Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Steam of Life [Miesten vuoro]

Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen | 2010 | 82 mins | Finland

Can you think of a single thing not to love about a documentary that's 100% naked men in saunas? I know, me neither. But get your mind out of the gutter. The men in Steam of Life aren't, in most cases, particularly sexy. Nor do they, I suspect, give a fuck about whether they look good for the camera. They're just regular guys, with droopy skin, beer bellies or concave chests, bad tattoos, and whatever other flaws you might imagine a random cross-section of the Finnish population to have. What makes the film spectacular is not the gawking at naked men part. It's the fact that these men, who come from a culture that privileges the strong, silent, tough-guy type, all open up in the sauna and share honest, frank stories about their lives.

Apparently, in Finalnd, if you can hot-box it, you can turn it into a sauna, and the saunas in the film are as diverse as trailers and phone booths, tents and underground mines. The sauna is a national passion in Finland that I can't think of a parallel or equivalent to here in Canada. We simply can't relate to how central this ritual is to the daily life of the average man, but Steam of Life sure gets us close to understanding the value of the ritual - and not just for your complexion.

Some of the stories are funny, and some are utterly heartbreaking. The men reminisce about their lives, their children, their lost loves and changing fortunes. It's an unbelievably intimate and frank view into their lives. Their willingness to let the filmmakers shoot them naked in the sauna is actually the least intimate part of it. When the emotions start pouring out and the tears start flowing with the sweat and steam, it's unbelievably touching, funny, sad, and uplifting all at once.

My own love for Finland burns with the fire of a thousand suns, but in this case the quality of the film speaks for itself, and it's not just my gross cultural bias that leads me to endorse it. The audience at the first Hot Docs screening gave the two young filmmakers the most raucous round of applause I've seen yet, stopping just short of an ovation. Truly a beautiful glimpse into the warm heart of an outwardly icy group of men.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Small Wonders

Tally Abecassis | 2010 | 52 mins | Canada

I wish that this film, which director Tally Abecassis spent ten years creating, had been better. I wanted to love it, and while I fell in love with a couple of the characters in it, I couldn't help but feel that the cumulative effect was not as powerful as it should have been.

The film follows three small business owners - proprietors of the kinds of weird neighbourhood shops you pass by every day, and hardly notice. Or, perhaps you wonder how they could possibly still be in business, with their old, dusty signs and cluttered storefronts. The three people she selects are hardware store owner Jae-Gil, a Korean tomboy who was known back home as "Miss Key" for her lock-picking abilities; Peter, the wisecracking watch repairman who complains about the loss of his youthful good looks but whose livelyhood is actually threatened by his failing eyesight; and Norman, a dapper photographer who runs an old fashioned portrait studio.

All three businesses are constantly on the brink of financial ruin - Jae-Gil's because of the increasing number of big box stores crowding out her over-stuffed, tiny hardware haven, the other two simply by the ravages of time and age on their owners, and the inevitable changes of technology. After all, most people throw out a watch rather than having it repaired these days, and nobody goes to a portrait studio for passport shots when you can get them done at any corner store.

Abecassis visited the three struggling entrepreneurs for a decade, and watching them age, go through divorces, heartaches, and the inevitable closure of at least one of their shops is, indeed, touching. But somehow, an element of intimacy is sorely missing from these very personal tales. It's as though a vast distance was maintained between her and her subjects in spite of the fact that the relationships have lasted for such a significant period of time. A fascinating subject, to be sure, and a must see for anyone who loves those weird old nooks & crannies in their own neighbourhood.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

And Everything is Going Fine

Steven Soderbergh | 2010 | 89 mins | USA

Steven Soderbergh's portrait of his friend and onetime collaborator Spalding Gray is intimate, touching, and at times very funny indeed. Gray starred in Soderbergh's King of the Hill in 1993 (a story that is touchingly retold in the doc) and Soderbergh has been working on this documentary for about five years - pretty much since Gray's death. The documentary weaves a biographical narrative worthy of Gray's own storytelling gifts, using nothing but clips from his taped monologue performances and a few select TV interviews he did over the course of his career. The stories he tell are loosely chronological, beginning in his early childhood, through his college years, his mother's suicide and the tumultuous decades that followed.

The stories about Gray's personal life - his troubled mother, his own difficulties in maintaining healthy relationships, his struggles with fatherhood - are undeniably touching, but perhaps even more interesting are the clips in which he talks about his development as an artist, the path that made him the unique monologuist we all know and love. He discusses writing, acting, the creative process itself, shedding some light on how that signature style was developed.

Soderbergh made very much the right choice in letting Gray speak for himself in this documentary, sifting through what must have been hundreds of hours of footage to create the final monologue of a gifted storyteller, a summary of his entire life. Retellings of the story of his monther's breakdowns and her eventual suicide, his own struggles with manic depression, his recurring suicidal fantasies and his strange obsession with water (in one clip he talks about always orienting himself in relation to water, wherever he is) provide an eerie sense of foreshadowing for Gray's untimely demise, in the East River, most likely by his own hand.

In the film's final scene, Gray is distracted by the lonely howling of a dog or wolf in the background. The camera stays on him while he pauses to listen to the animal's lamentation, and a lifetime of pain and brilliance is suddenly, heartbreakingly visible on his face. I got a little misty, I can't deny it.

For fans of Gray's work, this is a loving and respectful tribute. For those who don't know his monologues, it's actually a pretty good introduction to the style, the humour, and the strange, compelling character of Spalding Gray.

And Everything Is Going Fine screens again on Saturday, May 1. Click here for more info.