Four Documentaries from Mongrel Media
Big River Man (July 15/11)
Big River Man follows Martin Strel as he attempts to swim the entirety of South America's legendary Amazon River, with the movie subsequently detailing the many, many problems that crop up during Strel's increasingly perilous journey. It's clear almost instantly that Strel's life is, despite the breadth of his various accomplishments, simply not interesting enough to warrant a full-length feature, as filmmaker John Maringouin places a consistent emphasis on time-wasting elements - eg Strel and his son stop off for a horse-meat hamburger - that drain the proceedings of its momentum. Big River Man, which primarily boasts the feel of a promotional video, is subsequently only compelling in short-lived spurts, with Maringouin's needlessly ostentatious directorial choices - eg the nails-on-a-chalkboard soundtrack - ensuring that even the movie's marginally-compelling moments are drained of their impact. (Not helping matters are the unreasonably heavy accents of both Strel and the film's narrator, which leaves the viewer struggling to understand just what's being said on an all-too-regular basis.) The progressively uninvolving atmosphere culminates in a disastrous final half hour that's devoted entirely to Strel's physical and mental deterioration, with the anticlimactic nature of this stretch cementing Big River Man's place as a well-intentioned yet thoroughly tedious piece of work.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
An irritatingly misguided and pointless piece of work, Exit Through the Gift Shop follows off-kilter French businessman Thierry Guetta as he attempts to document the work of several well-known street artists - with his quest eventually bringing him into contact with a notorious figure known only as Banksy. There's little doubt that Exit Through the Gift Shop gets off to a rather underwhelming start, as Banksy, working from Guetta's hopelessly amateurish footage, is simply (and pervasively) unable to infuse the movie's underground atmosphere with qualities designed to capture and sustain the viewer's interest (ie the film's subjects never quite become compelling enough to justify the lingering emphasis on their illegal exploits). The film briefly improves, admittedly, as Guetta connects with famed artist Shepard Fairey and essentially becomes his assistant on a number of illicit jobs, though the low-rent, home-video-like presentation ensures that even this stretch isn't nearly as effective as one might've hoped. (And it certainly doesn't help that Banksy refuses to even fleetingly explore just what drives Fairey and his street artist brethren to do what they do.) Banksy's decision to devote the entirety of the film's final half hour to Guetta's efforts at establishing himself as a street artist named Mr. Brainwash cements Exit Through the Gift Shop's place as a thoroughly irrelevant piece of work, as there's simply never a point at which Guetta becomes compelling enough to sustain the viewer's interest through this tedious stretch (ie Guetta is so obnoxious and so pompous that it's impossible to care if he makes it as an artist).
Project Nim (July 15/11)
A stellar documentary, Project Nim explores the life and times of the title chimpanzee - with the film initially detailing Nim's participation in a now-infamous sign-language study. (Nim was sent to live with a crowded New York-based family in the late '70s, as scientist Herbert Terrace had hoped to disprove Noam Chomsky's assertion that only humans are capable of learning and understanding language.) Filmmaker James Marsh does a superb job of taking the viewer into the day-to-day lives of Nim and the various humans around him, and although the director's use of re-enactments is questionable at best (and needless at worst), Project Nim is, in its early stages, undoubtedly just as fascinating and enthralling as one might've hoped. Marsh peppers the proceedings with a number of fascinating stories and anecdotes (including the revelation that Nim loved playing with cats), with the breezy, consistently watchable atmosphere persisting right up until around the halfway mark - after which point Marsh begins to emphasize the increasingly downbeat and depressing trajectory of Nim's post-study existence. The film does, as a result, become more and more unpleasant as it progresses; the viewer has naturally grown rather attached to Nim, which ensures that large swaths of Project Nim's second half are exceedingly difficult to watch. (This is especially true of the stretch set within an animal-testing facility, as Marsh offers up graphic footage that ultimately feels out of place and shouldn't have been included.) The end result is a strong bit of non-fiction filmmaking that effectively tells an important true-life story, with the story's downbeat elements ultimately (and admittedly) diminishing the movie's overall impact.
We Live in Public (July 19/11)
We Live in Public details the rise and inevitable fall of performance artist/internet entrepreneur Josh Harris, with the film charting Harris' beginnings as a successful statistician through to his efforts at creating a self-contained living environment in New York City. Director Ondi Timoner does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as the filmmaker kicks off the proceedings with a blisteringly-paced (and thoroughly fascinating) opening 15 minutes that explores the ramifications of the dot-com bubble of the mid-to-late '90s. From there, Timoner begins to delve into the life and times of Harris - with the emphasis initially placed on his efforts at establishing and sustaining the aforementioned Big Brother-like house in 1999. But Timoner's reluctance (or inability) to wholeheartedly explore Harris' rationale for creating this unpleasant living space triggers We Live in Public's downfall, as the pointlessness of this stretch - ie what is the purpose of this place, exactly? - eventually becomes overwhelming and it's difficult to imagine anyone wanting to watch the exploits of, let alone live within, this cult-like commune. The movie admittedly picks up slightly as Harris attempts to spend six months under the watchful eye of dozens of cameras within his apartment, and while some of this stuff is kind of interesting, Harris' less-than-likeable personality ensures that his mere presence becomes more and more difficult to stomach. By the time Timoner visits Harris at his apple farm, We Live in Public has effectively established itself as an almost disastrously uneven effort that might've been passable as a short but simply doesn't work as a full-length feature.