Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More on Hot Docs 2008: stalags, robots, writers, killers and ample opportunity for revisiting both the past... and the future

My recent posting on Hot Docs 2008 was organized around the films I’d seen which specifically addressed the use of home movies, but there remain other films worth noting that don’t fall into this realm. In the absence of an equally useful organizing theme, I’m just going to offer some quick comments on these remaining titles in no particular order.

Ari Libsker’s outstanding 
Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel concerns a trash paperback genre that arose in Israel in the 1960s, garishly illustrated tales of American soldiers captured by the Germans and sent to P.O.W. camps to be tortured and raped by Nazi dominatrixes who they would later exact like revenge on. In exploring the nature of the genre’s enormous popularity, Libsker dissects the labyrinth of issues that created a sort of impenetrable shroud over the development of a Holocaust culture in Israel, as well as the intersection where fantasy and atrocity collide. How does pulp fiction operate as a barometer of a culture’s subconscious fears and desires? Why are these fantasies dictated so specifically by American masculinity and the urge to force sex upon figures of genocidal menace? Provocation of the highest order, Stalags is very worth tracking down should it not get the attention it deserves.

Phie Ambo’s
Mechanical Love moves between Emersonian images of natural tranquility and portraits of rubbery robots in repose. Fascinating, troubling, and yet consistently playful in tone, it studies the slow progress of one Professor Ishiguro and his team as they develop his android double in preparation for an interview between it and Ishiguro’s wife and young daughter. Working a field described as bridging engineering and psychology, the focus of Ishiguro’s research is on identity, behaviour and self-knowledge. Confessing to not being much a husband, Ishiguro genuinely wonders whether his wife will even notice the difference between he and his geminoid, a running joke that alludes to some deeply serious questions. Less overtly addressing of the film’s themes but no less fascinating are the scenes Ambo captures in nursing homes in Europe where lonely elderly woman befriend robot seals. Ambo has caught a disquieting glimpse of the future in Mechanical Love, yet she resists facile qualification.

Someone else who should rightfully be acknowledged as having some special insight into the future is legendary SF writer Harlan Ellison, though you’d never really know this from watching Erik Nelson’s
Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a biographical documentary that leaves zero doubt as to Ellison’s elevated place in the genre nor his awesome powers of inspired, cantankerous, hugely entertaining gab, while offering zero lowdown on his work. Ellison talks up a storm throughout Dreams, regaling with tales of humble beginnings, hard work and colorful anecdotes galore—the time he mailed a dead gopher to an editor, the time he wrote a short story in five hours while on full display in a bookstore window—and he’s never anything less than a hoot. Too bad anyone not already familiar with his stories and novels will find here precious little to prompt them to seek them out. Nelson gives us a rousing impression of the man’s charisma and an astounding dearth of insight into what the hell he’s been writing about for the last 50 years.

A more compelling, textured, and purposeful portrait of a writer—if hardly a laugh riot—is
Killer Poet, Susan Gray’s chronicle of the strange fortunes of Norman Porter, a.k.a. JJ Jameson. Convicted of two homicides, Porter was handed two lifetime sentences back in 1960. A model prisoner, he served 25 years before escaping and starting a new life as Jameson in Chicago, where he’d help get a black mayor elected, renovate—or should we rather say rehabilitate—dilapidated homes, become a highly regarded poet, start up a day care in a church, and become a close, caring friend to many. This lasted 20 years before the fuzz finally caught up with him and returned him to the slammer. Gray makes a strong case for redemption while dutifully representing every significant angle in the story and ultimately exposing some of the more infuriating detours of justice.

During Gray’s Q&A following the screening I attended an audience member stood up and revealed herself to be the daughter of the woman who ran some of the inmate educational programs that Porter rose to the top of, giving testimony to the man’s kindness, noting how he helped her father when he was dying of cancer... What strikes me as the key difference between those willing to give Porter a chance and those who see only a pathetic creature who should never experience anything beyond his assigned punishment is simply the belief and understanding that identity is not so fixed, that any one individual is capable of actions both malicious and altruistic over the coarse of a lifetime, that destiny can be brutal or benign. The survivors of Porter’s victims (and it should be added that there appear to be considerable doubts surrounding Porter’s guilt in the crimes) themselves confess that his being back behind bars changes nothing with regards to their loss, but they feel better knowing that justice is served. Their faith in organized justice is obviously stronger than mine.


Elizabeth Nash said...

Thanks for your comments about Killer Poet and your willingness to consider both sides of the story. If you'd like to learn more about Norman Porter, please bookmark friends-of-norman-a-porter.org, an almost-ready new website created by a group of Norman's long-time friends.

The site, which should go live in the next few days, presents accurate information supported by 46 years' worth of legal and other documentation.

Thanks again for your open-mindedness.

Elizabeth Nash
Friends of Norman A. Porter

Paul Matwychuk said...

As a longtime Harlan Ellison fan, I'm really hoping that Dreams With Sharp Teeth makes its way to Edmonton. At the same time, I'm kind of dreading it, since Ellison is a bit of a crankypants with a tendency to rant. Had you read much of his work before seeing this film, JB? It sounds like you might be unfamiliar with a lot of his output. And if that's the case, I'm curious whether his onscreen personality made you want to see what he sounds like on the page.

JB said...


I actually went to the screening very much hoping to get a better idea of what Ellison novels or collections to check out as I've only ever read a couple of stories. While not a particularly big SF reader, I am an enormous fan of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, a couple of things from Ursula K. Le Guin (what's with genre writers and initials?), and I've just recently picked up some Theodore Sturgeon that I'm been pretty fascinated by-but I really don't know Ellison's work, his ideas, his obsessions or his style, and DREAMS didn't enlighten me one iota.

But to answer your question, listening to him rant did in fact make me that much more intrigued. He's obviously a bright guy, very charming, if exhausting. Of course in telling stories he could become a bit sentimental, and his ability to rant voraciously about pretty much anything makes me wonder if his prose has the potential to be equally indiscriminate. If you have any must-read suggestions I'd love to hear them.

Paul Matwychuk said...

Man, JB, if you had known me when I was in high school, I could have fixed you up with any of the two dozen Ellison books I used to have on my bookshelf.

Ellison's output consists almost entirely of short stories, so it's hard to know which collection would be a good one to start with, especially since I suspect most of them are hard to track down. SHATTERDAY and DEATHBIRD STORIES, maybe? Or ELLISON WONDERLAND? His collections of TV columns, THE GLASS TEAT and THE OTHER GLASS TEAT, give you a good sense of his voice too.

On the other hand, his stories are pretty widely anthologized, so you might be able to find "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" or "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said The Ticktockman" without much trouble. Or you could rent the cult post-apocalyptic sci-fi satire A BOY AND HIS DOG, which I believe is the only film adaptation of his work... unless you count THE TERMINATOR, which bore enough of a similarity to Ellison's work that he was able to compel James Cameron to acknowledge his influence in the credits. Imagine: a writer who beat out James Cameron in a battle of egos! That's Ellison in a nutshell.

I don't know if Ellison is on the same intellectual level as Dick or Ballard, but he's got a dark sensibility and a ferocious approach to storytelling that really turned my crank when I was a kid.