Thursday, March 29, 2007

Film Review #93: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 2005
Director: Zhang Yimou >br> Cast: Ken Takakura, Yang Zhenbo, Li Jiamin

Just released last month on DVD, this film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou is unlike the films that most American audiences know him for best. In his case, the absence of the usual channels our attention as much as what’s there. Part of the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers raised during China’s 1960s’ Cultural Revolution, Zhang wanted so much to make movies – he’d been assigned to rural labor – that he sold his own blood to buy his first camera. In Riding Alone, an older fisherman takes up his estranged son’s documentary filmmaking because the son is too ill to complete a last project about a Chinese opera singer's rendition of a particular song. The film’s title comes from that Chinese opera, which depicts a difficult journey undertaken out of loyalty.

Zhang turns his focus away from women in this tale of a remorseful father. While his son’s wife Rie courageously reaches out to him and the tourist guide Jasmine opens many doors for him, the real emotional journeys here occur for the deeply reticent Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), his embittered folklorist son, the Chinese opera singer Li Jiamin (playing himself) and Li’s abandoned little boy Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo). Perhaps Zhang suggests he and his audiences share the uncertainty of new cinematic ground when Takata’s quest takes him so far – to remote Yunnan province – that the very road itself is still under construction.

Zhang’s previous films were steeped in Chinese identity. This one begins and ends in Japan. Zhang wrote his lead role for a popular actor known as “Japan’s Clint Eastwood,” who plays against type. No longer playing a gangster, here Takakura is a decent outsider. In a larger sense, Riding Alone plays against Chinese cinema’s persistent negative portrayals of Japan, rooted in Japanese military aggression of the 1930s and 40s. Takata’s son is a respected scholar at Tokyo University and the Chinese villagers fondly recall his curiosity about their culture despite his personal aloofness, which they generously define as “loneliness.” Riding Alone asks Chinese audiences to see Japan freshly and Western audiences to distinguish among Asian characters.

Riding Alone is also an austere contemporary parable rather than Zhang’s signature historical action-dramas. In Raise the Red Lantern (1992), Zhang cast actress Li Gong as a woman condemned to misery as the youngest wife in a 1920’s Chinese household. The highest grossing Chinese film ever (starring Jet Li), Zhang’s 2002 Hero showcased actresses Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang as assassins. The latter appeared again in Zhang’s 2004 Tang Dynasty potboiler House of Flying Daggers. Zhang’s new Curse of the Golden Flower brings back Li Gong in an emperor’s palace intrigue. Such genre films have been commercially successful and Zhang’s actresses have crossed over to roles in Clean and Miami Vice as well as Memoirs of a Geisha and higher-end art-house films like Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 and In the Mood for Love.

In contrast, Riding Alone strips away this aura of sumptuous remove, confining the elaborate costumes and performance tradition to a small corner of a close-up story about modern characters who cannot communicate. Opera simply provides the potent image of the mask, universal sign of how roles at once protect and restrict social relations. Takata almost films the wrong opera singer – whereupon he learns Li Jiamin is away in prison – because one guide assumes it’s immaterial which actor is behind the mask. When Takata makes his own video to plead for admission to that prison, he covers his face with a ceremonial banner, but his tears and confession of past fault move the bureaucrats more. Takata’s son confides that folk operas were attractive because his own life was hidden behind masks. Elegantly closing the film, the opera's masked hero performs a dance as accompanying prison inmates swirl about him.

What makes Riding Alone so singular lies beyond emoting for its own sake or reciting the right words. At first Takata envies the hysterical Li Jiamin for his capacity to weep, but he eventually enacts the virtue of loyalty for his own son and Li Jiamin’s son too in quieter, more steadfast ways. Lost in the mountains with the resentful boy Yang Yang, Takata shares a humorous twitch of the nose with the little boy over smelly bathroom habits – an exchange that’s the very essence of dropping one’s proper poses. We may think such small moments change everything, but getting there was half the battle.

This review appeared in the 3/29/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent films that didn’t screen locally & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Film Review #92: Black Snake Moan
Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson, Justin Timberlake

It’s one of those moments of raunchy splendor that – once seen – clarifies how far short most similar efforts fall. As Rae Duell, a bleached blonde Christina Ricci strides down a sleepy Tennessee road in the dappled morning sunlight under a canopy of branches. The Black Keys’ growling blues instrumental, “When the Lights Go Out” sets her pace. She’s got on her cowboy boots, cut-off jeans so tight she couldn’t walk at all if she hadn’t cut off the legs, and a scrap of tee-shirt on which dueling Confederate and Yankee flags nominally cover her breasts. There’s a duel going on in Rae’s heart too, of course, along with her dual nature. (And be patient, because soon a boozy night football game will reveal that tee-shirt’s promise in the tattooed floral vine coiling around her right nipple.) Rae’s got a little runway kick in each step and a dainty, almost prim smirk – Ricci’s repertoire with the muscles around her mouth alone is delicately remarkable – and pretty soon along behind her comes one of those huge green mowing tractors with a cab like you see all summer chugging endlessly up and down on interstate highway medians, blaring its horn. Never mind what it’s doing on this narrow country lane. Rae never turns around, steps aside or breaks her rhythm when she throws the driver her finger.

Rae must have that same electric guitar going on in her head. The story is that Rae has flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse that manifest as staggeringly voracious sexual – well, “fits” would be the closest word. But as in Hustle and Flow (2005), writer/director Craig Brewer’s longer, deeper concern is how music patches back together even the most bottomed out and woebegone. In Hustle and Flow, so easily dismissed by some as manipulative, Terrence Howard’s pimp DJay sees Hip Hop as his way out. As in this film, Brewer nails a certain type of breakable-glass women who – if they live long enough – crowd drug rehabs, struggling just not to storm out the door about twenty times a day. Now Brewer’s working on a third film in this evolving grand tour of Memphis-area musical styles, Maggie Lynn, about country honky-tonk.

Although Black Snake Moan begins with archival footage of legendary bluesman Son House defining “the only real blues is between a man and a woman” – that clip picks up later, intruding somewhat ham-fistedly, when a shooting seems imminent – the film is dedicated to northern rural Mississippi hill country bluesman R.L. Burnside, who died in Memphis in 2005. While Brewer establishes Rae’s predicament – she’s been left alone by Ronnie, who’s off to the National Guard, and soon tempts the idea of living long enough by getting beaten up and thrown in the road – he also overlays the action with a fat blues soundtrack and deftly cuts in scenes of Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), who will take Rae in. Lazarus’ world crumbles when his wife Rose walks off with his younger, spiffier brother. Lazarus’ gesture of defiance against fate also involves a tractor, when he lays waste to his wife Rose’s rose garden. Besides putting a preacher in the movie named Reverend R.L. (John Cothran), Brewer puts Lazarus in a real juke joint playing with Burnside’s slide guitar sideman Kenny Brown and grandson Cedric Burnside for a rousing, sweaty finale.

We cannot go further here without mentioning two things. One is that Rae and her boyfriend Ronnie Morgan (Justin Timberlake, fine and surprising here) have matching anxiety attacks. He leaves Rae in a heap on the lawn outside their trailer when he goes off to the National Guard. He arms them with sweet, pitiful black plastic watches that are supposed to beep at the same hour every night so they can think of each other. Instead, Rae’s going at it with strapping Tehronne (David Banna) within an hour and Ronnie falls apart on the firing range. It’s one measure of how circumscribed is their existence that Ronnie clarifies his anxiety attacks by jogging his friend Gil’s memory, “You know, like when I used to get sick before the games in school.” When Ronnie says, “You know Rae’s history,” even if many in the audience would use that term, Ronnie probably would not.

Secondly, there’s that chain Lazarus uses to tether Rae. Lurid pulp fiction-style poster graphics of a black man standing over a kneeling blond in chains preceded the film, priming the pump. That image marketed the CD soundtrack too, out two months before the film itself. That image practically double-dared a whole slew of groaning reviews: “Tied to a radiator for her own good!” That image drives the several raw ponderings between men in the film about what ails Rae and it prompts Lazarus’ disavowal, “My wick dry on this one!” Actually Jackson and Ricci have some wonderfully choreographed scenes around this chain, as when he takes her for a walk in his garden and who’s leading who passes back and forth between them. Just the very idea of that chain has us buffaloed. And it’s got every character in the movie buffaloed too. It almost brings on hot flashes. Notice that in the midst of such high salaciousness, Brewer manages a counterweight in the shyly gentle exchange between Lazarus and the matronly pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson).

There is a lot wrong with this movie. In fact, I had to go back a second time to figure out how come I kept thinking about some scenes and telling other people to go see it. I’d say, “Here’s an odd one!” as if this excused a momentary soft spot for trash. Preposterous and overwrought, Black Snake Moan is also the early work of a filmmaker with big enough ideas to sin boldly.

This review appeared in on 3/24/07.
Film Review #91: The Sea Hawk
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Flora Robson, Henry Daniell

The ocean has fascinated filmmakers from the earliest days of cinema. The first practitioners of the experimental technique that made a series of jerky, rapidly viewed single photos reproduce movement perhaps naturally chose subjects already popular among painters and draftsmen. But they had a special fondness for the sea in motion.

Right now in Washington, DC, the Phillips Collection has an exhibit called Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film that sets paintings from the period side by side with film clips from Eadweard Muybridge (with his famous galloping horse), Thomas Edison, the Lumiére Brothers and others. This revelatory exhibit confirms how deeply rooted in the visual image for its own sake cinema has always been, and how movies set at sea will have a certain edge no matter what stories we tack on for good measure.

Maybe you don’t have a trip to Washington planned for this spring, but there’s something quietly going on right here called Ocean Films, Wednesday eves at the Warehouse downtown. Ocean Films hasn’t been advertised beyond a few posters in the hallway, but there’s plenty of seats in the main floor community room so anyone can drop in, it’s free and there’s discussion afterward. Martin Hogue, who actually teaches architecture, put the series together. His occasional film seminars provide some of the best movie talk anywhere. Meanwhile, Emerald City Video has just about all the DVDs in the series.

Say you want a classic swashbuckler to round out your examples of how filmmakers use the ocean as both environment and character in its own right – and as counterpoint to Pirates of the Caribbean. Directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers, The Sea Hawk is a great choice. Winding up a string of similar costume dramas, Errol Flynn plays the English privateer Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (a thinly disguised Sir Francis Drake). Claude Rains is the Spanish ambassador Alvarez, and the popular British stage actor Flora Robson is Queen Elizabeth. Three years later Curtiz directed Casablanca, in which Rains played an equally debonair but better coiffed Captain Renault.

Set in 1585, The Sea Hawk covers a crucial juncture in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, just before England’s new naval fleet whipped the Spanish Armada that King Phillip sent to remove the only serious barrier to his plans for world conquest. Preferring diplomacy to war, Elizabeth had resisted building a fleet. Thorpe – operating as Elizabeth’s Mission Impossible-style covert agent – provides proof of Spain’s impending secret attack. Along the way he romances the Spanish ambassador’s niece, leads an ill-fated expedition to Panama to “divert” some gold, serves time as a galley slave himself before a tense and daring escape, and unmasks Phillip’s spy in court, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell). Flynn was an exhilarating, authentically expert fencer, and the sword fight in which Thorpe kills Wolfingham is made doubly magnificent by the camera work and lighting effects needed to hide how poor a match Daniell was.

The Sea Hawk opened in 1940 after England entered World War II. Certainly English and US audiences both heard Elizabeth’s speech about the “obligation of all free men” in that light. But this film is also saturated with young men’s yearning for ocean-going mastery. Thorpe’s crew is never more ungainly than when stranded in Panama. When they stumble out of the jungle, it’s completely convincing that they rush gratefully into the surf. After the 1986 Challenger disaster, President Reagan, quoting poetry, said that astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” When Thorpe and his crew finally recover command of a ship and hoist those sails for England, Curtiz lets us glimpse that sea-faring era as equally world-changing.

The Sea Hawk screens at the Warehouse on 3/28 at 8:30 p.m. The Ocean Films remaining after that are the Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine on 4/4 and Wolfgang Petersen’s1981 three-hour German U-boat saga Das Boot on 4/11. The series began with Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and other previous films were The Endurance (2000), a saga of the 1914-16 Antarctic Shackleton expedition, A Night to Remember (1958), a pre-Titanic film about that disaster, Stacy Peralta’s exhilarating 2004 surfer doc Riding Giants, and last night the 2004 Bill Murray-Owen Wilson vehicle, Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou.

This review appeared on 3/23/07 in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly DVD column reviewing recent films that haven’t opened in Syracuse theaters & older films of enduring worth.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Film Review #90: The Cave of the Yellow Dog
Director: Byambasuren Davaa
Cast: The Batchuluun family

Somewhere on the northwestern Mongolian steppes, the Batchuluun family’s two youngest kids have been left alone all day. Outside their warm, well-lit yurt with its patterned rugs and cabinets, a rain storm has gathered as night falls. Their father, Urindorj, has made the several days’ journey to town by motorcycle to sell the hides of two sheep killed by the region’s growing number of marauding wolves. Their mother, Batbayar, has taken the second of the family’s two horses out to look for Nansal, who did not return earlier with the sheep. Nansal, about six or seven and home from boarding school, was sent to herd in her father’s absence, perched on his horse and accompanied by Zochor, the stray puppy named for his spots that she stubbornly refuses to part with. The little ones left alone are her younger sister and brother. “Watch your brother,” says their mother as she rides off.

That’s what the little girl does. She keeps him inside – away from the prowling wolves we imagine are close-by – dancing with him, then correcting him gently when the restless toddler (his restlessness gets him in real danger later) spies the family’s painted ceramic statue of Buddha and starts biting its head. “No,” says his older sister, all of four, taking the statue from him. “You can’t play with God.”

In an interview on the DVD, Mongolian director Byambasuren Davaa cites this moment as one of those absurdly lucky accidents of documentary filmmaking that you couldn’t plan or even get such young nonprofessionals to perform anyway. On that day, the real Nansal had decided she “didn’t want to play” with the film crew anymore, so they were shooting footage of the other kids to pass the time.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is Davaa’s second feature, a dramatized documentary built from following a real Mongolian family over two months. It comes to DVD release three months after its US theatrical release in New York, after reaching fifteen other countries. Davaa’s first film, The Story of the Weeping Camel, filmed in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, concerns another nomadic family, who must enlist a musician to persuade a camel to accept her new offspring. Weeping Camel was Oscar-nominated, and I remember a friend, familiar with that part of the world, calling me long distance and exclaiming, “You have to see this movie!”

After working on Mongolian National Television since 1989, Davaa studied at the film academy in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in the late 90s. Not content, she moved to Germany in 2000 to study film at Munich. The Cave of the Yellow Dog is her graduation project, shot with a largely German crew, as was Weeping Camel.

Davaa’s method at first seems much like the pioneering documentary work of Robert Flaherty. His 1922 Nanook of the North, the first silent documentary, followed an Inuit family hunting walrus on Canada’s Hudson Bay. Man of Aran (1934) followed an Irish fishing family, also battling the elements to avoid starvation. (Both films are avaialble on DVD.) Flaherty’s films were borne of long shoots and much editing, but he also sometimes endangered his subjects and sometimes asked them to stage picturesque but largely abandoned practices. A member of the culture she records, Davaa is both more respectful of her subjects and more attentive to accuracy about a way of life she seeks to capture.

Because a major theme is reincarnation against a modernizing world, Yellow Dog begins with the puppy’s death and works backward to explain how Zochor won his honored place in this family. Nansal is unexpectedly assertive after boarding school, keeping the puppy her father fears will attract wolves, and it's true that her stubbornness and fondness for the puppy endangers herself and her family. She goes on a journey and is taken in by her grandmother to dry out, drink hot tea, and hear the same fable that Davaa’s grandmother told her. When the family breaks camp and the little brother is left behind, Zochor saves his life. Consistant with this gentle film, this rescue, while tense and suspenseful, is also largely implied.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog has an optional dubbed soundtrack in English so that kids can watch too without having to deal with the subtitles. You’ll want to watch this one with them.

This review appeared in the 3/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where "Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of films that never opened locally and older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #89: The Proud Valley
Director: Pen Tennyson
Cast: Paul Robeson, Edwad Chapman, Simon Lack

There’s a clip in Saul Turell’s Oscar-winning 1979 documentary Tribute to an Artist in which stage and screen actor-singer Paul Robeson tells assembled reporters, “No more pretty pictures.” By 1940, when he played itinerant sailor and coal-miner David Goliath in British director Pen Tennyson’s The Proud Valley, Robeson had turned down a string of lucrative US film studio offers so he could take on roles and projects with more progressive aims, including support of the labor movement here and abroad.

Meant as an expose of harsh, unsafe working conditions in the coal mines of Wales, The Proud Valley casts Robeson as an American who has jumped a train in the countryside and landed in the village of Blaendy. As he walks up the main street, David overhears men singing. During a lull he joins in, his rich bass-baritone soaring into the second-story room where miner Dick Parry (Edward Chapman) conducts the Blaendy men’s choir in practice for the important Welsh national Eisteddfod competition. He’s not been happy with their progress. But soon David and the singers are answering one another in a sort of transplanted call and response that peaks to a shiver-inducing cascade of sound. You can see from Parry’s excited face that he must have this voice – whose owner he’s not yet laid eyes on – for that competition. This moment seems tailor-made for the internationalist Robeson, bringing together the possibilities of music as a universal language and art’s capacity to lift up the poor, overcome difference and rally the struggle against injustice.

In hindsight, the plot seems commonplace, except for the twists of realistic working class characters and a black hero at a time when mainstream US films featured stock characters of the Stepin Fetchit variety. Dick Parry takes David home for supper, rents him a room and gets him a job on his crew in the mine. Parry overcomes his wife’s resistance to taking in a stranger and his crew’s resistance to a black man. “Aren’t we all black in the coal pit?” he asks them. After an explosion in the mine injures Parry fatally, David carries him out. He works the slag pile for scrap coal after the mine closes rather than desert the family that took him in. He is among those who walk to London to persuade the owners to re-open Blaendy’s pit since England will have to fight Hitler. And in the climactic cave-in, when Parry’s decent and enterprising son Emlyn (Simon Lack) seems doomed, we all know what David Goliath will do. Robeson said later that this was the film he was most proud of.

Robeson sings often here. Besides performing Mendelssohn’s religious chorales with the real-life Blaendy choir, Robeson’s David sings the spiritual “Deep River” at Dick Parry’s funeral and the Welsh folk song, “All Through the Night” in the mine. But in tailoring this film to Robeson’s talents and political inclinations, the filmmakers also made use of a long popular tradition of choral singing and musical performance in working class communities. Other British films about the persistent hardships of workers’ lives have used the same frame. In Mark Herman’s Brassed Off (1996), the unemployment-ridden coal mining village of Grimley’s brass ensemble wins a national competition. Laid-off steel-workers changed careers in The Full Monty (1997). Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000) sets a boy’s reach for his dream of dancing in the historic coal miners’ strike of 1984.

The Proud Valley was a collaboration that grew out of Robeson’s long association with left-leaning circles in the British stage and film community. The activist Unity Theatre’s Herbert Marshall and his wife Alfredda Brilliant wrote the part for Robeson. Director Pen Tennyson had founded a film-workers union and made a boxing expose as his first feature. Tennyson made the film at Ealing – one of only three British studios that made movies throughout World War II – where dedication to “ordinary heroes” and criticism of authority had high value.

At the same time Robeson agreed to work with photographer Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz on a docudrama about exploited workers and undermined civil liberties in the US. Besides providing songs, Robeson narrated Native Land (1942), his last film.

The Proud Valley & Native Land are part of Criterion’s new 4-disc set, Paul Robeson: Portraits of an Artist. This review appeared in the 3/7/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing films that never screened locally and older films of enduring worth.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Film Review #88: The Emperor Jones
Director: Pen Tennyson
Cast: Paul Robeson, Fredi Washington

This year the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, housed in the Community Folk Art Center across from Syracuse Stage, celebrates its 25th anniversary. When Bill Rowland and Roy Delemos founded PRPAC in 1982, they named it for the All-American athlete, lawyer, bass-baritone concert singer, stage and screen actor, writer, folklorist, speaker of twelve languages, human rights activist, and prodigious citizen of the world who had died only six years previously. Rowland and Delemos set the bar of theatrical aspiration high for their fledgling company. Robeson’s portrayal of the Moor in Othello in the mid-1940s remains the longest running Shakespearean production in Broadway history, though he first took that role to London in 1930 because US companies with otherwise white casts still would not put a black man in this lead.

Robeson had just finished the London Othello when he made The Emperor Jones.. In this adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, a vain American on the lam from a Southern chain gang takes over a small West Indies island, outfits his palace in feathers and mirrors, then goes mad in the forest as his subjects revolt. Robeson had performed the role in 1924 and O’Neill only agreed to a film version with Robeson as Brutus Jones. It was Robeson’s first talkie. In altering the play's story to begin with Jones’ humble Baptist beginnings, brief Pullman porter career, and downfall by “vixens” like Undine (Fredi Washington) and crooked crap games, DuBose Heyward’s script also built on Robeson’s fame in bringing old spirituals to the concert stage. Jones sings as seamlessly as breathing – in church, while working, to comfort himself – so it almost seems artificial to call this a “musical.”

Chances are most Central New Yorkers haven’t seen Robeson’s thirteen films. Though hugely popular and hotly debated, these were pulled from circulation decades ago as his political activism grew. Robeson spent much of the McCarthyite 1950’s blacklisted and unable to travel, his passport revoked because he wouldn’t promise not to give speeches outside the country. Syracuse’s International Film Festival did screen his first movie at The Palace, with Dave Burrell’s Trio performing an original jazz score. In Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Robeson played a conniving preacher in an outsized Stetson. Made between 1925 and 1942, his films straddled the shift to talkies. Mostly out of print, the survivors were rare, scratchy copies that censors often mangled before they hit the screen.

Now the Criterion Collection has just filled this yawning cinematic chasm with a four-DVD boxed set. Paul Robeson: Portraits of an Artist contains seven Robeson films, Saul Turell’s Oscar-winning 1979 documentary Tribute to an Artist (on the same disc as The Emperor Jones), and motherlode-quality interviews and commentaries. The restored Emperor Jones alone patches together missing scenes and soundtrack sections from six different sources.

Those missing sections suggest the depth of controversy over this film. When Brutus Jones kills the white chain gang foreman rather than follow his orders to beat another convict, the scene jerks abruptly because footage on which he actually strikes the blow was cut by nervous censors as too provocative.

The film was equally unsettling for stereotypes, ambivalence and overtones that will get today’s viewers thinking hard. The English trader Smithers, the island’s only white man, fills the air with the word “nigger,” an aspect of the script that Robeson did not object to, although four years later, during the filming of Showboat, he would insist on a change in lyrics taking that word out of the song, “Old Man River.” In this film, some viewers may still be uneasy with the era’s artistic “primitivism” that depicts a black man acting out a descent into madness in the jungle (though it was guilty regret for acts like killing his friend Jeff that called up those visions). The opening shot of African dancers fades quickly to the Baptist church’s line dancers, implying their Christianity is a veneer. Yet the 2005 film Rize has a similar scene with footage of West African dancers overlapping Los Angeles break dancers who proudly claim tribal roots.

Meanwhile, Paul Robeson remains riveting on-screen and The Emperor Jones is a tight, absorbing, beautifully shot film.

Emerald City Video already has the new Criterion set, so you can rent the discs right off the rack and settle in for a genuine feast. Besides Micheaux’s Body and Soul, the set has Borderline (1930), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942), which Robeson narrated. Because the release of this set is so important, we’ll return with another Paul Robeson film next week.

This review was written for the 3/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly for “Make it Snappy,” a weekly column reviewing films that never opened locally and older films of enduring worth.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Film Review #87: The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Pádraic Delaney, Orla Fitzgerald

Director Ken Loach’s film about Ireland’s convulsions in the early 1920s arrives on US shores nearly a year after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Wind That Shakes the Barley depicts one stage in the birth of the modern Irish state, including the island’s partition by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, through the lives of fictional brothers Damien and Teddy O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney). Two criticisms leveled at the film plus some unfamiliarity with the history might put a dent in American audiences who would otherwise head for this masterfully acted and affecting film.

Immediate, furious accusations that the film portrays British behavior in an excessively brutal light took center stage at Cannes. Making no bones about his intent to draw parallels with the current war in Iraq, Loach focuses on the several groups of British military forces at work in Ireland: the Black and Tans (so nick-named for their uniform colors and comprised mainly of demobilized World War I British troops) who terrorized the countryside, the Royal Irish Constabulary who interrogated suspected rebels, and the Auxiliary troops. None come off as gallant, but then neither does the Irish Free State army.

A more muted complaint – perhaps disappointment is more accurate – concerned expectations about cinema’s approach to history. For example, writing last May from Cannes for Variety, Derek Elley called The Wind That Shakes the Barley an “essentially small-scale pic [that] lacks the involving sweep of Loach’s earlier historical-political yarn, Land and Freedom, and looks likely to reap only modest returns in general arenas.”

One could argue that there are some fairly sweeping landscape shots and one thrilling scene in which the sound of marching Irish rebels precedes them emerging from the fog. Yet it’s true that Loach sets this film in the deceptively quiet county-side with a relatively small cast. Instead of scanning a vast historical horizon, Loach instead plunges deep into memory’s vertical shaft. Irish efforts at independence span more than eight centuries, so Loach’s fitting approach refreshes our understanding of why the image of the well so often stands for a nourishing, sustaining collective memory.

One scene illustrates this particularly. It’s evening at a tiny, poor mountain farm in County Cork – actually a center of resistance to British rule. Damien has abandoned his plan to study medicine in London to join the Irish rebels in which his older, ever critical brother Teddy is already a leader. Damien has walked all day into these remote hills to this safe house, entrusted with two hostages. Chris is a young farm hand who informed on the rebels when police threatened his family with arrest and eviction. Chris and Damien grew up together. The other hostage is the wealthy landowner Hamilton, who helped police locate and pressure Chris. The old couple has a few goats, a crippled dog and three pictures on their wall. The old farmer asks Hamilton about what Hamilton’s land produces – as portraits of Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and the Scared Heart of Jesus look on. Hamilton – the old farmer calls him “a fat one – looks like Henry VIII” – insists the land was handed down in his family. Finally the old farmer remarks, “My people once had land down there too. Sure it’s very good of you to come up the mountain for a little visit to the original owners.”

An Irish audience would recognize those three portraits and the depth they provide to the old farmer’s exchange with Hamilton well before the old man’s tone turns sarcastic. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is defiantly Roman Catholic in the context of occupation by Protestant England. As head of the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, a Protestant from the loyalist north, supported the revolt of 1798 – a moral stand in clear contrast to the Protestant landowner Hamilton’s collusion with the English. Robert Emmet, who escaped to France after the 1798 revolt, returned in 1803 only to face torture, and execution. Unlike young Chris, who caves in quickly to police demands, Emmet’s housekeeper Anne Devlin endured torture and her entire family’s jailing – a nine-year-old brother died in the harsh conditions – rather than inform on Emmet. Those portraits on the isolated hovel’s wall are like the trio of “Abraham, Martin and John” gracing many African American parlors dating from the US Civil Rights era – an era that also gave us the observation, “When you are fighting for justice, it helps to know your grandmother would approve.”

Despite what it costs him, Damien executes Chris and Hamilton and then walks all day back into these hills again to bring Chris’ mother to her son’s grave. The Wind That Shakes the Barley may be framed on its surface as a brothers-in-arms story. Damien joins Teddy’s cause, then refuses the compromise Anglo-Irish Treaty, setting him at odds with Teddy and the Irish Free State army during the short, bloody civil war. But the film’s real pitch is intergenerational.

Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty accomplish this greater depth by using women characters much as they used those portraits on the farmhouse wall. Damien’s life-long friendship with Sinéad (Orla Fitzgerald) evolves to intimacy as he takes increasingly clearer stands, but after all he has grown up nearly adopted by this household of women. Sinéad’s elderly grandmother Peggy (Mary O’Riordan) is counterpart to the old farmer on the mountain. Both literally feed the young rebels, but their keen memory and their example are equally sustaining. Loach and Laverty provide women characters whose activities personify the support for independence deeply embedded in the community. As part of the organized women’s group Cumman na mBann, Sinéad hides and transports rifles, delivers messages on her bicycle after flirting with British guards, and acts as a magistrate in a village-level court set up in opposition to the British system officially in place. Working out justice on that so-called small scale – Sinéad and Teddy disagree on how to handle a shopkeeper who charges excessive interest to customers but buy rifles for the IRA – may tell us more about which side is really winning a war than large-scale battles.

Turkey’s government still officially denies the 1915 Armenian genocide while many Turkish artists, journalists and intellectuals move toward more open discussion of those years. Similarly, there remains extreme resistance in England to acknowledging the reign of terror by the Black and Tans during Ireland’s transitional period – and some films like this one explore this knot. Loach has approached the Irish question before, in his gripping 1990 film Hidden Agenda about political intrigue in Belfast (a wonderful role for Brian Cox, lately of HBO's Deadwood), and he has a long trail of films that address social and political issues at a micro level. So because this is what Orla Fitzgerald calls “a Ken film,” Damien meets the train engineer Dan (Liam Cunningham) during the railroad union’s refusal to transport British troops and it’s then Dan, whose own past as a poor man, labor organizer and socialist unfolds, who most often accompanies – and interprets events to – this young doctor already prone to see war through the lens of individual suffering.

The National Photo Archives in Dublin had an exhibit last spring of photos from the Irish towns and countryside during the period this film covers. There’s no denying Loach has captured the look of that time and place and its people. He has also captured what animates us still about those days.

This review appeared in on 3/2/07, the date of the US limited release of The Wind That Shakes the Barley.