August 05, 2008

Review of Ten Canoes

Finally saw the much acclaimed Australian aboriginal film Ten Canoes the other day. My verdict: very good but not great.

As you may recall, I posted some reviews of the movie. Here are two positive ones:

NY Times reviews Ten Canoes
WaPo reviews Ten Canoes

and two negative ones:

Ten Canoes flawed
Ten Canoes is tough going

On the one hand, I wouldn't say Ten Canoes was enchanting or engrossing. I wasn't transported "out of time" and couldn't feel the characters' "palpable connections" with their ancestors. I had no doubt I was watching the aborigines as an outsider far removed from their reality.

Too slow and confusing?

On the other, I wouldn't say Ten Canoes was "slow" or not "conventionally involving." I watched it in one sitting without wanting to stop or take a break. It's paced about the same as any human-scale drama without car chases or explosions.

And "difficult to follow"? This film was easy to follow, especially given its potentially complex structure: Aborigine A tells the story of brothers B and C; B tells the parallel story of brothers X and Y. The stories were color-coded, with the first one in black and white and the second in color. Each character looked distinct and was given a brief introduction so you could fix them all in your mind.

If you compare Ten Canoes to Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, there's a huge difference. For the first 20-30 minutes of Atanarjuat, I wasn't sure what was happening or who the main characters were. There's no such problem in Ten Canoes.

The problem with Ten Canoes

The only significant problem in Ten Canoes is something the reviewers didn't mention. The point of the movie is the lessons learned from the story of Aborigines X and Y. The story revolves around X's missing wife; he makes a tragic mistake and pays for it. The message is something like "look before you leap" (or "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," or "act in haste, repent in leisure"). But in the end Y learns a totally different lesson along the lines of "be careful what you wish for because you just might get it."

Aborigine C has been waiting the whole movie to learn what happens to Aborigine Y, his past counterpart. His reaction to the outcome of B's story could've and should've been, "Why did you spend an hour telling me about X when the point was about Y? You could've skipped X's story entirely and given me the three-minute version of Y's story."

In other words, the story is poorly constructed to deliver a single profound truth. It actually delivers two unrelated, less-than-profound truths that don't gel. The payoff isn't quite worth the journey.

But overall Ten Canoes is solid and engaging. I'd say it's equivalent to the other good indigenous movies I've reviewed. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Oh, wow! You want Native films to exist, and THEN you blow them apart! Nice work, if you can get it...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Rating a movie an 8.0 of 10 isn't blowing it apart. It's saying the movie is in the top 20% of all films, whether they're large- or small-budget and Native or non-Native. Most Academy Award winners are only 8.0s or 8.5s, in my opinion, so that's good company to be in.

dmarks said...

Yes, that's a pretty high rating.

But I'm also thinking that if it were bad, Rob (like any good reviewer) would say so, rather than say "it's a great movie just because it is a Native movie".

Rob said...

An e-mail from a correspondent:

I rather loved this film a little more than you did. Although the story had the flaws you mention, I found the film so visually entrancing, the people so fascinating and the music so wonderful that I was dazzled and delighted. I also appreciated seeing aborigines portraying themselves in the positive way they deserve. I also care about David Gulpilil, the narrator and his son--the young male lead--performers whose careers I have followed and who shone in this production.

Appreciatively yours,

Rob said...

Right you are, DMarks.

When Native fans see a Native movie, they sometimes say things like, "I'm so impressed or proud or happy to see this or that." Sometimes they add "to see this or that for the first time." These may be valid comments, but they're not judgments about the movie's artistry. They're judgments about the movie's innovation or importance, perhaps--a related but separate quality.

I'm usually not impressed or proud or happy to see novel things in a Native movie. For example, I expect that good filmmakers can pull off a reasonable facsimile of ancient aboriginal life. If they succeed, they'll get points for it--but only enough to equal other successful movies. It's not as if that achievement alone is enough to make a movie superior.

Titanic simulated a sinking ship, Apollo 13 simulated a lunar flight, and Ten Canoes simulated a traditional aboriginal culture. To me these are roughly equivalent accomplishments. Because of this and similar factors, I give all these movies an 8.0.

P.S. Pow Wow Highway and Smoke Signals both got 8.0s, so that's nothing to be ashamed of. But Dances with Wolves and Disney's Pocahontas got 8.5s.

dmarks said...

I called Rob here a good reviewer, not a great one. I can only think of two great movie reviewers, and one of them is not reviewing movies anymore.

Rob said...

I'm impressed by any good reviewer. For instance, Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott in the NY Times, and Kenneth Turan in the LA Times. I also enjoy Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips on their At the Movies show. It's tough to put something as subjective as artistic quality into concrete terms.

My so-called reviews often serve to supplement the real reviews. Those reviews talk about the acting, directing, and so forth. My reviews talk about the Native issues they usually pass over. If I notice something that no one else mentioned--e.g., Ten Canoes' mixed message--I'll cover that too.

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