Here's the thing about film festivals. When you're averaging eight flicks a day [features and shorts], as the cinetrix did on Friday and Saturday of this year's Full Frame festival, the temptation to indulge in a bit of apophenia is too strong to resist.
This year, it was all about helicopters for me. Which was interesting, given that docs are still the ugly stepsisters of filmmaking when it comes to funding and resources. Yet there the whirlybirds were, again and again.
The first one popped up in D.A. Pennebaker's Power of Ten selection, 1950's French pseudo-doc La Vie Commence Domain. Pennebaker had seen it long ago, but thought it lost forever. Queries to MOMA and the Cinematheque turned up nothing. Then the BFI came through with news of a print in its collection. They offered to send it over, but Pennebaker balked at the responsibility and requested a digibeta copy. Which is what he screened, with the caveat that he hadn't seen it in decades and didn't know whether it'd hold up.
The opening credits unfold like a classic Hollywood picture of the period, but the players being introduced are Sartre, Gide, Picasso, Prevert, Le Corbusier, and other leading artists and intellectuals of the time. Our skeptical protagonist is strolling down some likely-looking rue in the countryside, hoping to hitch a ride, when a helicopter alights to pick him up. On it is a journalist named Labarthe, who acts as his [and our] Virgil on a journey through a world of ideas and innovation.
Pennebaker said that part of the fascination the film held for him was actually seeing these people he had only read about, a novelty long since lost. And, I admit, it is lovely to see Le Corbusier stand atop a construction site and talk about radiant cities; Sarte arguing existentialism in his gloomy sitting room; and Picasso frolicking with a comely young wife in the surf in Antibes. UNESCO and engineers are lauded, and even in the atomic age science is proclaimed to be neutral. Jean Rostand proudly explicates then-new theories of genetics, but he also praises innovations like electroshock and lobotomy as cutting-edge science. As indeed it was. But what stuck with me most was the giddy sense of possibility the film captures, no better than when our same helicopter alights again on the steps at Versailles at the end and spirits our young quester into the skies.
You need a helicopter in
Rio Sao Paolo. Apartment towers and office building sport private helipads on their roofs, protecting passengers from the very real danger of kidnapping that lurks on the streets below. And in Manda Bala, filmmaker Jason Kohn not only interviews these people, he catches a couple of rides, which yield some of the most stunning aerial shots of the rich and poor patchwork of that Brazilian city.
In The Hands of Che Guevara, a helicopter doubles as deux ex machina, spiriting the severed hands and death mask of the executed revolutionary out of the grasp of his assassins. The story was fascinating and the cinematography gorgeous, but the pacing not so much, making the whirlybird a welcome burst of noise and movement.