Film review: Buck

The film Buck, winner of the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and now making its way to Australian cinemas, is the story of a real ‘horse whisperer’ – Buck Brannaman.

Brannaman was a key inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in Nicholas Evans’s 1995 novel, The Horse Whisperer. He is part of a lineage of natural horsemanship practitioners in the United States, including Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt.

But while the film adaptation of The Horse Whisperer might have brought the concept of natural horsemanship to a wide audience, the notion of a whisperer is not quite the right metaphor. Horsemanship, for the likes of Brannaman and other practitioners (such as Sascha and Sam Watson, who taught my horse and I in Western Australia, and figures such as Monty Roberts), is indeed about communicating softly with a horse. But it isn’t usually about verbal communication, and most importantly it requires careful groundwork on behalf of both rider and horse in order to open the channels of communication in the first place.

Buck follows Brannaman as he criss-crosses the United States, running four-day clinics and teaching riders and handlers how to establish communication with their horses. He is driven by his empathy with the animals he works with – and here the story comes back, as it so often does in this film, to the relationships between people.

Brannaman and his older brother grew up as a child trick-roping stars, on a ranch with a father who regularly drank and beat them. The figure of his father looms large over the film, for Brannaman says that his ability to empathise with frightened horses developed out of the abuse he suffered as a child – out of knowing what it’s like to fear for your life.

Brannaman has chosen a path very different to that of his father – a conscious decision that he talks about in the film. His path is one that eschews violence, force, negativity or even blame. He reminds his students regularly not to feel contempt or anger towards the horse, because the way the horse behaves is a reflection of its handler.

For a horse person, one of the most moving parts of the film is Brannaman’s insistence that your horse is a mirror to your soul. This is brought home most strongly by an intractable palomino that comes to one of Brannaman’s clinics towards the end of the film.

At first spoilt and then neglected by his owner, the horse is now aggressive and dangerous to all who come near him. I could not help but think of my own horse, remembering the graceful curve of his ears and the bob of his head from the hours and hours spent on his back, and wondering what his behaviour (hard to catch, sometimes naughty, usually full of beans) says about me.

There’s little doubt that this film will resonate with people who ride horses, and who understand what it feels like to achieve – or even to long for – synchronicity with your horse. At times like this, you need only to think and feel your intention, and the horse will pick it up instantly. As Brannaman reminds us in Buck, horses are sensitive enough to feel a mosquito on their rump in the middle of a windstorm, and so only the subtlest of signals are required from a rider once the channels of communication are open between horse and human.

Brannaman talks about how the horse’s body and the rider’s should be one – so that as a rider, the horse’s feet are your feet. This indeed is how he and his horses function together – there is no need for a visible sign from him for his horse to change direction or speed, or even to sidepass gracefully across a pasture: horse and rider seem to move and think as one body.

In spite of the specific subject of this film, it has much to appreciate even for those who aren’t ‘horsey’. Buck is beautifully shot, and Brannaman as a subject is both funny and humble. The lessons about respect and communication apply not only to horses, but to relationships between humans too.

Brannaman’s journey is pieced together in a manner that makes sense of the man and his motivations, brought together smoothly by director Cindy Meehl. It’s also a window into America that we rarely see – into a subculture held together by love for horses, and by a desire to build relationships between horses and humans that are based on respect, not fear.

Film review: Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen has long been known for his love of New York, and for films such as Manhattan that pay homage to the famous American city. Recently his attention seems to have shifted to Europe, through writing and directing Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and now Midnight in Paris. Both these films are expressions of love – albeit romanticised – towards the respective cities of their titles.

Midnight in Paris is not as strong as Vicky Christina Barcelona, but it is equally fun and delves into a similar theme: the enchantment of Europe for some Americans – in particular, the dreamy, wannabe-Bohemian, with aspirations towards artistic endeavour.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the dreamer was Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson), whose artistic endeavour was photography and who revelled in the sexual freedom that she found in Barcelona. In Midnight in Paris, the dreamer is Gil (Owen Wilson), a scriptwriter who has hit the big time with formulaic Hollywood movies but who longs to be a novelist.

Gil is on holiday in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The parents are boring and conservative, and Inez, although beautiful and eager to enjoy herself, looks set to follow in their materialistic footsteps.

Inez likes the idea of Gil’s dreaminess, but in Paris the bohemian streak soon becomes too much for her. She begins to prefer the company of some friends she bumps into while in Paris: Carol (Nina Arianda) and Carol’s pedantic, arrogant partner, Paul (Michael Sheen).

The movie begins with a series of scenes of Paris, setting up Gil’s seduction by the fantasy of the city. He and Inez do the touristy thing, visiting museums and gardens. Carla Bruni appears as a museum guide, arguing with Paul over Rodin’s mistresses and later translating some French for Gil; there is a certain irony in the first lady of France showing tourists around a garden.

Gil’s love for Paris is tainted, however, with nostalgia. Paris as it is cannot quite satisfy him, and he longs instead for Paris of the 1920s. Inez thinks he’s barmy, and while she is out dancing with Paul, Gil walks the streets at night. His fantasy becomes a reality when he is in the right place at the right time, and accidentally hitches a lift into the 1920s.

There, Gil meets the famous writers and artists who lived in Paris at the time: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others. At this stage I was happy to be lulled into Gil’s fantasy: what a dream, to meet Hemingway and Stein! One almost wants it to be true.

Wilson has the perfect face for this role: his wide-eyed stare as he starts to realise where he is after meeting the Fitzgeralds might seem forced on any other actor, but he pulls it off by looking like a good-natured, surprised puppy who is rather desperate for attention.

The movie also stars the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard as Picasso’s short-term girlfriend Adriana. Gil falls for her, seduced as much by her embodiment of the era as by her as a person. She, however, thinks the ’20s are quite boring, and longs to live during the Belle Époque. She unintentionally makes Gil realise that he is not alone in his nostalgia: at each stage in history there will be those who look back longingly at what came before, and who are too distracted to appreciate the beauty of the age in which they live.

Gil’s nostalgia struck a chord for me, as I have always dreamed of a world before cars and diesel power, when sailing ships ruled the seas and people rode about on horseback. Allen seems to suffer from nostalgia too, telling New York in 1998 that he regretted being too young to have experienced New York during the ’20s and ’30s.

As in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the main characters of Midnight in Paris are upper-middle class Americans in a European city. On the one hand, Allen critiques these characters, particularly Inez and her family who see Europe as a holiday destination through the lens of their own superiority complex. On the other hand the film only confirms this attitude by not probing beyond the surface layer of the city. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, the cities are seen as they would be by tourists: enchanting, full of sexy people of the opposite gender, and a long way from the constraints of the US. Midnight in Paris represents the view of an outsider who approaches with a preconceived notion of Paris; a notion that experience does not seem to alter.

Midnight in Paris is light and fluffy, and while Gil’s relationship with Inez is quite implausible, it is easy to be swept up in his fantasy of Paris. It is a city that has long seduced artists through promises of freedom and inspiration, and Allen’s latest film does nothing to detract from this ideal.

Film review: Red Dog

 A more succinct version of this review originally appeared on upstart, and is available here.

Much is made of whether or not Australian films say something about the national ethos. Red Dog does, even if it is mainly about the resilient strength and community appeal of a good dog, while making no claims to being a ‘big’ story. This is no sweeping epic like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a movie that turned the landscape into a stage for larger-than-life characters. The characters of Red Dog know this isn’t a story about them: it’s about the dog. It’s a love affair between two wanderers, and the story of the one who’s left behind.

Red Dog (played by Koko) is a wanderer of the Pilbara who shows up unexpectedly in the mining town of Dampier in the early 1970s. Through the combination of independence and friendliness that defines Red, he becomes the best friend and confidant of half the town – mainly men, working in physical jobs, without women or affection in their lives.

Red has no master, until John (Josh Lucas) rides into town on his motorbike. One of the best early scenes is on the highway out of Dampier, as John, on his way into town, passes Red trotting along the road in the other direction on a mission of his own. A look is exchanged between them, and the scene perfectly captures the meeting of two wanderers and the recognition of something of themselves in each other. John resists the pull of friendship with the dog for a while, but eventually he gives in, and thus these two travellers become inseparable best mates and finally have a reason to stay put.

The film, based on a true story, is told through the memories of those who knew both Red Dog and John, precipitated by the arrival in Dampier of a stranger (Luke Ford). It’s 1979 and Red, now greying around the muzzle, lies ill in a back room of the Mermaid Hotel. As the news spreads that the beloved Red Dog is sick, the pub fills and it becomes an impromptu wake as people take it in turns to tell the newcomer about what the dog means to them.

The first half of the movie, as Red Dog’s arrival in town is established and his friendship with John grows, seems to flash by. There’s no need for clunky voice-over narration; the narrators are instead the publican (Noah Taylor) and others in the pub. Their words set the scene to explain what’s going on early in the movie as Red hops in and out of trucks and cars across the Pilbara, hitchhiking. This part of the film is really funny, too – from the obsession of Vanno (Arthur Angel) with his hometown in Italy to the dog’s killer flatulence, points of humour are established early and they carry on throughout the movie.

The retrospective mode of narration leaves little time to do more than scratch the surface of the characters, but before long this ceases to matter. At the heart of the film is Red Dog, and not only does his character develop in depth but he also becomes the vehicle by which the other characters are revealed. The cast is superb, with a great selection of well-known Aussie actors including a brief cameo from the late Bill Hunter.

Red Dog is in part a story of the romance between John and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but it’s the love story between Red and John that really tugs at the heartstrings. Red is at the centre of the community and everyone loves him, but he has his softer side and no-one except John really understands him. With John’s departure from the film, leading to Red Dog’s fame as he searched the Pilbara and beyond for his master, there are no easy answers. Red does not conveniently become Nancy’s dog (as much as I wanted him to); he is, once again, the community’s – and yet nobody’s, too.

At the very end, in a scene harking back to a similar one early in the movie, the community is brought together by Red – talking about him, sharing stories about his life. Yet he walks away from them, unnoticed, in search of something else. He is the community’s glue but he is also his own dog, and no-one else ever really understands him.

The movie gives a few indications early on that it might be a bit corny, but director Kriv Stenders successfully avoids over-sentimentality. The Pilbara red dust doesn’t turn the characters into caricatures, and the story, even the pathos, fits beautifully into the landscape. The soundtrack is brilliant – Eagle Rock and Way Out West overlay the red dirt, ’70s vehicles, ore trains and towering piles of salt, and it works. It’s uplifting, the sense of men seeking freedom from their pasts, of the girl from Perth seeking adventure in the north, of the dog making his home in this isolated mining community. Certainly the Pilbara is idealised, but it’s forgivable because Red Dog’s story is told by a group of people in a bar who love him, and who are nostalgic about his younger days.

The fact that the landscape is not overdone is a key part of the film’s success. Cinematographer Geoffrey Hall makes brilliant use of the unique Western Australian light – the shadows, the intensity of the sun, and the influence of the ocean on the tone of the evening light. But he does not dramatise the land: it is big and beautiful, especially on a cinema screen, but it is not presented as a stage.

The landscape that becomes important in Red Dog is not a majestic scene of sweeping roads or coastlines or red desert, but rather it’s a rocky dirt track cresting the small hill by John’s place: a spot that becomes the emotional location of the film as Red Dog watches the track, waiting stoically for his master to come home. Just as in reality the places that come to mean something to us are rarely majestic or even beautiful, so too in the film the important place is one that is simple, familiar and symbolic.

Red Dog is a strong, powerful story with a bunch of great characters. I’ve heard it described as a feel-good film, but it’s better than that. It made me laugh and cry, and made me want to go back to the Pilbara, even though it has changed so much. I hope to see the movie again before it leaves the big screen.

A few days after I saw Red Dog, I can’t get it out of my head.

A delayed reflection on Biutiful

I saw the movie Biutiful several weeks ago, and before seeing it I had intended to write a review of it. But the movie was too heavy for me to engage with it immediately afterwards. It left me shaking, an indication of it’s power. One expects grittiness and confronting images from the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, but this was too much for me. Afterwards I spent days trying to shake some of the more disturbing images from my mind. At night when my thoughts relaxed, the images crept back in and kept me awake.

I went to Barcelona in 2008, to Barra Gotica, the Gothic Quarter. This is the tourist area of Barcelona, and while young men may try to sell you beer or something stronger in back alleyways, there is little obvious sadness or suffering or pain in this bouyant, active area of the city.

The Barcelona of Biutiful is another city altogether, a city where illegal sellers of imitation goods on the street live in tiny cramped apartments. It is a city of poverty, vicious cycles and exploitation. Only in long shots where the Temple de la Sagrada Família can be seen rising above the suburbs, or in the images of the beach, can the Barcelona that I experienced be glimpsed at all.

Javier Bardem plays the main character in Biutiful, Uxbal, and brings his usual gruff charisma to the screen. But here his character is also pained, dying, angry, afraid. When he loves, it is bittersweet.

The most disturbing scene involves the Chinese workers who are paid a pittance to produce those imitation goods that Uxbal’s African workers then sell on the streets. The movie is powerful and well made in a gritty, awful sense – there is nothing soft about the way the cinematography portrays the city and the lives of people in it.

I can’t say much more, because I don’t wish to re-engage more closely with my memories of the film. I acknowledge this movie’s strength and Iñárritu’s ability to capture humanity so confrontingly, but for me, it was too much.

Film review: The Way Back

The Way Back is the latest Peter Weir film, tracing the story of a group of escapees from a Siberian Gulag in the Soviet Union. In some ways it follows a predictable trajectory – stories of escapees necessarily tend to begin with some explanation of why they are locked up in the first place, followed by an introduction to their place of imprisonment before they start scoping for a means of escape. However, this didn’t prevent the film from holding me in its thrall throughout its 133 minute running time – I was completely engrossed. I have to admit that the controversy surrounding the book on which the film is based (The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz) kept popping into my head at inopportune moments, but ultimately the film does not lose any of its punch because of that debate.

While the horrors of Nazi Germany are widely studied, with many books and films produced on the subject, those of us coming up through the Australian school system usually find that we have very little knowledge of Stalinist Russia. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Hollywood has largely stayed well away from Stalin’s regime. In this respect alone, it’s positive that a film such as The Way Back has been made, allowing this chapter of history to a reach a new audience, albeit in a fictionalised form.

The movie is by no means an overly negative or depressing film, but it nonetheless filled me with a sense of the overwhelming nature of human suffering. The early scenes of the movie gave an indication of the sheer numbers of people imprisoned in Siberia and reinforced the sweeping nature of their pain. The escapees in this story are just a drop in the ocean of people who have been imprisoned, tortured or worked to death, or who have lost their lives in harsh landscapes throughout human history.

The way in which the film’s characters are often dwarfed by the landscapes they are traversing only adds to this sense of enormity. This sacrifice of character is necessary in the scope of such a large story – the journey from Siberia to India covered 7000 kilometres – and in order to demonstrate the majesty and enormity of the landscapes through which they passed. Like Weir’s previous film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, there aren’t many surprises in The Way Back, with the possible exception of the presence of a Polish teenager for part of the journey. However, also like Master and Commander, it is smoothly executed, evidently well researched and contains some excellent cinematography. It left me thinking about the nature of human interaction and suffering, particularly in the midst of harsh landscapes, and offers a fine tribute to those who perished in Soviet Gulags.

This review has also been published on upstart.