Tuesday, December 21, 2010

News flash: Peter Liechti's award-winning doc THE SOUND OF INSECTS is no doc at all

Marketing, I guess, really is all. Being billed as some kind of a documentary (it won the 2009 European Film Award in that category), THE SOUND OF INSECTS: Record of a Mummy -- a film from Swiss filmmaker Peter Liechti (shown below) who, in this case has adapted, written, directed, produced, and handled the cinema-tography -- is not a documentary at all. Not since On the Bowery -- which at least had a true documentary feel, was shot on location and used actual "alkies" as its actors -- won its doc award, has anything so dead-wrong occur-red in the land of the fête. (OK: The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture. But Liechti's film actually won.) Before seeing the movie and imagining that it had anything to do with the documentary format, I'd considered the European Film Awards to be a cut above our own. That notion has now been laid to rest.

According to its press release, The Sound of Insects "blurs the line between documentary and fiction," a phrase we've been hearing more and more of late. But surely this is true only if someone has no idea of the meaning of the words "blur," "line," "documentary" and "fiction."  This film is based on a novel.  A novel! (Speaking of meanings.) And a novel
written by a Japanese man, at that (and set, I imagine, in Japan): so much for verite of location. It's subject: a man who takes to the woods and commits suicide. (No spoiler here: the film begins with the removal of his corpse.) So this is a documentary? Then one might think our filmmaker would by now have been arrested. But of course not. This movie is about as "fictional" as you can get.

Even if you consider the movie to be "a profound inquiry into the art of representation" that "probes the ever-elusive and mystifying line between life and death" (that press release again), all movies -- good, bad and indifferent -- makes a stab at the former, while countless one (most recently Hereafter, Shutter Island and several films in the ongoing Spanish Cinema Now series) are happily probing the latter. OK: So much for the marketing of the movie. How is it as cinema? Interesting. Not bad. Though not particularly award-worthy, either, TrustMovies thinks.

Using (yes!) a heavy-duty documentary style -- which is hardly the same thing a being a documentary -- Liechti introduces us to his protagonist, a fellow of middle-age determined to starve himself to death over a period of, he hopes, a very few weeks.  Death, it turns out, takes longer. We see parts of him, as he himself would, looking at his own hands and legs. We become acutely aware of the world around us/him, particularly of sounds, as the symptoms of starvation becomes more intense. There's a nod to eastern culture, spirituality and the like, but this seems not nearly thought out enough by the character nor the filmmaker.

We learn very little about our fellow -- who does not seem to have led a particularly fascinating life -- and this helps drag the film down. I'd have preferred spending my hour-and-a-half with someone more interesting -- but then that person would have been a good deal less likely to commit suicide at this relatively young age. The visuals are rudimentary -- much is as they would be if we were there in the tent that the protagonist has built -- and the attempts by the director to go into fantasy and heightened states of reality are not very successful. You certainly see what Liechti is trying for, but that's about it.

The film does encourage you to consider what its protagonist is attempting and how this might play out, together with what dreams, thoughts and feelings would arise as death draws nearer. This, of course, is enough to send the majority of most audiences running for the hills. But a few fearless souls may opt for the ride. We don't get this kind of film all that often, so attention must be paid. Just don't expect a documentary.

The Sound of Insects, from Lorber Films, is opening at a Manhattan cinema venue I've never before mentioned: the Rubin Museum (150 West 17th St. between 6th and 7th Avenues), beginning Wednesday, December 22, at 7pm.  Click here for all screening dates and times (there are only ten of these, so if this post has piqued your interest, reserve now).

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