Sunday, July 31, 2005

#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)