Danny Says (2016; Dir.: Brendan Toller)
Cameraperson (2016; Dir.: Kirsten Johnson)
By Daniel Barnes
*All three films open in the Bay Area on Friday, September 30. Spa Night and Danny Says play at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco; Cameraperson plays at the Landmark Opera Plaza in SF and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
I overbooked for the week, so this is happening.
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Ahn makes his feature debut with Spa Night, a fairly flimsy but authentically lived-in story of a closeted Asian-American teenager trapped between his expanding desires and his oppressive, non-assimilating parents. All roads entwine at the Koreatown spas – it’s a family ritual, cultural tradition and status symbol built around male bonding, and also a hotbed of sexual curiosity and tentative activity for the reserved David (Joe Seo). The film slowly goes exactly where you would expect from there, with David leading a double life – stoic student by day, tantalized towel boy by night – that culminates in the usual facepalm-inducing shots of the hero looking into a mirror as though seeing himself for the very first time. At least Ahn and cinematographer Ki Jin Kim deliver a sharp-looking movie with a congruous visual and tonal concept on a presumably low budget, and it all feels genuine and resonant enough to halfheartedly recommend. If his handsome lead actor possessed a little more natural magnetism, the emotional connections might have fused at a more reliable rate. Ahn is one to watch, even if his debut film isn’t.
Although ostensibly a clip-happy rock doc about promoter and manager Danny Fields, Brendan Toller’s spry Danny Says also takes time to explore the awakening of its homosexual hero. In fact, the ten minutes or so devoted to Fields’ adolescent sexual exploration and immersion in pre-Stonewall gay subculture, a path that eventually led to his acceptance into Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, are among the most compelling scenes in Danny Says. While Fields makes for an engaging storyteller throughout, his tales about his time spent as “company freak” for Elektra Records, where he worked publicity for The Doors and signed MC5 and The Stooges, are pretty standard music industry jerk-off material: heavy on name-dropping and portent, vague on details and context. And so it goes for Danny Says, a very canny and well-assembled cinematic scrapbook, but one that barely seems to scratch the surface of anything it purports to care about. The sections on the Ramones, who Fields got signed to Sire Records and managed through their best run of albums (the song “Danny Says” was written about Fields), are disappointingly skimpy, especially considering the film’s already over-inflated running time.
By far the best film of the week, and a strong candidate for the best documentary of 2016 so far, is Kirsten Johnson’s brave, wise and unexpectedly moving memoir Cameraperson. A longtime documentary cinematographer who has worked with industry standard-bearers like Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick and Michael Moore, the globetrotting Johnson assembled Cameraperson from her extensive reel, forging a deeply personal greatest hits collection out of clips, outtakes and footage of her own family. Far from a dry experiment or a masturbatory self-tribute, though, Cameraperson comes alive with possibilities in every scene, mutating and evolving from moment to moment like an engrossing conversation. Without any narration and with very little onscreen text, Johnson creates a sprawling and beautiful work, one that challenges our notions about documentary filmmaking, especially regarding the role of the cinematographer, while also making profound statements about mortality, poverty, narrative structure, power structure, racism, sexism, violence and motherhood. I mean, no big deal, right? Just that. What comes through strongest is Johnson’s powerful need to connect with people through her camera, whether it’s a random stranger on the street or her own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. One of my favorite scenes of the year: a shot of two children, one an elementary-school aged boy and the other a baby, playing with an axe; you can feel the agonizing tension between Johnson’s protective instinct to remove children from harm’s way and her compelling duty to keep filming the shot, and she audibly exhales when the baby finally wanders away. This is a remarkable film.