Man vs. machine: CMU Film Fest battles with technology

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Faces of Mechanization, the 2008 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival, opens Friday and runs through April 15.

Movies, ranging from Polish art films and German documentaries to Argentinian film noir, explore the questions: How does technology affect the food we eat, the blue jeans we buy, the Mardi Gras beads we sling around our necks, even the children we have and the way we live and think?

Here are capsule reviews of a sampling of movies playing during the first week of the festival:

'La Antena'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

In the futuristic year XX, people of La Ciudad sin Voz (the City Without a Voice) live bleak, wintry lives under the despotic rule of Mr. TV, a totalitarian capitalist who has monopolized all spoken words and images -- and literally taken away everyone else's voice. While everybody eats his one-and-only brand of cereal ("TV-Food"), he's working on a hypnotizing device to further regulate their minds. For that nefarious purpose, Mr. TV must kidnap the remaining person outside his control, a chanteuse named -- what else? -- La Voz.

She has a beautiful voice, but no face. Her young son has a beautiful face, but no eyes.

Talk about issues.

"La Antena" (The Aerial) is Argentine director Esteban Sapir's gloriously wild homage to silent-film aesthetics in general, German expressionism in particular. With title cards instead of dialogue, it's a black-and-white kaleidoscope of visual imagery and symbolic frame composition. Histrionic acting matches '20s stylistic storytelling.

As if the rich devices of silent cinema weren't enough, Sapir adds his own inventive typographic and animation techniques. People talk in text balloons floating around near their mouths. Their words can be physically touched and manipulated. Pieces of paper come to origami life when called upon to do so. Tears are transparent solids, rather than liquid, and can be transferred from a character's cheek to another's.

It is constantly snowing in this creepy Metropolis, which has little Argentinian feel to it, except for La Voz's nifty, torchy songs. But, oh, what a feast for the eyes! Film aficionados will savor the expressionist nods to Fritz Lang and Friedrich Murnau, the surrealist Dali and Bunuel touches, and the film's overall debt to that late, great Russian experimental master, Dziga Vertov.

But you can lighten up, too, with some of the adapted Harold Lloyd gags and with such bizarre touches as Mr. TV's valet-chauffeur, who has a rat's tail.

The pace and movement make it tough, sometimes, to make complete sense of the action, heavily laden as it is with messages about media and morbid mechanization -- which, come to think of it, relates directly to the title of this whole superb CMU series at hand.

At a loss for words? So's the society of tomorrow, says Sapir -- silently, in living black and white!

-- Barry Paris,
Post-Gazette film critic

Editor's Note: This review was first published April 19, 2007, when the movie debuted here:

'China Blue'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

The next time you try on jeans and notice a few stray threads, you won't be so quick to judge the workmanship if you see the documentary "China Blue."

After all, working seven days a week -- sometimes through the night or, at the least, into the wee hours -- can affect your ability to keep your eyes open, let alone spotting every loose thread or piece of lint lodged inside the denim pants.

"China Blue" documents life for a couple of rural girls who have left their families for factories in South China.

Conditions are like something out of America's dark, distant past, with 12 girls sharing a single dorm room and laundering their clothes in plastic buckets (if they want hot water, they have to pay for it) and the company providing their meals and deducting the cost from their meager pay, which takes months to collect.

When faced with big orders and tight deadlines, exhausted workers fall asleep at their sewing machines or against a mound of jeans destined for taller, heavier, wealthier wearers. The company counts on the girls from the rural provinces being docile and compliant as they earn $60 or so a month.

To shoot inside the Lifeng factory, owned by a former policeman who entered the workforce himself at 15 with a phony ID, director Micha X. Peled lied about the nature of his movie, claiming it was about entrepreneurship rather than exploitation. He shot without the necessary permits with a camera he smuggled into China.

When police confiscated tapes documenting the life of the original focus, a girl named Little Fish, Peled started over again with a new teen, named Jasmine. He re-enacted some incidents that had happened to Little Fish and cobbled together some footage that makes it appear as if he tracked her from the moment she left her village.

It's easy to understand why the subterfuge and dramatic license were taken -- and there are no official comments from retailers or consumers -- but it somewhat diminishes the documentary.

Nevertheless, Peled ("Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town") not only shows what happens on the factory floor but why. We see clients insist on unrealistic prices and timetables, which will trickle down to the underpaid, overworked employees.

"China Blue" is instructive, fascinating and a sad commentary on the economic times. At age 14 or 16, teens in America are cruising the mall looking for jeans. At age 14 or 16, teens in China are making them and dreaming about who will be wearing them on the other side of the world.

-- Barbara Vancheri,
Post-Gazette movie editor

'The Future Is Not What It Used To Be'

2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained

Back in 1966, in the good old days before BlackBerrys became acceptable dinner companions and teenagers decided they'd die if they couldn't text incessantly, a computer pioneer called it.

"In the early 21st century, people and computers will begin to merge into hyper personas. It will be hard to say where man ends and machine begins." And that was decades before blue-tooth technology.

Erkki Kurenniemi, a Finnish pioneer of electronic music whose mother wrote children's books and whose father was a scientist, is the focus of this documentary. "My parents gave me two very different impulses," he says, and the movie tracks him through short films, innovations and observations of the past couple of decades.

By the time he's trying to document his existence and taking thousands of pictures a year (as a byte backup to the brain), you wonder if he's entered another level of enlightenment or just gone round the bend.

-- Vancheri

Mardi Gras: Made in China

As if you don't feel guilty enough in your Chinese jeans, documentary director David Redmon has something to make you feel even guiltier about wearing: those garishly colorful Mardi Gras beads---symbols of the orgiastic revelry at New Orleans's annual Fat Tuesday blowout.

They come cheap. Too cheap, for those who sacrifice dearly to make them.

"Mardi Gras: Made in China" is less an examination than a personalization of the cultural and economic realities of globalization. We start out with shots of the wild and crazy beads-for-breast-baring game in Louisiana. Then we shift to Fuzhou, China, and four teenage girls working in the world's largest Mardi Gras bead factory.

The working conditions and the factory compound's prison-like dorms must be seen to be believed---no less than the severe discipline. About 90 percent of the workers are women, due to their sacrificial docility.

It is more easier for us to control the lady workers than the man workers, says their unctuous, unapologetic boss. They work 14-hour days for a pittance, operating dangerous machines that use electric volts to heat pins and melt beads together. A gothic system of quotas and punishments is rigidly enforced. The penalty for talking on the factory floor is a day's wages; for sex in the dorms, it's a month's wages.

All the while, the gentle young Chinese girls slave away, uncomplaining.

All the while, the young American girls and boys party away, uncomprehending.

Redmon's doc offers no solutions, just a new and disturbing awareness.

-- Paris

First Published April 3, 2008 4:00 AM


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