Sunday, August 07, 2005

Film Review #27: The Gleaners and I
Director: Agnes Varda

Here's my favorite scene from Agnes Varda's 2001 documentary The Gleaners and I. Varda, who's been making films for over 50 years, rolls down a French highway behind a truck, glancing at the passing landscape and fiddling with her new hand-held digital video cam, the instrument which has allowed her to embark on this trek. With one hand she films the other, reaching up with thumb and forefinger, playfully framing the image of the truck.

Many filmmakers might throw away this grainy, unsteady shot, but it pulls together what's come before with such economy and good spirit that I'm not surprised when other people love it too. Writer Jake Wilson says "this most lyrical shot virtually negates the difference between grasping an object with one's hands & approaching it with a camera."

Gleaners is about throwing things away, about the ancient, once-communal practice of gleaning, about how art and scavenging are alike. In 1554 a royal edict established the French people's right to glean. Varda titles her film after Jean-Francois Millet's 1867 painting of three women bending down to gather leftover wheat. She also films herself costumed like the painter Andre Breton's upright gleaner, and pointedly lays down her sheaf of wheat and picks up her camera. From the fall of '99 to the next May, she traveled France with a tiny crew, filming those who scavenge potatoes, sheep's wool and grapes in the countryside, oysters at the shore, appliances, eggs and vegetables from city curbsides and markets. There's actually a French Hip-Hop song about gleaning, and gleaners among gypsies, literacy teachers, the very poor, the very political and one highly-rated chef who doesn't trust the grocer.

I happened across Agnes Varda fresh, thanks to the painter Susan Roth, whom I'd just met and who liked a lot of the same films and directors I do. What a discovery! Afterward I read what Australian filmmaker Helen Carter wrote after the 2001 Sydney Film Festival, that "somehow the grandmother of the French New Wave had escaped my attention – she wasn't mentioned in any of the documentary classes."

So for me The Gleaners makes a start in answering how one might experience good art if encountered out walking the world anonymously – stealth art, if you will. Sometimes you're lucky enough to meet an artist's work clean like this, which is not to say that she herself did her work unmindful of other art. Now, Varda's had a renaissance over the past five years or so. In its first two years on the circuit, Gleaners screened in about 350 film festivals, and was named Best Documentary of 2001 by half a dozen film critics groups. Varda began getting bookings for retrospectives of the nearly 30 films she's made. Three weeks at Film Forum in New York City, then the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the 2003 Venice Biennial, among others. There were special awards in Thailand, Mexico, and this year's Singapore Film festival. In her late 70's, Agnes Varda now teaches an intensive summer course at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland.

She came to filmmaking from studying art history and working for a decade as a photojournalist. She'd seen fewer than 20 movies when she made her first one in 1954. She's tried them in many lengths, as features and documentaries, on an enormously wide range of subjects. In the last several weeks, thanks to Emerald City Video and Netflix, I've been able to get my hands on several.

In 1961 Varda made Cleo from 5 to 7, about a pop singer awaiting cancer test results. She walks around Paris, plays her own songs in jukeboxes, fears her beauty won't save her. Traces of elements present in Gleaners showed up early. Cleo uses the human hand as the image and instrument of making one's own fate, starting with a God's eye color shot of hands laying out Tarot cards. The rest of the film, in black and white, is played in "real time," as a journey. Varda began disassembling the artistic process early too – Cleo meets up with an artist's model who literally steps out of her pose so they can go driving & talk.

Any gathering of women's buddy films should include One Sings, the Other Doesn't,made in 1977, which traces a 14-year friendship. As men come and go, Suzanne establishes a women's clinic and Pauline – who later takes the stage name Apple – tours the provinces with a women's band. Whether art nurtures its makers and the people near it is up for grabs in this film, and there's constant reference to films of that era and the turning point of the 1968 Paris student riots in which cinema figured as a political force.

Vagabond, made in 1985, foretells Gleaners too. Though fictional, it has a documentary's look and Varda used many non-actors. Sandrine Bonnaire plays the ill-fated Mona, a low-end loner whose aimless road-trip unravels during the coldest winter on record. Described as "painterly," the film's opening shot of a serene country field comes finally to rest on Mona's dead body – much as Breughal's painting "The Fall of Icarus" finally reveals an almost overlooked foot in the waves. Again, hands – Mona's grubby ones and a woman professor's beautiful manicure. Like the British director Carol Morley's Alcohol Years, Vagabond is as much about how others remember us as how we were. Mona's unstable "place in the picture" matches her unsteady walk in and out of the screen's frame, shots like Scorcese used in Taxi Driverto signify not fitting anywhere.

In 1995 The World of Jacques Demy was Varda's second film about her husband, the director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990 and had made Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Lola, and Bay of Angels. It says much of Varda's view of art's function that she treats the rude and smelly Mona as tenderly as her husband. She has described her relationship with movie-goers to Andrea Meyer of Indiewire this way: "They do behave like an intelligent audience with me. They raise beautiful questions, speak to me after screenings, and tell me personal things."

This weekend is a flood of opening new films, with The Island, Hustle and Flow, March of the Penguins, and Miranda July's You and Me and Everybody We Know. But with Varda you can see something that's new in a different way.
Aired on 7/21/05 in regular film comment slot on "Women's Voices Radio," WAER FM 88.3, Syracuse, New York.
#26: On MR. & MRS. SMITH 6/16/2005 “A bored married couple is surprised to learn that both are assassins hired to kill each other,” reads the POST STANDARD’s blurb for MR & MRS SMITH, rated at three stars & listed as a comedy. It’s been called stylish & witty eye candy, a sophisticated romp, & a parable of modern marriage. But Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt’s star vehicle owes less to Tracy & Hepburn – or the recent WAR OF THE ROSES - than it does to Butch & Sundance. And its comedic sparkle covers a sobering degree of violence that gives new meaning to “kick her when she’s down.” The comedy in MR & MRS SMITH both frames & contains the violence in this tale of professional killers provoked by rival agencies into turning on each other – a story book-ended by marriage counseling sessions in which Jane & John are unforthcoming. Timing in comedy is a little like sharps & flats in music, riling up our emotions & heightening our attention. The understated exchanges, measured pauses & spare expressions – a tight smile here, a sidelong glance there – soon do their work. These scenes are focused, funny & well-directed. Between this before & after therapy, the story’s action unfolds & the bickering competition accelerates. They tussle over who’s calling the shots, who’s in the drivers seat – well, list a string of such stock phrases about fighting for control & you’ll pretty much have the script. Their secret out, John & Jane get to know each other better during a wild car chase. Past the requisite questions about infidelity, they advance to guilt. Jane asks if John ever has trouble sleeping “afterward,” that is, after killing people. Never, he says. After just a breath, she says never too. But I wondered about that, if banishing guilt is another skill one acquires after practice, like sharp shooting or mountain-climbing. Violence? Well, there’s much noise & mayhem, many explosions - some of it played for laughs, deceiving us that there’s not much real pain here. When the Smiths are first blasting holes in the walls while aiming for each other, Jane calls out sweetly during a lull, “Are you okay, honey?” They might be playing paint-ball. Such ease in destroying things gives the spectacle of their collapsing mansion an emotional distance akin to video games or smart bombs. But suddenly hand to hand combat is underway, at the same speed & volume. In this runaway scene, before you know it, John kicks Jane with all his might while she’s down – three times. Inscrutably, several reviewers call this stomach-turning moment one of the film’s best “guilty pleasures.” Critic Manohla Dargis has said, “At the heart of horror is the spectacle of pain, & the pleasure we take in that spectacle is often more unsettling than anything in the actual movie.” Any one of these kicks would’ve broken Jane’s ribs, not seen her popping up for the hottest make-up sex on-screen in a long time. I remain ungrateful for both the scene & the message, because I know this is a date movie. Comedy muffles our response to violence, & so can evoking past familiar movies. In this case it’s really the buddy action flick, with a final shoot-out straight out of BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID. Our modern outlaws emerge from a domesticated garden shed instead of a Wild West-era Mexican stable. But we know how it ended for Butch & Sundance. Primed as we are for their final comeuppance after all those get-aways, the Smiths surprise. In a near-perfectly choreographed, slow motion scene, they whirl, fire & prevail. In one suspended & iconic moment, they simultaneously embrace & fire behind each other. I wonder if anchoring the climatic scene in male-bonding flicks suggests some confusion about expanded gender roles - & resentment too. Did Jane have those kicks coming? Otherwise why the pointless garden party scene that dwells on her awkwardness & dislike in holding a new baby. What is feminine anyway? In one scene skilled mountain-climber Jane effortlessly adjusts living room drapes while balancing in stiletto heels on the thin wooden arms of a rocking chair – director Gerard Moses used a similar visual in The Redhouse’s recent production of the play PROOF to establish another self-possessed woman. But I started feeling that such moments just cleverly echoed her double life & added some trapping of PC, because really the film snipes at Jane too often to respect her much, despite her fierceness, her athleticism, her all-girl crew of top-flight operatives & my own suspicion she could whip Brad’s buns. Seen on the job as assassin, Jane’s disguised as a dominatrix, & the next scene reduces her tell-tale fishnet stockings to looking ridiculous. The Smiths never do learn their lesson. Back in marriage counseling at the end, they’re still leaving stuff out. With a gesture he hides from Jane, John brags that there’s lots of great sex now. Then Jane adds, “Oh, & we did the house over.” This deft understatement does lots of work after the smoking ruins of their home. The idea that she’s happy now, domesticated & deeper undercover, is less convincing. It makes you long for Tony Soprano’s shrink. (863)
#25: “Rough Trips: On THE WOODSMAN & CRASH” 5/19/05 A new exhibition opened today in Harlem about Malcolm X at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, on what would have been his 80th birthday. Framed as a journey, it includes his pilgrimage to Mecca, which accelerated Malcolm’s rethinking of his views toward a more international concept of race, beyond black & white. Not all travel leads quickly to understanding. Two recent films by first-time directors use travel to examine difference in US culture. Nicole Kassell’s THE WOODSMAN opened last December. Releasing this film at peak Oscar-nomination time may have back-fired, since the subject matter clashes so harshly with the holiday season. This story of child molester (played by Kevin Bacon) returning after 12 years in prison never screened locally, but it’s been out a few weeks on DVD. The other is Paul Haggis’ ensemble tale of coincidence, road rage & racial pile-ups on or near Los Angeles freeways. CRASH opened nationally last week & is already playing at several malls here. I find both films largely successful projects about hugely difficult subjects. Both have uniformly memorable performances – some from our best actors & some from those you didn’t know beforehand belonged in that category. The deleted & extended scenes on THE WOODSMAN DVD suggest what a good director Nicole Kassell already is. But there’s a curious thing about these films. Other movie reviewers either love or hate them. Each film presents extremely gruelling material in blunt, unvarnished fashion. Some of the most devastating moments involve the brand of intimate violence – both verbal & physical - born of sudden self-loathing, that occurs when no other target is close enough. Because they deal confrontationally with harshly uncomfortable topics, both THE WOODSMAN & CRASH are labeled “naturalistic” & then criticized for plots that don’t match that approach. One example - A.O.Scott of the NEW YORK TIMES writes off the coincidences that drive CRASH’s narrative as logically “preposterous.” There’s plenty in THE WOODSMAN that’s unrealistic – on supervised parole, Walter’s allowed to live in an apartment overlooking a school playground & go the bars, & though he has a full-time job he’s constantly watching the schoolyard during weekdays. I think such grumbling misses the intent of both films & sidesteps the unsettling, often contradictory responses each evokes in its audience. Instead, consider whether both films are closer to a kind of magical realism, allowing us to suspend disbelief & thereby bear to watch, integrate & emerge from such difficult subject matter. THE WOODSMAN overtly uses Little Red Riding Hood as a major image. Sgt. Lucas talks to Walter about the fairy tale. Walter & his girlfriend Vickie (played by Kyra Sedhewick, Bacon’s wife) go into the woods. The 12-year-old girl Robin wears a red jacket & she recasts Walter’s life into fairy-tale language, remarking that he was “banished.” And Walter sees things that haunt him. Another fairy tale occurred to me during the park scene with Robin. Walter’s prison years have left him fairly wooden. Although one reviewer says it’s “creepy” that Walter becomes the most “functional” when he’s with this child, I couldn’t help thinking that here in where this Pinnochio becomes a real live boy, & out of that manages to decide to act differently. CRASH frankly uses coincidence, other plot contrivances & devices to lift the story into magic. The musical score constantly works in this way. The linked tale of the Mexican locksmith Daniel’s daughter & the Iranian storekeeper is entirely cast in magical terms as we see it happen. Daniel has reassured his little girl with his story of the invisible protective cloak. That she survives the storekeeper’s point-blank gunshot seems miraculous. To me this hopeful, elegant vignette is the movie’s heart & women its saviors. Mirror-like, both Daniel & the storekeeper moved to protect their daughters & both daughters act protectively in return. Even the so-called logical explanation is prophetic - it turns out the storekeeper’s daughter (a physician & healer) secretly loaded the pistol with blanks, her version of a magic cloak. And the Iranian says the little girls’ survival makes her his angel, redeeming him from his anger. Now, what’s the use of these contrivances in the midst of gritty realism? Walter’s apartment above the schoolyard – however unnerving it may be for us - allows dramatically for him to watch & sort out possible versions of himself, like the man he calls Candy who’s after young boys. As Walter works out in his mind his own mixed feelings, he & we are getting ready for his scene in the park with Robin. Likewise, the ever-tightening loops of coincidence in CRASH come to embody dramatically the emotional truth of the phrase, “We are all connected.” It’s too pallid to say this in the face of grown men struggling not to weep, as happens not once but several times in CRASH. Oddly I’ve heard no criticism – or even mention -of the plot device that makes Walter less an anomaly by having almost every female character in the film emerge as the victim of previous or potential sexual abuse, especially his girlfriend Vickie (all three of her brothers) & of course Robin herself. Neither preposterous nor overwrought, this facet of the film provides a complex portrait of how re-victimization occurs, of how we unwittingly choose our fellow travellers. Travel, after all, is the plot contrivance in our own lives as well, the thing that takes us where we wouldn’t be. I’m Nancy Keefe Rhodes for Focus on Film. (903)
#24: On PARIS WAS A WOMAN 5/12/05 Next Sunday The Redhouse in Armory Square is opening the 1995 documentary, PARIS WAS A WOMAN, as its next film offering on Sunday & Tuesday evenings. Greta Schiller directed & edited, & Andrea Weiss adapted the screenplay from her book of the same title. Both have stellar credentials as documentary filmmakers before & since this collaboration, as partners in Jezebel Productions since 1984, when they made the classic BEFORE STONEWALL as well as their acclaimed trilogy of films about women jazz musicians. PARIS is short - just 73 minutes long - so hopefully The Redhouse will also run a selection of the excellent special features on the DVD edition. PARIS WAS A WOMAN has screened at 150 film festivals throughout the world. It had theatrical release here in the US, New Zealand & several European nations. PARIS WAS A WOMAN portrays the community of women artists who flocked to the so-called Left Bank district in Paris in the early decades of the 20th century. Mostly we think of this crowd in terms of the “Roaring 20’s,” but many of the women were there earlier & stayed much longer, even past World War II. The films is divided into sections about individuals – Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, journalist Janet Flanner, poet Nathalie Barney & painter Romaine Brooks, novelist Djuna Barnes, bookstore owners Sylvia Beach & Adrienne Monnier. Photographer Giselle Fruend & scholars Shari Benstock & Catherine Stimpson offer comments. There’s a wealth of still photos, home movies, audio clips & music. A map periodically shows where people lived – within blocks of each another. The narrative line is a tad meandering but I didn’t mind, because there’s such a vivid & thoughtful appreciation of that world. One of the possible pitfalls with the film lies in the audience. A decade ago when the film was still new, one reviewer suggested a better title would be HOW LESBIANS CHANGED WESTERN CIVILIZATION, because it deals matter-of-factly with the personal relationships of many of these figures. This is a pretty celebrated film in the gay community. Watching it, I was struck instead with how this is simply a part of things, not the topic of the movie. I’m hoping a very wide audience will want to see it. PARIS can tell Central New York a great deal at what I think is a critical moment in our cultural life, about how a creative class rises & what kind of synergy & innovation can occur, surviving even periods of severe disruption like war. I particularly liked how the film follows the long career of Janet Flanner. Her weekly column in THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE under the pen name Genet, really pioneered arts journalism & she also explained the competing movements of fascism & communism to Americans. The examination of how Beach & Monnier’s bookstores supported the artistic community may be more useful that rehashing Gertrude & Alice’s Saturday night salons one again. If you’re not movied out, go see this one, & thank The Redhouse folks for their perfect timing. (505)
#23: On VERA DRAKE 4/21/05 Just before its commercial release last October, the British film VERA DRAKE screened at the New York Film Festival, as did MOOLAADE from Senegal. Both films went on to wide acclaim & awards, including Oscar nominations. Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE recounts the 1950 demise of a working class, grandmotherly London abortionist (played by Imelda Staunton in a wrenching performance among an ensemble of wrenching performances). Ousmane Sembene’s MOOLAADE portrays one woman’s challenge to West African practices of female genital mutilation. Reporting on that festival, THE VILLAGE VOICE’s J. Hoberman reviewed both films together as artistically ‘the two punchiest movies in a generally strong line-up ‘ & provided some international context for the U.S. election season by noting that, ‘The rise of religious fundamentalism has effectively re-politicized issues of female autonomy. ‘‘ Now, released on DVD three weeks before Pope Benedict’s election, VERA DRAKE seems to be flying off Central New York rental shelves as fast as THE MAGDALENE SISTERS did when that DVD came out, also circumventing local theatres’ failure to screen such fare. Briefly, this film’s first half follows Vera about her rounds of work as a cleaning lady, family care & neighborhood good deeds - including an abortion every week or so, arranged by her friend Lilly who pockets a fee unbeknownst to Vera. After an old acquaintance’s daughter winds up in hospital, the police arrest Vera during her own daughter’s engagement party. The second half recounts Vera’s confession, how her utterly stunned family variously deal with this revelation, her trial & imprisonment. Vera’s decency & martyrdom are meticulously detailed, & exposure undoes her almost completely. But this film is not so easily cast as a pro-choice tract. Writer-director Mike Leigh has spoken widely in interviews about the abortion issue’s complexity & his own belief that abortion constitutes the taking of life. He dedicates the film to his physician father & mid-wife mother (although the film’s doctors are hardly heroic). And Leigh says that using a historic period’s setting aims not to distance the issue from today’s audience but to “heighten & get to its essence.” 1950 is post-war England, a frayed moment mid-stride between World War II - with blitzkrieg bombings of London, still-fresh battle frights that Vera’s ex-soldier husband Stan confides to her in bed at night, the privations of food rations, a persisting black market - & the new turmoil & progress of the 1960’s. Abortion became legal in England in 1967, overturning statutes dating from 1814 & 1861 that criminalized “helping out young girls in trouble.” Such law was part of the 19th century consolidation of healing into the male-dominated medical profession, weeding out homeopaths & midwives, specifically targeting women practitioners. Barbara Ehrenreich for example has written extensively - three books, I think - of parallel developments in the US. Vera Drake goes to prison for using a centuries-old, common home remedy called “quickening” - carbolic soap, or lye - that, in her words, “brings on the bleeding.” At one point, Vera indignantly tells the police she would never use dangerous metal instruments on other women. As movie police go, these are unexpectedly & painstakingly gentle with her. The inspector astutely guesses Vera herself was once in the same spot as her clients. And the young police matron’s care & compassion movingly echo what Vera had shown her own often distraught clients. That echo, I think, turns out to be crucial. In those instants, it is not just Vera singly who is stopped dead in her tracks & struck dumb. An equivalence with her clients emerges – all trapped socially by convention, by circumstances, by looming ostracism & all that entails & will cost. One senses that moment of fervent bargaining in Vera’s past - this eminently fair-minded though simple woman’s promise to help out other young women in trouble, launching a double life of 20 years that constantly risked an equal catastrophe of discovery. In that world, the only thing as bad as “getting in trouble” would be helping someone else escape its judgment. Such unforgiving social arrangements produce abortion, and other amputations - of expression, of feeling, of connection. Vera’s own briskness somehow undercuts her generosity & turns out to be something queasily akin to avoidance. She is so always on her way to the next thing, humming. Can she possibly never imagine anyone before Miss Barnes was injured? Or that her family wouldn’t find out? Such social arrangements also produce collateral damage galore in this already tattered family. Vera’s husband Stan rises to stand by her, but even son Sid, arguably the character with the broadest horizons, has quite a struggle. There’s enormous dramatic tension over whether the scandal will ruin shy - well, perpetually cringing - daughter Ethel’s only chance for marriage. Mike Leigh has been making movies since the 70’s. In the past decade alone think of such films as NAKED, SECRETS & LIES, & TOPSY-TURVEY. His method entails months of improvising roles & script with his ensemble casts before actual filming. VERA DRAKE is a movie with no narrative fat on it. A cascade of short, tightly edited scenes provide mostly visual exposition. Later moments of longer close-ups skid you to rest with a jolt. Conveying the complexity of character & relationships has its foundation in a kind of visual layering. Very often what you see is one character’s reactions literally framed by action in the foreground - between two people speaking, you see Ethel in the background bidding good-bye to Reg. During the interrogation that produces Vera’s confession to the police & then her husband, in the background the inspector glances at his watch, mops his brow. Sid’s initial condemnation of Vera, so based in quick cliche, provokes a single angry, impatient glance from his sister Ethel, more eloquent than any utterance by her throughout the film. In this present age of Bush & Benedict - it sounds like a law firm & I suppose in some way it is - VERA DRAKE helps us remember that these things are not so simple. (1006)
# 22: On MARIA FULL OF GRACE 3/17/2005 Released last July, writer-director Joshua Marston’s first feature film, MARIA FULL OF GRACE, was Oscar-nominated & didn’t win. This Spanish-language film about Maria Alvarez, a regnant 17-year-old who impulsively quits her sweatshop job dethorning roses in a Bogota suburb & winds up working as a drug mule smuggling cocaine into the wilds of New Jersey, has also gotten lots of nominations & awards from the Berlin Film Festival, Sundance, the Indie Spirit Awards & others. I thought it was about the drug trade too when I first saw it late last year, but now it’s been out for a little while on DVD, while the hook might be the drug trade – that stereotype to which Colombia is so often reduced – I think it’s about a lot more than that. Marston wrote the first draft of his script, he says, in about 48 hours, & then spent five years making this film, which of course introduces the luminous Catalina Sandino Moreno in the lead as Maria Alvarez. The poster featuring Maria gazing at a pellet of cocaine as though it were a communion wafer is certainly compelling, a visual image that summons up our capacity for obsession, faith, addiction & how all of them can morph together. Marston was initially hooked by the dramatic potential of the practice of “shot-gunning,” whereby drug runners intentionally send a number of young women who have ingested pellets of cocaine on the same plane, realizing that if one gets caught the others may make it through. This plays out on Maria’s flight, where she’s joined by her hometown friend Blanca, who’s caught wind of this scheme, the sad & ill-fated Lucy, & another woman who outfit suggests she may have been set up to get caught. Incredibly tense & ultimately tragic though the flight & its motel aftermath are, there’s still a lot of movie left when Blanca & Maria set out for Lucy’s sister in Queens. In Queens they find the pregnant Carla & Don Fernando, a community activist & “fixer” who helps out the poor immigrant & largely shadow community with little jobs, places to stay, information, tidbits of whatever one needs. He also sends dead mules home to Colombia, & the man who plays Don Fernando – a real community fixer whom Marston found during his research – reports he has sent home some 400 bodies over the years, just to give you an idea of the scope. But if you look at the film’s structure, Don Fernando on one shore is mirrored by the drug lord Javier back in Bogota, who also helps young people find work & get ahead. They are part of a film constructed around the idea of showing that globalization may have backfired in a way we could applaud. Marston is no fan of globalization, but he’s discovered that part f what has happened is a mutual penetration of cultures that allows, first, Maria & Blanca & Lucy’s sister Carla & women like them to move more easily into this one, & second, ultimately allows us to identify with them. This is done in three ways. First, by structuring the film so that Bogota & New York/New Jersey/Queens mirror one another – in what people wear, in rides into the cities where Maria watches green overhead route signs & exit signs, in cityscapes that are really very similar, & in stresses of motherhood both here & back in Bogota. Secondly & curiously, he achieves identification by making this a Spanish-language film. It could have been otherwise, but there’s just enough English in it to create an odd sense of the bilingual & of the feeling off kilter with what others are saying – much as Maria might feel herself. Finally, we find ourselves rooting for Maria as she progressively stands up for herself in moments that are leaps of faith that the truth will bear her over the abyss. She is a woman who wakes up – from a dead-end boyfriend who doesn’t love her - & who stands up, again & again. In the end, she’s on her own two feet, heading back to America from the airport. And, just as last year’s MYSTIC RIVER was really much more about the relationships of its four women than you might have noticed the first time through, MARIA FULL OF GRACE presents an ensemble of women who leave home to make another home, & whose obligations as mothers strain their reach toward sisterhood & fray their bonds. If you haven’t seen this film, it’s well worth your time. (755)
#21: On DEADWOOD & How We Civilize Ourselves 2/17/05 Now some of you might be expecting comment tonight on the upcoming Oscars. But we’re going to do something different tonight. When jazz cellist Karen Patterson talks about “art & the cultivated community,” she’s coming at the question, “How do we civilize ourselves?” Recently I some film critic commented that American crime shows are really a modern extension of the genre of the “Western.” I began looking at my favorites – CSI: MIAMI, for one – a little harder, differently, after that. But it really makes sense when you have a master cop show-maker producing a Western. If you have HBO, maybe you could watch the first season of DEADWOOD on Sunday nights starting last March. I don’t have HBO, but I’ve pricked up my ears over this series, created by David Milch, who came up with, for example, NYPD BLUE & some other cop shows. Last Tuesday the first season of DEADWOOD came out on DVD. I’ve just compressed three months’ worth of weekly viewing into the last several days. Since DEADWOOD’s story line picks up the action in each episode pretty much where it left off the previous week, this method actually gives you an added, unplanned sense of two things. First, this show & others like it are really serialized novels, & I think fairly self-aware ones. Second, you grasp the rush of change in this Dakota Black Hills renegade camp just two weeks after Custer’s massacre at Little Big Horn. Historical documents tell us that in March of 1876 there were no whites in that Sioux Territory & by July, thanks to gold strikes, there were 10, 000. So there really was a Deadwood, & on this show it’s populated with a mixture of fictional & real historical figures. Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) is shot in the back during a card game a third of the way through the first season, but he’s so compelling that his shadow colors the remaining narrative. Saloon-owner/pimp/boss/emergent civic pillar Al Swearingen – played by Ian McShane, who collected the 2004 Golden Globe for best actor in a TV dramatic series – is based on a real man, & also, David Milch says, on the Shakespearean character Falstaff from the Henry Five plays. Even this suggestion has expanded my conception of Falstaff as nothing previously & made me highly suspicious of how the classics are taught in this country. Don’t watch this series expecting that ridiculous fat guy you saw in watered-down high school productions. There’s Seth Bullock (Tim Oliphant), a man of “active conscience,” according to Wild Bill. Seth leaves the US – that is, Montana – for the wild territory, & leaves his old job of marshal, to make his fortune running a hardware store. He resumes marshalling, but that’s later on. There’s Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran, a secretly traumatized Civil War refugee doing his best in this wild place. The women comprise an ensemble who, over the course of 12 episodes, come together to overcome immense brutality & abuse in their own histories & present everyday lives, supporting one another & rescuing an orphaned girl literally encircled by wolves in the opening show. In 1876, 95% of the white women in the Dakotas were prostitutes, & women of higher class through the country were routinely kept drugged on laudanum (opium & alcohol). There are lots of whores in Deadwood – Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) risks Swearingen’s wrath to help Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) kick her habit, save her gold claim & assume mothering of little Sofia. Madame Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) – incidentally, a character born in Syracuse - is a complex woman with a knack for forming real friendships with men who then help her strike out on her own from saloonkeeper Cy Tolliver. Robin Weigert plays Calamity Jane, a sewer-mouth drunk, enormously vulnerable, with a healing gift that Doc puts to work during the smallpox epidemic. The crippled Jewel has a fragility that illuminates kindness in unexpected places in Deadwood. This six-disc DVD collection has several well-done actor commentaries & interviews about production. David Milch wanted to do a series based on cops in ancient Rome during Nero’s reign, when there was no law except force. HBO was already doing something on Rome, so he set this project in the Old West instead. He did not study old Western movies as part of his research at all. Milch surmises that the Hayes Code of decency, which rated movies from the 30’s through 1988, had created the stereotype of the “laconic cowboy,” that man of few words & complicated morality who actually bore little resemblance to what we’d find in a town like Deadwood. I understand that now there’s a whole website devoted to counting the number of “F-words” in each DEADWOOD episode. A flood of obscenity co-habitates, as Milch puts it, with the ornate Victorian language that the literate learned to read with in 1876. In the absence of government, says Milch, who speaks well will lead. A number of episodes focus on characters wrestling with dilemmas of convention, effectiveness & presumed audience in how to articulate pubic issues. These struggles are mirrored in the vocabulary of social customs, such as ways of handling the dead, probably the first quasi-religious practice attended to in settling new communities. Milch often locates important turning points in the story at the town cemetery. Seth Bullock’s revelatory fight-to-the-death with a Sioux outside town relates to afterlife beliefs. And Swearingen maintains his primitive hold on his underlings not so much by merely killing the disobedient as by feeding their bodies to pigs. Deadwood is an illegal town. During the show’s first season the community improvises its own first government when an impending treaty with the Sioux, in the aftermath of Little Big Horn, means that law & government will come anyway. One might say that socially they have been addicted to liberty & they start to sober up by faking it till they make it, by guessing at what would be normal publicly. Privately, these characters, who have abandoned & left behind old lives & identities, indicate they will stick around by the advent of infinitely delicate self-revelations to one another. How do we civilize ourselves indeed? The program’s lovely opening sequence follows an escaped horse galloping through the camp, spooked & throwing its head, finally halting on Main Street, where its seen in reflection in a pool of water. Just so can film show us ourselves. There are lots of Deadwoods out there today too. (1078)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

#20: Film Festival’s Bollywood Offering Re-opens Eastwood’s Palace Theatre 1/20/05 Tomorrow morning at 11, the Syracuse International Film & Video Festival holds a press conference at the newly renovated Palace Theater on James Street in Eastwood. The Festival program itself – with about 150 films & videos in competition plus workshops, international judges & film world guests, & special screenings - doesn’t officially occur until April, but organizers have approached this year’s task as a year-round process rather than a single annual event. Organizers have cultivated widespread community involvement. And they began last spring with the first festival’s screenings to create a model whereby the festival actually happened all over the city of Syracuse – besides Syracuse University’s campus, at the Everson Museum, the IMAX in Armory Square, the Landmark, the Westcott – even on the walls of downtown banks. The venerable Palace, a homegrown movie house if ever there was one, now joins the list. Given the festival’s vision, there’s hardly a more fitting place for tomorrow’s press conference. Built in 1924 by Alfred Dibella when Eastwood was still a village, the Palace reportedly never closed for more than a week until last April. Dibella’s daughter Frances ran it for 45 years after her father. When she died last April, her nephew Michael Heagerty, part owner of Armory Square’s Pastabilities restaurant, announced that he’d keep the Palace going after “a couple weeks” of cleaning & renovation. Eight months & half a million dollars later, the Eastwood grande dame is almost ready for her debut. Besides the symbolic choice of locating tomorrow’s press conference at the Palace, the film festival is sponsoring the first screening there on Sunday afternoon, January 30th – Indian writer/director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s HUM DIL DE CHUKE SANAM (in English, STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART). The choice of a Bollywood extravaganza is fitting too, in keeping with the festival’s international scope & a nod to the Palace’s past. After all, Frances Dibella’s favorite movie was another extravaganza, the 1939 Civil War epic, GONE WITH THE WIND, which actually runs longer than HUM DIL’s 188 minutes. The term Bollywood refers to India’s enormous film industry, based in Bombay & only just recently becoming available with any regularity on Central New York theater screens. These are often films of marathon length, some featuring large-scale musical production numbers. Without much fanfare, Desi Productions & the local store Kashmiri Imports recently began sponsoring packed, one-time screenings of popular Indian films at Mattydale’s Hollywood Theater. This Saturday that series moves to the Westcott Theater for a 5:30 p.m. screening of the drama RAINCOAT, which incidentally also stars Aishwarya Rai & Ajay Devgan, two of the principals in HUM DIL. Interviewed two weeks ago on CBS 60 MINUTES, Aishwarya Rai is a former Miss World who’s successfully transitioned to international modeling & filmmaking. Bhansali cast her again in subsequent films after she won multiple best actress awards for HUM DIL, & writer/director Gurinder Chadha (of BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) has also cast her in the starring role in the much anticipated new film BRIDE & PREJUDICE. HUM DIL DE CHUK SANAM is Sanjay Bhansali’s second major feature film. It swept dozens of Bollywood awards in the couple years following its 1999 release. The plot is fairly simple - the working out of a love triangle. Half-Indian Sameer travels to India from Italy to learn classical singing from a master singer who’s ensconced in a lavish compound filled with a large family. He quickly falls in love with the singer’s daughter, Nandini, who’s ordered to marry the more suitable Vanraj. Vanraj undertakes to reunite the lovers once he discovers Nandini’s secret love. This entails their journey to Italy – though filming was done in Budapest - a robbery & shooting, reunions, & Nandini’s discovery of real love. Along the way, there are numerous festivals & a great deal of drama – some would say melodrama, even soap opera, but I think that’s too harsh. The point of this film is the music. Bhansali spent two years working on the music, which reflects traditional music & rituals of the Gujurat region, before turning to the frankly stock story line. The soundtrack has been reviewed nearly as often & enthusiastically as the film, so one disappointment of watching the film is that only the spoken dialogue is subtitled. But the musical production numbers are visually stunning, involving scores of participants & sometimes multiple costume changes within single songs – a glorious kite festival goes for ten minutes across rooftops, for example. I thought that the movie CHICAGO marked a watershed - it was the first time I’d seen a movie musical take that such full advantage of the technology of cinematography. But clearly Bollywood is quite at ease with this! This screening was originally planned as a fund-raiser for the film festival. Earlier this month managing director Christine Fawcett announced that the bulk of the screening’s profit would go to the December 26th tsunami relief efforts,, primarily through two organizations, India’s Asha for Education ( & the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies. Don’t miss out on this event, where so much that is large converges. (846)
#19: Redhouse’s Offering of STRANGERS IN GOOD COMPANY Exactly Right for the Holidays 12/16/2004 When Cynthia Scott’s film STRANGERS IN GOOD COMPANY opened in New York City in 1991, film critic Janet Maslin said it was a “patient film.” It’s playing at the Redhouse in Syracuse’s Armory Square right now, & it might be just what you need in this frazzled season. STRANGERS opens quietly: some elderly women & their 30-ish bus driver emerge from a mist, trudge across a bumpy meadow, hauling their pocketbooks & leaning on one another. One laughs, “Put your glasses on!” The most elderly passenger on this day-trip outing, Constance, had suggested a small detour to the lake-side cottage where she spent summers 80 years ago. Under a long canopy of green, the rickety bus breaks down, & they must seek shelter in an abandoned house. Catherine, a country-reared nun handy with tools, sings hymns along with her Walkman while she coaxes the engine back to life. There is not much of a plot. They spend three days & nights while Catherine fixes the bus, it fails again, & she walks 20 miles out to bring help back by plane. They figure out bedding, try to fish in several hilarious ways, talk about life, death, sex, loss, the aches & pains & pills of old age. Constance worries the others are furious with her for stranding them. They come from different classes & backgrounds. There’s a Mohawk woman who fishes with pantyhose. An aged lesbian comes out & one feels in another life that she & the nun would have connected deeply. A former cabaret singer gets them all dancing to the swing tune “In the Mood.” I’m going to tell you that in the end they are rescued. And the bus driver, who’s the youngest, sustains the only serious injury in the first five minutes when she falls & twists her ankle. The others really are old & frail – there’s even a nurse listed in the film’s final credits – but in this wilderness they are much too careful to trip as Michelle did. It is one of this film’s great strengths that director Cynthia Scott had made four previous movies about dance, including the 1984 Oscar short-documentary-winner FLAMENCO AT 5:15, for she allows us to see the frailty of great age as yet another dance. And the setting is hardly idyllic – the abandoned house they find is like one of those lonely, forbidding Edwin Hopper houses, dark & isolated. It takes their connections to bring it into sunlight three days later. One of the women in this film has written that it’s a “semi- documentary.” Writer Gloria Demers set up the situation, but the lives of the women in the film furnish the material for how they will interact. Indeed, they share as collaborators in the film by interviewing one another, usually the filmmaker’s job. It gradually dawns on you that these aren’t professional actors – they don’t use their voices as instruments, don’t have the economy & intention of movement that actors & dancers possess. The technical excellence in this film comes from the crisp colors, the cinematography, the painterly framing of scenes, the editing, the stunning musical score by Marie Bernard that puts Ravel & Schubert together with some slyly comic Big Band Swing. Why show this film during December? The Redhouse’s artistic director Gerard Moses says that the kind of connections in STRANGERS IN GOOD COMPANY are what it’s all about. During the holidays many of us spend our time & attention zigzagging, zooming between highs & lows. The kind of calm alertness this film creates is like that floor that we pass time after time on the way up & down the elevator. Lately I’ve been thinking that the movies available about now in the malls are like that too. It’s the Oscar-season nominations that influence the release dates of many films about this time of year. Mike Nichols’ CLOSER springs to mind – inscrutably, the New Times describes this bleak tale as “saucy.” Despite its stunning performances (especially Natalie Portman & Julia Roberts) & its cinematography, I suspect CLOSER would not draw huge crowds in July. It is a film about relationships, like the equally excellent IN THE BEDROOM of a couple years ago, that I adamantly don’t want to see twice. Just this week, two similarly excellent but bleak films about marriage were released on DVD, THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR & WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. I don’t want to watch them twice because well-made as they are, they lack redemption. Unlike Patty Jenkins’ MONSTER, though also bleak. Turning to comedies doesn’t help. Calling this the season of cynicism in the NEW YORK TIMES this week, Sharon Waxman noted that movies like SURVIVING XMAS, XMAS WITH THE KRANKS & last year’s BAD SANTA (1 & 2, no less) are partly the result of the youth market that would find A WONDERFUL LIFE corny. Waxman says this trend really started in 1990 with HOME ALONE, which treated real people to the type of unrelenting extreme physical injury usually sustained by cartoon characters. Well, in 1990 Cynthia Scott was making this quiet, patient film up in Canada that has now come to Syracuse remind us of who we really are. STRANGERS IN GOOD COMPANY has been playing Sunday & Tuesday evenings at 7 o’clock at the Redhouse this month, & continues this weekend. It returns in February for another seven screening dates beginning on the 1st. Now that The Redhouse film program is up & running, the local papers have pretty much got straightened out how to include them correctly in the movie listings. Like me, The Redhouse picks one or two films a month. I hope I choose what films to tell listeners about as well as they are choosing what to show. This is Nancy Keefe Rhodes for Focus on Film. As the Mohawk Alice says when it’s time for good-byes, “Ohna-Gee Wah-hee.” (980)
#18: On ANGELS IN AMERICA 11/25/2004 Shortly after the election, one of my sisters emailed me Thomas Jefferson’s remarks to the broken-hearted losers of 1796’s presidential election. Jefferson wrote: “A little patience, & we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, & the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.” As you fight fire with fire, we answer the reign of witches with wings! I’m grateful for the recent DVD release of ANGELS IN AMERICA. This is Mike Nichols’ 2003 film adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play about the AIDS epidemic in Ronald Reagan’s America – there’s love, politics, the letter & spirit of the law, the toll of faith & the deep sorrow of abandonment that underlies American migration & progress. And right now, this soaring, brutal & hilarious film has enormous resonance. As two 4-hour plays, MILLENIUM APPROACHES & PERESTROIKA, ANGELS opened on Broadway in 1993 & 1994, winning Tony Awards two years in a row along with the Pultizer Prize. The film pares ANGELS down to six hours, debuting last December on HBO. Despite a cascade of awards, some critics grumble now that it’s “uneven” & “melodramatic.” There’s a curious fixation with Emma Thompson’s angel wings being “unrealistic,” which I think misses the point. Like much of ANGELS’ hilarity, the Messenger’s unwieldy wings avoid any danger of lapsing into earnestness at a high camp moment. Such complaints might stem from stuffing all that communal grandeur onto a TV screen with mostly solitary watchers. But I’ll take the trade-off because a lot of people can see this now. Set in New York City with what Mike Nichols calls his “dream cast,” ANGELS recounts interlocking stories of lives that whirl ever closer & eventually intertwine. Here’s a bare-bones recap. After his grandmother’s death, Louis abandons his HIV-stricken lover Prior & pursues Mormon lawyer Joe, whose wife Harper unravels. Joe’s boss is the only factually-based character, McCarthyite lawyer Roy Cohn. Played by Al Pacino as the best slimeball since Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, Roy Cohn dies of AIDS, the male nurse Belize & Ethel Rosenberg’s gloating ghost, played by Meryl Streep, who also plays Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt, who arrives from Salt Lake City. Hannah Pitt coaxes Harper back from madness & takes up with Prior, who’s been visited by an angel. The angel explains that God has abandoned America for not staying put –certainly a classic conservative stance, but a dilemma for a nation of pioneers, even more so for two religions whose survival has depended on wandering. Now, this sounds a lot like a Robert Altman movie. Altman’s networks often illuminate women’s evolving relationships & show something that is socially very American, these made-up families that compete with blood, often with garish incongruity. It’s no surprise that Kushner talked with Altman first about getting ANGELS on-screen. But the production is such an extravaganza that we could miss the fairly elegant structure it’s hung on without Mike Nichols’ cooler strategy, which here emphasizes doubling – mirrors, parallels, twin situation, different sides of one emotion, all sorts of puns. One of my favorite examples of this doubling is that several actors play two or more characters who echo one another, notably Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson & Jeffrey Wright. This device, deeply pleasurable because it incarnates those echoes, isn’t much used in film - & could be. Thompson & Wright as the pair of nurses are pivotal as “angels of mercy” during an epidemic. And Wright’s black queen, Belize, is the only character with enough earned moral heft to hold his own against Roy Cohn. There’s an abundance of extremely well written turning point scenes between two-somes. They’re often about keeping faith or abandonment, & hinge on human action mattering deeply. Language matters as a kind of action too, & Kushner’s is gorgeous. Comprehending one another is key & the film visually shows emerging points of view. Long tracking shots carry the viewer great distances, literally connecting the dots in the landscape [map?]. In the final scene at Bethesda Fountain’s angel statue in Central Park, Prior looks the audience in the face & the camera dips beneath him, conferring angel perspective: [Start Tr. 2 from pause & play underneath] “This disease will kill many of us, but not all. We will commemorate the dead & we will not live secret lives anymore. We are not going away. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.” On Thanksgiving Day, ANGELS IN AMERICA is good for ails us all. (748)
#17: On Women & Documentaries in the New Afghan Cinema 11/18/04 Earlier this month I was excited to read a small sidebar in Sunday’s PARADE Magazine announcing this week’s PBS Television national premiere, as part of the Independent Lens series, of AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, a 52-minute documentary about Afghan women made largely by young Afghan women just learning to be journalists. This is the film Laura Bush mentioned last summer during her Republican Convention speech, after she met personally with two of the young journalists – the kind of attention that should also spur early DVD release. I was excited because I had the great luck to see this film last June here in Syracuse, thanks to a visit from Deborah Alexander between her stints to Kabul. Former Syracusan & WVR guest several times, Deborah’s worked in Afghanistan twice recently, first for the US State Department’s Agency for International Development & most recently consulting on the election. We’ve shared her email reflections from time to time on-air too. One of her projects with USAID had involved collaboration with several groups – the Asia Foundation, UNESCO & the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs – in supporting this effort to teach young Afghan women video journalism & get this film made. The women’s camera training course was launched in the summer of 2002 under auspices of an NGO founded to repair the war’s mental & cultural destruction called Aine, the Afghan Media & Cultural Center. Aine means “mirror” in the Farsi language, & Deborah was enthusiastic about the resulting film’s accuracy. “This really shows Afghanistan,” she told me, “the people & the country that I saw there.” Well, AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED didn’t air here in Central New York on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. The program on post 9/11 architecture had been slated “for months.” But WCNY, Channel 24 will air it on Saturday, December 18th at 6 o’clock. And its premiere in the US is important. French TV journalist Brigitte Brault, who directed AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, began training 14 Afghan women in their late teens to be video journalists less than a year after 9/11. The film follows seven of them as they collect oral histories of other women in four locales. She noted in Tuesday’s NEW YORK TIMES that teaching the women to use cameras themselves was “deeply provocative.” None of these young women had ever traveled outside Kabul before. The film documents firsts plane rides, first river-fordings, first horseback trips. But this isn’t a “what-I-did-last-summer” movie. In Bamyan, where the Taliban dynamited ancient giant Buddhas carved into the cliffs, they visit families living in caves. These are the Hazzaras, an ethnically obscure tribe whose history includes women warriors on horseback who guarded the Buddhas. The Taliban pursued the Hazzaras with particular viciousness. Besides killing the men during the 2001 massacre, Taliban burned & bulldozed houses with women & children inside, cut off women’s breasts, & dismembered one woman’s male infant. Making tea by firelight, one old woman named Zanaib challenges the young journalists to visit even more ravaged spots. Relations with men vary widely both by region & individual. Herat is just an hour’s journey from Kabul by air, but at that point was the bailiwick of the warlord Ishmael Khan, & fiercely conservative. Even the men there are reluctant to bring their women for interviews. In Jalalabad, the Pashtun chief Faridoon escorts & guards the group as long as they are in his territory, finally negotiating with one local elder to permit interviews with the nomadic Koochi women. In Badakshan, home of poppies, legendary hospitality & the polo-like sport of buzkashi, they encounter a woman who describes the mutilation, rape & death she once risked if she refused an arranged marriage. Also in Badakshan, 20 year-old Mehria Aziz – who at 8 lost her mother to a stray mujahadeen bullet & who’s now visited Laura Bush - stands up to an angry crowd of men & informs them that the Koran actually does not require women to wear the floor-length chadori. Throughout, these young women are keenly aware of what they do. Mehria says simply, “We are the first women journalists in our country.” They deeply feel what other Afghan women have endured & they weep on camera. Afghan cinema has not been indifferent to Afghan women. Despite invasions & civil war, despite the Taliban closing the movie theatres & banning film for six years, Kabul’s small but vigorous & cosmopolitan film industry dates from the 1960’s. When the national film organization’s head, Siddiq Barmak, returned from exile after the Taliban regime fell, his first film project was the stunning Golden Globe-winner OSAMA, about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy & is found out. Barmak’s cast was entirely amateur, including former Taliban soldiers who participated to make amends & the pre-teen lead whom Barmak discovered surviving as a street beggar. Films like Majid Majidi’s BARAN, British director Michael Winterbottom’s IN THIS WORLD, the haunting Canadian KANDAHAR, & others made in collaboration with filmmakers from neighboring Iran, Tajikistan, & India, have reached US audiences through limited release in large cities, regional festivals, discerning DVD shops & now PBS. Last spring New York City’s Tribeca Festival screened two new documentaries about Afghan women, THE BEAUTY SCHOOL OF KABUL & AFGHANISTAN: THE LOST TRUTH, the latter following Iranian actress/director Yassamin Maleknasr as she interviewed women across the country. In fact, I saw AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED soon after Syracuse’s own first Film & Video Fest, which offered a rich crop of documentaries, many women-made, including a sequel, RETURN TO KANDAHAR. Zana Briskie’s BORN INTO BROTHELS, now going into theatrical release around the turn of the new year, also screened at the Syracuse festival. A good companion piece to AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, Briskie’s film chronicles her project to teach photography to street children in India. Both films open with a group of short profiles of their young students - conventionally unlikely candidates - then follow them through the learning & application of their craft as they in turn document life around them. No doubt in the course of their work they will find the next generation too. Whether presented as documentary or fiction, this “nested box” narrative of the continual apprenticeship of our storytellers is one the most compelling ways for cultures in crisis to start to right themselves. AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED as provocative as a film & as a project because it refreshes our ideas about the forms & purposes of documentaries. Beyond a center position of “objectivity,” a documentary’s stance can expand on either side. In one direction, strategically “personal” stories further audience identification, with the filmmaker actively composing the narrative. This approaches the richness of good cinematic fiction. In the US Ross McEllwee’s documentary work has done this, for example. In the other direction are political commentary & interpretation. Conveying the true breadth of subject-as-citizen, you just might need both wings. Either so-called “non-objective” stance has risks, especially with novices. In particular, venturing into the personal magnifies novice status & can look self-indulgent. A slippery slope ensues, because in this light any technical awkwardness becomes more glaring. The Western women who directed, narrated & edited this film mostly keep themselves our of the spotlight. They know exactly whose personal story is the point here, so that AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED deftly side steps the pitfalls of the personal. Here, I think, is what that offers us & why it works. This film acknowledges the historic nature, dignity & danger of the work undertaken by the young journalists. I have rarely seen any “We are the first” embodied with such visceral immediacy. Putting the journalist apprentices themselves so centrally on-screen makes their evolving & reciprocal conversation with the women they encounter & record itself a subject of the film rather than just an interesting, even if heart-warming, by-product. This has the function of role modeling the training of journalists & their relationship with their own communities. What will the care & feeding of a free media & its practitioners look like in this new, fragile & much beleaguered democracy? Just holding elections is the quick & dirty version of nation building. AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED is one of the strongest arguments I’ve seen for nurturing other institutions in civil society & one of the greatest justifications for some of the projects undertaken in Afghanistan that never make our own front pages. And this film is anything but technically awkward. Indeed, the film’s visual fluency is one of its strongest features. I suspect this comes of the practice & demands of working wartime journalism. The young Afghan women have mentors who use their cameras every day, under extreme pressure in shifting conditions, meeting deadlines, of necessity communicating in flexible, arresting & economical ways. Here is the source of the fire-lit close-ups & the sweeping panoramas, both at the right moment, & just the right balance of show & tell. Don’t miss AFGHNAISTAN UNVEILED on the 18th of December on WCNY Channel 24. We’ll remind you. (1481)
#16: On Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL 10/28/2004 Thirty years ago, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, wrote, directed & scored his 19th film. Arguably the best director – certainly the best known - of the German New Wave cinema movement, Fassbinder made 41 films between 1969 & 1982. He was 28 when he made this film, which was shot in just four weeks. ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Festival in 1974, & around 2001 it began popping up in new screenings here in the US. The Redhouse, Syracuse’s new multi-use art house, opened FEAR EATS THE SOUL last Sunday; it runs Sundays & Tuesdays through November 14th. In a post-9/11 world, this film supplies much perspective. It’s set in Germany after the Munich Olympics, where Arab terrorists held siege with kidnapped Israeli athletes, which ended badly. A middle-aged German woman, Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira, meets a guest worker from Morocco one rainy night when she stops at a bar to get out of the weather. She & Ali dance, he walks her home, & stays, & to the surprise of both, they soon find themselves getting married. Although Ali shares this with his fellow Arabs, he keeps it secret from his German co-workers in a car shop. Emmi & Ali endure ostracism of the cruelest, pettiest kind, from her grown children & neighbors & shopkeepers & fellow workers. Fassbinder has an uncredited cameo role as her supremely loutish son-in-law. They have difficulties, chiefly when each lapses into bad behavior in the company others – we may say each is unfaithful but in different ways. Despite their reunion, the film abruptly ends with his physical collapse. The doctor informs Emmi that guest workers frequently suffer these severe stomach ulcers, borne of stress in hostile surroundings, even as the doctor himself looks after Emmi with profound disdain. Both Mira & the actor, El Hedi ben Salem, acted in other Fassbinder films, & it probably helps the film’s visual admiration of Ali that Fassbinder & Salem were lovers. Indeed, though Emmi’s character turns prettier & even looks younger as the story progresses, Ali is a magnificent man. Emmi calls him “beautiful” & contrary to the Germans’ belief that the guest workers are not clean, Ali is constantly showering. Left to themselves, Emmi & Ali fall in love because they are able, however haltingly & inarticulately, to risk the intimacy outsiders intuit of each other. But the very air seems toxic with racial, class & nationalist distrust, not to mention the disapproval their age difference provokes. It literally makes Ali sick. One of the most striking scenes has them alone in a virtual sea of empty tables at an outdoor café, admitting how hard it is to endure the ostracism, as a band of waiters & chefs glare at them holding hands. Though family & friends come back around – ironically, all when they want something from Emmi – we see great damage done. One of the actions by a public figure that I most appreciated following 9/11 was Oprah Winfrey’s invitation to Muslim women to use her TV show to identify themselves, to talk about their culture & beliefs to try to prevent both the hi-jacking of Islam by extremists & the stereotyping & attack of Muslims by some angry, frightened Americans. We saw incidents here in Central New York that were ugly in those days. Such ugliness persists in national trends of opinion about our borders, about who gets what jobs, about benefits to foreign nationals who work in the US, about Arab & Muslim people & indeed about foreigners in general. Just weeks ago Women’s Voices had guests who spoke of the long Central New York history of migrant workers, & of efforts to resettle refugees here. This morning’s paper features a story about one such family, who’ve lived a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp. These gentle people look tired, & scared, even as they peer hopefully at the news camera. Some people find Oprah melodramatic, you know. But I think she stepped up to the plate on this one. In FEAR EATS THE SOUL, Fassbinder also employed the melodramatic style of his own hero, director Douglas Sirk, to dismantle & comment on European culture & politics in an era of fearful prejudice. Roughly a re-make of Sirk’s 1955 film, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS – which has much in common stylistically with Todd Haynes more recent FAR FROM HEAVEN – FEAR EATS THE SOUL is more effective now because of some distance. Just as it’s disconcerting to see old photos of ourselves in hippie haircuts & big glasses, watching these characters in their bell-bottoms & beehive hair-dos makes one realize that we are about equidistant in time from them as they were in the 70’s from the Third Reich. Indeed, Fassbinder won’t let us forget the few decades – “mere” or very long, according to your perspective – between Ali & Emmi’s story & the Nazis, for Emmi’s family belonged to that party. It’s just far enough away for the complacent to feel comfortable. But have either fashion or behavior really changed? See this film, this mirror. It runs at the Redhouse through November 14th. (858)
#15: On Spike Lee’s FOUR LITTLE GIRLS 9/23/04 In this post-9/11 election year, Spike Lee’s FOUR LITTLE GIRLS usefully corrects the notion that terrorist attacks on American soil are something either new or rare. When the 16th St. Baptist Church was bombed in 1963, just as a month of youth-centered services was commencing, there was an affluent Birmingham neighborhood nicknamed Dynamite Hill because of the frequency of bombing newly completed Black homes there. As FOUR LITTLE GIRLS premiered in 1997, national news media reported the resurgence over the previous several years of dozens of Black churches burned throughout the South. FOUR LITTLE GIRLS provides footage of the dogs & fire-hoses turned loose on marchers - largely young people - in Birmingham streets, & the white tank that police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor raced around in. Yes, quite a lot happened here between Pearl Harbor & 9/11. FOUR LITTLE GIRLS reminds us to fill in the rest of the story, & it’s a movie that simmered a long time. In 1963 writer-director Spike Lee was five years old - he doesn’t remember the 16th St. church bombing that killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, all 14, & 11-year-old Denise McNair. Spike Lee wasn’t yet 20 when Robert Chambliss was finally charged with the bombing in 1977 - by the way, the anniversary of his arrest is tomorrow. Bill Baxley, who prosecuted Chambliss as Alabama’s Attorney General, says he listened to Joan Baez’s song, “Birmingham Sunday,” every morning for years. A wide shot of the cemetery on a sunny fall morning opens this film, bird calls mingling with the song’s refrain: “And the choir was singing of freedom.” In 1983, Spike Lee was a graduate film student at NYU, so moved by Howell Raines’ New York Times essay on the bombing that he wrote to Denise McNair’s father, asking to make a movie. McNair declined, but finally agreed in the mid-90’s. He knew Spike Lee’s father & aunts, for one thing - this film is about family on many levels. And by then an elected official himself for 20-odd years - a Jefferson County Commissioner - the respected McNair’s approval provided access to the vast array of relatives & friends who appear on-screen, & personages like Howell Raines himself, Reverends Wyatt Walker, James Bevel, Fred Shuttlesworth & others, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, historian Taylor Branch, Coretta Scott King. The week FOUR LITTLE GIRLS premiered in New York City, the Justice Dept. also announced the case re-opened, leading to the arrest of the three other long-identified suspects. As filmmaking goes, the Oscar-nominated FOUR LITTLE GIRLS is a better documentary than Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11. You have the feeling the delay in getting it made was a blessing in disguise. First off, Spike Lee specifically decided against dramatizing events & characters. He’s done this & done it well - Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, or the complex portrait of social tensions swirling around serial killer David Berkowitz in SUMMER OF SAM. Instead, here he allowed people living with these deaths for three & a half decades to have their own say. This is rich indeed, both in remembered detail & in the stretch to recall memories inevitably faded. “We’ve tried to put this behind us,” says one surviving sister. “We may not remember every detail, but we remember what we felt.” Co-producer Sam Pollard, whose other projects include EYES ON THE PRIZE, edited this film. Pollard & Lee have made a narrative that some have compared to a quilt, with snippets of interviews placed side by side so that the story slowly accumulates, as in a conversation. These personal accounts are filmed with camera work so close that faces fill the screen - several people break down & you hold your breath. Chris McNair somehow manages not to & you hold your breath again. These accounts alternate with news footage & still photos that render Birmingham intelligible & explain why it was the city where Civil Rights leaders least wanted to go. Finally there are several longer segments, archetypal moments in this community’s life on both the public & personal levels. There’s the Chambliss trial - his niece told on him, putting him in prison - a decrepit George Wallace who drags his Black nurse Ed on-screen. Spike Lee doesn’t like voice-over narrative & wisely stays out of the way, with a few exceptions, such as discussed with the McNairs telling 6-year-old Denise why she can’t have a sandwich at a certain lunch counter. Or his exchange with Alpha Robertson (Carole’s mother) about rooting hatred out of her heart. Less than a year after the bombing, Congress finally passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don’t know any single other documentary that reincarnates this era so strongly as history. Yet what raises it beyond history are the people, not sanitized heroic figures but whole human beings, members of families. Told she was too little to march, Denise McNair told her mother, “You’re not too little,” & her mother shares on-screen not only hearing it but trying to get out of it. If we wonder how these four little girls might have turned out, the years it took to make this film suggest something like an answer. They would be like these friends & neighbors & sisters & cousins & their own parents, who still mourn them from the midst of graceful, well-lived lives. Above all FOUR LITTLE GIRLS is about parenting - what we want for our kids, what is bitter & what lifts you up, parenting in this city where the strategy of the children leading first salvaged a badly faltering movement. And it’s about the other parents who did not keep faith, who have denied their own. It steals over you slowly, watching the hues & shades of color in these close-up faces - intimate terrorism. You can buy FOUR LITTLE GIRLS on-line & now you rent it at Emerald City Video on Bridge Street. (987)
#14: On Lars Von Triers’ DOGVILLE 9/16/04 The 2003 film DOGVILLE had its US opening in March in New York City, coinciding with a retrospective of Danish writer-director Lars Von Triers’ work at the American Museum of the Moving Image. Besides the European actors he works with often & his own stock company, Von Triers has attracted the likes of James Caan, John Hurt, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, & native Central New Yorker Siobhan Fallon Hogan. And Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, the mysterious fugitive who seeks refuge in the Depression-era Colorado Rockies town, only to have her protectors turn gruesomely against her before their final comeuppance. DOGVILLE didn’t screen in Syracuse, despite national media furor & an area native in a featured role. There was its unusual style & set, controversy over its plausibility & possible anti-Americanism, & Von Triers’ notorious treatment of women in what one reviewer called “his most recent provocation.” Von Triers is not yet widely known in the US. Locally, only Emerald City Video (ever reliable) carries his earlier films & they have just two, the 1996 BREAKING THE WAVES with Emily Watson, & 2000’s DANCER IN THE DARK, with Icelandic pop singer BJORK. But he’s likely the most influential filmmaker working today in Europe. In 1995, Von Triers & Thomas Vinterberg issued “Dogma 95,” principles designed to return movies to purer style by, for example, reducing use of props, lighting & soundtracks, & using hand-held cameras. While making just a single film strictly within these guidelines, Von Triers’ DOGVILLE is pervaded with Dogma 95. And Von Triers’ long-time choice of multiple hand-held videocams to shoot scenes, combined with his abandoning any visual axis as a reference point, makes you woozy until you’re used to watching it. Not for him the graceful virtuoso use of this approach as applied, say, in the musical HICAGO! DOGVILLE is shot on a black, bare set where chalk outlines on the floor indicate the details of the town. Props are few; a rock ledge, old mine timbers, a ghostly apple tree branch. The story occurs within what looks like a crime scene or a videogame schematic. Initially this resembles just filming a stage play, except that Von Triers’ design & camera work actually revive the 1930’s-era avant-garde style of filmmaking fairly accurately, including the mime work of characters opening & closing doors that literally aren’t there. Far from boring, this heightens the tension & makes the arrival of real vehicles in particular – a pick-up truck that Grace hopes to escape in & the gangster limos – momentous. This movie is three hours long! Even though DVD scene selection means you can take a break, chances are you won’t, because it’s riveting. In the annals of busting the myth of small town utopia – Grace thought this town would be substantially different from her father’s world than it proves to be – DOGVILLE joins Wilder’s play OUR TOWN, Durrenmatt’s play THE VISIT, Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” & - especially with the sarcastic voice-over – even THE GRINCH WHO STOLE XMAS. But the best companion I found was John Ford’s 1940 film THE GRAPES OF WRATH with henry Fonda as Tom Joad. As in his other films, Von Triers’ DOGVILLE is really more about what happens when you add a vulnerable outsider. Of course GRAPES OF WRATH depicts the way in which the Depression made huge numbers of Americans into outsiders in their own land. Steinbeck’s novel has been chosen for Central New York’s second annual community-wide reading initiative – there’s a kick-off at Barnes & Noble on Sunday, September 26th at 2 o’clock. And by the way, Ford’s 65-year-old film remains astonishingly fresh. It’s a searing portrait that quickly puts accusations against Von Triers in perspective, & links well with the use he made during DOGVILLE’s final credits of Dorothea Lange Depression-era photos, contemporary photos of mostly Black poverty, & David Bowie’s song, “Young Americans.” Some reviewers were offended especially by this final credits piece.’s ordinarily coolly self-possessed David Edelstein wanted to throw things at the screen, he said. Another, though allowing powerhouse performances & impeccable casting, recommended “washing it down with the John Wayne pic RIO BRAVO.” In fact, Von Triers embarked upon DOGVILLE, the first of his USA trilogy, in response to charges of anti-Americanism against DANCER IN THE DARK, set in 1960’s Washington State. Really, US sensitivity to this foreigner’s view of American life is – as DOGVILLE’s Tom Edison might say - but another “illustration” of the welcome an outsider gets here when times are tough. Of course US cultural symbols abound in DOGVILLE. The town meeting, Tom Sawyer, Tom Edison’s opportunism jostling uncomfortably with moral questions, apple orchards & the town’s main drag, Elm Street, suggesting both NIGHTMARE ON… & for the more politically literate, the intersection of Houston & Elm Streets in Dallas. As in DANCER, the theft of hard-earned money, scape goating & obligation gone wrong figure prominently. But both films transcend mere commentary on US capitalism. The USA trilogy eventually will encompass MANDERLAY, now in production & focusing on Southern slavery, & WASHNGTON, about the capital, all set in the 1930’s. How women are treated holds a key here. His reputation as a harsh, dictatorial director doesn’t help allay his parallel reputation for some of the most disturbing & insidiously cruel stories about women on screen today. Bjork swore off acting forever after working with him, calling him an “emotional pornographer.” But unlike BREAKING THE WAVES’ Bess, or DANCER’s Selma, Grace is not a simple-minded, golden-hearted victim. She’s bright, resourceful, compassionate, & displays what one reviewer calls “moral poise.” She’s risked everything for an examined life. In her final, pivotal conversation with her father, Grace clearly is a female Christ figure who declines crucifixion. This conversation snaps suddenly into focus as a modern Agony in the Garden as Grace & her father argue over whether compassion or vengeance constitutes the greater arrogance. In society, says Von Triers’ long-time producer, Vibeka Windelow, a woman, “Women are allowed to express more, emotionally & verbally.” Horrible things happen to Von Triers’ women. He has also elicited portraits of some of the most moving, complex, resonant & articulate women on any screen. In each of DOGVILLE’s three sections there is a tense & satisfying teeter-tottering that carries the narrative forward. The gravest mistake is to dismiss Grace’s gangster dad as a simple-minded fool. As political commentary on US life, what may sting most about DOGVILLE is its warning to progressives: our own worst, most arrogant habit is that we are prone to underestimate thugs in high places. (1110)
#13: MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY & PROFF – On Time, Art, & How We Know One Another, at the Redhouse 8/19/2004 It is easy enough to say that the different arts feed one another. The current offerings at The Redhouse take this further than usual. Together, William Smith’s paintings, the film MY ARCHITECT, & the play PROOF are like nested baskets or wonderfully interlocking pieces of a puzzle. In particular, those paintings prepare your perception for both the film & the play. William Smith’s paintings are vivid landscapes of trees & their reflections in water. Some fade like aged parchment at their edges. Others seem to erupt from the classical literary texts they’re painted on top of. Now we usually call this “tension,” don’t we? The tension between time & memory, fact & emotion, nature & technical expertise, public & private, as if they were opposites. Really it’s the shock of proximity at work. This can sometimes be witty to, when we suppose such categories mutually exclusive. Now let’s look at the two stories of children of brilliant & difficult parents. Nathaniel Kahn spent five years making the Oscar-nominated MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY, about his father Louis, the most significant architect of the late 20th century. One of three offspring of his father’s triple life, he was eleven when his father died. As a survey of Louis Kahn’s time & work alone, this flm’s impressive. To barely scratch the surface, there’s the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences overlooking the Pacific in California, & the breath-taking National Assembly in Dakka, Bangladesh (built by hand labor over 23 years). So revered in the latter that Bangledeshi architect Shamsul Wares, who worked on the project, says tearfully that Kahn “gave us democracy.” Nathaniel Kahn may be forgiven for thinking of these buildings as his brothers & sisters. An artist in his own right, he looks for his father in his father’s work. He had trouble funding this film. Investors preferred the public architect to the private family saga. Mixed or negative responses to the film generally focus on this too. Charges that he’s merely angry seem baffling & off the mark to me. Some of the most wining moments arise from the generous, artistic use Nathaniel makes of the personal & unexpected. Interviewing his mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel annoys her by pressing a point. She sighs & rolls her eyes, exclaims impatiently, “Oh Nathaniel!” It’s brave to leave that in, because he looks clumsy. Yet the vey fact of her motherhood comes flooding through most in this instant – as filmmaking, this telegraphs powerfully her dignity & dilemma in raising an illegitimate son in a time this was scandalous. Interviewed later, Nathaniel discussed film & architecture as similar art forms. “So many people conspure to reduce your vision,” he says. Both artforms are time-consuming, both “constructed. You put stone on stone. Ultimately architecture is about space & light. Films are also light. Physically speaking it is literally capturing the light.” These art forms merge in the movie when Nathaniel roller-blades on the plaza of the Salk Institute, swooping in great arcs. This visually lyrical moment embodies the possibilities of interacting with art. David Auburn’s play PROOF took three Tonies & a Pulitzer after opening in 2001, & soon comes to the screen. PROFF gives us another accomplished & challenging parent & this time, a daughter. Like MY ARCHITECT, it’s profoundly hopeful. Both kids emerge more than holding their own. PROOF takes place in Chicago entirely on a porch, that architectural overlap between public & private space. Nathaniel Kahn said his father was “like a ghost weaving in & out of people’s lives.” PROOF stats with a ghost too – the night before his funeral & her birthday, a mathematical genius-slash-sometime-psychotic appears to his daughter Catherine. Oldest daughter Claire, a high-powered currency analyst, is coming home from New York. And eager-beaver grad student Hal is already rooting around in the notebooks left behind. PROOF resurrects the exact moment Catherine abandoned efforts to leave her unstable father. And her own future turns on whether Claire & Hal believe her sanity & talent. Mary-Louise Parker of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, BULLETS ONBROADWAY & BOYS ON THE SIDE created the role of Catherine. Now Laura Austin makes it her own. The dilemma: how to dramatically portray this young woman’s cerebral giftedness? We catch ourselves admitting it really is much easier to believe in her professor father. Catherine’s not the right gender for math, doesn’t have the right credentials or experience. Hal describes the elegance of the old man’s best work as “no wasted moves.” Which could describe Gerard Moses’ directing too. We start to believe as we watch Catherine seduce Hal. Laura Austin must make us believe this homebound, socially prickly, even overly bright young woman has it in her to be far more with it than we gave her credit for. Kathleen Flanagan is no slouch as the all-together Catherine either. Some of this production’s best moments are pieces of stage business actually not in the play’s text. Clair changes a ceiling light bulb on the porch by standing on a rickety folding chair in stiletto-heeled sandals – doesn’t miss a beat. Later, characters furiously throw a notebook back & forth in a hugely powerful physical “conversation” about trust & blame & despair. Math itself is subtly redefined as interactive by Hal & Catherine’s final exchange – also not in the text. According to the Redhouse folks, they want their overall programming to achieve such conversation among the works presented as a matter of course. If they continue to succeed so well, how we experience art in Central New York will be taking a quantum leap. (951)
#12: In the Summer Doldrums 7/15/04 I’m not going to review Michael Moore’s FAHRENHITE 9/11 tonight. I encourage adults to take a young person to see this film & then spend time talking with them about it afterward. F 9/11 is distressing, compelling, chock full of memorable & conflicted moments. I’m still shaken at how much I felt while watching it - when it hit me that the protesters at W’s inauguration, blocks & blocks of them, clearly thousands, never made it to the news here in Syracuse. When the mother from Flint, Michigan, stayed on-screen while breaking down so long that it became unseemly & exploitive (though I’m not sure she would agree, from her post-movie talk show comments). When my stomach turned queasy at the soldiers rigging up their tanks with heavy metal music sound tracks for blowing people up. And that pre-invasion Baghdad kite-flying - as if life were really that peachy under Saddam - as if any of this were that simple. But – I’m not going to review F 9/11. I am more interested in something else.There’s a better political documentary out right now, made by the director of the forthcoming re-make of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. I had to drive 50 miles to Utica last week to see Jonathan Demme’s THE AGRONOMIST, shown only four times at the Munson Willliams Proctor Arts Institute. THE AGRONOMIST covers the forty-year career of broadcast journalist Jean Dominique, founder of Creole-language Radio Haiti Inter. After exiles, shut-downs & bullying under Duvalier & the junta, & the advent of Aristide, Dominique was finally assassinated in April 2000. By then, Demme had followed him for nine years. The film ends with Dominique’s wife & partner, Michelle Montas, returning to the air to declare – in the grand populist spirit of the Greek film Z, Henry Fonda’s GRAPES OF WRATH speech, & the labor ballad “Joe Hill” – that Jean Dominique still lives. I would think progressive activists would be flocking to see this film. It’s nuanced, intelligent, well-paced, entertaining & spans a significant chunk of Haiti’s history & efforts to provide a truthful account of that period, whose chaos has not waned much. Dominique’s thinking on how the arts & politics interact is intriguing & instructive now - he started out with a film club that Duvalier shut down when he showed a French film about the Nazis. Domonique remarked, “If you see a good film correctly, the grammar of that film is a political act.” Originally an Aristide supporter, Dominique later challenged him about the corruption & bullying within the Lavalas movement. Demme was there to film, & now excerpts, this audacious & hugely saddening exchange: not only do we witness Aristide turning evasive & defensive, but his support for Radio Haiti swiftly cooled afterward. For some, after recent events in Haiti, Aristide can now do no wrong, & I fear that stance undermines this film’s potential audience. The day before I saw THE AGRONOMIST – though it’s not hitting the news much - the US Department of State’s travelers advisory email listserve warned US citizens to avoid Haiti, where embassy staff are under curfew & kidnappings & violence are common. Unfortunately the Left is not clamoring in Central New York for THE AGRONOMIST. We’ve heard lots recently about Michael Moore & Mel Gibson manifesting the cultural & political divide of our current moment. In the same year Demme began filming Jean Dominique – 1991- Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. published his book, WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS. He described the US habit of articulating politics in this black & white, polar way. Dionne called them “false choices,” & said that ordinary people find nothing for themselves there & simply don’t want to play. Despite my emotional sympathy for Moore’s movie & my antipathy for Mel’s, what they have served up is more of this same phenomenon. So my question is, what’s happening in the vast expanse between them? In the summer lull that precedes our national nominating conventions, what kind of mainstream US mall movies are out there in mid-July? Where there could have been a climate of thoughtful debate, there’s instead regression. I think this shows up in what popular films say to & about women, which act as a barometer. Now, this spring I liked MEAN GIRLS a lot – it’s smart, tight, funny. But there’s a saying among screen-writers: that you must “kill your darlings,” meaning be ready to cut your favorite, most self-indulgent parts. It may be that watching ON THE WATERFRONT right after Brando’s death ruined me for summer flicks, but several films have me cross, irritated, positively mean-spirited. The Wayons brothers’ allegedly witty satire, WHITE CHICKS, about two FBI agents masquerading as Long Island debutantes. This movie has several explosively hilarious moments, but they revolve almost entirely & unexpectedly around the character of a lascivious, social-climbing, super-rich Black athlete. These moments are marooned in a sea of tedium. Neither the women nor the men pretending to be women are funny. The secret to the athlete is a dash of fondness for him; the Wayons brothers don’t like women & it shows. More crucially, they have not observed women except superficially. Another TV skit decked out as a movie, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY fondly looks back on the world of 1970’s TV news crews. Veronica Corningstone is a pioneering woman broadcaster battling San Diego newsroom guys who alternately hate her & drool after her. I’m sure her name turns on some pun that I just haven’t figured out yet. With incredible adolescent appropriateness, the funniest scene involves a rumble among the city’s various news crews. In cameos of glorious ethnic & class self-absorption, Ben Stiller appears as a Pancho Villa-like Latino anchor, while Tim Robbins is a pipe-smoking, curly-haired NPR type. To compete, Veronica is constrained by the need to “practice her nonregional diction.” No finding her voice for Veronica! Sliding sideways, there’s Spidey – whom you maybe mistook for a likably diffident action hero. But when you think about it, SPIDERMAN 2 is a variations on the Pinochio tale that ties up the aspiring actress Mary Jane Watson (played by Kirsten Dunst) with the job of turning a cartoon boy real. I think Spielberg’s vastly underrated A.I. several years back did that job much better. These movies have been made in the same cultural atmosphere where both a Michael Moore & a Mel Gibson flourish – movie makers who have not yet mastered killing their darlings, cannot imagine their way into alternative experiences, despite the benefits & provocations they may also provide. And it’s not encouraging to hear some usually reliable, thoughtful movie reviewers enthusing over this stuff. To see a contrast, let us visit another part of the world. It is telling that in the much-travailed Afghanistan, Siddiq Barmak made the first feature film following the fall of the Taliban, OSAMA, about a young girl forced to masquerade as a boy in order to eat & live. She’s found out & it ends badly for her. But Barmak imagined & honored her plight & experience in such an enormously nuanced & moving way. Iranian Majid Majidi’s 1999 film, BARAN, also premised a young Afghan refugee woman masquerading out of necessity as a man in a brutally cold, harsh Pakistani construction site. In discovering her secret, an initially greedy young man’s compassion & empathy are awakened for the first time. Now, some US commentators describe that region of the world as “stone-age.” Yet look what stories they chose to tell, & how they told them, & what a relief they after our summer fare. (1260)
#11: More Than Meets the Eye in SAVED! 6/17/04 I was once stranded for three days in downtown Bristol, Tennessee, waiting for a replacement radiator following an unfortunate encounter with a pick-up truck. During those three days I discovered Southern Bible TV. Talk shows, cartoon shows, game shows, news shows, dramas & comedies, an entire network of programming re-cast in fundamentalist Christian terms. I watched – fascinated & pretty much captive – for hours at a time. After seeing Brian Dannelly’s new film, SAVED! I’ve thought about those three days. SAVED! covers a year in the lives of a handful of teen-agers. They live through several pretty typical teen dilemmas, except that these occur at American Eagle Christian High School, somewhere in Maryland. And, right away the movie highlights the polarizing issues of homosexuality & teen pregnancy, & throws in for good measure an opening scene in which one character objects that Jesus might not have been white. Here’s the cast of characters: Singer Mandy Moore plays Hillary Faye, a classic bully masquerading as organizer of prayer circles & inspirational singer with an earnest trio, the Christian Jewels. Her loyalty doesn’t last long for Mary (played by Jena Malone), whose boyfriend Dean confesses he thinks he’s gay. Before his parents ship him off to Mercy House for de-programming, Mary tries “saving” him & gets pregnant. She hides this successfully almost until the Senior Prom, thanks to Hillary Faye’s wheel-chair bound brother Roland (played with delicious wit by Macauley Culkin) & a splendid Eva Amurri as Cassandra, the nonconformist rebel. This outsider – the school’s only Jew – has landed at American Eagle as a last resort after a lot of bad behavior & expulsions from other schools. Mary’s mother (played by often under-rated comic actress Mary-Louise Parker of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES fame) gets involved with Pastor Skip, whose quietly likable son patiently hankers after Mary, undeterred by pregnancy, questionable companions or the stigma of Dean’s preferences. The actors playing high school students here are almost too old for their roles. All pushing 20 or more, only Jena Malone still pulls off looking 15 & the innocence that implies. But maybe Casting needed actors confident enough for just a little more bite. Here’s one reason why: Have a look at Tina Fay’s MEAN GIRLS, also still playing locally. Hillary Faye easily holds her own with that movie’s girl gang leader in the nasty department. In fact, many of these young people – heroes & villains alike - display an almost breath-taking capacity for really mean pranks on one another. I don’t remember them as the best years of my life either. Dannelly himself describes his movie as “MEAN GIRLS meets THE PASSION OF CHRIST.” MEAN GIRLS is clearly satire, but I think SAVED! aspires to something else. SAVED! has been billed as a satire on religious-right intolerance, & castigated by some fundamentalist preachers as evil. I suspect this comes of several critical plot outcomes: in the end, Mary’s mother doesn’t demonize her pregnancy & the young characters we instinctively root for unanimously decide that Dean’s being gay is alright. But at least one reviewer has criticized SAVED! as too “timid” to share the same screen with such cult favorite teen satires as the 1989 HEATHERS, an over-the-top early Winona Rider vehicle that addressed teen suicide. It is tempting to say the problem is one of the film’s own tone – that this film can’t decide whether it’s a satire or more serious. TV will help us here. For example, when this movie opens with its title in a blue sky with puffy white clouds & white letters with rays of light coming out of them, it’s obviously referencing “Touched by an Angel” - not a satire. Even though the slang-talking Pastor Skip verges on both the ridiculous & the hypocritical, he has winning human doubts. He belongs in “Joan of Arcadia” much more than in HEATHERS. Hillary Faye’s brand of prayer may have her throwing a Bible at Mary’s head while shrieking that she’s full of Christ’s love, but Cassandra’s contrite plea that she be able to find Roland after a fight is as authentic a moment of prayer as I’ve seen anyplace. That the film’s only Jewish character has that moment makes all the characters more human. And Pastor Skip’s son arrives on the scene because he’s been away with a Christian skate-boarding tour – now that would fit right in with the TV channel in Bristol, Tennessee. I return to Bristol, Tennessee because the young fundamentalist Christians portrayed in SAVED! aren’t isolated from popular culture, nor do they reject their own religion in any wholesale way. Instead they appropriate & embrace aspects of secularism as well as manage some critical thinking about religious dogma & rules. I remember myself back in Bristol, Tennessee, unsure how to take that TV channel. I’ve asked a friend of mine to go see SAVED! so we could compare notes about when we’re supposed to laugh. More than any indecision in the film’s tone, the real issue here is that most non-fundamentalists don’t know how to take this surge of religion-as-lifestyle into the mainstream either. SAVED! succeeds as a human tale without reducing either its characters or its cultural setting to parody. This movie’s refusal to be easily disparaging is edgier & more useful to us all than potshots would be. (881)