Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Found Footage: Mountain (2017) and Shirkers (2018)

A scene from Jennifer Peedom's Mountain (2017).

I want to discuss two films that, to a significant degree, are stitched together from previously existing footage.

Mountain (2017) is a feature-length video essay, directed by Jennifer Peedom and mostly shot by Renan Ozturk, on the symbolic relationship between human and mountain. Mountain porn is to be expected – the gorgeous, absolutely stunning vistas and panoramas and drone shots – but what is not expected is just how much this 74-minute-long film effortlessly includes: mountaintop cyclists and motorcyclists, skiers with and without parachutes, tightrope walkers, shots of individual snowflakes (turns out they’re not flat), lava, nosediving helicopters, vertigo-inducing helmet-cam shots of regular and free solo climbers, an athlete wipe-out reel, a critique of extreme sports online branding, and a critique of mountain tourism. Not to mention the poetry of Willem Dafoe’s narration, taken from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. It’s truly an awesome experience.

Having said all that, the most thought-provoking part of the film is the beginning. The film premiered at the Sydney Opera House to live accompaniment by the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the film’s soundtrack, which consists of classic compositions alongside new music by Richard Tognetti. The start of the film is a black-and-white peek behind the scenes at the orchestra and Dafoe warming up at their respective places. Peedom’s previous film was the acclaimed Sherpa (2015), and this opening scene sets up the orchestra and narrator as not presences sounding off from the ether but our flesh-and-blood guides into the heights. Similarly, the mountain-climbing POV shots that induce the most vertigo are those shot from helmet cams by a person next to a fellow climber who is included in the shot. In contrast to the stunning but monumental drone shots, when your climbing partner is right next to you, you are immediately placed behind the camera. Thank God I don’t mean that literally.

Sandi Tan in Shirkers (2018).

The other film I want to discuss is more sedate, but still harrowing in another sense of the word.

Shirkers ([1992]) was going to be Singapore’s first indie film, a road movie set in Singapore (!) about the quirky adventures of teenage assassin S., made by teenagers Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique under the mentorship of white guy Georges Cardona – a charismatic man of mysterious background who directed the film, and who absconded with the raw footage after it wrapped. Shirkers (2018) is a documentary about this series of events, prompted by the rediscovery of the footage in pristine condition after Cardona’s death. Alas, Shirkers the narrative feature wasn’t to be, as the audio tracks are still lost, or were deliberately disposed of. But that’s okay: Shirkers the documentary is already full of creative magic.

The macrostructure of the documentary is straightforward: intro, biographical background, film production, things going wrong, rediscovery, brief exploration of Cardona, and a reflective conclusion, all propped up by interviews and archival materials. What’s truly eye-opening is the microstructure, born like most classic art out of necessity. The documentary is about a film, so numerous clips are expected, but the clips have no sound. What to do? Writer-director-producer (and writer-star of the narrative feature) Sandi Tan’s solution is inspired: rather than seek to recreate the audio, she only adds sounds that are relevant to the point at hand, and the sounds themselves are not mimetic but signifying. The sound of a car horn is obviously not from a car in the scene, but we understand that said car’s horn was supposed to honk. Thus, the sound has the same aural effect as the visual design of the film, of which the poster is representative. Throughout the life of the three friends – Tan, Ng, and Siddique – their underground magazines and written correspondence display an idiosyncratic mix of cut-out collage and hyper-stylized handwriting. This design, alongside the vibrant colors and quirky, instinctive camerawork of the original film (by cinematographer Ronnie Lee), create the youthful-cum-nostalgic aura that made 1992's Shirkers a cause célèbre during its production, a style the film calls punk. (In an interview, Tan says the colors had to be toned down during digital transition, which is . . . wow.)

More than about a film, this is a documentary about the period of time in which Tan et al. were making a film, an exploration of a personal past with the 1992 film as MacGuffin. And since that film was never edited, Tan (and fellow editors Lucas Celler and Kimberley Hassett) feels free to select discontinuous snippets for her documentary. Indeed, the documentary feels the need early on to summarize the original plot. But rather than ending up an unwieldy mess, this deconstruction frees Tan up to anchor the film with an emotional throughline, which is then backed by judicious use of music, especially a haunting rendition of Weish’s “Tick Tick” and by the feel-good nostalgic “Shirkers Theme” from the original by Ben Harrison (both remixed and arranged by Ishai Adar). The chronological order of events is kept crystal clear, and the passing of time is underscored by different descriptors of the same interviewees depending on what they did during the period of time in question.

Lastly, there’s the mysterious case of Georges Cardona. As it turns out, even his own (ex-) wife didn’t discover his true birthday and age until he died. All we know for sure is that he was Colombian, started out in New Orleans, and had been pulling a similar shtick wherever he went: mentoring aspiring filmmakers and fostering their dreams before sabotaging their work at the last moment. Like The Tale (2018) but more intellectual and slightly less creepy, Shirkers (2018) reveals itself, in its obsession with Cardona, to be attempting to exorcise a formative demon. Such an exorcism will never cease to be necessary, but the completion of this documentary marks a personal milestone, not to mention a recovered piece of world cinema history.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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