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Movie Review: 2009 Movie Of The Year: Civilization And Other Chimeras

Civilization and Other Chimeras

One of the great things about producing the Underground Film Journal is that it has introduced me to the work of underground filmmakers from all over the world that I would not have heard of otherwise. Sure, there are tons of fantastic, talented filmmakers in the U.S. whose work I love seeing and reviewing, but there’s something exciting — especially as someone who’s rarely ever traveled — about getting DVDs from foreign lands.

Also, I wrote on the site recently that I didn’t know what types of films could truly be called “innovative” these days. “Innovative” doesn’t automatically conjure up a stamp of quality, of course. Plus, this past year I’ve seen tons of films that have been uniquely creative and have pushed boundaries. Many of the films that ended up as runners-up to this year’s “Movie of the Year” have totally shown me something new or unexpected or extraordinary or exceptionally ambitious.

But the most “innovative” filmmaker I can think of this year is South Africa’s Aryan Kaganof, whose Civilization and Other Chimeras Observed During the Making of an Exceptionally Artistic Feature Film is the Underground Film Journal’s 2009 Movie of the Year.

Before I get into a discussion of Civilization and Other Chimeras — as I like to abbreviate the title — I do want to mention the first runner-up and five other strong contenders. As I say just about every year at this time, the Movie of the Year pick was a tough one with my choice narrowly gaining an edge over a film I’ve praised many, many times on the Underground Film Journal as it seemed to conquer the underground festival world: Modern Love Is Automatic directed by Zach Clark.

Modern Love Is Automatic has played at a ton of festivals this year and won several awards at the Arizona, Atlanta, Melbourne and Boston Underground Film Festivals. Actually, it was Boston who was kind enough to send me a copy for review. Hallelujah that they did! I love this film. It’s an hilarious film with a witty, dry humor about a bored nurse who becomes a bored dominatrix and her perky, wanna-be modelĀ  roommate. The film has a terrific and very funny and observant script by Clark; plus, a star-making, Actress of the Year performance by Melodie Sisk as the dominatrix. Oh, and the film has the best ending of any movie I’ve seen this year. If there’s a film I’ve reviewed that’s really deserving wider recognition and release, this is the one.

Now, here are the five other contenders in no particular order:

1. Zero Bridge, dir. Tariq Tapa. Quite possibly the most moving film I’ve seen all year.

2. The Beautiful and Damned, dir. Richard Wolstencroft. Australian filmmaker Wolstencroft wants his country to make great films again and he shows how it’s done with this ambitious modern-day update of a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

3. Every Other Day Is Halloween, dir. C.W. Prather. This documentary about horror TV host Count Gore De Vol will make you nostalgic for a life you’ve never experienced, but wish you had. To be released on DVD in 2010!

4. The Man Who Would Be Polka King, dir. John Mikulak and Joshua von Brown. Von Brown directed 2008’s Movie of the Year, Altamont Now, and he’s co-directed this insanely fun documentary you can’t believe is true.

On its surface, Civilization and Other Chimeras appears to be an extremely traditional film. Heck, not even a film really, but a typical making-of featurette you might see in the bonus features section of a DVD. Kaganof chronicles the making of artist Dick Tuinder’s directorial debut, the independent film Winterland.

But, it’s Kaganof’s approach to his subject that makes Civilization and Other Chimeras so beguiling, mesmerizing and innovative. Little is spelled out in the beginning of the film. We see Tuinder building his sets and setting up some shots well before we find out who the hell he is and what he’s up to, which is revealed when the director reads a newspaper article about himself.

The making of a film — any film that includes a cast and crew — is like creating a little temporary society. There’s a ruler, the director, and his subjects, all of whom in their respective roles toil away at a common goal. Kaganof starts from that standpoint and then attempts to draw out from all the members of this mock civilization their thoughts and concepts of both the society they have just joined and the entire nature of reality and consciousness.

Even though Civilization and Other Chimeras is all filmed reality, but the lines of what is real and what isn’t is constantly blurred without the viewer being aware of it. It isn’t until late in the film when the pieces of Kaganof’s puzzle fall into place when it at least becomes clear that Tuinder’s film includes segments of Tuinder acting as himself directing his actors. It’s like a slap in the face that much of what we’ve been witnessing and thought was real was all in fact just acting.

Who are the actors? And who are the characters in Tuinder’s film? Both actors and characters are thus transformed into characters in Kaganof’s film. Are any of these people, cast and crew, alike ever acting as themselves? In fact, when I first watched this film, I had no idea if Dick Tuinder was real person and if Winterland was a real film. Even after doing research on the artist, I still have my doubts if he, or anybody in Civilization and Other Chimeras, are “real” or if everybody was just acting in a fictional film being directed by Kaganof.

The way that Civilization and Other Chimeras continues to make me question my own notions of reality is the reason I’ve chosen it as my Movie of the Year for 2009.


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