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.