Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Overcoming Dogphobia, Volume One.

Of the various deviations from mental normalcy that I have - whatever that is - one of the more tedious and socially debilitating is an acute fear of dogs. I don't know where this fear started, though I expect that stories about pit bulls killing people hitting the papers around the time CUJO was on repeat play on cable had a big part to play.

I should clarify: I don't fear all dogs. If it's small enough that I could keep its mouth closed with one hand, I'm fine. It's when they're big enough that they might suddenly, unexpectedly lunge at your throat and tear it out (which is typically what I imagine happening) that problems arise. I have met big dogs that I come to trust (like a friend's old arthitic German shepherd - catlike in disposition, could barely walk) but they are few and far between. Most are the enemy.

So I cross the street when I see a big dog, even if they're on a leash. I take alternate entrances into supermarkets if there's a dog tied up in front of one of them. I avoid visiting friends who have large dogs. I freak out when people bring their dogs to work.

Of late, I've had a spate of experiences where I've had to confront this fear, above and beyond the average. I had a brief relationship with a woman who was crazy about dogs, and would sing their praises, and show me pictures of "cute" (gigantic, huge, fucking scary) dogs. I had a co-worker habitually bring his dog (a dog I, and nobody else, found quite threatening) to work. I went to a recording session, and a dog was there. I came home about two months ago to a visiting large dog in our living room (note: when I say "large", I generally refer to any dog who can gnaw my testicles off whilst remaining on all fours), and immediately had to flee the house (not the room, but the house) for the remainder of the night. That hasn't been a problem for the last six weeks, because I've been living in Dunedin, but I passed up an accommodation in town for a farther, less convenient one because the close-in had a dog. Somehow, nobody managed to mention that the farther afield one had not one but two dogs on the property - bulldogs, at that. Thankfully, I could avoid them most of the time, and did. But it was stressful, and a pain in the ass, and embarrassing.

For these and other reasons, I've decided that this is a fear I need to conquer. There's social inconveniences, of course, but also, the effects of stress. Without boring you too deeply with health shit that depending on your world view sounds more or less scary than it is, I've had some indications of elevated liver enzymes of late, which are correlated not just with alcohol use and other dietary stressors (refined carbohydraftes, like white flour and sugar, are big ones) but with stress itself. The stress response I have when there's a big dog near me - which is almost every day, one way or another - is putting unnecessary stress on my body, and while I won't pretend that all of my health problems are dog-related, every little bit helps.

Can I change? I hope so. I have to believe so. I've spent a lot of time reading neuroscience lately, and while I wouldn't class myself anything more than a blowhard overconfident amateur in the field, it is clear that the brain can and does rewire itself into adulthood. Becoming aware of core, underlying beliefs, then replacing them with realistic but saner beliefs, is a process that can hopefully get rid of my dogphobia. And this is a phobia that might be quite ripe for this sort of attack, because unlike a lot of fears that people have, this isn't rooted in self-image, but exclusively in the perception of how an animal might behave. (I certainly don't think that dogs are going to attack me because I'm a bad person. [Should I?])

Of course, the main thing that supports a new belief is experience. So I'm going through what a friend calls "dog training". Which is the process of finding low stress ways of having interactions with dogs that end with my throat intact, undermining old beliefs and reifying new ones. Apart from hanging out with friends with dogs, I find that photographing dogs that are safely tied up outside stores or what have you is a good distancing tool. If I'm thinking of the frame and hoping the dog stays still at the right angle long enough for a good picture, I'm not thinking that I need to run.

More than one of my friends has suggested that, perhaps, this is all a bit unnecessary. "You don't like dogs; that's who you are", goes the argument. And in many ways, it would be easier to just leave it at that then spend the next few years (so goes my understanding of how long it's likely to take) going through this. In the short term, it would probably be less stressful: I spent 5 minutes Saturday with a 38 kg puppy and could feel the adrenalin shaking through me more than an hour later.

But, ultimately: I need to know that I can change. Because, at the risk of expanding well outside the scope of the "dogs are/aren't scary/dangerous" question, no small part of me places what hope I do have for the world in the belief that we can overcome our limiting beliefs, not through prayer, not through "being true to yourself", not through the motherfucking Secret, but by hard, focused work.

And so: this is where I put my money where my mouth is.

I'll update in six months or so, unless anything particularly interesting happens in the interim. In the meantime, if you have any tips for overcoming dogphobia, feel free to share.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

NZFF 2012: Some Films I'd Like To See. (You might, too.)

Truth in advertising: I briefly contemplated skipping this year's festival. Last time was an all-time low for me, not in terms of the movies (sterling selection, as always), but in terms of the insufferable audience. My worst memories are a three-way tie between the person who took a call during the opening to ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL, the fellow behind who began ridiculing ELENA during its opening shot, and the combination of the three sets of seniors around me who talked through NOSFERATU and the entire audience, who seemed under the illusion that it was a comedy. (Special mention to the woman who packed a three-course lunch in crinkly plastic bags to eat during THE TURIN HORSE.) 

I ended the festival broken, worn-out, and above all, dispirited, not even using my final ticket to PINA. And recent trips to the cinema (and, for that matter, the theatre) have left me convinced that audience behaviour is on a permanent downward spiral, one that can be stemmed with the use of tasers. Sadly, that's illegal.

But: the siren call every year is irresistible. There are two social rituals that bind me together with my filmgoing friends every year, the 24 Hour Movie Marathon and this. Whilst the former is a self-selected subset going through a sprint, the latter is like a sprawling 2-week plus family reunion, friends I haven't seen since last year bumping up against close friends as we compare notes, share enthusiasm, and generally celebrate a bounty of riches. 

And it is, as always, a bounty of riches. There's no event that even comes close in NZFF to catching the breadth, depth, and scope of film titles, with something for all tastes. While this can lead to an expensive proposition and/or scheduling trainwreck for those of us like me with sprawling tastes, it's also testament to the fantastic job that they do. Some fests claim there's something for everybody; the NZFF is the real deal. And, as long as I care about seeing film in cinemas, it is the very definition of a can't-miss event. 

So I'll practice my meditation and deep breathing exercises, get aisle seats so I can escape talkers who are infuriating me, and go, once more, into the breach.

The biggest problem is: what to see?

Herewith, 10 films, maybe my most recommended, maybe just the ones I had something to say about, intermittently supplemented with relevant quotes from the program. I'll see them all, along with many others. 


This is the only new-release film that I've seen in this year's festival (and, before you ask, I saw it legally - last year at Fantastic Fest - FUCK downloading films before they've had a chance to screen in New Zealand in my opinion, about which more shortly). I will nonetheless be using valuable fest time/money to see it again. Why? Because I love to laugh. I expect two things of a good comedy: that you laugh hard, and you laugh often. These are surprisingly challenging criteria to fill, but KLOWN delivered both in spades. (Offensive spades.) One could discuss how it's a crisis of masculinity for its two leads as they flounder through continual embarrassments, or discuss the integration of real Danish celebrities a la CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jorgen Leth is here, for fans of THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, as well as actress Iben Hjejle of HIGH FIDELITY and THE BOSS OF IT ALL fame, amongst a coterie of unfamiliar-to-me Danish faces). But that would distract from the main message: KLOWN is a non-stop riot, and the few times it seems to be veering into a heartwarming betrayal of its core principles, rest assured that's only so it can get maximum effect from the follow-up comedic sucker punch. 


Everyone knows what this is, I think. (Joss Whedon-scripted deconstructionist horror film, critically lauded, etc.) But the other thing this has turned into, weirdly, is a cause. Unexpectedly doomed for home video after mediocre stateside performance, genre fans (including myself) loudly rebelled on the social medias. Thanks in part to said outrage (perhaps? - the inner workings are unknown to me), we now have a Civic screening. Distributors believe that horror movies don't have the support of a theatrical audience in NZ, and that genre fans are more likely to illegally download horror films than leave the house and watch them. This is our chance to prove this theory wrong. I for one love watching a great horror film with an appreciative audience, and if this one doesn't get the turnout, we may not get many more chances. So show the fuck up, or if you illegally downloaded it (as some bragged they would do when it seemed destined to avoid theatres), at least buy a bloody ticket to cast your vote for more horror on the big screen. Or don't complain and act surprised when you don't get it. 


Whee! Off the soapbox. I could list films from the Incredibly Strange section for this entire list (as both 1 and 2 are), but want to share the love. SLEEPLESS NIGHT, though, could quite possibly have been programmed in that section - it was one of the hits at Fantastic Fest ("DIE HARD in a nightclub", goes the pitch) last year. Nonstop action from the French that's gotten love from genre fans and cinephiles alike, and for me an action film is always a welcome treat at the NZFF, since it's usually going to be good, and a break from other, more demanding fare. 


And speaking of demanding fare. Michael Haneke is one of my favorite filmmakers, a spare, arguably sadistic Austrian whose last turn on the Civic screen that I saw (with 2004's HIDDEN - I missed FUNNY GAMES USA) had 2000 people flinching in unison at a key scene, and bitter arguments breaking out upon its conclusion. One might be led to assume the title of his new film implied a sick joke a la Todd Solondz's HAPPINESS, but no, it is a story of love - albeit involving an elderly couple, with the inevitable breakdowns and failures of the body implied therein. Why I seek out films that I know will be emotionally devastating, I have no idea, but if you suffer from the same ailment, here you go. 


This should probably be my #1, as it's easily my most anticipated film. Leos Carax directed my favorite live action scene of all time in his film MAUVAIS SANG, as a young Denis Lavant runs down the street whilst David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays. To say that description does not do it justice is an understatement. Anyway, Carax has been away for far too long (apart from a section in TOKYO!, which I've somehow missed) and has returned to work with Denis Lavant (who is, if nothing else, the best physical actor I know - see not just MAUVAIS SANG but the heartbreaking end of BEAU TRAVAIL) to make by what all accounts is a gleefully out-of-control ode to the possibilities of cinema. If you're not convinced, watch the trailer, which I hear is convincing people they have to see it. As for me, I refuse to watch a frame in advance. I love for films to astonish me, and no film has a better chance to do so than this one. 


There are several acclaimed films from the Berlin Film Festival I'm excited to see (most notably BARBARA and SISTER), but TABU is the one that's garnered the most love and for which I'm most excited. A throwback to the days of 50s cinema, this glowing black and white film evokes such phrases as "swoon", "rapture", "guileless", and "cinematic playfulness" from those who've seen it. It sounds like a film to get lost in, and I love those. 


Sometimes, the films I'm most eager to encourage others to see are the ones I can speak least coherently about. Such is the case with THE LONELIEST PLANET, which has met with such a groundswell of admiration from everybody that I know who's seen it that I expect it will be the word of mouth hit of the festival. The problem, such as it is, is that apparently much of its impact derives from an inciting incident which no one will discuss - namely, whatever it is that happens whilst the couple we're following and the guide they're with are on a backpacking trip. What I do know is that Julia Loktev more than ably proved herself as a filmmaker to watch with DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT, her previous film, an intense and rigourous portrait of a suicide bomber preparing to detonate herself in New York City. I doubt this will get a return visit, so see this one now or regret it later. 


Ah, "slow cinema". I can pretty much evenly distribute my festival friends on a spectrum from "despise the very concept" to "plan their festival around this section". As for me, some of my favorite NZFF films ever have been slow cinema (THE TURIN HORSE and AITA from last year), while conversely, HONOUR OF THE KNIGHTS remains my only festival walkout*. Anyway, I'd love to see everything in this section to give it a go, knowing full well that I'll love some and hate others, but realities being what they are, I'm focusing on getting along to this Kazakh film, "a retelling of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT without the policeman", which has quietly been gaining a coterie of ardent admirers that I trust. 


I like to get along to a couple dramas each year that I know next-to-nothing about, on very simple grounds: the less heralded something is, the more likely it's been chosen not because it will get viewers along, but because it's special. (Previous films to prove this principle include LONGING, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST, and the aforementioned AITA.) I hadn't heard word one about THE WALL, a drama about "a woman suddenly and mysteriously separated from the rest of humanity by an invisible wall", the sort of magical realist premise for which I'm a sucker. Apparently most of the action takes place alone in an Austrian alpine landscape. I can already tell 90% of you have moved on; see the other 10% of you there. 


In some ways, I wish the New Zealand local section of the film festival ran as a separate festival. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to prioritize international films, and thus often miss out on local films due to screening conflicts, lack of funds, et cetera. I'm sure (as with most years) I'll miss many great local films this year, but I won't be missing HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, in part because co-director (along with Miriam Smith) Christopher Pryor is a Facebook friend (met him a few times, lovely guy, haven't seen him for years, doubt he'd recognize me) but largely because he's proven himself to be a terrific cinematographer in his work on Florian Habicht's films, and by all accounts his depiction of a convent on the Whanganui River which may be well past its useful life is visually ravishing. 

A baker's dozen runner-ups for this list, briefly:

* Bad boy Japanese director Sion Sono (of LOVE EXPOSURE and COLD FISH) fame is back with HIMIZU, a teen-rage drama set in the aftermath of the tsunami ... 
* Paolo Sorrentino, director of this year's Auckland Film Society smash (and one of my favorite films of all time) THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE, returns with THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, featuring Sean Penn as a Robert Smith-styled Nazi hunter, destined to either be the masterpiece or disasterpiece of the festival, but guaranteed to be an experience ...
* Festival mainstay and personal favorite, Korea's Hong Sang Soo, teams up with actress Isabelle Huppert for another film with a repetitive structure focusing on the foibles of drunken romantic longing, this one being called IN ANOTHER COUNTRY, sure once again to be a favorite of mine and nobody else ... 
* NEIGHBOURING SOUNDS has won many accolades since Rotterdam, particularly from those addicted to form over story in cinema (like myself) ... 
* Fresh to the fest circuit is VULGARIA, a new comedy from Hong Kong troublemaker Pang Ho-Cheung (whose DREAM HOME was a hit of the fest for me in 2010) that we've been promised is "deliriously offensive" ...
* GERHARD RICHTER PAINTING does what it says on the box, and since he's my favorite painter, that's plenty - that it does it well, by all accounts, is a bonus that may lure in those on the fence ... 
* BUG was a late-period high water mark of insanity from William Friedkin, and he's re-teaming with writer Tracy Letts for KILLER JOE, which promises to be one of the sleaziest good/bad times at this year's festival ... 
* ROOM 237 is an accounting of conspiracy theories involving THE SHINING (which itself is also screening) and sounds like an involving trip down the spider-web of insanity ... 
* SIGHTSEERS brings back Ben Wheatley, who threw a mind grenade into last year's festival with KILL LIST, and now takes his patented improv/genre hybrid style into NATURAL BORN KILLERS territory, the result having received raves and laughs at Cannes ...
* FROM UP ON POPPY HILL promises a gentle bucolic outing into 1960's Tokyo from the folks at Studio Ghibli, whose hand-drawn style is increasingly a distinctly retro, rare pleasure ... 
* V/H/S brings back Ti West (whose THE INNKEEPERS was a fest highlight last year) with several other directors in this horror anthology that creeped the hell out of Sundance audiences ...
* MOONRISE KINGDOM is the new Wes Anderson film, is by most accounts one of his best if not his best, what else do you need to know? ...
* ... and CRAZY HORSE isn't just an excuse to look at strippers for 2 hours, being yet another documentary from our greatest living practitioner of verite filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman, whose BOXING GYM was a quiet highlight of last year's fest for me. (But it does win for most perplexingly sexy still in the program.)

And, finally, five films I feel no particular draw to, but have been recommended to me loudly on Twitter, so may wind up seeing: BORN TO STAY, MONSEIUR LAZHAR, CAESAR MUST DIE, OUR CHILDREN, and SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN.

So: what am I missing? And did I convince you to see anything, or is this an exercise in self-indulgence? *Edited to note: actually, this isn't true. I walked out of THE WOMAN as well. Also modified the above to remove the erroneous assertation that Pang Ho-Cheung directed REVENGE: A LOVE STORY; instead, it was merely from the same production company as DREAM HOME.