Sunday, July 31, 2005

#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)