Saturday, December 30, 2006

Film Review #73: Brother to Brother
Director: Rodney Evans
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Roger Robinson, Daniel Sunjata

Film can be a double-edged sword. In 1991, when George Halliday’s videocam captured Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, it provided visual evidence that was intelligible and convincing to large portions of the public, which in turn arguably made possible the prosecution of four of the officers. At the same time, that grainy image reinforced other mainstream media stereotypes. Throughout the long Simi Valley trial, the LA riots that followed the officers’ acquittal in 1992, and the national soul-searching and community organizing about police behavior in the 90’s and since, Rodney King has been persistently reduced to that eternally transient, one-dimensional figure – a “motorist.” Mainstream movies have the same pull. Despite the chopped-up chronology and multiple story-lines of a film like Babel, more often audiences, reviewers and investors have remained uncomfortable with layered, messier plots that reveal connections instead of keeping life’s parts roped off.

With that thought in mind, it’s not surprising that we meet Brother to Brother’s main character, Perry (Anthony Mackie), on that East Coast equivalent of the LA freeway – New York City’s MTA. As Perry rides along sketching another passenger across the aisle – the two young black men eye each other just a little – an older man looks back and forth between them and smiles knowingly, nostalgically maybe, before he gets off. Perry’s father has kicked his gay son out and the shuffling, rumpled older man lives in a homeless shelter, but this is not going to be another story about rootless outsiders that stays in its box.

Perry is an art student at Columbia, talented, curious, seeking his own roots and his own way. Pretty soon Brother to Brother director-screenwriter Rodney Evans has Perry arguing in Black History class with another young man who doesn’t see why Perry must keep bringing up the gay black subculture at the heart of the 1920s cultural movement we call the Harlem Renaissance. Brother to Brother uses wonderfully shot and acted flashbacks of ground-breaking, now-revered figures like writers Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis) and Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford); they meet as excited, brilliant young people, live together in a brownstone they dub “Niggerati Manor,” struggle with artistic and commercial ethics, and publish a radical magazine called Fire!! that first earned them withering scorn for its style and content.

Perry learns about this vividly when he makes friends with that old guy from the train, a semi-fictionalized Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson, with Duane Boutte as the slender, elegant, younger version in the flashbacks). Nugent’s poetic short story, “Smoke, Lillies and Jade,” was the first published African American literary work on gay themes. He recites part of it and then Perry recognizes the passage, and his identity, in an anthology.

Nugent was also a painter; here, he takes Perry to the now-deserted building where he once lived and worked and the two artists paint one another – a profoundly loving act as imagined across the generations by Evans. The director spent two years researching this film at Harlem’s Schomburg Center and Nugent’s executor, Tom Wirth, gave him access to thirty hours of video interviews with Nugent.

Nugent died in 1987 and at first glance Brother to Brother is set roughly in the present, but it might as easily be a decade earlier – during Nugent’s life or in the early 90’s, contemporary with Rodney King’s era. Two movies that influenced Evans – Marlon Riggs’ great Tongues Untied and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho came out in that period (1990 and 1991 respectively); another, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), came out as Evans shot this one. When the film premiered in late 2004, Evans said, “I am not really into films having one simple message.” Perry’s jolt of recognition that Nugent is not “just” an old bum – along with issues of class, interracial romance, straight friendship, family cut-offs, gay-bashing, and what gets into the classroom and the bookstores – comprise this film’s many anti-“motorist” moments.

Skittish investors meant Brother to Brother took six years to make. Then some jittery reviewers had reservations about those multiple themes. Experienced as a documentary director and editor, Evans followed a careful course of festival entries (Special Jury Prize at Sundance), limited theatrical release, national PBS airing (on Independent Lens in June 2005), then rapid DVD release. As Bruce Nugent did for young Perry, this film will open a world.

The Syracuse City Eagle weekly published this review on 12/28/06 in Make it Snappy, a regular column reviewing DVDs.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Film Review #72: The Best of Youth
2003 (Italy); 2005 (U.S.). Miramax DVD release 2/7/2006 (2 discs, 368 min., color, Italian & French language tracks with English & Spanish subtitles, Region 1).
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Screenplay: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli
Cinematographer: Roberto Forza
Editor: Roberto Missiroli
Producer: Angelo Barbagallo
Cast: Luigi Lo Cascio (Nicola Carati), Alessio Boni (Matteo Carati), Jasmine Trinca (Giorgia), Sonia Bergamasco (Giulia), Maya Sausa (Mirella), Adriana Asti (Adriana Carati), Andrea Tidona (Angelo Carati), Fabrizio Gifuni (Carlo), Lidia Vitale (Giovanna Carati), Valentina Carnelutti (Francesca Carati)

Giordana’s The Best of Youth opens in Rome with rock music – the Animals’ "House of the Rising Sun" – as brothers Nicola and Matteo Carati prepare for college term exams and a summer trek to Norway’s remote North Cape. It’s 1966. After Matteo impulsively liberates the young woman Giorgia from a psychiatric clinic, their trip falls apart, though Nicola goes partway alone. In 2003 Matteo’s son Andrea completes that journey. In vignettes every few years between those dates, the Caratis and those dear to them endure Italy’s late 20th century convulsions. In Italian cinema, implicitly the family = the nation, especially the brothers. The Best of Youth falls firmly within a lineage of films such as Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), and Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers (1981) for its governing plot. And quite early, one scene establishes Giordana’s governing principle. Nicola Carati learns he passed his exam with an A “because of the sympathetic factor.” His medical professor says he means that “in the Greek sense – to share in the pathos.” To be unsympathetic, he tells Nicola, “is the worst thing a doctor can be.”

Giordana apparently thinks that goes for filmmakers too. In a movie covering decades that saw protesting students join labor strikes and clash with police, inflation, radical industrial reorganization, attacks by the terrorist Red Brigades, natural disasters like the winter floods of 1966 in Florence that threatened irreplaceable artistic treasures, the rise of consumerism and mass culture, the first trial in the world that allowed mental patients to testify about shock treatment, political scandals, and the Mafia wars, temptations to go two-dimensional with characters and events, or employ a certain condensed tunnel vision, must be constant.

As just one example of history’s weight, two recent documentaries have acquainted US filmgoers with matters that have been deeply polarizing in Italian life. Marco Turco’s Excellent Cadavers, also available on DVD, opened theatrically in Manhattan last July to warm reviews. Marco Amento’s The Last Godfather: The Ghost of Corleone has toured the festival circuit for the past year. With somewhat different emphases, both use the car-bombing of state prosecutor Giovanni Falcone and four passengers in Sicily on May 23, 1992, as centerpiece and narrative turning point.

It’s hard to overstate the flashpoint importance for contemporary Italy of Falcone’s assassination. Two factors especially served to concentrate public attention and revulsion. Photos of his bloody corpse, head thrown back and still seated in the car wreck, were repeatedly printed and televised, paralleling those of JFK’s assassination and of course the 9/11 plane strikes. Turco’s film highlights Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, whose thousands of photos of Mafia doings helped prepare the ground. Then, the widely seen, scorching outrage of Falcone’s bodyguard’s widow, Rosaria Schifani, who insisted that the Cardinal saying their funeral Mass publicly denounce the assassins, goaded comment from the Pope himself.

The resulting upheaval hardly destroyed the Mafia – Amento’s film investigates how Bernardo “Tractor” Provenzano eluded capture for decades – but it did uncover the Mafia’s long-time deal with ruling Christian Democrats to suppress Communists in the south since post-war days. And it led to some legal reforms, which Berlusconi, coming to power in 2001, promptly dismantled. Also in 2001, in October, the influential Aperture Gallery in New York exhibited Battaglia’s Mafia photos, querying what art can do about violence. Battaglia traveled to Manhattan too, expressly in solidarity with New Yorkers after 9/11; her photo book, with its cover portrait of the now-iconic Rosaria Schifani, was reissued here in 2003.

Such background may make watching this film richer and historically more coherent. The Best of Youth includes footage of Schifani, provides one scene that dramatizes how entire congregations recited anti-Mafia pledges at Mass, presents the oldest Carati sibling – Giovanna the magistrate – as having just joined Falcone’s team, and has (as the mother of Matteo’s son) Mirella, a photojournalist living in Palermo and covering these events. At the same time, there is something deeply satisfying in noticing that this film includes the Falcone assassination, but is not just about the Sicilian Mafia. I think The Best of Youth achieves a maturity and generosity toward its characters by this. Giordana’s work depends upon its Italian viewers to already possess some foundation about historic events. As for the national trauma that some have been, we could say that Giordana makes a film that is not stuck, that integrates horrific events into the whole with enough room left for characters of quite extraordinary detail and appeal. So for example, Giorgia remains in the brothers’ lives for many years in quite complex ways, calling forth the best and worst in each, actually grasping the brothers’ bond as no one else does. And Nicola sees how Matteo, who enters the army and then the police, is really most like his own lover Giulia, who leaves him and their four-year-old daughter Sara to fade into the Red Brigades. So at ease with nearly everyone, Nicola can interrupt neither the despair nor lethal choices of the two most dear to him. Growing up, Sara displays a streak that’s alarmingly like both. It’s not only that she’s ruthlessly competitive at cards and fencing. “Why are you so severe?” Nicola asks Sara when she’s happy to let her mother rot in Spoleto Maximum Security Prison – even though he has put Giulia there himself. Two days before Sara marries, Nicola effects her reconciliation with Giulia. “Are you happy? Then now is the time to be generous.” This might be either a rite of passage to adulthood or a nation integrating its past.

Originally envisioned as a television mini-series, The Best of Youth gains by the straightforwardness of that medium and by the current trend toward screening novelistic feature fiction film in various formats. Chance meetings and simple declarations about what happens next move things along economically that might as well so move. Adult characters age four decades mostly by the style and color of their hair; it seems a small matter.

On the other hand, The Best of Youth often displays considerable visual finesse. Giordana, cinematographer Roberto Forza and editor Roberto Missiroli have produced several remarkable intercut sequences that are tense and moving – particularly the moments leading up to Matteo’s New Year’s Eve suicide as he moves about his flat, waters his plants, surfs his TV, while the family he briefly visited celebrates elsewhere with a raucous card-game that humors the kids, then slips suddenly over the balcony rail as though casually stooping to tie a shoe.

The pervasive pleasure of other visual treatments emerges gradually. The motif of the courtyard – architecturally the heart of Italian structures – recurs repeatedly when characters look around some courtyard’s walls as though searching their own hearts, reinforcing that the name Carati has a root meaning heart as well. The day Nicola comes home to a grim, smoky political meeting in his living room and little Sara stashed in the kitchen, he scoots her out for some fresh air with a jovial dance step that echoes the Charlie Chaplin poster on the hallway wall. Characters who are emotionally outside frequently look in on intimate, warmly-lit scenes from a hallway, themselves shot in dark silhouette; this has the curious effect of joining us kindly with them, as though we were standing there in the hallway too. The night that Giulia leaves Nicola, she steps past him from their dark foyer through an open door that – illogically – lets in a blaze of red light, as though stepping into a furnace. When Nicola must tell Giorgia that Matteo is dead and Giulia arrested, Giorgia approaches the weeping man from behind as he sits on a garden bench; we watch parts of her come from over his shoulder – first her shambling feet, then one hand laid on his shoulder, then her palm on his cheek, after twenty years of not letting anyone touch her – long before we see her face. It is unsurprising that filmmakers so attuned to visual nuance would also give us characters – especially Matteo and Mirella – who make sense of the world by taking pictures.

The Best of Youth is a long film, here presented on two discs that run a tad over three hours each. Miramax has shaved a half hour plus off the European version, which runs at 6 hours, 40 minutes. This DVD set plays well on a large screen with lots of detail, rich color and good sound. The subtitles are legible; the end credits barely so. It has no extras at all.

Cineaste Magazine published this review in its Winter 2006 issue.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Film Review #71: Hail Mary
1985; DVD 2006
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe Lacoste, Juliette Binoche

Even with its holiday season release, The Nativity Story is faltering at multiplex box offices. What is has going for it is Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary (she debuted in the New Zealand film Whale Rider) and director Catherine Hardwicke, whose sharp eye for contemporary young people brought us Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. But you have to go back twenty-one years for most bracingly modern Holy Family.

In Hail Mary, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 take on the Nativity, Joseph drives a night-shift cab from the airport. Marie, whom we first see during her high school basketball team’s game, works nights in her father’s gas station on the airport road. After two years at arm’s length, Joseph is desperate and confused. One day he flings at her, “You don’t even care if we’re together! You don’t care if I’m sick or I die!”

In the age-old way of young men in love, Joseph (Thierry Rode) is by turns tender, demanding, pleading, petulant and accusing, all to get in Marie’s pants. Then he threatens to drown himself. Marie (Myriem Roussel) is unperturbed, answers with a gentle smile that she doesn’t think he will really jump in the lake.

Part of Joseph’s confusion is that he has no model to understand Marie’s seeming lack of desire, except his own indifference to another young woman. A luminous young Juliette Binoche, not quite believable here as spurned, plays Juliette, whose fervent pursuit of Joseph mirrors his pursuit of Marie. He does not want sex with Juliette because he does not love her, so he decides that Marie does not love him. Joseph’s insecure panic over rivals surges when the stranger Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) arrives by night plane – Marie hears his jetliner passing overhead and pauses mid-motion – to announce Marie’s pregnancy. Rough as a Dutch uncle, swarthy Gabriel materializes suddenly in rooms and yells at pouting Joseph about having trust. “And some love, you jerk!” he adds, shoving Joseph and slapping him in the back of the head. Godard also injects a parallel story about a professor’s doomed affair with his student that comments on how inadequately intellect alone explains our origins and satisfies our longings.

Hail Mary was modern in more than its dress and setting. Godard spear-headed the French New Wave in the 60’s with films like Weekend and Breathless; two years ago he directed his eighty-ninth movie. He made Hail Mary in an era when interest in psychology made possible this kind of exploration of Joseph and Marie’s inner turmoil with their destiny and one another – complete with symbolic trappings of radiant sunrises, the moon and wind rippling the marshes. Godard frankly drew on the writings of Francoişe Dolto’s 1977 book,
The Gospel is Confronted by Psychoanalysis.

He also looked to the past, basing some views of Mary on Michelangelo’s Pieta and drenching the story with Bach’s and Dvorak’s soaring music. For all its neon and rain-soaked asphalt, Hail Mary contains surprisingly few trendy fashion details that would frankly date it as mid-80’s. With the hindsight of two decades now, Godard’s use of some modern components has had the reverse effect of creating a certain timelessness.

Pope John-Paul II condemned Hail Mary as blasphemous. Besides subtler subversions, the film contains scenes in which Mary is naked or close to it, including her crucial exchange with Joseph about love’s meaning in which she teaches him to pay attention, her gynecological examination by her doctor – accenting her youth, Godard has Mary keep on her school-girl knee-socks while in the stirrups – and a late scene in which Mary, her mother and her new baby swim naked together. The Boston Roman Catholic Diocese made sure the film didn’t play there. Like Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ, made three years later, Hail Mary often faced pickets and protests at theaters.

In October, New Yorker Films issued Hail Mary on a new DVD that also contains an interview with Godard about his aims and sources and some clips from the filming, plus another short film. Avoid the multiplexes and head for the rental shops, where you can get the real deal on faith’s demands and pitfalls.

This review was written for Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse and older films of enduring worth, in the 12/21/06 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Film Review #70: The Painted Veil
Director: John Curran
Cast: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones

There’s a scene in The Painted Veil in which you can watch a man think something over and change his mind. As Dr. Walter Fane, bacteriologist attached to England’s Colonial Office in 1920s Shanghai, actor Edward Norton delivers his most economical, resonant performance to date. As Fane and his wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) argue over her affair with Vice-Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), Kitty persuades him to consider that it’s unreasonable to blame her entirely when he’s insisted on seeing her as other than she is. In an unhurried beat, Norton’s wounded, rational, earnest doctor considers that. Suddenly unsure, he cocks his head, gazes downward, then looks up again – just about three simple moves – then quietly agrees she’s right. The acting is wonderfully deft, and forecasts much of what happens between these mismatched two when they travel far inland to the city of Mei-tan-fu during a cholera epidemic and a wave of anti-Western anger.

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel of the same name, The Painted Veil has been an ensemble effort from start to finish. In that saga’s bare bones version, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and producer Sara Collecton (Showtime’s Dexter) acquired rights and began adapting Maugham’s book eleven years ago. In 1999 they recruited Norton, already a China enthusiast, who worked on the script and eventually played Fane. He brought on Watts. In early 2005, she landed director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore), an ex-pat New Yorker who started making movies in Australia in 1990. Curran anchored the on-screen story’s anti-Western political unrest, left vague in the novel, to British troops’ actual massacre of Chinese demonstrators in Shanghai in May 1925. Shot on location in Shanghai, in southern Guangxi Province’s green hills along the Li River, and on Beijing sound stages, The Painted Veil is the first Western film co-produced with the Chinese Film Bureau, with a largely Chinese crew.

You don’t have to read Maugham’s relatively short novel to enjoy this satisfying film, but that further illuminates what transformative adaptation from text to screen looks like at its best.

The film radically alters the story’s structure, quickly defining this as much cultural encounter as personal drama. Instead of opening with Kitty’s “startled cry” within her shuttered bedroom – outside, Walter has just turned the locked door’s knob while her lover’s inside with her – the film strands Walter and Kitty in a long shot at a rainy crossroads en route to Mei-tan-fu, helpless without porters, exchanging uncomprehending stares with local workers digging in the muddy hillside. The film adds anti-British gangs who chase Kitty (and teach Walter that he cares to protect her), and expands the figure of Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong) who must juggle warlords, Englishmen, local superstition and cholera. Gone is the novel’s protracted ending – another melodramatic encounter with an even more caddish Charlie, an ocean voyage in which China becomes “unreal,” Kitty’s mother’s death, and Kitty’s planned departure for the Bahamas with her father, where she imagines having a daughter she’ll raise to be independent. The film cuts all this away, assuming today’s audience can immediately envision these characters whole and viable in the Chinese setting. It provides Kitty with a five-year-old son in the London epilogue, relieves her of the novel’s highly compromising friendship with Charlie’s wife, and makes China a living presence instead of a backdrop by turns ornamental and “decadent, dirty and unspeakable.”

Edward Norton has said the producing ensemble sought to “liberate” Walter and Kitty’s story from the novel’s limitations. In the film’s newly opened space, Walter and Kitty arguably grow into love before he dies; in the novel, Kitty emphatically never comes to love him – and arguably couldn’t.

What core remains of Maugham’s novel? First, a string of gem-bright exchanges whose dialogue the screenplay lifts almost verbatim from Maugham’s pages. What spoken words pass between Kitty and Walter, Kitty and Charlie, Kitty and Waddington the Customs officer, and Kitty and the French convent’s Mother Superior play as convincingly or better on-screen as on the page. Second, the seemingly blasé Waddington (Toby Jones) and the patrician Mother Superior (several double takes reveal that’s Diana Rigg of Avengers fame) are characters whose alliance is provocative rather than merely eccentric – and inspired casting. Finally, the filmmakers preserve Maugham’s final judgment of Charlie Townsend through Kitty's eyes as “unimportant.” If anything, the film strengthens this assessment by having Kitty use it as a cooler, reassuring word to her son as the story closes, instead of the hot epithet she throws at Charlie in the book. All along Kitty has pleaded that, compared with such misery surrounding them, her sins are surely minor though the pain she has caused Walter is not. By the film’s end, she’s earned that position.

The Painted Veil also succeeds because its makers overcome several obvious temptations to excess that might doom a hastier project. The film refrains from making Kitty into Eleanor Roosevelt. Her transformation is right-sized – she humbles herself, tries to help the nuns and the orphans because she feels bored and useless, and she gets some unexpected joy for her efforts. Metaphorically, we could say the film never confuses her tinny piano ditties for the orphans with the score’s languid, lavish solos by pianist Lang Lang. This allows Walter and Kitty a brief romantic kindling that’s plausible instead of sentimental.

The filmmakers also wisely refrain from a voice-over narration by Kitty drawn from Maugham’s rendering of her inner thoughts. In sharp contrast to the dialogue, what the novel’s Kitty tells herself or imagines she would like to tell others is sometimes clueless, shallow, unbecoming and frankly racist.

Finally, Curran and company refrain from the epic effect. The Painted Veil does not try to be, say, Lawrence of Arabia. This means when a wife asks her husband to think about something, he can pay attention, and we can pay attention to him. People will watch this more muted film a long time.

The Painted Veil opens in New York on December 20 & goes into wide release in January 2007. This review was written for & appeared there on 12/20/2006.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Film Review # 69: Joyeaux Noel
Director: Christian Carion

As a type, the war movie exposé usually depicts atrocities or other scandalous behavior that’s been covered up. In the flood of documentaries about the Iraq war, for example, noted filmmakers Rory Kennedy (The Homestead Strike) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) both have upcoming movies on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Brian DePalma based his 1989 Casualties of War on an incident in which US soldiers raped a Vietnamese woman. And last week Days of Glory opened in New York City; Algeria’s official Oscar submission for best foreign language film dramatizes the racist treatment during and after World War II endured by conscripted “indigenous” troops from Algeria and other French colonies in North Africa who fought for France.

Last year’s Joyeaux Noel is a second kind of war movie exposé, not nearly as common. In this film peace breaks out and – equally as riveting to watch – is rapidly and decisively suppressed. You’ve probably heard the story. One Christmas Eve in France during World War I, enemy troops started singing, and declared a local truce that night. As often as you’ve heard this, someone has probably said, “Oh that didn’t really happen, it’s like one of those urban legends.”

The Oscar-nominated film's director, Christian Carion, belongs to Noel 14, a group that is documenting instances of such spontaneous truces among enemy soldiers. They claim that about 90% of these contacts occur because one group of soldiers sings and the other side applauds or sings back.

The extraordinarily moving Joyeaux Noel dramatizes one such incident on Christmas Eve 1914, in which the noted German opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, serving in the German army, sparked some treasonous fraternizing among German, French and Scots troops by his singing.

Joyeaux Noel opens with schoolchildren reciting patriotic verses that castigate their nation’s enemies since, as South Pacific reminded us, you have to be carefully taught. In a highland village, one Scots brother excitedly tells another that war’s been declared. Their priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), follows them into war as a medic, taking along his bagpipes. In Berlin, military announcements on-stage interrupt Sprink (Benno Furmann) and his fiancé/singing partner Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger) ; soon Sprink is fighting in France. There, a French general’s son, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet), is so frightened that he vomits before first leading his troops into artillery fire.

These characters meet outside the city of Lens, their trenches just a few hundred yards apart, deadlocked from summer into winter over possession of the bombed-out Delsaux family farm. Millions died in such trenches, filthy, freezing, wet, rat and lice-infested warrens that gave us the term “shell shock.” Carion’s camera moves quickly among his three companies, tying each brief scene to the next by some noise that’s overheard in the neighboring trench. This prepares us for Christmas Eve. So does the oddly persistent lure of deadly no-man’s land, where one soldier after another seems pulled, whether to spy or retrieve the dead and wounded.

Carion creates a celebrity fiancé for Sprink who engineers a ritzy holiday concert for officers, retrieving Sprink for a night. When he returns to the trenches, improbably Anna goes along. There, the Scots’ singing and bagpipes trigger a musical call and Sprink’s response across no-man’s land. Heads peek above earthworks. Soon they’re mingling, answering the responses in Palmer's Latin Mass. The next day, they share soccer, cards, family photos, and bury their dead. It is hard for them to go back. Lt. Horstmayar (Daniel Bruhl) invites the Allies to shelter in his trenches when artillery fire first resumes.

Can’t figure out why the Sunnis and the Shiites are killing each other? This film’s Europeans share more than Christmas songs and growing up with the Latin Mass. Each furious military superior immediately ships out or disbands their regiments, intercepts their mail and orders silence. An incensed Anglican bishop suggests Palmer leave the priesthood, then preaches to fresh troops from Mathew, “I come not to bring peace. I bring a sword.”

You have your Holocaust deniers, your My Lai deniers – and your Christmas Eve 1914 deniers. If you think about it, they are usually of the same stripe. They are the ones who would make a no-man’s land of our hearts and minds, a place where war’s consequences are neither very bad nor war’s flukes very good either, where instead war itself is simply normal. Joyeaux Noel is one of cinema’s better answers to that.

Published in Make It Snappy, a regular DVD column in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, on 12/14/06.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Film Review #68: Apocalypto
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernandez

Have you noticed that we’re getting back to basics? Blood Diamond’s Danny Archer tosses off some fancy driving and James Bond’s glove box might stock a defibrillator, but this winter season’s three major action movies really like their high speed chases best on foot. Like Bond himself, Casino Royale’s opening sequence is eventually over-done. DiCaprio’s diamond smuggler, unable to make the summit, is carried the last few feet by Djimon Honsou’s African innocent until – in a quite respectable echo of Gary Cooper’s Robert Jordan from 1943’s classic For Whom the Bell Tolls – he refuses escape to hold off murderous pursuers. Then there’s Apocalypto. Now here is the Cadillac of foot chases – hyper-extended, heart-bursting, masterfully suspended at just the right brief intervals of rationed exposition, audacious.

Apocalypto is the story of young Jaguar Paw (the arresting Rudy Youngblood) and his run. Jaguar Paw is a sort of primeval crown prince, first seen leading the young men on a hunt in his father’s Mesoamerican jungle circa 1500, last seen turning his back on the coast and leading his wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their two boys into what he hopes is the safety of the deep interior forest. In between, Mayan warriors sack his people’s small camp and haul him to the nightmarish capital, intending to rip his heart out in ritual sacrifice to the sun god. Because Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf’s son while escaping, this Mayan general (Raoul Trujillo, channeling Charleton Heston in his better days) goes after the young hunter with ferocious obsession. I know he terrified me. When Zero Wolf jumps right over that waterfall after him, my eyes widened just like Jaguar Paw’s did on-screen.

There is a lovely and powerful sequence after this when the forest forcibly takes Jaguar Paw back as its own, swallowing him in quicksand. When he emerges after a long moment, a muddy hulk, he has found his own ferocious clarity and sets about picking off his pursuers. Meanwhile, Jaguar Paw’s pregnant wife and little boy hide in a deep rock crevice, unable to run anywhere. Gibson checks in on them with short, nuanced interludes whose stillness and close-up intensity effectively counterpoint the headlong rush through the jungle above. Gibson has an often overlooked gift for coaxing delicate, moving performances from women that are oases in violent mayhem – recall the scene from The Passion of the Christ (2004) in which Mary quietly mops up her son’s blood from the cobblestones.

Mel Gibson says he first wanted to make a “high velocity action-adventure chase film” and then sought an ancient culture in which to place it. He settled on the Maya because of parallels he perceived with current-day excesses and the opportunity for parable. So he prefaces Apocalypto with historian Will Durant’s remark, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” and in closing dedicates the film to the Biblical Abel, slain by his brother. The order of Gibson’s approach helps explain why Apocalypto’s rousing power as a chase yarn doesn’t extend further and match the deeper resonance of, say, Atanarjurat: Fast Runner, the 2001 film produced by Canadian Inuits in which the central chase across the icy wasteland arises organically from that culture’s legends about an evil spirit menacing the community. As ever, Gibson’s own preoccupations, in league with his considerable talent, lead him astray.

The film’s first weekend is instructive of the film’s allure and its contradiction. The day after Apocalypto opened on December 8th, the Washington Post published a lengthy article laying out the concerns of Mayan researchers from a half dozen US universities. On Sunday Apocalypto slid into the #1 US box-office spot and its distributor, Disney Studios, estimated the first weekend’s revenues at $14.2 million.

Gibson does not claim outright for Apocalypto the rigorous historical accuracy that he did for his Passion. You can read analyses elsewhere that debunk exactly how Gibson structures that film’s exaggerations and savagery to anti-Semitic ends. Even so, I know of no other film that captures as convincingly how remote an outpost Jerusalem might have been to the Romans – how seedy and dilapidated. Gibson brilliantly sets Pilate’s meeting with Jesus in a formal public courtyard that’s a crude, badly proportioned copy of vaster, gleaming Roman public sites, with steep, ungraceful stairs and dirty pillars. As powerful cinema, does this add depth to Pilate as Christ’s reluctant antagonist or make blaming the Jews easier?

In the Washington Post, William Booth details how the experts see Apocalypto’s careless history and wonders about its impression on viewers new to the Maya. Instead of acknowledging the thousand-year reign of a complex, subtle, even avant-garde civilization, he says Gibson depicted the Mayan capital – disease-ridden slums, children foraging in sewage and the most zombie-like pagan worshipers this side of Peter Jackson’s King Kong – as a “ghoulscape.” Where Jaguar Paw grasps his fate in the temple by reading murals, Gibson has digitally altered a major historic Mayan fresco to show a warrior king holding a dripping human heart when his hand really holds nothing. Gibson got many fashion details right – the tattoos, facials scars, ear plugs – but key scholars disagree on whom the Mayas targeted for sacrifice, say there is no evidence of large-scale slavery and no evidence of the Nazi-style mass open graves that Jaguar Paw stumbles into at the capital’s edge. Their concerns include significant confusion of time periods, ritual, art and architectural styles, even a haphazard confusion between the Mayan and Aztec cultures. Booth says some worry how today’s six million Mayan descendants in Central and South American will view Apocalypto when it’s released there next year.

Likewise, Apocalypto’s extreme violence is a relentless, subliminal and time-warping argument to absolve those Europeans just off-shore in advance. The scene is which a delicate fountain of blood sprays straight out from the most sadistic Mayan foot soldier’s spiked temple is a window on someone’s dedication to the uses of illusion. See, they did it to themselves. Talk about getting back to basics. This is why Socrates wanted to ban the artists.

Published at, 12/13/06.
Make it Snappy:DVDs You Should Get Around To

Last month The Redhouse offered a Master Directors Film Festival over a 12-day period and invited me to lead one of the talk-back sessions after a screening – mine was Kurasawa’s Rashomon (1950). We in the media didn’t do a very good job publicizing that little festival series – it was under-attended and audience members complained about almost missing the whole thing. Some had caught Rashomon before on DVD but almost no one had seen on a big screen. And they wanted to stay and talk about the movie. We have a cinema-friendly and a cinema-hungry community here. (Witness the pre-screenings that the Syracuse International Film & Video Festival holds throughout Central New York in selecting final festival entries, a labor and time-intensive process that almost no other festival engages in.) Syracuse is, sadly, no longer a first-ranked national test city, getting the range of theatrical openings we once did. But besides a wealth of university film series, we have several robust small independent theaters, and multi-art houses like The Redhouse and Community Folk Art Center make film part of their agenda. Emerald City Video, also locally owned, has an especially fine collection of both videos and DVDs. And of course, God bless netflicks. Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To is a new weekly column, devoted to films that never got here in theatrical release, or might deserve another look because of their enduring quality and influence.

We open with a movie that editor Walt Sheppard suggested, the original 1946 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The movie has Hemingway’s name in the title because it’s based on his nine and a half page story from 1927, although the story only narrated events from the opening scene, in which two hit men enter a small town diner at suppertime and terrorize the few men there by announcing their intention to find and kill another man named “the Swede.” Hemingway’s story is terse and menacing, and his writing style matched the way in which German ex-pat director Robert Siodmak told his stories on-screen. The film takes off from this initial vignette, and the Swede, Ole Andreson (Burt Lancaster’s first film role) accepts his fate passively even though he’s warned by a diner patron who races through back yards, leaping fences to out-run the killers. An almost obsessed insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) teams up with a retired cop, Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) to ferret out why the Swede didn’t run when he was warned. Unfolding in a series of flashbacks, the film details how the Swede’s boxing career collapsed and he turned to small time heists, infatuated with the two-timing Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). It is quite a convoluted story, with a mysterious green handkerchief keepsake and several reversals.

The Killers was quite successful at the box office in its time, won four Oscar nominations and Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic musical score features the dum-da-dum-dum that the TV series Dragnet later borrowed for its theme. It was one of that series of increasingly darker, starker, more fatalistic and hopeless US films that the French saw after World War II and dubbed “film noir” before Americans really had a name for it. This movie is one of the best introductions you could have. Despite being 60 years old, it is stunningly modern – from the opening scene you’ll be reminded of films like Sin City (2005), which clearly take their lighting, their ambiance and a while lot else from films like this one.

The Killers was remade in 1964 for television, which meant a major shift to color and very bright lighting, and a shift in approach, as the two hit men (lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) decide to figure out their victim’s passive acceptance of his death. The 1964 version changed the Swede to a race car driver named Johnny North (John Cassavetes) and featured Ronald Reagan in his last screen role as the crime boss. It makes sense to see them together.

The Killers is available through in the 2003 Criterion Collection 2-disc edition or in several VHS issues if you can find them. The Criterion edition is a better bet because it includes Don Siegel’s 1964 re-make, and a wealth of extras, notably Stacy Keach’s reading of the Hemingway story, a 1948 radio adaptation, several recollections and commentaries, especially Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay, notes on film noir, the first take by an American on this style of filmmaking.

The first Make it Snappy was published in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 12/7/06.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Film Review #66: Copying Beethoven
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode

For many years, I thought that director Martin Scorcese, whom I admire greatly, might have an evil twin. This was how I formulated for myself the seemingly inevitable presence of wildly fluctuating scenes within a single film – always at least one clunker in amongst the gems. With The Departed, Scorcese has laid that to rest, killing his darlings along with most of his characters. Though I would not normally pair these two directors, I bring up Scorcese’s split because Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Copying Beethoven is a film that also seems at odds with itself.

I went to Copying Beethoven expecting, even wanting to like it. Some of it I did like. Immediately, Holland’s usually sure hand is evident in the magnificent opening scene. A closed carriage careens along a muddy road in the 19th century Austrian countryside, past poor trudging women who peer after it as they get out of the way, past fields and woods – past daily life – and beneath wheeling birds whose startled flight matches the passenger’s own urgency. It’s 1827 and young Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), musical copyist and aspiring composer, is rushing to the death-bed of her “Maestro,” the renowned Beethoven (Ed Harris). But more than anything this carriage scene is about the vivid, almost overwhelming awakening of her senses. It’s chilly, and we are roughly thrown about in Anna’s careening coach along with her, catching flashes of sky and branch, nearly smelling the steaming horses, and above all, hearing everything. Every hoof beat, every crow’s call, every squeak of the carriage, every sudden brief lull, pant and rustle – all of it picked out clearly and then mingled with soaring music. Anna Holtz apprehends the world fully just as the man who’s shown it to her lies on the razor’s edge of death. You see, she has just grasped what he has to offer, barely in time to repay his gift by telling him she got it.

“I heard it like you hear it, Maestro,” she tells him, once she arrives in his cramped upper room, with the little window just over his shoulder past the bed. She is sure of it. At the film’s end – after the movie’s story, when Anna Holtz recalls the intervening three years – she’ll see her own reflection in that window and go out walking in a sunny meadow, rejoining the world. Meanwhile, somewhat miraculously, before the movie even really starts, Holland has made us hear it too, as if for the first time. Holland says this was her goal – a tall order when you consider that in our jaded age there are more than 100 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to choose from (the one we hear in this film is the 1996 Decca recording with Bernard Haitink conducting). But this first dazzling scene of Anna in the carriage by herself is far more successful than most of what follows – even the centerpiece scene of Beethoven conducting the Ninth premiere that’s gotten the most attention – and it compactly mirrors how Beethoven’s own innovations disrupted the way people heard music.

Most of the action occurs in flashback to 1824, when the composer debuts his Ninth Symphony and then goes on to write his later string quartets. The Ninth turned out to be both a comeback for Beethoven and a hinge moment in music itself, audaciously adding chorus to symphony, extending symphonic length, rearranging its forms and more. The film places us in the frantic days before that debut, with sections of Budapest dating from the 12th century and other Hungarian locations standing in for Beethoven’s Vienna. Long made solitary by his hearing loss, ill-tempered and difficult in the extreme, disorganized, demanding, obsessed, Beethoven needs help to get his score copied out for the orchestra.

The film posits that a young woman has persuaded her respectable family to let her study musical composition. She is able to lodge at a Vienna convent because her aunt seems to be the Mother Superior there. Then Beethoven’s publisher recommends her as his new copyist. At first, and for quite a long time too, Beethoven is irascible, dismissive and living in the midst of trash and rats. (As an aside, while Ed Harris is convincingly boorish, I would not say he is convincingly Beethoven. Recently a local paper wrote that Scarlett Johansson was “too modern” for The Prestige, and after Copying Beethoven I know what they meant.) Anyway, Anna Holtz gets her chance, saves the day by secretly conducting the Ninth from the orchestra pit, and becomes his student and assistant in the writing of the later string quartets. Along the way, Beethoven demonstrates to Anna Holtz that her fiancé, Martin (Match Point’s Matthew Goode) is an untalented architect as well as a possessive boyfriend, and is himself fleeced by his cynical nephew Karl. Perhaps most creepy is the scene in which Beethoven, reclining Pieta-like, asks Anna Holtz to bathe him.

Some of this is historically true and some, not. As anyone knows who’s heard of this film, “Anna Holtz” is a composite figure, based on two male students who assisted Beethoven from time to time, and also inspired by the story of Karoline Unger, a singer at the debut of the Ninth who gently turned Beethoven to face the audience so that he could see the applause he could not hear.

It’s a subtle touch, but Beethoven calls Anna Holtz by both her names throughout the film. This suggests that he has trouble knowing quite where to place her. Anna Holtz is a problem, but I’ve decided this is not Diane Kruger’s fault. For US audiences who don’t know her work abroad, Kruger may still be living down Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, but she quietly holds her own in this part and we’ll see more of her. As Anna, Kruger also plays a figure whom Holland holds with some congenial intimacy. Holland told GreenCine’s Steven Jenkins, when the film opened several weeks ago, that she had a maestro in film school herself. “I feel myself in Anna’s boots when she challenges Beethoven.”

The problem with Anna Holtz is larger and more amorphous than her character. She’s supposed to be a device that allows us to enter Beethoven’s solitary world, to personify a young audience’s encounter with his music. Instead, this film’s approach largely recasts the composer into the same marketing terms that many shrinking, cash-strapped US symphony orchestras are busy employing to attract a younger “demo.” In place of parties, dinners and prizes to draw subscribers to live performances, this film invents Anna Holtz. I’d like to know whether the investors or the character came first. At least her carriage ride crossed the screen first.

This review was written for, where it appeared on 12/6/06.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Film Review #65: Iraq in Fragments *** 2006 *** Director: James Longley *** The afternoon two weeks ago that I spoke with James Longley by phone, he was feeling pretty good. The Seattle-based Longley was in New York City, bunking in with his fellow filmmaker Andrew Berends for the theatrical premiere that night of his new documentary, Iraq in Fragments. It’s a film I hope will come to Central New York. Longley was going to do a Q & A after the 8 o’clock screening at Film Forum and so far opening reviews were sweet. The Village Voice’s Nathan Lee said this film would still be there when the war itself was long gone. Lee offered his own lyrical riff on Longley’s “rhyming” circle images – a boy’s eye echoed in the rotary blades of ubiquitous hovering choppers, a ceiling fan, sewing machine wheel, bullet holes and the burning auto tire of the film’s final moments. *** Longley filmed Iraq in Fragments between February 2003 and April 2005, first in Baghdad among the Sunnis, then in Naseriyah and Najaf among the Shiites during the uprising that coincided with the US siege of Falluja and the Abu Ghraib torture revelations, finally in the northern Kurdish settlement of Koretan near the city of Erbil, an area of farmers and brick-makers. *** Longley had been in Iraq earlier but unable to get permits to film in the last days of Saddam’s regime. So he left, paced out the US invasion from across the border, returning when it was possible to work unfettered. During this period Andrew Berends also shot a documentary set among the Shiites called The Blood of My Brother. Longley handed his cell phone to his old friend and Berends told me that they go way back; in college together, Longley was the cinematographer on Berends’ first student film. In Iraq each crossed paths and hung out with four still photographers who approached their work in the same guerilla fashion. Later, the Unembedded Project emerged – first a website and joint gallery exhibit among the six, then a book by the four photographers. *** Although Longley’s adult work has been about the moving image, he says his aesthetic is grounded in the photography and painting of his student days, so he is at home with the stillness of composed images and it shows. Time after time as I watched Iraq in Fragments I wanted to reach up and take some frame out of the film’s flow and hold it still. I think Nathan Lee was surrendering to the same sheer power of Longley’s arresting, lovely images too – like the little girl in the pink dress and the Kurdish boys throwing snowballs in the last third of the film that appear like sudden oases after a long desert march. *** Iraq in Fragments is made of three parts, each a resonant story of sons in a society both used to and suddenly free of a dictator who for decades cast himself as a fatherly disciplinarian. You see how confusing that might be on an intimate scale immediately. Like his 2001 film, Gaza Strip, this one begins with a boy named Mohammad. Eleven-year-old Mohammed Haithem of Baghdad has lost his policeman father, who spoke against Saddam and disappeared. He lives with his grandmother and works in a sweltering, grimy mechanic’s shop for a man whom he swears loves him like a father. Soon Mohammed is insisting on this through his own tears, repeatedly slapped and berated by the boss who growls that Saddam would never have allowed the chaos that surrounds them. Mohammed’s boss does not mind that Longley films him behaving this way. Just as you’re thinking this little boy should be in school, that fantasy is slapped away with unnerving, brutal swiftness by a trip to the regimented classroom that Mohammed sometimes attends at his boss’ behest – where he feels only stupid among the younger boys. Mohammed’s great revolt and liberation consists of leaving both the garage and the school behind by escaping to a distant uncle’s sweatshop. *** Moving south to the Shiite stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr, himself a fortunate son with inherited power, Longley switches to a whip-lash cinematic style that manages to re-create the fresh sense of assault and visual overdrive first felt years ago with Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers. This matches the frenzy of the religious self-flagellation with whips and chains that Saddam forbade, in which masses of young Shiite men now freely indulge, the clamoring rallies, and a zealous arrest and beating of a suspected alcohol seller at a local market. For this section Longley followed Sheik Aws al Kafaji, a cooperative and thoughtful young cleric in charge of Sadr’s office in Naseriyah, Iraq’s fourth largest city. This section also features repeated, haunting glimpses of a sort of ghost boy, unidentified and peeking out from the chaos – as if there were no time or space for his story. *** This middle part of the film is strenuous and frightening, raising the obvious question of how one gets access. Longley says the months he spent establishing relationships is key; Andrew Berends elaborated, “Some of these boundaries we just imagine. After a while I realized, why wouldn’t they want us there? It’s easier than filming in New York City, where people are more self-conscious, aware of the camera, more private. People in Iraq are extremely hospitable and open.” *** This is easier to see when Longley goes north for the section he titles Kurdish Spring, to vast plains, skylines and fields. The billowing smoke from the ovens of the region’s brick-makers merges with images of Saddam’s burning of Kurdish villages, even as the sons of neighboring farmers walk hand in hand from school, tend their sheep and try to put into words how hard their fathers have worked. Across Iraq, old men play board games and criticize the politicians, and little boys carefully wash their feet from pumps and spigots, trying to do much with little. Among the Kurds Longley finds the space to contemplate those common national images, despite the commonly voiced belief that Iraq will inevitably pull apart. *** Longley himself says, “The best way to see it is in a theater. None of us wants our films seen on those little screens by people busy doing something else.” Opening at Manhattan’s Film Forum guarantees respect and savvy audiences. Besides that, Iraq in Fragments has opened this month in seven other major US cities after nearly 60 festival screenings. It hit three Best awards right off the bat at Sundance, and has more theaters slated for January. This is a substantial release for a documentary, so Iraq in Fragments will surely get a DVD issue. But you might say that Iraq in Fragments comes most into its essential movie-ness in its final Kurdish section, which is why I hope this film comes to Central New York. ***** This review was written for broadcast on Women's Voices Radio, 88.3 FM WAER Syracuse, on the Thanksgiving show, 11/23/06.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Film Review #64: Daughters of the Dust
1992 *** Director: Julie Dash *** “We all have our Julie Dash moments,” says filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, adding, “I worked mine into a film about living on Taiwan.” *** Welbon was in upstate New York last month for a screening of her own 2003 documentary about African American women filmmakers, Sisters in Cinema, at the Community Folk Art Center’s three-day film festival in Syracuse. It’s impossible, she said, to over-estimate the importance to other black women filmmakers of Dash’s tale of the Gullah, Daughters of the Dust. Its lavish visual feast, its climbing tendrils of narrative, and its attention to place that’s at once swooning and meticulous, marked a paradigm leap. *** Daughters of the Dust opened in January 1992 with no marketing to speak of and only a few mainstream reviews, but word of mouth kept it in theaters for six months. You would think this would lead to more movies, right? Dash herself appears in Sisters in Cinema, at one point describing her quest to get backing for new film projects in the 90’s. Remember this was the era when indie filmmaking opportunities for men – black and white alike – cracked wide open. “They’ll take you to lunch,” Dash says, “but they don’t follow through.” *** “Our Ellis Island” is what Dash has called the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Initial landing points for the slave trade, they were also places of protective isolation for Africans who remained there, called Gullah. Besides working the rice and indigo plantations, the Gullah preserved West African cuisine, their unique Geechee tongue and a blend of Islam alongside African deities. The legend of Ibo Landing, in which one shipment of new slaves sized up the beach, turned around and in their chains walked en masse back into the Atlantic, is central to Daughters in the Dust, where it’s told twice. Dash’s film puts Ibo Landing on St. Helena. Even today, numerous Gullah communities in the islands claim to be the “real” site of Ibo Landing. Its legend resonates in every journey by boat this movie’s characters undertake. *** Daughters of the Dust unwraps the Peazant family history through the eyes, memories and visions of its women over two days in August 1902. The family gathers once more before most will migrate north via the mainland. This is another epochal crossing of the water, so a “modern” photographer, Mr. Sneed from Philadelphia, is there to record their last sea-side feast and matriarch Nana’s blessing. Nana and her unborn great-great-granddaughter recall this final reunion in voice-overs that also fill in past events and future developments in wry asides. Family members squabble over loyalties, secrets, prosperity’s lure in a new century, whether old ways are a “hoodoo mess,” and Yellow Mary, who’s come home with her pretty lover Trula. *** Dash used these squabbles and Mr. Sneed’s group poses in the dunes by the ocean as devices to sum up entire debates and anguished contradictions about what that migrating generation faced. We first see Yellow Mary arriving by water, languidly resting like some Cleopatra on her barge, but her own progress in the wider world has been deeply ambivalent, with a heavy price for her restless freedom. *** “All that yellow wasted,” spits one Baptist cousin, seeing no chances of light-skinned children from wayward Yellow Mary. It is hard to discern whether this contingent of cousins disapproves most of Yellow Mary’s own departure from the island years before, or her career as a high-end prostitute, or her girl friend. Only an outburst from the young pregnant wife Eula, who defends Yellow Mary as “one of us,” forces some reconciliation. And Eula’s Unborn Child, whom Nana calls into being to save the family, materializes as a ten-year-old with an indigo hair ribbon pouring through a fancy mail-order catalog. She observes wryly, “I was on a spiritual mission but I got distracted.” *** More than likely, you’ve seen Dash’s work since – on MTV, Encore and HBO. She works steadily, making about a film a year for hire on the small screen. But she’s never made another full-length feature of her own for theatrical release. Dash, whose father was Gullah, first conceived of Daughters of the Dust about 1975. In 1988 she got enough funding for a 28-day location shoot. Then lack of money delayed post-production another couple years. Daughters of the Dust was the first full-length indie feature by a black woman in wide release in the US. There wasn’t a DVD of Daughters of the Dust until Kino’s 2000 issue, which has excellent extras but disappointing sound quality. And Netflicks has only added this title to their inventory in the past year. *** But Dash’s persistence has continued to feed others. Yvonne Welbon is making a new feature film. Kasie Lemmons – who made Eve’s Bayou and Caveman’s Valentine – is shooting a new film in Toronto. And Nigerian-British filmmaker Ngozi Onwaruh, who gave us her own take on Ibo Landing’s legend in Welcome II The Terrordome, she’s making another movie too. ***** This review was written for broadcast on Women's Voices Radio on Thankgiving, 11/23/06. An abbreviated form appears in's staff feature, Out of Sight II: Twenty Films You Haven't Seen But Should on 11/20/06.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Film Review #63: The Giant Buddhas *** 2005 *** Director: Christian Frei *** What about Afghanistan? Five years ago this week, the Taliban fell and US troops entered Kabul. Since then, Iraq has gobbled up our money and attention, and engulfed the documentary market. Even doc superstar Errol Morris has just announced he'll start shooting a film about Abu Ghraib prison. *** Two years ago PBS broadcast the remarkable film, Afghanistan Unveiled, made by some young Afghani women – their country's first female journalists – NGO-funded, trained and mentored by Western journalists. Traveling about their own nation for the first time, they visited Bamiyan, home of the ancient cave-dwelling Hazaras, who traditionally guarded the giant Buddha statues carved into Bamiyan's cliffs 1500 years ago. The legacy of their women warriors on horse-back shows up even today. In all Afghanistan, only Bamiyan province has a woman governor. The Taliban were vicious with the Hazaras, whom they slaughtered instead of merely driving out when they took power. *** The omission of the Hazaras’ backstory is nearly the only flaw in Christian Frei's panoramic film The Giant Buddhas, which is about the statues' destruction six months before 9/11. It had its US debut at this year's Sundance but never picked up a theatrical run. I discovered it while trolling *** Frei is a Swiss filmmaker who's developing a body of work that explores how politics and media intersect, from Cuban radio stations to ancient religious fine art. His 2001 film, War Photographer, profiles photojournalist James Nachtwey. It’s one of my personal top ten. *** Frei does his own sound and travels light with just cinematographer Peter Indergand. They began this film in March 2003, two weeks before the US invasion of Iraq, and also filmed in Europe, Toronto, and China, retracing some steps of a young Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who passed through Bamiyan in 632 AD. Xuanzang's diaries are meticulously accurate about other ancient sites, so his reports about the gilt statues with ruby eyes have caught modern attention. UNESCO says the looting of Afghani antiquities is actually more lucrative than poppies. *** Frei constructs his narrative as a series of letters to Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira, herself the subject of the 2001 film, Kandahar. Here she reflects on her father's pilgrimage as a young man to Bamiyan as she pours over his scrapbooks and eventually travels from Toronto herself to gaze at the empty niches. After their globe-spanning correspondance, it is one of the film's most moving moments when she moves within sight of the Bamiyan cliffs and the empty niches within Frei's camera frame.*** At one point, Frei quotes an Iranian filmmaker, who says the Bamiyan Buddhas "crumbled to pieces out of shame for the West's lack of understanding.” And the film's opening is immediately sobering and embarrassing, with 19th century engravings of the statues, and words from the poets Lord Byron and Goethe. How should we take the legacy of these Romantics whose pursuit of foreign exoticism led Goethe to call the giant Buddhas "revolting beasts"? *** Bamiyan has been a crossroads for 2000 years, a convergence of the East’s regard and the West’s underestimation, a gateway of Silk Road trade and a major monastic center. Yet fanaticism wrought the following in the worst winter in 30 years, when the UN increased its sanctions on the isolated Taliban regime. Defiantly, Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic idols in the country. *** At Bamiyan even local Taliban at first resisted. Then a truck convoy crossed the mountains - many Taliban froze to death on the way - and it took about two weeks to bring the Buddhas down. When grenades, artillery shells and land-mines failed, and they ran out of TNT, Pakistani and Saudi engineers came to finish the job. Local Hazara Sayyed Mirza says contemptuously that the Taliban couldn't blow up anything on their own. *** One of Frei’s coups is an interview with Al Jazeera's star reporter Taysir Alony and he uses some of Alony's footage of the explosions – clearly shot with great secrecy and anxiety – billowing across the valley's floor. Alony ponders on-screen his own quest for the Western-style big scoop and the contradictions which arose within him as he watched this murder unfold. *** We also see Afghanistan’s former chief archeologist, Zémaryalai Tarzi, who wanted to excavate Bamiyan in 1978 before the Soviet invasion. Tarzi believed Xuenzang's accounts of the 300 meters-long reclining Buddha that Hazara farmers still tell their children sleeps beneath their fields. Tarzi has begun now, a little each summer. *** UNESCO, which raised the alarm in the first place, funds the salvage and restoration effort, with the blessings of the country's elderly, respected former king. Frei's film is remarkably current about this elaborate high-tech project and its space-age options - 3-D computer models, night-time holograms bathed with flood-lights, and rock chunks exactly aligned by their mineral deposits. It could flow almost seamlessly into Renee Montagne’s NPR report later this month. *** Yes, what about Afghanistan? NPR has used this 5th anniversary of the Taliban's fall to ask that question. Instead of merely recoiling from Iraq let us re-think that question. This film is one good starting point. *** This review was broadcast on Women's Voices Radio, 88.3 FM WAER Syracuse, on 11/16/2006.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Film Review #62: Volver **** 2006 *** Director: Pedro Almodóvar *** Cast: Pénelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Yohana Cobo, Blanca Portilla, Chus Lampreave *** If ever a movie were widely heralded from a long way off, that would be Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Released last March in Spain, by September this film’s international din began to achieve seismic proportions. At Cannes the inspired festival judges awarded Best Screenplay to Almodóvar and then simply bestowed Best Actress collectively on the film’s ensemble of women’s remarkable performances. Later that month, 350 film critics from 60 countries voted Volver the Fipresci Grand Prix for year’s best film. State-side, September also saw the cinematic version of Paul Revere’s ride in Viva Pedro!, the ambitious theatrical re-launch of eight previous films in brand new prints, amounting to a traveling Almodóvar mini-fest. Viva Pedro! would let us bone up on his body of work and insure the best possible reception – after a final warning flash on the horizon at New York’s Film Festival last month – for Volver’s bi-coastal theatrical opening last week, with full nation-wide roll-out for the winter holidays. *** After all that, how ironic that Volver is Almodóvar’s most immediately accessible, sweetly transparent and beguilingly down to earth film yet – and the one most possible to watch for itself alone. From the opening scene, in which we begin to meet Volver’s women, energetically tending family graves, including their own, to a decidedly cheerful tune, there is a sense of delicious conspiracy. It’s as though Almodóvar has been granted entrance to the world of women’s secrets and in turn somehow stands aside, allowing his women to reveal themselves on-screen and passing those secrets on to us. *** His own notes about Volver confirm that this is true in concrete and metaphoric sense alike. The film’s title is often translated literally as the verb “to return,” but besides having chosen a word that slides easily into an earthy pun for English-speakers, Almodóvar himself uses the slightly more colloquial and evocative phrase “coming back.” He reports his sisters acted as advisers about village life in his family’s home region of La Mancha and regarding details of home hair salons, making meals and house-cleaning. He recalls his own childhood’s “happiest memories” as a toddler with his mother at a river’s edge among women doing laundry – and therefore Pénelope Cruz’s Raimunda magnanimously buries her husband on the riverbank where they met as children. In the character of Agustina (Blanca Portilla), the village’s buzz-cut first hippie who grows her own weed and knows Raimunda’s family like her own, he invokes the “solidarity of neighboring women” who most aided his own mother in her later years. In an over-arching way, he says he’s “come back” to women and to maternity itself as the source of his art. *** “Most importantly,” he says, since this is La Mancha, the dead mother comes back too. That would be Irene (Carmen Maura), mother of the sisters Raimunda and Sole (Lola Dueñas), grandmother of Raimunda’s daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Quite practically, Irene has come back to help her own frail elderly sister, Tía Paula (Chus Lampreave), with her cooking, though it turns out she also seeks Raimunda’s forgiveness for significant old hurts and omissions. Because this will be the most difficult and wrenching reunion, as well as that most flooded with relief, Raimunda is the last to know Irene is back. Irene reveals herself to the lonelier and mousier of the sisters first, after both assume their elderly aunt’s matter-of-fact statements about Irene’s cooking are some combination of harmless dementia and provincial superstition. A bit wild-haired at first from her journey back to life, Irene then ensconces herself with home hair-dresser Sole, who gives her a cute cut and a tint and puts her to work with customers. She frets about Raimunda’s discovering her, hides in car trunks and under beds, and is an easy, down to earth confidante to her granddaughter, who accepts her existence without fuss. *** This granddaughter has just been through worse. Volver’s few men are notable for their absences, departures and disappearances. There’s the restaurant owner who’s sweet on Raimunda but conveniently leaves town so that she can take over his café herself in a burst of sunny industry (for those who know the old melodrama Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford and Ann Blythe as another mother and daughter in the restaurant business, Almodóvar’s own comparison of the two films is both witty on several levels and immensely more optimistic). There’s the young filmmaker for whom she does this so she can feed his crew, a bit of manna from the sky just when she’s really broke. There’s Raimunda’s deceased father, about whom more will be revealed as you watch. And there’s her husband Paco, ill-tempered and ill-fated. *** Early in the story, young Paula dispatches her father with a kitchen knife when his beer-fuelled disgruntlement over losing his job turns to lechery. Arriving home to a bloody kitchen, Raimunda instantly takes Paula’s side. This leads to one of those scenes among many that play havoc with simple, one-track response. Several reviewers have cited the moment when Raimunda, her clean-up operation interrupted by a caller at the door, shrugs off the blood smeared on her throat as “women’s troubles.” I still marvel at Raimunda mopping up the floor on her knees with paper towels – shot from above to take in what Almodóvar calls “one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema” – and rolling over the body, giving her head a disgusted little shake, and zipping up his fly. This scene sets the stage for Paco’s body’s progress, stashed in a freezer at the bustling, re-opened café and eventually laid to rest by the river in a hole dug by another stalwart female ally, the whore Regina. *** Volver occurs as wonderfully effective tale. In this the narrative style matches the content. The La Mancha villagers accept the presence of returned dead among them as perfectly natural. And the film’s kind of story-telling is what we recall from childhood in which the next thing simply happens in order to move us along to the next good stuff. So the sisters travel between Madrid and remote La Mancha by simply bustling back and forth across a plain full of modern wind-mills – while this inevitably calls up Quixote’s quests there is little tendentiousness about it all. This matter-of-factness is of course what allows Almodóvar to mix tones and genres so effectively – that and his evident large spirit. Good-night Irene, good-night. ***** This review was written for, where it appeared 11/10/06.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Film Review #61: Climates *** Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan *** Cast: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Nazan Kesal *** This year we may at last pay better attention to Turkey. In the Middle East’s most secular democracy, the harbinger issue of entry into the European Union is irrevocably linked to arts and culture because of what novelist Elif Shafak has called a backlash by right-wing nationalists. They would prefer Turkey forego the EU, but not for reasons of Islamic fundamentalism. Still largely unreported in the West, Turkey’s artistic Renaissance of the past three decades helped produce Shafak herself as well as this year’s Nobel laureate, novelist Orhan Pamuk. Both are among the roughly 70 Turkish artists, intellectuals and journalists charged under the notorious Article 301 with “insulting Turkish identity” by open reference to the 1915 deportation and massacre of Turkish Armenians as “genocide.” Pamuk’s sentence last year was suspended. Although Shafak’s September 21st trial ended in acquittal in less than two hours, she was the first person prosecuted under Turkey’s criminal code for dialogue uttered by fictional characters (in The Bastard of Istanbul, due out in the US in early 2007). *** But these things can go either way. Turkey’s roiling, complicated cultural moment has also produced filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. His body of work, already seen abroad as hefty, is remarkable for what he accomplishes while largely eschewing the spoken word. Only his fourth feature, Climates was released theatrically last Friday, having just screened at the New York Film Festival. Like his previous films, Climates won a host of international festival and critics’ awards before arriving in the US. *** Ceylan was a photographer before he took up cinema in 1995 and it shows in his expansive and elegiac landscape use, constant attention to visual composition and ease with long-held shots. His new 80-print photo exhibit, Turkey Cinemascope, debuts in Greece next week along with a retrospective of all his films at the Thessalonica International Film Festival. Ceylan emerges a minimalist in both method and cinematic style. Climates is the first of his films that he did not both shoot and produce himself – besides writing, directing, financing, and much of the editing. He usually casts family members, shot his last feature in his own home (Distant, 2002), and since the 2003 death of his cousin and usual lead, Mehmet Emin Toprak, Ceylan now also acts. *** Climates is nothing if not distilled, with a straightforward narrative in three acts, only hints of its characters’ histories and scant dialogue. Like his first feature Kasaba (The Small Town, 1997), it’s structured around the four seasons. And like his next two features, Clouds of May (1999) and Distant, Climates’ protagonist makes his way in life with a camera. The damp, chilly, snowy Turkish winter especially evokes uncommon isolation and vulnerability in Ceylan’s films as his characters travel ever deeper into disconnection. *** Climates opens in summer as Isa (Ceylan), a middle-aged art history instructor and doctoral candidate, is photographing ruins outside the tourist resort of Kas on Turkey’s southern coast. He quarrels with his deeply unhappy younger partner Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, the filmmaker’s wife), and breaks up with her at the beach. Riding back to Istanbul together on his scooter, they crash after she impulsively covers his eyes with her hands; he roughly threatens to throw her off the road-side cliff into the sea. She leaves him there and walks back to Istanbul herself. *** In the rainy fall capital, Isa spies on Bahar, who works as a TV art director. He returns to campus and chitchat with his office mate about keeping girlfriends in line. He resumes a flirtation with another friend’s girlfriend, Serap (Nazan Kesal). This leads to a single long breath-stopping take in which it’s never quite clear whether the rough sex between Isa and Serap is welcomed by her or not, and which overlaps – just as one dares take a breath in relief – with the staccato sound of a sewing machine’s needle penetrating fabric. It’s his mother, repairing Isa’s ripped trousers the next day. *** As winter descends, Isa follows Bahar east to Agri, where he has heard from Serap she is working on a TV series shoot. Isa’s plane lands in an overwhelming blizzard. He trails Bahar through a town so small that she strolls through the cattle in a street to a tea shop. Despite her chill and wary reception – Bahar’s name means “spring” in Turkish and surely she represents the promise of a portable “climate” in Isa’s life – he persists in his idea that they reunite. In another of Ceylan’s virtuoso single-take scenes, Isa makes his rehearsed speech about how he has changed in a van where he has cornered her at the TV shoot location, as she weeps, pressed against the window, and the crew interrupts to load equipment. But when Bahar asks “just one thing” – whether he has slept with Serap again – his nerve fails him and he lies. Feeling he has failed, Isa climbs to a chilly precipice and photographs the nearby famed Ishakpasa palace ruins. As he had been with Serap after what was, after all, only the more obvious assault, Isa is not prepared for Behar’s reconsideration when she turns up at his hotel the night before he leaves. *** The most obvious comparison of style here is with Antonioni’s post-war films. Ceylan’s aesthetic has a more varied pedigree and his attitude toward his characters is more compassionate – he says Chekhov guides his scriptwriting. His long takes and the visually accumulating feelings of his characters also recall Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang, especially Vive L’Amour, and the radical disconnection that occurs with rapid movement to cities in times of financial hardship and uncertain regimes. Ceylan has widely discussed these conditions as they apply to contemporary Turkey and it is more challenging to see his films in this light than as safely derivative. *** Ceylan is also a filmmaker who began his career “loving” close-ups and who has subsequently grown away from them. In the interview following Distant on that film’s DVD, he describes the simple discipline he has instead set for himself and by extension for us, “You should have a good reason for a close-up and for a cut. If not, don’t do it.” Looking away out of discomfort is evidently not one of those good reasons – a form of lying similar to cheap talk. You will not hear ordinary film dialogue the same way again. ***** Climates opened at Film Forum in New York City on October 27th. This review was written for, where it appeared 11/6/2006.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Film Review #60: Marie Antoinette *** 2006 *** Director: Sofia Coppola *** Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston *** Originally slated for theatrical release on October 16th to coincide with the anniversary of its subject’s beheading during the French Revolution, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette ironically had to make do with a regular Friday opening, a market convention aimed at maximizing first weekend box office returns. After all, a largely French audience at Cannes booed this film, and some dismissive stateside reviews seem to confuse the film’s subject with its writer/director. Still, last Friday night I had to pick my way to the geographic center of a multiplex theater to find two seats together. *** We can dispense straightforwardly with what ails this movie-as-just-a-movie. At 123 minutes, it’s a good 20 minutes too long and generally handles the passing of time awkwardly. Some blame here goes to repeating scenes of Marie’s partying and fashion excess. I don’t mind that the seven years during which Marie’s marriage to Louis XVI went unconsummated are compressed on-screen for cinematic effect, but the last third of the film grows confusing. Historically Marie Antoinette covers the period from 14-year-old Austro-Hungarian archduchess’ journey from Vienna to Versailles to marry Louis-Auguste, who becomes Louis XVI, until they flee Versailles twenty-one years later. But there is little explicit anchoring time-frame on-screen and events like their first son’s death go unexplained (we merely glimpse a small blue-and-white draped coffin). What’s more glaring after her every move is watched by throngs of courtiers, midway through the story Marie (Kirsten Dunst) abruptly has enough private time to take a visiting Swedish count as lover. *** But why the resentment of French viewers at Cannes toward this flawed film by a young American woman director? First, there’s the perception that Coppola trivializes their history by softening a notorious, still highly-charged figure into a frivolous but likable Valley Girl. Much baleful irritation has been hurled at elements like the soundtrack’s mingling of today’s pop groups with period music, but frankly I found this inventive, effective and unobtrusive. Really, we’ve have enough Hamlet and Antigone in modern dress to handle this. *** Then, Coppola reduces the French Revolution to one mob scene in Versailles’ courtyard and a sacked royal bedroom before closing credits. On a slightly different tack, US dismissal assumes Coppola herself is – if not outright empty-headed – at best flimsy and unserious (see for example Nathan Lee’s remarks in Film Comment.) No one accused Bergman, just now coming back into fashion, of being apolitical when he made his Vietnam parable, Persona, or more recently, Laurent Cantet of ignoring Haiti’s murderous Duvalier regime in Heading South. *** One of this film’s most fascinating cultural markers is an article in November’s Vanity Fair by British historian Antonia Fraser, whose 2001 biography of Marie Antoinette is the primary source for Coppola’s film. Disguised as a chatty, inside peek at movie adaptation, Fraser’s article is actually the vetting of Sofia Coppola by the intellectual power couple that she and her husband playwright Harold Pinter comprise. The Nobel laureate used his acceptance speech last year to attack US foreign policy, and of his reaction to this film, maligned as light-weight, Fraser confides, “Harold loved it.” Fraser describes a stream of emails between herself and the director once Coppola optioned the book and began the screenplay. As a final stroke, this biographer of historical political figures reveals that Coppola calls her the movie’s “godmother,” a reference to Coppola’s own family legacy that moves Marie Antoinette away from the realm of ephemeral entertainment. This reminds me of Aliens, when Ripley, clad in her giant forklift, defends the orphaned child Newt, uttering to the acid-drooling monster, “Get away from her, you bitch!” *** Whatever film one wishes Coppola had made instead, it seems fair to start with the one she did make, which has politics to spare for those who look. With three features to her credit now, Coppola has built each around some outsider’s point of view and inherent issues of access and power. She has always included some prenaturally lovely creature whom the men surrounding her have, really, no idea what to do with. So the neighborhood boys in The Virgin Suicides (1999) who recollect worshiping Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) and her sisters from afar twenty-five years ago actually have much in common with the celebrity photographer John of Lost in Translation (2003), who neglects his new wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), leaving her adrift inside Tokyo’s giant, disorienting Park Hyatt Hotel – and with the fumbling French dauphin (Jason Schwartzman). Lost in Translation additionally presents its marooned Americans with bizarre popular Japanese interpretations of American culture, as when Bill Murray’s Bob Harris encounters the TV talk show host. *** In Marie Antoinette, Coppola portrays how an outsider enters, is engulfed and transformed by the French court. As in previous Coppola films – I especially love Bob Harris’ barest split-second hesitation before he closes the door to passed-out Charlotte’s hotel room after he gets her safely home – some of Marie Antoinette’s best moments flow from the quietly tuned performances of its principals. Indeed the film opens with Marie being awakened – her sleep intruded upon – a situation repeated throughout the film. Dunst scowls slightly, her eyes narrowed. You can almost hear the adolescent muttering, “Who are these people?” at each successive awakening. She is left to shiver naked while her ladies in waiting wrangle over who has the honor of handing her a chemise, and she sensibly bursts out, “This is ridiculous!” Her minder counters, “This is France!” *** Marie wears that same quizzical little scowl when she first hears the mob clamoring in the courtyard and goes out to meet them. This is arguably Marie’s most overtly political moment in the movie. Answering their pitchforks and howls, she makes a simple gesture. The queen bows from her waist, prostrating herself on her balcony railing and briefly quieting them. Too little, too late – other than a graceful impulse, she has no more idea what to do with her people than her husband had with her. But scarier than the gulf across which Marie Antoinette peered are those heads of state today who still see “the masses” as she saw them from that balcony, and we have some. *** Jason Schwartzman’s Louis retains the still, watchful air of a child oppressively scrutinized from his earliest days. Short enough to pass for a stocky boy, Louis jounces on horseback, represses his glee at a good billiards shot, and hilariously switches his sword like any nervous 12-year-old pretending nonchalance might when Marie’s older brother Joseph (Danny Huston) embarks on a fatherly discussion of sex. When you and your cousins run the continent, such talk is political conversation – just as the court protocols that have witnesses watching royal childbirth simply insure that no last-minute substitutions occur, a form of check and balance. *** For those who know Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution – a source not cited in Fraser’s book – the film’s most tantalizingly suggestive political thread concerns Louis XVI’s considerations about supporting the rebelling American colonists. Although he suspects it unwise to fund the example of overthrowing another sovereign, Louis happily sticks it to England. But in a film that leaves out so much, one has to wonder what this iceberg tip of a scene is doing there. *** Arendt contrasted the two revolutions as fundamentally different, with the American notion of freedom really an expansion of already-existing notions of freedom to participate in public life. And the Americans only wished to leave, not literally separate George III’s head from the body politic. The North American colonies never had the numbers of people starving that France did, nor the murderous potential that rumors about the crown’s spending – and a queen’s comments on cake – might provoke. The French Revolution transformed forever the meaning of political freedom to include freedom from want, an utterly new idea. In this context, excavating the seductive excess of the Bourbon court is anything but frivolous, and no, the French aren’t over it yet. I think Coppola’s Marie Antoinette makes this less distant and inexplicable to us. There is a moment when Coppola has Marie cross a vast vaulted hall whose floor is a grid of black and white parquet tiles. She pauses in the middle – surely a figure as frozen is historical convention as any priceless museum piece surrounded by green sensor beams. Of course there had to be a revolution. *** This review appeared in on 10/24/06.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Film Review #59: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple *** Director: Stanley Nelson *** For a fleeting moment not too far into Jonestown, the Reverend Jim Jones reminds me of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad. In scratchy archival footage of Jones preaching theatrically to his heated congregation, he thunders, “Wherever there are people struggling for justice, there I am!” *** It is tempting to wonder whether Jim Jones—at whose behest 909 followers downed cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana in November 1978—might have seen The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and that scene where Tom Joad assures his mother that he’s not really leaving, that even dead he’d somehow be present, dissolved into the ferment of the masses. It is one of Fonda’s most often-cited speeches: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.” *** Departing from conventional views of the Peoples Temple as simply “foreign” and “crazy,” this film makes excruciatingly clear that, besides echoing Tom Joad’s words, Jones and his followers came right out of America’s heartland—down to their Okie-like cross-country caravan to the promised land of California when, in 1965, the deep Midwest of his native Indiana became too inhospitable for Jones’ racially integrated church. *** Stanley Nelson has had his own journey. This new documentary opens October 20 at Quad Cinema in New York City, followed by week-long runs in—so far—eleven other cities nationwide before its April 2007 television broadcast on PBS’ American Experience. Whether the film’s tell-tale earmarks of a larger turning point for Nelson prove out, it marks at least some clear departures. In contrast to longer-simmering films, this one came together quickly after Nelson heard some Peoples Temples members on the radio three years ago talking about the event’s 25th anniversary. And besides the leap to theatrical release, the project required adjusting his working habits. *** Speaking recently by phone from Berkeley, where his and partner Marcia Smith’s production company, Firelight Media, maintains its west coast office, Nelson said that, for the first time ever, he had turned down other film projects while making Jonestown. Nelson’s work ethic is legendary. He’s been reliably churning out highly respected, award-winning PBS docs at the rate of about one each year for some time now, an output he maintains by always having at least three projects—in pre-production, production, and post-production—in the air simultaneously, “and probably, if you can, one film you’re going to festivals with.” But with Jonestown, he says, “I don’t know how I could possibly have made this film while I was doing something else.” Fortunately, receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award just before embarking on this project made that choice possible. Finally, Nelson has been steadily and systematically amassing an encyclopedic body of work that focuses on African American experience. He has said simply that he makes films about what he knows that have universal themes, but in this case, tackled the project before he recalled that the Peoples Temple membership was some 80% black. Now Nelson has begun work on one segment of a massive, five-part PBS project covering Natives Americans. *** Jonestown works as a documentary by Nelson’s signature techniques. Although he structures his narrative by chronological segments—the early years of 1931-65 in Jones’ native Indiana, the northern California farm years in Ukiah from 1965-74, the 1974-77 period of heady public influence and increasing controversy in San Francisco, and then the final mass flight to South America—he intersperses archival stills, video footage, and audio recordings with current interviews. Nelson doesn’t use actors for dramatic re-enactment; his interview clips are lively, telling, succinct, and placed with unerring aim in the story’s precisely edited flow. He is a master at achieving movement by panning across the frame and zeroing in to pick out details in stills and highlight chunks of text. *** Nelson also had access to a stash of videos with soundtracks that surviving Peoples Temple members themselves saved—besides the five who escaped into the forest, another 80 or so were elsewhere that November 1978 day—or which have been recently declassified by government investigators, such as film shot by journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan on the visit to Jonestown that disintegrated so horrifically. Besides providing the film’s tense last half-hour, devoted to the events of those final two November days, this trove of footage provides frequent juxtapositions of interview subjects—over 20 church members with friends and relations—alongside younger versions of themselves speaking from the past. In one riveting scene, a woman describes how Jones had one of his secretaries masquerade as a cripple whom he heals during a service while the church-made video documenting this runs on-screen. Other older, wiser members recount their growing dismay at Jones’ sexual behavior and increasingly paranoid controls. With enormously wise restraint, Nelson allows the emotional resonance created by these pairs of younger and older selves to accumulate throughout the film before his stark revelations of exactly who they lost, which roll in installments between the final credits. *** Nelson told me that his striking first impression of the Peoples Temple survivors on that radio show three years ago was their rationality. On screen now, that holds up. One after another, these bright, decent, candid people who have aged with a measure of earned grace, look you in the eye as they recount what happened, where they lost themselves, what getting themselves back cost them. Some went to Peoples Temple accomplished already; some have become so since. Deborah Layton, whose 1999 memoir Seductive Poison details her seven years with Jones and her subsequent escape, provides incisive commentary, as does Jim Jones, Jr., the preacher’s adopted black son. Nelson also secured invaluable interviews with figures such as Marshal Kilduff, whose New West Magazine exposé literally drove Jones to leave San Francisco in the middle of the night; Congressional aide Jackie Spiers, who survived being shot at point blank range on Jonestown’s landing strip (Ryan himself was killed); and journalist Tim Reiterman, who accompanied the Ryan group, too. *** As for the Tom Joad factor in this, there’s no doubt that Nelson won both the access and the material by deeply grasping the desire among Peoples Temple members for community, social justice, and something larger than themselves. Far from aberrant, these things comprise a broad streak in American character that surfaces from time to time, startling us much as those younger selves that arise on-screen, via cinematic editing, beside the now graying Peoples Temple members. Jonestown invites us to see that same streak, with its wildly swinging potential, in ourselves and others. Near the end of our conversation, I asked Nelson if he thought people might draw parallels between Jonestown and our post-9/11 world. With a little half laugh, he said at once, “I hope so!” ***** Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple opens October 20 at Quad Cinema in New York City for one week, with other engagements in Los Angeles and nationwide through early next year. It airs on PBS on April 9, 2007. This review, with an accompanying interview with the filmmaker, appeared on 10/19/2006 in