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)
#10: On JAPANESE STORY & The Hero’s Journey 5/20/2004 When it opened in the United States late last December, the Australian film JAPANESE STORY was variously described as a love story, an adventure, a culture clash & an odd-couple comedy all in one. Watchers of Australia’s rich film industry noted this apparently hard-to-categorize film because its director, Sue Brooks, had gained international attention in 1997 with her feature film, ROAD TO NHILL. Brooks has been working with writer Alison Tilson & producer Sue Maslin, along with several actors in this new film, for a decade of award-winning Australian film & TV. Now here was this quirky story of two people from different cultures getting stranded in the Outback. JAPANESE STORY also marked the return home of Australian actor Toni Collette. Since MURIEL’S WEDDING in 1994, she’s had a string of successful American & British films, including THE SIXTH SENSE (for which she was Oscar-nominated), ABOUT A BOY, THE HOURS, FAR FROM HEAVEN, & CHANGING LANES. The just-released CONNIE & CARLA is in the multiplexes now. But here, Collette delivers her best performance so far. As the cranky, distracted Sandy, she’s ordered to chauffeur a prospective client during a week’s visit. ”I’m a geologist, not a geisha!” she snarls at her boss, to no avail. Sandy’s reluctance to accept the task that leads ultimately to transformation is one of the first tip-offs that a hero’s journey is commencing. If we see it that way, suddenly JAPANESE STORY also contains other heroic elements: a series of escalating ordeals, the possibility of annihilation & a “dark night of the soul,” encounters with various figures besides foes – a sage, shape-shifters, a temptress, & some redeeming prize or “boon” to carry home. We might expect, if the hero is a woman, some variations on how this journey plays out. First off, where would you locate such a hero’s journey in this day & age? It’s been said that a tale’s “beginning presences a world.” JAPANESE STORY opens with wheeling aerial view of the craggy, golden-red, light-soaked mountains of the Outback. Not at all an omniscient God’s-eye view, this long, quiet opening shot is clearly what some particular person is seeing from a plane that’s circling to land. Self-contained, vast but ocean-bound, requiring a seriously sobering effort of its visitors to get there, unfathomably ancient & evocative of magic, the Australian landscape itself is a formidable presence. Most obviously, that plane’s passenger would be Hiromitsu, the boyish Japanese industrialist sent by his father to visit an iron mining company. Since Hiromitsu ignores all efforts – from polite to exasperated – to dissuade him, & Sandy’s company needs this deal, he drags her on a side-tour of epic dimensions. From one lookout point, he comments that Japan has people & Australia has space. Though captivated by its enormity, the space, he says, scares him. Throughout the film, Brooks dramatically alternates between panoramic shots that dwarf people within the natural world & claustrophobic close-ups of the budding relationship shoe-horned into the four-wheeler. And if the space scares Hiromitsu, well it should. Of the later scene in which he dies, Brooks says she was aiming to show the effect that landscape can have on people. I would elaborate, particularly people unprepared for what they will encounter – in either strange landscapes or cultures - because they have been separated in some profound way, often by technologies. I say “technologies” in the plural because the film really plays with a range of the meanings of technology - from concrete, literal tools to what me might call cultural technologies, including language & the rituals & manners that we take for granted will support us – until they don’t. Previews for JAPANESE STORY tell us that Sandy & Hiromitsu will be “stranded,” & we’re prepared for a harrowing survival story, the two marooned in the Outback, perhaps dying of thirst, eating bugs, stumbling through desert wastes. Well, they are marooned – but only overnight. Getting literally stuck overnight accomplishes several things. Their machines fail them. Sandy emerges as enormously capable in her strategies for getting them unstuck, but up to now she’s been buried in machines. Computers, laptops, cell phones, electric can openers, cameras, maps, guidebooks, mining equipment & planes, these folks can barely take a step without some tool. Because there must be this journey, the vehicle is resurrected next morning. After the night’s cold, the sand is hard enough that they simply back out & drive away. This lays the ground for an exploration of the many ways we may be stranded as in “stuck” without necessarily being trapped literally. From this point they have crossed some line with one another, so that Hiromitsu throws away his map, puts down his camera. Each must lay aside linguistic assumptions too. In one comic scene, Hiromitsu explains the many nuanced meanings of the single Japanese word, “Hi,” which he had repeated to every question in the first moments they met. It’s clear that we, no less than Sandy, assumed earlier that the only English word he knew might be the greeting. Women contend relationally. Sandy’s ordeals are intimate ordeals with herself & with Hiromitsu. They occur in a setting that’s active – the Australian Outback, conceived & experienced as virtually a character in the tale, not simply a device that allows the male hero to leave home & serve to isolate him from familiar supports & entanglements. Further, the heroic journey’s traditional stock elements of the shapeshifter & temptress occur here within the relationship between Sandy & Hiromitsu. He is a slight & fastidious man. This contrasts with Sandy’s athleticism. He’s small enough for her to lift, to load in her truck once when drunk & later when dead. Between these events, she literally wears his trousers during their first sexual encounter. Next morning their intimacy allows for her to teach him how to hold a Western-style fork properly without taking offense. Though reticent & used to being in charge, his boyish capacity for excitement erupted early while he watched a mining explosion. The two universal exchanges that transcend technology & culture seem to be “I’m sorry” & Thank you.” Between Hiro & Sandy, & later between Sandy & the Japanese widow who comes for her husband’s body, these simple exchanges are turning points. Her apology wins for Sandy Hiro’s message to her, which he’d meant to give her before he left. His voiceover provides the last words of the film – “My heart is open” – as she watches the plane bearing his casket taxi off-screen, now dwarfed by the gigantic terminal window frame. JAPANESE STORY has not played in Central New York theatres, but it came out last week on DVD & local video stores stocked it right away. That’s a good thing. (1116)
#9: Centuries Apart in the 60’s: On THE DREAMERS & THE MAGDALENA SISTERS 4/15/04 Between Paris & Dublin, it’s just 489 miles, as the crow flies. Recently I asked three seasoned world travelers how far apart they thought the two cities were. Besides assuming that anyone would prefer traveling to Paris, they all imagined a much greater distance than is actually so. Two new films set in the 60’s initially might suggest there’s also considerable psychic distance between the two cities. Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE DREAMERS takes us to Paris in the spring of 1968, when the dismissal of the national cinema’s popular director really did spark street riots. THE DREAMERS focuses on three students drawn together by their passion for movies, the twins Isabelle & Theo, & Matthew, played by American actor Michael Pitt. These bright & curious young people spend their time re-enacting & miming favorite movie scenes in a sort of strip poker of cinema literacy. The twins are soon deeply involved with their more strait-laced guest. Their parents’ unexpected arrival home from vacation nearly provokes a tragedy, except that a passing riot distracts them. Peter Mullan’s THE MAGADALENA SISTERS relates the lives of four young Irish women held from 1964-68 in the gulag of commercial laundries across Ireland run by the Catholic Church. THE DREAMERS evokes a Parisian legacy of revolution & riots, while MAGDALENA exposes the Church’s medieval grip on vast tracts of the Irish psyche even beyond the Sixties. The Magdalenas detained 30,000 women in their enforced work programs for misbehavior as mild as exhibiting a potential for flirtation. The last one closed in 1996. MAGDALENA skimmed through Central New York briefly last winter but came out on DVD the same week the French film opened here, so I saw them both within days. Otherwise, I might never mention them together. But it’s simplistic to dismiss Dublin as the more backward place. No, the jolt of seeing these two movies together is realizing that similar upheavals occur during the same historical moment. The moment I mean is that hinge of the last century, that most resonant of decades, the Sixties. This was preeminently a decade of youth - that time when one believes that one’s world & experience are obvious & universal. Such conviction can lead to a certain tyranny of the obvious – a failure to imagine that things might be different elsewhere, for others. Clashes born of such belief lay at the heart of the upheavals of the Sixties. The two films share some common themes & devices that help us map this out. First, characters in both films love movies & use them to conceptualize their lives. The people in THE DREAMERS are immersed in film almost wantonly. Their encyclopedic grasp of movies sometimes seems to substitute for regular human interaction. When Matthew & Theo & Isabelle react spontaneously, the contrast is vivid, their inexperience startling. Movies also matter to the iron-fisted head nun in MAGDALENA. One night the laundry workers & nuns see THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S in what we imagine must be a rare break in routine. This brings on Sister Bridget’s sudden, enthusiastic revelation of her secret youthful aspiration to become a cowboy if sistering didn’t pan out. None of her captive audience is fooled that Ingrid Bergman’s character has anything to do with their lives, but does Sister Bridget imagine she is dispensing some form of frontier justice? Second, in both films interior settings evoke passing eras. The Paris apartment & the Dublin convent-laundry are ancient & labyrinthine, places where it’s hard to get one’s bearings & locate oneself, & hard to escape. Leaving at all is deeply conflictual. In MAGDALENA one young woman gives up a chance moment to escape through an unlocked gate – the quiet green expanse of hillside is as frightening to her as Matthew finds the French street riot. And in each film - though the tone differs sharply - a woman feels so desperately caught that she attempts suicide, and fails. Both films explore the ambivalent nature of sexual liberation, specifically through forced nakedness & more prolonged frontal nudity than we are accustomed to seeing in mainstream movies. In one of MAGDALENA’s most disturbing scenes, two young nuns, bundled up in habits, impose a so-called game on dripping rows of other young women, just after showers – who’s got the biggest bottom, the smallest bust, who’s “hairiest.” But when Matthew’s held down & stripped by Theo, Isabelle discovers he’s hidden her photo in his underwear - she thanks him for holding her so close to his “heart” – & Matthew’s discomfort is more complicated because he wishes to be naked with her. One axiom of screen writing is that exposition should be visual. MAGDALENA’s opening sequence is a stunning success. A young man at a wedding feast pulls his cousin aside & rapes her – it’s clear he’s been aroused by watching the women eye a handsome priest’s almost embarrassingly sensual singing. When the weeping cousin tries to tell someone, the men gather & decide it’s her fault. This knowledge unfolds & travels across the gathering like a wave, turning word of mouth into a physical phenomenon. It’s the closing shot of THE DREAMERS that’s most brilliant in this regard – an ancient, silent, rain-washed street after the riot - luminous Paris, still there after the Molotov cocktails. To make such images of one’s own culture requires a degree of self-reflection from the filmmaker that parallels that of characters preoccupied with movies – even if that leads some, such as Sister Bridget, to self-delusion. Although it looks different, violence is an instrument of both liberation & oppression in Dublin no less than Sixties’ Paris. Having failed twice to escape, Bernadette’s final effort is ferocious. Wielding a giant candlestick, she takes Rose with her. Almost miraculously, the first woman they ask helps them. But whether explosive or chronic, violence endured leaves its corrosive mark. Years later, Bernadette cannot see a nun’s habit without physical recoil. Bertolucci’s judgement is not far from this. “This is not the movies,” says Matthew to the twins at the riot. “This is real. I told you I am non-violent.” On this point he walks away from them. So we arrive the links between these films. There was real alienation between the generations in the Sixties. The Irish parents who refuse to speak to their “disgraced” daughters aren’t really so different from the overly talkative French parents. Siblings prove far more loyal – not only Theo & Isabelle, but the younger brother whose first adult act is to bring his sister out of the laundry; then there’s the sister who faithfully brings her nephew to glimpse his mother through a gate for years. The degree of self-examination that occurs in these films set the Sixties apart too. What’s seemed obvious to youth is transformed at the juncture where this occurs. This Sixties generation turned out to be highly responsible, even if it didn’t look that way in the beginning. Besides Matthew’s choice to walk away from the twins, there’s a startling epilogue in MAGDALENA - this film was based on four real women. One realizes what they had to share for this movie to get made - the unflattering parts, their struggles for sanity, their pettiness, their lack of generosity, not just their heroic moments. This is confession transformed to consciousness-raising. (1211)
#8: On Women & Grief: THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS & MY LIFE WITHOUT ME 3/18/04 I have heard Canadians say that Americans even look loud, all the way across a room, without saying or doing anything. Mel Gibson’s film THE PASSION has been called “the most violent movie ever made.” In contrast, two recent Canadian films about grief & dying achieve small miracles of humanity with virtually no blood at all. Denys Arcand’s THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003) is playing at the Westcott, having moved into town from Manlius Cinema to make room for Jim Carey’s new film. Set in Montreal, it takes its title from a TV interview playing in the hospital room of cancer-stricken Remy, a history professor whose lives & loves were chronicled with many of the same actors in Arcand’s 1986 film, THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. (What seems to be the only print in town of DECLINE is available at Emerald City Video.) As Remy’s ex-wife, son & various friends & lovers reunite, the TV commentator replaying footage of the second airplane hitting the WTC says that 9/11 marked the first time “barbarians” got inside the city gates of the West. The story of the Remy’s last days, when he’s invaded by cancer, is thus hung on this larger cultural frame quite intentionally. It’s hugely fortunate for both films that Arcand reassembled most of the earlier film’s cast for this sequel. DECLINE cuts back & forth over a single day between four women, working out in a gym together & talking about sex, & four men, also discussing sex & fidelity, who prepare a feast at a lakeside house where the women later join them. Throughout this day & evening, we learn that Remy has slept with all the women & at least one of the men. His wife Louise finally learns the extent of his infidelity too – now no longer amusing. If Remy’s superior airs are undercut with some witty flashbacks that show him, pudgy & naked & scuttling for an exit like a cornered rat facing capture, Louise’s humiliation is sobering & moving. The children of these people appear briefly & almost as second thoughts in the earlier film - one character comments that the children of intellectuals are “always notorious disasters.” Fast forward to Remy’s last days, then. His son Sebastien flies in from London, where a successful financial career is wholly at odds with Remy’s idea of a useful or politically appropriate occupation. Urged by his mother, Sebastien dutifully sets out to provide the old man with a comfortable & fitting death, calling ex-lovers & old friends & even paying students to visit. Even if you haven’t seen DECLINE too, Louise’s generosity toward her ex-husband & her encompassing respect for his relationships lays near the heart of this film. But seeing DECLINE deepens one’s appreciation of this woman who, after all, was largely dismissed by as naïve – as unable to really “keep up” – by this circle of sophisticates in their younger days. Her son’s collaborator in orchestrating Remy’s final days is Nathalie, the daughter of one of Remy’s ex-mistresses. Sebastien remembers her vaguely from their childhood but doesn’t recognize her now due to her decline through heroin addiction. In a deal suggested by a nun in the Catholic hospital, Sebastien arranges to keep Nathalie in dope if she’ll shoot up his father, since the regular pain medication has become close to useless. Initially flat & close to frozen, Nathalie slowly thaws out & gets another chance at living through her proximity to these people doing their best to square accounts among each other. Marie-Jozee Croze won the Cannes 2003 best actress award for her portrayal of Nathalie, & she’s so indelible that you’ll recognize her instantly in a small walk-on part in Angelina Jolie’s new (& unexpectedly good) thriller, TAKING LIVES, also filmed in Montreal, which opens this week-end. MY LIFE WITHOUT ME (2002) didn’t play in Syracuse, but is now available for rental on DVD. Set in British Columbia on the opposite Canadian coast, from writer-director Isabel Caixet, it stars Sarah Polley as the mother of two young daughters & herself in her early 20’s, diagnosed with incurable, advanced cancer. Annie resolves at once to keep this from her husband Don & her mother (played by singer Deborah Harry) & engages her doctor in an increasing long-term commitment to help her carry out her plans. Having a coffee in a diner, she opens her spiral notebook & makes a list of “Things to do before I die”: Tell her daughters she loves them many times a day. Smoke & drink as much as she wants. Make birthday messages on tape for her kids. Say what she is thinking (she tries this one out & doesn’t have much success with it). Have sex with another man so she knows what it’s like. Make him fall in love with her. Visit her dad in prison. As she’s absorbed in this list, an American across the diner (Mark Ruffalo) watches her, later meets her in the laundromat, & they begin an affair. Yes, she really loves both men, & few films have made this situation so convincing. Completing her own affairs for Annie means orchestrating the lives of those she leaves behind, so that they are free to go on, especially the generations of women surrounding her: her kids, her mom, & a new Anne next door, a nurse whom she promotes replacing her with Don & loving her kids. Sarah Polley is another young Canadian actress who bears watching. And you can catch her as one of the leads in another new release that also seems to have been filmed near if not in Canada, the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Her genuineness is one of the qualities that lifts this horror film above the ordinary, making it finally more provocative than one expects. Here, one of the most appealing things about Sarah Polley’s role as Annie is her own acting within acting. She roars like a lion with her two little girls, their on-going game of being scared by her & roaring back. She is teaching them how to pretend, how to entertain themselves, how to in fact invent themselves, a trait that the grown children in BARBARIAN INVASIONS share with her. Both films are really about the nature of choice in the face that most radically powerless situation: the facing of one’s own death. Together, these films prove it’s not whether the folks around you know you’re dying that makes the difference, but how present humans are willing to be with one another. (1089)
7B: On Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST 3/18/04 In movie theatre lobbies over the last three weeks, I’ve had the distinct feeling that I’ve seen some people before. Some are folks who don’t go to movies much, but they’re going to Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST in droves. I feel like I met some of them in 1988, outside the Manlius Cinema, when Martin Scorcese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST opened. They knelt on the sidewalk, wept, begged me not to risk my soul by seeing that movie. So far THE PASSION has earned more than a quarter of a billion dollars in U.S. ticket sales, & created some strange bedfellows. Now I’m the one with defiant friends who uncharacteristically raise their voices to say,” I’m not going to see it!” Unless you’re in a coma, you already know the sources of controversy are questions of whether there’s too much violence & whether it’s anti-Semitic. Yes to both & I’ll tell you why shortly. But THE PASSION has some very good things too – for one, it’s instructive about how films can be misused. Second, beyond the uproar, there’s a scene of grief so nuanced & quiet & utterly un-Gibson that I can only think the women smuggled it into his movie themselves. It’s not just the gore & distortions that cause the problem. It’s that both occur is such a seductive setting. THE PASSION’s production values are extraordinarily high. Beginning in the velvet blue night of the Garden & lurching through the harsher light of day, this movie has an extravagantly authentic look. Gibson claims this is the most accurate representation of Christ’s last 12 hours. Better than any film I’ve seen, THE PASSION captures dramatically what an outpost Jerusalem might have been to the Romans – seedy, dilapidated, the last place in the Empire you’d want to get buried for 11 years, as Pilate was when Jesus comes before him. The set for their meeting alone is brilliant. This formal public courtyard, with its raised level for issuing edicts, is a cramped miniature of vaster, gleaming Roman public sites. This remote colony with its contentious natives got by on a crude, badly proportioned copy, with steep, ungraceful stairs & dirty pillars. In fact THE PASSION is a painterly movie, though not admirably. Another historical film recently in Central New York, THE GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, was about the painter Vermeer. That film’s cinematography created a resonance by looking like Vermeer’s painting itself - we see the painter’s world as he saw it, so his portraiture tones & composition are more persuasive, almost a painting within a painting. This heightens the veracity of the film. But Gibson’s film has the opposite effect – particularly when he focuses on shots of groups of people at well-known junctures in the story, he overlays the painting style of a much later & geographically distant artistic period & pretends it belongs to Jesus’ time & place. Shooting with a largely Italian crew & frankly relying on their expertise, not to mention engaging in some visual imperialism, Gibson was wildly pleased with the outcome of his request for a look from 17th century European painting. In a TV special about the making of THE PASSION, Gibson exclaimed that his crew gave him “moving Caravaggios.” But movies are not just animated paintings. Astoundingly, Gibson seems often to have missed this fundamental point about the current evolution of his own artform. Gibson breaks a fundamental agreement with us. If the story’s made up, we know we’re getting special effects & we agree to let the filmmaker trick us. But Gibson has claimed near-documentary accuracy, & the documentary form promises not to trick us. It promises that special effects will serve accuracy. Looking authentic in some deeply affecting ways, Gibson’s film is more free to serve up distortions. So what we get is a narrative of Jesus’ last day like an accordion or a funhouse mirror, wildly expanding some parts & compressing others almost out of sight. For example, Jesus doesn’t just fall three times – he falls & falls & falls & falls some more. And then there is Pontius Pilate’s protracted, three-time struggle to get out of executing Jesus, which goes on for many hours & ultimately falls before the Jewish priests’ insistence – not recognizable as either the historical figure or the Catholic one. Of course Gibson blames the Jews. But hey, you know what? I don’t want the Catholics blamed for Mel either! For example, Jesus gets to keep his underwear on in this movie. Gibson’s soldiers & his mob are primitive, leering, sadistic. The acting is sometimes pretty close to the mugging you’d see in a fifth grade play. Now think about this: would such violent torturers primly avert their eyes & their whiplashes from one part of the body? Scorcese’s Jesus is naked on the cross & it makes sense that he would be. Anything else is really like John Ashcroft draping the statute of Justice to cover her breasts. And it would require that Gibson allow a fully-human, that is male, Jesus. Is this dirtier than all that blood & torture? Did Mel Gibson worry that children would see this film? It’s women who smuggle real grief into this film, somehow flying under Mel’s radar. He doesn’t give them much to do except stand around looking traumatized. Yet Maia Morgenstern as Mary the mother especially has several small but striking moments, most of all that when she quietly & simply wipes the bloodied cobblestones where Jesus was scourged. Such simple & overwhelming loss! Finally I most agree with Stephen King, who watched this movie sitting next to an 8 year-old girl he called Alicia so that she would not remain nameless, who covered her eyes for the whipping of Jesus but then “looked & looked & looked” for the nearly two hours remaining. I had two toddlers in the row ahead of me, kids without even the language to frame such giant, horrific images. So, there you have it, Stephen King the master of horror & me - worrying about what kids will dream after this movie! (1017)
#7-A: On Mountains & Movies - TOUCHING THE VOID & The Traveling Banff Festival 3/3/04 Twenty years ago, deep in a period of biographies & memoirs, I read SPACE BENEATH MY FEET, about Scottish mountain climber Gwen Moffett’s adventures. Most vividly, I recall her description of winter climbing up a cliff through an icy waterfall, the water “sluicing” down her chest. I was not inspired to pursue a similarly frigid experience. Later, I took a personal development course that had me running at the crack of dawn to the ROCKY theme piped onto the trail, & also doing some rappelling. Though proud of the photo I took home of my rappel, I still didn’t take up climbing. Later on, I watched THE MAN WHO SKIED DOWN EVEREST, a documentary about a Japanese skier who – well, climbed up & then skied down Mt. Everest. It was horrifying & wonderful. I saw THE EIGER SANCTION, which combined excellent climbing footage with an adaptation of Trevanian’s excellent novel – still worth renting. Then there’s CLIFFHANGER with Stallone – the only movie I explicitly recall inspiring me to declare I needed a drink afterward. CLIFFHANGER isn’t a very good movie, about mountain climbing or anything else. I have friends who climb, & their disdain for CLIFFHANGER’s technical incompetence is fierce. Then recently I went to see TOUCHING THE VOID at the Westcott Theatre. About ten minutes into it I asked myself, “Why did I come here? This IS going to be really scary.” My previous “Most Scary Movie” designation was held for years by THE SHINING, because of the extreme absence of any human appeal in Jack Nicholson’s eyes once possessed & the sheer loneliness of being at his mercy in the middle of winter so far from anything. Last fall “28 DAYS LATER” briefly held the title, primarily for the scene where the main character dreams he has been left totally alone in the world with the zombies. TOUCHING THE VOID is a combo documentary/re-enactment of a 1985 incident that’s famous among climbers – two young Brits, Joe Simpson & Simon Yates, set out to climb a previously unscaled face of Suila Grande, a peak in Peru. They succeeded but then had trouble on the way down. Joe was injured badly & Simon, in danger of coming off the mountain himself, cut the rope. Saying both men survived miraculously seems puny. TOUCHING THE VOID adapts Joe’s memoir of the same name – now high on the paperback best-seller list - in which he defended Simon’s action. TTV was filmed in the Alps & also has footage of the climbers’ return to Peru - reportedly fairly devastating for both men. Although actors re-recreate the trip, installments alternate with commentary on what happened from Joe, Simon & a third man who stayed in their camp to watch their stuff during the climb. This technique of alternating straight-on interviews of principal players with chunks of story is similar to director Kevin McDonald’s technique in his previous, Oscar-winning documentary on terrorists kidnapping part of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER. By the way, that film is how presenting a balanced view is done, if Mel Gibson wants to know. TOUCHING THE VOID’s cinematography is stunning & frightening, including Joe’s fall into a crevasse & other incidents that I cannot fathom how they filmed, though accounts of this project are out there, in the NYT & other places. I would never have survived what either man endured on that mountain, not even for a little while. In the depths of this winter’s below-zero stretches, I’ve sometimes dwelt on the unnerving picture of – I don’t know why – Siberian prison camps, clear I wouldn’t have lived through that either. Now I have a new nightmare when the winter lingers too long. The very next night, the School of Forestry at Syracuse University hosted a showing of the “World Tour” of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. I hoped these films would be more upbeat & they were. It turns out that Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, hosted its 28th five-day annual mountain film festival in November. The three-hour version of this has just embarked on its trip to over 100 American cities & probably 25 countries. “Mountain culture” & filmmaking is thriving in a large & global community. About twenty such film festivals occur each year in the US, Canada & other countries (primarily Eastern Europe). While Banff movies mostly feature climbing, extreme skiing & snowboarding, whitewater kayaking & acrobatic biking get in too. These movies are always compelling in their subject matter (after all, the world tour features cream-of-the-crop selections), & often equally thrilling in technical virtuosity. And women often appear in these films – as filmmakers, interviewees, & fully equal world-class participants in the sports depicted. There aren’t as many of us as the men, but women showing up occurs with a surprising ease & matter-of-factness that bodes well for women’s future in such sports. That they are women is no big deal, period – an attitude & demographic well-represented in the audience that night too. You have not experienced what “big scale” & “long shot” might really look like until you have watched these little humans swooping around the peaks & cliffs of the Banff movies. But oddly, such attention lavished on these athletes by the camera implies that we’ll all be watching too, & creates a sense of holding them, an expectation of safety & ending well that isn’t there in the moments of extreme loneliness of TOUCHING THE VOID. The terror of Joe Simpson’s fall into the crevasse, he was immediately clear, lay in having no one to tell as he waited to die alone – in his case, not even God. With gratitude that spring is finally here, I’m Nancy Keefe Rhodes & this is Focus on Film for Women’s Voices Radio. (961)
#7: On Patty Jenkins’ Film MONSTER & Why We Make Movies 2/19/04 The film MONSTER may be set in Daytona Beach, but none of the people in this movie are out boating. Twice characters mention that such activities occur in Florida & each time this only emphasizes how remote such pursuits are from their world. MONSTER is writer-director Patty Jenkins’ take on Aileen Wuornos, the highway prostitute executed in 2002 for killing 7 of her customers in the early 1990’s. MONSTER opens with Wuornos considering suicide under a bridge in the rain just before first meeting her lover Selby, covers their relationship & the murders, & ends with the sentencing after Selby testifies against her. Jenkins corresponded with Aileen Wuornos, had access to her letters & got her permission to make this movie. Charlize Theron just won the Golden Globe for her performance as Wuornos & should take the Oscar home next week too. But MONSTER is compelling as a director’s film. The first time I watched this movie I decided generating such a performance from the lead actress was really the director’s only viable strategy when the setting is so relentlessly shabby & the tale so grim. There have been other efforts. Jenkins’ triumph arises from daring to discard those safer, more gingerly approaches. Instead she drives right down the middle with her premise that you & I & Aileen Wuornos are more alike than different. Three other approaches turn Wuornos into a creature outside the fold. There’s the lurid, “true crime” approach. Right in Barnes & Noble, you can find Michael Reynolds’ 1992 book, DEAD ENDS: THE PURSUIT, CONVICTION & EXECUTION OF FEMALE SERIAL KILLER AILEEN WUORNOS, THE DAMSEL OF DEATH. Yes - you can judge this book by its cover. Second, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield made two films (in 1992 and again last year). Broomfield’s footage of Wuornos is largely the basis of opinions that Charlize Theron’s portrayal is “eerily accurate.” Last fall, A&E cable also broadcast a more high-brow documentary biography too. But even sympathetic documentaries can’t imagine & manifest the inside of private lives. Then there’s the third, clinical approach. New in 2004, there’s Shipley & Arrigo’s THE FEMALE HOMICIDE OFFENDER: SERIAL MURDER & THE CASE OF EILEEN WUORNOS. This $50 textbook explains personality disorders in terms of early childhood attachment problems. Clinicians who work with women who are traumatized & chemically dependent will recognize the veracity of Charlize Theron’s performance on that level. But that’s insider knowledge. And pathology can be too comforting as a way to separate Wuornos from the rest of us. Dramatizing that temptation, Jenkins supplies a voice of middle America in one character, Donna, who has little patience with people who act badly “just because their momma was mean to them.” Jenkins takes on this challenge as much by what she leaves out as by what’s included in her movie’s version of Wuornos. Much of Aileen’s childhood suffering & trauma either simply doesn’t enter this film or barely brushes us in passing. Instead Patty Jenkins uses several strategies to make Wuornos accessible to us. First, there is the physical vocabulary she creates for Charlize Theron. This goes far beyond her heralded make-up. Look closely at Wuornos - at the tucked-in jaw, the lips clamped over the buck teeth, the halting efforts at touching, the exaggerated hip-flinging when she’s challenged, her awkwardness trying to ride a bike, the way she flips her hair - & the eyes! Darting around as she enters Selby’s home - she hasn’t been inside a regular house in a long time - checking her reflection in the mirror, looking around to see if anyone noticed an embarrassing moment. What you will see is someone very young in a big, ungainly body - someone about 13, the age when Aileen began prostituting. This strategy has usually been used for comedy, as in BIG with Tom Hanks. Transplanted into a non-comedy, it generates astonishing vulnerability. Second, Jenkins illuminates the relationship that never has a chance. How would the relationship go between Aileen & Selby if they had gotten away? We know very soon that things were not going to work out for these two. This occurred for me in a single exchange with Selby’s utter lack of understanding about why Aileen wants to quit hooking. Annoyed, Selby suggests that they have no other real source of income. This momentarily stops Aileen’s rush of enthusiasm - for that instant she does not know where to start about the “why,” stammering about not liking it & finally giving in apologetically for her impracticality in thinking she could quit. There are actually many such brief & perfect exchanges in this film that quietly & powerfully accumulate. Third, Jenkins makes us worry about Wuornos’ own safety. We see the bloody rape scene in which she commits her first murder, of course. But more compelling is the scene leading up to her arrest. Again, a character in the film speaks for some of us - her sole friend in the world, a burned-out Vietnam Vet named Thomas (played by Bruce Dern), grows ever more anxious to get her safely out of this bar & away from two big bruisers after her. Really loaded, woozy & careening, she resists Thomas. At first we don’t know these guys are cops whose job is to get her outside for the arrest. Instead, we & Thomas worry that she couldn’t handle these guys if they get her alone. The proof is that I felt the same anxiety watching the film again. That’s very impressive work! Really this film addresses what art provides us with - why are we compelled to see some things twice, to wonder, “How did they DO THAT?” What makes me worry about this wounded, violent creature who wanted, it is plain, to somehow be a “good person”? I think this is why we make movies about some people & some stories. We have failed our characters as fellow humans somehow if we don’t find this dimension in them. I loved it that the end credits include one frame that simply says, “A Patty Jenkins Film” - as if there will be more than this one. I look forward to Patty Jenkins committing a whole series of movies. (1032)