Apr 11, 2015

Civilization and Other Chimeras Observed During the Making of an Exceptionally Artistic Feature Film

Undoubtedly there are few types of films that are more banal than the sort of ‘making-of’ featurettes that oftentimes accompany DVD and Blu-ray releases, as they tend to sterilely demystify cinematic works and reveal filmmaking to be an oftentimes mind-numbingly boring process that involves a lot of standing around and bullshitting. Needless to say, I naturally have about as much of a desire to watch a hour-long making-of featurette about a film I have never seen as I would for having a colonoscopy while tripping on acid, or so I thought until I encountered South African auteur Aryan Kaganof’s shockingly philosophical and equally provocative piece De beschaving en andere hersenspinsels beschouwd tijdens het maken van een uiterst kunstzinnige speelfilm (2009) aka Civilization and Other Chimeras Observed During the Making of an Exceptionally Artistic Feature Film, which depicts the production of a little known Dutch work entitled Winterland (2009) directed by fine artist turned filmmaker Dick Tuinder (Nostalgia and Paranoia, Farewell to the Moon). Indeed, Tuinder is a fine artist who decided to change artistic mediums and asked his longtime friend, Kaganof, to shoot a making-of documentary for his first feature film, but in the end the South African auteur ultimately sired something that was ironically much more substantial and certainly more intellectually provocative and intricate than the actual film it documents. A film about a film-within-a-film where the writer-director and most of the actors play themselves, Civilization and Other Chimeras is a work that demonstrates that there is oftentimes a not-so-fine line between reality and fantasy, as well as real-life people and the fictional roles that they play as actors. In Kaganof’s meta-making-of doc, reality and fantasy are obscured to the point where they become meaningless designations, as every single second of the work manages to find some sort of truth about the ‘micro-civilization’ (aka the film set) where Tuinder rules as the unintentionally goofy and curiously shoeless dictator-cum-director, Dutch mini-diva Tara Elders semi-cryptically reigns with a loudmouth as the princess, and the South African auteur acts as both court jester and warrior-philosopher. By the end of Civilization and Other Chimeras, the carefully stylized and absurdly artificial-looking film set of Winterland seems like a sort of chaotic human pandemonium plagued by female narcissism and vanity, art fag style megalomania, and white collar slave labor while the organic Dutch countryside resembles something nothing short of heaven, henceforth demonstrating that civilization is a sort of cancer that defiles and ultimately destroys the natural order and replaces it with something that is hopelessly all too human, conspicuously contrived, and hardly godly. In other words, if you ever thought about becoming a filmmaker or working in the film industry in some other capacity, you might want to steer clear of Kaganof’s no bullshit lesson in the cruelly chaotic and hopelessly bureaucratic art of filmmaking and the barrels upon barrels of steaming bullshit that accompany it. In more superficial terms, Kaganof's film easily eclipses Teutonic poof agitator Rosa von Praunheim's debut It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971) aka Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt in terms of experimental documentaries with the most awkwardly long-winded titles. 

 Civilization and Other Chimeras opens with a shot of a mirror with the following quote from French postmodern/post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard written on it: “There are two-way mirrors which allow you innocently to spy on people. This is one of the finest metaphors for consciousness. There is no two-way screen because there is nothing to see on the other side of the screen, nothing to see without being seen.” The quote was written by Kaganof himself on a mirror that a little Asian girl with a absurdly conspicuous blonde bob style wig named Kiriko Mechanicus is looking into in a fairly inquisitive fashion. Kiriko is playing the role of ‘Sally de Winter’ in fine artist Dick Tuinder’s first feature film Winterland (2009) and she seems rather bored by the whole filmmaking process, at least when she is not acting. Interestingly, the viewer does not realize Tuinder is the director of the film until we see him flip through a newspaper and read an article on the making of Winterland, which is described as a ‘homage to Tara Elders,’ who, like most of the actors involved in the project, plays herself in the film. Among other things, Elders played the role of a bitchy Turkish-Dutch animal rights extremist in Theo van Gogh’s final film 06/05 (2004) aka May 6th and were it not for her nudity scenes in that work, her performance would have been completely intolerable. Judging by how she acts in Civilization and Other Chimeras, it seems that Elders more or less plays herself when she acts as all she does is bitch and complain throughout the doc, as if her concerns and comfort are of the foremost importance during the production of Winterland. In fact, it seems that Tuinder clearly recognizes this and accepts that Elders has a proclivity towards acting like a cunt as indicated in a scene where the actress asks him if she is acting too unpleasant and the director responds in a somewhat curious manner by stating, “No, you may be as unpleasant as you like. Just let it happen,” as if her sole strength as an actress lies in her brazen bitchiness. While Elders describes playing herself for Winterland as an “impossibility,” she seems like an even better actress in real-life than when she is actually playing a film role. Indeed, Kaganof is probably right when he states to Tuinder towards the end of the film regarding Elders, “That’s the paradox of the role because she can only exist by playing herself.”  Of course, as Kaganof's doc oftentimes hints at, the image and perception that people have of someone will always trump the person's true essence, as everyone is acting and playing a role in their lives to some extent, thus it should be no surprise why so many actors and actresses are troubled individuals as their media persona can never be erased and will always be more important to people than who they really are deep down inside.  Indeed, I would not even be surprised if Elders is slightly less bitchy on a personal level.

 Undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Civilization and Other Chimeras is that Kaganof takes the time to interview people on the film set that are otherwise ignored, including a lighting guy named Daan who insightfully declares, “filmmaking is creating and destructing.”  One of the most intriguing and enlightening conversations that Kaganof gets into is with an unnamed middle-aged woman with some less than glamorous job on the film who declares, “It really is to be admired, that women become actresses,” to which the South African auteur wisely rhetorically retorts, “Women are all actresses aren’t they?”  When Kaganof makes the argument that, “Men aren’t actors by nature… A male actor is almost always a very feminine man,” the woman theorizes that men act out of a supposed “hunger for truth” and women do it because they “want power” and “want to cover up. Acting is the ultimate hiding place.” Indubitably, Tara Elders thinks she has a certain degree of power and privilege as she has the gall to arrogantly declare upon learning that Tuinder has written more lines of dialogue that she has to memorize, “There’ll come a moment when you realize that it would be cheaper to hire a new director,” just as the filmmaker walks into the room in what is ultimately a rather awkward ‘scene.’ As statements that she will make later in the doc demonstrate, Elders seems to think the film is hers and not Dick Tuinder’s.  Rather cleverly, Tuinder more or less lets Elders think what she wants to, as he seems to realize that she is an exceedingly temperamental debutante that acts like a spoiled child and needs to be treated in a most cautious fashion if he hopes to get what he wants out of her for his film.  After all, Elders is the big star of Winterland and, quite unlike little Kiriko, who has not quite reached her teenage years and has yet to learn the power she has over men as a young woman, she most certainly knows it.

 While Kiriko and her blonde wig and super girly pink dress are surely the most iconic thing about Tuinder’s Winterland, the little lady has absolutely no clue what the film is about or the psychological motivations of her character as reflected by remarks she makes to Kaganof during various interviews. Indeed, Kiriko tells Kaganof that her character ‘Sally’ is smarter than she is because, “… she says things that I don’t understand,” thus there is no chance that she will be able to perform any sort of serious improvisation.  Of course, Tuinder ‘invented’ Sally, so one could argue that the character is just one of his alter-egos just as Terry Gilliam once somewhat comically described the little girl protagonist played by Jodelle Ferland in Tideland (2005) as his ‘inner child.’ Of course, there are things about the film that even Tuinder does not understand but the director goes so far as to proclaim that does not matter, with his reasoning being, “The film’s about me, isn’t it? And it’s true that I sometimes don’t understand myself, but the confusion isn’t any less when you understand my personal lack of understanding incorrectly.” Tuinder’s dictum when it comes to filmmaking is, “the deeper the shame, the greater the beauty,” as if the greatest virtue a filmmaker can have is self-exploitation and sheer vulnerability, which is certainly revealed to a degree throughout Kaganof's distinctly voyeuristic document. Interestingly, when Kaganof asks Tuinder regarding his performance as himself in Winterland, “...are you Dick Tuinder the director or are you acting as Dick Tuinder the director?,” the Dutch director replies, “No, I’m absolutely acting, but I act it so well that I believe it myself.”  Indeed, it is nearly impossible to discern whether Tuinder is really directing or acting like he is directing.

 Out of all the actors featured in Civilization and Other Chimeras, Tom Jansen, who has appeared in a number of great works, including Theo van Gogh's cult classics Loos (1989) and Vals licht (1993) aka False Light, as well as Flemish auteur Harry Kümel’s Louis Couperus adaptation Eline Vere (1991), is certainly the wisest and most respectable. As Jansen describes in a rather enthusiastic fashion like an excited old grandfather, he decided to become an actor as a little boy after going to a carnival and being absolutely amazed upon seeing the entrancing power that two clowns had in being able to manage to capture the complete attention of a large crowd of people.  Jansen is different from most of the actors in Winterland in that he was classically trained, though he later enthusiastically embraced modernism, stating of his aesthetically schizophrenic career, “…you could say that I’ve been inconsistent, and it’s true, I have been absolutely inconsistent. And finally, at the advanced age I’ve reached, I am beginning to see the consistency of that. When you’re young you believe, like the Romantics, in the myth of eternal progress. And, you find out that it’s not so, that life is, in fact, much more cyclical.” Certainly, Jansen seems like an old wise sage compared to fellow old-timer Ralph Wingens, who previously starred in works as diverse as Pim de la Parra’s Lost in Amsterdam (1989) and Babeth Mondini’s Kiss Napoleon Goodbye (1990) starring Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins.  To the delight of the viewer, Wingens acts like a jubilant young child throughout the film, but he does make one intriguing remark during the doc.  Indeed, whilst holding a camera lens, Wingens states regarding cinema that it is, “The world through a lens.” After all, the set of Winterland is nothing if not a sort of maniac microcosm that reflects the current state of the Occident, albeit in an exaggerated yet somewhat lighthearted art fag form. 

 Since a lot of Winterland was created in post-production via CGI (notably, Tuinder states at one point during the doc, “We’ll Find the Solution in the Edit,” thus reflecting his special emphasis on post-production), most of Civilization and Other Chimeras is set in an almost obnoxiously artificial green screen realm that seems all the more glaring in its kaleidoscopic grotesquery due to the costumes that the actors wear, especially Kiriko whose blonde wig and pink dress make her seem like a living and breathing Aryanized Anime character from sub-arthouse hell. Notably, a gigantic eyeball hangs in the green screen area and at one point in the film Kiriko is forced to stare at it. Undoubtedly this dangling all-seeing eye is symbolic of Kaganof as the all-seeing auteur who, although an outsider, ultimately managed to see more during the production of Winterland than the film's actual director. While Civilization and Other Chimeras is set in an otherworldly film set that was dreamed up by Dick Tuinder, the world ultimately became Kaganof’s once he got behind the camera and shot the film from his singularly idiosyncratic perspective. Interestingly, at the end of the doc, Kaganof asks Tuinder if the character Sally is a metaphor for god, but the director refuses to spill the beans on his film and instead states, “I’m not permitted to give an answer to that question. I’m sorry.” Whether Sally is a metaphor for god is dubious, but what is for sure is that Tuinder and just about any other self-respecting auteur is the god of their own film. When little Dutch diva Tara Elders bitches at the end of the doc, “It’s beginning to look suspiciously like the film is actually an homage to Dick Tuinder himself,” she is right, at least in a certain sense as a film is nothing if not a potent expression of its creator, especially if said creator is in any way serious about what they are creating. In stark aesthetic contrast to most of the rest of the film, Civilization and Other Chimeras concludes with Kaganof interviewing Tuinder outside in the Dutch countryside during the blue hour in an organically beauteous scene that resembles a work by 19th-century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Of course, this outdoor scene acts as a sort of much needed therapeutic relief from the Winterland set, which screams of infantilized postmodern artificiality, post-Spielberg special effects, and culturally mongrelized multicultural chaos. 

 One of the most unintentionally humorous segments of Civilization and Other Chimeras is when director Tuinder’s sister, who was responsible for creating the costumes for Winterland, describes how her brother was always an introverted fellow who spent most of his time bent over reading and drawing. Tuinder sister’s remarks seem all the more comical when one notices that the director has rather poor posture, as if all those years of reading and drawing permanently contorted his back in a way where it looks as if the director is bending over even when he is standing up and smoking a cigarette. Undoubtedly, little details like these that would escape most people demonstrate why Kaganof has such a keen and penetrating eye as a filmmaker. It should be noted that when Kaganof asks Tuinder why he decided to become a filmmaker, he sensibly replies, “Well, it does seem to be the most appropriate medium to describe the current world and the current reality. It fits to this reality we live in now, just as painting very much fitted the 16th and 17th-century reality and literature very much fitted the 19th-century reality […] I think every era has its dominant art form.”  One almost gets the sense that Tuinder would rather be creating paintings and sculptures (actually, he more or less did both of these things while creating the sets for Winterland) than directing films and dealing with an entire film crew, but that he feels obligated to work in the cinematic realm due to the popularity of the medium.  Admittedly, I have next to no interest in watching Winterland and would not exactly call Tuinder my kind of auteur, but I am certainly glad that I saw Civilization and Other Chimeras as it is, at the very least, the greatest making-of document since Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), which documented the truly catastrophic production of Werner Herzog's Amazonian epic Fitzcarraldo (1982). Notably, Kaganof made a sort of sister film to his Winterland doc entitled Sally in Winterland: The Making of Dick Tuinder (2009), which has been described as a ‘virtual road movie,’ but unfortunately it has yet to be released with English subtitles.  As someone that is fairly familiar with a good portion of Kaganof's singularly eclectic oeuvre, one of the things that I found most interesting about Civilization and Other Chimeras is that it documents exactly the sort of film that the South African auteur would never make, so it is endlessly intriguing to see how he takes Tuinder's sort of girly and cartoonish neo-Victorian aesthetic and turns it into something worthy of much more intellectual consideration than one could ever possibly fathom, which is something he also accomplished with his early documentary short Matthew Barney: Creating Stories (1995) aka Matthew Barney in the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Indeed, while Kaganof is probably best known among cinephiles for his early features like Ten Monologues from the Lives of the Serial Killers (1994), Wasted! (1996) aka Naar de klote!, and Shabondama Elegy (1999) aka Tokyo Elegy, he is probably the most original and subversive documentarian working in the world today as his avant-garde docs like Western 4.33 (2002) and Night Is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana (2014) surely demonstrate.  During Civilization and Other Chimeras, actor Tom Jansen remarks, “That’s the greatest achievement, if you can make the simple things magical,” which is ultimately what Kaganof achieved with the doc.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

I want to poke my willy up the little Japanese girls bum.

Tony Brubaker said...

Ty E, wouldn`t it have been hilarious (and true of course) if in the picture with the sound boom geezer holding the extention mic over Kiriko you`d put a caption on it with the geezer saying to her: "Kiriko, little darlin`, try to concentrate will ya`, imagine that the mic is a big knob like the one that you sucked dry last night for the Russian child-porn movie you were in, then we`ll get the shot that we want, OK sweety ! ! !". Once again, hilarious and true.