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This image released by Paramount Pictures shows William Fichtner (left), and Megan Fox in a scene from ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’. ‘TMNJ’ still topped US box office with an $28.4m in the second weekend. (AP)
‘A Fuller Life’ a loving tribute to filmmaker ‘Iron Ministry’ sensory documentary

For those absolutely convinced of the genius of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s “Leviathan,” along comes J.P. Sniadecki (“People’s Park”) with his sensory documentary “The Iron Ministry.” Sniadecki, co-director with Paravel on “Foreign Parts” and also a member of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, spent three years shooting on trains in China — old and new, congested and spacious. Designed as a broadly impressionistic vision of the ways the country’s vast railroad system is used, the pic is non-ideological and intermittently engrossing, catering to viewers especially drawn to this type of non-narrative docu filmmaking. Fests will naturally board.
The helmer, fluent in Mandarin, alternates between engaging with passengers and shooting what he sees in a closely observational style. Nothing is directly identified, neither locale nor timeframe, and the editing has no geographic logic. Instead, Sniadecki offers a formally controlled look at the range of classes, the implied changes wrought by China’s economic boom, and the interactions particular to train travel. Refreshingly, Sniadecki allows the film — or rather, some passengers — to engage in politics, from the rights of minorities to economic pressures. While cerebral in intent and planning, the pic doesn’t feel overly straitjacketed by theory and offers unexpected moments of amusement.
Sniadecki opens with shots of accordion-like connectors between train cars, lensed so closeup as to be abstract. The disorienting effect acts like the antithesis of Soviet glorifications of machine energy, in which every movement is a vital celebration of progress: Here, there’s a sense of aging infrastructure and outmoded technology, furthered by the next shot of a toilet bowl full of cigarette butts (several of Sniadecki’s trains have since been taken out of commission). Even more disconcerting is the image that follows, of raw calves’ livers hanging from a hook in a dirty passage by the car door. An expanded view of the compartment reveals a host of meats in a makeshift onboard butcher stall, a sight guaranteed to put most viewers off certain types of Chinese train travel.
The helmer alternates between these sorts of cramped, aging conveyances and sleek, modern carriages — it’s difficult to tell whether he’s imposed an editing scheme, or if the documentary has been put together more or less based on impressionistic sensations. Crowded, filthy train cars chock-a-block with people and possessions suddenly give way to clean, antiseptic ones where social contact is far more standoffish than it is among the communal, village-like scrum on regional lines. Attention wanes when Sniadecki spends too long trailing an official snack-cart vendor — viewers may feel the urge to anticipate the employee’s responses with their own “No, instant noodles are sold out,” and others will be wondering, “Are we there yet?”
Of greater interest are scenes in which Sniadecki observes interactions or becomes an active participant in conversations, as when a Hui Muslim heading for Shangrao chats with fellow passengers who sing the praises of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities (no, it’s not a joke). Elsewhere, a woman complains of low wages and long factory hours, while in a train near or in Tibet, a political activist talks about minor industrialists coming to Lhasa and making fortunes at the expense of locals. On yet another journey, young middle-class men express concern about the country’s environmental policies, and discuss the possibility of emigrating. Humor, often conspicuously absent in sensory ethnography docus, crops up occasionally, especially when a young boy in one of the better sleeper cars runs through an invented, and very funny, litany of dos and don’ts on trains.
Handheld visuals are fluid, almost freeform, yet very much aware of what is being kept in and out of the frame; long passages without even a glimpse of a window provide a claustrophobic feeling suitable to the jammed cars. The sensation of movement, and the jerky swaying of the trains, is also a constant, as is the noise of the tracks — for some a lullaby, for others inescapable clatter.
Sam Fuller’s daughter Samantha made a wise decision to utilize passages from her father’s autobiography as the soundtrack for her documentary “A Fuller Life.” Read aloud and with great feeling by actors and directors who admired and worked with him, these visceral, punchy sentences vividly conjure up an extraordinarily vital, fiercely engaged gestalt. But if the pic effectively evokes Fuller the man, it fails to do equal justice to Fuller the filmmaker, and its clip selections sometimes feel truncated and over-literal in their application. A loving tribute for those well versed in the Fuller canon, the doc may prove less revelatory than entertaining for neophytes.
There is something endearing about the sight of Samantha with her father’s rifle awkwardly slung over her shoulder as she pays affectionate homage to him in the film’s prologue; this hokiness feels infinitely preferable to the smudged resentments present in so many “daddy dearest” docus. Certainly, the recitation of Fuller’s pithy prose prevents the parade of guest stars from simply mouthing panegyrics (though a coda does include a light sprinkling of effusive encomiums).
Archival glimpses of New York in the 1920s; photos of Fuller first as a young copyboy, and then as a cocky fledgling crime reporter; and clips from his feisty turn-of-the-century newspaper yarn “Park Row” accompany passages read by James Franco (whose excuse for inclusion seems to be his sheer ubiquitousness) and Jennifer Beals. The latter starred as a photojournalist in Fuller’s last film, the rarely seen 1990 French TV movie “The Madonna and the Dragon,” a few shots of which are interpolated here.
The tone shifts radically in a section given enormous empathy by actor-director Bill Duke (star of Fuller’s penultimate film, 1989’s “Street of No Return”), as Fuller describes his experiences wandering across the US at the height of the Depression and his first shocking encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. The chapter, titled “Freelance,” is punctuated by clips from Fuller’s lunatic-asylum vision of America in “Shock Corridor” — namely, the extraordinary scene where Hari Rhodes, driven mad by his treatment as the first black student in an all-white Southern university, “invents” the KKK, his face contorted with hatred as he whips his fellow inmates into a frenzy, leading a race riot against a hapless black janitor who happens by. All-too-brief snippets from other Fuller films attest to his groundbreaking inclusion of blacks and Asians in important, even leading roles.
But the lion’s share of this orated autobiography concerns Fuller’s WWII adventures, the majority of the docu’s actors hailing from his long-dreamt-of magnum opus, 1980’s “The Big Red One.” Samantha supplements clips with a wealth of hitherto-unseen 16mm footage shot by Fuller as an infantryman/photographer assigned to map out the harrowing tableaux through which he passed, including stark shots of the Falkenau concentration camp that Fuller’s unit liberated, images from which indelibly haunt his later features. But this strictly biographical approach inevitably reduces Fuller’s most explosive imagery and innovatively jagged editing to mere anecdotal illustration. (RTRS)
By Jay Weissberg

By: Jay Weissberg

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