Film Reviews: Mantra and The Beekeepers

[A pair of reviews of local films, courtesy of Matthew Farrell. -Waldo]

a film shot in Charlottesville
written/directed by Brian Wimer

As we snowball to financial, social, moral, and material apocalypse, a storyteller can offer us the modest comfort that if everything’s not going to be precisely OK, at least the networks won’t launch any new CSI spin-offs next season. In ceaseless promenade, dystopian Armageddon flicks level cities and disconnect FEMA’s hotline, crash the internet and cripple Geek Squad’s VWs, make our leftover Pad Thai go bad in our Tupperware…in compensation they offer a lone soul clinging to a dream of humankind.

The appeal to these films is usually the star: Clive Owen, Will Smith, Ewan McGregor, Vinny Jones, Tom Cruise; we yawn through excessive special effects that are no longer that special. One out of every fifty of these films is saved by solid dialogue, engaging characters. Compare the grinding terse torpor of Children of Men to the gloriously funny and life-affirming Zombieland. A subcategory of end-of-days films includes those in which the world is not so different, not wiped away by the blast, flood, meteor, but people are themselves different in an otherwise familiar landscape. It’s bad enough that we can’t microwave a 7-11 burrito, but now the clerk won’t take Discover Card, or will have tentacles growing out of her forehead, or will want to eat us.

Either way, take a big disaster, then show us a small problem. That brings it home. How can I keep my toenails trimmed if all metal has turned to crumbling putty? No matter how widespread the problem, we only connect at the human level. Nobody believes in global warming until it’s 95° in January and they can’t go snowboarding. At its most compelling, any disaster film must be localized to one person, one group, one time and place. And what medium does local best, but Indie Film. The Neo-Localist Movement, with its heritage tomatoes that look like malignant tumors and home-knit mittens that fit like Ziploc baggies, gives us more than wormy produce and scratchy sweaters. It gave us Brian Wimer.

This guy is brilliant. Six foot four (he edges out our other best local filmmaker Johnny St. Ours by about a half-inch), raffishly handsome (Errol Flynn with some manner of aberrant facial hair), a Hollywood slickster (I tried to buy a ticket to his show and wound up asking for his autograph), a serpentine mind for juggling people and ideas, and nobody likes him. Charm, poise, genius and loathed by everyone. Who could ask for better in a visionary, someone who looks good to you in Armani while you’re stoning him to death. And he is being stoned: he makes great art and nobody notices.

Mantra is his latest work, and is making a solid showing at US festivals, winning awards and both audience and critical acclaim. His advertising of it belies his own twisted cleverness. He’s too confident to be afraid of labels, and he deliberately taunts a potential audience to ignore the film by printing the formula to which he shoots it: zombies, tits, gore at ten minutes apiece. And he delivers, by the second-hand on my watch, each of these. But somehow, in what time remains on the clock, he shocks the audience into disbelief that they’ve just seen a DIY genre-piece. At a sparsely attended showing at Vinegar Hill, audiences seemed not to know what the hell to make of it, but in the out-procession nobody said “zombie” and nobody said “slasher”; about the most literate critical comment I heard was “whoa”, and that was from a UVA Professor.

A handful of average-looking actors get into an average bus and go off on an average New-Age Retreat. Wimer plays the guru, and in five screen-minutes steals the film; to the extent that the hoariest part of the suspense in the oeuvre is the edge-of-seat hope that Wimer might appear again, and again, and again on-screen to wow us more. The film unrolls, and stuff happens. We’re never quite clear what that stuff is, and it makes not the slightest difference to enjoyment of it. There are Zen pronouncements that while delivered with irony somehow manage to settle on the viewer like the real thing; I found myself repeating them as if I’d just sat at the knee of Dalai Lama. Flashback, flash-forward, funny interactions between realistically differentiated characters, long-angle shots of faces twisted into boredom-shock-confusion-beatitude, those infinite moments of camera stillness watching someone stir a pot, then a frightening downpour of synesthesia and jumpcuts and just-pla
in-weird visuals. Then the final credits roll. Abel Okugawa’s music haunts the thing, a trance of temple-bells and three-chord Ommms.

Was there a plot? Maybe. Did the film start-develop-culminate-resolve? Maybe. Did a character change? Maybe. Did the audience leave wanting more of it, wondering more at it than they’d imagined they would, wishing they knew what the hell was going on? Absolutely. Wimer buses us in and buses us out, and we wonder where we’ve been for over an hour: pure escapism and pure art, the art of out-of-body transport, an abduction.

Mind this: Mantra uses all the tricks of the horror film for suspense, and the avant-garde film for art. It is as horrific an art film as I’ve seen, and as artful a horror film as I’ve seen. Yet somehow Wimer’s Hollywood-without-Hollywood wit knows better than to make Mantra wholly either. It is not a didactic or exploratory yawn. It is not a formulaic or re-tread nail-biter. We see breasts but can’t take the time to notice they are shapely or perky or whatever they are, see gore and barely notice it’s gory, violence and barely notice it’s violent. And that is Wimer’s gift to us, that somehow he delivered absolutely on his promise that Mantra would be every zombie-gore film you’ve ever seen, and that you’d never have a second’s sense of that you had just seen one.

This is the most polished Charlottesville film work I’ve seen to date: cinematographically gorgeous; a created world of its own, perfectly consistent and drawn; unique and differentiated characters, doing smooth acting; a lush-lush-lush soundtrack. I’m not sure we need to care, and I’m not sure Wimer would care, that we don’t have a goddam clue what it’s all about. In the Big Chill, a movie with too much plot and too much soundtrack and too much to tell us, William Hurt delivers flawlessly that film’s anti-thesis, and it sticks to Mantra: “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta let art kinda flow over you…”

Trailers for viewing and DVDs for purchase at

Harvest Films
The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative
With and Especial focus on The Beekeepers, a film by Richard Robinson

The latest endeavor at The Bridge seems to capitalize on the Local-Foodie Movement, quite timely as every paper in town has done a recent series of praise-ladling articles about Joel Salatin and his farm, every farmer’s market within 100 miles, and every retro-primitivist mode of organicism in cultivation. The Bridge’s Harvest Series includes things agricultural: songs about food, paintings about organics, talks about stuff that has to do with food or organics, the bus with those two soooo sweet and wonderful kids hocking their ideas about fresh-food prep around the country from a converted schoolbus, etc. Harvest is doing good consciousness-raising about organic and low-impact growing, principally amongst those who already believe in the stuff and consequently have the patience to sit through presentations about it. One of the principle harvests in evidence at the Bridge space itself must be that of the forest of trees felled to produce stacks of twenty-two different brochures related to Harvest events.

An event last week trotted out a mixed-bag of video and reel-films, gathered very loosely around the idea of food. The real draw was a silent-short of composer John Cage grinning like an idiot, picking mushrooms, and dressed like Al Gore in his pot-bellied bearded flannel shirt days. We notice him smoking several cigarettes using a very urbane holder, then casting the butts away into the clear mountain stream behind him. Another film, intermittently in Spanish and intermittently subtitled, seemed to be about making cheese, until it wasn’t, then it seemed to be about a child sawing the head off a poor helpless live snake with a dull machete, until it wasn’t, then about burning the flesh of screaming and struggling poor cows with red-hot irons. Then I lost track of everything while trying to conjugate the Spanish imperfect future subjunctive of “to end”, as in “If only this film might someday end?” A second film by this creator was, I believe, cancelled owing to the room being at that time emptied of viewers.

Only one of the four films had claim to currency, a 2009 work by an evident local, Richard Robinson. It also evidently had been advertised separately, as after it screened, 90% of the audience left en masse. In that audience one saw most of UVA’s experimental video and film faculty, several other arts-department members. Mr. Robinson does not appear to be UVA Faculty himself, but there appears to be an “in” there, no way justified by his videographical prowess. It was the only film with any claim to a Charlottesville tie, and the only film made within the last lustrum.

In The Beekeepers (2009), director Richard Robinson talks to beekeepers about Colony Collapse Disorder, which appears to have something to do with hive-populations diminishing or vanishing. Robinson did some terrific interviews with some terrific Virginian—and one NYC—beekeepers. Great faces and nice dialects, a few oracular utterances from The Working Man. Also snippets of Department of Agriculture and other genuinely informative films about bees and their habits, evidently cribbed from various public domain archives. Yup, they said, it’s happening. Got it. Perfect for PBS or Animal Planet. But somehow those five minutes expand, like those toys that look like Tylenol-capsules until you add water and they become big sponge-dinosaurs.

Ever read a short story where you can just hear in your head the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus flipping? I suspect a half-dozen googles would reveal to you to every interstitial quotation which fills every parenthetical blank screen in the entire film: Pausanius, Virgil, Aristophanes, Plath, Dickinson, a half-dozen more. You can usually tell when someone needs academic fluff-filler, and you can usually tell where they got it, and you can almost always tell when it wasn’t from adolescent memory of flipping through Pausanius. I was shocked he missed my fave, from Yeats, “Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, // And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” I suppose he left out Yeats because it didn’t have anything to do with Hive Collapse. Then again, neither did the cult of Demeter. Wait, nor did Dickinson. Nor did footage of the aerial bombardment of Dresden, nor the five minutes of opening and closing old-school film-reel 1, 2, 3, 4 countdown footage.

There may have been editing difficulties. Editors and surgeons live by the dictum: To cut is to cure. Very amateur filmmakers, or those wishing to be seen as avant-garde, seem to have found another, more along the lines of “Toss that shit in and Final Cut Pro will do the rest”. At a glance, Final Cut has features for fuzzing the image, fuzzing the sound, blanking half the screen with what looks like celluloid film being burned or cracked. Though the filtering seems to have allowed many impurities of irrelevance to pass through, it also nipped some of the best real information and visuals in the work, the responses from the crusty beekeepers themselves…as soon as one of them starts to tell us something worthwhile, he is immediately cut off by an ‘art effect’, and we either can’t hear the answer or don’t notice it because we’re trying to figure out why you’d want suddenly to have the film look and sound like a static-y television set.

In the description, ‘creative sensibilities’ is modified by ‘his own’. I see Final Cut’s sensibilities, reading menu items 1 through 10 in the Effects column. I see every marginal experimental video-maker’s sensibilities tagged-on without evidence of need or meaning to perhaps lend alternative-experimental heft. I heard the sensibilities of every chest-beating chained-to-bulldozer activist when he started saying things like “The Government did studies and ignored them…” (what Government–ours? You mean that research institutions like UVA did studies, paid for by government grants, right?) or “Pesticides were invented for the Military…” (You mean like the ones that killed all the mosquitoes in the Philippines, ending Yellow Fever? The ones that research institutions invented using government grants?). This is akin to saying “The Government photographed people sticking bullwhips up people’s backsides then felt bad about it…” and meaning Guantanamo rather than federal funding for Maplethorpe.

Eventually, after fuddling around with Final Cut and Pausanius for a half-hour, a metaphor begins to emerge ex nihilo, and Robinson snatches it in terrier-jaws and yips at it through the rest of the oeuvre: bees are to the planet what canaries are to coal mines. Canaries die, mines aren’t safe. Bees die, the planet isn’t safe. I think we were spared any distorted black-and-white flickering-effect images of canaries, but I may have dozed off briefly.

I woke up when some wag in the audience asked about killer bees.

More information at Robinson’s website.

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