Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 24, 2022 11:38 am 
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Oscar Best Documentary qualifying run at Roxie Theater, San Francisco


A symphony of soothing gloom, parental concern, finger painting, the sea - what you will

"Filmmaker Natalia Almada's latest documentary offers a mix of imagery from intimate moments with young children to bird's eye views of various landscapes," begins Leslie Felperin in her Hollywood Reporter Sundance review of Users. It won a big award there, she points out, is "poetic"' and "painterly," "looks and sounds stunning," but remains "thematically a little too diffuse for its own good as it meditates on our children and the future they will inhabit, where perfect machines replace imperfect parents" Felperin sums up. She is right.

The film is both attention-getting and off-putting from the get-go. It grates with its dreamy insistence, conveying mood rather than information. This is the kind of documentary that is insistent to tell us something but we don't know what it is. The filmmaker's opening statements about machinery possibly raising children and taking over lives, are not developed as the film proceeds. This is not an essay on technology and humanity as all the blurbs about it say. The authors of the blurbs either haven't seen the film (as is often the case), or were not paying attention.

Documentary filmmakers have access to all kinds of images. They can show us factory workers to make us feel humans are treated as numbed automatons. Almada does that here. Nothing is proven.

The score, also perhaps potentially award-winning, is obtrusive droning New Age style music, some of it by the prestigious Kronos Quartet. It sweeps the big wide-ranging drone-captured images and shots of turbulent seas into an involving soup. It can either enchant you or just bug you, and is likely to do a little of both to any viewer, but the ultimate disappointment is that Users is neither the abstract artwork worthy of being viewed in a gallery that it sometimes wants to become, nor does it have anything particular to tell us either.

The film opens with the filmmaker's soft-spoken narration that presents is with the idea that machines now usurp the mother in raising people. She imagines a dire future where children won't see the sun, or know "the taste of spring water." (I wondered when I last tasted the taste of spring water.) The filmmaker combines soothing, numbing images of subways, or trains, with naked babies (her own two very young boys). Meaning? I couldn't tell you, but the images sure are harmonious and pretty - and perhaps vaguely disquieting, meant to mean, as is declassed at the outset, that we are or soon will be no longer in charge of our babies, even as we are better informed about them and in control of the birth process, than before. Did mothers, as Almada declares, often have to carry babies for 12 months because they didn't know when they were going to be born? A bit of online research makes one wonder where she got that idea. It seems to be highly unlikely, the import of these ideas unclear.

Later on, she riffs awhile on fiber optic cables. She thinks thinks they are becoming too numerous, and soon "we will forget they're even there." Really? Who even thinks about them now, I wondered. I forget there is an engine running my car. So what? Irrationality and technology go poorly with each other. They don't relate to each other. You have to 'combat' technological overkill, if there is that, with intelligent thought, not a mom's poetic musings. (Almada was the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award a decade ago. Perhaps it went to her head.) One is suspicious of a film that is too beautiful for its own good, though apocalypse has never been so pleasant to look at or lulling (intermittently it is) to listen to.

The harmony of the effort, which impressed the Sundance jury, is no doubt in part due to the small production team. Though there are several dozen producers listed, the writing, narration and editing are by the director Natalia Almada, the sound design and composing are by her husband, Dave Cerf. The director of cinematography is Almada's brother-in-law Bennett Cerf (perhaps a descendant of the noted Random House editor and "What's My Line?" regular). Natalia herself, besides working on the film, is raising her boys, teaching her older (but still small) son to speak Spanish and do finger, or rather arm, painting. His response to her request, in Spanish, to "draw an owl," may be one of the most memorable images from the whole film (see above). (A [url=""]Variety[/url] story says Almada grew up largely in rural Mexico but now resides in Silicon Valley with her husband.) Felperin suggests Users was a "project born out of a very sincere need to grapple with notions of parenting, the future and the nature of love," but not one that found coherent form.

I wonder if Amdada has ever seen Philibert's marvelous documentary about the rural French school teacher, To Be and to Have/Être et avoir. That is a film about children and love, a documentary made out of observation of human beings and patience, over time. No musings, just observation, with much to be admired and much to be learned.

Users relates instead to Godfrey Reggio, the maker of such montage movies as Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, as Felperin points out. But she adds that to its credit it's more intimate. It's also talkier. Not that in the end it winds up saying anything that you can summarize more than has been done in this review already. She, and her family collaborators, Felperin thinks, deserve credit for being willing to take on big ideas. But she notes that they didn't really work out what they wanted to say before they made this picture.

Though Users does have a certain Luddite side, the hint in the publicity that it was going to be an indictment of technology was misleading. Alas, laptop and smartphone addictions are not addressed here, nor other machine-related problems like automation taking over simple work that uneducated people can do and putting them out of jobs.
As (again) Felperin notes, the director in fact seems rather more in love than not with the high tech gadgets she uses to make this film, including drones for the awesome over-land images, and digital tools to edit the nifty, often harmonious and arty additional images to go with them.

Users, 80 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2022, where it won the Documentary directing award; it was nominated for the Grand Jury documentary award there and nominated for eight other awards at other festivals. The film was included in the documentary festivals at Nyon, Montreal, Amsterdam and Colombia, MO and in a dozen other international festivals including Jerusalem, Thessaloniki. and London. The film was watched on a screener for this review. There was a sneak preview of Users in Dolby Atmos sound Nov. 15, 2022. Signed for distribution, along with Almada's entire oeuvre; it will have a theatrical roll-out that will open with a BAM premiere and retrospective in 2023. It screens in a limited Best Documentary qualifying run at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2022.

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