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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Movie Review

Dear Zachary
Dir. Kurt Kuenne

*****

"Perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."-Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

That final sentence, from one of the great novels of all-time, works here as a description of the heart and soul of this film, the best I've seen all year. Kurt Kuenne sets out to find all there is to know about his murdered friend Andrew Bagby after talking with friends who knew parts about Andrew's life that he never told Kurt. Shortly after stating this endeavor it is revealed that the woman who killed Andrew is also pregnant with his son. Kurt then decides to make the film into a memorial to give to Andrew's son, Zachary.

This is a film that is a search for its filmmaker, a search which ultimately finds itself asking the most unanswerable of questions. The unfolding of the events surrounding the search cause Kuenne to revisit his approach, his interview subjects, and allows the audience a personal look into an artist trying to make sense of the impossible (in fact, the film was never meant to be released except to family members).

Nearly a decade in the making the film compiles years of interviews with dozens of people who knew and loved Andrew, as well as through a number of home videos. Part of makes this a stunning example of art as process, is the fact that Andrew starred Kurt's home made movies growing up, and we see footage from those films, where we see even then the use of film being used to make sense of the world.

The amount of footage, interviews, and information comes at you early and quickly. The audience becomes immersed in the lives of Andrew's family; knows the information when the family knows it, and experiences the events as if they were one of Andrew's friends. An outsider may have been tempted to manipulate the audience, but Kuenne's approach is earnest and admirably restrained. He obviously cares about his friends, and is nothing but charitable to them by his representation (or non-representation in some cases) in this film. That said, Kurt doesn't pretend not to be involved himself. He keeps in narration where he gets emotional. He lets you know that he is frustrated and furious, and that at times he doesn't know where to turn.

This is one of those rare films which is an experience. I cannot remember the last time I was so viscerally effected by a film. Not just in tears but going through a wide range of palpable feelings, some clear cut, some frustratingly ambiguous, and leaving me haunted, purged, shaken. The film allows us to experience with Andrew's parents a diverse and difficult range of emotions. You will be angry, sickened, hopeful, humored, devastated, inspired, awed, depressed, and everything in between. At times you'll want to throw up your hands and say: "I can't go on!" It shows us humanity at its most evil, yet, without being sentimental, shows us how life can go on in the face of incomprehensible horror.

I don't know if I've seen another film which so effectively conveys the impact of the loss of a human life. A shot early on in the film catches a quick glimpse of ripples in a water, and this film looks at those ripples instead of focusing on the initial cause of those ripples.

And in the end, when the film comes back to the filmmaker, on his experience and his journey, in a recap of what we've experienced with humanity in microcosm throughout the film, its a devastating turn which displays the brilliance in the film's structure, despite it appearing a bit haphazard on the surface, all along.

I don't know whether to tell you to read more about the film or not. I've tried not to tell too many details because for full effect, and to do justice to the filmmakers experience you need to let this film wash over you. But I also don't know if some of the more sensitive viewers will make it through this film unprepared. Maybe this will suffice: this is not an easy film; the best never are. But like Becket's Trilogy, by looking through at life through the most hopeless of situations, somehow those who experience the work come out stronger, more human. Victor Frankel's early title for Man's Search for Meaning was "A Case for Tragic Optimism." That is this film.

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