by Elliot Davies
Marvel as I strive to learn as much as I can about HUMANITY in one 24 hour period! Anything is possible at the Derby Film Festival.
It isn’t really documentary day at the Derby Film Festival. At least, not officially. But still, three fascinating documentaries are being shown today, and I intend to watch every single one of them.
(Oh, by the by, I’m writing this a few minutes before midnight on the day in question, and I probably won’t finish writing this thing until tomorrow morning. And yet, I still insist upon using the present tense. It just makes things more immediate. And if things are more immediate, they might be more interesting. I hope you don’t mind.)
We begin with Koyaanisqatsi (1982). That’s a Hopi term, the translation of which is a variant on the theme of “this life is crazy, unsupportable, and in need of changing.” This is a documentary with no narrative to speak of, yet the footage has been carefully chosen to reflect a number of apocalyptic Hopi prophecies:
If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster. Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky. A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.
So we see stunning vistas of arid mountains, and we gaze in awe as the wind gently weaves across untouchable desert dunes. We couldn’t possibly spoil this land! But before you know it, there’s huge unfeeling machines tearing huge chunks from the landscape, which is ferried to the sprawling cities via a series of pipes that cut across the hills like deep scars.
The city, when viewed from above with a number of long time-lapse shots, is beautiful. The traffic surges through the streets like blood through a heart. It’s made to look like a living, breathing organism. But compared to the awesome natural world, we’re to assume that this organism is a virus. A cancer. We’re destroying the planet and we must be stopped.
Or at least that’s one reading. The problem is, we’re not made aware of the Hopi prophecies until the very end. As a result, it’s all too easy to soak up these cityscapes, and to let Philip Glass’s transcendent score get under your skin and into your brain, and to think…wow:
Yeah, the shots of crushing poverty, of derelict buildings, and of fiery destruction suggest that, as well as compromising the natural world, all of this progress comes with a very real human cost. Plus, the extended sequences of demolition are perhaps intended to hint that human progress is ultimately insignificant, given are propensity to tear our achievements down.
But still, if they really wanted us to question our nature and our relationship with the world, they really shouldn’t have made humanity look so darn impressive, so darn resilient, and so darn endearing. We see people at work, people at play, people just making the best of things. We see people banding together in the wake of blackouts and riots, and we see people enjoying the sun in the shadow of nuclear reactors.
Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t show humanity at its best, but nor does it show humanity at its worst. It just shows humanity as it really is – a hot mess. I don’t think we need to be stopped, but we might consider slowing down a little. The world isn’t evil, but it can be exhausting and overwhelming.
Speaking of human endeavour, Do You Own The Dancefloor? (2015) is a true labour of love. This is a documentary about legendary Manchester nightclub The Hacienda. Horwich-based Director Chris Hughes introduced the film. It took him and a dedicated team seven years to make, and everything that happened happened as a result of people knowing people, and of everyone being extremely keen to help out.
And it all started when Mr. Hughes noticed his neighbour carrying a camera into his house. He had always wanted to make a film about The Hacienda, so on a whim he asked his neighbour if he could use his camera. They took it from there. Seven years and hundreds of hours of footage later, they had their film.
Hughes was wary of showing people something they’ve already seen before. Like many Hacienda veterans, he’s watched hundreds of YouTube videos, he’s read Peter Hook’s book (Hughes referred to it as his bible), and he’s seen 24 Hour Party People. So how to make his film something other than “just another film about the Hacienda”?
The solution was to focus on an auction that took place in 2000, three years after the Hacienda was demolished. Some 69 lots were sold. Veterans and devotees had a chance to own a piece of history – a piece of the Hacienda – and almost everything was up for grabs. Do You Own The Dancefloor traces the journey of these artifacts. It meets the people who own the dancefloor.
The initial idea was to make this auction the beginning and the end of the film, but Hughes was advised to provide a bit of context – to give newcomers an idea of what The Hacienda was, and why people might be driven to spend £8,000 on a balsa wood DJ booth. And it’s a bloody good job that he listened to this advice, because the auction scenes that make up the centerpiece of the documentary are unfortunately rather dull.
There’s too much footage of people pointing at bricks, and of affable auctioneers talking about parking problems. These scenes have all the appeal of a DVD extra, the sort that would be half-watched once by about four people.
Yet this auction is merely the bland filling in a sandwich made from the most delicious bread imaginable. The documentary opens with an oral history of the Hacienda, for which Hughes assembled a stunning array of talking heads. Among others you have Peter Hook, Liam Gallagher, Clint Boon, Mike Pickering, and Graeme Park.
But anyone can interview the Manchester elite about the Hacienda. Hughes’s masterstroke was to spend equally as much time interviewing the Hacienda regulars – everyday people for whom the titular dancefloor was everything. These guys are infectiously misty-eyed. Only the most heartless of iconoclasts could listen to their breathless stories and deny the vital importance of The Hacienda.
Hughes bravely opens his film with footage of Tony Wilson speaking on Northwest Tonight about The Hacienda’s closure. He welcomes the bulldozers; pop culture is ephemeral, and “nostalgia is a disease.”
Much later, we meet the guy who bought the Hacienda’s urinals. He excitedly points to the various piss stains, wondering aloud whether any of them were Morrissey’s. If nostalgia’s a disease, we’re lead to conclude that this guys struggling through the late stages.
But in a post-film Q&A, Hughes reflected a bit on the question of nostalgia. He believes it’s “fine, as long as you do other things.” And…well, there’s not really any arguing with that.
It would be all to easy to look at these middle aged people with the glazed bricks on their mantelpieces and the bits of signed stained wood nailed to their walls and conclude that they’re living tragic half-lives. Their best days are behind them, and the past is now glorified at the expense of everything else.
But that’s a very Simon Reynolds way of looking at the world. And life’s too short for Simon Reynolds.
A very good point was made during this Q&A. Do You Own The Dancefloor isn’t really about the Hacienda at all. It’s a piece of social history, an earnest and affectionate look at the human need for ritual and meaning. That a glazed brick can mean the world to someone isn’t tragic. It’s beautiful.
Finally, we have Live From New York! (2015), a documentary that attempts to contextualise four decades of Saturday Night Live.
SNL is an American institution, the sort of thing that unites generations. But in the UK, we only get the alumni, who have a tendency to define modern comedy as we know it. So we’re left in a weird position: We can appreciate the world-shaking significance of SNL, despite having never watched a single second of it.
That’s why I was particularly keen to see this documentary. It’s like visiting the source of a raging river.
And in every respect, Live From New York is a success. Nobody who’s paid even the slightest bit of attention to comedy in the past 40 years will be able to deny the influence of SNL, so this documentary could have been nothing more than a sycophantic round of back-slaps for all concerned, and I doubt anyone would have complained.
But no, it strives to be more than that. It strives to assess just how a weekly live comedy broadcast could attain such significance, and it’s not above asking some difficult questions about diversity, and about the complex relationship between comedy and politics.
And all of this is achieved while simultaneously providing a concise history of the show – with its many different casts, hosts, sets, feels, and controversies – so that even an absolute newcomer will be able to follow the thread with ease. And what’s more, it’s all wrapped up in a tight 90 minutes. It’s quite the achievement.
And never is the significance of SNL more pronounced than when the narrative reaches September 11, 2001. How can an irreverent New York institution possibly take its standard sideways look at the world when the world is feeling so low?
It’s likely that millions of Americans remember the 9/11 episode of SNL. It opened with Paul Simon playing The Boxer, after which the camera panned to an assembled lineup of stoic NYC firefighters. Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, gave a brief yet devastating speech about resilience, about how everything, SNL included, must continue as normal.
Lorne Michaels: Can we be funny?
Rudy Giuliani: Why start now?
Comedy as therapy. We need to laugh.
We’re an odd bunch. But we’re doing our best, aren’t we?