Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Go see 'The Future is Unwritten'

I recently did a review of this 2006 film (I guess it's a little late) but with Julien Temple recently announced to create the Kinks biopic, here's a little about his last movie about Joe Strummer.


Punk rock is not dead, no matter what the man tells you, and Julien Temple is punk rock. Temple's film stirs the same powerful forces that The Clash brought up with their music. At the same time there is what came before, remnants of childhood and our parents music. There's what we're doing now, what the government is doing and what our generation needs to know about it. There's where we're going, pushing the boundaries off what our preceding musicians and filmmakers created. And most importantly, he doesn't give a fuck what you think about it.

In Temple's film, he tells the story of Joe Strummer's life and death. He begins his story similar to films like Spellbound or Man on Wire by giving away the ending. The opening line: “In sad news, founding father of punk rock Joe Strummer died today.” I feel the reason for this is obvious. Temple is telling his audience here's what happened, now here's why you should care. He also is incredibly confident that you're going to care.

Throughout the film, Temple draws information from friends, family, and celebrities who were all influenced by Joe. He interviews people who the audience is intrigued by, and judiciously withholds the key conversations with little teases as to what's coming. We know right away that Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon were interviewed for his piece, but he's sure as hell not going to let us see his fellow warlord's until the end. We're strung along, allowing Johnny Depp or Bono to appease us with their personal encounters with The Clash as artists.

All the interviews are conducted near a campfire. The cinematographer dirties up the frame with sparks or flames in the foreground like we're sitting across, hanging out with these people, intimately. It isn't revealed till the end that this aesthetic is grounded in what Joe was all about. Part of the reason comes from it not being until later in his career that he realized it himself. It was the week he died that he drew a picture of a series of islands with their own little campfires, drawing the people in like moths, where everyone would sit as equals, encompassing inherent human myths like the Arthurian Round Table, and just be together. It's at the end we find out that by watching this movie, we helped make Joe's dream a reality.

The campfires also push Joe's wish to return to nature. Before becoming a legendary punk rocker, Joe lived in slums in London, with hippies packed like rats. As a child he was living in Turkey briefly, in a spiritual world. The classic hero's journey begins in the mundane reality before the hero is thrust into a special world, where he dives into the heart of it and returns to his ordinary existence changed. Temple masterfully turns this story on it's head with his pacing of Joe's life. He was born in a spiritual world in Turkey, he came to London and experienced his first threshold in poverty, clinging to his ideals from before. He enters the special world of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. He's beaten and bruised but emerges victorious, eventually returning to his spirituality a better man. Temple understood the journey would work in his film because it is the most human story there is.

In true punk fashion, Temple argues against politics and society today, even as he illustrates Joe's argument from the 70's. He uses clips from films like Animal Farm as propaganda. These films were originally lashing out at society at their inception, but this is now and what was once biting satire is as guilty of leading an audience as Triumph of the Will. Temple had managed to unearth hours of footage, but found exciting new ways using other media to fill in the gaps and make a new statement.

One of most revolutionary devices Temple used to recreate missing moments was to create new animation, as in Waltz with Bashir. While in Bashir, the stylistic choice stemmed from subjects not wishing to be filmed, Temple was unable to ask, since the events occurred thirty to forty years ago. Joe was always an artist, and before he had a guitar he had pen and paper. Temple took odd scribbled sketches, letters, and liner notes surviving from when Joe didn't have a camera available and animated them into short cartoons to illustrate his point.

The most obvious documentaries to compare Unwritten to would be other films about fellow musicians. Give 'em Enough Rope was released just months after Scorsese released The Last Waltz, and Sandinista! was released the same year The Talking Heads filmed Stop Making Sense across the pond. The Talking Heads were part of the same movement, playing similar venues and sharing an audience in the rebellious youth of the world. Scorsese even appears in Unwritten to discuss why how Joe changed his life with his music.

Yet despite all these similarities, there are huge disconnects. Temple couldn't make a concert film because the subject was broader than that. Not just because he set out to cover an entire career, but because punk screamed out to challenge authority and make a statement. The Talking Heads' music allowed an escape and entertained, while The Clash wouldn't let us forget what was happening to us and our downtrodden brothers around the world. Here we were poor, there they were dying, and no government was helping any of us. Scorsese idolized The Band and filmed them with smooth beautiful shots taken from large rigs to emphasize their unique gift of music. The Clash sang out from the common man and both Temple's original footage and the found footage stress that anyone can film from the crowd, no one is floating above us or telling us to forget our troubles.

To further stress this point, Temple carefully tells the story of the closest thing to a Clash reunion that happened in London in 2002. The Mescaleros were playing a benefit for the underpaid firefighters in order to achieve minimum wage. Temple carefully stresses through Jones' own words that it ended being the most appropriate way for Mick and Joe to again share a stage. Through new interviews with the firefighters about their plight, Temple subtly informs us that Joe fought for the common man until he died. He showed Joe trying to raise awareness for the problem at home as well as telling the reunion story we wanted.

The film ends with the last broadcast of his radio series, allowing Joe's own words to say goodnight. The clips also bookend the story, giving it an authoritative voice via the radio to inform us that it is authentic and representative, like how Micheal Moore uses clips from news to represent truth. Like Manda Balla, Temple made a movie about something that entertained but said something much deeper. The film is about the career of Joe Strummer on the outside, but also tells a deep struggle of strife and comradery between human beings everywhere. As an audience we are completely open to hearing Joe deliver the thesis: “People are out there doing bad things to each other. It's because their being dehumanized. It's time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring, and follow that for a time. Greed, it 'aint going anywhere, they should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you're nothing. That's my spiel.”

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