The Stake is here to help get you started. Below are four films that are worth your consideration at least in the first round of selection.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West chart the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in RBG, this year’s MSPIFF Opening Night Presentation. RBG is a biographical documentary, starting with Ginsberg’s early years, moving to her work as a courtroom lawyer and to her appointment to the Supreme Court, and then to her rise as the “Notorious RBG.”
If the framework of RBG is familiar, the subject matter is anything but. Cohen and West hone in on Ginsberg’s quiet, vigorous, powerful legal mind. Nina Totenberg, Orrin Hatch, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and many others appear, testifying to the unique vision Ginsberg brought to her legal work, and her ability to argue for equality in simple, yet-unheard ways in American jurisprudence.
In the past 10 years, during her work on the Roberts Court, the internet has dubbed her Notorious RBG, for impassioned, vociferous dissenting opinions. So too has the world marveled at her close friendship with the now-deceased arch-Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Both subjects are covered in RBG. But the most rewarding segments allow Ginsberg to revisit the historic work she did in the 1970s and 80s, when she was in court, fighting for an end to gender and sex discrimination in American law. Today Ginsberg is the dissenting voice on a court that would undo much of her own legal work in the past. That dynamic creates heroism and tragedy, and makes RBG a terrific, timely documentary.
Sanpo suru shinryakusha (Before We Vanish); Japan
Three aliens arrive on earth in advance of a planetary invasion. That’s the premise of this high-concept, slow-paced science-fiction film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The visitors are body snatchers, taking the place of three Japanese people, and are tasked with building a communication device of some sort (not interesting) and furthering their understanding of the human species via stealing concepts right out of the minds of others (very interesting). Just think of a human concept, like ownership, family, work, and with a fingertip to the forehead (reminiscent of that lovable visitor’s finger to Eliot’s noggin) the visitor understands and the human no longer does.
Like most body snatcher stories, Kurosawa’s interest in Before We Vanish is not so much the aliens, but the humans. And in this case, the core concepts that comprise the human experience. One man has the concept “ownership” removed from his mind, and he is liberated and joyful, freed from the binds of possession. Another woman loses “family” and she is untethered, antagonistic. It’s a fascinating endeavor to watch, even as it is punctuated at times with violence and silliness.
The film’s core relationship, between a woman and the man who was her husband before being replaced by an alien, is moving and surprisingly tender. As the film builds towards the revelation of our most powerful concept (it rhymes with dove) Kurosawa manages a deft and satisfying conclusion of alien and human storytelling.
The French Canadian horror film Les Affamés (Ravenous) will sound all to familiar given a brief description. It’s a zombie movie, for starters. And it follows several small groups of survivors who will eventually find each other and seek shelter with company rather than without. But don’t let the simple descriptions fool you. Ravenous takes seriously the endeavor to bring something fresh to the zombie horror genre, and writer/director Robin Aubert more than succeeds in that effort.
Set in a rural woodsy community in Quebec, Canada, Ravenous opens in the midst of an zombie epidemic. There’s no explanation for it provided at anytime in the film, nor does anyone speculate as to what brought the apocalyptic scenario to bear. Aubert is not particularly interested in such matters. His interests are more human, and more strange, delicate, even. There’s little dialogue exchanged overall; the film relies heavily on images and music to carry the weight of emotion. The human relationships are strained by the extremity of the situation but also by the fact that most people in the film don’t know, or trust, each other.
But the most fascinating piece of Aubert’s zombie movie is the behavior of the zombies. Not the human flesh eating impulses, but the more artistic endeavors. From time to time, the humans in the film come upon packs of zombies, standing before giant piles of…stuff. One is made of chairs, another of dolls, another of tools. Whatever the sculptures are for, they serve as a totemic symbol of some inner zombie intuition, and damn if it is not CREEPY AS FUCK.
We’re living in a time of unabashed access to our personal information through the collection and commodification of our digital lives. Every website we visit, video we watch, and Facebook message we decide not to write holds value to advertisers. But it also helps keep the internet “free.” While the digital shift has been a moneymaker for advertisers—and the third-party merchants of our information—questions have arisen about how the morality of quantifying our most micro and intimate digital actions to sell products, services, and ideas.
You’re Soaking In It, the new documentary from director Scott Harper (Philanthropy Inc, The Age of Anxiety), tracks the movement of advertising from hunch-based (a la Don Draper) to futuristic AI algorithms, dictated by not Mad Men but Math Men. The film’s narrative follows a past, present, future format tracing the psychographic history of advertising and interviewing key people along the way, including folks from YouTube, Facebook, Varick Media, the guy who invented pop up ads (he’s sorry), and George Lois, a suspected model for the character Don Draper.
You’re Soaking In It is short and straightforward to the point of lacking depth. While the concerns it raises about how free the internet really is are thought-provoking, they’re well-trod. Not to mention, the documentary glosses over all the racism and sexism of the advertising industry through its history. In the end, its central “What about the children?!” argument is about as boorish as a flashing display ad for homeopathics on a hospital website.