Updates & miscellaneous musings!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Fighting corporations with clip-art, and why it doesn't work.

Thursday night, I saw "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices", a documentary of sorts about why Wal-Mart is bad for the world, with Erika, because she wanted to see it, and it was in the Porter Dining Hall.

It was, as it turns out, stunningly shitty.

It was poorly edited on an immediately obvious level, with arbitary jump-cuts and tacky graphics (words like "THE STORE WAS CLOSED DOWN" fly at the screen, in time with ominous chords on the soundtrack, like a parody of a 20/20 episode).
But what really made it unforgivably bad was the failure to arrange the footage in a way that was emotionally engaging.
This material is perfect for a Fahrenheit 9/11 style emotionally-charged (even, arguably manipulative) piece--we have stores who've been owned and loved by families for generations, now being shut down; we have poor minorities who can't get real health care, and we even have the Chinese factory workers who get paid horribly--some of whom seem naive and sweet, some who have borderline-Marxist rhetoric. And to top it all off, you have those greedy motherfuckers at the top, the Waltons, billionaires who don't even pretend to care about the unwashed masses under their feet.

This could have been a great movie. Basic fluency with cinema from its makers should have it least made it a pretty good movie. But I'm convinced that the people who made it basically had no idea how to make a film.
Just as much as a fiction film, a documentary has to tell a compelling story. A quasi-propagandistic politcal documentary* doubly-so.
Fahrenheit 9/11 opens dramatically with the dream-like sequence about the 2000 election, comes to a climax in a contrast between brutality and Iraq and Britney Spear's flippant support of the president (as well as juxtaposing the devastation in Iraq to the shoddy conditions of people living in Flint).
The film ends omino uslywith a quote from O'Brian's speech in 1984, where O'Brian endorses perpetual warfare as a way to control the populace.

Wal-Mart does no such thing. It spends the first 45 or so minutes of its hour-and-a-half running time talking about "mom and pop" stores that were shut down by Wal-Mart, then transitions to the poor employees for awhile. Even there a lot of opportunities have been missed, but it's not too bad. Then things start going downhill. We go to China and Bangledesh to see what factory conditions are like, and talk to some of the people who work in them (complete with traditional "Chinese" music, so you know what country you're in). In a better movie, this could be the highlight--this is the side of the American economy we don't see, and the conditions these people live in are appalling. But it comes in at such a late point in the movie and is bridged to so awkwardly that it just feels random and uncompelling. The last 20 minutes spend some time with a black female Episcopalian preacher in Inglewood and her fight to keep the company out of the city, but the movie doesn't find time to linger on her kind of interesting leftish religious message because it has to talk about all the people who get assaulted in Wal-Mart parking lots--shitty to be sure, but only tangentally relevant.
The movie ends on a contrived positive note, with various legal victories over the corporation accompanied by the word "VICTORY" flashing across the screen in every font the editors could dredge up from their hard drive.

The movie is an arbitarily-organized mess. The outline wouldn't pass muster in a high school English class.

The movie ended to enthusastic applause, but I don't think my reaction was a unique one. As the credits rolled and I made my way upstairs to the bathroom, I overheard comments like, "That was kind of a good movie, but kind of a really bad movie," and "It would've been good if Michael Moore had made it."

I think it's like this--
You don't have to understand a lot about an art form to notice when it's done badly, but you do to avoid doing badly in your own art.
I was recently annoyed by a comic about prisons whose author visited us and basically admitted he knows nothing about comics. And the shitty layouts and bubble placements in his comic make this painfully obvious. He, like the makers of the Wal-Mart movie, are convinced that their cause is sufficiently important that their lack of fluency in their media doesn't matter.

In my opinion, this is kind of like someone deciding to become an ambulance driver despite not having a driver's license.

By a weird coincidence, last night this column I read by a marginally successful comic writer, Steven Grant, said:

In one of his novels, author William Burroughs...expressed the general philosophy: 'Whoever says if something's worth doing it's worth doing well is dead wrong. If something's worth doing it's worth doing no matter how well you can do it.' Which is true. This is how we learn, by doing....What isn't necessarily true is that it will be worth it to someone else. And there's the rub
There isn't any sort of Manichean split between craft and art. Craft without art is pretty damn pointless, it's true (not to mention annoying as hell). But art without craft is as bad. The point of craft isn't to break the spirit but to facilitate communication, because, really, that's what we're trying to do: communicate.

(You can read the rest here, though it's largely about punk rock and comic books)

While the Wal-Mart movie and prison comic people don't claim (I think) to be making high art, they need to recognize that a basic fluency with the conventions of their chosen media (what Grant calls "craft") and how to use them is neccessary if they're going to create anything that even the layman (no pun intended, Erika) can respect.

In a way, this makes me think I should try my hand at more publically useful works that are at least nominally technically proficient (I don't think I'm giving myself a huge compliment when I say I'm both a better film maker and a better cartoonist than those people). I suppose we'll see what happens after I finish Quamran

*A documentary is, according to my Film book, "A non-fiction film that presents (presumably) real objects, people, and events." It's not assuming objectivity, so I'm considering this and Michael Moore's movies (and for that matter, I guess, things like Triumph of the Will), legitimately documentaries.

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