1:42 - Zhong Ping disappears. I wish I had the guts to ask Jia or someone whatever happened to this actress - not only does her character disappear from the film, but the actress disappeared from movies. I wonder if the two disappearances were connected.

1:45 - For the record, this drunken bricklaying scene wasn't in the original cut.

1:46 - I remember in the course of writing the Senses of Cinema essay feeling apprehensive that PLATFORM owed possibly too much to Theo Angelopoulos' THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS to be considered a truly groundbreaking work. But now I see how this film has its own idiom, achieved more through the violence of history separated by cuts from scene to scene than lyrical long take camerawork.

1:47 -

Is it true that I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall Is it true I have a one-way ticket? Leaving on a road with no end? Is it true I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall? Is it true, as I said before That lovers must be lonely?

Hands down the most poignant scene in the film. A young lady at her office on night duty, hearing a song and letting herself be carried into a dance she used to perform, surrounded by invisible memories of her old gang of comrades, her ex-boyfriend. The past resurrected, reanimated and put to burial all at once.

1:52 - Loveable Wang Hong-wei having his Billy Idol moment - I'm sure Billy Idol has had fruit and shoes thrown at him at some point. Things obviously not going well for the All Star Rock-and-Breakdance Electronic Band.

1:54 - A scene of startling, documentary-like directness, twin sisters talking about why they've joined the band, which feels as much 1999 - or 2009 - as 1980s. Girls leave their homes for more or less the same reasons then as now.

2:06 - Such a sad scene - the two girls dancing on a truck to "Girl Under a Streetlamp" along the roadside while the traffic drowns and crowds out their performance. Defiance and despair. They've adopted a cheesy 80s disco song as their chosen form of artistic expression, and they're not even performing it terribly well, but the courage, grit and pathos of the scene is undeniable.

2:21 - This subplot about Cui Mingliang's parents and his relationship with his absent father may feel a bit extraneous, but again, it's one of those things that hits a nerve with me, given my own family history. It just seems to take a long time just to establish that the father has remarried, without offering additional information - narrative, historical, etc. It might have had more of a place in the longer cut. Speaking of which, from my essay for Senses of Cinema:

For what it's worth, here I would like to describe the coda to the original version of the film, which has since been excised from the “distributor's cut”. It begins with a long shot of a silhouetted figure standing in the midst of a vast and desolate landscape, firing a rifle towards the sun lingering on the horizon (whether it is rising or setting is not made clear, and it adds to the alluring mystery of the image). The camera pans away from the armed figure until it reveals the entire ensemble of the movie, dressed in their performance costumes, standing together and facing the sun, in such a way that resembles the idealized human profiles depicted on Chinese currency. These people, whose collective hopes have been dashed over the course of the film, are given one final chance to re-occupy a common space, bravely facing the sun that symbolizes the setting of an old age, or the dawning of a new, or both. This is one of the most beautifully lyrical and humanistic images I've witnessed in the recent history of cinema, and for some reason it's not even in the final cut.

Guess there's still work to be done...