Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Produced by: Manuel V. Oteyza
Screenplay by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Music by: Jeff Beal
Cinematography by: Jonathan Ingalls
Editing by: Eli Despres
Studio(s): CNN Films
Manny O. Productions
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures (United States, theatrical)
CNN (United States, television)
Dogwoof Pictures (United Kingdom)
Release date(s): January 19, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)
July 19, 2013 (United States)
July 26, 2013 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 83 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: N/A
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $1, 638, 411
So, here begins the second of my two paragraphs spiel's before I get down to having a look at Maniac. I'm on a roll here, so I'm gonna try and keep ploughing forward. I may be going on autopilot, given that I've just had a good bit of work and for the next five-six weeks there's only gonna be more of the same, but the fact is I just like to keep myself busy, even if it involves the occasional masochistic act, such as spending an hour's worth of wages going to see Grown Ups 2. If he proves me wrong, I'll take back all my nasty comments, but if I'm proven right, I expect Adam Sandler to teabag me, with a bit of Kevin James on the side. So, for my garbles about my yarbles, keep your eyes posted!
Today's film under the knife is Blackfish, a new documentary that has been released near simultaneously in cinemas and on home video (only yesterday I saw the film in the new releases section at Head Records on May Street), and is another recent example of a documentary making a stir in terms of it's subject matter. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film focuses on the story of the killer whale Tilikum's captivity, using the death of the whale's trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, which SeaWorld claimed was due to her wearing a ponytail, as the starting point, and like many a film beginning at the end, backtracks to the central point of development of the tale. Apart from a Queens Film Theatre poster describing this as something along the lines of the "most powerful film about man and nature since Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man"(QFT has a tendency to overhype the film's they exhibit on occasion) and the fact that my friend is a big fan of the documentary medium, I went in to the picture more or less blank without knowing what I was in for. Shall we dance?
Starting with the good, earlier on I mentioned the structure as beginning at the end, and indeed, in this film I find a lot of similarities with the narrative structure of Citizen Kane, in a good way, of course. Going back to Tilikum's capture off the coast of Iceland in 1983 is not dissimilar to the scene in Orson Welles' masterpiece when little Charlie Kane is taken from his parents' home by Walter P. Thatcher. Also, the fact that we never get to hear Tilikum's view on the proceedings (not by choice) mirrors how we are kept in the dark regarding the mystery of Charles Foster Kane. Perhaps the comparison does not seem relevant to the film, but my point is that structurally, although by no means original, we are getting just about every viewpoint possible on the scheme of things. Now, I've mentioned in the past a quote that I had read mentioned that the word documentary has of late become synonymous with polemical, and while a lot of polemical documentaries are rather uninventive and propagandistic (that's why The Act Of Killing was such a breath of fresh air), the fact remains that more or less everyone interviewed in this film condemns the practices involved in this multi-million dollar franchise. Even polemics tend to have a (albeit uneven) quota to fulfil with regards to the pretence of presenting their work as objective: EVERYTHING here is condemnatory, and to see this in a documentary, as opposed to the two sides arguing with one another, is quite unique. Furthermore, to back up this point, it is a meticulously researched film. The interview subjects cover every aspect of the story, and it's not just like Cowperthwaite has went out and got a couple of talking heads to do retrospective analyses, but has instead managed to interview people who have been involved in whaling, former SeaWorld trainers, members of the Occupational Safety and Health Association, who sued SeaWorld following the death of Dawn Brancheau, etc etc. This research which leads to near-universal condemnatory is intelligently interspersed with advertisements by SeaWorld which, although I've never seen before and thus don't have a context to put them in outside of this, border on the ridiculous, with killer whales flying in the air through rollercoasters and what not. SeaWorld declined to participate in the film, and I suppose this is the filmmakers' way to compensate for their lack of an official voice, but the use of these absurd advertisements acts as a sort of cheeky jab at SeaWorld's marketing quota as being a safe, family-friendly environment. I think that like Beware Of Mr. Baker from two months ago, much of the strength of the film relies on the basis of the subject matter. However, this is even more so the case here, and Cowperthwaite does a fine job in depicting some of the outright corruption involved with SeaWorld and various other organisations involved in the captivity of animals. There are some genuinely moving moments in which you just realise the tragic circumstances in which these whales are living and the pain and suffering that they are going through. In particular, there is a harrowing scene when a female orca has had it's calf taken from her (SeaWorld have agreed to the transfer of the calf to another resort), and the interviewees talk of how the mother was making noises that had never been heard out of a whale, and it was concluded (perhaps anthropomorphism had a part?) that she was calling out to her calf over a long distance a la echolocation. It's a heartbreaking moment in a movie that, although only eighty-three minutes, pushes your buttons and makes you think about what you are being told.
Now, for what I did like about the movie, and I must say, I did think it was a great film, there are some problems with the film that deny it from the status of a masterpiece like, say, The Act Of Killing. For starters, unlike said film, although I do think the Kane-esque narrative structure is interesting, the methodology of the film is relatively uninventive and dull. For most it's running time, it consists of talking heads, talking heads talking over archive footage, talking heads talking over talking heads etc etc., which is why the occasional SeaWorld advertisement brought a bit of levity to the proceedings and gave the film a personality outside of the subject. Whereas Beware Of Mr. Baker was too multimodal for it's own good, Blackfish had too little in that regard. Also, as far as the story it tells, as important as it is to highlight such monstrous behaviour, there is nothing new being told here. Although it is a well-told story regardless, it does at times feel like a rehash of the old man-versus-nature/animal-in-man arguments that we have seen in countless documentaries before.
Those issues that I had with the relatively uninventive methodology, lack of a unique identity outside of the subject and it being, in essence, a bit of a rehash of old ideas, Blackfish is still a great film. The narrative structure is strong (and akin to that of Citizen Kane), the lack of objectivity and the fact that EVERYONE outright condemns the SeaWorld practices, the meticulous research and the fact that the subjects themselves provide for a more harrowing and poignant argument than any amount of talking heads could ensure that Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film never teeters off the rails into the same dark waters of most polemical documentaries. It's a strong eighty-three minute thought provokers that pushes your buttons and, while acting almost as a genre thriller, makes you think about what you are being told.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.1/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Wetting myself (Jackie Stallone and Frank Stallone on Howard Stern is hilarious!)