Saturday, February 6, 2010

this film must be loud!

Hi, gentle blog readers. Remember me? I'm not sure I remember me. This semester is a killer so far (unlike all those other semesters). But, rejoice; the most intense part will be over in just a few weeks and I will be back to telling you what cultural objects to consume on a more regular basis shortly.

Today's recommendation is the 1988 DEFA/ Dieter Schumann "rockreport" Whisper & SHOUT !

I may or may not be introducing this film at a public event tomorrow. Here is an adapted version of my hypothetical remarks:

Picture this: You open your eyes. You see a door. Unlike other doors you’ve seen recently, this one is covered with handwritten words and messages. You struggle to make out some of the words: Feeling B? Nicky? Landers? Die Geld? Suddenly, the door opens. A discordant sound is heard. A young man smiles, as though embarrassed, and looks to his left, then in front of him, as though at you. Then, someone you can’t see says, in German, “What are you doing? Do it again!” He re-enters the hallway and your gaze shifts to the stringed instrument hung in the doorway. He waves and says, “Hallo!” as the person you can’t see says, “That will do.” He dashes away again into his apartment. Suddenly you realize: This entrance isn’t authentic; it’s part of an artifice: the man exiting the door is planning to do it, and he’s planning to do it in order to demonstrate the guitar-as-door-chime set up. And someone you can’t see is in control of it all.

This disorienting strategy is the sequence with which Dieter Schumann opens whisper and SHOUT, his first feature-length film. The bold visual statement draws the viewers’ attention to the tension between artificiality and naturalism that exists in documentary film; in the first thirty seconds of the film, Schumann gets the viewer to question the authenticity of what he or she is seeing as well as bear witness to the process of creating the shot.
By leaving in his own voice, Schumann exposes the staged nature of the shot and his control over the set-up, yet he also retains the authenticity revealed by the man’s entrance not going as planned and his question to the person behind the camera. In just one shot, Schumann invites the viewer not just in through a door leading to the inner worlds of East German youth in the 1980s, or music of that time, but through the labyrinth of tensions and problems that exist for documentary filmmakers. Schumann uses a mixture of staged interviews and verité-style filming – that is, uninterfering and unstaged -- which many associate with D.A. Pennebaker’s music films such as Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968, with his partner, Chris Hegedus).
This combination of apparently authentic performance footage and sit-down interviews immerses the viewer in the East German music scene of the late 1980s – into a time, place, and scene that no longer exist. The combination of planned and “authentic” footage straddles the line between performance and reality, all within a film heavily concerned with performance itself. Without using commentary or providing framing informative intertitles (other than a few brief, non-invasive notations as to which band is performing), Schumann utilizes a sink-or-swim approach to throw the audience completely into this world, letting his subjects speak for themselves and make this world real for us. Bill Nichols wrote in his 1991 book Representing Reality that non-fiction, or documentary, films seek to show an audience the world, rather than a world. Certainly Schumann’s non-invasive style seeks to present to us the world of late 1980s GDR musicians and their fans, as authentically as he saw it (though, of course, his view, like any other, is subjective). Unlike Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a similar American film that sought to document 1980s-era subculture music audiences, Schumann seems respectful and even affectionate towards his subjects, laughing along with them and eliciting revealing and intimate insights.
At the time of Whisper and Shout’s first release in 1988, reviewers focused on the varying styles of the bands portrayed in the film, particularly on their attitudes towards success and fame. They also noted the perceived contrast between Silly, the most popular and successful group, and Feeling B, Chicorée and Sandow, who were less established. Noting that it was ostensibly the first feature-length DEFA film to concern itself with GDR rock, the reviews were at best tolerant of the rock-scene and at worst, somewhat contemptuous or condescending, both of the musicians and the fans. One may well ask, why watch this movie, other than for the amusing retro-spectacle of hair, synthesizers, and clothes? Is this anything more than an artifact of 1980s excess and long-dead youth culture?
More than twenty years on, the film’s concern with and documentation of styles and aesthetics that are now considered woefully obsolescent draws our attention to the fleetingness of so many aspects of our own lives: the concert or film screening that will end, spilling its audience back out into the street as mere individuals; the animal-print pants donated to charity in the dead of night; the hairstyle that quickly dates itself; the gadget sold at a yard sale; the records (or CD’s, or 8-tracks, or backed-up files) collecting dust. To a larger extent, knowing that this film was made in the last years of East Germany, it reminds us of the instability of our own culture.
Yet the film also captures some things that are unchanging and simply human: the eternal constant of enjoying something real, something live, as part of a group that then disperses, never to gather in the same manner again. The film demonstrates the simple joys of shared singing and dancing and stomping and clapping. whisper and SHOUT captures not just the unity and fractures among the youth in late 1980s East Germany, the last years before the Wall fell, but the exuberance and joy of youth, the exhilaration of a shared generational heritage, the naïve and hopeful dreams shared for the future. The optimism of the youths interviewed can seem almost heartbreaking when set in the context of world history, or perhaps even remind us the hopes and dreams of our own youths. At its core, this is a film about being young and about being part of something.

So for those reasons, today's recommendation is whisper and SHOUT. You can find out more about the film (as well as order a slightly-more-expensive DVD copy) at the UMASS DEFA site and their online store.


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