Monday, April 15, 2013

Film Fest 2: The Varieties of Biographical Experience

There was nothing premeditated about it, but looking back, I find that the three films I saw over the weekend were all biographical in one way or another. Can you imagine a more disparate trio than Thor Heyerdahl, Pete Seeger, and Hannah Arendt?
“That ass Heyerdahl.” The anthropology professor Robert Spenser, who lorded it over students at the University of Minnesota with arrogance and humor for several decades, never referred to the famous Norwegian explorer in any other terms. Well, Heyerdahl’s book Kon-tiki, sold 50 million copies: perhaps Spenser was jealous.
Now we have a film version of Heyerdahl’s epic voyage from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft, undertaken in 1951 to demonstrate that those Pacific islands could have been peopled by immigrants from South America rather than Asia.
It’s a very good film—a modest film. If you want to see a lot of sun and sea on a cold spring day, with a touch of adventure thrown in here and there, it’s the film for you.
The risk involved in the Kon-Tiki undertaking was considerable. These seven men didn’t sail, they drifted across the Pacific for three months, traveling 5,000 miles in the process. Naturally tempers flare from time to time. And sharks can be a nuisance. Also boredom, and clumsiness. The timbers begin to soak up water, the lashings fray. And did I mention sharks?
 Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, lacking a budget for computer-generated effects on the order of Life of Pi, nevertheless tell a good tale while resisting the temptation to wander into controversies regarding Heyerdahl’s character or later career. The two-hour film goes by in a flash.

Pete and Toshi Get a Camera is a delightful film patched together from footage Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi shot while on a year-long tour during the late 1950s, at the tag end of the colonial period. At the time, Pete was appealing a conviction for un-American activities that carried a ten-year sentence. They honed their skills with charming home movies, then filmed some of their friends including Odetta, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy, and even shot some footage of a chain gang in Alabama (fascinating if not charming), before setting off for Indonesia, Russia, Japan, and Tanzania among many other places. The family visited 28 countries by the time they were through. Their movements from place to place are conveyed on the screen by a little image of a prop plane following an arc superimposed on an old map.
Modern day interviews with Pete, Toshi, and the children provide a running narrative that’s mostly human comedy, with occasional jolts of political commentary and ethnographic research. The entire production is as quaint as Seeger himself—now 95 years old—and it’s an unmitigated delightful.

Less cheery is Hannah Arendt, the latest biopic by famed German director Margarethe Von Trotta. Arendt is best known in academic circles for her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism. She’s better known to the general public as the author of the phrase “the banality of evil” which she coined while covering the Adolf Eichmann trail for the New Yorker. Here we see her in the midst of her émigré and American friends, smoking endless cigarettes, engaging in intellectual talk (in German) and eventually enraging most of her Jewish friends by suggesting that Eichmann was a mindless bureaucrat, a non-person, rather than a demonic mass-murderer.
Martin Heidegger appears in flashbacks as a dotardly womanizer. Other intellectuals, including environmental philosopher Hans Jonas and novelist Mary McCarthy, drift in and out. But Arendt herself, played with fiery conviction by  Barbara Sukowa, is center-stage throughout the film, and she more than holds her own. The West Side New York conversations sometimes sound scripted, but the chilling footage from the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem more than compensates.
The film has the same appeal as Vision, von Trotte’s earlier work with Sukowa about Hildegard von Bingen: It may not have hammered home the salient issues fully, but it makes spirited conversation, serious-minded inquiry, and the pursuit of justice look damned attractive.

The cigarettes we could do without.

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