Monday, April 25, 2011

Focus on Alan Zweig at Hot Docs 2011: Why you should see it

Whether he’s talking about his fears and insecurities, even his obsessions, Alan Zweig lays all his cards on the table. No wonder his interview subjects do the same. Plus, there is more to these deceptively simple observational films than is evident on the surface. This is not some outsider surveying his surroundings and the people populating it. Zweig’s planted himself in the middle of the action, speaking right to the heart of the matter.

Mind you, when Zweig chooses topics such as vinyl music collecting, endless dating and being perpetually (and and often publicly) grumpy, there are more than a few of us that can relate. Much credit goes to the subjects willing to speak on camera but just as much goes to Alan. It’s not easy getting people to open up and it’s just as difficult to organize and balance your thoughts with theirs. What’s even more interesting is the decidedly casual way that Zweig seems to allow these conversations to go off course.

In Zweig’s first three features, known as the “mirror” trilogy, (Vinyl; Lovable; I, Curmudgeon), he speaks into a mirror as if confronting himself. Although he invites us into his private thoughts during these sequences, Zweig maintains a respectful but sympathetic distance with others. It’s a strictly maintained balance despite its tenuous underpinnings and thankfully he escapes the dangers of imposing himself all over these films. The techniques remain restrained while the topics flourish. Even when speaking to himself (and confessing to us), Zweig maintains an apparently unedited style – sometimes babbling, often fussing with the technology, and certainly allowing a raw edge to prevail. Because the truth is that sometimes that’s just how it happens.

Then there’s the fourth feature, A Hard Name, in which Zweig narrows his focus and leaves himself out. We certainly hear the same sympathetic interviewer but now plays the supportive role as he asks his middle aged subjects to speak about transitioning from life in prison to life on the outside. Before we know it, we are going deeper and deeper into the pasts of these people, people who eventually reveal vulnerabilities that go beyond most people’s experiences. There is a unique raw honesty in this film as each subject breaks though prescribed comfort levels to be painfully direct. And there’s a lot of genuine pain in this film. But in that modest setting familiar to those of us who have watched Zweig’s previous films, this is not a place of judgement. It just simply is.

As a filmmaker, Zweig is that surreptitious master of understatement who maintains an uncanny balance, a fascinating push-pull dynamic that manages to encompass and even expand our understanding of cinema vérité. The camera rests patiently while the filmmaker confesses all and just as easily turns outward to allow others to speak of their experience. Looks quite naturalistic, actually. I know that’s why I am consistently drawn in to all of his films.

Alan Zweig reminded me in a chat we had on CKLN that this is part of an illusion. Everything, after all is happening within a frame, has been set up however loosely and has quite possibly been edited. Of, course I know that – but I do like hanging on to the illusion.

Those masters of direct cinema, the Maysles Brothers, taught me that lesson long ago – and opened up the possibilities for this style of filmmaking. A famous reflexive cinematic moment if there ever was one: There they sat, with Rolling Stones no less, in Gimme Shelter, discussing how to present the Altamont stabbing. “How to present” I wondered, “but you simply show it as it happened!”

Well not necessarily, as we’ve all learned since. Part of vérité is maintaining that illusion – the sense that ‘this simply is the way it happened’ – and it’s vital. Run of the mill film theory, I know, but I think it’s important to be reminded of the essentials sometimes, and how subtlety of style is an art form no matter which genre a director is working in. That’s the sign of a master filmmaker. That’s why you should go to this retrospective.

*Hot Docs run April 28 – May 8, 2011 in Toronto*

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