Cameraperson Intrigues, but Often Lacks Context

Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Big Mouth Productions, 102 minutes, Not-Rated
* * *

Kirsten Johnson is a documentary filmmaker best known for her work on productions such as Citizenfour (2014), her look at Edward Snowden; Darfur Now (2007); and This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), a takedown of the politics of Hollywood ratings codes. Her newest project, Trapped, has been making its way across college campuses this spring, as its topic—the backdoor efforts to limit access to abortion services—is a hot-button issue.

Like most documentarians, though, the few things for which Johnson is known are but the iceberg’s tip of her career. Much of the larger body of work has been behind the camera, either for her own small films or as a hired lens crafter for projects directed by others. She has done camera work, for instance, on several Michael Moore films. Cameraperson is a pastiche of her resume, with an intriguing twist. Its major point is to see subjects as if you are the eye of the lens. The approach is both personal and voyeuristic; in essence, it’s both revelatory and sometimes faintly unsettling. The idea intrigues, though sometimes the final product is stronger in conception than in execution.

To say that Johnson’s past oeuvre is catholic in an understatement. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, Johnson’s cameras have probed topics such as military women and rape, genital mutilation in Ghana, midwives in Nigeria, the relationship of humans and thinking animals, gay Jews, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mormons, and Chinese medicine. She made films in France, but has spent a lot of time in Africa and in the Balkans. If there are any constant themes in her work, they are: social activism, the roles of women across the globe, the effects of war on women, the dangers of militarism, and power relations. How, exactly, does one summarize such eclecticism?

There is, of course, no imperative that films have a strict narrative structure. Johnson opts for a bathing-in-images approach akin to that of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) or Baraka (1992), except her film eschews quick-cuts and has more dialogue. It’s a sampler approach with culls that stand independently of each other, yet are incomplete in and of themselves. We watch a Nigerian midwife impassively deliver two children, one of which is healthy and the other of which appears unlikely to survive; listen to an old Muslim woman with wrecked teeth and posture tell us of her former beauty and her current optimism; follow Derrida across a street while holding court; notice Michael Moore ambushing an interviewee; and witness war’s devastation in numerous locales. We can only infer how any of these things end.

I’d like to say that all of this works as well as Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka, but that’s not the case. In the former, the image is the story; in Johnson’s films, the story is the story but we must infer it from the images. When it works, it’s spot on, but I often found myself struggling for enough context to understand why Johnson picked a particular slice of film over another. Cameraperson is under two hours in length, yet it feels longer because of the amount of intellectual energy needed to stay engaged. Should you see it? Yes—the virtues are worth it—but be prepared for an uneven journey that could use a tough editor to sort. I’d also say that if individual clips fail to resonate, just let that be the case. There is no grand theme other than seeing things from the POV of the lens, so you’ll be just fine if you tune in and out.  --Rob Weir


Anne Hillerman Has Yet to Catch Tony's Magic

By Anne Hillerman
Harper, 336 pp.
* *

We all have our literary equivalents of Twinkies—stuff we consume lustily though we know they are chockful of artificial ingredients that are not intellectually healthy. One of mine was Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries go down easily and, on occasion, manage to impart fascinations about Navajo culture. Plus, if you’ve spent any time in New Mexico, backdrops start firing in the brain like your own personal slide show.

Tony Hillerman died in 2008, and the franchise went dormant until his daughter Anne revived it in 2013 with Spider’s Daughter. In it, Jim Chee takes a bullet to the brain and nearly dies. He’s still recouping in Rock with Wings; he can’t speak, but his mind is becoming sharper and he has started to use a computer. These books naturally raise the question of whether Ms. Hillerman is a chip off the old block, or an annoying splinter.  So far, she’s somewhere in between. She has her father’s gift for evoking landscape and she’s faithful and consistent with the characters he created: Leaphorn the methodical, deductive sage and Chee more sensitive and intuitive. She also fleshed out Bernadette Manuelito, Chee’s wife and Leaphorn’s former protégé, whose police skills are a composite of the two leads. What’s missing, though, is Tony’s appreciation for mystery and his command of Navajo beliefs. Both of these are waived across Rock with Wings, but neither penetrates deeply. Ms. Hillerman also scores on the  perfunctory end of the plotting scale.

  The book unfolds with a weird encounter—a routine traffic stop in which Manuelito is offered a sizable bribe to overlook it. It becomes more puzzling when all the driver is hauling are boxes of dirt. Bizarrely, there is heat from the FBI for tribal police to butt out and turn matters over to them. Meanwhile, Jim Chee is invited to help a relative get a tour business off the ground and sees it as a good opportunity to divert Bernie’s suspicions and have a delayed mini-honeymoon in the Monument Valley. Of course, things go wrong—Bernie has to return home almost immediately to care for her elderly mother and Chee gets loaned to the Monument Valley tribal police to help deal with problems related to a Hollywood crew filming a zombie movie on Navajo land. Toss in a few violent deaths, some troubled teens, elderly German tourists, endangered plants, faulty technology, a burned car, a solar company, references to John Ford films, passing references to Navajo legends, vintage fancy goods, isolated hogans, and what do you get?  Well… a big mess, really.

It’s the kind of book one might toss aside were it not that we know and like its central characters so well. I didn’t anticipate the book’s resolution, but that has less to do with my deductive powers than with Ms. Hillerman’s deus ex machina way of extracting herself from all the obvious red herrings she threw into the stew pot. I didn’t dislike this book, but I sure was aware that I was consuming Twinkies. Fair enough—no one ever picked up the old man’s books in the mistaken impression that he or she was reading Proust. Still, what I’ve read of Anne Hillerman thus far invokes more guilt than pleasure. I’ll give her one more chance. Warning has been served. --Rob Weir  


Black Mess a Not-so-Good Look at a Tired Genre

BLACK MASS  (2015)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Warner Brothers, 122 minutes, R (language, violence, sexual situations)
 * *

I didn’t like Good Fellas when it came out in 1990. I now recognize Martin Scorsese’s film as a superb one, but the problem back then was that I had Mafia film fatigue. I mention this for two reasons, the first of which is that I’m tired of films (and books) about South Boston, Boston Irish, and Boston mobs. Been there; done that—a million times since Good Will Hunting. The second reason is that even I had been psyched for all of these things, Black Mass still wouldn’t be a very good movie. I simply can’t conceive of rethinking it in the future.

Black Mass is the portrait of a sociopath, James “Whitey” Bulger, who from 1972 through 1994 was the linchpin of Boston’s infamous Winter Hill Gang. If you can imagine an act of murder, extortion, racketeering, or low-life behavior, the actions of Bulger and his associates could trump you. (Bet you hadn’t considered adding gun-running for the IRA to your imaginary list of nefarious deeds.) Bulger is brilliantly portrayed by Johnny Depp. His is a chilling look at a man so amoral that he could strangle his partner’s step-daughter without an ounce of regret or emotion. How did he get away with his reign of mayhem? One of the film’s few insights is to cast severe doubt on the old adage: “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” In many ways, Bulger was the psychotic stepchild of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—a recruit of South Boston neighbor/agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who hitched his rising star (and ego) to eliminating the Italian Mafia from Boston’s North End through information provided by Bulger. (Connolly, now in prison, actually proved Machiavelli’s assertion about absolute power.)

This is one of many places where Black Mass misses a cue. Rather than explore something meaty, such as Boston's ethnic tension or corruption within the FBI and Massachusetts State government, director Scott Cooper opts for a dip-into-the-decades look at Bulger, an episodic approach that makes sense only to those who already know the details. For everyone else, the script (Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) for Black Mass becomes Black Mess. We watch as Bulger involves himself in (seemingly) random atrocious acts—an approach that ultimately becomes more voyeuristic than horrifying. The supporting cast is strong—Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s common-law wife; Kevin Bacon as FBI agent Charles McGuire, who doubts Connolly’s integrity; Jesse Plemons as dim-witted mob muscle Kevin Weeks; Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife Marianne; Juno Temple as doomed step-daughter Deborah Hussey—but their roles are mostly cameos and/or window-dressing. The only substantive roles other than Depp’s are those of Rory Cochrane as Steven “The Rifleman” Flemmi, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother and a mainstay of Massachusetts government—first as Senate president and then as head of the University of Massachusetts. Billy was allegedly the family member who went straight—not so, as it turned out to the surprise of no one in the Commonwealth.

Those who followed the sordid Bulger saga will recognize Black Mass as a sort of greatest infamous hits parade. Not even Depp can add oomph to the limp screenplay. Put another way, coverage in the Boston Globe was far livelier than anything Mallouk and Butterworth wrote. (A personal favorite was the Globe’s retelling of Flemmi’s state’s evidence testimony. When asked to describe his relationship with Bulger, Flemmi replied, “Strictly criminal.” Love it! And thanks to Mr. Flemmi for disabusing those eleven Massachusetts residents who thought he and Whitey were ballet partners.) 

In short, director Scott Cooper gives us little more than a paint-by-the-numbers mob picture. You know the formula: Show how a troubled man lost his remaining morals—the death of his son and his mom if you believe the script. Add opportunity, money; splatter with blood. Drop “F” bombs like a one-armed juggler with Indian clubs. Zoom in on the vacant eyes of a killer. Portray law enforcement as inept and corrupt. (Okay, that one adds a whiff of verisimilitude.) Repeat to fill the requisite two hours. The biggest crime committed in this film was wasting Depp’s astonishing performance. You can safely delete this one from your Netflix queue. –Rob Weir