SXSW Film Festival ’11 | Day Two

Heaven Hell won’t win any prizes for documentary technique but offers an intriguing glimpse inside a little-known subculture.

In keeping with the documentary theme of my SXSW adventure this year, today we are looking at films about ecology, sexuality, and rock album cover art.
The City Dark, directed by Ian Chaney, is what you might call a “traditional modern” documentary about the problem of light pollution and how it may be affecting human life—traditional because the film is composed primarily of talking heads, road trip footage (mainly visits to different places where the stars and other aspects of the night sky are more or less visible), and little sidebars providing background information about topics mentioned in the film (e.g., how exposure to light at night may affect human melatonin levels and thus increase cancer risk); and modern because Chaney loves to put himself on camera, Michael Moore-style, and while he seems to be a genial enough fellow, we really don’t need to seem him riding the New York City subway or peering intently as some lab scientist does his work. Then again, Moore proved that the personal touch can sell tickets, and it took Josh Fox all the way to an Oscar nomination, so I doubt this trend will reverse itself any time soon.
Cheney was the producer for King Korn, and if you liked that film’s blend of humor and information you may well enjoy The City Dark as well. However, if you know much at all about the topic (for instance, have you ever heard the term “light pollution” before?), you may well, like me, find it to offer a frustratingly superficial look at a range of topics without making sufficient differentiation between what is established as a fact, what is a working hypothesis, and what is merely speculation (some of the talking heads love to wax poetic about man’s place in the universe, the understanding of which they apparently feel can only be appreciated by people who regularly see the stars overhead). There’s also an unnecessary amount of city-bashing, as if the illuminated skyline of New York City were not itself a thing of beauty, and too little attention paid to simple solutions (such as exterior lighting, which directs light downward and avoids polluting the night sky while also saving energy) already in use in some areas. The time-lapse shots of the night sky are beautiful, however, and almost sell the film all by themselves.
I must admit that I’ve never given much though to the BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism) community in the Czech Republic, or anywhere else for that manner. However, after seeing David Calek’s documentary Heaven Hell (made for Czech HBO and already shown all over Europe), I can see a lot of merit in his point of view: People who find fulfillment in these activities are a sexual minority like gay people, and should have the same rights as any other consenting adults. This is not always the case in the Czech Republic, as is clear from the sad case of one of the subjects interviewed by Calek, a school teacher who appeared on television in her domina (dominatrix) role and found herself fired the next morning. Her family is accepting of her practice, however, and even welcomed her “slave” who came to live with them for some time.
Heaven Hell is interesting because of its subject matter but it doesn’t pretend to offer anything new in terms of documentary technique. It’s made up primarily of interviews with a number of people who are part of the BDSM community (some of whom disguise their identities), as well as their friends and family members. This film can be confusing because it’s not always clear how the characters relate to each other or what the timeline is (for instance, it seems to open and close with the same event, a sort of BSDM fair), but on the positive side it offers strong portraits of three individuals in the BDSM community who were willing to discuss their activities on camera. There are also brief glimpses at other aspects of BSDM, including a “salon” which seems to be a place where you pay for this type of service and is just sort of sad—although, in fairness, each to his own.
The interviews with the three principal subjects are much more positive. Altair is a software engineer who enjoys “pony play,” meaning he likes to wear a horse’s head and black leather suit with lots of straps and imitate horse-like behavior. The highlight of his story is a mock-equestrian competition with another participant who is completely concealed behind a black face mask with horse’s ears: Each is led over a series of jumps and other hazards modeled on the equestrian events you see in the Olympics. Terezie works for the Green Party and is a domina but has had to curtail her activities due to pregnancy. Fronema works in IT (in a talkback after the film, Calek noted that a large proportion of the BDSM community in the Czech Republic community seem to be employed in technology), and in the film’s climactic scene allows herself to be raised off the ground by hooks running through the skin of her back (similar to the sun ritual in A Man Called Horse). In the final analysis, Heaven Hell won’t win any prizes for documentary technique but offers an intriguing glimpse inside a little-known subculture.
If you’ve bought a rock album in the last 40 years you’ve probably seen the artwork of Storm Thorgerson. He is credited with bringing surrealism to the medium, and has designed some of the most iconic album covers ever. Thorgerson and his work are the subject of Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, directed by Roddy Bogawa, a film which offers a fine example of what can be achieved when a traditional documentary is done right. The ingredients are basic—interviews, archival materials, Thorgerson’s art itself, and alternative versions of covers which were not used—and yet this film is never less than fascinating, delivering a real sense of both the man and his art. Thorgerson’s most famous album cover is probably Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd—against a black background, it shows a prism bending a ray of light into a rainbow, similar to what was in your junior high school textbook but in color—notable not only for its simplicity, but also for the lack of traditional cover elements (no picture of the band, not even the name of the band or the album).
Thorgerson is well-known for his insistence one working “real,” meaning that he doesn’t use CGI but shoots real photos, often in highly specific locations. So when he wanted a desert it had to be the Sahara, and when he needed a shot of the surf it had to be the surf of Hawaii (some of this, he notes slyly, came about when he realized he could get promoters to pay for trips to such exotic locations). When he wanted the image of 600 Victorian hospital beds arrayed on a beach for the cover of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, that was exactly what he got: period beds arranged on a beach, stretching off into the distance. And that cascade of red balls on the cover of The Cranberries’ Wake Up and Smell the Coffee? Those are real balls, released from a tower and photographed as they fell to earth. Between each shot the PAs had to run around gathering them up so they could do it all again, and Thorgerson said they stopped only when the crew was ready to collapse after 12 repetitions of this ritual. This is not really surprising: Thorgerson is famous for being a perfectionist and, when asked at a talkback following the film which of his images he might like to do over, he said “all of them.” | Sarah Boslaugh

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