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One Shakey Film
by Peter Arcuni on Aug 27, 2004
The film Greendale is the charming pantomime of a loose concept album of the same name written and directed by a juvenile filmmaker who also happens to be one of the most talented songwriters ever. Bernard Shakey, aka Neil Young, has delivered an enchanting collection of songs telling the story of a small town family, a murder, the Devil, Grandpa and Sun Green, a teenage antiwar conservationist. The songs don't so much reveal a linear plot as they create the landscape of Greendale, painting characters and events within it. Everyone is connected, not just to each other or Greendale as a locale, but to greater themes concerning media coverage, war, pollution, old age, and death. Young doesn't tie everything up in a shiny bow either. Connections and characters are left unfastened and unraveled.
The film's structure follows the same strange and wobbly course as the songs. It's a staged version of the album and not much more. The visual imagery mimics the lyrics to a tee. And the only transitions between these little plays are shots of the Greendale map resembling a 4th grade art project. Everything about this flick screams lo-fi. Shot with an underwater German Super 8 camera, the film stock is grainy and its washed out colors reverberate in the dim lighting. It all feels like the well intentioned but horribly naïve attempt of a student filmmaker to bring Young's songs to life.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any more trite, the film's finale takes you over the edge. Greendale teenagers are seen dancing and singing to "Be the Rain" in a high school gymnasium. The song, about environmental harmony and protecting mother earth for all her natural splendor, seems dated and out of place in an otherwise stellar catalogue of work. The credits then roll over discovery channel-esque stock footage of polar bears and wild birds.
One might wonder why in the hell would Young want to make this film? There is nothing subtle or mysterious about his cinematic choices. And the songs are all really just one song. The ten tracks of Greendale put together accomplish the loosely plotted, image laden storytelling effect that Dylan could do in the late 60's with only one seven minute song. Furthermore, the political themes come across as more nostalgic than relevant in Young's hands this time around. In the fog of mid-life, Young appears to be grasping for some connection with the counterculture he once helped lead.
Nonetheless, my experience with Greendale left me smiling. Part time warp, part indie rock opera, Young's sincerity is never in question. He captures that spirit of a young filmmaker in his twenties making artful expressions with the camera. The rawness and energy of Greendale makes it easy to forgive its shortcomings. The songs certainly rock and found me toe tapping through most of the 83 minutes. With the exception of the final track, this is some of Young's best work to date. Even though I knew I wasn't watching a masterpiece, I was fascinated by how Young "sees" his songs so literally (as I might imagine otherwise), and by the purity of his intentions.
Why in the hell would Young want to make this film? Well then again, why not? What's the harm? I was along for the ride this time…but what do I know; I still get a kick out of walking around Haight Ashbury.
by Peter Arcuni on Aug 27, 2004