Notes from LFF: Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

If I Wish (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011) only obliquely situates itself within the context of the current global economic downturn, Dragonslayer does so in a much more overt fashion.

Or rather, hearing director Tristan Patterson discussing the project, the very first thing that he said was that his subject, bum-like, nearing middle-age skater dude Joshua ‘Skreech’ Sandoval, was an amazingly intriguing character given that he just skates through the world as around him everyone’s lives – in the USA at least – are turned upside down thanks to the post-crisis fallout and its effects on the man in the street.

Like the would-be rock star father in I Wish, Sandoval gets by doing what he can: he works as little as possible, he gets – seemingly minimal – sponsorship for his skating, he smokes (a lot) of weed, he drinks, he is friendly to all and sundry, and he travels (in whatever capacity he can).

Sandoval emerges as a figurehead of the not-so-much angry generation as the don’t-give-a-fuck generation. Let me be clear about what this ‘generation’ (if it is one) does not give a fuck. This generation seemingly does give a fuck about the world, as Sandoval’s insistent trips into nature to go camping and fishing suggest.

That about which Sandoval and others do not give a fuck is the current organisation of the human world. That is, questions of economics, perhaps also of politics, interest Sandoval, and presumably many more like him, so little, that he is just happy getting by in his own way as he can.

This position has a romanticism of its own: a middle-class viewer like me truly fears for Sandoval, as perhaps does he himself, when, come the film’s end, it is documented that he is now working (at least part-time) serving beer in a bowling alley. How can he survive, not least since he has a young infant in tow, on the bare minimum that he currently has?

But perhaps how is the wrong question, and a real reason to admire Sandoval. How is not important. The only important thing is that he will survive – no matter how hard the world is made for him as a result of the choices he has made so far (economic imprisonment based upon ‘economic crimes’ that are not illegal at all, but which will keep Sandoval from material wealth for as long as he lives unless either he changes or he breaks – miraculously – into Hollywood or some such).

Beyond Sandoval and some unanswered questions regarding his relationship to the film (his – perhaps unlikely and younger – girlfriend, Leslie Brown, starts going out with him during filming – and whether the presence of the cameras has anything to do with this is not explored; similarly, given his economic situation, one wonders whether the filmmakers had any performance money to give to Sandoval), the film is well shot.

Patterson and his cinemtographer, Eric Koretz, said that they did not want the film to look like a skater movie. Only it is hard not to look like a skater movie given the light qualities of southern California that play such an important part in skater culture (and which has been co-opted by Coke, etc).

It is furthermore hard not to look like a skater movie when the film features so many obligatory emptied swimming pools.

And yet, Koretz and Patterson are not using mobile fish-eyes (although they do use the indy rock soundtrack), and they are capturing blades of grass, fluffy toys hanging from rear view mirrors and the like.

In short, then, Dragonslayer cannot but be a skater film – but it also is, as implied by the discussion of Sandoval’s seeming ethos/philosophy above, an activist – or perhaps better, a comtemporary beat – film.

Beyond the cinematography, this is evoked most formally in the editing. The film has a schizoid feel thanks to its insistence on (Godard-style) cutting short musical segments before they can become the obligatory music video, and the often chaotic juxtaposition of impressionistic images. This all caged by an 11-chapter structure that runs from 10 down to 0 over the course of the film. 0.

L’œuf, the egg, or what tennis umpires call love.

Sandoval’s dream is to be the only person moving on a planet stilled in time. He can empty pools and skate, raid fridges, drive other people’s cars. Just go wherever he wants to (there is a strong emphasis in the film on Sandoval jumping over fences – the wilful making-common of an otherwise increasingly privatised terrain).

While Sandoval does say that in this fantasy world he’d make some people wake up to hang out with him (how would he choose?), his vision does sound more like a desire for solipsism, or to be the One in a planet full of otherwise disposable human beings.

But 1 always needs 0 (hence the digital image’s democratic possibility for 1+0). And it is pleasing that the film takes us to 0. Not because it favours annihilation over anything/everything. Not because this is a negative choice in comparison to the possibility of an additive world in which the numbers just get bigger and bigger.

But perhaps because 0 is the only way to get back to the ground and to extend a sophophily of love. Not the love of wisdom, but the wisdom of loving.

Sandoval is perhaps an anti-hero of our times. But in others he is just a plain hero. Even with his bowling alley job, the Quixotic elements seem to remain as he takes a hit from the bong on the way to work.

We don’t all need to be dope smoking stoner skater dudes. That surely cannot be the message here. But the message clearly is: we must have the courage, the love of ourselves and of others, to go forward into the world in a fearless fashion. To be ourselves.

The self is a performance, no doubt about it. But it is a performance into which one injects one’s heart and soul, hence its courageous nature. Nothing disingenuous here.

Indeed, one of Sandoval’s friends, a total stoner who seems barely coherent, speaks of reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza here emerges as a great reference point for the film. For Spinoza argues (in my reading of him at least) that if truly we become ourselves, we cannot but love others and the world that surrounds us.

You can Occupy wherever you like. But the success of this movement can only begin with the occupying of oneself with oneself, filling oneself up with one’s own understanding and vision of the world, such that it can only spill over into the commons with love and respect.