03 March 2014

The Stuart Hall Project // I Am Divine

Somewhat randomly, I saw these two documentaries within a day of each other, and they formed an intriguing contrast. I Am Divine is in some ways a fairly typical bio-doc; we get the whole life narrative, from birth to death, with all the main players of Divine's life making an appearance and sharing some thoughts and feelings, and a pretty clear set of messages explaining who Divine was and what his contribution to the world was, generally speaking. And, of course, a fair amount of film footage and photographs of the man himself. The Stuart Hall Project is a much more impressionistic work: fittingly, for a man who argued that identity is "an endless, ever unfinished conversation," and that "I don't think any one thing will tell us any longer who we are," there is very little in the way of narrative. The movie is a collage of footage; tv appearances, home videos, photographs. Despite Hall's work on relational identity, and claim that part of who we are is how others see us, there are no talking heads. Instead, there is a wonderful musical accompaniment of Miles Davis albums. Hall explains, at one point, that "the moods of Miles Davis matched the evolution of my own feelings," and the film takes him at his word, going through Davis' albums one by one (and announcing each new album) as an implicit echo of the Hall material. The result is a wonderful sort of dialectic, where you feel that you understand both Hall and Davis better on some kind of emotional level. Still, you occasionally wish for something a bit more specific and clearly stated: at times, the entry-level requirement of knowledge, both of Stuart Hall and of 20th century history, seemed rather high.

Although I was glad that there were no talking heads in the Hall movie, scoffing that they rarely contribute much anyhow, I kind of loved the various people who spoke about Divine, mostly because some of them were such wonderful characters in their own right. Despite one unfortunate "he ate to fill a void" line, they actually weren't horribly cliché, and you did feel like you learned something about the man as a result. Still though, the best part of the film was obviously the footage: Divine was so completely amazing, it's still somewhat astonishing to see him on screen.

Overall, both very interesting and worthwhile films, about really important and wonderful human beings.

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