Monday, July 18, 2005

Everything Counts in Large Amounts - 101

Recently, I watched 101 for the first time. Not sure if the actual title is Depeche Mode 101, or just 101. Briefly, the film captures the band's 101st performance (at the Rose Bowl on June 18, 1988) during their Music for the Masses Tour. The film crew follows the band for a short period of time prior to the concert while simultaneously following a group of DM fans that won a WDRE radio contest where the prize was riding a bus to LA with a bunch of other New Wavers from NYC across America to the concert.

I love Depeche Mode but I never got around to seeing it prior to now, probably in large part because the filmmaker, D.A. Pennebaker, was a teacher of mine in college, and not one that I remember with much fondness. It was particularly exciting to take the class with him as, on paper, he is pretty much royalty when it comes to rock documentaries - you can see his body of work here. I made a short film supposedly under his tutelege, but got very little out of working with him as he would tell the same boring stories every single week and did very little else in teaching us - unless you count repeating to us a number of times the wise advice that "you need to experience showing your work to other people and feel your asshole chewing a hole in the chair" in order to know what it means to be a filmmaker. Very inspiring. At the end of the course, he mentioned that he could have had Bowie come to our six person class had we wanted - DOH!

Perhaps what was most aggravating about DA was his M.O. for documentary filmmaking. As someone who came into his own in the sixties, at the same time as the cinema verite/French New Wavers (the original New Wave) Godard and Truffaut, he embraced the verite approach to filmmaking and applied it to documentary work. Never explain anything on film, just show it was essentially the ethos. DA was not the least bit interested in asking Dylan any questions when he made Don't Look Back, he just wanted to learn about the man by watching him brush his teeth as that is where the truth lies. Interviews on screen are too contrived. There is no question that the polar opposite (just showing nothing but talking heads ramble and providing no primary source material, which is what VH-1 has devolved into) is a terrible alternative, but the middle ground, which is where I tried to find myself as a filmmaker, was not the place to be under Pennebaker's philosophy.

101 had certain weaknesses that may have been tied to this approach to filmmaking. The glaring hole at the end of the film is that you have learned absolutely nothing about the band . David Gahan told a random story about beating up a cab driver one time, but that is about as personal as the film gets. The band dynamics are untouched. There is no context provided and it left me seeing no story, just footage of a few concerts. One of the better moments of the film was when Alan Wilder explained how the DM sound was created, using synthesizers, sound banks, and large digital rectangles that get banged like futuristic taiko drums - but that scene seemed to run a little counter to the verite approach to filmmaking. Surprisingly, in this letter the Pennebakers wrote to the DM fans, they say the film is more about the band than that concert - huh? Either there is absolutely nothing to them as people (which I find hard to image), the band didn't want to reveal themselves to the camera in their more private moments, or the filmmakers just fucked up and didn't get any revealing material, but if this movie is about the band, that is like saying Night and Day is about Cole Porter (a 40s film that gave an extremely cursory overview of his life and certainly didn't mention his homosexuality).

The actual footage of the crowds at the Rose Bowl and even of the fans on the bus was thoroughly entertaining because it is such a time capsule. The musical context of the era was captured nicely during a scene where the bus kids are drinking with some Guns N Roses fans in Albequerque, NM. The kids themselves wern't that interesting - just a bunch of beer drinkers with purple hair. Not a whole lot of fascinating material was revealed about them either and laughably, in the DVD's notes, Pennebaker and his partner Chris Hegedus take responsibility for the idea of MTV's The Real World because of their decision to follow the DRE bus.

The concert itself was exciting - a handful of songs were shown from the Rose Bowl, including "Behind the Wheel," "Strangelove," and "Everything Counts in Large Amounts." The most amazing part of the film, sin duda, was the concert finale - "Never Let Me Down Again." There is one incredible incredible image contained in that scene. A camera is on one side of the stage shooting across the stage. Gahan mounts something at the front of the other side of the stage and does his best Jesus posture and he is captured with his arms out with tens of thosands of kids behind him (but really to his side). The camera then pans over the crowd to reveal almost every arm in the stadium waving back and forth. A very powerful shot.

Pennebaker and Hegedus are kind of right in their statement about the film not exactly being a concert film. While it has several cohesive performances of songs throughout, it does not have the pacing of a concert, like Let's Spend the Night Together or Stop Making Sense, two movies that actually capture the concert experience on film. I enjoyed the performances because Depeche Mode is a great band to watch perform - David Gahan is mezmerising and it is fascinating to see a performance of one of the earlier groups to play with synthesizers instead of guitars and drums (there are occassional guitars played by real brains behind of DM - Martin Gore). But the parts in between didn't reveal enough to connect the viewer to the film. For a Depeche Mode fan, it is probably worth seeing, and you will probably bring a less critical eye than me.

5 Comments:

At 3:47 PM, Blogger paul said...

I've never viewed 101 with such a critical eye. Rather, I've always said it was the forerunner to MTV's The Real World, as well as other GenX mock-documentaries like Linklater's Slacker, etc. The footage in 101 of the contest winners was far more interesting than the footage of the band themselves.

 
At 3:57 PM, Blogger Phil said...

I certainly can see how 101 can be seen as a forerunner to The Real World. I have trouble believing that The Real World came about after MTV exec watched it. The contest winners were the most human part of the movie, but still I felt like there wasn't enough about them to make that a real glue for the film. I did love the scene in the club with them.
Speaking of the contest winners, I totally forgot that there was a random appearance of the Underworld album Underneath the Radar on the table at WDRE when the kids are signing their release forms to get on the bus. That album is from the first incarnation of Underworld when they were a pop group - very different from who they are today. Great song from that album is "Show Some Emotion"

 
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