Sunday, August 07, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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