If you've been paying attention to the Video section of this site, you'll know that we've been holding VidBinges at Spank Towers since 1999. Here's the news from the 2006 one, featuring five of the top films of the year as chosen by Spank's Pals. And look over there! A new toy to play with! Oooh!
Your jury for VidBinge 2006: Alastair (who'd flown in from Singapore that very morning), The Belated Birthday Girl, The Cineaste, Jon, Lesley, Old Lag and Suzanne Vega Fanclub. As usual, they were asked the week before to pick five films (in order of preference) from a shortlist of 20 released in British cinemas this year. The results graph doesn't take into account the absence of The Cineaste on the day, as he ducked out of the event at the last minute owing to a family emergency. When I recounted the results after removing his votes, it just changed the order of the first four films and created an awkward three-way tie in fifth place, and it seemed easier to leave his contributions in.
So the vote for the five films we watched on the afternoon and evening of December 16th 2006 was a fairly painless one: which is more than can be said for the vote at the centre of Johnny To's Election, the first film of the day's programme. (Not to be confused with the Election that kicked off the inaugural VidBinge back in 1999.) As I mentioned when I first saw the film at LFF 2005, it's a film of three acts, Brian. The first act shows two rival gangsters, Mok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), battling for the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong Triads during the election of a new boss. Act 2 shows the messy conflict that arises when the loser takes issue with the result. And act 3 takes us into the interesting territory of what happens after that conflict is resolved.
There are some fascinating riffs on the time-worn theme of loyalty amongst thieves, and the detailed depiction of the Triad initiation ceremonies feels appropriately dangerous, but I still feel that the second act is the real problem with Election. It's the most conventionally action-driven section of the film, but there are so many characters involved in the chase for the symbolic baton of power that we never know who's on what side, and ultimately cease to care. It's much more interesting seeing how bleak the film gets at the end: in that respect it shares a fair bit of DNA with another recent thriller featuring Simon Yam, Sha Po Lang. A few years ago, when Infernal Affairs was released, I wondered out loud how Hong Kong cinema would progress from this new-found burst of maturity, and this seems to be the answer: it's become Hollywood in the 1970s, where paranoia and betrayal are the norm, and studios are willing to let films end on a downer. The enduring image of Hong Kong genre fandom for me is a cinema full of people cheering on the most spectacular depictions of violence: but nobody would be cheering on the violence at the end of Election, and somehow that feels like a step forward.
Next up is Syriana: is it giving too much away at this stage to reveal it's George Clooney's first appearance of the day? Syriana has developed a reputation for being a particularly complex film, but to be honest it's not that bad. Four interwoven stories, where the only cues you're given as to which one you're watching are the wildly differing locations they take place in or the famous stars they feature? If you've ever watched an episode of, say, Emmerdale, then it shouldn't be too much of a problem pulling those four strands apart. George Clooney's CIA agent, slowly realising that he's not as in control of his Middle Eastern operations as he thinks he is: Matt Damon, the oil industry analyst gradually building a relationship with an emir as his relationship with his family falls apart: Jeffrey Wright, the investigator looking into the murky politics behind the merger of two oil companies (a tricky one for London viewers, this, as we can't take the idea of an oil company called Connex seriously): and Mazhar Munir, the young man whose tangential involvement with all of this leads him into some dangerous life choices.
Second time round, it becomes apparent that the intercutting of the four stories isn't what makes Syriana tricky to follow: it's the way useful bits of linking information are casually tossed away in incidental dialogue, where they're easily missed. But for the most part, Stephen Gaghan's film is cerebral entertainment with the odd thrill thrown in, along with some family dilemmas which (apart from Damon's) are totally extraneous to the plot, but give it a vague air of emotional substance. It's a nice change for a big Hollywood studio film to allow the viewer to join the dots for themselves, but once you've done that - as Suze pointed out on the day - you're left with a nagging doubt about what the film's actually trying to say. The oil industry is evil? You could be snarky and suggest that anyone smart enough to follow Gaghan's tangled plot logic is smart enough to have worked that out for themselves over the last five years, and what we need right now is a depiction of the evils of Big Oil that the thickos can understand. Or is that too harsh?
And so we reach the film you're least likely to have heard of out of these five, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. To be honest, it crept out into UK cinemas very quietly in 2006 (curiously after getting a video release earlier in the year): I suspect I'd have missed it completely if I hadn't caught it by chance at the previous year's LFF. I'm assuming that it picked up third place in the VidBinge vote purely on the basis of my own enthusiasm, which is always a little bit frightening. I think that enthusiasm came partly out of my lack of expectations - I mean, a National Geographic-backed fiction film about a bunch of guys saving the Tibetan antelope from poachers? As Lesley said, you expect something gentle like The Story Of The Weeping Camel, all soft focus photography and loving glances exchanged between man and noble beast.
What you don't expect is the sheer darkness of the thriller that director Lu Chuan makes out of this premise. It's not just the sudden, shocking outbursts of violence, but also the way that the Patrol aren't unambiguous goodies. They have no real powers to do anything other than issue on-the-spot fines, and they aren't massively competent at even doing that. Not to mention the dilemma of how they have to fund themselves when the chips are down. That moral uncertainty gives Kekexili an edge that most movies with the National Geographic imprint don't have. But aside from that, on re-viewing it's a curiously undramatic story - the few surprising twists in the plot turn out to have been heavily telegraphed early on. (To be fair, they aren't nearly as obvious first time round.) Still, if nothing else, it looks ravishing, with shot after shot you just want to rip off your telly and hang on the wall.
We're back to Clooney again with Good Night, And Good Luck: which means that both of the films Gorgeous George has directed have appeared in VidBinges, what with Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind turning up in 2003. And this is the point where I need to mention something which you may have been thinking while reading this: it's a bit of a downbeat collection this year, isn't it? Don't blame me (as I usually say at this time every year), I didn't vote for them. But the original shortlist of 20 films had fun stuff on it like Superman Returns, Slither and A Cock And Bull Story: and yet we end up with a programme where the true story of TV journalist Edward R. Murrow's fight against McCarthyism turns out to be the day's light relief.
Fair's fair, though: Clooney and Grant Heslov's script does have some delightful gags in it, and a light touch that utterly avoids lecturing (except for Murrow's own) while still drawing discreet parallels between the way media interference worked 50 years ago and the way it works today. Unlike the visual tricksiness of Confessions, the only quirk of style Clooney uses is to shoot in black and white, all the better to blend in with the real footage from the period. (The easiest way to make McCarthyism look foolish is to just show McCarthy.)
Aside from the classily restrained style of the film - not just its look, but the smart use of Dianne Reeves' songs as act breaks - Clooney has one more weapon up his sleeve. That's David Strathairn's performance as Murrow, as he nails the quiet confidence of the veteran newsman perfectly. The sequences based on his original broadcasts - just Strathairn reading Murrow's own words, shot with one or two cameras - are some of the most poetic and electrifying scenes to be seen in a cinema in 2006. And it has to be said, although I normally scoff at people who suggest that smoking in movies encourages it in real life, Strathairn makes lung cancer looked like the coolest thing in the world here. It was just his bad luck that he was up against PSH for the Best Actor Oscar this year.
As for the winner of this year's VidBinge vote, it was obvious from quite early on: Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, also a popular choice in most of the British media's end-of-year roundups. A co-production with the Discovery Channel (who aired a curiously bowdlerised version of the film in the UK just a couple of days after VidBinge), it's an investigation of the final years of Timothy Treadwell, conservationist and bear lover. It uses the dozens of hours of video footage Treadwell shot while out in the wild, building a portrait of the man right up to the point where one of the bears killed him and his girlfriend in 2003.
It's a brilliant film, one of my favourites of the year. It could so easily have been a simple cut-and-paste job from Treadwell's videos, but it ends up being so much more because of the attention Herzog pays to the story's structure. It turns out that the Treadwell we see on screen in his videos is a carefully constructed persona, and Herzog reveals that persona to us bit by bit. We start with the self-proclaimed Kind Warrior, whose naive joy at nature made Treadwell a natural when presenting the world of the bears to younger audiences. But by the end he's become the Psycho Fruitcake, who thinks everyone else on the planet is out to get him and his beloved animals, even when he's potentially putting them in danger himself. (The Belated Birthday Girl gets really, really annoyed whenever I suggest that you could put a similar paranoid spin on the work of the Kekexili Mountain Patrol, and end up with a completely different interpretation of that film. So I won't.)
Herzog is too much of a humanist to simply classify his subject as a Kind Warrior or Psycho Fruitcake, and his main achievement here is to convince us that Treadwell's personality is a lot more complex than those two extremes. Sometimes he overargues the case, it's true: I'm not entirely convinced at his attempts to find film art in the outtakes between Treadwell's carefully rehearsed pieces to camera. (On the other hand, I can accept that Treadwell's delusions of invincibility allowed him to get close enough to the bears to shoot some extraordinary sequences.) The other thing that riles me a little is Herzog's holier-than-thou attitude when he tells us about the footage of Treadwell's death and how nobody else must ever listen to it - yes, listen, because the lens cap was on at the time he was being killed. I've thought about the practical implications of that lens cap detail, and can only come to one disturbing conclusion: when the bear attacked Treadwell and his girlfriend, his first instinct was to turn on his video camera...
Still, these are minor niggles in an extraordinary piece of work, totally deserving of the votes of Spank's Pals. Although their voting it top does mean that our programme of gloom and doom for 2006 climaxed with a man being eaten by a bear. Lighten up, you lot! I'm hoping for more laughs and fluffiness in VidBinge 2007, and less bludgeoning, corruption and inter-species murder. I'll leave the decision in your hands. Being a monkey, and all.