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Subject Versus Approach at Cinevegas

Subject Versus Approach at Cinevegas (photo)

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The “Pioneer Documentaries” program of the CineVegas Film Festival claims to highlight films that capture “subjects who defy odds and expectations.” And that’s an appropriate enough description for the seven docs featured this year, whose focuses range from poker to the anti-aging industry, but it’s also one that could be applied to over half the nonfiction films on the festival circuit today. A good subject can make a documentary, but it’s how a film presents and treats that subject that sets it apart, as two films in the line-up with thematically similar subject matter and extremely different approaches demonstrate so well.

“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” examines Japan’s long-standing obsession with bugs from a perspective that’s equal parts entomological, ethnographical and experimental. Whatever else it might be, it’s sure as hell not commercial; the film is more survey than story, with no character arcs or three-act structure to speak of. Even the voiceover about the origins of the phenomenon is spoken in Japanese, subtitled in English. Instead of any standard structure, director Jessica Oreck, an animal keeper and docent at the American Museum of Natural History and lifelong insect lover herself, combines glimpses of the Japanese beetle collecting scene — the men who hunt them, the children who buy them, the almost-literal flea market where the two sides meet — with poetic images of Japanese landscapes and rituals.

Oreck’s technique, which was rewarded at CineVegas with a Special Documentary Jury Prize for Artistic Vision, is unorthodox but highly cinematic. While a few talking heads and assorted readings speak to the historical context of this unusual national fascination with insects, “Beetle Queen” attempts, with a good amount of success, to explain the allure of bugs by showing instead of telling. People don’t explain what makes these creatures wonderful, instead, Oreck lets footage of excited bug fanboys (and some genuinely beautiful visuals of their beloved pets) speak for itself. Even now, after viewing the film, I cannot adequately explain the ancestral underpinnings of this bizarre attraction. But the imagery is so evocative, it requires no context. The how feels much less important than the why.

One of the more curious aspects of this subculture is its specificity: a man who sells bugs for a living (a profession so lucrative in Japan, by the way, that he’s able to buy a Ferrari with the proceeds) and who spends hours on end delicately capturing beetles will thoughtlessly squish a hornet under his heel when it becomes a nuisance. Later, we begin to note a similar and unsettling facet of these hobbyists’ pursuits: the fact that these nature lovers are more than happy to displace or even destroy the natural world so that they can possess it.

06182009_beetlequeen2.jpgOreck observes this behavior but doesn’t comment on it. Her quietly curious tone is in stark contrast to a film like “The Cove,” another documentary set amongst the wildlife of Japan that is currently working the festival circuit and that reaches theaters at the end of July. That film talks about all sorts of political issues — it, too, is set in a world of environmental commodification — but couches its entire narrative in what’s ostensibly a heist film: in order to uncover the truth about a mysterious dolphin slaughter, the documentarians recruit a veritable Pacific Ocean’s 11 of colorful and eccentric wildlife, diving and surveillance experts to help obtain the photographic proof of this horrific act. Despite its grisly subject matter, “The Cove” has proven exceedingly popular — it’s already won prizes at this year’s Sundance, Newport, and Hot Docs Film Festivals — perhaps because, despite it’s left wing politics, it’s an exceptionally conventional entry in the post-Michael Moore era of polemical documentaries.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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