Bay watch and the art of dying young

“Michael Bay really is a genius,” my aunt messages from Tuscany.

Amazingly, having retired from show business over 20 years ago, she is doing stunts in his new film, 6 Underground.

In one scene, she’s busy restoring antiques when (spoiler alert) “a car drives through the museum and kills us lol.” In another, she plays a nun happily riding a bike until a car screeches past knocking her into a ditch. Also look out for her playing a pedestrian nearly getting run over, a tourist nearly getting run over and a mother-in-law getting shot at a wedding.

When it comes to film, I suppose, “genius” comes in a range of guises.

Krzysztof Kieslowski was a genius at framing poignancy and exquisite beauty within austere reality. John Hughes was a genius at comedies about privileged white kids in suburban Illinois. Michael Bay is a genius at making critically-panned summer blockbusters in which stuff explodes, people die, and dialogue gets neglected.

With the TT Film Festival launching next week, local cinemas will once again be coerced (by corporate sponsorship more than an earnest commitment to supporting the arts) into screening films that provide scant revenue but a much-needed antidote to Bay’s huge-scale, cerebrally-lite work.

That is not to say that TTFF shows only brilliant films (it doesn’t) or that its independently-made, low-budget movies are morally superior to Bay’s US$150 million Netflix production – although arguably enlightening film audiences is of more value than giving them noisy death-laden accompaniments to their popcorn. But the potential for the festival to inspire future artists is critical.

How will TT produce intellectual thinkers and creatives if MovieTowne feeds children a diet of terrible American films? Our bookshops stock great works alongside Dan Brown novels, but our movie theatres screen nothing but trash with a tiny window of intellectualism in September.

Perhaps that dreaded word, intellectualism, is off-putting, but film festivals don’t have to strive solely for that. There is room for irony and humour.

Third Horizon, the Miami-based Caribbean and Latin American film festival (running September 27-30) features a “live commentary” screening of Steven Seagal’s Marked For Death. The film’s Jamaican drug gang and boss Screwface make it surely the most entertaining event of the festival. And that’s not a slight on the other films – including the magnificent Brixton-set documentary Being Blacker – just an admission that sometimes vacuous popcorn-fodder is more enjoyable than difficult, arthouse productions.

If it feels like I’m coming full-circle, that’s because I am. I’m not your quintessential film snob, despite my earlier Bay-baiting. While I adore arthouse, if I was stuck on a desert island and could only take one film, I’d take Home Alone over Three Colours Blue any day. Fun over existentialism yo.

Third Horizon’s programme director Jonathan Ali has personally recommended me more arty unremittingly bleak films than I care to remember. Recent examples include Cannes prize-winner 120 Beats Per Minute in which a young man dies of AIDS, very slowly, and a Colombian film called Land And Shade in which a young man dies, very slowly, of an illness caused by inhaling acrid smoke.

Just like Ali’s recommendation for TTFF, Cocote, from the Dominican Republic, both films revel in extended periods of silence punctuated by suffering.

Personally, I prefer some light relief while watching films in which people die slowly. Otherwise they might as well die fast, like in Michael Bay’s films.

Mixed Nuts on 105.1FM this week encouraged listeners to phone-in and shout-out films that made them cry. As callers listed weepies like The Colour Purple, Rain Man and ET, one prankster suggested Lemon Popsicle, a coming-of-age film set in rock’n’roll-era Tel Aviv. Things turned more surreal as host George Gonzalez gave a synopsis of Schindler’s List (“Liam Nielson is in Germany… it not an easy movie…”) and corrected a caller who claimed that the “fat lady” in The Poseidon Adventure was played by Shirley Temple.

The Poseidon Adventure gave me nightmares as a child, thanks to my grandmother’s habit of showing me films involving carnage. The Killing Fields and an ITV dramatisation of Jack The Ripper also come to mind. My aunt too delighted in exposing us to Midnight Express and Aliens. Both women were pivotal in kickstarting my love of film. And what their taste, compared to mine or Jonathan Ali’s or Michael Bay’s, shows is that film is universal. Unlike opera, literature or painting, we are all brought up on film and are all amateur critics.

But what unifies us can also divide. The same faces from Port of Spain’s art clique will attend TTFF 2018 as they do every year and mainstream audiences will stay away. One film that could unify, however, is the Ulric Cross biopic Hero.

Just like Green Days By The River last year, Hero, another big budget Caribbean film, has far-reaching potential to capture the imagination and lure a new generation of Trinidadians into the art of filmmaking.


"Bay watch and the art of dying young"

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