Saturday, January 21, 2006

#36: “On MATCH POINT: In a 1950’s State of Mind” * 1/19/2006 * Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT, which opens in Syracuse tomorrow, transports his typical chance-afflicted, contemporary New Yorkers to London. Now, beware – what happens follows here. If you don’t want to know what happens in advance, stop right here – but go see this movie! Otherwise, stay with me, because this is a rich & thoughtful work, & I think Allen’s in a 1950’s state of mind. Okay – London. We have Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an Irish tennis pro who’s quit the tournament circuit to give lessons to the rich. His client Tom Hewitt soon invites him to the opera. Diffident & attentive, Chris ingratiates himself, especially with Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Marriage ensues & a rising spot in the family business. Early on, during an aspiring American actress’ short engagement to Tom, Chris has also hooked up with the sultry, unstable Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Once pregnant, Nola demands Chris leave Chloe (also pregnant), & he murders her. Although one cop figures it out, when Chris pleads impending fatherhood & family position, they back off. But, given that he’s killed off the one person who understood him, Chris is more truly alone at the top than “free.” We could see MATCH POINT as a refined, modern-day riff on classic bandit romances like 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE or Terence Malick’s 1973 film, BADLANDS, in which an outlaw couple find solace in one another even as they dispense & meet with violence. After all, Allen has rather undemocratically depicted Chris & Nola as social bandits in their aspirations. She astutely tells him, just before they first have sex in a ran-soaked field just beyond the Hewitts’ manicured gardens, “You’ll do very well for yourself if you don’t blow it by making a pass at me.” These two, who’ve both been outsiders for a long time, intuitively know one another to the bone, & that strikes some hot sparks. * But I think MATCH POINT is something more too, something rather retro – about the twin bedevilments of seeing ourselves & our ages as both unique & universal & the kind of emotional McCarthyism that flows from that. Allen’s done history effectively before. One of my favorites is his 1990 film, SWEET & LOW DOWN. Set in the 1930’s, this departure from quintessential modern life in the Big Apple starred Sean Penn as itinerant guitarist Emmet Ray & Samantha Morton as his long-suffering poor girlfriend Hattie. A rich socialite (played by Uma Thurman) turned our protagonist’s head in that movie too, & Allen uses jazz in the earlier film is ways similar to his use of opera in MATCH POINT. * Film critic David Denby wrote recently about MATCH POINT that “the poor boy from the provinces who storms the city & . . . then gets in trouble has been fiction’s bedrock for two centuries.” He notes that MATCH POINT “resembles” Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY – itself based on actual 1906 events in near-by Cortland. But try watching the DVD of director George Stevens’ 1951 film adaptation of the novel, A PLACE IN THE SUN. No one has yet said that MATCH POINT is a re-make of A PLACE IN THE SUN yet, but it could be, with Montgomery Clift as young striver George Eastman, Elizabeth Taylor as socialite Angela Vickers, & Shelley Winters as ill-fated factory girl Alice Tripp. * Allen’s plot follows the 1951 film quite closely in many respects. And whether it’s 1951 or 2005, it’s striking that a woman demanding what she assumes is her rightful place gets killed, & a young man achieving a toehold in a world with leisure promptly uses the toys of that leisure (whether Adirondack resort boating or British grouse-shooting) as his murder weapon. * But in some significant ways, MATCH POINT’s plot departs from the Stevens film, suggesting just how dark & cautionary his version is. * For example, reversing George’s 1951 besotted obsession with his socialite, Chris cares for Chloe but actually loves his working girl. Driving home the point that promising relationships are her real day job, Nola tells him that “no one’s ever wanted their money back” after being involved with her. And in MATCH POINT, it’s the woman who has breeched the walls of privilege first. Given the outcome, so much for social democracy’s promise. For example, unlike Shelley Winters’ gullible 1951 factory girl, Nola seems to know the score. So much for consciousness-raising. * For example, in the 1951 film (actually in all previous versions of this story), the would-be killer’s nerve fails at the last minute & murder crumbles into bungling accidental death. But Chris Wilton, though his nerves are a mess, kills twice. * In 1951, director George Stevens used camera angles masterfully to heighten point-of-view & ironic contradiction in PLACE. Consider Angela’s visit to George as he awaits execution, shot entirely over Montgomery Clift’s shoulder so that we never see his face. And consider the shot where the Vickers’ motor boat passes the dock where a radio blares bulletins of the unfolding murder investigation. * Woody Allen has clearly paid attention. In a prime example, we pointedly never see Nola during Nola’s murder – not her flash of recognition of her fate, her death, her body. Visually, she is amputated, disappeared, tossed away. * And MATCH POINT’s killer gets away – no cleansing ritual of trial & execution here. Whatever ghosts linger for Chris will visit him privately. Loving opera’s elegant public enactment, these characters find a tawdry end to tawdry lives. * Why set a 1950’s story in today’s London? Partly because that decade occupies a kind of limbo, a curious blind spot in our cultural memory. It’s too close to be historical in the same way that World War II is, yet hard to identify with if one’s not old enough to recall that era. We seem to be grappling with that lately. As it happens, there’s a new opera by Tobias Picker based on Dreiser’s novel at the Met right now. Surely part of GOOD NIGHT & GOOD LUCK’s power resides in the shock that its politics are so timely – as if they somehow wouldn’t be. While in New York earlier this month I also saw the play LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. For many twenty-somethings, this 1950’s story – based on a novel & earlier film – simply doesn’t connect. But with all that architecture, all those centuries-old lawns, London provides the past – a contrast for characters who might otherwise simply fade into the background in Manhattan – than can parallel what today’s characters might experience in the 50’s. And you know that old saw about the past repeating itself. * (1,094)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

#35: On BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN * Nancy Keefe Rhodes Broadcast 12/29/05 * Screenwriter Diana Ossana first encountered Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” in a middle-of-the-night fit of insomnia in 1997. It was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine, and right away she wanted to adapt it for the screen with her writing partner, the Western novelist Larry McMurtry. Last week, “Brokeback Mountain” was named Best Film of 2005 by a US critics group for the seventh time. Ironically on the same day, the press reported on pop star Elton John’s wedding and celebrity-studded celebration in England, where a new law now provides same-sex couples with civil unions. I saw “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee, two Sundays ago at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, just north of New York City, during a Christmas family weekend. I can report that after this haunting film, my sister has now forgiven me for dragging her to see “Open Water” two summers ago. But we privately decided it was best that we hadn’t taken along my brother-in-law, although “The Birdcage” is one of his favorite movies. “Brokeback” spans two decades, from the 1963 summer that Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) spend tending sheep on an isolated Wyoming mountain-side, where they become lovers, through their marriages, reunion and affair, Jack’s perhaps questionable death, and Ennis’ trip to Jack’s parents. The short story is structured as a flashback through Ennis Del Mar’s eyes one bitterly cold, desolate morning. The principal changes the film makes are to begin with that first summer and to flesh out the women characters – each man’s wife, Jack’s mother, and Ennis’ daughters. Annie Proulx has nothing but good things to say about the screen version. And “Brokeback” is nothing like “The Birdcage” at all – that is, it’s not a worldly, comfortable, post-Stonewall urban gay farce that we can feel satisfied about. No. Elton John’s wedding is not thinkable in this film. Curiously, this puts us as viewers on roughly the same footing as its two subjects. They embark upon their life-changing love affair without any social context for this possibility, despite Jack’s persistent dream that they could somehow ranch together. This means they have to figure it out as they go along. While they don’t do very well in the execution, it means we get to figure it out along with them. It’s a pretty bruising ride. And it makes Ennis and Jack two remarkably accessible male characters for women viewers, because the movie’s success, like the story, hinges on making them human. Indeed the key moment in both story and film is one that Ennis recalls as “sexless,” when he held Jack and rocked him, really more like a mother, during their first summer. This takes us back – insofar as it’s possible – to the discovery that love can be new and brave. This might help account for the extreme power of gay stories that are set in the West and play off the conventions, violence and myths of the Western genre. “Boys Don’t Cry,” made in 1999, was set in Nebraska, and of course there’s “The Laramie Project,” the play adapted to film in 2002 by HBO – both fact-based. Like them, “Brokeback” has outbursts of merciless violence. Like them, “Brokeback” also has scenes of barely-restrained threat after which you’ll never see the classically tongue-tied cowboy quite the same again – notably when Jack carefully backs out of the office of a boss who’s found him out, when Ennis faces Jack’s father over a kitchen table, and even the varieties of silence each man’s wife keeps. Annie Proulx says “Brokeback” isn’t a Western per se, but about two confused kids who fall pretty short of the cowboy persona each aspires to, and who get into “deeper water” than they can handle. This occurs against a breath-taking rural landscape where people’s lives are immensely harsh & hard. Co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry has reflected that this mythical Western landscape is something that seduces us into over-looking the difficult lives of its people. But Ang Lee’s direction zooms in to show this hard, harsh life unflinchingly and in visually stunning detail. Significantly, Ennis’ fear about making ends meet helps drive him and Jack apart because he finally won’t risk losing a job to meet Jack. In the end, it’s his sudden decision to quit a job so he can go to his daughter’s wedding that holds out the thinnest sliver of hope for him. You know, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t even scheduled to play in Syracuse. It does open for a run at The Little Film Society in Rochester next week. Maybe a few Golden Globes and Oscars later, it’ll come here. I encourage you to get on the phone to Nat Tobin, who runs the Westcott & Manlius Cinemas, and to Michael Heagerty at The Palace in Eastwood, and see if one of them can’t get this gem here. In 2006, let’s get Syracuse back on the movie map. * (823)
#34: “Seeing What the Jungle Teaches: Brazil’s Babenco & Jackson’s KONG” * 12/15/05 * I confess that I spent three hours yesterday afternoon, mostly on the edge of my seat, at KING KONG. It’s a bandwagon sort of movie, & mostly I agree with the raves, for KONG’s sheer story-telling power, its intelligent self-awareness, & its take on entertainment in times of social crisis. We know Peter Jackson wanted to make his own KONG since he was nine years old & saw the original. This probably helps explain the updated, expanded character of movie-maker Carl Denham, surprisingly well-played by Jack Black. In particular, Denham’s extreme pursuit of the movie-making moment & his eye for opportunity is paired with the final scene’s take-off on Kong’s death as a media event. Jackson perfectly catches the public’s gullibility & rowdy, volatile nature of the Great Depression era’s young, twin industries of celluloid fantasy-creation & news coverage. This analysis makes KONG as much worth seeing as the heart-stopping, nerve-wracking parts, & there are many. But Jackson’s media analysis also makes the way KONG treats race even more disturbing. I forgive the bizarrely-exaggerated jungle chorus line at Denham’s Broadway show as period nostalgia. And strategically, the film’s wisest character – arguably the phrase “most socially evolved” fits best here – is the ship’s Black first mate, who protects the orphaned cabin boy & even lends him a copy of Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS. So, how about those Skull Island natives? Though specifically located in the far South Pacific, I’ll tell you, these islanders are undeniably African-featured. Their remorseless, zombie-like behavior provides the scene that I personally found most terrifying in the whole movie. They are so evil, it’s not far-fetched to see Ann Darrow’s arrival as rescuing Kong’s “better side” from their clutches. More than any other aspect of KONG, the Black islanders stand for uncontrolled Nature’s worst potentials. I have trouble imagining Jackson failed to see this in a movie that’s a virtuoso demonstration of artistic choice. By odd coincidence, there’s another three-hour jungle movie out there too, director/screenwriter Hector Babenco’s 1991 adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s big handful of a novel, AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD. AT PLAY is set, & was filmed in, Brazil’s Amazon jungle. I’ve been watching Babenco’s films again lately & AT PLAY just came in the mail this week. It’s hard to find, & like Babenco’s 1987 film, IRONWEED, only available in VHS format. Babenco learned his craft in the 1970’s making documentaries & helped shape Brazil’s socially-conscious “cinema novo” movement. Here, he’s best known for a trio of prison films. His 1981 tale of street kids, PIXOTE, provided Babenco the international boost to make KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN in 1985 for Hollywood, with Raul Julia & Oscar-winning William Hurt as the movie-obsessed transvestite Molina. Most recently, Babenco returned to US screens in 2003 with CARANDIRU, based on a 1990’s prison massacre. The classic enclosure tale is as old as Chaucer’s travelers, stranded by the Plague, who tell stories to pass the time. Babenco uses this durable plot device to portray complex characters trapped by society’s worst excesses, who survive, even flourish, by imagination. It’s these three movies you can rent pretty easily on DVD. After SPIDER WOMAN, Babenco made AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD & then IRONWEED. Both adaptations of English-language novels with first-rate Hollywood casts, they suggest that civilization’s greed beat any jungle out there for barbarism & feature Babenco’s most memorable women characters. While nobody beats Jackson’s camera for swooping around anymore, Babenco likes the God’s-eye view too. CARANDIRU zeros in on the prison from high above the city, and early in IRONWEED we see Jack Nicholson’s character praying at his infant son’s grave as the son’s ghost might look down on him. In AT PLAY, Babenco makes use of the plot containing two itinerant bush pilots, one a half-breed American Indian named Moon, played by Tom Berenger. The pilots collide with an Army plan to push natives deeper into a shrinking jungle, even as some evangelical missionaries want to convert them. Early on there’s an extended, lovely sequence in which Moon’s tiny, dilapidated plane soars over the jungle’s vast expanse. Then, almost out of gas, he bails out – parachutes out of God’s eye, out of civilization itself. Once on the jungle floor, Moon casts off his clothes, entering naked a shy native community whose spears are initially poised. While transvestites populate his prison films, AT PLAY gives us one of Babenco’s brilliant women in a missionary wife played by Kathy Bates. Hazel Quarrier’s raging, fearsome unraveling explains just how easily some demonize & destroy wild places without blinking. For jungles close to home, Babenco’s adaptation of William Kennedy’s novel IRONWOOD endures, one of the finest ensemble recreations of the Great Depression on film, both visually & dramatically. Helen Archer rates among Meryl Streep’s best roles - a fragile former singer, living hour to hour on 1938 Albany’s frigid streets – like Hazel, unraveling, enraged, terrified. There’s as much violence in Helen’s short brawl with Francis as in that first clash between islanders & expedition in KONG. In our own cold winter of increasing gulfs, revisiting Babenco’s films reminds us. The jungle’s in us, you know. * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * (860)
#33: “Many Fronts, One Struggle: On RIZE & YESTERDAY” * 12/01/05 * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * Welcome back to Women’s Voices Radio. On this International Human Rights Day, World AIDS Day & anniversary of Mother Rosa keeping her seat, tonight’s show has been about art & cultural upheaval. In that spirit, some film clips in brief. If you’d like to watch some of the dancing that Martha Cooper documents in her book, WE B* GIRLZ, there’s RIZE – with a Z – the first feature documentary by fashion photographer/music video director David LaChapelle. RIZE depicts the break-dancing battles that one participant calls “ghetto ballet.” RIZE debuted to standing ovations at last year’s Sundance Festival. Despite some tantalizing previews, it never screened locally but now it’s on DVD. RIZE is about as overtly tied to upheaval as can be. It opens with news footage of burning buildings in South Central L.A. – first the 1965 Watts riots, then the fires that followed the 1992 Rodney King police verdicts. Instead of a voice-over narrator, the dancers speak for themselves about what that means, & what choices there are, in communities whose schools have – beyond more obvious woes – zero arts budgets. RIZE manages to portray women who dance – Miss Prissy, Daisy, La Nina, Termite & others – as both integral & articulate. Ostensibly RIZE is about Tommy the Clown, Dragon, Lil C, their crews, & the styles of clown, krump & stripper dancing. But RIZE interviews a number of dancer’s mothers. After the third one appeared seated formally on her “good” couch in the living room, it dawned on me how deeply RIZE is about endangered families & taking seriously the chance to be heard. RIZE is a mother’s film, perhaps even about Mother Africa in a weird, spine-tingling way. Documentaries often carry disclaimers about digital special effects, but RIZE is the first I’ve seen that starts out promising nothing has been speeded up. The dancing itself is incredibly fast, strenuous, gorgeous. The organized “battles,” where contestants dance “at” each other in front of sometimes stadium-sized audiences, provide a sizzling enactment & transcendence of aggression. The moments that cut back & forth between LA dance battles & almost mirror-image footage of West African dancing are riveting. If you don’t think these South Central kids are channeling something, check yourself for a pulse. Then there’s another mother’s story, the South African movie that debuted Monday evening on HBO & will air again – on PBS – January 4th. YESTERDAY stars Leleti Khumalo, the memorable South African actress from 1992’s SARAFINA!, as a woman named Yesterday. She & her small daughter Beauty live in a remote village while her husband works in the mines outside Johannesburg. On a rare trip home, he infected her with HIV. The film covers a year’s time, from her persistent cough to Beauty’s first day of school. Although the film addresses Yesterday’s marriage & her husband’s death, it really concerns how women get on with one another when the men are gone. Some are gentle & brave, some fearful, some superstitious & petty. There is one lovely, resonant image of Yesterday & her only friend, the teacher, meeting one another on the road each takes through life. The story-telling is spare. A great deal is told by the land’s vast expanses, the ever-present barbed-wire fences, & the quiet, nuanced acting of the principles. If you’ve opened the paper or turned on the news today, you’ve heard again the statistics. South Africa has figured prominently in this year’s HIV/IADS observances. More than a million there have died, five million may be HIV positive & women are now about three times more likely to be infected than men. But this one simple story, manages – as Wendi Alexis Modeste used to tell us here in Syracuse – to put a face on the epidemic. There are many fronts, one struggle. (624)
#32: On WALK THE LINE * 11/24/05 * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * James Mangold’s terrific Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” opens just before Cash goes on-stage for the historic Folsom Prison concert on February 11, 1968, the same year he married singer June Carter. Cash’s pre-concert moment of reflection frames a flashback that rapidly sketches in his Arkansas boyhood, an Air Force hitch in Germany, his first marriage and start at Sun Records in 1950’s Memphis. But the real heart of the film is the pivotal six years before Folsom Prison, spanning Cash’s first encounter with June backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, their early music tours and problematic courtship (both were married to others), and his recovery from amphetamines. Most reviewers praise Joaquin Phoenix & Reese Witherspoon as the leads, but some grumble that “Walk the Line” focuses too much on the romance’s complications at the music’s expense. I think the literalism of this complaint ignores where Cash’s music comes from, a tradition of overlapping family relationships, performance & stewardship of the music itself through generations. For many in their original Southern audience, the power of Johnny Cash marrying into the “first family of country music” stems from this tradition. The closest thing to it we have locally would be the “Old Tyme Fiddlin’” families of the North Country in northern New York. And for Cash, this involved women – his mother Carrie, who passed on shape notes to him, June herself, and Mother Maybelle Carter, who encouraged their relationship. If you’ve seen the film “Almost Famous,” imagine your average 60’s rock star taking his in-laws, and later his children, along on tour, as Cash often did. There’s a deceptively simple scene early on, when June Carter stops in a small-town hardware store for a fishing pole. Before it’s over, she’ll run into Johnny on another aisle. They compare coloring books their respective small daughters might like, and then go fishing. It’s Johnny’s first time with a store-bought pole and she shows him how to cast the line. June is often the one teaching him, though later photos frequently show her leaning into his sheltering bulk. This scene also recalls – and seems to suggest that June’s presence will begin healing – another summer afternoon that still haunts the grown man, when his brother was fatally injured elsewhere and Johnny blamed because he off fishing. But, I’m ahead of myself. Back in that creaky-floored hardware store it’s still Bible Belt America, even if it’s the Sixties elsewhere – before Johnny and June can go fishing, a store clerk accosts June with a cutting remark about June’s recent divorce. So far, the story has established June as decent and self-possessed. But she seems to wilt here, deprived of the buffering distance of the footlights, answering, “I’m sorry I let you down, ma’am.” There’s a tantalizing tension, however, in wondering whether, as critic David Sterritt has suggested, this might instead be June simply performing “June Carter” without missing a beat. Either way, I should say here that this movie doesn’t let anyone down. Neither does Reese Witherspoon – who finds it perplexing that everyone’s so surprised now that she can act. The hardware store and fishing trip scenes show struggles that Carter and Cash faced as members of a community that was sometimes contradictory, even harshly judgmental – and at odds in some ways with the social turmoil and musical innovation of the Sixties. Certainly there are more dramatic scenes, like Johnny’s pill withdrawal, when Carter’s family guard him from drug dealers with shotguns. But I like the small details of how these two haltingly found each other before the fame and reverence set in. There’s even a Thanksgiving at Johnny’s new , empty house, when the Carters bring dinner in a couple covered baskets, set behind the cab in their pick-up truck’s bed. Another thing: having Phoenix and Witherspoon actually sing pays off gloriously. Mangold says he insisted on this risky course in hopes of evoking on-screen the legendary chemistry of Cash and Carter on-stage. The film’s exhilarating duets are pure, sashaying abundance. Yes I know they’re not really Johnny and June. I know some of the details got left out. But in those moments on-stage together, I don’t care. There’s an emotional truth generated which is why we come to art in the first place. After all, didn’t the music save Johnny and June? It saves the movie too, and explains why, for his part, Cash always looked – even in his later photos – like he still couldn’t quite believe his luck that she was with him. In 1997, after Cash published his autobiography, Terry Gross interviewed him on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” She asked him about marrying into a whole family who already understood “the performing life.” His answer tells me that Mangold’s merging of music & family was intuitively correct. Cash said this: “Well, there’s something about families singing together that is just better than any other groups you can pick up or make. If it’s family, if it’s blood-on-blood, then it’s gonna be better. The voices, singing their parts, are going to be tighter, and they’re going to be on pitch. It’s blood-line on blood-line.” * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * (850)
#30: On Hany Abu-Assad’s PARADISE NOW * 11/17/2005 * Last Saturday afternoon, Manlius Cinema cancelled their three o’clock matinee showing of Hany Abu-Assad’s new film, PARADISE NOW, because they lacked the minimum four ticket-buyers. I thought this wasn’t a good sign for this movie’s local prospects, even though it had miraculously shown up in Central New York barely a week after its US release date of November 4th, in itself almost unheard of. Then, Sunday night’s audience was skimpy. Grimly, I advised a few friends that if they wanted to see this film, deservedly well-received & anticipated elsewhere, they should make it this week. I’m pleased that this morning’s paper announces PARADISE NOW will be at Manlius at least one more week. This film had a hard birth to begin with. Other reviewers mostly attach the word “risky” to it, because the task Abu-Assad has set is so difficult – unintelligible to some, even – in these times of for-us-or-against-us thinking. Set in the West Bank town of Nablus, this story of two Palestinian suicide bombers’ final day after getting their mission orders to target Tel Aviv was risky artistically & cinematically, yes, but pretty risky on the ground too. Abu-Assad’s 25 days filming on location in Nablus were so riddled with harassment & competing suspicions from Israelis, various Palestinian factions and actual run-ins with real incidents of street fighting & raids, that part of his European crew quit. He was forced to move filming for the final 15 days to the relative quiet of Nazareth. Safely in the can & on-screen, PARADISE NOW illustrates that accounting for reprehensible behavior does not equal excusing it. Young Palestinians Said (played by Kais Nashef) and Khaled (played by Ali Suliman), are long-time friends, fellow car mechanics & terrorist foot soldiers. They’ve asked that when they’re sent on their suicide assignments, they may go together. Plans go awry when they try to slip over the border, disguised as Israeli settlers with explosives strapped around their torsos. And mid-way through the story, the two young men convincingly switch roles of true believer and skeptic. Tellingly, the story begins with Suha (played by Lubna Azabal), a young woman who’s just returned to the West Bank after years abroad. There is some spark of warmth between her & Said, enough to make him hesitate. The daughter of a revered Palestinian “martyr,” Suha tries to dissuade their mission. We see that this is, after all, an old war is such personal ways. As a surviving daughter, Suha asks what becomes of those left behind – those left alive, that is. And the outcome turns on Said’s struggle with his own demons as someone’s son. A word about the cinematography & editing, by Antoine Heberle’ & Sander Vos, respectively. There is excellent physical acting in this film – so right & consistent in a film that’s about how words have faltered & come up so short. But this is supported, as nearly as I can tell, by a series of nearly flawless decisions about how to unobtrusively film each scene from the best distance & then edit them all so the action conveys a rightness about the march of time – the count-down, really. There are several scenes where Said runs for some distance that are wonderful – he has a rangy elegance that puts me in mind of Yeats’ line, “Both beautiful, one a gazelle.” These are as effective as the more noticed scenes depicting the rituals of the bombers’ last meal, the video-taped speech, and Said & Khaled’s eerie transformation into very passable Isrealis. After last summer’s London subway bombings, Boston film critic Martha Bayles urged her “Serious Popcorn” blog readers to see Indian director Santosh Sivan’s THE TERRORIST, a 1999 film whose approach is similar and whose ending is identical to PARADISE NOW. That film was about a lesser-known insurgency, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, but it illustrates my hunch about PARADISE NOW – that the arguments of the specific politics are less compelling that the human cost when the blast arrives. Maybe PARADISE NOW had bad timing. After all, it regrettably opened in Central New York on Veterans Day. A second strike against it was the triple hotel suicide bombing in Amman, Jordan last Wednesday, two days before its opening here. We may have little taste for such tales right now, but unless we seek understanding we’re likely to make little progress to peace. * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * (725)
#29: Not Just a Walk in the Park: On Tsai Ming-liang’s VIVE L’AMOUR * 8/18/05 * This past week NPR featured stories about the rising tensions on Taiwan, the little island off the coast of China that’s operated since 1949 as if it’s independent, brazening its way to a stale-mate with its giant would-be boss with Western backing. Tensions are up because Taiwan’s president ran & won on a pro-independence platform, suggesting things may come to a boil. This context is helpful & timely for the Syracuse movie-going public, because on August 28 the film VIVE L’AMOUR begins a run through late September at The Redhouse. Indeed the writer-director of VIVE L’AMOUR, Tsai Ming-liang, has said that he considers the uncertainty of the political situation the Taiwanese endure to be a paramount problem, although his films don’t address this in the conventional sense. Instead we see the radical disconnection that occurs when community is deeply, pervasively undermined. VIVE L’AMOUR tells the story of three people who unwittingly share a vacant apartment in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, a city that saw a huge real estate boom in the 80’s & now, despite an enormous, tightly packed population, has many vacant apartments. May is a real estate saleswoman who picks up Ah-jung, a street vendor, for casual sex. Also staying in the apartment is Hsaio-kang, played by the actor Lee Kang-sheng, who appears in all Tsai’s films as this same rootless, restless character in ever-changing circumstances. Hsaio & Ah-jung discover one another & something like a romance ensues, at least for Hsaio. Mostly the characters don’t speak. They interact as least as much with the architecture & space as with each other, & their most profound interactions with one another are secret. May keeps a hard exterior until the final shot, which is six minutes long & tracks her, coming slowly into focus from a long way off & gaining substantiality, stalking through a desolate construction site to a set of bleachers where she finally weeps - & weeps. There is one other person there, a man reading a newspaper. He never interrupts her sorrow. If this sounds straight-forward – this walking & weeping - the final moments of her break-down have stunning & quite unexpected power. There have been a number of retrospectives in recent years of Tsai Ming-liang’s award-winning work, at festivals & last winter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He’s been producing about a film a year lately. Last year’s GOODBYE DRAGON INN, an homage to old-style fight movies, is out in DVD, & his 2005 film, THE WAYWARD CLOUD, is making the festival rounds. Born in Malaysia, he has lived & worked in Taiwan for a couple decades. Some consider him to define Taiwanese New Wave cinema. In fact his favorite movie is Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS & any interview in print with him makes clear immediately the very breadth of his knowledge of world film. But Tsai’s work is a wonderful example of the difficulty of negotiating cultures without some guide. He has developed a number of characteristic approaches to filming modern urban desperation & isolation that are technical in nature & make his films, especially the later ones, hard to decipher for novices. There is little dialogue, great attention to spatial relations, endless long tracking shots & a camera that doesn’t necessarily follow the human drama. THE RIVER & WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? in particular will be hard for American audiences. Many of his films’ anchors seem to be specifically cultural in nature, such as Buddhist ceremonies, use of familiar & repeated characters & landmarks with Taiwanese references. These balance some of his visual techniques & keep the viewer engaged, even if only subliminally. VIVE L’AMOUR is a wise choice. Though made back in 1994, it’s crisp enough & - at least in Tsai’s world – fast moving enough to act as an introduction to this intriguing director. Nancy Keefe Rhodes (640)
#28: Countering Cultures: On OFF THE MAP & THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE * 8/18/05 * Two films about counter-cultural living schemes & their aftermath have just landed on rental racks through DVD release in such quick succession that it’s pretty hard not to hold them side by side in the mind’s eye. Both originally released last March, Campbell Scott’s OFF THE MAP & Rebecca Miller’s THE BALLAD OF JACK & ROSE invite comparison in other ways too. Both are stories of daughters who look back on their childhood’s critical turn within families that attempted to leave the world during 1960’s-inspired back-to-the-land efforts. In both, the central image is explicitly a return to the Garden of Eden. This suggests an irony: the most resonant way to tell a story of rejecting one’s culture is through the images central to that culture. In both films the daughter must become her own person at a moment when her father is gravely ill. On a 1970’s New Mexico farm, 12-year-old Bo Grodin’s father Charley slid into deep depression. After some protest, he takes his medicine & makes a graceful return. Off the New England coast in the mid-80’s, 16-year-old Rose Slavin’s dreadfully gaunt father Jack is about to keel over from a failing heart. He keeps on smoking, keeps on raging. These films share major images, themes & junctures: the land & its stewardship, the idea of escape by sea, the relationship of money to morality, the inescapable rituals that surround death & sex, indeed death & sex themselves. The point at which patience parts company from obsession is where one film leaves the other. Here’s how. Each film features an intruder into the Garden , wanting to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Tax auditor Gibbs arrives because the Grodins are so poor they haven’t filed taxes for years. Converted by the sight of Arlene naked in the garden so fast it does make his head spin, Gibbs stays on, takes up painting, and delicately shifts the balance. On the Slavins’ island it’s hard to keep all the intruders straight, but chief among them for symbolic purposes is Marty the evil land developer. Unwittingly teaching Rose how to handle what she opposes, Jack shoots at Marty’s workers & later bulldozes the model house that Rose says she likes in a moment of disloyalty to Jack’s ideals. And one skirmish with the poisonous copperhead would’ve been enough for me. Never made until 2003, OFF THE MAP then sat undistributed until March of this year. It didn’t do well at the box-office. It offers complex, enormously patient performances from Sam Elliot as father Charley, new-comer Valentina de Angelis as Bo, Jim True-Frost as the innocent, William Gibbs. Bo’s mom Arlene might be Joan Allen’s best performance, one that finally lets her heat & grace loose on the screen. The WASHINGTON POST’s Desson Thomson calls it “a lowercase paradise.” OFF THE MAP’s steady unfolding explains its staying power. In a single understated moment, Bo squirms & looks away from her naked father in the kitchen. Arlene tells Gibbs, “We’re casual around here.” But it’s the last time Charley does it. I suspect Jack & Charley face similar anguish having to do with daughters growing up, but Jack Slavin steps on the brake so late in the trip that he’s already crashed. BALLAD gives us a whole movie-full of looks so smoldering, it’s no wonder Rose finally burns the house down. I’m not completely convinced this is to-notch directing or acting. Daniel Day-Lewis’ extraordinary Jack – the hippie who writes checks to get his way – suffers wrenching moments of self-recognition, yes, yet there are half a dozen times you want to ask, “What did you THINK would happen here?” Jack’s a run-away character inside a run-away film. Really a film about obsession, BALLAD’s confusion is that it tries to make the counter-culture take the rap. In the epilogue, a silent Rose tends flowers in another commune’s greenhouse two years later. Bo Grodin, we realize, has grown up to be her own story’s narrator. Nancy Keefe Rhodes (661)