Friday, September 29, 2006

Film Review #57: The House of Sand *** (2005) *** Director: Andrucha Waddington *** Cast: Fernanda Torres, Fernanda Montenegro, Seu Jorge *** Usually there’s just a handful of us: the ones who sit there all the way through a film’s closing credits. But at this screening – a weekday matinee and almost full – I’d say three-quarters of the audience sat right there with me. Some movies you don’t want to end. The House of Sand instead comes to rest with the grace of a last breath, drenched in the same piano strains that its central character Áurea, the concert pianist marooned sixty years in the pond-dotted Maranhão sand dunes on Brazil’s northeastern coast, has wept to finally hear again. *** This is director Andrucha Waddington’s third feature fiction film, interspersed with documentaries that often focus on Brazil’s composers and musicians. One such subject, Gilberto Gil, has also done this film’s classically-based soundtrack, making extensive use of such pieces as Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata and, fittingly, Chopin’s Preludes Opus 28, #15 – The Raindrop. The House of Sand opened in 2005 in its native Brazil, screened at last year’s Toronto’s international film festival, has now just run a quite respectable six weeks in Manhattan at Lincoln Plaza and embarked on limited release in smaller cities’ art house market. Nevertheless it has not been as successful, either at home or in the US, as Conspiração Filmes, the cooperative Waddington founded with other directors and producers ten years ago, had hoped for – or as audiences like the one in that matinee might predict. *** The House of Sand presents three generations of women, played at different ages in a sort of round-robin style by Fernanda Torres (she and Waddington are married) and Fernanda Montenegro – she is Torres’ mother and probably most widely known in the US as Dora in Walter Salles’ Central Station (1998). Film critic A.O. Scott rightly calls the women’s work in this film “not just two performances, but a suite, with harmonies and counterpoints,” referencing the obvious musical parallels. Waddington and his long-time screenwriter Elena Soárez have structured the film chronologically as four movements, each tied to an historic celestial event that pierces the endless haze of days with inspiration. *** The film opens in 1910, as Halley’s Comet passes near earth on its 75-year orbit. A minute line of figures straggles across the horizon in a wide, self-consciously photographic shot. This is the pregnant Áurea (Torres) and her mother Dona Maria (Montenegro), brought here by Áurea’s deluded husband Vasco. The first night in this spot, after the drunken Vasco reaches oafishly for her, Áurea watches the comet. Vasco’s house will collapse, killing him and stranding the women. Their only neighbors are the sea-side quilombo. One of this community of fugitive slaves, Massu (Seu Jorge, City of God), grudgingly befriends them. *** 1919: Áurea’s daughter, also Maria, is nine. Their lives are organized around escaping back to Rio. Áurea’s long-planned deal with an itinerant peddler to transport them is disrupted by news of a scientific expedition visiting the vicinity to photograph the May 19th solar eclipse. Áurea travels to see this, has a passionate encounter with a soldier, Luiz, and weeps when she hears music again in the festive camp. While she’s away, her mother dies; both Luiz and the peddler leave without her. Bereft, Áurea connects explosively with Massu. *** 1942: An older Áurea (now played by Montenegro) is content with Massu, but her daughter Maria (now Torres) is desperate, dissolute, often drunk and promiscuous. This occurs during World War II’s daily fly-overs by US fighter planes avoiding the German U-boats patrolling coastal waters. An older, courtlier officer now, Luiz returns (Stênio Garcia in a role charmingly like his Zezinho in Waddington’s last feature, Me You Them). Finding Áurea occupied, he takes Maria with him to Rio in his jeep. *** 1969: Maria’s return to the coast coincides with the Apollo II moonwalk, deepening a sense this place has the remoteness of space. No longer angry and desperate, she brings a record player to her mother and they reconcile. *** Certainly The House of Sand is a meditation upon entrapment in its many guises – the ever-shifting, undistinguished chaos of the wilderness that might engulf these refined women, their own psychic isolation, and the rigid social blinders within which Áurea must first follow Vasco and then deny Massu for years. Waddington has been clear about the film’s cinematic forbears. Given an old photo of a shack from this region and challenged to generate a film project, he had recently seen two other films: Teshigahara’s film version of Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes (1964) – seacoast villagers trap an outsider in a sand pit – and Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), about Mexican aristocrats unable to leave a dinner party. *** Using Torres and Montenegro as he does, Waddington also evokes similar efforts like István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999), in which Ralph Fiennes played successive generations of a Hungarian Jewish family’s sons. Waddington has been preoccupied by notions of permutation, thematic variation and the sometimes “spitting images” of family resemblance – nature’s version of photography – since his earlier feature films. Fernanda Torres played twin sisters in Gêmeas (1999); Me You Them (2000) relates the story of a woman with four sons by four men, three living with her under one roof. *** The House of Sand is one of those films in which it’s hard to distinguish the fruits of acting from what’s provided by other aspects of production. Especially with Torres, Montenegro and Jorge, that acting proceeds with undeniable magnetism and command, and not much dialogue. Clearly the film owes much of its emotional power, for one thing, to layers of musical reference – aside from the sheer sound of performance. In both story and soundtrack, this is pointedly European classical music, carrying all the attendant tension of great outpourings channeled through formal structure and beginning at great odds with this wild land. Brazilian audiences would not miss the added associations of two nationally popular musicians, Seu Jorge and Luiz Melodia, portraying Massu the younger and elder. Above I called the wide opening shot of the homesteading caravan on the horizon self-consciously photographic. Me You Them, filmed in the cane-fields of nearby Bahia, is saturated with high contrast, almost neon-rich hues, but The House of Sand – while not a black and white film – often looks visually abstracted, almost bleached. What we see on-screen here is not what the naked eye haphazardly sees but instead what appears through a lens that frames, captures and fixes images of the world, however chaotic the subject may have been in the raw. There are many shots in the dunes – groupings of figures angled against blank expanses, bodies composed against the shadow-heightened, ramshackle shelters – that call up the photos of another Brazilian, Sebastião Salgado. Particularly in his African famine photos Salgado also addresses the wild, the fragilely momentary, the shifting sands of desert life. And whatever narrative exists in this movie about Áurea’s past life occurs solely through the flimsy snapshots she’s brought with her, what she props out of the wind against a rough upright pole. *** The House of Sand is a strenuous movie, requiring some patience, some attention, some settling in to savor those last minutes as the credits roll and the piano notes cascade over you. *** This review was written for, published there on 10/6/2006.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Film Review #56: Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film *** (2006) *** Director: Ric Burns *** Cast: Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Edie Sedgwick *** This week’s national prime-time PBS American Masters broadcast of Ric Burns’ four-hour Andy Warhol doc follows the film’s exclusive two-week theatrical engagement earlier this month at Film Forum in New York City. As hometown try-outs go – both Burns and his production company, Steeplechase Films, make Manhattan their home – that was an undiluted triumph. Other movies on might get a 100% rating, but I don’t remember them. *** The Film Forum gig is part of a trend toward more varied distribution formats – either stand-alone theatrical releases or limited theater engagements combined with televised broadcast – that is one outcome of the recent surge in popularity and production of documentary films. Similarly, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Stanley Nelson has reliably been stocking PBS’ American Experience series with a feature length doc every year or so. Now, after enthusiastic festival receptions since last spring, Jonestown, his film about the 1978 Peoples Temple incident, opens October 20th at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema and then in a handful of other cities before its national PBS broadcast next year. *** Andy Warhol also extends Ric Burns’ own recent turn toward using the lives of artists to discuss American life. We know Burns for broad-canvas projects designed for multiple evening viewing on PBS – docs on New York City, the massive Civil War series with his brother Ken, and the six-part The Way West. After tightening his focus with the Donner Party film, Burns turned for subjects to photographer Ansel Adams and playwright Eugene O’Neill. Now Warhol, an artist Burns says he himself actually knew little about before this project. *** Andy Warhol is so appealing partially because Burns shares with the rest of us that sense of suddenly noticing what’s been in our midst. The film opens with a long montage of talking heads who appear again throughout to form a commentary that complements narration by composer-performance artist Laurie Anderson - I for one am itching to ask her where narrating Andy Warhol's life fits in her body of work! Among these commentators, art critic David Hickey says that Warhol, founder of the 1960’s Pop Art movement, was “so American that he was virtually invisible to us.” One of the great pleasures of this film are the successive moments of illumination about Warhol’s life and work, not only the unknown nuggets – even some vast tracts – but the focus Burns brings to what had previously subsided to background buzz by its very familiarity. *** Also early on, writer Stephen Kock comments that Warhol’s “great gift was immediacy. This is it. This is it. Nothing more. Right now.” Right from the start, Burns addresses the dilemma of making a narrative film about an artist who was short on narrative, even in his own extensive filmmaking projects. Burns includes a great deal of archival footage, some of it speeded up, of Warhol in the midst of that present, doing his work. And Burns lets Kock goes on to put Warhol in the Romantic tradition, adding that “we are always on the edge of death, because we are always losing the moment.” *** Over four hours, while juggling an abundance of topics, Burns returns to the themes of Warhol’s invisibility and how his art expressed and addressed immediacy repeatedly and in many ways. He manages not to dwell on the sensational in Warhol’s career – a minefield in itself, given the sometimes clashing mix of Warhol’s personal infatuation with celebrity and his work’s comments upon it. Instead, Burns picks and enlarges key components. Here are just four of my favorite parts. *** Burns’ treatment of Warhol’s early years in a middle-European immigrant slum in Pittsburgh, his mother’s life-long encouragement of his art, and how he got from there to art lessons at Carnegie Tech to 1950’s Madison Avenue together comprise a model of documentary’s multipurpose exposition and editing. We see what art rescued Warhol from as well as how it fueled both his drive for celebrity and his later art. The comparison between the Eastern Orthodox church icons of Warhol’s boyhood and his later Marilyn Monroe portraits is one of the many small lightening bolts in this film. *** Although Warhol’s real hey-day was the 60’s and 70’s, Burns spends considerable time on the 50’s. This rescues a whole body of Warhol’s work that is largely unknown nowadays – especially(since he later insisted he couldn’t draw) his exceedingly fine and prolific draughtsmanship, not just the blotted-line technique that advertising clients loved, but for example the stunning nude studies he did. Burns’ decision to spend some time in the 50’s also rescues what it meant in practice to move from commercial to fine art. When we say Warhol erased the line between them, we usually think about subject matter: soup cans and multiple silk-screened, flamboyantly colored portraits based on photos. But it meant how art was carried on too. Not just that, as an employee of Bonwit Teller, Warhol was able to take advantage of the department store’s annual perk to staff to exhibit their “off-hours” art work in the store’s display windows. But that including crowds of people in your studio was a part of how you did the art itself, not something incidental indicating that you'd party later. *** Movie people can’t help but glory in the sections about Warhol’s extensive film experiments, for the chance to see rare clips from them and watch their production, and for the discussions of what Warhol was doing and the inspiration that his curiosity and freshness provides for how any of us approach cinema. You can dip in anywhere here. Warhol’s early movies were silent and often addressed time, such as the tantalizing tension created in his early Sleep. Here, the camera rests on Warhol’s sometime-lover John Giorno’s sleeping face in real time – the voice-over in Burns' doc points out that painting doesn’t offer real time, even as literal time disappears for the sleeper himself. You might know about Warhol’s later split-screen 6 1/2-hour long film Chelsea Girls, but Burns bothering to include the earlier ones pays off. *** Along with Warhol’s movies came his “superstars.” Burns wisely chooses to highlight one from this period, which again has multiple uses. The Velvet Underground and Nico are there, and Ondine and Candy Darling and the rest, but the young troubled blue-blood Edie Sedgwick embodies Warhol’s indie film period. Her demise from drugs, while Warhol looked on and largely did nothing, illustrates a side that Burns manages to include as part of the man and as something other artists, such as Bob Dylan, had positions about. *** Burns’ mastery at juggling such an enormous career is surely a result of past work on grand scales. But I am struck at something else that emerges here. At one point when covering the 1964-68 period of the Factory, Warhol’s vast, silver-painted East 47th Street studio, Burns quotes Warhol on the motley crew of hangers-on he invited in, from drag queens to Harvard flower-children to other artists and intellectuals, “I don’t feel all these people are hanging around me. I’m more hanging around them.” *** Crucially, the talking heads that Burns includes are as integral to a film about Warhol’s art as they were to the art itself. Warhol’s rise was rapid – both as a commercial artist and as a “serious” artist. This occurred in the midst of people who could articulate what he was doing, at a moment when critical voices mattered much more than today. In some ways we’re in a similar, sympathetic period now – our version is an increasing attention on “public art” projects that put art back in everyday life and seek to erase aesthetic distance. Paradoxically Warhol’s influence may also be part of today’s bad press and general disregard of critics. Already an incredibly rich window on Warhol’s life, work and times, Burns’ film opens another on our own. I can hardly wait for his next project. ***** Written for & published there on 9/21/06.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Film Review #55: BEOWULF AND GRENDEL *** (2005) *** Director: Sturla Gunnarsson *** Cast: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Sarah Polley *** For some of us, the terrorist narrative has been hard-wired in from the start. You don’t have to be an old English major for your mind to slide over to Beowulf in a dark theater when those two cops are caught in the grinding jaws of World Trade Center rubble. For English-speaking peoples, al-Qaeda’s raid echoes our first story, what still stains our thinking. A year before 9/11, poet Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Beowulf, originally contracted by Norton for mild-mannered college lit anthologies, had jumped onto best-seller lists, fingering some ancient hair-trigger. *** Even if you can’t quite see the Twin Towers as a modern-day Viking mead-hall, one version of this tale worth catching, despite some glaring faults, opened in the US in July. Filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 Beowulf and Grendel had a successful Canadian run, bracketed by sold-out festival appearances at last year’s Toronto and this spring’s Seattle. It has going for it a thoughtful take on hatred, the inspired though wholly inaccurate decision to film in his native Iceland, and an appealing if not very well-used international cast – Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera, Lara Croft) as Beowulf, Stellan Skarsgard (Dogville, Ronin) as Hrothgar, and Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead, My Life Without Me) as the witch Selma, a newly invented character. *** Gunnarsson’s movie, which he says comments on the US invasion of Iraq, shared Manhattan in July with Elliot Goldenthal’s opera at Lincoln Center. The opera is adapted from John Gardner’s 1971 novel, which Gardner specifically wrote to protest the Vietnam war. But Gardner’s Grendel – written from the monster’s point of view – also coincides more broadly with the birth of modern terrorism used against the West, in the West. Since then, one Beowulf revival has followed another, with more coming down the pike. *** Beowulf is an old story, set about 500 A.D. Beowulf, from what is now Sweden, goes to the aid of King Hrothgar, in what is now Denmark, finally killing Grendel (whose name means “grinder”). The monster had been raiding the king’s great hall at night like a refrigerator, eating his men alive, 70 at a time. While Beowulf had later opponents too, in our day we mostly have fixated on Grendel who took such pleasure in terrifying the Danes. Most versions have changed the story somehow, obsessed to explain Grendel’s viciousness – an on-going literary version of “Why do they hate us?”– beginning with the Christian monk who first wrote it all down and tacked on the idea that Grendel descended from murderous Cain. The Irish priest Brendan in Gunnarsson’s movie, who’s baptizing all those warriors in the river? He’s several centuries too early to be in that neck of the woods, but his presence makes the point about new faith’s appeal in uncertain times. *** What’s right about this film includes location filming in Iceland, whose landscape is radically different from green, heavily forested Denmark with its gentle coastline. Beowulf and Grendel is often quite beautiful, its cool, austere sweeps punctuated by scenes splashed with rare, welcome sunlight. In the original, Hrothgar’s warriors feared the deep, impenetrable forest, while today’s National Geographic-saturated audiences might not. Iceland provides a wilderness more suited to modern tastes, experience, even to our brands of fear – blank wastes that Beowulf calls “the end of the world,” icy seas, shrouded mountain-tops, looming cliffs overshadowing the strand, dwarfing men and monsters alike. Gunnarsson contrasts this with what we might call a “revisionist epic” aesthetic, undermining the shiny, puffed-up human grandeur of other costume projects. J.R.R. Tolkien loved, taught and borrowed from the original Beowulf, but Gunnarsson’s movie has no vast LOTR army hordes, no fairy gauze. Life really is nasty, brutish and short here – muddy and cold too – for the few people huddled together on the coast against the gale-force winds. *** This almost abstract setting alerts us to current parallels, much as staging MacBeth in modern dress has served to do through successive troubling political eras. What we find is rather more thoughtful than you expect. Beowulf says he fights in a new way, contrary to the “berserkers” of his own time, who work themselves into a blood-lust frenzy. Not that he refrains from killing Grendel. But his curiosity about Grendel’s motive means he must learn who the monster is and what constitutes his complaint in order to kill him, contrary to modern warfare’s aim of turning the enemy into a faceless object fit for defilement. *** In fact, there is a good deal of explicitly ethnic hatred in this film, expressed in classic terms of filth. Grendel can smell men coming from a distance, and he picks out wrong-doers by smelling what they have touched. He contemptuously fouls the mead-hall’s threshhold, an insult Beowulf’s men reciprocate when they find Grendel’s cave. No matter what kind of statesman-like things they are saying at official peace talks, if one side is calling the other “dirty,” you can count on such behavior in whatever territory is occupied. As a cultural expression, Beowulf and Grendel surely hitches a ride too from a whole slew of recent films set in odd locales and times that play with how we define “human” and its opposite – Ripley in the Alien films, Terminator I and II, the Blade series and its relatives, and lately the resurrected zombie genre. That Grendel then has language and therefore a complaint astounds Beowulf. This discovery alone – so unlikely in Beowulf’s world – unravels Hrothgar’s suspect account. *** The engine of this discovery is Sarah Polley’s bizarre character, Selma. She reluctantly translates Grendel’s words to Beowulf. Polley has been an impressive actor and Selma’s presence gets a lot done plot-wise. But she’s as sadly out of place as the jarring slang that acts as filler in the dialogue. “Oh, here we go!”, “That’s one beer-hall!”, “You can’t swim for shit!” and Beowulf’s “It’s been a while!” during his mercifully short sexual encounter with her. But if you want a handle on how much 9/11 stirs up our old, crazy, low-down stuff, this movie offers a glimpse. *** Still screening in a lone Cleveland, Ohio theater at this writing, Beowulf and Grendel has been out on DVD since July 18th. Written on 9/10/2006 for