Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Queen of Versailles and Neil Young Journeys

A strong frontrunner for documentary of the year-and the film of the year, for that matter-is Lauren Greenfield's sprawling, exceptionally observed "The Queen of Versailles." Greenfield looks at flawed systems, unruly ambitions, and devastating collapses. Of all films that I've seen so far about the 2008 Economic Crisis, this one struck the deepest chord with me. Working with about as much access as a documentarian can have with her subjects, she doesn't have to take as broad of a viewpoint in her editing and presentation that a less-privy filmmaker would have. I'm sure there's footage we didn't see, but what's captured here seems to show a family on the breaking point who essentially lets everything (their money, dignity, community) start to fall apart.

The film, based around two sets of interviews two or so years apart, seems to have originally intended to be a monument to the continuing success and megalomania of David Siegel and his titular wife Jackie. David was "smitten" with Jackie, and plucked her out of her Miss America stardom to fall into a loveless union. The two had seven children, but David, when asked if he "gets strength from his marriage," bluntly says no. He's way too absorbed in his work, at the top of the largest timeshare company in the world, which shoots too far even if its not-entirely-fair way of conducting business seems like it could never fall apart. Everyone seems pretty oblivious to the idea that building a super-mega-mansion based on a French palace that's destined to be the biggest in the United States might not be the most sensible thing to do. But these people are seriously deluded, shaken by their upbringings, and it may take a few generations for this line to normalize.

Like all great documentaries and films, "The Queen of Versailles" has startling implications. Greenfield doesn't stop at just looking at these two people (who are among the most interesting figures in non-fiction filmmaking in some time), she looks at all the people who they touched over time and finds some fascinating ironies at both ends of the wealth spectrum. I don't really know what more one could want from an investigative documentary. A

In terms of documentary technique, Jonathan Demme's third Neil Young film (after "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and "Neil Young Trunk Show," neither of which I've seen) is much less accomplished than Greenfield's. That being said, "Neil Young Journeys" is a great time and provides an opportunity for reflection on the new works of the aging (and, to me, better now) Young. Drawing primarily from the 2010 album "Le Noise" (though fans of his old material will be at least partially appeased), Young gives a strong 2011 show at Massey Hall in Toronto. And, though Demme at times seems to be running out of ideas and drifting into inconsistency, the camera placement and cinematography for the most part helps create the right, often hypnotic, moods for the songs. Spliced in are weird anecdotes from Young following his brother Bob drive around through towns in Ontario. Juvenile stuff, which strikes a sharp contrast against the grace and maturity of many of Young's songs. I'm a casual Young fan, at times annoyed by his voice, but I was drawn in and continually arrested by his greatness as a guitarist and songwriter. He has his stumbles, but he's remarkable, and an uncommon force even without a backing band. Now Jeff Tweedy's current tour wardrobe seems more decipherable. B+

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