MIFF2010 Day 3: Spalding Grey, Hillbilly Noir and Japanese Eccentrics

Things are beginning to get hazy but in a pleasant way. Only 4 films today and nothing longer than 100 minutes! Huzzah! Carlos took alot out of me yesterday. First film up was The Red Chapel which was one of my festival highlights so far and I have written about it separately here. The 2 other success stories of the day were also documentaries. I am initially wondering if this festival will mirror my experience up at the Sydney Film Festival in June where documentaries proved to be stronger than the features. If so that will lead me to some interesting conclusions about the state of narrative feature films. Of course we are only 20% through this festival so I'm not jumping to any conclusions yet.
Steven Soderbergh's documentary on Spalding Grey is essentially a compilation movie. It is a very intelligent and artfully done one at that. I'm a big fan of Spalding Grey and I cannot even remember how I first came across him. I think it must've been during my early cinephelic days in the mid 90s when I began tracking through different directors filmographies. In the wake of Jonathan Demme's success with Silence of the Lambs, I was probably backtracking through his work and came across a film of his called Swimming to Cambodia. Apparently it featured a man sitting behind a table giving a monologue for 90 minutes. I tracked it down and immediately became a Grey fan.
Grey was a monologist. He told stories, usually quite personal, and  through his stories he managed to illuminate and uplift in ways only truly gifted artists can. Soderbergh understands Grey's talents perfectly and his entire film is clips from Grey's monologues and interviews, after all, who can talk about Grey better than Grey himself? For the first half hour I wondered whether this minimal method would keep my attention for the duration but just like Grey's 90 minute monologues, the power of the man's way with words eventually takes hold.
This is a great tribute to a brilliant man and a perfect introduction to those unfamiliar with Grey. My only concern is the film seems to ignore Grey's ultimate fate (he committed suicide days after one of the interviews in the film, ironically after watching Tim Burton's Big Fish!). Of course, since the film is in Grey's own words it wouldn't have exactly been possible to have him describe what happened and I guess a postscript would've done the holistic nature of the film a disservice. Still a highly recommended little film from the ever impressive Soderbergh.
Over the past couple of months, Winter's Bone has been building up significant word of mouth following. It seemed to be something really special so I was really looking forward to this one. I can't exactly say I was disappointed but it didn't make as much of an impact on me as it has on others.
The film follows 17 year old Ree as she searches for her missing fugitive father. Ree takes care of her two siblings and their semi-comatose mother at their isolated house in the backwoods of Missouri. Ree must find her father quickly as she discovers that part of the bail bond that he has recently skipped out on is underwritten with their house. If she can't find him they will lose their home. So Ree sets out into the murky underworld of hillbilly crime networks to find him.
Winter's Bone is without a doubt a fascinating film. Director Debra Granik delves into a world we don't often see portrayed this seriously in film. This milieu of frightening, ignorant people, prone to snaps of violence, defensive of their territory and all seemingly biologically related in some way is evoked magnificently and Granik slides the film into a noir framework that should be anachronistic but to her credit it isn't.
Overall all though I just didn't connect with this film. It falls into the category of films that I can greatly appreciate but don't particularly enjoy. In fact the love for this film confuses me slightly as it came across to me as such a distant work. There is a slow, artful and admittedly elegant pace to the film which just put everything at arm's length for me. Even the mystery framework kinda just fell apart in the 3rd act, resolving itself in undramatic ways. Winter's Bone is a solid, interesting and well-made film but beware of the hype.
The Invention of Dr Nakamats is a delightful little film that, whilst not exploring its subject in very great detail, offers much enjoyment. Dr Nakamats is the world's greatest inventor. He has over 3,000 inventions which he is quick to point out, is three times as many as Edison ever had. Nakamats is certainly a great subject for a documentary. Eccentric, self-obsessed and most importantly, Japanese.
From eavesdropping conversations after the film, I discovered many people found Nakamats to be a very unlikable presence in the film which I found strange. To me, he came across as whimsically charming. Sure he ordered his kids around a bit and demanded respect resulting in many uncomfortable situations but these came across as classically Japanese traits. Maybe my own experience having spent some time in Japan and having some Japanese friends gave me an understanding of these behavioral flourishes.
The film is nonetheless a very Western take on the subject and while the film is very funny there is an overhanging concern over what we are laughing at.
"Dr. NakaMats does not think anything he does is comical. When he watched a European screening of the documentary, he was extremely confused when people were laughing. “It was after this that he found out it was a comedy, and gave me a list of scenes that should be re-edited. You could say he wasn’t completely happy,” Kaspar [the director] says."
I do think the film shrugs those distasteful concerns off as it progresses though, revealing a sense of melancholy in Nakamats that is rather touching. It seems he isn't taken that seriously even in his home country, despite a very large fan base.
Appearing on a morning show on his 80th birthday he looks uncomfortable on the sidelines as the hosts of the show engage in crude slapstick stunts. You get the feeling that Nakamats simultaneously deserves better treatment than that even though he is putting himself in these situations based on his own cravings for attention.
If the film explored these issues further it would have become a very great work indeed but as it is we can  happily settle for a hugely entertaining film, with a grand soundtrack as well.