Saturday, November 30, 2013

'This Ain't California' (2013) directed by Martin Perseil

This Ain't California is an onion. Slice into it you reveal layer upon layer. Also it might make you cry.  It looks and behaves like a documentary yet has little or no interest in presenting an objective truth.  It purports to tell the story of a man who rebelled and then was consumed by the system, but then it turns out this man might not have existed at all.  Jean-Luc Godard famously said "film is truth 24 times a second", but This Ain't California lies its arse off 24 times a second.  Is that such a bad thing?

The film purports to tell the story of the East German skateboarding scene. It begins with children first glimpsing a skateboarder on television, and ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.  The focus of the film is the adolescence and young adulthood in the 1980s of a group of East German boysy.   We meet them in the modern day, reuniting after the funeral of their mutual friend - the nucleus of the group.  They sit, middle-aged and maudlin, in the ruins of their old skate park, reminiscing about dead friends, the skateboarding scene and their lost, exhilarating youth, of which aall that remains is a handful of scratchy 8mm tape, rotten wood, rusty wheels and a boxful of photographs.

Middle-aged friends getting together after a while after the funeral of the dynamic centre of the group set to a soundtrack of music they listened to as kids?  Hey wait a damn minute - this is The Big Chill!  The two films recall very different times; The Big Chill focused on the failure of the 1960s radical movement; This Ain't California about East German skateboarders, but thematically they're near identical - a wistful glance back over the shoulder of middle-age towards a carefree youth.

In The Big Chill the motivational corpse is the briefly glimpsed Alex.  In This Ain't California it's Denis 'Panik' Paraceck.  His story is fascinating: as a kid his sports-obsessed father tried to beat him into an Olympic swimmer.  Panik rebelled, quitting swimming mid-race, running away from home and becoming a full-time punk-rock skater.  He's the wildest and most sexually dynamic person around, a crazy spinning top bouncing off authority, his friends and the starkly Brutalist concrete walls and floors of pre-unification East Germany.  Panik looks entirely possessed by the spirit of punk-rock, from the bottom of his beat-up skateboard to the tips of his bleach blonde spiky hair.  So how did this embodiment of anti-authoritarianism die?  Heroin overdose in a grimy squat?  Shanked in a prison by Neo-Nazi thugs?  Perhaps some bizarre skateboarding accident?  Nope - shot in a firefight in Afghanistan as a top soldier in the Bundeswehr.

Wait, what?!  This is the paradox that the film tries to answer, how can someone who so vigorously bucked authority come to embody it so completely?  Whatever the answer it's a fascinating story, the kind so bizarre it just has to be true.  But it's not true.  Panik is a fictional character played by a male model, photoshopped into archive footage, created whole-cloth from the director's imagination.  Further muddying the waters is that this isn't some twist at the end of the film: if you watched This Ain't California in isolation you'd assume it was all true.

As Johnny Rotten said, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"  People have gotten awfully upset about this deception, berating the director for polluting the virgin journalistic soil of what constitutes a documentary film.  On some level this anger is understandable - no-one wants to feel like a chump.  But then I guess it's to the film's credit that the illusion of truthfulness is so seamlessly constructed.  The fashions, street furniture and behaviour is so convincing that you just buy into it without thinking; the closest I came to genuine doubt was marvelling that the footage, supposedly created by 11 or 12 year old boys was suspiciously well-shot, though I just chalked this down to precocious talent.

Panik - current status fictional.

Why the deliberate deception?  A nice amount of textual friction is generated from the paradox of exploring skateboarding/punk-rock - a subculture obsessed with intangible 'authenticity' through the medium of a big fat lie.  Documentarian and director Werner Herzog, frequently refers a concept of 'ecstatic truth' when explaining his motivation when creating a documentary.  From Herzog's point of view, the documentarian's task isn't merely to present unvarnished fact - what he refers to as "a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants" - but to put on screen the irreducible truth of something, even if you have to re-orchestrate, script and intensively rehearse to recreate it.  Herzog (and apparently Perseil) don't think "am I telling the truth?" but rather "is what I'm putting on screen true?".

The distinction is a fine but important one.  Does it really matter that Panik didn't exist if his story tells something true about life as a young skateboarder in East Germany?  There's a decent argument that exploring this world of censorship, propaganda and government regulation through the medium of fibs is entirely appropriate.  After all, the primary weapon of the East German government against its citizens wasn't guns or bombs, but rather an all-encompassing 'Big Lie' that infiltrated every aspect of public and private life. 

After all these layers of deception, truth, history and politics have been peeled away, what remains? This Ain't California is, at about 90 minutes long, a pretty fast-paced watch. Perseil has a good handle on keeping up momentum, stocking the film with dynamic, skateboard mounted camera shots, fake and real stock footage and some very stylish black and white animation.  There are a few too many montages for my tastes, watching people pull tricks to generic skate-punk tracks gets a bit old, by the third one late in the film you you just want to find out how the story ends.  

It's difficult to pin down what kind of beast This Ain't California is - it obviously doesn't count as documentary, it's far from a parodic mockumentary and it isn't exactly drama either.  It's a cinematic chimera, difficult to classify and worth watching, yet somewhat standoffish about it's motivations.  It clearly wants to prove something, but what that something is remains mysterious as the final curtain falls.


This Ain't California is on limited release from 6 December

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