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In extreme shorthand, It’s All Gone Pete Tong and Mondovino might be described as two documentaries about intoxicants and their allure. Of course, the first, the cautionary tale of a narcotics omnivore who conquers the rave nation of Ibiza, is actually fiction. And the second, the cri de coeur of a D.C.-bred filmmaker and professional sommelier, never once mentions that wine gets you drunk. Yet these two films do share a zealous devotion to their respective subcultures. If you don’t know who Paul van Dyk is, Pete Tong isn’t going to help; and if you’ve never heard of Robert Parker, Mondovino might as well be about Yoo-hoo.
Although it’s not exactly the better film, Pete Tong is probably the more accessible. This “mockumentary” doesn’t work very hard at upholding the Spin¬al Tap–derived form, but it does feature such heady ingredients as sex, drugs, slapstick, fast pans, and pop music. (Much of the last is techno, aka house, rave, garage, drum ’n’ bass, Balearic beat, and so on—stuff that really was pop music in Britain for a time, not the perennially bubbling-under phenomenon it remains in the United States.) The film’s protagonist is not Pete Tong, an actual DJ whose name was appropriated from a rhyming-slang phrase meaning “It’s all gone wrong,” who’s listed among the producers. Instead, the story’s about one Frankie Wilde (British comic Paul Kaye), introduced in a hyperactive montage as he spins records, crowd-surfs, and tries to lick a toad. The Liam Gallagher–ish DJ is a prince of Ibiza, the Spanish island where sun-deprived Brits go to get all primal and where—according to one of its many creation myths—contemporary dance music was born.
American viewers may be surprised by Canadian writer-director Michael Dowse’s casual depiction of Frankie’s hedonism. The 38-going-on-17 DJ drinks plenty, consumes a wide variety of drugs—with a particular preference for cocaine—and doesn’t limit his range of lovers after he marries Sonya (Kate Magowan), the Posh Spice–like co-star of his dopey first video. By the standards of recent British youth culture, however, Frankie is as much a stock character as Max (Mike Wilmot), the greedy, abrasive, and inevitably American manager who takes control of the DJ’s career after he graduates to recording artist and producer. Both Kaye and Wilmot embody their stereotypes with suitable brio; if they’re less memorable than, say, Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People, it’s mostly because they’re written that way.
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It all goes wrong for Frankie after he begins to lose his hearing—the consequence of sonic abuse, general bad karma, and drug use that ultimately summons a hallucination that seems to have wandered in from a particularly scruffy kids’ TV show. Suddenly, the ecstatic hordes reject Frankie’s mixes, Sonya leaves him, and two Queen-ly Austrian rockers short out the hearing aid that’s Frankie’s last connection to the audible universe. Couldn’t he just get another one? Not in mockumentary Ibiza, where various laws of biology and physics have been suspended for the sake of Dowse’s lazy scenario.
After a breakdown so ghastly it summons both the voice of Edith Piaf and an homage to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s final scene in Pierrot le Fou, Frankie fights his way back. Not that it’s actually much of a struggle: He falls in love with the first woman he meets, kindhearted and pretty sign-language teacher Penelope (Beatriz Batarda). Then he remakes his career as a DJ by discovering something that no other superwoofer-palace patron has apparently ever noticed: that at high volume you can feel the beat. This time, of course, Frankie has his priorities, uh, straight.
Significantly abetted by a pre-rave psychedelic classic, the brief epilogue to the DJ’s saga is surprisingly endearing, but it would have more kick if the character had ever been rendered in as many as two dimensions. Alternately, Dowse could have kept Frankie a cartoon but scored more accurate hits at the music biz and the rave demimonde. Anyone possessing a reasonable familiarity with either subject, however, won’t be impressed with the script’s insight or perspective. This movie may be more skeptical of acid-house utopia than such predecessors as Groove and Human Traffic, but it’s equally dependent on rave veterans’ interest and affection. Hardly a comedy of manners and barely an industry satire, It’s All Gone Pete Tong still could be fun for viewers who’ve never had their own Frankie Wilde moment.
Opening in Brazil and looping through France, Italy, Britain, California, New York, and Monkton, Md., on its way to Argentina, Mondovino is a globalist’s critique of globalization. Or rather, the globalization of a single product: wine. Filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter, who made Sunday and Signs & Wonders, is the son of a former Washington Post and New York Times foreign correspondent; living overseas, he learned several languages and a respect for European traditions. Now that those traditions are being eagerly peddled by multinational corporations, Nossiter has staged a counterattack. Because that strike comes in the form of an easygoing cinéma vérité documentary, however, it’s less than blistering.
Mondovino roiled the Cannes International Film Festival a year ago and no doubt had a similar effect in the offices and homes of some of its most prominent wine-world characters, including French consultant Michel Rolland, the members of California’s Mondavi clan, and powerhouse critic Parker. (He’s the one who lives in Monkton.) Yet for those who don’t drink wine—or don’t drink it as seriously as these people do—the crux of Nossiter’s film might seem like a tempest in a carafe: So much has been lost, claim the owners of traditional vineyards and their advocates while the director’s DV camera wobbles about their property.
Nossiter clearly loves the crabby French and Italian winemakers who denounce the handiwork of Rolland, Parker, and the Mondavis. He seems to experience his most sublime moment drinking a glass of wine produced by an Argentine small-timer who claims to earn $60 a month from his vineyard. Still, the director doesn’t press his points directly. And the film does leave open, perhaps unintentionally, the possibility that today’s wines aren’t worse, just different. His oenophiliac adversaries are destroyed mostly by their own words—or, in some cases, the words of their vapid flacks.
The jauntily arrogant Rolland’s mantra is “micro-oxygenate,” which he doesn’t explain and no one questions. A Mondavi PR woman extols her seemingly soulless boss as “a philosopher.” In various asides, the haughty scions of aristocratic French and Italian winemaking dynasties reveal that European fascism was no impediment to their family businesses. The Staglins, wine-making neighbors of the Mondavis, show off their “funk ceramics,” fake Mediterranean estate, and dining table modeled on one in The Godfather Part II. Both Rollard and Michael Mondavi thrill to the notion of making wine on the moon or other planets, as if to flaunt their contempt for regional customs and identities. (Since Mondovino was made, the Mondavis surrendered their right to intergalactic vintages by selling their company to Constellation, an even larger firm.)
On the other side of the debate, the traditionalists extol terroir, which literally means “soil” but has a sense of locality and continuity that’s supposedly more profound than mere dirt. To judge from some remarks, however, the ingredients of terroir also include xenophobia, nostalgia, and displaced feelings about other subjects altogether. Sounding much like Jean-Luc Godard discussing Hollywood, Languedoc winemaker Aimé Guibert declares that wine, cheese, and fruit are all “dead” and blames it on “Anglo-Saxon culture.” (He also refuses to acknowledge that Magrev, a large French company, is as corporate as Mondavi.) Venerable London auctioneer Michael Broadbent grandly suggests that wine culture peaked under the patronage of British aristocrats during the halcyon years of the Empire. And excitable New York importer Neal Rosenthal links globalized wine to George W. Bush in, yes, an axis of evil.
Still, Nossiter never quite mounts a convincing argument against the quality of wines that could be called “corporatized” or, more flatteringly, “democratic.” (Parker says that Watergate and Ralph Nader inspired his campaign to better inform imbibers.) Major vineyards today make wine faster and in larger quantities and age it less. But does the resulting product—arguably fruitier, blander, or less complex—represent corruption or evolution? And if “corruption” is the answer, what’s more important, the debasement of the wine or the decline of the distinct regional character that once defined it?
Although trimmed by some 30 minutes since its Cannes debut, Mondovino is less than taut. Nossiter’s fascination with random canines is not contagious, and his use of music—songs by the Kinks, Desmond Dekker, and others—is mostly a distraction. Yet the film’s loose structure yields some unexpected depth, such as the family drama of artisanal Burgundy winemaker Hubert de Montille and his two children, who followed him into the business in different ways.
If this documentary uses wine as a metaphor for larger issues, its focus stays resolutely microscopic. After all, anyone who really wanted to indict globalization would make a movie about the mineral-extraction industries, the internal-combustion-engine complex, or the IMF. Nossiter didn’t do that, not because he didn’t really want to make his own case, but because he loves wine. That’s why Mondovino is the rare example of a screed that contains an aftertaste of delight.CP