Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

Three more movies last Tuesday, the last night of Docfest in Palo Alto. I'm not sure how successful they were there--some shows seemed to have a pretty good audience, some were kind of empty. But as a South Bay guy who works in Palo Alto, I'm hoping they did well enough to keep coming here.

The first movie of the night was THE END OF TIME, about...well, ostensibly about the very concept of time, but what I got out of it was some awesome cinematography and sense of wonder, mystery, and curiosity about a very tricky subject. We get to see into the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and ruminate not just the amazing technology/engineering achievement, but what it means to explore the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang. For that matter, if time is inherently tied to space as 4-dimensional space-time, and space was created in the Big Bang, does it even make sense to talk about "before" and "after" the Big Bang? (well, maybe "after" makes sense but "before" doesn't.) We get to see the ravages of time, in decaying Detroit or in a Hindu funeral ceremony. Or just the never ending changes of time, as we visit the one home remaining on the south side of the Big Island, after all the rest have been washed away by lava flows. We look into the stars, realizing that the further away we look the further back in time we see. And we look into ourselves. It's more of a meditative art film than a typical information/opinion-delivering documentary, and that's all to the strength of it. If it actually answered the question "What is Time?" then it probably didn't understand the question to begin with. Which reminds me, the end scene with director Peter Mettler's mother Julia might just be my favorite. At least, she gives the most human answer to the question.

And then I saw the film I was personally most eager to see in the entire festival, TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY. It's not that I'm particularly interested in the topic of online privacy. I am interested in it, but I'm interested in a lot of other things. And as far as Internet privacy, I seem to have a higher level of tolerance for looking like a fool on the Internet than most of my fans, so it's always been more of a theoretical concern for me. And I'm not doing anything too illegal, so...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What really interested me is the director, Cullen Hoback, whom I have met and I've been a fan of for years, entirely from all of his previous features playing at Cinequest. But then this one didn't. So I was a little curious why. And I happened to hear a rumor (and maybe irresponsibly repeated it, in person but not online) that it didn't play at Cinequest because it was too critical of some sponsors (or more broadly, the industry that many Silicon Valley sponsors are in.) So I was ready to write something about that, but in a rare flash of journalistic integrity, I decided to ask Cinequest Director of Programming Michael Rabehl about it. He assured me (and I believe him) that sponsor influence had nothing to do with any of his programming decisions, as the sponsors aren't even aware of what films are submitted (at least not from him.) He did provide me this statement, which I'm happy to repeat:
“Cullen is an amazing filmmaker, and we have enjoyed time and again having him involved in Cinequest, and hope to again with his future films.  With the reviews of hundreds and hundreds of films every year, I personally have to make incredibly painful choices when putting together the program.  This year alone, I turned away a long list of films I really would have loved to be a part of Cinequest, solely because we don’t have the space to program all of the great films we see.  Unfortunately, that also means I am turning away films that are perfect for our audience, from filmmakers we adore, and that is one of the most painful things to do.”
The only thing I'll add is how happy I am to live in the SF Bay Area where we have so many film festivals (some might say too many, but those people are wusses) that if a great film can't be fit into one festival's schedule, there's a good chance it'll pop up at another local festival.

Well, with that out of the way, on to the actual film. Cullen has the kind of sense of humor I enjoy, and that's on display in the opening scenes, an animated comparison of going to a foot doctor in the real world vs. what it would be like in the online world (full of everything from annoying ads to snooping cameras and higher insurance premiums as a result of your activities.) It also quickly gets into the 'OMG, this is amazingly timely!' territory with revelations about NSA wiretapping and snooping on your online activities. Of course, these were the revelations from 2006, the first time the media got spun up about it...and then forgot. I have a dull, aching feeling that we're going to keep "revealing" this every 5-10 years until that's the new normal. More interesting in some ways is how the private companies--Google and Facebook are most prominently featured--have used the increased tracking "required" by law enforcement to track you for their own business purposes. It's an interesting point to think about what if Google was a $500/year service, since that's the estimated value of the data the average user supplies to them. Even more interesting is how Google's privacy policy from, say August of 2000 is different on the Wayback Machine and Google's own archive (take a look at how Google removed mention of how cookies 'cannot tell us, "This person is Joe Smith" or even, "This person lives in the United States."') Facebook's legendary changing of privacy policy defaults is better known and well documented here. The closing sidewalk interview with Mark Zuckerberg is an excellent punctuation to everything brought up in the movie.

Personally, I share more of my shenanigans online than a person with a normal amount of shame should. I sympathize with people who want privacy even though I willingly share my fondness for class 4 handheld lasers or delicious chocolate buttholes. But after watching this movie, what I'm really afraid of is the simple law enforcement misunderstandings. Like the Irish tourist who tweeted about how he's going to "destroy America" (meaning drink a lot, get wild & crazy, party, etc. What I call "BARmageddon.") He ends up being stopped at the airport and held for over a day before he is allowed to enter the country. Or the junior high school kid who tweeted concern that Obama should be afraid of a suicide bomber attack after killing Bin Laden. He got a visit from the Secret Service over that. I guess he's lucky he didn't write something like, "Obama better watch out. I have concrete plans to travel to Washington, D.C. on June 31st for the express purpose of taking a shot at him." Now, it's pretty clear in context that I  have no such plans, and I'm presenting an example of how free speech can get you into legal trouble. Eagle-eyed readers might notice that I offered up a non-existent date for my non-existent plans. I sure hope any law enforcement officer reading this takes a few minutes to note the obvious context. I suppose I'll find out soon if that's not the case. Hell, I write a lot here, and on topics as diverse as the movies I watch. In the early days of my blog I had a bit of fun noting what odd search terms led people here. That's all fun, and part of my penchant for sharing too much here. But I can only imagine what horrible misunderstand could happen if I accidentally reviewed these three movies too close together.

Okay, I think I've pressed my luck far enough. I will simply point out that the movie's website, is a funny resource on the movie, and includes links to privacy tools, which is a topic the movie doesn't even get into (perhaps for a sequel, or DVD extras? Do people still do DVD's?)

And finally, I ended the night with FALL AND WINTER. A beautiful and sprawling exploration of everything that's wrong with the modern world, starting with agriculture. Not modern agribusiness, not GMOs, but the act of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in and of itself. This is "back to nature" at it's extreme--not back to the farm, back to hunter-gatherer lifestyle (actually, I'm pretty sure many of the subjects were vegetarians, so back to gatherer lifestyle.) I should stop right now and say I respectfully disagree. I like modern life, and while I think the connection to nature is often lost, it's not too hard to find again, and it doesn't require demolishing all the technological advancements we've made and living like cavemen (for those who choose to do that, more power to 'em, just don't expect me to join in.) So I won't really focus on the argument the film makes, other than to say it is made persuasively (just not persuasively enough to get me to change.) Instead I'll point out how beautiful the cinematography is. Or how lyrical and flowing the tone is. And how many fascinating people director Matt Anderson meets and interviews. And actually, along those lines I should mention that maybe it was just an isolated one or two who made the "agriculture is bad" argument--it's just the argument that sticks in my mind way too much. Come to think of it, the guy building houses in Haiti out of discarded tires and bottles--he's freakin' cool. The Native American speaking to the (unfortunately, mostly empty) United Nations--he's cool. Grace Lee Boggs (whom I first saw in the documentary THE GRACE LEE PROJECT) is cool. A lot of them are cool. And you know what, the guys arguing for a return to primitivism are cool, too. I guess it's a shame that I started approaching the film, and this review, with a rejection of the anti-agriculture, hunter/gatherer philosophy. Because I think that really hampered my opening up to the film (well, that and my extreme exhaustion. I can't believe the festival isn't even half over yet.)

Total Running Time: 295 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,335


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