Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Film Review #126: Red Road
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Nathalie Press

In one quietly remarkable scene during writer-director Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, a professional watcher tracks a van across the largest city in Scotland. Glasgow is one of a number of European – and now US – cities to employ an Orwellian number of live-feed cameras to assist police in constant surveillance. Their CCTV system goes by the public name City Eye, suggesting the friendliness of some jaunty TV news show at a downtown farmers’ market on a Saturday morning. Jackie (Kate Dickie) is good at what she does, daily scrutinizing a bank of TV monitors covering “Division E,” an area along the city’s northern fringe that includes Red Road. Jumping from screen to screen, the van’s image travels across Jackie’s monitor bank with a peculiar urgency – it’s as if Jackie were running along a frozen river after a drowning man swept beneath the ice. When the van nears the edge of Division E, Jackie just runs down the hall and jumps on an adjacent sector’s bank of monitors.

City Eye HQ is a honeycomb of such dark cells, bunkers lit by their own banks of flickering screens – atomized images and intently staring, hunched watchers. Jackie sees a girl stabbed, collapsed on a curb, and sends an ambulance at once. Peering behind a shed overgrown with shrubbery, she determines the rough sex going on there is consensual. No corner’s out of sight, no matter how debris-scattered or abandoned. And early on, nonchalantly, establishing that the barrier between screen and life could be very permeable, Jackie walks those same streets, pausing and bending down to pet the dogs she recognizes from seeing their routine daily walks on-screen. These few curb-side encounters comprise the closest thing to warmth she allows herself.

That van that Jackie tracks, a commercial vehicle advertizing home locksmiths, carries a sandy-haired ex-con named Clyde (Tony Curran) and his former cell-mate, the mink-like Stevie (Martin Compston). Along with Stevie’s girlfriend April (Nathalie Press) they live in a high-rise complex known as the Red Road flats – the tallest residential towers in Europe when they were built, scarily bleak and monolithic, squalid, crime-ridden, and slated for demolition when Arnold filmed this movie. In one scene Stevie brings April a puppy and she scoops the can of dog food directly onto the kitchen floor. In another, when they’ve opened a window to enjoy the gale-force wind at their great height, he dangles April half out the window “for a joke.” Clyde has been working his way through the local women.

What is so edgy about Red Road is not its blunt depiction of sordid, overshadowed lives – though Arnold has a gift for the striking, economical detail – but its wholly convincing and unexpected redemption. It does not look like it will go that way for the longest time. With the forces of City Eye state apparatus arrayed against Red Road entropy, no one seems to feel any safer. Gradually, snatches of speech and photos in Jackie’s own meager, tidy flat – a back story as fragmented as City Eye’s portrait of Glasgow – tell us she lost her husband John and small daughter Sorcha four years ago. She now sleeps with an urn containing their ashes, withdrawn from her baffled, grieving in-laws and their challenging pet parrot who “doesn’t like strangers.” For some time we assume Clyde’s connection to their deaths must have been a violent attack – a murder or robbery or kidnapping. It seems incredible he doesn’t remember her, but she’ll remind him that he never looked at her in court.

Jackie’s pursuit of Clyde – first on the live-feed monitor, then in person and ever more intimate – seems tilted toward sexual obsession, then toward revenge. Red Road has understandably been likened to Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) in both its menace and use of surveillance. And Red Road’s mounting dread combines with a filming style of gritty natural light and hand-held cameras – an environment in which things often end grimly. Instead, Arnold executes a startling hair-pin turn between Jackie and Clyde that never skids off-track into sentimentality and reveals the depths of regret each carries. It’s clear that in this entire city there is no other human to whom either can say what each must say to the other. The film ends with a lush long shot of a broad Glasgow boulevard – it comes as a small shock to realize this is the first whole image of the city encompassing any real horizon and vanishing point in the entire film.

Besides a slew of prizes in Scotland, Andrea Arnold won the 2006 Jury Prize at Cannes for Red Road, which had brief art-house play in the US before going to DVD earlier this month. Her first feature-length film, Red Road follows three previous shorts, including the arresting 2005 Oscar-winning Wasp – starring Nathalie Press, April in Red Road – which the DVD producers were wise enough to include on this disc. If Red Road reminds you of the Dogme-95 style of Danish director Lars von Trier (2003’s Dogville, better yet 1996’s Breaking the Waves, itself set in Scotland), it’s because it’s the first of three features by three directors in a joint project between Glasgow’s Sigma Films and Denmark’s Zentropa, proposed by Trier and executed by his producers, Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. Advance Party is designed to share cast and characters, though each writer-director creates their own script. Meanwhile, let’s keep our eye on Arnold and her way with a story.

This review appeared at on 9/26/07;a shorter version appears in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/27.
Film Review #125: Snow Cake
Director: Marc Evans
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Carrie-Ann Moss, Emily Hampshire

Let’s admit it: when some of us think of Sigourney Weaver, we think of Ellen Ripley in the four sci-fi Alien movies. Each with a different director, the Alien films came out over two decades – 1979, 1986, 1992 and 1997 – with room left in the story for a possible fifth episode. Who can forget the athletic, courageous Ripley in Aliens – the second film and my favorite – clad in her giant forklift, challenging the acid-drooling monster to a showdown on that spaceship deck to protect the little orphan girl Newt? If not for Ripley, it’s impossible to imagine many films since with capable female action heroes.

Ripley’s rescue of Newt made her a mother – opposed by the female monster guarding her own offspring. The unfolding saga played on the nature of motherhood (both natural and surrogate), species mutation and mixing, its effects on identity and the meaning of “human.” Weaver’s Ripley held that elaborate tale together. Weaver’s since displayed a brilliant comic streak in films like Working Girl (1988), Heart Breakers (2001) and Holes (2003) and gone deeply dramatic too, as in 1997’s The Ice Storm – her roles have often commented on motherhood in some form.

In the past week two DVDs of films shot in 2005 have hit local rental shops about mothers who’ve lost a child and their life-changing encounters with another parent grieving the same tragedy. The more conventional is Hilary Braugher’s Stephanie Daley, a Sundance Institute project. Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), a forensic psychologist, consults about a high school student who gave birth in a ladies room stall on a school ski trip. Swinton’s character is herself pregnant again, after losing a baby, and her marriage strained. Amber Tamblyn plays the title role – her next move after the end of Joan of Arcadia. This film addresses the loss of an infant in a straightforward tragic way. We understand the way in which this story is being told and we can focus on the acting – quite good – and the shape of the story-telling, the directing, the way the movie’s shot, also quite good. The DVD is generous for a writer-director’s first feature film, with a making-of short and commentary track. Stephanie Daley is a sad, sad little film – never aiming for megaplex status to begin with – but we should look out for more work from Braugher.

Then there is Snow Cake, a joint Canadian/UK production with Weaver as Linda Freeman, shot along the highways of western Ontario and the little town of Wawa on the frigid, remote shore of Lake Superior. Weaver’s acting chops are given, when we see her on-screen the mom thread familiar. But a film that successfully combines autism, romantic comedy and a parent grieving the death of their only child?

Like Stephanie Daley, Snow Cake’s theatrical run was brief. Welsh filmmaker Marc Evans directed – he’s now at work on a film due out next year about poet Dylan Thomas’ wife, Caitlin, with Miranda Richardson – from the first screenplay by British comedy writer Angela Pell. Pell has small son who’s autistic and wrote the part of Alex Hughes for Alan Rickman, familiar as Professor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies.

This background mix may help explain how this wonderful little movie’s parts fall gracefully together. Alex Hughes heads toward Winnipeg through rural Ontario, just out of prison for killing the drunk driver who hit Alex’s teen-aged son – on the boy’s way to meet Alex for the first time. In a truck stop, he reluctantly gives a ride to Vivienne (the talented Montréal actress Emily Hampshire).

Vivienne is Linda’s daughter, hitch-hiking back to her mother’s house. Purple-haired, adolescent, generous, chatty to distraction, a bit loopy, Vivienne is all her name implies –vividly, strikingly alive – and it’s Alex’s bad luck to be driving when a trucker broadsides them, the crash killing Vivienne. Alex follows her body to Wawa, stays with Linda to arrange the funeral, engages in brief romance with the next door neighbor Maggie (Vancouver’s Carrie-Ann Moss, Trinity from The Matrix).

Linda is autistic, cheats at Scrabble, wants Alex to stay till Tuesday to put out the garbage, feeds the dog bananas, adores “sparklies,” is happiest munching on snow in her backyard. For someone who “doesn’t do social” Linda is keenly observant of those who do. She advises Alex to get different eye-glasses, for example, because she judges the ones her has to be unfriendly. “You neuro-typicals seem to value friends,” she tells him, “and I’m only trying to help you get some.” Pell endows Linda with a stream of laugh-aloud zingers, borne of her own self-reliance and self-knowledge, her lack of social decorum and her own generous self. If Weaver's performance at times seems a bit overly stylized, that may come of the fact that autism itself contains an element of performance in order to get along with others. Alex emerges from his frozen grief in her quirky company. Go to school on this one.

This review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/20/07, 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.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Film Review #124: The Brave One
Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews

Thanks to David Letterman, the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and plenty of advance screenings in the hinterlands, most people paying attention to new releases know the basic storyline of The Brave One. I won such a ticket myself and saw this film in a mall theater, where ironically it displaced Death Sentence that night (a street-walker of a film if ever there was one). More ironically, in The Brave One, “Street Walk” is the name of the New York City public radio show that the popular Erica Bain hosts. Early in the movie, Erica (Jodie Foster) is talking in the radio station’s hallway with her producer, Carol (Mary Steenburgen). This is before Erica loses everything – her doctor-fiancé David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews), her dog Curtis, her moral bearings and sense of who she is, not to mention nearly her life – in a summer night mugging in a tunnel just inside the Strangers’ Gate entrance to Central Park. Carol tells the popular journalist – already we know she’s smart and curious and loves her work and does it well – that Bravo! TV has been calling. Erica raises both palms, shakes her head, exhales sharply – evidently this is not the first troll from TV recruiters – and says, “I’m not a face. I’m a voice.”

This simple declaration – which could sum up Foster’s whole approach to her own career choices – is enormously resonant in this film. This statement expresses how many who work on-air feel about radio, distinguishes among media in their effects, and points at the means of untangling the conundrums of violence.

The Brave One contains extreme violence. After the deeply unnerving scene in which a trio of yelping thugs kick David and Erica, bash them full-force against the tunnel wall with sickening crunches, and wield crowbars whose force makes their limbs bounce – well, then Erica moves on, once she can leave her the tunnel of her building’s front hallway. She moves on, horrified and disbelieving, first shooting a crazed stranger in a convenience store (this scary cameo from director Larry Fessenden, whose own scary The Last Winter opens later this month), then blasting two subway thugs, a pimp in a station wagon who’s held a girl of maybe 12 for six days, and a sadistic gangster whom the cops can’t nail, before she locates the guys who took her future.

This is frankly a post-9/11 movie about a world in which unthinkable firestorms of sudden violence erupt at any instant. In a film where sound is so crucial – set in New York and released the week of 9/11’s sixth anniversary – an unmistakable jet plane roars overhead just as Erica and David enter the park to walk their dog, lightly bantering over whether to elope (his idea) or wait for invitations (her’s and his mother’s idea). As a post- 9/11 film it’s also about what “combat conditions” do to one’s nervous system and one’s soul, as embodied in that modern day go-between figure, at best a kind of translator – the reporter.

The Brave One also addresses the interplay between media and violence in more intelligently than most efforts. You don’t expect that from the revenge flick genre, but when you think about it, isn’t this exactly where a filmmaker could address such issues? One key was a mindful choice of job for Erica, who is not a radio journalist haphazardly. Poking along in the wake of the glitzy internet, where everything hums through its electronic sheath, radio – that platform for pitching one’s voice into the great raw unseen – has been making a comeback. You don’t need middle-class leisure reading time for the radio – Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), the detective following Erica’s case, hears his own interview in a squad car while stuck in traffic – even if there is still a whiff of class and gender bias – Mercer tells Erica his wife listened to her show before admitting he does.

Originally Erica was a newspaper reporter and Foster argued for the change. Foster has said about Erica, “In a way, David is her physical identity” – Erica’s way back to the surface of waking after three weeks in a coma is the physical recollection of their bodies making love – that “she becomes a voice in the night” without him. There’s a lovely image of Erica, just stirring, her index finger held clipped in a lighted, clothespin-like device that monitors her pulse, lifting that finger tentatively – if you think of E.T., she is really is coming back from deep space. In the film’s helpful but not overbearing production notes, producer Susan Downey says that making Erica a radio host allows her frequent voice-overs to be more “organic” to the way the film’s narrative unfolds for this character.

In ways the 2006 Robin Williams vehicle The Night Listener and Kasi Lemons’ recent Talk to Me don’t begin to approach, Jordan’s film captures how Erica works with her own voice as an instrument, edging it lower so she’s speaking from her diaphragm, out of her own core, practicing with a stop watch, starting her “intro” over to fix her cadences and enunciation. When NPR did its massive first-anniversary Hurricane Katrina coverage, I was able to interview national correspondent Melissa Block for a local radio piece about that project. She was somewhere in Mississippi, the phone connection wasn’t great, my time with her short. A consummate pro, she chatted me through my nerves just long enough for my voice to settle down – I could hear it myself when I got there.

Foster spent time researching her role at a west coast NPR station and it shows, from the way she holds a mic during an interview to the everyday lingo to certain values about the work. We meet Erica dangling a mic over some street grates, gathering ambient sound for a piece she’s putting together. She’ll lay that track under a voice track, fade it in and out for transitions between her commentary and her interview clips. And one of the best parts of this film’s sound design is how it captures the peculiar timbre of your voice coming through headphones when you’re speaking into a live mic. DP Philippe Rousselot, who’s worked on three other Jordan films and on Foster’s Sommersby (1993), developed a wobble for his Steadicam so that he could roll the horizon to visually convey disorientation, since the film largely occurs from Erica’s point of view. Less obviously, this film also achieves, sometimes with great intimacy, what her experience sounds like to her.

Good public radio commentary is crafted language, whether that occurs on the Apple laptop we only catch a glimpse of, or by habit of mind in the disciplined way Erica puts her words together. Language arises in the part of the brain that shuts off in the presence of traumatic threat and rage. What we see dramatically when Erica goes back on-air and cannot immediately speak is her struggle to get out of that primitive place, that ancient reptile mind. When she tells Carol, who thinks she needs more time off, that she needs to speak, she really is talking about what will save her, and by extension what might save the rest of us.

When Erica interviews Mercer, she turns off her recorder when he asks her to, later agrees something else can remain off the record. Think about how come the term “radio paparazzi” mostly seems incongruous and how come Don Imus seemed particularly injurious. There is a great variety of media and its practitioners in this film besides radio – press conference reporters and photographers, newspapers, TV, audio recorders, surveillance cameras in bodegas, VHS tapes, cell phones with video functions, video-cams, text messaging, emailing. There’s even a two-way mirror at the police line-up that magically puts Erica inside the camera’s eye. Most of it is intrusive, sensational, distorting, fragmentary rather than holistic, and deeply scornful of boundaries.

That is, most is inherently violent, often visual images and screaming headlines that provoke more panic and rage – speechless states where conversation is impossible. During the Central Park attack on David and Erica, the thugs take turns recording their attack on a cell-phone and a video-cam. Jordan inserts clips of these recordings on-screen as the attack proceeds, so that what we see alternates between the attack as Erica sees it, careening and chaotic, and then as it looks on a cell-phone screen, distorted and surreal – showing us in the moment how flesh gets reduced to trophy, an image already degrading into cartoon. Here’s where you recall the fearful, intuitively correct reaction of so-called primitive peoples who believed photographic images stole their souls. This seems not so “superstitious” when we consider how provocative media saturates our perception and attends our worst behavior.

This cell phone video returns to Erica later by email, quite unexpectedly. She doesn’t know it exists until she downloads it. Like the original attack, this facsimile plays inside a tunnel – she’s in the subway – where the setting reinforces the wave of déjà vu that brings Erica to her knees as she watches. Because this cell phone video has likely slipped out of the audience’s minds with the flow of events, its reappearance blindsides us too.

Erica Bain is on a hero’s journey of the most literate sort. Consider the scene where she tells the girl Chloe (Zoe Kravitz), whom she has just rescued, “I am nobody.” Brought to Chloe’s hospital room later by Mercer, Erica advises her to tell the truth. Then Mercer asks the girl who saved her and Chloe answers, gazing back at Erica, “I saw nobody and nobody saw me.” Old English majors will recognize this as lifted right out of Homer’s Odyssey, where the wily Odysseus fools the blinded, one-eyed Cyclops by answering that his name is “Nobody.”

Erica is not made “masculine” in this film. I suppose you could imagine this as a director’s strategy since a female vigilante is the last thing the police expect. Erica is depressed and traumatized. She gets visibly thinner, she’s not sleeping, her clothes get grubbier, more wrinkled and darker.

A repeatedly helpful reference here is the work of Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist with a doctorate in classics, and his two books based on Homer’s ancient epics, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1995) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002). Suffering from combat trauma as genuine as any on the streets of Baghdad, Erica Bain finds herself disconnected, increasingly isolated and a stranger to herself, having lost her single “special” comrade, with a shrinking horizon (think how much of the action occurs in tunnels and cramped hallways), betrayed by what’s right (Mercer’s own growing disaffection with the law reinforces this), her grief thwarted, in a classic “berserker” state. Shay argues that what heals is narrative – ordered, shared words that put form on chaos. If we think that Erica “gets better” because Mercer lets her shoot Lee (Luis Da Silva Jr), we have misread Jordan’s film entirely.

One clue is Erica’s neighbor Jackie (Carmen Fjogo), a reclusive, angry-faced black woman who refuses to speak and digs furiously in her courtyard garden. Erica and David smile a little over her on their way out to walk the dog that night – evidently they have a little gentle bet going over whether they can get Jackie to answer in the building’s hallway or on the front stoop. It’s Erica staggering in late one night, bloodied, that prompts Jackie to speak, to touch her. Stunned, Erica says, “That’s the first time you’ve ever said my name!” Sewing up Erica’s arm and bandaging her, Jackie takes in Erica’s confession that she’s just killed a man, and relates in an indeterminate accent that, where she comes from, “Soldiers made little boys shoot their families to prove that anyone is capable of crossing this line.”

Encounters like those with Jackie, Chloe, and Mercer are Erica’s lifelines, what allow her to survive finding and shooting Lee. Critically, they are clearly lifelines for Jackie, Chloe and Mercer too. Shay’s work is illuminating in its provision of context, but what occurs cinematically is Foster’s performance – to a quieter extent, Howard’s – in Jordan’s exquisitely prepared environment. I know 2007 is not yet over, but Jodie Foster’s extraordinarily moving Erica is easily the best – and bravest – performance by an actress I’ve seen all year.

This review appears on 9/17/07 at

Friday, September 14, 2007

Film Review #123: Cotton Mary
Director: Ismail Merchant
Cast: Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi, James Wilby

When his film Cotton Mary caused a furor in England’s Indian community upon its premiere there in 1999, Ismail Merchant mildly remarked that “all societies have their eccentrics.” In this way the Bombay native turned aside protests that the title character was so extreme as to slander the whole of post-colonial India and avoided engaging in arguments about political correctness.

There’s no denying that Mary, a scheming half-Anglo whirlwind of ambition (operatically played by Madhur Jaffrey, who also co-directed) – she begins as a hospital aide and imagines one day presiding over her own manor house in distant England – seems menacing right from the start rather than merely restless, and she later works herself into moments that splash over the border of psychotic. Characters both Indian and English alike regard her with alarm. But Cotton Mary, one of a handful of films that Merchant directed, is not such a departure from his other work. Usually he handled the producing end of the famous Merchant-Ivory team’s films. A fair number of these – Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1983), for example – explored the enduring toxic effects of colonial displacement that in some ways crescendoed after India’s independence in 1947. We can rightfully see Cotton Mary as one allegory for that debilitating legacy.

This film is set in 1954 along the southwest coast of India’s Kerala state. Cotton Mary (nick-named because of her bumptious preference for expensive English cotton over home-spun) works as an aide in a small hospital. We meet her strolling to the small Anglican chapel on its shaded, already-shabby grounds with her niece Rosie (Jaffrey’s daughter Sakina, whose befriending of screenwriter Alexandra Viets was the conduit for this script landing in Merchant’s hands). Brittley judgmental, nosey and intrusive, Mary keeps up a constant stream of advice to the smoldering-eyed young woman, who is more interested in the rector’s flirtatious son than the sermon and interested not at all in exerting herself on the behalf of the English sick. Mary wears a locket with a faded scrap of photo of the mixed couple that bore her and upon this scrap she builds her dreams, even though the departing English soldier father has left this discarded branch of the family tree in a tenement-like Anglican poorhouse.

Out of her aunt’s sight for barely a moment, Rosie snags a job “doing translation” for John MacIntosh (James Wilby), a correspondent covering developments in India’s emerging and troubled young democracy for England’s BBC news service. Often on assignment, John is away when his wife Lily (Greta Scacchi) enters labor early with their second daughter, almost loses the baby and cannot feed her, nor – truth be told – does he much care when he does come home to the exceedingly comfortable home his wife’s plantation owner father has provided them, complete with life-long servants such as head butler Abraham (Prayag Raj, whose genteel correctness echoes Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day). As an aside, Merchant’s portrait of John as one of the jarringly modern generation replacing the older colonialists is at least as unsparing as that of his Mary. An opportunist at every turn, John visits a remote farm strike and reassures the angry workers – “My father was a union man too. I will tell your story!” – as earnestly as he lies to Lily about his affections. After helping himself to Rosie’s bare breasts in one scene, he’s furious to learn an Indian has been suckling his own infant.

Into all this discontent strides Cotton Mary, making herself indispensable to Lily. Each day she secretly takes the tiny girl across the river to her wheelchair-bound sister Blossom, who works as a wet-nurse and lives with the female relatives in the alms house. Soon Mary moves in with the MacIntoshes, raiding the storeroom, bragging to her poor relations, systematically undermining Abraham until Lily fires the old man. What Mary mostly takes is English soap, and what she mostly insinuates about the loyal old retainer is that he’s “unclean” – Mary sickens Lily by claiming he prepares food with his “toilet hand” – so her attack resonates with visceral loathing well underneath more conscious generous sentiments.

Like George Orwell’s absorbing early novel Burmese Days (1934), also about late British rule, Cotton Mary lays bare the elaborate, vicious local competition first provoked and then ignored by colonial powers regarding local folk. Burmese Days is built upon the plot engineered by a local magistrate, U Po Kyin, to discredit the decent Dr. Veraswami within the small English community, simply because he believes the Indian to be somehow “in his way.” Veraswami’s friend, the timber seller Flory, quickly recognizes this attack for what it is, but could stop it only at great cost to his own standing among other ex-pats. “It is so important not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes,” Flory reflects. “Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.” Despite the film’s focus on Lily regaining her capacity to evict Cotton Mary, her real turning point begins as she and her older daughter Theresa agree to seek out Abraham and together search for him. In so doing, they discover a side of India neither has imagined. In an Italian film, we would know that Lily's daughter Theresa - no less than the little girl of comparable age whom Mary instructs in prayers and work habits in the final scene - stands for the future of her nation. It's a convention equally applicable here.

Meanwhile, Mary grows more extreme each day. She steals Lily’s clothing, strides unnervingly through city with the baby carriage, dressed as “the madam” herself, visits a hair salon for a Western bob. This transformation starts early at Lily’s hospital bedside when Mary kicks her own nurse’s shoes into a corner and steps into a pair Lily had discarded under the bed. Bursting repeatedly through this fantasy impersonation is Mary’s sudden, feverish rage – against her countrymen and the English in about equal measure – which leaves those in her wake aghast. If Merchant calls her “eccentric,” it’s only to coax us to watch.

This review appeared in the 9/13/07 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.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Film Review #122: Goya’s Ghosts
Director: Milos Forman
Cast: Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman

In the first of two explosive showdowns between the slender, hesitant Spanish painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) and the imposing conniver Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem in various flowing get-ups and locks), we are as surprised as Lorenzo. It’s fairly well into the movie; we have all gotten used to Goya as a pushover, a fussy string-bean of a man who squints and laughs self-deprecatingly when he would prefer not to answer. Over sixteen years in the making, as it turns out, following massive convulsions that both men survive – France’s 1808 invasion of Spain, the installation of Napoleon’s brother Joseph on the throne, the temporary fall of the Roman Catholic Church’s Spanish Inquisition – Goya’s insistence that Lorenzo take him to Inés Bilbatúa (Natalie Portman) is ferocious.

Lorenzo puts Goya off, suggests the painter is “obsessed.” Lorenzo has recently whisked this broken woman – long years ago one of Goya’s models – out of Goya’s hands, into an asylum, smoothly branding as madness her claim that she bore his child while rotting in the Inquisition’s prison. Now Goya has spotted the daughter, Alicia (also played by the impressive Portman), a tough cookie working the fine closed carriages of gentlemen in the capital’s park. To his artist’s eyes the extraordinary resemblance is proof enough. With rising anguish at his own cowardice and failure to protect Inés, Goya lists to Lorenzo the times her face has haunted him, shown up in his work – in its way this roll call a kind of argument that fuels his urgency. And here, director Forman lets us share what the painter sees – women’s faces from the breadth of Goya’s career flash on the screen, from paintings, on cathedral ceilings. This cavalcade concludes with an image of Truth as an angel lying dead – it’s the last etching from Goya’s monumental, 80-plate series, The Disasters of War. Then Goya bursts forward, grasps the much larger man with both hands, and a savage sound escapes the painter’s throat as Lorenzo staggers backward. “I won’t abandon her again! Take me to her!”

In this decisive moment, Lorenzo’s eyes widen, as if he sees Goya for the first time. Whatever he sees frightens him. Next time Goya visits, Lorenzo’s eyes widen again, dart about for escape before he decides to brazen it out. In a film so much about looking, where so much work gets done by characters glancing and nodding and staring at each other, part of Bardem’s Baroque portrayal of Lorenzo involves his seductive, always-hooded eyes, both a seasoned dissembler’s constant evading of detection and an ever-calculating gaze. During the second showdown – Lorenzo hatches another vicious scheme to hide his tracks, just as the English invade – there is a special authority in Goya’s commanding, “Look at you! You’re a whore!” precisely because Goya has mastered his own capacity to look and in doing so – this official court painter who has kept his place through several crowns of various nationalities – becomes less one himself.

Goya’s Ghosts has done reasonably well over the summer as a high-toned historical potboiler. Nearly two months into its US theatrical run, it’s still on a couple dozen art-house screens and has probably helped along the forthcoming DVD release here of Spanish director Carlos Saura’s film about the painter’s last years in exile, Goya in Bordeaux (2000). But Goya’s Ghosts has its complainers, chiefly around its use as allegory for Iraq, its distracting chronological inaccuracies, and difficulties with the way Czech director Forman, who has coaxed so many Oscar-caliber performances from previous casts, has managed his leads.

The film’s parallels with the war in Iraq are blunt: foreign invasion and brutal occupation, powerful radical clerics, fanatic insurgents, the people’s horrific suffering, the flowering of corruption in the vacuum left by failed regimes, and of course events at Abu Ghraib Prison. Part of the movie’s plot involves the Inquisition’s use of torture to discover heretics, in this case the delicate, vivacious and innocent Inés. Once her arms start to wrench out of their sockets, she confesses as quickly as she can figure out what she’s supposedly done. As the guest of her wealthy father at an exquisite private dinner designed to bribe, convince or blackmail him into freeing her, Brother Lorenzo – who has just raped Inés in her fetid cell, her small naked hips twisting futilely away from him – remains serenely impervious to Tomás Bilbatúa’s logic about torture until the merchant gives him with an on the spot demonstration.

Probably this scene more than any other has provoked the word “ham-fisted” – as if Forman exaggerates life under the Inquisition merely for the sake of passing agit-prop. Goya’s Ghosts should enjoy rediscovery in a few years when it’s less bound to today’s headlines. But this complaint illustrates why some filmmakers just insist they are only making fiction.

The issue of whether a film is propaganda echoes Goya’s situation as an artist and his stylistic attempts to portray the horrors of warfare in significant portions of his work more universally. It’s true that the film’s closing credits play over a magnificently detailed and sumptuous scrutiny of several paintings of specific historical events – believe me, you won’t be reading the tiny lists of names. That backdrop includes The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, huge canvases respectively of French North African troops ("Marmelites") suppressing revolt against the occupation and part of the 5,000 executions of Spanish civilians that occurred over those two days.

But elsewhere, as in The Disasters etchings, Goya does something new. Here – despite recognizable military uniforms, the omnipresent Spanish arches and Goya’s repeated use of “I saw this!” to title graphic atrocities – we also see orienting horizons, frames and landmarks start to melt away, dissolving the markers that bind an image to a single location or date – and to a literal notion of “accuracy.” A line of men tied to stakes seems to stretch to infinity and the heaps of dead seem to fill the entire world. Fred Licht has written extensively about this quality in The Disasters and how the series has more in common with some modern war photography than with classical painting that depicts war as heroic and circumscribed. And in The Caprichos – the film opens with monks handing around images of beasts preying on the populace from this print series and worrying about Spain’s reputation – Goya portrays war and corruption in ways we now call surrealistic.

By rare luck a non-touring exhibit of The Disasters of War – a first-edition set of all 80 plates, loaned by the Arthur Ross Foundation to Syracuse University – has coincided with the film’s opening where I live. So I went to see Goya’s Ghosts after spending part of an afternoon with The Disasters. This greatly affected how I saw both the film and those irritated, puzzled complaints about Forman’s inaccurate chronology. I’m not sure his approach is entirely successful, because it calls enough attention to itself to confuse people. But it’s clearly an approach to the question of how we remember artists, rather than haphazard filmmaking, and moreover an approach that Goya’s stylistic innovations suggest he might appreciate in the movie re-make of his life.

These chronological inaccuracies involve the time frame and order of events and certain of Goya’s works. The film tells us the opening scene occurs in 1792, with those first monks handling some of the Caprichos prints as well as some from The Disasters. Perhaps a year’s worth of action occurs and there’s a break, resuming “15 years later” with the French invasion of 1808, the opening of prisons, and Lorenzo’s return as a prosecutor for the French occupation – spouting Voltaire on human rights – with a French wardrobe, wife and three kids in tow. After what should be another break but does not seem so on-screen, the English invade (1813), reinstating the Spanish royals and Inquisition (1814), and Lorenzo dies gruesomely by garrote. Forman also fudges the onset of Goya’s deafness and migraines a bit later than 1792 and ignores his wife and son completely.

But what really rankles some viewers is that Forman plucks images from all over Goya’s career and inserts them in the story. Goya didn’t make the Caprichos until 1799, nor even start The Disasters until 1810, and the latter series wasn’t published until 1863.

We have the idea that bio-pics should handle basic facts literally, as if history happens in a straight line. Suppose we are free to choose from an artist’s over-all work and illustrate crucial junctures retrospectively? Drawing on the meaning of a whole body of work offers a different order of accuracy and truth – one that’s analogous to Goya’s shedding of stylistic and compositional conventions to convey the extremity of his times, an era when the Inquisition’s methods mock truth.

When Goya sees Alicia strolling that park, he’s stopped in his tracks by sheer visual self-evidence. Watching Goya’s Ghosts after an afternoon with The Disasters is also full of gripping serial déjà vu. No matter what else Goya’s Ghosts may be, Forman has thoroughly steeped his movie in The Disasters (and for all I know, a host of other Goya work). He sets up his shots in scene after scene so that, for a fleeting instant, some image from those plates congeals on-screen, echoing the grouping of bodies, a fallen horse, gang rapes, dismemberments, executions, the elaborate garrote machine, the slant of certain shadows and arches, even the distinctive face of one figure (whose look-alike shows up on-screen as Goya’s sign language interpreter) and the peculiar angle from which we see Lorenzo’s body taken down, piled on a cart and hauled away. It’s a breath-taking visual achievement – and an unusually demanding one for audiences. You don’t have to know Goya’s work to watch this movie, but the movie will send you to the work and back again.

This visual emphasis puts the performances in some context. Skarsgård’s Goya is not too passive – a ghost himself, one impatient reviewer says – but a man of retiring temperament engaged in multiple deadly struggles to keep his footing. For much of the film, Bardem’s Lorenzo does over-power him, and this provides a visceral screen experience of the long-gestating impulse to resist that informs art and uprisings alike. When Goya springs at Lorenzo, he’s as surprised as the rest of us. But we all believe it.

This review appeared today in
Film Review #121: Sugar Cane Alley
Director: Euzhan Palcy
Cast: Garry Cadenat, Darling Légitimus, Douta Seck

On Tuesday, labor leaders complained in The New York Times that Brooklyn’s 40th annual West India Day parade the day before – typically a couple million line its route – now overshadows Labor Day observances in the Big Apple. That’s ironic, since West India Day has its roots in 19th century celebrations of Great Britain’s 1834 abolition of slavery, which freed 800,000 – most living in British West Indies colonies – from involuntary servitude. Revived in the flush of '60s ethnic pride and activism, Brooklyn’s West India Day moved from its original August 1st to merge with the traditional Labor Day, thereby expanding the holiday to include all workers.

The Caribbean Diaspora Film Festival also overlaps West India Day. And on Monday, to coincide with that parade, CDFF offered this year’s crown jewel: four screenings at BAM Rose Cinema of Martinican filmmaker Euzhan Palcy’s classic, Sugar Cane Alley (1983) – also fitting, since slavery was abolished not once but twice during Martinique’s days as a French colony. This engrossing, well-made movie, Palcy’s first feature, won 17 international awards when she made it at age 28.

Sugar Cane Alley tells the escape from the sugar cane fields of smart and decent, but hardly saintly, 11-year-old Jose Hassam (Garry Cadenat), by dint of his grandmother’s insistence that he go to school. As his neighbor, the elderly cane-cutter Medouze (Douta Seck), teaches Jose and events in the film make clear, life on a French plantations in the 1930s was different from slavery in name alone. Workers were routinely cheated and beaten. And when kids drink some rum one day while the adults are in the fields, and burn down a shack, and the bosses just send them into the fields too.

Sugar Cane Alley runs from August 1930 – when we meet Jose and his grandmother Ma Tine (Darling Légitimus) at the Rivière Sallée plantation – to shortly after May 6, 1932. Jose wins a partial scholarship to a better school in the capital, Fort-de-France. He and his grandmother travel by riverboat and settle there in a packing crate; she does laundry to pay his remaining tuition. We can fix the movie’s span because Ma Tine takes the boat home on an errand and when she doesn’t return, Jose follows her and he passes a newsboy on the dock hawking the headline that French President Paul Doumer was just assassinated.

Dating the movie’s end in this way stamps the times in which Jose comes of age: a decade of considerable political and labor unrest in the Caribbean as well as the birthing of the international Négritude movement by intellectuals of African descent from French colonies who crossed paths in Paris. (One of those was the Palcy’s fellow Martinican, the writer and eventual mayor of Fort-de-France, Aimé Césaire, about whom Palcy has also made a documentary.) This strategically-placed detail
announces that this sleepy backwater boy's fate is part of something far larger. The assassinated Doumer had administered French Indochina – Vietnam – at the turn of the century. Setting a tone that would bear grim fruit later, even down to our own day, Doumer had proudly reported from Asia, “We have monopolies on alcohol, salt and opium production and are profiting off the cheap labor both in the mines and on the plantations.”

Palcy is careful to frame but not overwhelm Jose’s story with such references. A mischievous 11-year-old – he breaks a prized sugar bowl and lies about it, gets revenge on an adult who makes him late to school, bickers with the smartest girl and then matures into her friend – Jose is already interesting on his own. His eventual bond with Leopold, unacknowledged mulatto son of the plantation’s owner (uncredited, like most of the children’s roles), has great conviction in its final dramatic moment, despite just a few quiet earlier scenes together. Here, at a fever pitch, Jose’s loyalty to his dying grandmother jostles with Leopold’s capture by police for what we may assume is a first of many acts of resistance.

This culmination is a far cry from Sugar Cane Alley’s opening moments of festive piano and sepia-toned tropical postcards such as tourists mail home during cruises. Jose discovers the movies in Fort-de-France – wryly, it’s Dracula on the bill, Europe’s home-grown voodoo – but Palcy’s characters aren’t spending their days at the beach. Her overhead tracking shots of narrow halls and lanes, tight framing and close-ups convey how constricted chances are for the cane-cutters. There’s rarely a horizon – rarely an open future – except when Jose seeks Medouze’s stories of ancient Africa on the hillside and finally plans his own return to the capital.

The first black woman to direct a mainstream Hollywood feature – A Dry White Season (1989) on South Africa’s apartheid – Palcy has maintained an international vision of justice, but like director Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) has more often found work in television than film. (Yvonne Welbon's 2003 doc Sisters in Cinema is a worthwhile watch in this respect.) She’s made Disney’s Ruby Bridges (1999), on Louisiana school integration, and Showtime’s The Killing Yard (2001), on the 1971 Attica prison massacre. She based Sugar Cane Alley on Joseph Zobel’s Black Shack Alley, which she read at age 14. She said, “It was the first time I read a book written by a black man of our country about the fruits of our country.”

And you don’t have to go to Brooklyn to see it.

This review appears in the 9/6/07 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.