DVDanger: Documenting Extremes
Behind the scenes at Studio Ghibli and Kink.com
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sat. Jan. 31, 2015
George Clooney once said of the joy of directing, "it's more fun to be the painter than the paint." The implication is that the performance is wielded like ink on a brush, but in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, that's literally true.
Feature-length animation, for most filmmakers, seems like the living definition of "that way madness lies." So it's not a surprise that this behind-the-scenes exploration of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, the company responsible for such anime classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, depicts turmoil and personal tensions amid the peaceful stacks of sketch paper.
Kingdom's most interesting subplot is in the balance between the three old men of Ghibli. The studio has become synonymous with director Hayao Miyazaki (and the camera spends most of its time over his shoulder, watching each pen stroke as he laboriously constructs storyboard panels). However, just as important is the participation of his old/former friend and fellow director Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki, who has spent decades keeping an uneasy truce between the two industry giants.
The narrative becomes overshadowed by Miyazaki's impending retirement after he completes his final work, The Wind Rises. There's an awkward, disbelieving laugh from journalists at a press conference when his producers blankly say that, yes, he is stepping down. Yet he seems disengaged from the process, a chain-smoking health enthusiast who often seems disinterested in his work, but incapable of stopping. The recent Fukushima nuclear disaster seems like another arrow in his pastoralist's heart, but he still seems most eager and enthused to gripe about Takahata's slow pace. That narrative is somewhat crippled by Takahata's absence, as he painstakingly animates The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Instead, the camera concentrates on Miyazaki's own struggles completing his final film.
The irony is that the two projects clearly got switched between pigeonholes. The Wind Rises carries the dark realism of Takahata's most acclaimed work, like Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, while it's usually been Miyazaki who plays with myth and fairy tale. The narrative that finally emerges is that, rightly or not, everyone at Ghibli ends up in Miyazaki's shadow – Takahata, Suzuki, his own son Goro, the hordes of animators who occasionally pop up in the studio. The question then becomes, how do they contend with that secondary position?
Kingdom presents the director as a cranky, if mostly benevolent, dictator. Kink (Dark Sky) paints them as dominating. Quite literally.
This is the second recent collaboration between Christina Voros and James Franco: The first, the ham-fisted adaptation of Child of God, is in no small part hamstrung by Voros' flat cinematography. Here, her cool sense of realism transfers perfectly to the documentary format. That's essential because she is an observer in the world of Kink.com, the world's largest bondage/domination/sadomasochism website.
Kink opens with founder Peter Acworth showing the cameras around the former National Guard Armory that is now the seat of his multi-million-dollar, fetish-porn empire. He takes pride in explaining how he bought the property, courtesy of collapsing prices after the tech bubble burst, and showing off some oil paintings he has had commissioned for the upstairs offices. The subjects are personal: his sister, his mother, him and a friend at a swingers' party.
Yet the polite Acworth soon disappears, as the film concentrates on the creative process. The directors of scenes of extreme bondage porn are, arguably, more engaged than the average director – sometimes performer, stunt director, etc. Voros catches the matter-of-factness of the whole exercise. After all, this is an extremely professional and well-managed business. It's just, as one set-designer explains: If cinema is high school, they're the highly industrious goth kids.
Like Kingdom, Kink's true subjects are the directors. Maitresse Madeline making the environment as giddily fun as possible, Tomcat getting as hands-on as possible, Van Darkholme fussing like a mother hen, trying to balance the audience's desire for brutalized titillation, and to make the performers feel secure in their environment. The implicit subtext here is that, like any balanced BDSM relationship, the dom is really the sub. Every scene is limited by what the performer feels he or she can handle, as shown by Madeline completely reblocking one scene from a disturbing home invasion to a joyous gangbang, to keep the actress at its center happy. After shoots, the staff pores over spreadsheets, relating subscriptions to changes in material: After all, if the audience isn't happy, then they're doing something wrong. This is the filmmaker as responsive creator, a million miles away from Takahata, refusing to even communicate with his oldest ally.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Cinedigm) is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. Kink (Dark Sky) will be released Feb. 10. Also on release this week:
Art and Craft (Oscilloscope Labs) There's a shared image between Kingdom and another documentary about the creative process: Flipping up a sheet of paper, checking the reference image below, duplicating a few lines, repeat. The animators move forward, frame by frame, but not Mark Landis, a master faker of everything from rare ancient psalters to original Peanuts strips. The story is indebted to Orson Welles' more playful F for Fake and Catch Me If You Can, but unlike their felonious subjects, because he doesn't charge, Landis technically commits victimless crimes. This is what makes this a tale of three men: Landis; former Cincinnati Art Museum expert-turned-amateur detective Matt Leininger; and a fascinated observer, University of Cincinnati gallery director Aaron Cowan. While both Kingdom and Kink explore the creative drive in media that are polar opposites, Art and Craft poses a much deeper question: What if there is creation without creativity? (Read our full review here).
Why Don't You Play in Hell? (Drafthouse) Cult director and multi-time Fantastic Fest contributor Sion Sono's most deliciously berserk production to date (soon to be overshadowed by hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribes) throws together Bruce Lee fan films, supercomplex yakuza plot tropes, toothpaste commercials, and a bunch of inept wannabe artists called the Fuck Bombers (read our full review here).
Open Windows (Cinedigm) Another Fantastic Fest regular, Nacho Vigalondo, creates a techno-fairytale in this visually fascinating and occasionally provocative thriller about voyeurism, social media, and the myth of privacy. Initially, the film's gimmick, that everything is shown through a single laptop screen, seems too flimsy to support an entire action movie. But Vigalondo's sense of playfulness does all the heavy lifting needed for any suspension of disbelief, and the end result is even more enthralling on home viewing than in the cinema (read our full review here, and our interview with Vigalondo and star Elijah Wood, "Nacho Average Thriller).
Fury (Sony) David Ayer (Sabotage, End of Watch) shifts from cop car to Sherman tank in the final hours of World War II, with Brad Pitt leading a team of burnt-out tank operators to the gates of hell. He falls sporadically into tropes of the genre, and some heavy-handed symbolism doesn't help, but those who feel their wartime cinema should be closer to the merciless grit of Saving Private Ryan and The Big Red One than the tone poem elegies of The Thin Red Line should like it. Undoubtedly worth catching for a devastating dinner sequence, and a potentially career-redeeming performance from Shia LaBeouf (read our full review here).
Más Negro Que la Noche (Lions Gate) Imagine remaking The Legend of Hell House with the cast of Glee. This update of the gory supernatural 1975 Mexican gothic horror, Blacker Than the Night, dumps four young women into a creepy old mansion. The inevitable paranormal activities, visions of the former (deceased) owners, and the mandatory unkillable black cat can't dredge it above the straight-to-video quagmire.