Sunday, December 30, 2007

Film Review #142: Two Lane Blacktop
1971/Criterion DVD 2007
Director Monte Hellman
Cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laura Bird

There’s something perfect about musicians playing the two leads in this most enduring and mystique-laden of road movies, just re-released again two weeks before Christmas by Criterion on a snazzy two-disc set. It was also the only screen performance by either man. Director Monte Hellman first spotted his choice for the character called just “the driver” on a Los Angeles billboard advertising James Taylor’s 1968 debut album, and Taylor kept his flowing locks for the part. These days, you can get the singer’s newest CD compilation of live tracks with your latté at Starbucks. Beach Boys drummer-composer Dennis Wilson played “the mechanic,” also nameless. The anniversary of Wilson’s drowning in 1983, shortly after his 39th birthday, is actually Friday.

As for the rest of the main cast, Hellman regular Warren Oates died a year before Wilson. Young and very slender here, he plays the garrulous, ever self-reinventing “GTO,” nick-named for the gold car he drives in the film. And cast as “the girl,” a hitch-hiker who works her way through all three men during the cross-country contest between the Pontiac and the customized matte gray ’55 Chevy, Laura Bird made just two more films after this one, dying by suicide at age 25 in 1979. Harry Dean Stanton, who got his start with Hellman and here has a memorable cameo as a gay hitch-hiker who weeps when GTO rejects him, is now in his 80s. Hellman remains as wiry and frizzy-haired as ever, zestfully teaching film directing at the California Institute of the Arts. He calls Two Lane Blacktop, filmed over seven weeks in the early fall of 1970 for under one million dollars, a “time capsule” – for its youthful glimpse of this cast, its story filmed along the fabled and now largely disappeared old Route 66, and its dark watershed post-60s mood.

Two Lane Blacktop starts in Los Angeles at one of the LA Street Racers’ rowdy, well-attended and very illegal midnight drag matches. Police sirens sour what starts off looking like a good evening for the driver and the mechanic, two lanky guys in jeans and tee-shirts without much attention span for anything but fast cars who finance a rambling lifestyle by racing their souped-up Chevy. Whether on local dirt tracks, at street drag club events or in ad hoc contests struck up in gas stations along the way, their adversaries routinely under-estimate both the car and the young men. Without much specific intention they head east – a reversal of the mythic American way west that underscores the moment’s alienation.

One morning during breakfast, they watch a blond teenager through a diner window. Just feet away in the parking lot, she hauls her duffel from an old van and dumps it into their back seat for no better reason than it’s the closest car available. Before long, in a deceptively simple and languid maneuver that Hellman says is the real start of the film, these three set the hook for GTO in a desert gas station. He’s been eying that Chevy in the passing lane himself and so proposes a race to Washington, DC. They’ll race “for pinks” – what’s at stake is the losing car’s pink registration card.

Along the way, the three men vie irritably for the girl’s wandering attentions, race other cars, narrowly avoid crashes and cops, meet odd folk in backwaters, stop for repairs and occasionally day-dream about a vague future after Washington that may consist of checking out Florida’s beaches or maybe “run over to Arizona and build a house.” As laconic as the driver and the mechanic both are – Hellman says their lines are more soundtrack than dialogue, not meant to move the story any more than the songs on their car’s radio – GTO is talkative. With each new stranger, GTO effortlessly spins himself a colorful new history and purpose. Soon we’re anticipating this as each new encounter gets under way. Similarly, by the time this quartet lands in the movie’s final diner, we know who that girl’s going with next simply because there’s a motorcycle parked out front.

Warren Oates, though not the lead here, made four films for Hellman – besides Two Lane Blacktop, two Westerns, The Shooting (1966) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), and the contemporary Southern Gothic-tinged Cockfighter (1974). Arguably all are road movies, a genre too often dismissed as low budget primitive. An excellent companion to Hellman’s work is Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s 2005 documentary, Wanderlust – an absorbing 90 minutes that’s only a Netflix click away – with filmmakers like Callie Kouri (screenwriter, Thelma and Louise), who sees the road movie emerge quite organically from the Western, and Walter Salles (director, The Motorcycle Diaries) notices that young countries with unsettled identities make these movies (“You never see a Swiss road movie.”), and Alison Anders (director, Gas Food Lodging and a commentary track speaker for Two Lane Blacktop) remarks that the only place irony-phobic Americans willingly tolerate shades of gray is the road.

Proving he’s still got chops, Hellman directed the bonus features. A film teacher, he speaks especially well about making movies. Early on he piles five Cal Arts grad students into his van to visit the film’s shooting locations. He explains how shooting in Technoscope provided the best depth of field for a story where often he’s got two or three characters inside a car or in three different planes and wants them all in focus (you’ll watch for this next time you’re at the movies, promise). Or elsewhere, how filming in a pelting rainstorm unexpectedly infused his favorite gas station scene with enormous energy because throughout this scene all the cast members ran from spot to spot to avoid getting wet. He and James Taylor, facing off in simple wooden chairs, ask one another the questions each has harbored for 37 years. When Taylor – now short-haired and balding, he still hadn’t seen Two Lane Blacktop during this conversation – diffidently apologizes for his youthful bursts of temper, Hellman laughs it off with the kind of generosity that you sense informs his classrooms now as it once must have his movie sets. And the producers discuss how the 60s unraveled – that, as one puts it, “America was having a nervous breakdown, and lots of the people wandering around never stopped.” For once, “blast from the past” lives up to its name.

This review appeared in the 12/27/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Film Review #141: Into Great Silence
2005/DVD 2007
Director: Philip Gröning
Cast: The monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery

For reasons unrelated to this story, my next youngest sister and I went to different high schools – she to the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a girls’ boarding school in Albany run by nuns. She had the same dorm room the entire time, over-looking the hillside cemetery behind the school. Among her first letters home, one reported the convent’s fall custom of digging three new graves in case any of the nuns died during the winter when the ground was frozen. Even my grandmother, with her nearly infinite trust in the judgment of nuns, agreed when my mother said, “Making a teen-ager stare out her bedroom window at open graves all winter is morbid.”

So, early in German director Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary of the Grand Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble in the French Alps – which begins in deep winter – when a stooped, elderly monk goes into a fenced yard and starts shoveling snow out of the first of three oblong pits, my mind leaped confidently back to Albany.

This film’s distance from our daily experience at first tempts you to seek such ways in. The US trailer emphasizes this removal and a sort of ancientness. It’s full of long shots – a zooming sky time-lapsed over the stone monastery dwarfed far below, the cloister’s long arched hallways and their massive blocks dwarfing the cowled figures within them – and offers the same spare text, white on black, as that which occurs at the very end of this very long film. In 1984 Gröning asked permission to film. The Carthusians said it was too soon. Sixteen years later they called back. After two years’ prep, the shoot took three visits over another year, and post-production two more.

Running 167 minutes, Into Great Silence has no voice-over commentary, no soundtrack other than ambient sound, no artificial lighting – besides these conditions, the monks allowed no crew except Gröning – and no explanatory captions along the way to make it easier. You simply need to keep watching to discover that old monk is getting his seedling beds ready for spring’s sunlit thaw. You learn this by adjusting yourself to the film’s rhythms. In due course he’s sorting seed packets whose orange carrots flash gregariously in the barn’s gloom – getting ready for life, not impending death. Released on a two-disc DVD set in late October with loads of extras, Into Great Silence has still been absorbing enough by its bare-bones arcane self to stay in some US theater from March till early December.

St. Bernard of Cologne’s founded the Carthusian order in 1084. Destroyed by avalanche once, by fire five times, rebuilt last in 1688, this monastery’s now home to an order of 19 houses with 370 monks in Europe, the US, Latin America and Korea (in the film one monk flies to Seoul). Grand Chartreuse can hold 30 monks; during filming four newcomers arrived. In a stroke of synchronicity, the nuns in the order’s five convents – once considered “too communal by nature” for private cells – achieved their long-sought goal of equal solitude in 1970, just as feminism blossomed elsewhere.

The film says nothing of such demographics, nor one word about Chartreuse, the herbal liquor whose manufacture supports the order. No summary tells you the routine includes rising at midnight for the first of the day’s three Masses, or weekly hours-long tramps through the countryside during which the monks converse. Instead of such explanations, ecstatic verses periodically appear where other films carry subtitles and we see a succession of images about this life ranging from austere to homely to lush.

Framed at beginning and end by the same quiet shot of a single young monk kneeling in his cell, the film incorporates roughly the first year of a young African novice named Benjamin from his arrival, and appears to conclude – Gröning last shot in December 2003 – with Christmas Eve’s midnight candle-lit, incense-infused procession and Mass. These monks’ daily lives are very physical, these cooks, gardeners, tailors, wood-choppers, protectors of barn cats and throwers of snowballs. Yet, entirely at ease in a mostly silent life, their gaze into the camera – Gröning periodically inserts portrait-like studies – is initially unnerving, eventually a source of serenity. Benjamin’s “portrait,” appearing near the end of the film and presumably shot near the end of his first year, is remarkable for the subtle change that has occurred.

Of course, Into Great Silence is “Catholic” only by coincidence. Gröning says he first wanted to do a film with “a feel for time usually masked in film by language and story,” only later hitting on the subject of the most ascetic of Catholic orders as a way to explore that cinematically. From their earliest days, experimental film and video makers have wrestled with this issue of duration and capturing the present moment. And of course all spiritual practices aim for such states of calm alertness. The rapt, dilated attention generated in the old High Latin Mass or from Gregorian chants reappears in the presence of some art, both in its experience and in its making.

Gröning meant this film for the “large darkness” of the theater, but I watched it through Sunday’s storm, where it became an antidote to Saturday’s frenzies in Carousel and Wegman’s. Treat yourself.

This review appears in the 12/20/issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #140: This is England
2006/2007 US DVD
Director: Shane Meadows
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Rosamund Hanson

It’s one of those shabby, low-ceilinged country bars, out of the way down a dirt road with no traffic, that you’d reach after a drive through slow, monotonous rain blurring fields edged with scrub trees. In the muddy yard, men with shaved heads and black leather and tattoos on their faces mill around, then go respectfully silent when the guest candidate arrives. Inside, before posters for the National Front party, keeping his topcoat on against the damp and the dirt, he rails, “Our country has been stolen.” His wind-up draws cheers: “There is a forgotten word, a forbidden word – I want to revive the word Englishmen.”

In his audience, dragged way out here from his small town home along with some other new “troops” by the persuasive, unstable Combo (Stephen Graham), 11-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), still grieving the father he lost to war and thrilled that schoolyard bullies now avoid him, is so far a willing convert.

This year US movies have examined the volatile, double-edged hero worship that needy and impressionable young men have for violent criminals as one facet of the Westerns revival – think Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward… and Ben Foster’s Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma. Indeed the template for that specific longing and frustration available in the genre’s revisionist incarnations may be part of its contemporary appeal, even fifteen years ago in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, with the self-styled Scholfield Kid running after Eastwood’s retired gunslinger. Although British director Shane Meadows has visited the romance of the Western to great satiric effect in his riff on Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002), here he goes straight to the more recent parallels of his own youth, letting back-country pub echo the frontier in more muted ways.

What goes around, comes around. This is England is set in 1983 in the English Midlands, home territory of the National Front, a far-right party founded in 1967 that opposed immigration, multicultural policies and membership in the UN and NATO. Ronald Reagan’s friend Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. Though Thatcher’s own rise and her heartily conservative policies at first deflated support for the extremist National Front, by 1983 it’s making a come-back. It’s a little more than a year since the end of what Meadows calls “another pointless war,” England’s invasion of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina, made vivid by archival footage of horrific battle injuries book-ending the film. Unemployment stands at about 3 ½ million. There’s a racist-tinged resurgence of skinhead gangs (more militant in prisons, where Combo’s been) – ironic, since Jamaica’s ska and reggae music had heavily influenced early skinhead culture – plus increased hate crimes and noisy demonstrations across the land against newcomers from Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan.

This is England walks some razor edges. First, it is that rare film whose story is set just far enough away in time and place to take the defensive edge off watching it, long enough to let the parallels with our own day sink in. This 2006 film finally reached US theaters in August and released on DVD last month. Because it portrays scenes of extreme violence and racist invective, it had difficulty initially in England getting cleared so adolescents – arguably a major target audience – could see it. But it’s also that rare film which makes a clear distinction between accounting for behavior and approving it.

Meadows – now in his mid-30s and still shaving his head – says his main ambition at age 11 was going to prison. Instead, he makes movies set in the small towns of his native Midlands, often containing violence (which he says is more traumatic in village and rural settings because unexpected), usually reserving Hell’s hottest places for the bystander who does nothing, and aiming to portray skinhead culture in its complexity rather than as a straw man plot device.

Shaun’s story is fairly straightforward. A loner who’s developing quite a temper, he’s taken in by some older, mildly skinhead kids, led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), whose second in command is an easy-going young Jamaican named Milky (Andrew Shim, a fine natural actor cast in most Meadows films but seemingly nowhere else). There’s an assortment of younger teens, and an auxiliary girl gang led by Woody’s girl Lol (Vicky McClure, another Meadows veteran), a hair stylist who keeps everyone shorn. Sometimes over the line of merely boisterous – one day they gleefully trash abandoned apartments with an energy and ferocity that gives you pause – this crew gets what many gangs provide: companionship, belonging, plenty of affirmation and rough physical affection, a curb on their more destructive impulses toward one another.

A film very much about young men, This is England nonetheless supplies three decisively strong and fully drawn female characters. Shaun’s mother Cynthia (Jo Hartley), though judging the haircut “not good,” okays her son’s bond with them after a confrontation in the village cafe. Members also get initiation into grown-up ways. Shaun has his first girlfriend, an older, quite a bit taller girl with huge hair and black lipstick. A bit outlandish if you met them on the street, Shaun and Smell (Rosamund Hanson) enjoy a surprisingly delicate, hesitant courtship. Even with her lipstick smeared garishly after their first kissing session, Smell maintains great dignity and sweetness. The hairdresser Lol, having survived what was clearly a brutal rape by Combo several years back, bluntly sets him straight when he attempts new advances. The strength and clarity of Lol’s experience – “the worst night of my life” – illuminates how deluded is Combo's hopeful recollection of the “best night” of his life.

Trouble comes in this person of Combo, one of the more riveting, complex portraits of a needy, manipulative sociopath found anywhere on screen, and one of the best explorations of precisely how such a figure works his will by dividing others according to their own fears and hopes. His first wedge when he returns from prison is his verbal attack on Milky, after which he effectively splits the group by sneering as Woody for "letting me abuse” the Jamaican. Similarly disorienting to Shaun is Combo’s praise of the boy for swinging at him when he disparages Falklands War veterans.

Intriguingly, Meadows has Combo rehearse his “troops.” He has the boys prepare for their invasion on a convenience store – the middle-aged Pakistani owner has banned Shaun – as if it were a stage performance. They get their lines, they work on their stances and delivery, they discover how having a role manages their anxiety. Meadows writes and directs very tight, pivotal scenes that advance his story. He also intersperses them with evocative musical montages that provide depth of field. Besides collaging images from the era – the opening of This is England is particularly brilliant – his musical montages often contain slow-motion images of the characters themselves, composed in ways that remarkably resemble album covers of bands – one imagines this is also how these characters would like to be seen – again underscoring of the importance of performance to adolescents. This and his use of contemporary music and montage have been among Meadows’ most consistent strengths, here blended in his choices of The Clash’s “This is England,” Jamaican classics from Toots and the Maytals and the Upsetters, pop from Percy Sledge, The Specials, Strawberry Switchblade, and Clayhill’s new cover of The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please.”

And the next diatribe you hear on the campaign trail about being soft on illegal immigrants? Remember, what goes around, comes around.

This review appeared in the 12/13/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Of Meadows’ previous feature films, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) & Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) are both available on DVD via Netflix. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) is available on-line in non-US DVD format if you have a zone-free player. TwentyFourSeven
(1997) can be found in VHS online. His next project, in which he again works with a frequent collaborator, the actor Paddy Considine, involves a Gypsy story set in Eastern Europe.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

New Maps of the New World
Director: Roger Warren Beebe

See an interview with this experimental filmmaker, related to his Fall 2007 East Coast tour of 36 cities in 14 states & his new DVD collection of films made since 2001. Published 12/6/2007 in The Fanzine:

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Film Review #139: Blame it on Fidel
Director: Julie Gavras
Cast: Nina Kervel-Bey, Julie Depardieu, Stefano Acorsi

It’s one of those furious, dramatic exits, more exhilarating because the one stalking out is all of ten years old. As befits a school-girl trained by French nuns to stand when the priest enters – elsewhere another pupil demonstrates hilarious mastery of the single raised eyebrow as comment on unseemly adult behavior – Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey) marches head down, her silence incendiary, dragging five-year-old brother François (Benjamin Feuillet) by one wrist, out the door and into the streets of Paris.

Bad enough her parents took away her garden, her normal food, her catechism classes, and her beloved Cuban nanny Filomena (Marie-Noelle Bordeaux), who lost everything to Castro and supplies the story’s title. Bad enough they move to a cramped, shabby apartment, host nightly meetings of bearded men preaching “group solidarity,” and her attorney father leaves for months on end to assist Chile’s new Socialist regime. The breaking point comes amidst tears and shouts as her parents fight, the one rupture this little girl will not abide.

For some time she and François sit quietly on a park bench, their feet dangling as tall grown-ups pass. Then they go home. Their young parents meet them at the door with anguished relief. She has gotten their attention and we believe it, even smiling a little at them – one outcome of filmmaker Julie Gavras and casting director Coralie Amedeo testing almost 500 girls to find their right Anna.

A French import that screened early this year at Sundance and then Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, played in US art-houses from August till November and just released on DVD, Blame it on Fidel is being marketed here as a comedy about generational friction and political excess. A sensible child fumes and rolls her eyes as her idealistic parents go over the edge in sudden enthusiasm for lefty causes. Papa Fernando (Stefano Acorsi) carries some guilt. He fled a wealthy Spanish background to France, even sat out 1968’s student protests, rather than join his sister Marga (Mar Sodupe) in resisting Franco’s fascists. Now Marga’s arrival – her husband has disappeared – sparks Fernando’s confused awakening. He then objects when wife Marie (Julie Depardieu) is more publically feminist than he likes, signing an abortion petition that embarrasses him and leads to that fight.

But Anna’s parents are never buffoons. Decent, affectionate and generous young people, they try to be good parents, role models and, perhaps belatedly, citizens in the best sense. And Gavras frames her film with the deaths of two presidents; each breaks the hearts of a different generation, and in that mirrored grief finds a common aspiration that lingers and raises Gavras’ first feature well above guffaws at the expense of novice activism. When Anna’s grandfather (Oliver Perrier), a Bordeaux vineyard owner, says that “France is orphaned” by the death of Charles DeGaulle, his grief recalls the French Resistance that helped defeat World War II’s Nazi occupation. DeGaulle died just six days after Chile elected Salvatore Allende in November 1970. Chile’s military overthrew this popular reformer on September 11, 1973. Gavras excerpts Allende’s riveting last address to his nation, along with news footage of the coup and Allende’s death, which Anna’s parents and their friends watch, huddled around the TV, as sorrowful as Anna’s grandfather had been two years earlier. By the time this occurs, Anna has moved from resentment to some appreciation and, notably, choses to change schools. (Ironically, soon after Gavras wrapped her film, former dictator Augustin Pinochet, who supplanted Allende, also died.)

Gavras based Blame it on Fidel on Domitilla Calamai’s novel of the same name, which she read after meeting Calamai in Italy. Daughter of Oscar-winning Greek political filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z, State of Siege, Missing) and producer Michèle Ray-Gavras, she initially resisted feature filmmaking, first with law school, then working in production and documentaries, until a story brought her home. In adapting Calamai’s novel to the screen, Gavras herself added the Allende storyline to her script. She was just twelve in 1982 when her father made Missing. On the DVD’s excellent extras (see also how the children were cast and directed, and what Julie Depardieu thought of growing up with Gerard’s rising stardom), she recalls that film – in which Sissy Spacek played an outspoken young American whose husband disappears during the Allende coup, bickering with Jack Lemmon as her judgmental, conservative father-in-law – was her own “political awakening.” Gavras also sees the enduring legacy of the 70s as women’s liberation, so filmed Blame it on Fidel from Anna’s point of view and made her parents’ pivotal quarrel about a feminist issue like abortion.

Gavras comes of age in good company this year. Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia already has her own shelf in the famous directors’ section at some rental shops. Zoe (John) Cassavetes’ Broken English is newly out on DVD, and Alison (Clint) Eastwood’s Rails and Ties opened last month. All daughters coming home.

This review appears in the 12/6/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Film Review #138: Life Support
Director: Nelson George
Cast: Queen Latifah, Wendell Pierce, Anna Deavere Smith

“I saw that,” said one of my friend’s daughters almost at once, pausing to smile broadly and nod her head. “It was good!”

A couple Saturday nights before Thanksgiving in a bustling kitchen with the TV on, three grown daughters home at once and reminiscing, a new baby girl, plus a 17-month-old grandson already well in touch with his charisma, and in the midst of this – as I’m telling my friend about Queen Latifah starring in Nelson George’s Life Support, about a women’s HIV support group in Brooklyn – that daughter looks up quickly, remembering this film from its HBO broadcast way back in early March. Then Life Support came out quietly on DVD in early August – never hitting the Syracuse racks – but now it’s getting a second look as year-end awards season and World AIDS Day programs overlap. And my God-daughter’s right: it’s good.

For the first time in a decade, despite the World Health Organization’s recent correction downward of its global estimates of HIV/AIDS numbers, new infections in the US are rising –some 40,000 annually. Among those most at risk are women of color. Of all New York City boroughs, vast Brooklyn, inscrutable to many upstaters – where Life Support occurs – has the highest incidence of HIV infections. But the very complex, human emotions and dilemmas in this film do such an end-run around our denial that chances are you’ll be too engaged to object that it can’t happen here.

Life Support is based on the actual agency Life Force, a Brooklyn project that provides HIV testing, education and peer support groups. Some paid staff are HIV+ themselves and also support group participants, such as director George’s sister, Andrea Williams, upon whom Ana Wallace (Queen Latifah) is based.

A former addict, Ana has been clean for a decade. Besides her passionate involvement in HIV advocacy, she’s blossomed as a model mom to pre-teen daughter Kim (Rayelle Parker). Elder daughter Kelly (Rachel Nicks), a high school basketball star raised by her grandmother Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith), still recalls harsher days and struggles – as really everyone in this film does – with what Nelson George calls “the difficulty of forgiveness.” She also still resents Ana’s husband Slick (Wendell Pierce, Det. Bunk Moreland in HBO’s The Wire), whose own addiction led to Ana’s infection. That this marriage is solid again owes much to Slick’s steadiness and compassion.

The side-plot driving the crisis is Kelly’s dilemma over how to best assist her childhood friend Amare (Evan Ross) – himself addicted, quite ill with AIDS, and missing on the streets after a blow-up with his older, closeted boyfriend. Amare’s sister Tanya (Tracy Ellis Ross, his real sister – both have inherited mother Diana’s looks and magnetism), tangles with Ana as Ana searches for Amare.

Nelson George, besides directing excellent performances from this cast, also wrote the film. He uses periodic support group sessions to structure advances in the plot. Ana reports upon developments, sharing the evolution of her feelings, perspective and ability to cope. Much as such groups do in real life, this device both allows for and contains emotional meltdowns in a safe place. After each such scene, Ana goes forth again to her life, embodying the axiom of incremental “progress, not perfection.”

The support group on-screen and the real one at Life Force are the same, with Andrea Williams appearing on-screen as an unnamed group member. We learn this as the film concludes and final credits roll, including an affecting montage of individual Life Force women who turn their open, level gazes directly into the camera with a subtle but startling effect of leaping through the screen into the room with us, momentarily dissolving that membrane between fiction and the lives it mirrors. But this merely culminates what the film’s been doing all along.

Most movie versions of therapy and support groups veer from naïve to preachy to satiric, but George clearly paid attention when he followed his sister around pre-production. Besides embracing Ana, these non-“actorly” women function as witnesses and chorus for the film’s entire project, and evoke a kind of ratifying call and response between Latifah’s performance and their congregation-like circle. That Nelson George wisely dramatizes his sister’s story instead of presenting it straight as documentary biography adds resonance and power; we actively imagine along with the filmmaker rather than simply spectate. The DVD extras deepen this in various ways. Besides some unusually accessible interviews, in one sequence George points at a large street map of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods on his office wall and then visits a string of named filming locations, telescoping and animating that map's world – with great economy, suddenly Brooklyn seems neither so vast nor so inscrutable.

At this stage, the name selling Life Support on the DVD cover is Latifah’s. Life-long Brooklyn resident Nelson George has not yet made many films. But he’s had years of TV and music producing, plus writing some of the most astute, compulsively readable commentary on arts and culture around – besides his columns and novels, fifteen books ranging from Motown to Hip-Hop to basketball to film. I put his Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies (1994, revised 2002) in the Genuine Find category. There, he maintains that Black women’s stories and novels are the “mother lode” future of Black cinema. With Life Support, he walks the talk. And he’s good.

This review appears in the 11/29/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Film Review #137: Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry Gale Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy

As a graduate student in the film program at UCLA in the early 70s, Charles Burnett admired those casts of thousands in mainstream Hollywood movies because the crowds of extras – costumed, reflecting the protagonists, and going about the daily life created in a movie’s on-screen world – provided such a deep sense of the place in which a story occurred. Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s thesis project and first feature-length film, had no such budget, so he set about creating that backdrop of “deep place” not with crowds but one by one. Burnett’s story of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) and his family – recent arrivals from the South in the Watts section of 1970s Los Angeles, whose hopes for a fresh American start by the classic means of going West have so quickly turned bittersweet – is peopled with a constant stream of kids from start to finish.

From the first scene, in which a father admonishes a scowling boy that his little brother will always be his concern – Burnett says this is a rite of passage “we all went through” – to the gangs of boys playing mock battles behind make-shift shields in a vacant lot, wobbling three at once on a bike till barking dogs topple them, running, fence-sitting, leaping gracefully as deer between rooftops, hammering caps with a wrench on a rock, to the girls jumping rope, singing along with the radio to their dolls, dressing in an oblong of light beside a massive dark chest of drawers, shooting their own rocks from rooftops along with the boys, avidly whispering little-girl secrets through an open car window at a curb – Burnett’s inserted clips of kids busily growing up accumulate to a resonance and weight that scaffold the film and provide some of the most memorable brief studies of youth anywhere. Indeed one of the film’s final scenes has a young woman visiting Stan’s household to announce her joyful news of a coming child.

Austere, deceptively leisurely in pace – Burnett tightly story-boarded and scripted the film despite the action’s casual surface – and filmed with the eye of a master black and white still photographer, Killer of Sheep has what The New Yorker’s David Denby in April, upon the film’s first-ever theatrical opening in the US, called the “bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record.” More pointedly, the critic Michael Tolkin has said, “If this were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.”

Instead, Burnett was part of a group of young Black L.A.-based filmmakers that included Julie Dash, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell and Haile Gerima, whose work rebelled against the commercial “blaxploitation” films of the day, concentrating instead on what Burnett called “our own stories.” He intended Killer of Sheep to be the first of a film trilogy that would follow Stan, his family and friends.

Shot mostly on weekends and originally finished in 1973, Killer of Sheep didn’t have a regular theatrical release because Burnett couldn’t get permissions for some of the music clips. This eclectic mix included Paul Robeson vocals (sometimes used satirically), swooning Gershwin strings, crashing Rachmaninoff piano chords, Scott Joplin rags, Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” Dinah Washington’s slow-hand heartbreaker, “This Bitter Earth,” and Cecil Gant’s “I Wonder,” whose “haunting melody” Burnett says inspired the film to begin with.

In 1977 ad again in 1979, Killer of Sheep enjoyed short non-theatrical US tours – the Community Folk Art Center’s Gina Stankovitz says she’s sure founder Herb Williams brought this film to Syracuse in that era – mostly in galleries and museums on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In 1981 Burnett took the film to warmly receptive festival audiences and judges in Toronto and several European cities, earning a prize at Berlin.

Thanksgiving week is an apt time to finally receive this film on DVD because we might meditate on how lucky we are to have it at all. Burnett, who is still making movies – he’s currently filming a feature called Red Soil due out next year – says he didn’t know what bad shape the original 16 mm print was in until the UCLA Film Archives phoned him up to tell him. Restored and printed for the first time in 35 mm, Killer of Sheep’s limited US release this spring kept it on a few art-house screens till mid-October.

Milestone’s new two-disc DVD set also contains four shorts, the original cut of Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) along with a brand new director’s cut, a brief clip of several Killer cast members reunited last April in a Santa Monica diner, and a commentary track with Burnett and the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Richard Peña.

Killer of Sheep is so titled because Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) could only find work in a slaughterhouse where he kills and butchers sheep – curiously alert, trusting animals seen in a sunny haze that emphasizes their nightmarishly abrupt deaths. One scene of Stan moving a rack of skinned carcasses on hooks hanging heads-down cuts quickly to two boys on Stan’s front steps in a contest over who can hold a head-stand braced against the wall longest. In one remarkable shot, the kitchen’s drop-leaf table nearly fills the screen as Stan and his friend Bracy (Charles Bracy) sit opposite one another, their bodies squeezed inside the frame’s edge as their thighs and shoulders hunch over, curl around the table, transforming this meeting spot for family and friends into a kind of life-raft they cling to. Meanwhile, as Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) tries to revive this decent, sorrowful man’s interest in intimacy, their kids Stan Jr. (Jack Drummond) and little Angela (Angela Burnett) bicker and grow, Stan has visits from his buddies, tries to fix his car, sets out for a short holiday at the Los Alamedas race-track that fizzles out with a flat tire. You could say not much happens. But watching this film just makes you grateful, pure and simple.

This review appeared in the 11/21/7 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Film Review #136: Border Café
2006/DVD 2007
Director: Kombozia Partovi
Cast: Feresteh Sarde Orfaei, Nicholas Papadopoulos, Estobeta Mikhailishnia

Once there were three Iranian brothers whose village lay along a main trucking highway in the northwest corner of their country, about 30 miles from the Turkish border. The middle brother, Ismael, left this village as a young man and when he returned from his travels he brought back a bride, Reyhan (Fereshteh Sarde Orfaei), from another part of Iran. The customs were different there; Reyhan’s own mother had worked as a cook to support four children after losing their father in wartime. Ismael’s love match produced two young daughters, Leila and Sara, when he suddenly died, leaving Reyhan with a café outside town beside the truck route.

The eldest brother, Nasser (Parviz Parastoei), owner of a more lucrative, upscale restaurant in town, expected to take Reyhan as his second wife and raise her children as his own. Patient, generous, courtly in his own understated way, full of assumptions about how this would go, he locked up the roadside café and ordered a new wing built on his house.

The youngest brother, Karim (Jafar Vahabpour), glowering, hot-tempered and mustachioed as a cartoon bandit, had no wife or business of his own but stern ideas on handling women, so Nasser is constantly restraining him. A potentially comic figure whose red pick-up truck often roars off in a spray of gravel, Karim turns abruptly frightening when he beats a Greek truck-driver trying to court Reyhan so badly that he breaks the man’s leg.

Border Café isn’t really about these three brothers – a standard plot line the world over – though the missing middle brother’s independence remains a tantalizing mystery and the others suggest the varieties of coercion that women face in some parts of Iran. Instead, Border Café is about Reyhan herself, who simply, respectfully, decisively, says no to Nasser’s offer, and about how she makes that stick.

First she refurbishes her own house, doing the heavy stucco work herself. She struggles with disciplining her children, who are not sure she is still in charge. Then she hires her husband’s old manager, Oujan (Esmaeil Soltanian). They clean and paint the cafe
a vibrant blue - some time seems to have have passed before she regains possession of the key, and clearly the old cafe had been run-down when Ismael died - then split the labor so that he works the dining room and she the kitchen. Soon heavy rigs crowd the lot outside, from Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey – after all, this is a very ancient trade route. Soon the Greek driver Zackaria (Nicholas Papadopoulos) warms to Reyhan when she makes him moussaka from scratch. Soon a young Russian highway girl trying to get to Italy, Zvieta (Estobeta Mikhailishnia), stops awhile under Reyhan’s wing. Then the Turkish border closes for two weeks due to “the PKK” – these are the Kurdish independence fighters based in nearby northern Iraq so much lately in our news – stranding the foreign truckers, and the brothers’ simmering impatience and consternation at Reyhan’s café boils over.

Besides focusing his story on Reyhan, Iranian writer-director Kombozia Partovi creates an alternative story of “home” and true hospitality that outweighs Nasser’s version of honor and family values. Set against Nasser’s first confident and then increasingly indignant speeches and declarations, both Zackaria and Zvieta speak only a few halting words of Reyhan’s native Farsi. These lonely travelers still pour out their losses and longing to her in their own languages, sitting in her sunny garden, and begin to learn her's. Each later muses how Reyhan’s café “felt like home.”

Iranian cinema is robust and widely respected, with directors who persistently address the lot of women under Iran’s Islamic regime despite great discouragement from that regime. Border Café is Partovi’s eighth feature film. A prolific screenwriter, Partovi has worked with director Jafar Panahi (who edited Border Café), for example writing Panahi’s award-winning 2000 ensemble film about women, The Circle – still banned in Iran – in which Fereshteh Sarde Orfaei (who is Partovi’s wife and collaborator) starred too. Panahi’s newest film, Offside, a biting comedy about young women sneaking in to watch the World Cup qualifying soccer match – women are banned from sporting events in Iran and this is based on his daughter's foray in disguise – has also just gone to DVD.

Border Café comes to us via the Global Lens Initiative, a project started five years ago that picks ten foreign films a year that have earned significant notice in the international film community – Border Café won festival prizes for Orfaei’s acting and Partovi’s direction – but have failed to find a US theatrical distributor. These films tour major US cities, after which First Run Features assures DVD release that includes bonus features about the film’s country and national cinema, as well as information about that year's other Global Lens selections.

Border Café is a wisely chosen gem.

This review appears in the 11/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Film Review #135: Under the Volcano
1984/Criterion Collection DVD 2007
Director: John Huston
Cast: Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews

Although it hasn’t made it to Central New York yet, one of the most anticipated and well-received films in theaters right now is 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as ill-fated brothers and, as their father, the five-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney.

Like Lumet, Finney qualifies as an “old lion.” But 23 years ago, Finney embodied another character’s declaration – “I’m still strong as a bull!” – when he starred in John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Just before Lumet’s new film opened, Criterion Collection re-released Under the Volcano as a sumptuous two-disc set, one of the finest such combinations of film and supporting materials I have seen, worth watching for the younger Finney, the later Huston, the illumination of how novels reach the screen and the many parallels with today’s cinematic concerns that emerge.

Director John Huston was 77 when he brought Malcolm Lowery’s “unfilmable” novel to the screen in 1984 – Huston had two more films in him before he died in 1987 – and when, interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival, he called Finney’s performance as the doomed alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin “the finest I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.”

Firmin’s last 24 hours coincide with the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1938 Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state and about an hour south of Mexico City. Finney portrays a man whose own dead have risen to haunt him, who tries once more to reconcile with his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), and who sees not only what’s coming on the eve of World War II but how the mistakes of the past have gone uncorrected.

By lovely coincidence I watched Under the Volcano, along with Criterion’s bonus features, over this year’s Day of the Dead – All Saint’s Day is November 1st and All Soul’s Day is the 2nd. In Mexico and elsewhere entire families celebrate by visiting cemeteries with flowers, food, drink, music and vast numbers of candles to entertain their departed. Day of the Dead observances have more recently found their way on screen too – in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006), set in Spain, and in Milcho Manchevski’s new film, Shadows, set in Macedonia – so in Huston’s film the ritual seems both oddly contemporary and particularly apt as an image paired with alarms of looming war.

Lowery’s 1947 novel was replete with symbols and fractured chronology – screenwriter Guy Gallo says his first script was “very French, with lots of hallucinations and flashbacks” – which Huston, despite his admiration for much in the novel and his fascination with Firmin, found “suffocating.” The director pared away much of that overgrowth for a narrative of straightforward momentum. Firmin tells his own riveting story – repeatedly, it seems, and drunkenly – of the “missing” German officers aboard a U-boat in World War I whom he threw into the furnace of his ship, the S.S. Samaritan. As well, Firmin makes a drunken scene at a formal ball, predicting to the German consul that trains filled with dead will crisscross Europe. Firmin’s disillusion with what has occurred in the years between the wars, which has not resulted in the world reforming, richly adds to our own current re-appraisal of the World War II era.

Firmin’s inability to forgive himself matches his inability to forgive Yvonne and his younger half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) for their affair. Firmin’s extremes – his drinking and nastiness set against his real fragility, the deep loss he feels about Yvonne, the horror of what he sees the fascists will create – all generate the film’s full-tilt suspense. Finally thugs gun Firmin down and roll him into a muddy ditch outside a brothel in a downpour.

Huston lived in Mexico for many years, but this was a return to working there – 20 years after Night of the Iguana (1964) and 35 years after The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) – and he made such use of local colleagues for cast and crew that this is practically a joint US-Mexican production. This sheds light on the degree of film production present in those years in Mexico and the subsequent brilliance we have seen from Mexican film in recent years. For example, Huston’s production designer for this film was the Mexican painter, Gunther Gerzso, who designed three of Bunuel’s Mexican films and John Ford’s The Fugitive. His DP was Gabriel Figueroa; his art designer, Jose Rodriguez Granada; his editor, Roberto Silvi. Mexican matinee idol Ignacio López Tarzso plays Firmin’s friend, the physician, Dr. Vigil, who gently urges him to pray for his wife’s return (she indeed turns up the next morning).

One of the delights of this set is Gary Conklin’s hour-long1984 “making-of” documentary for such background material, but also for its substantial attention to how filming actually proceeds. Additionally, there’s an audio interview with Huston himself at Cannes in 1984, new interviews recorded last summer for this set with screenwriter Guy Gallo and actor Jacqueline Bisset, and a film commentary with the producers. These set a high bar for what DVD extras can offer a film’s new audience. As an extra bonus to tickle our “what if” bone, there’s a doc about Malcolm Lowery narrated by Richard Burton, the actor whom Huston long assumed should play Firmin.

Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is scheduled to screen in Rochester at The Little. A little lobbying of the Manlius Cinema to bring it nearer wouldn’t be out of order.

This review appeared in the 11/8/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Rent such films at the locally-owned Emerald City Video, 3208 Erie Blvd. East in Syracuse.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Film Review #134: Ten Canoes
Director: Rolf de Heer
Cast: Jamie Gulpilil, David Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddal

“It’s a good story,” confides the Storyteller to us in one of his asides. “It will help Dayindi live the proper way.” Voiced by the great Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, whose son Jamie plays Dayindi in his debut screen role, this Storyteller’s gentle, humorous, sometimes chiding narration in English is specifically addressed to outsiders – “you other mob” – and it’s what allows us to eavesdrop on a distant, ancient world whose characters speak entirely in indigenous languages.

Set near Australia’s northern coast in Arnhem Land before the first contact with Westerners, Ten Canoes recounts how one man, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), knowing his younger brother Dayindi is jealous of his three wives and seriously eyeing the youngest, tells Dayindi an ancient story with a similar plot. The two are part of a group of men who set out to collect goose eggs in the Arafura Swamp some ways from their tiny village, an annual undertaking that requires them to build new bark canoes. Thus the older brother’s story – in which the “dream time” characters themselves also tell a story, an origin myth from which their law flows – is wrapped inside the Storyteller’s tale too, like three nested boxes, so we left to consider the ancient purposes of storytelling in communities and families that could include our own.

All this may sound like an anthro classroom. But Ten Canoes is entertaining, funny, dramatic and, thanks to DP Ian Jones’ camera work, swooningly lovely to look at throughout. As well, it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, given for films that make contributions of special significance to film as an art form. So much does Ten Canoes enlarge and refresh the storytelling function of film that it also was Australia’s official 2007 Oscar entry. Ten Canoes opened theatrically in the US in June, running in limited release until just two weeks ago. Without much fanfare – not even cited in weekly media notices of new DVD releases – it quietly arrived on DVD a few weeks back.

Held together by the Storyteller’s voice, Ten Canoes alternates between the merely long-ago brothers on their goose-egg hunt and the ancient times. By the simple device of filming the present and the ancient times in full color and the middle period’s core story of Dayindi in black and white, we can shuttle between these two plots smoothly, revisiting the swamp trip at key points. Most of the actors have dual roles. So when Dayindi hears about the ancient impatient and jealous younger brother, Yeeralparil, he imagines himself as that young man, just as he imagines Minygululu’s wives as their ancient counterparts, and so forth.

Intriguingly, the exception to this double-casting is the older brother in the ancient tale, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), a younger, more warrior-like figure as Dayindi imagines him. The ancient plot parallels Dayindi’s dilemma, except that in the ancient time the older brother mistakenly kills a stranger he believes stole one of his wives, and has to accept the “payback” ceremony, in which his younger brother stands with him as the neighboring tribe hurl spears at them. Ridjimiraril’s injury and death ensue – not something Dayindi really wishes for Minygululu after all.

Ten Canoes results from David Gulpilil’s persistent invitation to director Rolf de Heer to visit the actor in his home community of Ramingining and make a film with the Yolngu people still living there. Gulpilil’s first screen role at age 15 was in Nicholas Roeg’s classic Walkabout (1970). Since then, if you’ve seen Aussie films like Crocodile Dundee, The Last Wave, and last year’s bracing Outback Western, The Proposition, you’ve seen Gulpilil. In 2002 he appeared in Rabbit Proof Fence and Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, films that, like The Proposition, took sharply critical views of colonial treatment of indigenous communities. This was just a year after Canada’s Inuit made the first feature-length film wholly in their own language, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, also a re-telling of an ancient story of jealousy, desire and revenge before European contact.

Gulpilil himself suggested the subject of Ten Canoes to de Heer based on 1930s photographs by anthropologist Donald Thomson – in particular one of ten men in canoes in the marshes at Arafura – of which there are some 4,000 archived in the Victoria Museum. The DVD contains excellent bonus features, including a short interview with de Heer, material on Donald Thomson’s work, and a making-of doc for television with extensive material about how Gulpilil’s community participated in filming decisions, chief among these the issue of how to cast the roles – de Heer says he merely was the instrument of their film – and to the great satisfaction of their community re-learned canoe-building and other skills to produce the film. Ten Canoes is exciting further evidence of the global emergence of indigenous cinema and its repairing effects of home communities and outsiders alike.

This review appeared in the 11/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Film Review #133: Key Canadian Films by Women
2007 – Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre

Artist on Fire: The Work of Joyce Wieland (1987, Kay Armatage, 54 min.)
Kisses (1976, Betty Ferguson, 55 min.)
P4W: Prison for Women (1981, Janis Cole & Holly Dale, 82 min.)
Low Visibility (1984, Patricia Gruben 84 min.)

Looking straight into the camera, her own face alight with enthusiasm, the artist and filmmaker Joyce Wieland – who had confided only a few moments before that as a child she drew pictures of naked women for neighborhood boys because they’d pay her a nickel each – recalls the excitement of one project from the early 1980s and how, “In the middle of drawing something, I’d say, “Wait’ll they see this!”

These and other infectious moments make it unsurprising that Armatage borrowed the title of a 1983 painting by Wieland for her film, just as Jane Lind did for her biography of Wieland in 2001. Introduced to the breadth of Wieland’s work – besides extensive clips from the films, oil paintings, water colors, drawings, quilts and mixed-media constructions – by way of this captivating documentary, it’s hard to imagine one can’t order up the films straight away by a quick jump on-line to Netflix. Alas, one cannot – not her feature fiction film about the French/English tensions in Canadian identity, The Far Shore (1976), which Armatage writes about in the first chapter of George Melnyk’s new Great Canadian Film Directors, nor any of Wieland’s shorts, or indeed any of the four films in this set – and chances are that vast armadas of movie lovers don’t know they exist at all. In choosing Armatage’s film as the centerpiece of this important four-disc set, the CFMDC has wisely and strategically provided the kind of inviting overview that might jumpstart a revival beyond Canada too.

This four-disc set presents feature-length experimental works produced by Canadian women filmmakers from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s. Besides the portrait of Wieland, an obvious choice, there’s a found-footage compilation of the history of movie kissing, a cinéma vérité doc about Canada’s only maximum security prison for women in 1981, and a haunting narrative suspense feature from the founder of Vancouver’s Praxis, the screenwriting institute modeled on her own experience at Sundance. But in even broader context, because Wieland particularly worked across art forms and is well known in Canada – in some quarters perhaps more for her visual arts than her films – besides shedding light on that period of women’s filmmaking in Canada, this set links with parallel developments of the same period in the US when women’s visual arts were exploding – a period now being systematically observed and celebrated by major museum shows in the US such as the traveling WACK! show in Los Angeles and Washington, and the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party along with its Global Feminisms exhibit by younger women artists. The latter especially comes full circle back to Wieland’s ease in working across art forms with its high concentration of video and film works. Meanwhile, the 18th annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – just held in mid-October in Newfoundland – culled a five-day program of 80 films from over 500 entries.

Kay Armatage has herself been a senior programmer since 1983 at the Toronto’s International Film Festival, where she lives and writes prolifically about Canada’s women filmmakers, teaches cinema studies and between 1975-87 made seven well-received documentary and experimental narrative films that concluded with the award-winning Artist on Fire. This kind of long-term familiarity with Toronto’s film scene has especially infused and informed Artist on Fire. Wieland was mostly based in Toronto except for the decade (1963-73) that she and her husband and sometime collaborator, filmmaker and sculptor Michael Snow (Wavelength), spent in New York City. As a painter, Wieland held her first solo show in 1960 at the Issacs Gallery, a space often devoted to screening evenings for avant-garde Toronto filmmakers. This moment also gave rise in 1967 to the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) itself – founded by young filmmakers including David Cronenberg, producer Lorne Michaels (Wayne’s World, Saturday Night Live), Ivan Reitman and others – now celebrating its own 40th anniversary.

Wieland made nine films, eight of them shorts that experimentally linked and extended her visual arts work, focusing on Canadian identity, ecology, feminism and sexuality. Rat Life and Diet in North American (1968) focused on Vietnam-era US draft dodgers seeking refuge in Canada from a symbol-laden giant cat. Reason Over Passion (1969) explored her admiration for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and what his presence meant for the nation. In Dripping Water (1969) she collaborated with Michael Snow and in 1984’s A and B in Ontario with avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton. Armatage draws from a variety of archival interviews with Wieland, footage of her at home and in her studio, in conversation, at work and facing a camera, clips of her films and paintings and quilts. Armatage also provides extensive voice-over commentary and discussion from Michael Snow, The Far Shore’s producer Judy Steed, and art historian Dennis Reid, an expert on both Michael Snow and Canadian nationalist landscape painter Thom Thomson, one inspiration for The Far Shore.

In 1976, Wieland used this feature-length film to present a narrative melodrama of deep woods romance between married, French-speaking Quebec native Eulalie (Céline Lomez) and English-speaking Tom McLeod (Frank Moore), loosely based on painter Thom Thomson (who had mysteriously disappeared in the northern Ontario wilderness). Because Armatage has written in detail elsewhere about this film, it’s possible now to match many clips from The Far Shore that she uses in Artist on Fire. But it’s likely that when she made the film in 1987, she assumed a familiarity with Wieland’s then only 11-year-old film among audiences. Now, despite the film’s engaging style and its wealth of accessible detail about Wieland’s fine arts work, many of the references to The Far Shore especially are obscure without aid or the chance to actually watch that film. Although the CFMDC maintains an inventory of Wieland’s films, they remain hard to come by in the US.

In producing this set, the CFMDC has provided written background for each film that highlights each film as an example of a style from that period, background on filmmaker and subject, and suggested further reading and viewing, but these are rather more skewed to film theory than will be helpful for many new, more general viewers.

Betty Ferguson’s 1976 collage, Kisses, collects clips of an extraordinary range of kisses from silent movies and later mainstream narrative film, newsreels and vintage television series. Ferguson noted that the censorship of Hollywood films under the Hayes Code (1930-66) meant that kissing came to stand for more explicit and sexual acts, though well before the 30s - even in the earliest days of the moving image - there was already a preoccupation with kissing as a subject. “Found footage” remains very much a part of experimental filmmaking today, as ever serving to comment on how ideology attaches to visual images by severing them from their original context and comparing them with similar images. Just as Wieland often worked in fabric, intentionally collapsing the distinction between high art and women’s craft, Ferguson hand-painted and tinted each print of Kisses in order to directly touch each, likening the film to a quilt in describing the images as “patchwork” and the tinting as “embroidery.”

In some ways an exhaustive catalogue, Kisses systematically “lists” examples of types of kisses – on hands, resisted kisses, aborted or interrupted kisses, baby kissing, kisses on the cheek, congratulations, kisses between manly comrades, variations on Sleeping Beauty, passion past and well, more recent, deadly kisses, debauched kisses, making out at the movies, operatic kisses, kisses on the way to the guillotine and devout oaths sworn on the good steel of pistols and swords. A good deal of humor arises from rapid juxtaposition of clips in some spots, and Ferguson provides more extended clips elsewhere – for example, a long (and quite tense) sequence of Lillian Gish as a tragic heroine almost swept away on an ice floe over some wintry falls. Elsewhere she pulls a 1956 dream sequence from the George Reeves Superman TV series in which Lois Lane imagines her marriage to the Man of Steel.

Having met in film school in 1975, Janis Cole and Holy Dale formed their Toronto-based production company, Spectrum Films, in the early 1980s. P4W: Prison for Women (1981) was a key early feature length documentary, subscribing to direct cinema’s insistence on hand-held cameras, small crews, natural light, and the absence of the filmmaker’s own voice as narrator. Cole and Dale have specialized in films about people who are marginalized – their 1984 Hookers on Davie portrays Vancouver sex workers, for example – and in allowing them to tell their own stories.

Broadcast nationally in Canada on the CBC, P4W won the 1982 Canadian Genie for best documentary, profiling Bev, Janise and Debbie (a couple being split by the release of one partner who sentence is almost up), Maggie (acquitted of killing one abusive husband during an alcoholic blackout, she is serving time for a second murder under similar circumstances), and the red-robed Susie (“I was known to be kinky,” she says of the still-hazy murder of a transvestite roommate). P4W features remarkable and still riveting extended sequences of intimate conversation among these and other inmates at the Kingston Women’s Prison in Ontario – about their relationships, their attempts to stay connected with their children, how their time has piled up, and the affectionate banter among them as well as the toll prison life takes. Two women who seem too young to be out of junior high school appear briefly several times, offering opinions on the fairness of the system, each casually bearing grids of fresh cuts, scars and pinched, hand-done tattoos up and down both arms.

Finally, Patricia Gruben’s Low Visibility (1984) was her first feature-length narrative film, which has been followed by further suspense dramas Deep Sleep (1990) and Ley Lines (1993). A Texan who migrated to Canada in 1973, Gruben settled in Vancouver a decade later and in 1986 co-founded Praxis, a twice-yearly screenwriting institute for Canadians housed in Simon Fraser University and modeled on the Sundance Institute that Gruben attended while making Low Visibility.

This story begins inside the frigid wilderness mountains and forests of Vancouver’s Manning Park as a man stumbles wildly along a deserted snowy roadside in dawn light. Two women drive by and decide not to stop as he might be dangerous. Taken to a Vancouver hospital, this nameless man (Larry Lillo) appears amnesiac and unable to speak except in explosive profanities. The combined will, technologies and methods of reporters, police and various doctors fail to uncover his story. The more casual and irreverent nurses, who nickname him Mr. Bones, and a psychic called in to channel events, have more success. Low Visibility is certainly about cerebral concerns that Gruben has developed in all her films – the importance of context and geography specifically in acting upon and defining self, the dubious efficacy of language, the pervasive and oppressive nature of media, and the scant possibilities for contact. Low Visibility is based upon an actual reported incident of a wilderness plane crash after which some survivors ate the remains of those who died in the crash, even though, as the police officer informs Mr. Bones late in this story, “the road was right there.” So when one doctor asks Mr. Bones – absurdly, it’s plain – to use plastic pieces to “make a face” from a child’s Mr. Potato Head set, and Mr. Bones smashes the plastic pieces into his dinner plate, this seems nonsensical and resistant, until we learn that another passenger's flesh – perhaps a pregnant woman who “was going to die anyway” – may have been what sustained him. The sequences during which voices from the crash faintly intrude upon the psychic’s imagining of the frigid, blue wilderness from a plane are a radical and haunting stylistic departure from the flat footage inside the hospital room and the blurry monitor installed to watch Mr. Bones from above.

In observance of CFMDC’s 40th anniversary, except for the Armatage film, these will have public screening in Toronto during a week over the end of November and early December, along with some others, notably David Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), Canada’s first gay feature-length film. For those of us who can’t make those screenings, this set signals a growing interest and availability of some enduring Canadian work.

This review appears in today’s Key Canadian Works by Women is available either as a four-disc set or by separate title, for sale on newly mastered DVD and for rental and exhibition on newly struck 16 mm, from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in Toronto, Earlier issues of Kay Armatage’s Artist on Fire also available from Women Make Movies in New York City and Patricia Gruben’s Low Visibility (as well as her short, Sifted Evidence) from Canyon Cinema in San Francisco.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Film Review #132: Oswald’s Ghost
Director: Robert Stone
Cast: Lee Harvey Oswald, Norman Mailer, Oliver Stone

One could see this new documentary, which premiered earlier this month at the 8th Woodstock Film Festival in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City, simply as a stream-lined recapitulation of the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and the persistent controversies surrounding that event – an update arriving at a moment when reappraisal of the 1960s and especially Vietnam is well underway, driven by the competing convictions that Iraq either is or is not like “that” – and useful to a younger audience for establishing a kind of baseline. After all, Robert Stone is the same filmmaker commissioned in 1992 to produce the 22-part permanent multimedia exhibition at Boston’s Kennedy Library, so he certainly comes to this project well enough immersed in Kennedy-as-subject. But slotting this film as a Cliff Notes primer – a short-cut around the 2,000-plus books already written about the Dallas assassination – both underestimates and misses Stone’s point.

Just as his 2004 film, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, was really not much about Patty Hearst – he didn’t interview her, focusing instead on her surviving kidnappers, remnants of the Symbionese Liberation Army – Oswald’s Ghost is not so much about Kennedy per se as a history of the belief in his assassination as an act of conspiracy and how the upheavals of the 60s as a decade unrolled from that point. Stone notes that, for many, Kennedy’s assassination and Vietnam merged into a continuum whose parts mirrored and reinforced each other. With “lie after lie after lie” about the prosecution of the Vietnam War from the government, asks investigator Josiah Thompson (his Six Seconds in Dallas proposed three assassins, five bullets), why not believe in some JFK plot and cover-up? And vice versa. Even before Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks,” the 60s saw Medgar Evers assassinated four months before JFK, Malcolm X assassinated in early 1965, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated just two months apart in 1968.

But explicitly making this link between JFK’s death and Vietnam – laying out what may seem intuitively too obvious to belabor – allows the parallel with our own decade to snap sharply, vividly into focus. It seems entirely fitting that Stone premiered Oswald’s Ghost at Woodstock – with its conscious nod to the legendary rock festival, its poster and logo drawn by the psychedelic artist associated with that era, Peter Max – and that Stone has moved upstate himself with his productions offices in nearby Rhinebeck now so that such an icon becomes “my local film festival.”

To be sure, the roots of Oswald’s Ghost are deeper for Robert Stone than 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror. Stone says he’s wanted to make this movie for fifteen years, since seeing JFK, Oliver’s Stone’s 1991 film about New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s convoluted accusations against the CIA, with his truth serum and hypnotism and coded phone numbers and penchant for blaming gay men. Oswald’s Ghost features archival footage from a 1991 interview Oliver Stone gave on the set plus a clip of Senator Richard Russell explaining solemnly to Congress the steps that supposedly yielded Jack Ruby’s phone number. Robert Stone was only five years old when Dallas happened, but he still recalls watching Lee Harvey Oswald “crumple” on live TV when Jack Ruby shot him in a hallway full of police officers.

Dallas – that event about which we have no single set of facts everyone agrees on, the event that Kennedy’s successor in office, Lyndon Johnson, privately believed till he died involved conspiracy, to which he must respond by acting tough in the only place he could make the point, Vietnam – Dallas was simply the 9/11 of Robert Stone’s generation, what “robbed my generation of our idealism, optimism and security. In the past six years, we’ve watched a new generation experience that same trauma.”

At the time of the Woodstock Film Festival screenings, Stone related that he had just sold Guerilla to PBS and the BBC when he proposed the Oswald film to them. “It was the quickest pitch I ever gave: half a sentence.”

That link between eras is in the water these days. Photographer Geoffrey Clifford’s touring Smithsonian exhibit of Vietnam prints – a US pilot during the war, Clifford returned afterward numerous times – though slated in 2001 to tour nationally for two years, had bookings that kept it going until late last summer. It’s telling that young Iraq Veterans Against the War members have been distributing David Zeiger’s bracing, revelatory doc about Vietnam-era war resistance within the US military, Sir! No Sir!, out on DVD late last December, at peace marches. In May, Vincent Bugliosi – prosecutor of the 1969 Manson Family murders and author of Helter Skelter (1994) – published his Reclaiming History, two decades of research in defense of the Warren Commission’s official findings that Oswald acted alone. In January, Norman Mailer re-issued his 1995 effort to imagine his way inside the assassin’s psyche, Oswald’s Tale.

Three days before the Mailer book re-issue, Robert Stone had screened his work-in-progress once in Salt Lake City. Stone wastes no time making his link: Mailer essentially opens the film – after a long shot that strains upward through tree foliage at the window from which Oswald fired his shots – with his emphatic statement, “The real shock was philosophical – that American might not go on. The same kind of confusion followed 9/11.” Later Mailer elaborates that confusion in an elegant phrase as “a morass of possibilities” that introduces the section in the film that catalogues the range of conspiracy theorists and their books – Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest (the Warren Commission was honest but missed certain trails), Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (the Warren Commission was in on it and knew shots came from two directions), Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (three assassins, five bullets), Garrison. Photographed with his arm around Mailer for the film’s publicity stills, Stone has said that Mailer is the only person he interviewed for Oswald’s Ghost with the “intellectual honesty to change his mind about the assassination.” Concluding that Oswald was “damned bright,” Mailer says, “I wanted it to be a conspiracy, but I couldn’t make it add up.”

Hooking the Dallas assassination to the overall narrative of 1960s disillusion and rupture allows Robert Stone to more forcefully make the analogy with our own political situation now. Activists Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin, journalists Dan Rather and Hugh Aynesworth, and historians Robert Dallek and Priscilla Johnson McMillan (she knew Kennedy and had met Oswald when he lived in Russia as a defector) all speak thoughtfully and incisively about these links. Just as important, Stone unhooks something else that’s related to Mailer’s change of mind. That is, eventually not proving one’s conspiracy theory doesn’t diminish the meaning and damage of what flowed in part from fearing that Dallas conspiracy is one among others that were real.

It’s actually Norman Mailer – who effectively closes the film too, just before a long slow pan around the inside of the room from which Oswald fired – who names the film, remarking that Oswald is a ghost over American life.

In a lengthy 2001 interview with Christina Pochmursky for the Canadian Documentary Channel’s “InCamera” program – you can find this as an extra on the DVD of Stone’s first feature length documentary, the Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini (1987) – it’s evident that Stone has himself been a creature of that skeptical zeitgeist in his cinematic methods and subjects. With Radio Bikini, this Princeton historian’s son addressed the 1946 atomic tests on the Pacific island of Bikini that left it uninhabitable, the evacuation and dispersal of its people and the long-term health effects on the US sailors who were swimming in the bay ten hours after the blasts – and the huge, later scrapped plan (some 750 cameras) to film this project as a propaganda tool for world opinion in the wake of Hiroshima.

Radio Bikini already demonstrates Stone’s style – his collaging of archival footage and images, his fondness for long quiet shots that establish a palpable presence in places, his overlay of subjects’ images and conversations in place of a single narration, his preference for allowing audiences time to feel instead of bombarding them with facts and statistics, his gentle use of music as counterpoint to images. Stone has also made documentaries that explored the propaganda pervading the early US/Soviet space race (The Satellite Sky, 1990), the belief in government cover-ups of UFO’s in the 1950s (Farewell, Good Brothers, 1992), narcotics detectives in Atlantic City (American Babylon, 2000), how Vietnam has been recreated on film (Hollywood Vietnam, 2005). Stone says his films are about belief, about what happens to images projected into the arena of mass media spectacle. A fitting preoccupation for a child of Dallas.

For one thing, every year, 400,000 people visit Dealy Plaza in Dallas for the still-running guided assassination tours. About 70% of Americans still believe JFK’s death was engineered by conspiracy. Oswald’s Ghost just might come to a theater near you – coinciding with the official Woodstock premiere, Oswald’s Ghost also screened in San Francisco, and since then has had successive short stealth runs in Santa Fe and Portland, Oregon – but if it doesn’t, catch it on PBS’ America Experience on January 14th.

This review appears in the 10/29/07 issue of Oswald’s Ghost starts its official theatrical run in New York City on November 30.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Film Review #131: Misery
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth

I’m sure other places have their stalkers. But there’s something peculiarly American about obsessed fans targeting celebrities. It’s embedded in the stories we tell here, ever since the frontier West, with its sheer expanse, invention and excess – and its desperados and swindlers – gave rise to dime novels and trashy headlines. And our celebrities have often been bandits in some way or other too, playing fast and loose, only to meet their come-uppance from self-appointed judges.

Suppose fandom gone awry is one new brand of frontier justice? It’s no coincidence that David Milch began his HBO series Deadwood with the murder of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) by a resentful fan who shot him in the back during a poker game after Hickok dissed his reverence. The show’s entire first season really occurs in the shadow of Wild Bill’s murder. Now we wait week after week here in Central New York for Brad Pitt’s new movie, but how many films have re-counted how hanger-on Robert Howard shot Jesse James, also in the back? Netflix carries DVDs of a dozen such films, including San Fuller’s recently re-issued 1949 classic, I Shot Jesse James, which recounts how Ford – playing himself – turned that event into popular touring entertainment.

The story of best-selling romance novelist Paul Sheldon’s abduction by his deranged “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, seems headed for similar longevity and there’s more than a whiff of parallel. Careening down a Colorado mountain road in a blizzard, fueled by champagne because he’s just finished a novel, his radio blasting Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” and his baby blue Mustang slewing around those hairpins, Sheldon (James Caan) plunges right off a wilderness cliff. Then a powerful, completely bundled figure – not obviously female – plucks him as easily as a doll from the wreckage.

Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her full-tilt Annie Wilkes, by lightening veers efficient, playful, adoring, easily flattered, coldly annihilating. The ex-nurse first sets Paul’s crushed legs, then holds him prisoner so he can write again, resurrecting the heroine he tried to kill off. Annie imagines the world will soon know her as Sheldon’s “muse,” but decides a suicide pact is their destiny when a nosy old-school sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) intrudes on her “spread” outside town. “I’ve given it some thought, darling,” Annie confides earnestly after one raging outburst, putting it as someone a third her age might, “and I think the main reason I haven’t been more popular is my temper.”

Stephen King published his novel Misery – partially based on his own abduction by a fan – in 1987. Rob Reiner directed the 1990 screen version, following an earlier King adaptation (Stand by Me). Screenwriter William Goldman came aboard for the first of three collaborations with King. This movie has returned on DVD six times now, the latest just this month. In 1992 Simon Moore adapted Misery for live performance. That play opened last night at Syracuse Stage, with a nod to King as “master of horror,” as we head for Halloween But I think Annie Wilkes’ horror is more home-grown than otherworldly.

Consider the figure of Paul Sheldon, whose choice of car and music immediately echoes the Old West, and whose career trajectory conjures traces of outlaw celebrity and disappointed fans. He considers himself a fake and a thief for writing sentimental, formulaic trash. His Manhattan agent (Lauren Bacall) tartly reminds him that the travails of Misery Chastain, spread over ten books, have bought his daughter’s braces and put her through college. But Paul Sheldon was on that Colorado mountain – old gold rush country – to reinvent himself with a manuscript that restores his self-respect. His first clue about Annie is precisely her heart-felt belief in the brilliance of his Misery books. Nearly as devoted to the kitsch pianist Liberace, she helpfully pipes endless looping tracks of his renditions of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and Tchaikovsky’s “Moonlight Sonata” into Paul’s room to inspire his creativity. Along comes Buster the sheriff, right out of Dodge City with his Stetson and handlebar mustache and sheepskin jacket and laid-back ways. Whatever their artistic yearnings and veneer, you know this signals that Paul and Annie’s showdown is savage when it comes.

It’s also worth watching Reiner and Goldman, both action thriller veterans, move their story along on tension and dread, setting parallel scenes racing against one another: Annie’s truck sliding by Buster’s office window with a shark’s silent menace, Sheldon’s hurried, painful, secret forays out of bed during Annie’s trips to town, her own escalating outbursts against Buster’s steady, intuitive but plodding search. It makes you worry that this fan stuff is more than a phase.

This review appeared in the 10/25/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Film Review #130: American Gypsy
1999/DVD 2007
Director: Jasmine Dellal
Cast: Jimmy, Jane , Grover & Lippie Marks

“It just goes to show, you don’t know what you have till you get back in the editing room! I had rejected that interview in my mind, because I didn’t get the answers I wanted. Then I watched it and it’s gold dust!”

British-born filmmaker Jasmine Dellal is talking about one of my favorite scenes too in American Gypsy, her 1999 feature-length documentary about the Marks family and their eleven-year civil rights suit against the city of Spokane, Washington, for a 1986 police raid during which money, jewelry and family heirlooms were confiscated and women in the family manhandled in ways particularly repugnant to their culture. Once a student of the great Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied, 1990), Dellal has spent the past decade researching, filming, editing and marketing this film and its exuberant successor, last summer’s concert tour movie Gypsy Caravan. Although it’s long sold well on VHS, American Gypsy just released last month on DVD, getting a leg up from the summer buzz trailing Gypsy Caravan. Both have taken awards and broken serious cinematic ground in their coverage of the Rom – a.k.a. Gypsies – legendary for their avoidance of strangers or gadje, because of persecution they have endured nearly everywhere in the 1,000 years since they left northern India to wander westward and because of their own cultural practices around ritual purity and contamination.

Dellal’s films hit US screens at important moments in public attention toward the Rom. This particular scene – the magic one Dellal almost threw away – clearly records what feels like one of those deal-breaker moments without which Dellal’s films might not have happened in nearly the same form we now have them.

The scene she and I are talking about on the phone – she lives in New York City where she runs Little Dust Productions, and just got back from Gypsy Caravan premieres in two European countries – involves getting a kind of implicit permission along with more obvious background information from Jimmy Marks’ parents in order to proceed with filming what became American Gypsy. A charming, pudgy, Stetson-wearing tale-spinner and head of the family car dealership in Spokane, Jimmy had already stepped shockingly outside custom by suing the city. Then he answered Dellal’s newspaper ad. (She wanted to make a movie about Gypsies in the US, of which there are about a million, by far the greatest number being Vlax, those hailing from Romania where landowners held them as slaves until 1864.) Then Jimmy got his wife Jane to appear on camera with Dellal. But Dellal could not go forward as easily if Jimmy’s parents, Grover and Lippie, said no.

Lippie is the hold-out, a bent old woman with wisps of silver hair, huge dark-framed eyeglasses dwarfing her face, and a high-stake poker player’s ruthless, steady, calculating squint. With one eye ever on the alien camera in her dining room, Lippie’s a marvel of cool evasion, mildly answering with contradictions, testing this gadje girl. Then Dellal catches a lie, asks, amused, “Lippie, are you joking me? You said…” and lays out the trick. Once Lippie stumbles and laughs back, heartily, until they are laughing together – and you know the movie’s on.

Not that Dellal didn’t have other superb footage and spokespersons. American Gypsy is remarkably rich in texture and background, employing archival photos, historical texts, swooning music, a thread of dramatic reading about an “Uncle Noah,” and clips from Europe’s wide store of films about Gypsies, often used as astute ironic asides about persisting stereotypes. She also spoke extensively with Bill Duna (Minneapolis musician, college teacher of Rom history and Rom representative on the US Holocaust Commission) and with fellow-Brit Ian Hancock (University of Texas Rom scholar, UN rep for the Rom and coiner of the term Porrajmos – “the devouring” – for the million and a half Gypsies lost in Hitler’s camps). But both men’s life works is to act as public translators and advocates. It’s the Marks family saga and their journey out onto the skinny branches of encountering the larger culture that makes American Gypsy so special.

And the achievement of American Gypsy is largely what made “direct cinema” master Albert Maysles want to shoot Dellal’s next film, the five-bands-from-four-countries, nine-languages-and-35-musicians, sold-out, 16-cities-in-six-weeks 2001 extravaganza that captures so vividly why Time Magazine has compared the emerging growth and popularity of Roma music to the birth of jazz.

So Lippie was right about Jasmine.

This review appears in today’s issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Look for an interview with Jasmine Dellal next week at

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Film Review #129: Sir! No Sir!
2005/DVD 2006
Director: David Zeiger
Cast: Donald Duncan, Jane Fonda, Howard Levy

It's the oddest sensation, watching the opening frames of this film. Werner Herzog used footage like this to open Rescue Dawn, footage shot from a US helicopter as it bombed a Vietnam village, shacks erupting in plumed blossoms of red and white flame. Same war, really different take.

“It seems unthinkable now,” said Jane Fonda in an interview for David Zeiger’s film about the Vietnam-era GI war resistance movement. She’s talking about the FTA Show that she and actor Donald Sutherland organized. Officially FTA stood for Free Theater Associates, but also nodded at how some GIs transformed the Army’s recruiting tagline, “Fun, Travel and Adventure,” to “Free the Army” as well as a less friendly alternative verb. The cabaret for troops toured near bases in the US, until it was banned, and then performed for some 60,000 GIs in Okinawa and the Philippines. Fonda is talking about “a hall full of guys who were so happy we had come to acknowledge their reality. I used to love the faces of the GIs – a shell would drop away and you’d see the youth and the innocence and the vulnerability underneath.”

Then Zeiger’s film cuts away to 1971 or 72 footage of a packed off-base FTA show in Asia and you can see what Fonda means about the young soldiers’ faces. In another interview, a boyish GI muses on the body of a Viet Cong about his own age whom he had to shoot; he wonders about the young man’s girl friend and who will tell his mother of his death. Among the film’s many recommending attributes, Zeiger’s ability to capture such decisive moments – when we see the humanity of these soldiers and they see the humanity of others – may be the strongest.

Time and again, we see decent young men – and one young woman, a Navy nurse who flew a small plane over California military bases to release anti-war leaflets, in imitation of the US Army’s mass leafleting of North Vietnam – struggling to figure out the right course. Zeigler pairs strong interviews of some key players – he says they were anything but reluctant to speak on record 35 years later – with archival film footage, clips of pirate radio broadcasts, news broadcasts and clippings that show these young people then and now. Sometimes halting and unpolished, they seem surprisingly unconcerned with celebrity and courageous in unrehearsed ways that you can’t help liking them for.

By the Pentagon’s own figures, there were 503,926 troop desertions between 1966 and 1971. Sir! No Sir! is a tightly made, extremely well-edited documentary that recovers the vast history of war resistance within the ranks: strikes in stockades, refusals to fight (some say the extent of these refusals led to Nixon’s switch to an air war in Vietnam and to the non-deployment of the company sent to Chicago for “riot duty” at the 1968 Democratic Convention), marches of thousands, underground newspapers and pirate radio on nearly every military base, dozens of coffee houses where returning GIs mingled with fresh troops who hadn’t shipped out yet and told them the real deal. Donald Duncan, the decorated Green Beret who quit on the cover of Ramparts magazine, is here, silver-haired and unrepentant. Keith Mather was part of the Nine for Peace who refused orders to ship out and sought sanctuary in a San Francisco church; after he was arrested, he organized the sit-down strike inside the Presidio Stockade after a guard shot and killed a prisoner. Louis Font was the first – and only – West Point graduate to refuse orders to fight.

One of the film’s better sections details such war resistance among black GIs. Marine Terry Whitmore, decorated personally by Lyndon Johnson after he had been wounded, went to Sweden instead of back to duty after watching federal troops – “in the same uniform as I got” – battle citizens in the streets in the wrench of agony after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Greg Payton recounts that some brothers landed in the brig for greeting each other with special handshakes and says, “I didn’t know ‘gooks’ was a racial slur. One day a light went off in my head.”

In 1969 David Zeiger himself was just a 19-year-old college freshman. He dropped out that year to work at the GI coffee house outside Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He spent two years there, where he first met many of those he highlights in this film. Equally valuable, Zeiger addresses official efforts to suppress the extent of the GI anti-war movement and to paint the peace movement as unsupportive of those troops. This includes the famous myth of the hippie girl in beads who spat in returning GIs’ faces and called them baby-killers. Never happened, says sociologist Jerry Lembcke, whose book The Spitting Image examines this circulating story’s origins and the massive disinformation campaign of which it was a part, including Hollywood mainstream movies like Sly Stallone’s 1982 First Blood: Rambo, with his character’s impassioned diatribe against “spitters.” Lots of other movies jumped on that bandwagon –remember John Wayne as a Green Beret ?

Meanwhile, there is one vet who chokes up and can’t finish as he recounts how he saw some soldiers treat Vietnamese prisoners. After a moment he goes on, “Well, I saw things – like we’ve seen again now.” I think he’d like knowing that the local chapter of Iraq Veterans against the War made this DVD, released last December, available to “Make it Snappy,” and I’ll pass it on to Emerald City Video so you can rent it.

This review appeared in the 10/11/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.